Visit New York City Like a Local
The best experience of visiting New York City is to explore it like a local, whether or not you have all the sightseeing checked off on your to do list. New Yorkers love the City for all it has to offer, and we tend to get around using public transportation, and to plan ahead for evenings and weekends outside of work. You don’t really need to spend a lot of money to experience the best of New York, and here I am sharing the tips and tricks that learn over the years to visit NYC like a local.
Here are some insights into how to navigate New York City like a local.
- Getting Around like a Local in NYC
- Eat and Drink like a Local in New York City
- Attractions and Activities
Getting Around like a Local in NYC
New Yorkers walk everywhere. It is just the way it is, and I personally average about 40 miles of walking every week. I walk to work and back, and then everywhere before, after and in between. Given the sheer number of people that are walking in NYC, there is an unspoken etiquette that often distinguishes locals from tourists, so I am going to share some insight into how you can fit into New York like a local while walking around.
It is easiest to comprehend if you think of the rules of driving a car applying on the sidewalks of NYC. You stick to your side of the sidewalk, give people approaching you enough room to cross while passing you, and leave enough room for people walking faster than you to overtake you. Sticking to the driving rules, you should never stop suddenly in the middle of the sidewalk as it is more than likely someone is walking behind you, and always be considerate of people on the sidewalk when changing lanes. It really is quite easy once you look at it this way.
A word of caution is to check just how far a place is if New Yorkers say something is a few blocks away. This could easily mean a walk to some place that is 20-30 blocks away!
Be prepared with comfortable shoes for walking, and it you need to wear nicer footwear for any reason at some point in the day, you just carry it in your bag and change when you get there like a New Yorker!
Jaywalking is the norm in New York, but you must be very very careful as the number of pedestrian incidents at crossings is quite significant. I often see tourists just follow someone that is crossing the street without checking if there is enough room for them to cross with oncoming traffic, and that is very risky. You must check for traffic to see if you’re okay with crossing, even if it is your walk signal, as cars often try to make it across when the light has just changed. There are some crossings, such as at 42nd Street, where I always wait for the light to change before crossing.
One of the places it is very easy to separate the New Yorkers from tourists is on an escalator in NYC! This may sound strange, but most escalators – unless they are too narrow for this – have two lanes of traffic. The lane on the right is for anyone that prefers to stand and does not want to climb stairs on a moving escalator, while the left lane is for people that want to go faster than the escalator and actually climb the stairs. This is especially so during rush hours, when people that are in a hurry to get to work can be less than polite to anyone that is blocking their way on an escalator.
Speaking of escalators, did you know they were invented in NYC? The first one actually started out as an attraction in Coney Island.
New York City has an amazing public transportation system that locals use extensively as it is very expensive to own – and especially park – a car here. The subway and bus network is very extensive, cost effective, and best of all works 24/7, although the frequency may be slower during nights and weekends. There is a flat price for anyplace you want to go using the subway and bus network, and best of all there are now OMNY readers at the subway turnstiles where you can just scan a credit card to gain entry into the subway system or to pay for a bus ride. Don’t forget to take a second to admire the art at the subway stations, you will find some notable artists featured there such as Alex Katz in the picture below.
Traffic can be overwhelming in Manhattan streets, especially as pedestrian walkways are being expanded, so public transportation is often the quickest way to get someplace as well. I use Google Maps extensively to plan my travel if I do need to use public transportation, especially on weekends where there are often service changes based on scheduled work in the subway system.
While using the subway, always remember that you need to choose the uptown or downtown track relative to where you are and where you need to go. I was very confused about this in the beginning as I couldn’t understand why I needed to take an uptown train to go someplace that was still downtown.
Also, there is a lot of walking involved even when using subways as you will need to navigate stairs and platforms. There are accessible options like elevators available, but if walking is an issue, you should consider using buses to get around. I once fractured my foot and found the subways difficult to navigate with my cast, so I switched to buses for my commute to work, though had to plan ahead as buses take longer given the traffic they have to navigate in New York.
Biking has become very popular over the last few years, and is one of the things locals do in New York. Citi Bike has stations set up all over New York City, and they offer annual plans for locals, or you can rent for a single ride or a day pass as a visitor. There are also a lot of bike rental options, especially around popular biking areas such as Brooklyn Bridge or Central Park.
Speaking of biking, you must be really careful while crossing the street where there are bike lanes as the bikes tend to move very fast, and you don’t want to risk getting in their way as you could get hurt.
Taxis and Ride-Sharing Services
If you prefer to take a cab, New York has a fleet of iconic yellow taxis that you can hail down, or then ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are widely available in New York City. If you try to hail a yellow cab, you can tell if it is available by their medallion number which is at the top of the cab. If the sign has a light on, the cab is available. The sign switches off when the taxi meter is turned on. One of the best things about the cabs in NYC is that you tell them where you are going after you get in, so they cannot refuse shorter rides.
If you plan to take a cab, just remember that traffic can be very bad during rush hour, or if there are events like a big event going on at the UN, or the Rockefeller Tree Lighting or something similar which tends to impact traffic significantly.
Tipping is customary and expected if you take a taxi.
Eat and Drink like a Local in New York City
Now that you have figured out how to get around NYC like a local, lets take a look at what a New Yorker would do when you get there. Food and drink takes up a lot of our time and attention, not to forget investment, and we are all about frequenting local places in our neighborhoods as much as we are about traveling for our food, waiting an inexplicable amount of time at places that don’t take reservations, and spending a lot of time looking for reservations at the tough to get into places. New York has over 25,000 restaurants so the choices are endless, and you need to choose between neighborhood, type of food, price range, and reservation availability for the time that you are interested in.
The choices for food are truly endless given the global melting pot that we call home. I love exploring new cuisines and restaurants as much as I love going back to my favorites, and there truly is a restaurant for every food palate and any food restriction you may have. When I am asked if I have any allergies at a restaurant, my only answer is bad food, because there is no need to have any in New York City!
Exploring the Boroughs
The more adventurous New Yorkers often venture to other boroughs – New York City has 5: Manhattan, Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island – to get their fill of global cuisines based on where the ethnic populations are concentrated. For instance, I love the Chinese at the Chinatown not just in Manhattan but also in Flushing, Queens; I have been to Staten Island only twice, of which once time was for Sri Lankan food; I happily to go Jackson Heights in Queens for Indian food; Elmhurst for Mexican food, and the list goes on.
New Yorkers are also all about the take out, which is picking food up at a restaurant or having it delivered at home. It is not surprising to meet a local that just doesn’t cook at home, where take out is a big part of their experience of living in New York.
Tipping at NYC restaurants
Most importantly, to truly navigate NYC as a local, you must tip well. 18-20% is the minimum you should tip at a restaurant unless the service was so bad that you need to make a point about not tipping, or tipping badly. It is the cost of eating out in New York.
Food Trucks and Street Vendors
Food trucks and street vendors offer amazing food options, especially when you are on the move and trying to make the most of your day in New York. You can get just about every type of cuisine from a food truck, and many have become food destinations that publish their location in Instagram and then have a crowd of people lining up for their food. The ubiquitous chicken and rice is a staple that can be found everywhere, though there are a couple of these carts that are more popular than others.
Happy Hours are where certain restaurants and bars offer discounted drinks and food during specific time slots, which could be from 4pm – 7pm as an example, are a big after work destination. It is common to see locals in NYC step out for happy hour, which loosely translates to a couple of drinks before heading out for dinner or heading home. If you would like to meet some New Yorkers during your trip, be sure to stop by at a happy hour.
Brunch is a weekend tradition in New York, and could translate to a meal anytime between 11am and 4pm. Locals in New York tend to step out for brunch with their families and their friends, and there is a lot of planning that goes into weekend brunches. Be prepared to see kids out with their parents, and always make reservations for brunch as restaurants get very busy at this time.
If you like drinking alcohol, there are all you can drink brunches that offer unlimited drinks for 60, 90 or 120 minutes for a fixed price. These are really fun when you are a certain age, which I have thankfully outgrown.
Attractions and Activities
New York has endless attractions and activities, many of which are just a part of the experience of living in New York. These go beyond the Broadway shows and museums that everyone tends to associate with New York City. Here are some where you can expect to find locals.
New York has a vibrant cultural scene, and all the major cultural destinations offer paid and free events for locals and tourists alike. For instance, you can catch the New York Philharmonic, an Opera, or even a Broadway show at Lincoln Center, which offers a multitude of free events every single summer including Philharmonic in the Park, all of which locals tend to frequent. Museums are a popular destination after a weekend brunch, and there are so many options ranging from the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a world-class collection of art and artifacts to the more contemporary Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) or the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Transit Museum which is at an actual subway station. The Orchid and Holiday Train shows at the New York Botanical Garden are must do events for locals, as are the Cherry Blossoms at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
Theater and Music
Theater and music are standard activities that locals indulge in, and these could range from the glitzy Broadway shows, which are at theaters that have 500 or more seats, to off Broadway shows, which have 100 – 499 seats, and then the off off Broadway shows, which have less tan 100 seats. NYC has amazing performance venues for theater and music that could be larger to the more intimate smaller ones, and there are options for all types of interests and budgets.
It is entirely normal for a local to indulge in theater and music in a very regular basis.
New York is full of sports fans that support the various New York teams, which include New York Mets and New York Yankees for baseball, New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets for basketball, New York Giants and New York Jets for football, and New York Rangers and New York Islanders for ice hockey. This translates into a lot of games that locals attend on a very regular basis.
Spending time in Central Park
Central Park is truly a backyard for every New Yorker, and we find our way to it all times of year, but especially in the summer. Locals tend to visit with their families, friends, pets, visitors, and for no reason at all. It is stunning in all seasons, and offers activities and just open space that we lack by living in what outside the park is a concrete jungle. It is really fun to plan a picnic here, which I tend to do often in the summer.
I hope this gives you an idea of what locals do in New York, including how we get around, our food and drink preferences, and even activiities that we like to engage in.
I would like to add that despite misconceptions to the contrary, New Yorkers are very friendly. If you catch me on my way to work where I have planned for the exact amount of time needed to not be late, I may come across as a less than friendly New Yorker. But if you catch me at any time where I am not rushing to some place I have to be, I would be happy to give you directions and recommendations to all my favorite restaurants and activities in the neighborhood.