Travel
10 Lessons Learnt The Hard Way Exploring NYC The First Time
September 8, 2016
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NYC Financial District at dusk, viewed from Brooklyn

Even with Google at your fingertips, a Lonely Planet in your back pocket, and oodles of research there are still mistakes or at least lessons to be learnt in travel – that is part of its charm. Though nothing disastrous happened on my first Big Apple adventure, there were a few tips that would have saved time and made things go a little smoother, that I thought were worth sharing.

Tips for visiting New York City for the first time

1. Public toilets are basically non-existent except in Central Park and Grand Central. If you think you’re just going to pop into the local food establishment and use their loo, you will often find the bathrooms under lock and key unless you make a purchase – fair enough! It boggles my mind how a world-class city, whose residents pay ridiculously high taxes, can’t provide some decent public facilities. So besides being strategic with your liquid intake, here are a few resources to help you find a relief when nature calls:

2. Some subway station entrances are not always obvious and the same line may have different entrances depending on the direction you are travelling. For instance, we got caught out entering a station, paying our fare and then standing on the platform only to realise that we had the right train in the wrong direction. There was no access at all to the correct platform from where we were, so we had to forfeit a fare exiting the station and re-entering from the correct entrance. The lesson here is to decide your line AND direction – uptown or downtown – before you enter the station and walk through the turnstile. Also carry a subway map at all times, an old school hard copy version, but don’t rely on it to navigate the city.

Subway Union Square
One of the more obvious subway entrances, Union Square

3. Brooklyn is a long way away! Not all of Brooklyn, but if like us you choose to cut the cost of your trip by booking an Airbnb in a suburb like Crown Heights, expect a good hour commute to much of where you’ll want to spend time in Manhattan. The upside is you’ll explore Brooklyn much more than the usual NYC traveller and the borough has a lot to offer! I would advise for first timers to find accommodation in a more central location.

Jane's Carousel and the Brooklyn Bridge with Manhattan skyscrapers in the background
Jane's Carousel and the Brooklyn Bridge with Manhattan skyscrapers in the background

4. The nearest part of Queens, Long Island City (L.I.C), is only one stop from Manhattan on the subway which will take you into a more central part of the island, rather than travelling from one end as you do with Brooklyn. So if you’re looking for a cheaper place to stay, L.I.C is worth checking out.

Long Island City and Manhattan from the rooftop of The Z Hotel
Long Island City and Manhattan from the rooftop of The Z Hotel

5. Pre-purchase your Top of the Rock tickets. While there’s no limit to your time at the top, access to the Rockefeller Centre Observation Deck is arranged in time slots (unlike Empire State where you just stand in a queue for an hour plus waiting). To avoid waiting in a long queue just to find out that it’s booked out for the rest of the day, drop into the box office or jump online to buy a ticket for your desired session time in advance.

View looking Downtown from Top of the Rock

6. Check museums and galleries for their “pay as you wish” entrance times, and save a bundle.

The Charles Engelhard Court at The Met
The Charles Engelhard Court at The Met

7. There are several passes available for tourists to purchase entrance fees to major attractions at discounted rates: New York CityPASS, New York City Explorer Pass, New York Pass and Build Your Own Pass by Smart Destinations. However be sure to compare the passes and make sure they are worth it for what you want to see. I had every intention of buying a New York Explorer Pass, but when I sat down and did the maths, it wasn’t going to save me enough for what I wanted to experience. This was mostly due to tip number 6, making use of the pay-as-you-wish times at museums and galleries. That combined with the fact that the only way to climb to the crown of the Statue of Liberty is to buy a separate ticket not offered on the passes.

Grand Central Terminal, NYC
Grand Central Terminal, NYC

8. We combined self-guided tours and guided tours throughout our travels and I can say hands down, that there’s no comparison. Especially if you go somewhere like the Lower East Side, where there aren’t obvious “sights.” What you are seeing has so many stories behind it, and reading facts from a printed guide doesn’t give you the same insight as a local who lives and breathes the place. Besides, having your nose stuck in a book is no way to see NYC and is hard to juggle with a camera.

Katz's Deli, New York City
Katz's Deli, a Lower East Side institution

9. I imagined getting dressed up in my finery for a Broadway show. Disappointingly its fairly casual, I saw tracksuit pants walk out of the theatre. So don’t be concerned if you look like a wreck after exploring all day, or if it’s too cold to part with your layers – no one cares.

Times Square, New York City
Times Square, the epicentre of the Theatre District

10. Take two pairs of walking shoes so you can rotate them day to day. Here is a snapshot of the kilometres (1km=0.62miles) I walked over 10 days in NYC, and I have an ugly black toenail as further evidence.

The kilometres we walked each day in NYC
New York City street

Thanks to my travel buddies Susie and Roz for sharing an amazing first NYC experience, and contributing to this list of lessons that we laughed and lamented over along the way. I hope these tips for visiting New York City for the first time will save you time, money and frustration along the way.

Peace, love & inspiring travel,

Madam ZoZo

Lessons Learnt the Hard Way Exploring NYC for the First Time

About author

Madam ZoZo

Hi! I'm Madam ZoZo, aka Zoë, an Australian designer, creative consultant, blogger and digital nomad. I'm passionate about travel, design, dance and new experiences that fuel my creativity. I strive to travel in a style that is gentle on the earth and that contributes to the communities I visits, even if it is merely to take away a greater understanding of a different culture. Duende by Madam ZoZo, is where I share the stories of my travels and the duende (soul/inspiration) I find along the way.

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There are 4 comments

  • […] For more on my New York experience and the Duende I found along the way, check out How I Found the Perfect Souvenir in NYC and Art on the Street NYC, along with some important tips for first timers at 10 Things I Learnt the Hard Way in NYC. […]

  • […] Of course, this guide isn’t necessarily NYC specific, it will also do for Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Boston and other urban environments in the Mid-Atlantic and North East U.S.A during these times of year. If you are heading to NYC, make sure you check out 10 Things I Learnt the Hard Way in NYC. […]

  • This is a great visitor’s perspective! Starbucks and hotels – that’s where NYers go to the bathroom! Not easy to figure out!

    • Madam ZoZo says:

      Thanks for stopping by Duende Mary Lane! It sounds ridiculous, but when I realised it was a challenge, I devised a drinking schedule… A big glass of water first thing when I woke up, then only small sips until about an hour before each meal, when I would rehydrate knowing there was likely to be a bathroom at our lunch/dinner stop.

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