Times Square Subway Station
Times Square Subway Station | Thitsanu Angkapunyadech/Shutterstock
Times Square Subway Station | Thitsanu Angkapunyadech/Shutterstock
Key to the City

How to Be a Tourist in NYC Without Embarrassing Yourself

New York City is home to 8.5 million residents -- plus another 65 million visitors per year. That’s a whole lot of people clogging the sidewalks, waiting futilely for subways, and staring down at their phones.
 
While New Yorkers have a reputation as being standoffish and selfish, we’re actually community-minded, each (or at least, most) of us adhering to the unspoken code that keeps the city moving smoothly. To visitors, this code can seem arbitrary, or arcane, but the heart of it is simple: Work together, be aware of yourself and those around you, and always move with purpose. 

Whether you’re planning the NYC trip of a lifetime or a lifetime in NYC, this social contract is mandatory. Riding the subway, strolling down our sprawling avenues, taking in a Broadway show, or ordering a drink at a bar may all seem simple enough, but in a fast-paced city where everybody knows what they want and how to get it, your every move is rife with potential foibles.
  
This might all sound intimidating -- but it doesn’t have to be. To offer some insight into the code’s particulars, we’ve answered some of the most frequently asked etiquette questions about visiting New York. Before you know it, you’ll be a subway-riding, $27 cocktail-ordering pro. If you don’t see your question answered, simply ask a New Yorker once you get here -- despite our daily uniform of headphones and a scowl, we’re a lot friendlier than we look.

Crowded subway station
Crowded subway station | Photo Kit/Shutterstock

Transportation

Help! How do I take the subway without running into (or turning into) coffee rat?

New York’s subway system is falling apart, chronically late, and full of stone-cold maniacs. But that’s New York, baby!
 
While an overheated, overcrowded train might feel like a personal attack, remember that most New Yorkers make this commute every day. So be patient and follow the rules -- unless, of course, you want your authentic NYC experience to include catching hands.

Subway Rule #1: Let ‘em off

“The most important thing? Let people off the train before you try to shove your way on,” says Mark Dunham, 39, a software engineer from Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
 
When waiting to board the train, it’s crucial to step aside to let people off first. (You may hear the conductor reinforce this with a furious, garbled “Let ‘em off!” over the speaker). If you panic at the prospect of being left on the Times Square 7 platform, rest assured that you will get your turn.

Subway Rule #2: Step in and stand clear

“Number two,” says Dunham, “move to the center of the car. Don’t stand in the doorway!” 
 
Bunching up at the doors slows boarding, which in turn makes even the most mild-mannered New Yorker murderous. Just pay attention to the stops -- and when yours comes, move back towards the door with purpose.

Subway train
Stand clear of closing doors, please. | Andriy Blokhin/Shutterstock

Subway Rule #3: Don’t hold the doors

“The most irritating thing is when people hold the doors,” says Theo Boguszewski, 30, a consultant and bartender from Crown Heights. “You’re inconveniencing 500 people just so you can make your train when there’s another one coming.”
 
While you might be tempted to hold the door for your elderly grandma, wait for the next train to roll along. After a long day of work, New Yorkers just want to get home. Just imagine how you would feel if we came to your office parking lot at 6pm to slap the car keys out of your hand -- it’s sort of like that.

Subway Rule #4: Keep it moving

“Don’t stop at the top of the steps or the escalator to take your phone call,”  Dunham says. “Don’t be in the way.”
 
Once you’ve emerged from the subway, you absolutely have to keep going -- even if you don’t know where you are. A New Yorker in motion will remain in motion, so avoid getting bowled over by a banker with a golf umbrella and head for an out-of-the-way spot before you pull up Google Maps.

Subway Rule #5: Think like a New Yorker

”Just use common sense!” says Wanda, 69, from Staten Island, who declined to give her last name. “What are your expectations when you get on the subway? To get from Point A to Point B as painlessly as possible. So do you want to be harassed? Do you want to sit in something dirty? Do you want garbage all over the place? Do you want loud noise? Why do you want to talk on the phone? Hello? What planet are you on!?”
 
Wanda makes a very good point over the noise of the trains screeching in the Canal St. Q station. The subway in New York is all about the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So don’t slow people down, and try to stay out of the way. If you’re sitting, keep your purse in your lap; if you’re standing, hold onto the pole so you don’t go flying. And please, please, keep your hair, hands, opinions, food smells, pet snakes, and toenail clippings to yourself.

Cycling on Brooklyn Bridge
Cyclists on Brooklyn Bridge | Stefan Ugljevarevic/Shutterstock

The subway sounds complicated...should I just bike, instead? 

If all those shiny blue Citi Bikes tempt you to cycle to your destination, be sure to BYO helmet.

Only about 10% of NYC’s 1,260 miles of bike lanes are separated from vehicle lanes -- that means you’ll be entering a New York-themed obstacle course of cars, car doors, pedestrians, buses, and bike messengers. This is not the time to take a leisurely ride -- what do you think this is, the Pacific Northwest?

Once you’re on a Citi Bike, all traffic rules apply to you, too. Obey stop lights; always ride in the direction of traffic; stay in the street, not the sidewalk (even if there’s no bike lane or the bike lane is obstructed); and always yield to pedestrians.

Most importantly -- and for your own safety -- stay off your phone while riding. If you’re unsure of your route, the maps on the Citi Bike kiosks show you the nearby stations and the bike lanes to get you there. Planning your route in advance allows you to act decisively -- New Yorkers move quickly, and now, so do you. 

Busy sidewalk
Bustling city sidewalk | William Perugini/Shutterstock

Fine, I’ll just walk. I know how to navigate a sidewalk, right?

Wrong! The sidewalk is one of the most crucial and complicated parts of the New York ecosystem.
 
While you’re strolling down 7th Avenue and thinking it’s a nice place to visit but you could never live here, New Yorkers are using the sidewalks to rush to job interviews and dentist appointments and to pick up their kids from daycare and stop at the grocery store and take out the dog and get dinner on the table. Here’s how to avoid getting in our way:

Don’t hold hands three or four in a row. (Why do people even do this?)

Don’t walk against the flow of traffic! It helps to walk on the right side of the sidewalk as much as possible. 

Do not -- and we mean absolutely do not -- stop walking in the middle of the sidewalk. Even if you just realized you’re going in the wrong direction. Even if you just looked up from your phone, horrified, to find you’re in the entirely wrong borough.
 
“Breathe easy, you won’t get lost that quickly,” says Lizzie Post, the great-great-granddaughter of erstwhile etiquette doyenne Emily Post and co-president of the Emily Post Institute. “You can find a convenient spot to pull yourself out of pedestrian traffic instead of stopping in the middle of it.”
  
If you’re ever lost, put down your phone and ask for help. While New Yorkers look scary, most of us will take out a single AirPod to listen to you. 

“We want to use our magic words,” Post says. “The ‘Excuse me’ and the ‘Would you be willing’ or the ‘Do you have a moment?’ really does let someone know that you’re aware that you’re interrupting their day.”

Broadway Theatre
A theatre on broadway | Pit Stock/Shutterstock

Entertainment

Should I pack my opera gloves for the theatre?

No need! “There is no dress code whatsoever,” says David Cote, a playwright, librettist, and the longest-serving theater critic at Time Out New York. “In the summer, you see people in shorts.”
 
Even if you’re not dressed to impress, you should still respect the sacred space of the theatre.
 
“Turn off your phone!” Cote says. “Checking your phone during the show or taking a picture is just totally unacceptable.”
 
Everyone around you paid $250 to watch Hugh Jackman dance, too, so resist the urge to peek at Facebook Messenger and ruin the show. 

“The theatre requires a certain amount of selflessness,” Cote says, “in the sense that you sit there, you surrender your attention for an hour or two, you behave yourself with a bunch of strangers in the dark because there’s something that’s more important than you getting on Twitter or Instagram.”

I want to get a drink after the show -- what should I tip the bartender?

NYC has a complex tipping culture, and at bars, it depends what and where you’re drinking.

At a dive bar -- think $3 beers and $1 shots -- one dollar per drink is the norm. But when a bartender is mixing up a cocktail, a buck just isn’t gonna cut it. Instead, tip at least 15% of the total bill. 

“In a cocktail bar in New York City, 15% is standard fare,” says Sother Teague, a bartender and Beverage Director at cocktail bar Amor y Amargo. “20% if you feel you saw exemplary service. Anything above that, the sky’s the limit.” 
 
And while you’re waiting to order your drink in a crowded cocktail bar on a Saturday night, please exercise some patience. Don’t wave your money, whistle, or holler -- all you have to do is make eye contact with your bartender. 

“I’m putting you on the line the minute you come in the door,” says Teague, “so just understand that I have a process and you’re in the mix.”
 
While you wait, take a moment to peruse the cocktail menu. Know what you want to order by the time you get to the bar -- or, if you can’t decide, be ready to ask for a recommendation.

“You’re never in the wrong to ask questions,” says Teague. “The more in-depth you want to be with me, the more you have to understand that I have a time limit to offer you. When that time limit is over, I’ll say I’ll be back -- whether you’ve gotten a drink or not.” 

Sightseeing

I want to see all the sights! What do I need to know? 

Remember that many tourist destinations -- like Times Square, Little Italy, and the Brooklyn Bridge -- are part of New Yorker’s everyday lives. If you want to pose for a picture with Grope-Me Elmo or take a shot of the skyline, step out of the flow of traffic.  

If you really want to get out of the way, hop a boat and head to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. While New Yorkers appreciate a sighting of Lady Liberty from Red Hook or Sunset Park as much as the next guy, there’s no way we’re heading out there with you. 

“As a sightseeing experience, you’re not going to be around New Yorkers,” says Craig Kanarick, the CEO of Circle Line, which runs sightseeing cruises around the New York Harbor. “You’re going to be around other visitors just like you.” 

That’s good news for your Insta feed -- you can finally snap all the photos you want without getting dirty looks from New Yorkers on their way to work. 

“Take your phone out immediately!” says Kanarick. “Take your phone out, take selfies, post photos!” 

If you want to see Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty up close (they’re on two different islands, but served by the same authorized ferry -- don’t fall victim to the fake cruise scam, à la Alec Baldwin), please remember the history and importance of the sites. 

“Ellis Island has an emotional aspect to it,” says Matt Housch, a Park Ranger at the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration. “Many visitors will have an emotional experience related to an immigrant experience. Inside voices and respecting a museum environment is especially important.” 

Once you’re back in Manhattan -- and among the city’s residents -- keep that sense of respect at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. That means taking off your jaunty green foam Statue of Liberty hat, speaking quietly, and knowing better than to pose for grinning selfies.

The Met Tomb
The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Gabriel_Ramos/Shutterstock

While the rest of New York’s spectacular museums allow for all the photos you can snap, standard etiquette applies: Keep your voice down; don’t block, crowd, or touch the art; and do your part to create a calm, communal space.
 
From the moment you step foot in New York, you become a part of the city’s ever-changing community and, hopefully, a follower of its code. That means an authentic NYC experience isn’t just about eating cannoli or catching a show -- it’s about moving to the right side of the escalator. It’s offering your seat to someone who might need it more. It’s remembering that everyone else on the subway has somewhere important to be, too. It’s thinking like a New Yorker -- thinking about how we can all work together to make New York City work. Most importantly, it’s about getting out of my freaking way, okay? I’m walkin’ here!

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Rachel Pelz lives and writes in Brooklyn.