7 Insider Tips From an NYC Tour Guide For First-time Visitors

Hi there!  I’m Max, the founder of CityRover Walks NY and a licensed NYC tour guide.  

If you’re planning your first NYC trip, you’ve probably realized by now that the sheer volume of information online about visiting NYC is endless and overwhelming.  So I thought I would take some of the stress out of preparing for your first NYC trip by giving you some free advice, as a New Yorker and tour guide.

The best way to get around New York City is to walk and use the subway

I’ve lived here for 27 years and I very rarely use taxis or ride-hailing apps like Uber.

My rule of thumb for getting around NYC is:

“Do I have to walk more than a mile?”

If not, I’ll just walk (about 20 min – good for the heart and free!). If so, I’ll jump on the subway, which, as I have written in my free NYC subway guide, is the most efficient way to get around the city, and by “efficient” I mean cost vs. time spent.

Note: 20 NYC blocks is about 1 mile, so if you need to go from 20th street to 40th street, you can expect to walk a mile.

Taking a taxi or uber sounds like the easy option, but if you’re visiting New York for a few days, the cost of taking cabs each time can add up very quickly.  $15 here, $20 there, and before you know it, you’ve spent a lot of money sitting in a car fighting through Manhattan traffic and stopping at every red light.

The subway, on the other hand, is only $2.75 per ride, and if you read my guide on how to use the subway, the thought of using it won’t be as intimidating.  I promise, you’ll get the hang of it and save a lot of time and money.

And remember:

EVERYONE in NYC uses the subway: Rich and poor, black and white, bankers and beggars, even superheroes.

Avoid chains at all costs

If you recognize a café or restaurant brand, chances are it’s either a national or global chain.  And did you really spend all that money to visit NYC only to end up ordering the usual at Starbucks or waiting to get into Olive Garden in Times Square?

Yes, we often prefer the known and familiar, but a great coffee shop, bar, or restaurant in NY is usually just around the corner.So don’t be afraid to explore a bit.  Otherwise, NY becomes just another big city.

By the way, the chain restaurants in NY are usually more expensive and of lower quality, since they cater to mostly tourists.

Leave room in your schedule for serendipity

Some travelers like to plan every hour of every day.  You know the type. Perhaps you are one of them!  And there is nothing wrong with that.  It shows that you care enough about your experience to take the time to plan and do research.

However, in a city like NY, it’s important to leave some room for flexibility and “unstructured” exploration, because there are interesting things to do, beautiful parks to explore, great hole-in-the-wall bars, cafes, and restaurants, not to mention boutiques, food courts, and all kinds of people-watching possibilities.

And if you plan every hour of your visit, you won’t be as receptive to “going with the flow” and will feel pressured to stick to the plan, even if you’d rather do something else (something you weren’t expecting or planning on doing).

Often, it’s those spontaneous decisions that will create the most enjoyable and memorable experiences, so keep your eyes and mind open to them.

Careful where you buy tickets

In a city that now gets 60 million tourists a year, there are sellers and hawkers all over the place trying to sell you tickets to a comedy show, the Statue of Liberty, the moon even.  There are plenty of scammers among the honest ones. So don’t fall for it. As a rule, avoid buying anything from a ticket seller on the street. Some tourists fall for it and end up losing a lot of money.

On a related note, be careful what you book through your hotel’s concierge desk.

Here is a little secret:

Many hotels actually outsource the tickets agent desk to a third-party company that staffs hotel desks around the city.  In other cases, the concierges themselves can sell you tickets for shows and attractions. However, in either case, the seller almost always has a monetary incentive to sell you that particular bus tour, Broadway show, or any other excursion, so don’t expect to get objective/unbiased advice or even the best price.

Their goal is to sell you the tickets.  So be cautious and do your research ahead of time.  Or just get onto the free computer in your hotel lobby and start googling!  Might save you a few bucks.

Don’t be afraid to get off the beaten path

While this may sound like a travel cliché, you’d be surprised how many tourists spend most of their time in or around the really famous places and landmarks.  And, of course, it’s important to visit these places, but New York offers so much more than a short list of easily identifiable sights (you can probably name them right now).

There are a lot of layers to this great city, and to discover them, you have to venture out of the main tourist comfort zones.  Safety is not an issue, as serious crime in NYC remains near record lows. In fact, NYC is now the safest big city in America! So whatever stereotypes you have formed from past headlines or TV shows, they do not accurately reflect the city today.

Ask a New Yorker

Is NY crowded?  Yes. Are New Yorkers always in a rush?  Yes. But the bad rap about us isn’t true.  Most New Yorkers are generally friendly (once you stop us to ask for help), and are usually very willing to give you directions if you get lost.  We’ll even give you our opinions on things free of charge!

Finally, if you have more than a few days in New York City, remember that Manhattan is just a skinny island (albeit, a very famous one) and there are 4 other boroughs (can you name them?), which are home to 7 million New Yorkers combined.  So you can apply this last piece of advice to not just getting off the beaten path in Manhattan, but venturing off the island of Manhattan for a deeper exploration.

Stay away from the “street” hot dogs

I don’t get why some visitors want to check “ate hot dog from NYC street cart” off their NYC Must Do List.  With so many great places to grab a bite in America’s largest city, including excellent restaurants, cafes, food trucks and food halls all over the place, why overpay for a crappy hot dog and risk spending the next 24 hours near the toilet of your hotel room just to say you had a NYC hot dog from a street vendor?  It’s not like you’ve never had a mediocre hot dog in a bun before. And you probably paid a lot less for it than you will on the sidewalks of Manhattan. So if you’re starving and you pass a hot dog cart (and they are everywhere), just look around — there are probably 5 places to grab a bite within 200 feet of where you are.

Seeing a Broadway show?  Never do this afterwards

The most stressful time and place in NYC is around 10pm in Times Square.  That’s when most of the theaters let out thousands of people, who quickly fill every inch of already-crowded sidewalks in the busiest part of Manhattan.  Now, I will never tell you NOT to go see a Broadway show. I think it’s a great thing to do while visiting NYC, especially if you’ve never done it before (and if you can score discounted tickets through an app like TodayTix).  But what you absolutely positively MUST NOT DO after getting out of the theater is try to hail a taxi, take an uber, or worse, get into a pedicab.

Speaking of pedicabs, you will see a small army of young guys standing up on their pedicabs calling out to the crowds feeling a bit tired and looking for a convenient ride to the hotel.  Resist the urge! You will end up paying an arm and a leg for the guy to wheel you through traffic and out of the theater district.

A taxi might end up being cheaper, but unless you like sitting in standstill traffic listening to the taxi driver talk in spurts on his Bluetooth headset (who are they always talking to?), you’re better off just walking.  You’ll get there faster.

In fact, if you don’t remember anything else I’ve written here, heed this simple piece of advice:

If you’re going to see a Broadway show, the ONLY option you should consider after the show is to WALK away from the theater and the crowds.  If your hotel is less than a mile from the theater, you’re better off just walking back (a half-mile, for example, is a 10 minute walk, usually).  If you need to go farther than that, then Google Map directions and hop on the subway.

Alright, enough ranting and raving on my part.  If you’re just planning your first NYC trip, take a deep breath.  Everything will be OK. Nearly 60 million people visit New York every year, and the vast majority come back alive.

P.S.  If the idea of exploring NYC (and figuring out the subway) on your own seems daunting, check out our custom private tour options.