Last weekend, I took a long walk in Manhattan. To my surprise, the city is starting to fill up with tourists again.
In Central Park’s Sheep Meadow, I saw a couple posing for a photo. Underground, at the new Q train station on 72nd Street, a French-speaking woman struggled to swipe her Metrocard correctly. In Times Square, a bus filled with passengers turned at a busy intersection onto Broadway.
Walking through the city, I felt a little bit like a tourist myself. When I saw the Westin Hotel building in Midtown, I was convinced that I had never seen it before. (That would be impossible, considering how the project was completed in 2002, and I have walked down the same block many times.)
As I ascended the nearly-80-foot-long escalator on the Q line, I thought about Manhattan’s grid system, and I wondered how many tourists were aware of this convenient design.
If you are planning to visit New York City (or perhaps you are a new resident), here are three quick tips for getting around Manhattan. Sure, you can use your phone to figure out where you want to go, and how you want to get there, but this practical information will come in handy.
Familiarize yourself with the grid system
An easy way to orient yourself in the city is by knowing that the numbered streets run east to west, and the avenues run north to south. The street numbers get higher as you travel north; the avenue numbers get higher as you travel west.
For example, say you want to find the Museum of Modern Art. Your phone tells you that MoMA is located on West 53rd Street between 5th and 6th Avenue.
If you are standing on the corner of 50th street and 5th Avenue, how do you know if you need to walk up three blocks or down three blocks?
In most parts of Manhattan, you can easily figure out the answer by looking at the next block. If you see 51st street up ahead, you know that you need to walk in that direction. However, when you get to 53rd street, do you turn left or right?
This is where the grid system comes in handy. Because the numbers are getting higher (from 50th to 53rd), this means you are walking north. Therefore, 6th avenue will be on your left, to the west. (Remember, the avenue numbers get higher as you travel west.)
Of course, you can always rely on your phone’s navigation system, but having this mental map can be a great way to feel confident while walking around. Plus, you can enjoy more sights because you won’t be staring down at a screen.
Swipe your MetroCard at the correct speed
Using the NYC subway system is fairly simple. There are plenty of signs, and you can always ask other passengers for directions. Even local New Yorkers will ask each other for information. This is because there are often delays in service. Or people are using a line that they don’t typically use. Don’t be afraid to ask someone whether you’re on the right train. Most people are happy to help.
One aspect of riding the train is deceptively tricky. I see this happen a lot with first-time riders. When you go through the turnstile, you need to swipe your MetroCard through the reader. Know this: the machine doesn’t want you to swipe too quickly or too slowly. If the machine rejects your card, don’t be discouraged. Just keep swiping. And try to go either faster or slower until you hit the right speed.
Note: This tip will be obsolete soon. Many subway stations are now installing machines where you can tap your MetroCard or credit card instead of swiping.
Look at the cars, not the people crossing the street
Pedestrians rule the streets in New York City. We don’t let cars intimidate us, no matter how busy the traffic gets. However, if you are unfamiliar with the city, you need to pay extra attention.
Do not cross the street just because you see someone else crossing the street. Pay attention to the car traffic, not the other pedestrians. Most New Yorkers will cross the street, regardless of the traffic signals. With so many short blocks in Manhattan, you could waste hours waiting for the lights to change.
Tourists (and new residents) often make the mistake of watching other pedestrians and following their lead. Do not do this. New Yorkers walk very fast. Someone who has spent a lot of time in the city knows whether or not they can make it across the street in time. When you are new to the city, play it safe and wait for the traffic signals.
Eventually, you will get a feel for the flow of traffic, and you can cross the street confidently.
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