Seven years ago, I arrived in New York City, wide eyed and bushy tailed, ready to follow my dreams like so many other people who come to this beautiful city. I, like so many tourists, had that same reaction of, “Wow, New Yorkers are so short tempered and rude!” After a few months in the city it became pretty clear that that statement could not be less true. New Yorkers are as nice as anyone else, as long as you know NYC etiquette. Here’s how to look like a local in NYC.
I’ve listed the basics that I’ve learned while living here. If you follow these simple rules, you’ll have a much better time navigating and experiencing New York City. You won’t look like a tourist, and locals won’t sneer at you.
How to Navigate Like a Local in NYC
1. Uptown vs. Downtown
If you are trying to figure out which way is North/South or Uptown/Downtown you simply need to look at the numbers. Street numbers go up as you go north (uptown) and go down as you go south (downtown). Plus, building numbers on the north side of the street are odd and on the south side of the street are even. However, if you’re downtown where the streets have names, you’re screwed. Just kidding…kind of. I use the financial district as a way to tell which way is south when you’re downtown. If you’re in Soho, Chinatown, or Tribecca and see the freedom tower/other skyscrapers, that’s South.
2. East vs. West
Even number streets run east, and odd number streets run west. Meaning that if you are on 28th street, the traffic is driving east. Avenues are numbered from east to west (left to right). Meaning First Ave is to the east (right if facing north) and Eleventh Ave is to the west (left if facing north).
Broadway goes diagonal across Manhattan. This threw me off so many times when I moved here. I spent most of my time in the 20’s where Broadway is between 5th and 6th Ave, but if you go into the 50’s it’s between 8th and 9th. Lesson: never use Broadway as a point of navigation.
4. Building Numbers
Fifth Ave splits the city between east and west. If you are meeting someone on West 28th Street then you need to be on the left side of Fifth Ave. The building numbers start at zero and go up as you go out toward the rivers. This can be confusing because there can be two buildings on 52nd street that are number 25. Make sure to check if you’re going to 25 EAST 52nd Street or 25 WEST 52nd Street. They are two totally different places.
Subway Etiquette that Locals Follow
5. Empty Subway Cars
Never and I repeat never get on an empty subway car when all the other cars are crowded. The car is empty for a reason. Usually it’s because a homeless person has taken occupancy and the smell is unbearable, or someone has gotten sick on the train.
Here’s further reason not to enter the empty subway car. Yikes
6. Right vs. Left Side of Escalators
This is a huge one and probably the reason most tourist get yelled at. The right side of the escalator is for standing. The left side of the escalator is for walking. If you are talking to someone, you should not stand next to each other. Stand one behind the other. If you have luggage, do not put it next to you, put it in front or behind you. People who are in a rush will run up the left side and if you block them, they will be pissed.
7. Riding the Subway
If you’re sitting, only take up one seat. If you’re listening to music, make sure only you can hear it. Do not lean on the poles while standing (other people have to hold onto them too). Wait for people to exit the car before getting on because the train won’t leave without you. When you step into the car, move all the way inside. Do not block others from getting on. Put your belongings on your lap, not on the seat next to you. If you are standing, put large backpacks or purses on the floor between your feet to save room. If someone pregnant, handicapped, or elderly gets on the train, get up and offer them your seat.
Hailing a Taxi Like a Local in NYC
8. Where You’re Going
Don’t tell a cab where you’re going till you’re inside. This seems silly, but once you are in a cab they can’t turn you down. If you are going to Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, etc. they may not want to take you. So don’t tell them till you are inside.
9. Cab Lights
On the roof of each cab is a number that lights up. If the light is on, it means it’s vacant. If the light is off, it means it’s currently occupied, which means if you see a cab coming without a light, don’t bother waving. I’ve had a lot of people from out of town ask why the taxi’s won’t stop for them, and this is why.
10. Times to give up
Getting a cab at rush hour or in the rain is a near impossibility. Around 4:00 pm is the shift change, so a lot of cabs won’t be on the road then. When it’s raining, everyone and their brother wants a cab. It’s easier to find a unicorn in NYC than a cab in the rain.
11. Be obvious
Stand in the street and wave with confidence, otherwise they will never see you. This is New York City. There are ten lights, fifty street signs, hundreds of people, and tons of distractions at every single corner. If you are on the sidewalk waving your arm idly by your head, no one will stop. Get out in the street (by the parked cars, not in moving traffic) and wave your arm with confidence.
12. Colors of cabs
Yellow cabs can pick you up anywhere. Green cabs can only pick up in outer boroughs however, they can drop off in Manhattan. Black cars are not supposed to pick people up on the street, but if they do, make sure to negotiate the fare before getting in. Black cars make up their own fares and do not have to follow the yellow/green cab fares. Yellow and green cabs accept credit cards but black cars generally don’t (unless you have an account with their company).
Sidewalk Etiquette that Locals Follow
13. Walking in Groups
Don’t walk three in a row down the sidewalk. People will want to get around you, and it’s impossible. Please don’t create a red rover chain or a samba line. There’s a time and a place for everything, but the streets of NYC are not it.
14. Be Self Aware
Be aware of yourself and your surroundings. There may be people around you who are in a rush. It’s easy to get distracted by the pretty sights, but being able to sense someone running up behind you and stepping out of their way is greatly appreciated. You may even get a rare smile or thank you from a local!
15. Stopping to Take Photos
Stopping on the sidewalk is like stopping on a highway, pull over to the side first. Everyone here understands that you want to take photos. Simply move to the side of the sidewalk before stopping and causing a pileup of people.
People will yell at you for having rolling luggage, not because we hate tourists, but because we have all tripped over one before. We also hate locals with rolling brief cases, so don’t take it personally. Try to keep it next to you and close by instead of rolling it behind you.
Dealing with Bad Weather like a Local
The $5 umbrella (sold by people on the street as soon as it begins to rain) will only last a block. Invest in a good one and you’ll get home dry. Be careful when walking. If you are approaching someone, be aware of not hitting them in the face as it’s very crowded here. Hold your umbrella up above peoples heads.
Slush puddles are deeper than they look. They look like they are an inch deep, but they can be a foot deep. Take your time and walk around them and be patient with people in front of you.
Other Tips for Looking Like a Local in NYC
It’s true, we don’t smile and wave at each other. Partly because it’s so crowded that waving and smiling at everyone would be exhausting. Mostly, because there are some crazy people in New York, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the crazies apart from the normal people. If someone smiles and waves, you automatically think they are unstable. People will wave and smile to people they know (i.e. the mail man, bodega guys, super, and neighbors). We just don’t like to say hi to people we aren’t acquainted with.
20. Asking for Directions
If you try to ask for directions and no one stops, don’t be offended. It’s not that we hate tourists, but we have learned the hard way not to stop and talk to strangers. In NYC, you will constantly get stopped by homeless people looking for food/money, kids raising money for school, hair salons who need test dummies, causes that need your signature, tourist attractions selling tickets, religions trying to convert you, and endless other things. The worst part is, they start the convo with “Excuse me, can you help me really quick?”
It’s not that we don’t want to help you with directions; we are just afraid you aren’t actually asking for directions. When people have a map out I’m much more likely to stop and help them. Don’t start with “Excuse me.” Start the conversation with, “I’m lost can you help me?” or “Do you know where the Empire State Building is?” You’ll get a much better response if you cut to the chase.
Getting ready to visit or move to New York City? Ask any questions in the comments.
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Michelle Della Giovanna
Writer at Full Time Explorer
I’m just your average New Yorker who quit her job in the fashion industry to explore the world. Come find out what it’s like to trade in five-inch heels for squat toilets.