The Travelcene Guide to New York City
Just visiting the Big Apple and its many refreshing attractions is a dream for most
Some tourists confuse New York City for the capital of the United States and, however wrong that may be, it’s clear that the city has something going for it.
As an epicentre of culture, New York City leads the pack. Not only is it the most linguistically diverse area of the world, it also has the greatest variety of ethnic communities. And this is best represented by the wide selection of food available in the city. From Persian ash reshteh to Greek souvlaki, New York City is the place to be to sample what the world has to offer. Planning a trip or looking for things to do in NYC? We’ve got you covered. Welcome to the Travelcene Guide to New York City.
When To Visit
While life in New York City certainly goes on regardless of the weather, the pace of life certainly slows down during the winter months. Temperatures during the season can plummet to below freezing (around -5 C or 23 F). There are also frequent winter (with more spring ones nowadays) storms that buffet the city - causing temperatures to fall even further.
The US East Coast is a veteran when it comes to snowstorms and won’t bat an eye at conditions that would be enough to cause panic in other major cities. During these notorious storms, many transport links extending out from the city can get disrupted by road closure, rail suspensions and a temporary grounding of planes. The situation can very rapidly change along the East Coast (small storms and cyclones) so make sure you’re prepared.
The transition period between winter and spring is also not to be taken lightly as in 2018, the East Coast bore the brunt of 4 big snowstorms (Nor’easters) that severely delayed flights, trains and bus services; not to mention causing blackouts and flooding in some areas. That being said, the city is beautiful during the winter as Central Park gets blanketed with a white sheen of fresh snow - a veritable winter wonderland.
In the summer, New York City can get quite hot for some, with an average high/low of 29/20 C or 84/69 F. During these months, it’s not uncommon to see New Yorkers switch out winter coats and mufflers for shorts and tanks. It’s also a great time to visit the many public spaces located around the city from the iconic Times Square to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens.
The world’s most ubiquitous and dominant currency finds its home here even though it's used in many territories around the world. Coins include the penny (1 cent), the 5 cent, the dime (10 cents) and the quarter (25 cents). After this, notes take over which come in denominations of $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100.
Note that while $50 and $100 notes are legal tender, cashiers are obliged to check whether they are counterfeit notes before allowing them to be used at the point of sale.
Paying for items using a debit or credit card is usually done via the embedded chip in your card as retailers and vendors are phasing out the old practice of using the magnetic stripe. We highly recommend going at least partly cashless when you’re in New York City considering how widely accepted credit and debit cards are. Read our guide to find out how you can do this.
Instead of levying a service charge at restaurants, the United States mandates that diners pay an ‘optional’ tip at the end of their meal. While this is ‘optional’ in the eyes of the law, tipping is an absolute must because it forms part of the salaries of wait staff. Average amounts for tipping in New York City hover around 18% though many locals give 20% or higher especially if the service rendered is exceptional. You may encounter some forward looking restaurants that disavow tipping in favour of a flat service charge of 20%.
New York City’s plethora of languages is sure to astound most visitors. Not only are there about 800 languages spoken within the city, it is also the most linguistically diverse city in the world. Enclaves like Flushing even have significant populations of residents who can't speak a word of English. Ethnic hotspots include Manhattan’s Bowery, Brooklyn’s Flatbush, and Queens’ Astoria. Obviously, you'll get by just fine speaking English.
You can find direct flights to and from New York City from all major cities worldwide with few exceptions (though these are due to range limitations rather than demand). Those that do fly to New York City often use their flagship or newest aircraft.
New York City is similarly well connected to other American metropolises and towns on the East Coast through an extensive network of buses and trains. How big is New York City? Well, it encompasses 5 boroughs, 2 airports, 2,000 bridges and tunnels, and a countless number of parks, squares and hotels.
Flying into New York City
The Greater New York area is served by 3 main airports - John F Kennedy International (JFK), LaGuardia (LGA) and Newark International (EWR).
JFK and Newark are the main international and domestic hub airports for the city with American Airlines and Delta basing their operations in the former while United flies out of EWR.
LGA is usually used by smaller aircraft due to its smaller size - the 3 big network carriers (American, United and Delta) operate Embraer and other similarly sized jets from LaGuardia in order connect New York to nearby cities like Boston and Washington DC.
All of the aforementioned airports have public transit routes into the heart of the city - Midtown Manhattan. That being said, those heading directly into Midtown Manhattan would benefit from the more direct rail lines that link Newark directly with Midtown.
JFK and La Guardia are served by the New York City subway with the former being linked via the AirTrain at the subway stations of Sutphin Boulevard-Archer Av (E/J/Z trains) and Howard Beach-JFK Airport stations (A train). La Guardia is connected by the LaGuardia Link Q70 bus to Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Av (E/M/F/R trains).
As Newark International is further out from the city (and is actually located in the State of New Jersey), trips to and from the airport will involve either a trip on an interstate NJ Transit (State rail service) or Amtrak (Private rail) from Newark Liberty Airport Station to New York Penn Station. Do not get off at Newark Penn Station. NY Penn Station is located along 34th St and is in the heart of Midtown. From NY Penn, take a NYC Subway train to reach your final destination. Side note: While NY Penn is only served directly by the 1,2,3 and A,C,E trains, one can walk about 2 blocks to 34th St-Herald Square along 8 Ave to catch the B/D/F/M and R trains.
Getting to and from the subway stations (for both JFK and EWR) will cost you. The JFK AirTrain costs a flat $5 for trips to Sutphin Boulevard or Howard Beach but is free for inter-terminal trips. The EWR AirTrain costs $5.50 from any terminal to the NJ Transit operated Newark International Station - it is also free for inter-terminal trips.
From there, trains into the city will cost $2.75 from JFK (you ride on the NYC Subway) and $13 from EWR (on an NJ Transit train) directly to NY Penn. Note that this $13 ticket already includes the $5.50 payable for using the Newark AirTrain. A trip on the subway to any station in the network will cost a flat $2.75.
Arriving by train
Interstate travel in and out of New York City begins/ends at New York Penn Station (34th St and 7th Ave) with services on Amtrak and NJ Transit. Popular destinations include Boston, Philadelphia and Washington DC.
Express trains (mostly Amtrak) run along the North East Corridor directly to major cities while the cheaper state-run service (NJ Transit) calls at smaller stations along the journey to these same major cities. If you’re looking to take a train to Philadelphia, take note that NJ Transit trains only operate to Trenton. At Trenton, one has to switch to a SEPTA train to continue the journey down to Center City Philadelphia (30th Street Station). Tickets for the entire journey can be bought at either ends of the service.
Intrastate (within New York) trains are operated by Metro-North and depart/originate at Grand Central Terminal further uptown at the intersection of 42nd St and Park Ave. These trains (depending which services and lines) usually run upstate or into neighbouring Connecticut.
Arriving by Bus
Most (if not all) inter and intra state bus services operate from the Port Authority Bus Terminal. The PABT is also located along 42nd St, this time at the intersection with 8th Ave. Companies operating from the terminal include: Greyhound, Megabus, Peter Pan, and Bolt Bus.
For layovers (from flights, trains or otherwise) of over an hour, it’s best to find a better place than the PABT to pass the time. As the terminal has already aged quite a fair bit and is usually not very well maintained, this is a place you wouldn’t want to be in for a long time.
The New York Subway is by far the most efficient and effective option for getting around (four of) the city’s boroughs. The system runs 24/7, 365 days a year; a feat few cities around the world are even close to implementing.
Rides cost $2.75 no matter how far you travel or how long you’re on the system as long as you stay within paid zones. The system also has unlimited ride passes - weekly passes cost $32, and a monthly version is priced at $121.
To ride the subway, commuters use the MetroCard which is equipped with a magnetic stripe that has to be swiped on gantries to gain access; passengers either use one-way turnstiles to exit the station or go through these same fare gantries to exit.
Trains on the NYC Subway either run local (stopping at all stops) or express (stopping only at important stations or at transit hubs).
Sadly, you'll probably experience the NYC Subway in a state of disrepair - the result of years of neglect and poor maintenance. Thankfully however, it is currently undergoing a huge transformational effort aimed at improving its efficiency as it aims to bring the system into the future. Apart from the installation of a contactless MetroCard standard, the subway is also attempting to fix signalling systems, extend some lines and refurbish old stations.
As such, expect that train services will be diverted or suspended due to construction and improvement works - keep yourself updated through social media or by reading the many notices posted on subway billboards or pillars. Works also mean that there might be minor delays or occasional platform changes - keep an eye and an ear out for announcements.
For areas of the city not covered by the subway system, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) bridges the gap by operating the SBS (Select Bus Service).
However, these are mainly to relieve traffic congestion within Manhattan (mirroring existing lines or to operate crosstown services) or are disparate services in the peripheral areas of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. They are not a reliable way of getting around town.
Another potential transport option lies with the city’s iconic yellow medallion cabs or rideshare services like Uber and Lyft. Hailing a cab off the street or getting a car on demand can help you out in a pinch especially if you’re late to a broadway show or for a dinner.
However, keep these to a minimum unless you want to quickly blow a hole in your wallet. Taxis to JFK are regulated with a flat fare of $52 before any tolls, surcharges or tips. Expect to pay any amount between $60 and $70.
Need to Know
1. Keep it Moving
New Yorkers (just like any other group of time pressed city dwellers) hate it when people just stop walking in the middle of the sidewalk or whilst walking up or down stairs.
This annoyance also extends to tourists who can’t seem to figure out how to use the MetroCard, unfurl large maps in public or say that New Jersey and New York are ‘basically the same’.
Avoid stopping abruptly whilst walking the streets of New York City or block people’s way when getting on or off the subway. Considering that New Yorkers always have places to be and are known for speaking their mind - these are a group of people you don’t want to cross. That being said, you shouldn’t be doing these things anywhere else in the world.
Stereotypes aside, don’t hesitate to ask anyone on the street (bar other tourists) for directions or recommendations - people who are in love with their city (and New Yorkers surely are) love to divulge their ‘must see’ and ‘can’t miss’ recommendations.
2. Use the Subway
It’s best to get acquainted with the New York City Subway - the world’s most extensive underground subway system. Trying to get around the city via any other means (except walking) just doesn’t cut it when compared to the Subway.
The Subway has multiple lines that operate either Local or Express services (sometimes both) to get you where you need to go. Most tourists avoid the latter for fear of accidentally misreading a map and missing a station. That being said, express trains are an excellent way of getting yourself across Manhattan at lightning speed if needed - don’t be afraid to try them out!
Many tourists get confused when on the Subway system so here are few tips to get you quickly on your way:
Lines in Manhattan are organised (for the most part) based on the grid system - it therefore pays to be aware of what avenue your train line is running on. This is because most trains lines run along the avenue (North-South) in Manhattan and hence stations are named based on which streets the stops intersects at. For example, there are 42nd St stations on the A, 1, M and 4 lines but these are all completely different stations that are all a distance from each other. Therefore, if you’re not already using an app like Google Maps or CityMapper (which you should be doing anyway), don’t get confused over similarly named stations!*
Thankfully, the MTA has included the names of prominent landmarks and buildings in the name of some subway stops for ease of navigation. Going back to our previous example, here are the associations:
A Train: 42nd St - Port Authority Bus Terminal
1 Train: 42nd St - Times Square
M Train: 42nd St - Bryant Park
4 Train: 42nd St - Grand Central
As New York City is a very walkable city, don’t bother with waiting for trains just to get to the correct stop - you could easily get off at one station that’s already on the same line that you’re riding on and walk the remaining distance.
*Sidenote: There are similarly named stations that pretty much bear no similarities. For example, there is a Fulton St in Downtown Manhattan which is a major transit hub for various Subway lines and there is also a Fulton St station in Brooklyn served by the G train.
Adding value to the MetroCard is also a fine art in and of itself. For some reason, the MTA gives a 11% bonus on top of the money you top up (from $5.50 onwards) to your MetroCard. This means that for a $5.50 top up, you’re actually getting $6.11 on your card. While that doesn’t make any sense because rides are going to cost $2.75 anyway, this does:
• For $2.75 topped up, you will get exactly 1 ride
• For $22.30 topped up, you'll get exactly 9 rides (+$2.45 bonus for a balance of $24.75)
• For $27.25 topped up, you'll get exactly 11 rides (+$3.00 bonus for a balance $30.25)
Choose the weekly MetroCard if you’re planning to take more than 12 rides a week.
Choose the monthly MetroCard if you’re planning to take more than 47 rides a month.
3. The NYC Grid System
New York City is famed for the use its the grid system for city planning, which means that (with the exception of the districts in Lower Manhattan), everything from subway stops to addresses can be easily located.
In that vein, if you’re taking a taxi, don’t bother telling the driver the name of your destination (unless its something famous like Times Square or the Guggenheim), but instead tell him the names of the road intersections that the building is closest to. The subway also works in a similar fashion which has already been covered. As such, its hard to get lost in New York City if you already know the address of your destination.
Another beautiful aspect of the Grid system lays with how it has influenced the growth of the city itself. As land across Manhattan became segmented according to the size of Commissioner Plan’s city blocks, architects and developers were forced to build up instead of across. Not only did this limit the speed at which urban sprawl spread across the island, it also kickstarted the city’s Skyscraper boom. By 1930, architectural icons like the Empire State Building and 30 Rockefeller Center became the very images of American success not only in construction but in the realms of culture and development.
With the rise of social media, the popularity of the Manhattanhenge phenomena has enthralled both local New Yorkers and tourists alike - an event (of this scale of beauty) that is only replicable due to the unique layout of Manhattan and the geography of its surroundings.
Sites and Experiences
As one of the centres of American culture, it’s hard to be bored in the Big Apple. Shoppers will find paradise through the many boutiques and department stores located along Fifth Ave and within the districts of SoHo and Nolita. Head over to Midtown for a healthy dose of architectural heritage and Downtown to seek out buildings that have dictated the progress of the city itself. Don’t miss out the sprawling green lawns of Central Park - it’s one of the best sightseeing spots in NYC.
Make your way to the Empire State Building Observation Deck or the Rockefeller Centre’s ‘Top of the Rock’ for panoramic views of the city that’ll allow you to take in New York City’s sights from an almost bird’s eye view.
While most of the city’s main attractions lie in Manhattan, that’s not to say that the city’s other boroughs are to be ignored. The Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens are cultural hotspots with a level of racial and linguistic diversity that are off the charts. Within each borough lies an ethnic community that’s waiting to be discovered, all filled with people eager to share their culture and cuisine with you. These are oftentimes the best places to visit in New York City if you want to experience life at a slower place or have a stronger cultural connection.
Nevertheless, here are some of New York City’s best home runs:
Downtown/FiDi - NY Stock Exchange, Battery Park, The Oculus, Fulton Center, Federal Reserve and the 9/11 Memorial
Midtown - Grand Central Terminal, MetLife Building, Times Square, Columbus Circle, Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall, Rockfeller Center, Trump Tower, Nintendo NY and United Nations Headquarters
Flatiron District - Flatiron Building and Taste of Persia NYC
Chelsea/Greenwich Village - Dominique Ansel Bakery, The High Line, Tacombi Bleecker and Washington Square Park
Upper West/East Side - Frick Collection, Met 5th Ave, Met Breuer, MoMa, Solomon R Guggenheim, Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian, Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium
Nolita and SoHo - Eileen’s Special Cheesecake, Lombardi’s, Acne Studios and Glossier
Chinatown - Canal Street Market, Nom Wah Tea Parlour and the Old Chinatown Ice Cream Factory
East Village - Momofuku Noodle Bar and Punjabi Grocery and Deli
Roosevelt Island - FDR Four Freedoms Park and the Smallpox Memorial Hospital
Central Park - Umpire Rock, The Loeb Boathouse, Bethesda Fountain and Strawberry Fields
Williamsburg - Peter Luger Steak House, Sweatshop Coffee
DUMBO - Brooklyn & Manhattan Bridge, Jane’s Carousel, Grimaldi’s Pizza, St Anne’s Warehouse
Bushwick - Roberta’s and The Bushwick Collective
Flushing Main Street, The Unisphere in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and the Hunter’s Point South Park
Yankee Stadium, New York Botanical Garden, Pelham Bay Park and the Bronx Zoo
Things you can’t miss
Culture for days
As a world city, New York City is home to countless cultural and art establishments each with its own niche. What’s common to all of them however, is that they are all world class and are excellent representations of the cultural and technological achievements of humanity.
Most tourists don’t have the time to complete all of NYC’s prominent museums. Nevertheless, visit any of these world renowned museums and you won’t be disappointed:
a) Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met)
b) Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (The Guggenheim)
c) Museum of Modern Art 5th Ave/Breuer/Cloisters (MoMA)
d) Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian
e) Museum of National History
From the intricately designed Guggenheim to the expansive Met, there are enough museums to fill the entire week. For those more pressed for time and not as artistically inclined, hit up MoMa for a survey of what’s hot in the world of modern art or let the Met Cloisters bring you back to a time when sculptures, intricately designed objects and realist portraits dominated the world of medieval art.
We haven’t even mentioned establishments like the New York City Transit Museum or the hidden gem that is the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. Psst, it’s got a Concorde!
Unimpressed? New York City’s iconic Theatre District (affectionately known as Broadway) has one of the widest selections of musicals and plays that will appeal to travellers of all stripes. Current productions include Kinky Boots, Chicago, The Lion King, Hamilton and The Book of Mormon. One tip though, tickets for these shows can be notoriously expensive if purchases from ticket booths and even from the ‘discounted’ TDF TKTS service.
Make sure you snag your tickets online from third party vendors like Groupon before prices creep up.
Fall in love with Midtown & Central Park
You can’t go wrong with wandering around Midtown Manhattan as you make your way across the grid admiring architectural icons like the International style Seagram Building or the Beaux-Arts Grand Central Terminal. Instead of hitting up tourists hotspots like Times Square and the New York Public Library, take a walk along Park Avenue to experience the might (and grandeur) of corporate America whilst sipping on a flat white made by a local roaster.
The glamour of 5th Avenue as the world’s most important High Street will not disappoint. Sitting alongside luxury stalwarts like Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue are huge flagships stores for more modern brands like COS and Marimekko. There’s always something to see from the Flatiron to the Empire State.
And neither should the magic of Central Park be lost on you. As one of New York City’s most iconic locations, Central Park has been a setting for many films from Madagascar to When Harry Met Sally and Breakfast at Tiffanys. Television connoisseurs won’t be disappointed either as the Bethesda Terrace has been featured in many shows like Doctor Who, Gossip Girl, and The Amazing Race.
Cultivate a love for ethnic food
New York City’s strongest suits (literally in fact) lay with its penchant for diversity. Hailing from countries all over the globe, New York City’s immigrant populations have continually shaped the city as a liberal bastion and has established it as one of the world’s most open minded cities. Many of the city’s famous celebrities and corporate leaders were once themselves from other countries, but chose to adopt NYC as their home.
Catering to this huge immigrant population are an equally large army of chefs that work tirelessly to cook up familiar dishes and satiate appetites. They never fail to invoke a sense of being homesick.
Yet others are committed to refining and adapting traditional recipes for the American palate. An even more prominent subset of these pioneering cooks are leading the field of fusion cuisine be it Cuban-Chinese or an refreshing take on Japanese and French flavours.
In Manhattan, K-Town (along W32nd St) and Chinatown are shining examples of cultural diversity. Look no further than to Little Italy to sample the classic New York slice or to meet chefs that have dedicated their entire lives to perfecting the art of the al dente.
Further out in the other boroughs, neighbourhoods like Jackson Heights, Greenpoint, Flushing and Richmond Hill are the best places for bona fide ethnic cuisine. Head over to our survey about ethnic food in New York City to find out more.
Keeping Up With New York, New York
Since its founding as a small trading port in the 1600s, New York City has weathered many storms and trials to reach the position it occupies today. As the city looks towards greater heights, especially in a changing political landscape, you can definitely be sure that it’ll remain a bastion of openness and diversity. If you’re interested in taking day trips out from New York City, consider a tour of the Hamptons or the historical streets of Philadelphia - it's just a few hours away.
Despite the gritty reputation of some of its districts, New York City shines through as one of the world’s most exciting and vibrant places to be. If you find yourself with a couple days (though even weeks aren’t enough), head over to the Big Apple and we promise that you won’t be disappointed. If you’re about to visit NYC, make sure to check out various 'What’s On in NYC' listings by publications like the New York Times and the New Yorker to find information about events or gigs that are going on.
It’s hard to oversell New York City simply because of how mesmerising the city actually is. Not only is there something for everyone, there’s also a never ending list of things to do in NYC. For a city with such glitz and glamor, it’s reason enough to consider it the greatest city on Earth. It’s a city that’s so great they had to name it twice.
So what are you waiting for? Book those tickets and get yourself to the city that never sleeps.