The NonGuidebook Version of What to Do (and Not Do) in NYC 2009

Why a “NonGuidebook Version” of What to Do (and Not Do) in NYC ?

Since so many of you have asked:  This started with friends from California who were coming to visit NYC for the very first time. They are intrepid Asian and Australian travelers, and wanted what they described as the “nonGuidebook version” of what to do in NYC.

So what began first as an email exchange turned into a longer list. They gave it some friends of theirs who emailed thanking me for the advice, and after a while, other people started emailing in around.

Thinking other out-of-towner might appreciate this — it is definitely NOT Fodors material —  I polished it up, and posted it. It was so well received last year, that I decided to turn it into an annual posting

Hence, 21 Ways to Make Your Stay in NYC More Enjoyable.


Its that time of year: New York City is flooded with tourists. With the American Peso still relatively weak, the place is just thick with ’em.

There are lots of standard guides you might find helpful to use (i.e., NYC Guide for Tourists), but they are primarily designed for that gullible visitor, the double-decker riding, Hawaiian shirt wearing, one born every minute visitor — the Rube.

That’s not you. You are much hipper than that. You want to be in the know, plugged in, well connected. Well, kid, ya came to the right place. I’m going to give you the straight dope, the inside info that the guidebooks don’t tell you about. This is real insider trading, “Blue Horse Shoe Loves Anacot Steel” type stuff that people go to jail for. Not you or me, but people. Some people. Mostly tourists.

Anyway, instead of relying on a Fodors or Let’s Go NYC, consider these suggestions from a born and bred Nu Yawkah (Eyes gaht deh aksent dat gos wit da place). A Brooklyn born guy who works in finance, and has worked in NYC most of his Adult life, this guy knows a thing or two about Gotham.

These suggestions will help make your stay in the city enjoyable and safe. It well help you get the most out of your visit here. As an added bonus, I get to keep all of you birkenstocked, rucksack wearing, slow walking, camera snapping touristas out from underfoot of us locals.



A New Yorker’s Guide for Tourists: 20 Ways to Make Your Stay in New York City More Enjoyable


1. For God’s sake, DO NOT ALL DRESS ALIKE. This is especially true if  you are part of a big group. (Note: This does not refer to school trips of 50 fourth graders)

This is not just for your safety, it is for the benefit of the typical New Yorker’s highly refined aesthetic sense. At all costs, avoid wearing identical matching outfits. Worse than looking like buncha hicks from the sticks, you look like a group of out-of-towners begging to be mugged.

I don’t mean literally mugged by a criminal element, though that is certainly possible in these uncertain economic times. Rather, you are telegraphing your lack of savvy, thus leaving you financially vulnerable to unscrupulous taxi cab drivers and retail merchants alike. They will spot you as the rube you are, and be all too happy to roll you — i.e.,  considerably lighten your wallet.

You might as well carry a sign that says “Rob Me!” — and they will.

1.B  Enough with the NY themed garb! The corollary to this is to avoid festooning every item of clothing you have on with “New York, NYC, or Yankees” logos — No one is THAT big of a fan — for the same reasons as above.


2.  BATHROOMS:  Here’s the thing: There just aren’t many public bathrooms in NYC.

Why? Its a long story, which I don’t have time to go into, but there just aren’t that many. Make plans accordingly.

Where_to_go_2Your best bets are as follows:

Department stores
Barnes & Noble/Borders Bookstores

The nicest public toilet in the city is Bryant Park at 42nd Street between 5/6th avenues. Sometimes there is a wait.

For those of you who have serious, um, reallygottagonow issues, its best that you plan ahead. Get a copy of Where to Go: A Guide to Manhattan’s Toilets. Thats right, the NYC toilet situation is so absurd that someone wrote a book about it.

On the plus side, the Rainbow Room and the Grand Havana Club have some of the nicest bathrooms I’ve ever been in — floor to ceiling windows, right next to the urinals! Pee while delighting to the splendor of the skyline, only in NY!


3. iPod walking guides

There are lots of really cool guides to various Manhattan neighborhoods. I haven’t done all of these, but I’ve done a few — most of these come highly recommended.

Soundwalk – – lets listeners walk in the shoes of locals for an uninterrupted hour. They have a 15-tour library includes many New York neighborhoods (Manhattan Chinatown, Little Italy, Lower East Side, Meatpacking District, Times Square, Wall Street, Williamsburg, Bronx hiphop/graffiti, Yankees, Brooklyn Dumbo) $12 to $25.

Essex House the Central Park Walking Tours


Big Onion Walking Tours

Google Mashup Walking Tour

Turn Your iPod into a Travel Guide

Art Mobs – – compiles the work of Marymount Manhattan College students as they look at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in
critical, cynical, and comical lights. Free (go to “browse audio guides.”)

National Geographic Society Traveler Index

Must See NY Guided Tours

Also worth knowing about:

Book: Manhattan on Film 1: Walking Tours of Hollywood’s Fabled Front Lot

Subway Map for your iPod

Note that Apple’s iTunes Music Store and also offer a wide catalog of audio tours for purchase and many are for no charge.

Lastly, wear comfortable walking shoes or sneakers!


4. See a LIVE TV Show: This is a must do, lots of fun event. Just like Broadway, only free.

It requires some advanced planning, usually 6 months to a year ahead of time. I suggest Late Show with David Letterman, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and Saturday Night Live (email SNL TIckets). (If you read our advice last year, you would have ordered the tickets a long time ago).

If you did not plan in advance for this year, no worries: Just diary this for next December or January to order tickets for Summer 2010.

Imagine where the US Dollar will be then — we’ll practically be paying you to come here!


5.  Do a bunch of local New York things:  All the guide books tell you the same thing:  Statue of Liberty (eh) Empire State Building (Cool), Broadway Show.

Try a few funkier things: Hang out in Central Park, Explore Brooklyn, wear black, enjoy the free WiFi in Bryant Park (use the bathroom there — nice). Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. Attend a lecture at the 92nd ST Y, go to Chinatown in Flushing Queens (The 7 train takes you there). Take a Circleline Cruise around Manhattan. Roller blade in the Park. Buy junk at a fair, and eat street meat (just don’t ask what creature it once was). Watch some talented street performers in Washington Square Park; Have a cigar at the Grand Havana Room (its members only, you need a referral, but if you call and ask nicely. . .) Catch an author speak at a Barnes & Noble off of Union Square Park (another nice bathroom).

One of my all time favorite NYC activities? NY Philharmonic in Central Park, or any concert for that matter. Pack a picnic dinner, bring a bottle of wine, get their a few hours early, and spread out a blanket. Delightful!

Spend a weekend at Fire Island or the Hamptons (make arrangements first). Go to a designer sample sale. Do the NYT crossword puzzle on mass transit. Jog around the reservoir in Central Park. Go to a Woody Allen retrospective. See the Mets at the new Citi Field.

The ultimate New Yorker activity? As immortalized in a Steeley Dan song (Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More), Celebrate Sunday on Saturday Night — get the Sunday NY Times late Saturday night; Skim it, then lounge around early Sunday morning, with the paper — and a pot of strong coffee — in bed Sunday morning. Heavenly!


6. DO NOT DO THE FOLLOWING:  Walk four abreast holding hands; Congregate around busy street corners, hang around stairways or active doorways; Don’t look up staring at the skyscrapers (only tourists in awe of the tall buildings do this); Do not clutter up Grand Central Station during rush-hour (8-9 and 5-6) — its much nicer around 11am; 3 Card Monte is ALWAYS a rip off to prey on tourists;

These are just a start — there are many other DO NOTs I can think of, but rather than list them, let me impress upon you the importance of Situational Awareness. This is a term more commonly used in military and aviation situation, but it also refers to any complex environment where errors in the decision making process has significant repercussions. “Situational awareness has been formally defined as “the perception of elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future.”

Hence, be aware of your surroundings; watch the flow of traffic; be perceptive to what the locals are doing; perceive the rhythms, enrgy and vectors of whats around you.

And try to do so standing a little bit off to the side, as opposed to the middle of the pedestrian foot traffic  . . .


7.  All About Tipping

Continued  —  A New Yorker’s Guide for Tourists: 20 Ways to Make Your Stay in New York City More Enjoyable


7. Tipping: The city has a service-based economy, and tipping is encouraged/demanded/insisted upon.

There is an art to knowing when to overtip or stiff, and most be are pretty clueless.

The basic suggestion: 15% of the bill for “Fair” service, 20% for “Good” service. This applies to waiters, waiteresses, bartenders, cab drivers, call girls, etc.  Note that you can easily ballpark 15% by doubling the tax (~8.5% X2 = 16%) in restaurants. Note that for large parties (6 or more) some restaurants automatically add the tip to the bill, so double check that bill (ask, and don’t double tip). Chamber maids should get $5 per day.

Leaving a 5% tip is considered a complaint — but stiffing (leaving nothing) is not perceived as a complaint, but as a sign of cheapness/cluelessness. If you are going to leave a very small tip , don’t be surprised if a waiter or manager asks you how everything was. Be sure to mention why the service was so disappointing. 2 or 3 bullet points should do it.

For extraordinary service — the cab driver that gets you there safely with a lots of info and insight, the waiter who steers you towards the best (not the most expensive) dishes, the call girl who was simply amazing,  a tip of 25-30% is not outrageous. 35% if you plan on being repeat customers.


8. Know how to order Coffee:  If you go into any non-Starbucks locale and order a “regular coffee,” your coffee will come with milk and two spoonfuls of sugar. This is what “Regular” means in NYC. If tyou ewant No sugar, ask for “Coffee, milk NO sugar.” Emphasize no sugar.

9. Watch out for DELIVERY and MESSENGER BIKES! Even visitors to the city can easily avoid getting run over by buses, trucks, and cabs — they are large, visible, moving objects, ealiy avoided. And, most of the time, they are traveling the same direction as the street, i.e., going downtown on downtown streets.

None of the above applies to bicyclists. Many are suicidal maniacs seeking to save money on the cost of cyanide. By ignoring all of the standard road rules, they hope to meet their makers that much sooner. You don’t want to join them.

Be aware: They run lights, jump up on sidewalks, go the wrong way down one way streets. Look for them when getting in and out of cabs, or crossing midtown streets, or popping out between parked cars. They can be bone crushers — be careful.

For your safety cross at the crosswalks and stay on the sidewalk.


10. Taxis:  Two things you should remember about cabs: They work 12 hour shifts that end around 6:00,  so getting a cab between 5 and 6pm is always a challenge. Also, as soon as it starts to rain, the available cabs become invisible. (No one knows why).

On Duty: Look at the light on top of the car — 4 or 5 random letters and numbers, like GR45.  When it’s lit, the cab is available; When its dark, someone is already in the cab.

See the off-duty sign on either side? When they are lit, the cab is unavailable.




11. Travel Worldwide via Food:  You can travel around the world’s view the restaurants in Manhattan alone Burmese, Thai, Tibetan, Afghanistan, Turkish, Vietnamese, Brazilian, Peruvian -– and that’s just in my neighborhood.

Excellent steak houses, killer brick oven pizza, great hamburgers — pretty much anything you desire in terms of culinary creativity or excesses can be had in New York.

Decide on your budget, do a little research, and off you go!


12. Buy the following books:

Zagat 2009 New York City Restaurants (If you travel a lot in the US, consider

Gerry Frank’s Where to Find it, Buy it, Eat it in New York 2008-2009

Gerry_frankAlso, bookmark the following NY Magazine webpages:

New York Mag’s Best Cheap Eats (2008)

101 Best Cheap Eats (Yelp)


13. Go on, ask us something, ANYTHING. Surprise! New Yorkers are much nicer people than you have heard. Want a photo taken? Need directions? Anything else you might think of — we love to show off, so feel free to ask.

Despite our gruff reputations, far fewer of us are the assholes you have seen in the movies.

Except that guy Bill — what a jerk. And that guy Larry is no prize, either. But other than those two, we are much nicer than you would think . . .


14.  Hey Buddy! Get outta the way! Despite the above, let me remind you that this is a working city. Unlike Washington, DC, or Las Vegas — places that are artificially supported by the hard work of fools from other cities.

No, this is an actual working city with real industries:  Wall Street and finance, advertising, publishing, film & broadcast television, fashion, theater, media, real estate, dining, and tourism.
Also on the list: bioscience, web design, software development, game design, sex, food-processing and internet services. Despite 35% of NYC jobs being related to the Finance industry, we actually have quite a diverse economy.

Do us all a favor, and please try not to get underfoot too much.


15. Go Shopping! OK, the American peso is no longer down 40% like last year, but its still soft. Many things here are tremendous bargains. From the high-end stores found on upper Fifth and Madison Avenues; to the jewelry districts (48th between 5th and 6th Ave), we got lots of stuff for sale on sale.

Or, you can take a bus to Woodberry Commons or Tangers — large designer brand outlet centers located a few hours from Manhattan with even cheaper prices.


16. Enjoy Live Entertainment: We have Jazz clubs, big bands, Stand up comedy, Classical concerts, Poetry slams, Historical readings, Central Park concerts, authors reading their works, lectures.

See what’s at NYU or Columbia. Ballet, Opera, Modern Dance.

Pick up a Village Voice (free in Manhattan) or check out for all of the recent listings.

17. Enjoy Art & Sculpture

See some Art galleries — we have 100s. Museums? We have scores of em (see Google Maps for NY Museum). Check out Soho. Walk through the Village.

For a fascinating day trip, take a ride up to Storm King Sculpture Garden, about an hour north of the George Washington Bridge, to see tons (literally) of enormous outdoor artwork in a pastoral, 500 acre park-like  setting .


18.  Buy an unlocked iPhone or 3 — cheap!  And, the merchants here love to haggle!

Just make sure you understand what you are getting. These are normally locked into a 2 year contract with AT&T. We can’t use the unlocked ones here, but you guys from abroad can back home. Double check with a local geek from your home country.


19. Lose the Rucksack:  Look, I’ve stayed at hotels all over the country — leaving iPods, laptops, expensive watches lying around the room. Nothing has ever been stolen.

Why do you people feel the need to carry everything you own on your backs? Are you climbing Mount Kilimanjaro? No? Then why pack like that?

No one needs to travel with their entire assets on their back. Leave your ratty t shirts in the hotel room, and step lively!


20.  Those Damned Wheely carts: I Hate ‘em; so does everyone else in the city. They trip people, get in the way, and generally are a pain in the arse. Unless you have to schlep it with you, please leave your stuff in the hotel (See above as to why no one wants to steal your stinky clothes).

If it’s that heavy, leave it in your damn hotel room, and stop tripping everybody.


21. Do a bunch of touristy New York things: Okay, just in case you wanted to know all the usual crap:

Go to Times Square, see the Statue of Liberty, take a Circle Line ride around Manhattan, go to the top of the Empire State Building, take a trip to Ellis Island, spend a few hours in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, visit the best collection of Modern Art in America at MOMA, eat in Chinatown, ride a horse drawn carriage thru Central Park, go to Rockefeller Center, go skating at Wolman rink, see a Broadway play or two, catch a show at Radio City Music Hall, go to Yankees game. Take in a mass at St. Patricks Cathedral. (Skip the WTC, its just a big hole in the ground).

I often recommend to locals that they do this . . .


Any other suggestions? Add them in comments!

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