New York City travel tips

Here’s a few tips on Manhattan street layout, getting around, security, eating and drinking, and swimming.

5th Avenue divides East and West (Streets)

Most of Manhattan has a grid layout of numbered avenues running north-south and numbered streets running east-west (in reality, about 30° clockwise from the compass point). While almost as unimaginative as naming New Zealand’s two main islands North Island and South Island, it shares the same advantage: it’s easy to work out which direction you are heading.

But you need to know that numbered streets are divided into East and West at 5th Avenue, and that building numbers are specific to the East and West parts of the street. So you don’t say “1 53rd St”, you say “1 East 53rd St” or “1 West 53rd St”. To make things more fun, building numbers start at 5th Avenue and increase in the same direction as the street name – to the west for West streets, to the east for East streets. So 1 East 53rd St and 1 West 53rd St are across 5th Ave from each other, but 500 East 53rd St and 500 West 53rd St are on opposite sides of the island. You must know the East or West part of the street name to get to the right building.

Streets are numbered from south to north, and avenues are numbered from east (1st Ave) to west (12th Ave). 4th Avenue has a short existence from East 9th St to East 14th St. In its place, north of 23rd St, are Lexington Avenue, Park Avenue, and Madison Avenue (east to west). There are also avenues to the east of 1st Avenue, south of 14th St, named Avenue A, Avenue B, Avenue C, Avenue D – not Avenue 0 to Avenue -3 as a geek might think. The area is known as Alphabet City (which I suppose is better than Negative City).

It takes about 5 minutes to walk east-west along a street between one avenue and the next (known as a long block). It takes about 1 minute to walk along an avenue between one street and the next (known as a short block).

Most streets and avenues are one-way. Don’t be surprised if a driver heads past the avenue or street of your destination. They will do this to get onto an avenue or street that goes in the right direction. Major cross streets (yellow in Google Maps – 14th, 23rd, 34th, 42nd, 57th) are two-way and have subway stations on them.

Subway orientation: express, local, uptown, downtown

See How to Ride the Subway, and get a MetroCard. Subway maps are free at the subway station and online. The subway map is schematic and not to scale.

Subway lines are identified by a letter or digit, and are grouped by color e.g. the green-colored 4, 5, and 6 lines all run on the same set of tracks in Manhattan, but to different endpoints in the Bronx. Express trains stop only at stations marked with white circles on the map. Local trains stop at all stations. On the paper or PDF versions of the map, the lines that stop at each station are listed under the station name.

On the subway map, a line number/letter in a coloured square (rather than a circle) means the last station for the line. This is pretty obvious when the track stops, but some lines stop partway along a track on weekends or late nights (midnight to 6am). See the box at top right of the paper or PDF versions of the map.

Once in a station, look upwards for signs directing you to platforms. Often the platforms for opposite directions on the same line are at different locations in the station. Uptown means to the north of Manhattan. Downtown means to the south of Manhattan. Once you have the right platform, the express and local tracks may be across the platform from each other.

The “ladder” on the subway map between Lexington Ave/53rd St (F line) and 59th St (4/5/6 lines) does not indicate a tunnel or moving footway. It means only that you can get out to the street and take a short walk to the other line.

NYC is a big city full of busy people, who are mostly friendly, but who don’t appreciate people standing around and getting in their way. If you have to stop and look up your map, move to one side of the footpath.

Search engines

The USA has been in a heightened state of security awareness since 9/11/01. Some of the impacts are:

Good advice from the MTA safety page:

As a general precaution, whether you’re in the subway, the bus, or even in the street, appear confident. Always look as if you know where you’re going [another reason not to pull out your subway map], and you’re better off not displaying money in public. Never keep your wallet or money in a back pocket, and keep all bags, backpacks, and pocketbooks securely closed.

Tips on eating and drinking

Tipping is the US way of compensating for a low minimum wage. Add 15-20% to your restaurant bill. When you pick up your change after being served a drink at a bar, leave one dollar bill on the bar for each drink.

New York tap water is “virtually lead-free”. So you may prefer to drink bottled water, which is available in all supermarkets and corner stores. Large bottles are much cheaper than small bottles.

Supermarkets are at the street level of apartment or office buildings, not in their own separate buildings. Chains include D’Agostino and Gristedes. Whole Foods Market is not cheap but has good food.

Public swimming pools, even outdoors (in the summer)

NYC has several public swimming pools, including outdoor pools open in the summer free of charge. Look for ‘adult swim’ times if you want to be able to swim laps. I used Hamilton Fish Park on the Lower East Side and really enjoyed it.

Published 22 June 2011, updated 17 April 2015, tags:

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