As a native New Yorker, a licensed city tour guide and a volunteer Big Apple Greeter, I’ve answered lots of questions from tourists over the years. Among them: “Is it safe to drink the water?” (Yes.) “What does ‘curb your dog’ mean?” (Dogs should not use sidewalks as a bathroom.) And my favorite: “Where are all the supermodels?” (I don’t know.)
The Big Apple Greeter organization matches out-of-towners with locals for free neighborhood visits and other outings, and as a greeter, I’ve also shepherded tourists from around the world on their first subway rides, visits to Harlem and Brooklyn, and tastes of local delicacies (like bagels). Along the way I’ve given lots of advice on enjoying the city while staying safe, having fun and sticking to a budget. Here are some tips.
Street food is safe to eat. Crime is very low but safeguard your wallet from pickpockets and don’t drape your purse over your chair.
Many people will accost you, trying to sell you things. Keep walking.
It’s not uncommon to hear of pedestrians hit by bikes or even cars. Look both ways when crossing the street. Use seatbelts in cabs.
THE BEST THINGS IN NEW YORK ARE FREE
Staten Island Ferry. Great views of the Statue of Liberty, Lower Manhattan and New York Harbor. Runs 24 hours a day. Beautiful at night with the city lit up. No. 1 subway to South Ferry or 4 or 5 trains to Bowling Green.
9/11 park. A powerful symbol of the city’s resilience, with One World Trade rising above. Reflecting pools built in the footprints of the twin towers are a moving tribute to those who perished. Be sure to stop at the Survivor Tree. Check out the Oculus nearby, a cool and curious white-winged structure with shops and eateries inside.
Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. Take the C or A train to the High Street stop on the Brooklyn side and walk back to Manhattan.
Central Park. New Yorkers live in tiny apartments. City parks are our collective backyards. Enter at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, just north of the Manhattan White House, aka Trump Tower.
The High Line. This vertical park built on an old rail line 30 feet above the street runs for about a mile from 34th Street west of 10th Avenue to just below 14th Street. Expect crowds.
Grand Central, 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue. Notice the famous four-faced clock, cathedral windows, grand staircases and zodiac signs in the ceiling. A black rectangle in the northwest corner of the ceiling is a reminder of the days prior to a 1990s renovation when the entire ceiling was black from decades of tobacco smoke.
Times Square. New Yorkers hate this place. Under new rules, tip-hungry costumed characters and half-naked painted women must stay confined to a teal-colored zone.
It’s noisy, dirty and confusing but generally safe and efficient. Chances are you will encounter homeless people, panhandlers, musicians and trains so crowded you can’t get on. It runs 24 hours a day, though trains and riders thin out overnight. Trust your gut: If someone is acting strangely or aggressively, make like a New Yorker and walk away. If you bump someone accidentally, a sincere apology is expected.
Get a free map from a manned booth. There’s also a map in every car of every train. Most New Yorkers can provide basic directions but this app is good for route-planning: https://citymapper.com/nyc . Trains are sometimes rerouted on weekends; see http://web.mta.info/weekender.html .
Each one-way ride costs $2.75. Best deal is an unlimited seven-day pass for $31. Or put $20 on a regular pay-per-ride MetroCard and the machine will give you a free 11 percent bonus, $2.20, covering 8 rides total. If you pay in cash and don’t have exact change, you’ll get coins back. If you pay by credit card and you’re from abroad, type in 99999 as your zip code. There’s a $1 fee for the card, but you can refill it. Prices are likely to rise in spring 2017.
Buy online timed tickets for attractions when available. Otherwise arrive a half-hour before opening time to reduce your wait.
Empire State Building, Top of the Rock or One World Trade observatories? I prefer the first two because they’re in the middle of Manhattan, whereas much of what you see from One World Trade is the harbor and New Jersey.
Many museums schedule a few free hours each week. The Metropolitan Museum of Art lists a suggested admission but you don’t have to pay it. To me, the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection is worth the steep $25 admission (don’t miss Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”).
A few of my favorites: In Harlem, have a bite at Marcus Samuelsson’s Streetbird on 116th Street and walk across the neighborhood’s main street, 125th Street. Joe Shanghai on Pell Street in Chinatown is cheap, crazy, fun and good; be prepared to wait for a table and beware the hot broth inside the pork dumplings. From Chinatown, walk to Little Italy for dessert at Ferrara’s, 195 Grand St. Hang with the hipsters in trendy Brooklyn: Take the L train to Bedford in Williamsburg or Jefferson in Bushwick. Among many options for great pizza, I like Lombardi’s, C train to Spring Street.