Tips for First-Timers and Solo Travellers in New York

An unmissable sight on a New York visit - the view from the Empire State

I’ve taken three bites of the Big Apple so far, and I’m eager to take a fourth chunk out of the city with yet another trip to New York. It’s the kind of place that doesn’t deserve to be ticked off a list only once; each time I’m there, I do totally different things, from hanging out at the UN Headquarters to appearing in the background on Good Morning America, and it feels like a new side to NYC is revealed. I also have some great insight from my sister Nancy, who lived in the city for a year and has been back a few times since.

Good Morning America outdoor crew 2008
“That one time, when our college appeared on American TV…”

I’ve travelled in a group, in a pair and also on my own, so I’ve seen it from different angles in that sense, too. If you’re looking to really do it justice when you arrive, here’s what you need to know when you visit NY – at least, according to me…

The journey in from JFK doesn’t really prepare you for what the city will be like

So, you step off the plane and you’re right in the middle of things, aren’t you? Well, not quite. It’s a bit of a hike to get into the tourist areas from the airport (there is more than one, but I’ve always used JFK) and it’ll take a while before your surroundings resemble the place you’ve seen in photos, so don’t expect skyscrapers and Times Square to be on your doorstep.

On the taxi/bus/AirTrain ride in, you will pass by some cute wooden houses that look like they’re straight out of Sabrina the Teenage Witch – a sign that you’re not in the heart of the city just yet. Nobody in Manhattan lives in a Sabrina house. If you want cutesy, I’d recommend parts of Greenwich Village, for bohemian-style boutiques and studio apartments, as well as the tiny 72 1/2 Bedford Street, which is NYC’s narrowest house.

New York's smallest house, Greenwich Village
I think the person with the 4×4 might have more space than the resident of 72 1/2 Bedford Street.

Those rumours about portion sizes are all true

I don’t think it would be unfair to say that food portions are larger here, and I’m in no way saying that all New Yorkers are obese; in fact, many of them are super-skinny and love exercise, with gyms and juice bars almost peppering as many street corners as Starbucks. But if you’re coming from stingy old Britain, you’ll be surprised at how much is piled up on your plate when it’s time to eat. Β By all means, fill up at breakfast, but you’ll probably only need one other sit-down meal and then something simple, like a bagel, a salad or a small hot dog.

My top tip, if you can get away with it, is to order from the children’s menu. I did manage to order children’s portions once or twice (ideal for solo travellers!), knowing I’d only be able to eat half of what was served, but waiters tend to get annoyed about this. Maybe because I haven’t been under 16 in quite some time.

Try not to get too starry-eyed in tourist areas

This is important regardless of your group size or if you’re on your own, as it’s all too easy to be blinded by the lights of the big city. On my second trip here, a bunch of us went to the Hard Rock Cafe (yes, I know it’s not very original, but we wanted to try it) and one girl had her wallet stolen under our noses. None of us even saw anyone acting suspiciously, let alone reaching into her bag, but then a good thief doesn’t get noticed, especially in a hotspot like Times Square.

Whilst I’m not trying to ruin anyone’s holiday with safety advice, it’s worthwhile making sure that you take a secure bag – not a really nice one that happens not to have a zip or closure – and that you don’t leave it hanging off the end of your chair. Similarly, don’t wave the contents around, especially if you have expensive gadgets (that means you, iPad user!).

Wooden barman statue in New York pub
Secure bag – check. New wooden friend with beer – check.

You can have fun on your own, honest

Don’t panic – if you’re fairly confident at reading a map and working out directions, you’ll get into the grid system of the streets in no time. You’ll also find that people can be more than helpful if there are times when you feel lost, so just pop into the nearest shop, hotel or restaurant and ask for directions. When you visit the museums, you won’t be the only one flying solo, and your experience will be a lot more personal – skip the parts of the Metropolitan Museum or the Whitney that don’t interest you, then dedicate a stupid amount of time to staring at the pieces you love. I spent ages admiring the Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy exhibition at the Met in 2008, which later formed part of a second year art theory essay at university, whilst Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe at the Whitney was like nothing I’d ever seen before.

Another attraction that don’t need a group to be enjoyed is the UN; I took a tour with my college, but you can enjoy it alone, too, and the shop is brilliant. As a member of Amnesty International, I found it really fascinating to see how the UN operates.

If in doubt, park yourself in Central Park.

There are loads of things to do in the greenest place in the city, whatever season you’re here for; I’ve wrapped up warm and scrambled on rocks in the bitter cold, and I’ve lazed in the sunshine by myself. Easy things to find are: the boating lake and Boathouse cafe and restaurant, where English Breakfast Tea is a welcome pick-me-up; the Alice in Wonderland statue beside the lake; the paved area with the fountain which was featured in Enchanted, where people practice yoga and tai chi; Strawberry Fields, a peaceful place and an essential stop-off for Beatles fans.

What’s not so easy to find is the castle – I spent ages trying to track it down, then ended up in a shady wooded area at dusk, when a strange and over-friendly man approached me. Needless to say, I legged it pretty quick and gave up chasing castles, but let’s not dwell on that. 9 times out of 10, Central Park is a great place to hang out.

Central Park fountain with fitness enthusiasts
Recognise this part of the park from ‘Enchanted’?

And here are some quick tips from former resident, Nancy…

  • Don’t miss the chance to try Shake Shack burgers – they’re delicious and you get a lot for your money Thankfully they’re coming to Covent Garden in London, but this is where you can track down the originals
  • The 9/11 memorial is a must-see – it’s really important to pay a visit here [note: I’d also recommend this]
  • Check out the High Line.Β Running all the way from Chelsea to Meatpacking, this is a communal garden space where you can chill out
  • Take a trip to Williamsburg for Beacon’s Closet, which is where the best vintage clothes in the city can be found. I picked up a Diane Von Furstenberg top here that I absolutely love
  • The Staten Island Ferry is free, so you have no excuse not to jump on it [again, this is easy to do as a solo traveller]

Of course, if you have any tips to add to the list, you can tweet me or share them below.

59 thoughts on “Tips for First-Timers and Solo Travellers in New York”

    1. Hi,

      Yes, it should be totally fine for you to travel alone in NYC. Take the usual precautions you would in any city – for example, don’t show off any expensive gadgets (phones, cameras, iPads) – but obviously don’t let that stop you taking photos or videos, just be sensible and put them away when you don’t need them. A group walking tour or a bus tour will help you navigate the city. Have fun!

      1. As a resident of manhattan (nyc) for over 16 years, i could easily tell you that ipads and cameras arent a big deal. Ive been on the subway with my ipad etc. Out and never been worried although i do understand your feelings if its the first time

  1. Sightseeing on my own for the first time.staying in long island..any recommendations on how to go about seeing all the sights?is the NYC pass a good idea??

    1. Hi Joe,

      I haven’t used the NYC pass myself, but it looks like great value for money if a lot of attractions you want to see are on the discount list. However, it’s quite expensive, so it’s worth working out the normal entry price to the sights you’re expecting to visit, in case the pass isn’t right for you. The Hop-On-Hop-Off buses are a good alternative (great for time saving and navigating your way around), and I’m sure you can find a walking tour to suit your interests, which will give you a chance to meet new people and hang out in a group. Enjoy!

  2. Hey I loved this blog but I just wondered..

    I’m 18 and have been to New York once before with my family, I’ve never travelled alone before but I really want to go back to New York on my own next year (2016), what would you suggest I do as far as planning goes, I can navigate my way around pretty much anywhere in Scotland (where I live) using my iPhone’s “map” app but I’m assuming this would be extortionate abroad. What kinds of things I can I plan/book that would make travelling easier and lower the chances of me getting lost lol?

    1. Hi Kerrie,

      You can absolutely go on your own, but I’d advise ditching the iPhone map app. There are apps you can get that load offline, but when you’re on your own with an expensive phone you could inadvertently be a target for pickpockets (not just a New York thing, of course – in any big city really!). You can buy cheap fold-out maps or even get guidebooks with maps tucked in the back, but you should be able to navigate between nearby sights.

      Definitely consider a walking tour or a hop-on-hop-off bus tour, as they’ll help you get your bearings – I’ve mentioned some suggestions in my other New York post. On a walking tour there’s a good chance you won’t be the only solo traveller so you may well be able to team up with other people after the tour to do some extra sightseeing.

      As for the sights themselves, you’ll appreciate being on your own in most of the museums, shops and galleries, as you can spend as much (or as little) time as you want in each one. Check out events listings when you’ve booked your trip, so you can check for any festivals or one-off events held during your stay. As you’re 18 you won’t be able to drink in New York, but you can still have a great time. Let me know if you need any more info!

    2. Hi there Kerrie,

      My name is Anabel, I’m 22. I am Dutch but live in Spain and I am looking to travel to NYC alone in 2016 aswell. Would you be interested in a travelling buddy? πŸ™‚ Let me know what you think, it would be great to meet new people and maybe travel together if we get on. Take care!

    3. Hi there,

      I am looking for someone to travel to NYC with in 2016. I’m 22, Dutch and currently live in Spain. Would you be interested in maybe travelling together? It would be great to meet new people and I am struggling to get any of my friends to join me. Let me know what you think.

      Kind regards!

      1. Hi Anabel,

        There are loads of ways to find people to travel with, but your best bet is to use well-regarded forums from travel magazines, like Wanderlust or Lonely Planet’s Thorntree. There are also loads of specialist sites like TripTogether. Alternatively, staying in a hostel is likely to put you alongside other solo travellers and you could easily team up with them. Hope these tips help! Let me know how you get on.

        1. Hi Anabel, Suvini & Kerrie!

          I’m a 18 y/o Dutch girl, going to NYC on my own as well. I will arrive on the 10th of April. When are you going? I’d love to meet up and maybe travel together for some days! Let me know πŸ™‚

          1. Hi ladies,

            I am arriving end of May 2016, if anyone is around in NYC then please do get in touch with me! Would be great to travel together.
            – Suvini

          2. Hey Ladies,

            I will be in NYC in April 15th onwards. Do any of you guys have FB etc. I will be travelling alone for a couple of days πŸ™‚

          3. I am a 25 yr old from Mozambique and I’ll be traveling to NY alone from 23rd-28th April… if anyone’s around then, let me know πŸ™‚

      2. Hello, I am Valentino I am from Rome but I am living in Finland. When do want to gon in NY? I would like to go in June. And you?

      3. Hey! I was wondering if you are still travelling ton America as I am between August and September and am scared about going alone?

      4. Hello,

        That sounds like a lot of fun! I am 22 and going t NYC alone in February or March of next yea . I’ve only been to New York one time and I had a blast but I’d like to do more this time and traveling and meeting new people seems amazing! πŸ™‚

      5. Hi Im going to NY at end of october And of you want to meet id be happy to meet ? Im a scottish lady And speak dutch πŸ˜‰

    4. My advise for you, as a resident for over a decade, dont look like a tourist! They are so easy to point out its crazy l. Dont stand on a street corner with a huge map out. You are asking for looks and just yells IM A TOURIST!

  3. Hi everyone! I am a 19 year old female from California and have decided to travel to New York solo this 2016! I am not sure if I will be traveling for one or two weeks, because I would like to go to Boston as well, if any of you is traveling to NY in June let me know! :D. Or if any of you are traveling to the SF area in California I would love to be your guide!

    1. Hi Ana! I’m a 20 year old female from Texas and I’ll be traveling to San Francisco in January solo and I would love for you to be my guide if you’re free that month!

  4. Hello girls!

    I will arrive to New York on coming Sunday , 17th. However, I will be there for college; not just for travelling. And this is gonna be my first time abroad and first time going on my own. So, it is really nerve wrecking for me, especially taking the cab since it takes over 1 hour from JFK airport to the hotle where l am staying for awhile before I can move in to my dorm. And my college is on Staten Island. Do you think it is ok to travel alone with the cab from JFK airport to Staten Island? Please answer my comment!

    1. Hi Yamin,
      You should be absolutely fine. USA Today actually has a page dedicated to helping you with this (http://traveltips.usatoday.com/taxi-jfk-manhattan-100420.html), or there are tips here with Staten Island prices (http://www.panynj.gov/airports/jfk-taxi-car-van-service.html). Alternatively, you could pre-book a transfer with a company like Viator. Don’t worry about being on your own – there will be loads of people in the same situation as you, because NYC is great for solo travellers!
      Hope college goes well for you.
      Polly

    2. Hi there. I will be in NYC for my bday this coming end-Oct. Really hope that it will turns out fine. Anyone travelling alone around the same time?

  5. Hi everyone! I’m Tony, I’m 28 for.. Born and raised in San Diego California. I’m going to NYC May 18th-25th. I was supposed to go with a friend but she flaked last minute and now I’m on my own. I love meeting new people if anyone is going around the same time? I’m a little bit nervous traveling alone, but I’m gonna take leap of faith and step out of my comfort zone.

    1. Hey, Anthony, I was born in china but have lived most of my life in New Zealand. What plans do you have on 25th? Been in NYC for 8 days now.

  6. Hi,

    Do you know any cheaper accommodation for female solo traveler? I will be travelling to NYC on 30th May – 1st June. Thanks!

  7. Hi everyone! 21 year old Dutch fellow here! I’m visiting A couple of cities this summer. If you want to spend a day, let me know!
    Chicago, IL 24 July – 30 July
    Boston, MA 30 July – 3 August
    New York, NY 3 August – 12 August
    Atlanta, GA 12 August – 17 August
    Washington DC 17 August – 22 August.

    I am going to vlog my whole trip, so maybe you can check me out on my website. It is pretty empty now though…

    Nick

  8. My names Jon and I’m looking to go New York from the 6th September for a week. Be happy to meet up with anyone for abit of sight seeing and adventures.

  9. Will be traveling to NYC alone Oct 4 -7. Been to NYC once before with family, but currently craving for solo adventure. Anyone looking to meet up?! oh, I’m a 31 female from WA state/USA.

      1. Hey wats up thats sick lol
        I always told tourists the real tour guide is from a local … born and raised in manhattan 20 years already its an amazing city

  10. I’ll be travelling to NYC solo from Dec. 13-19 for my 21st bday. Coming from Canada. Let me know if you’d want to meet up!

    1. Hi Nick,

      Your budget really depends on how much you want to do each day and whether you want to pay more to be centrally located. I always think it’s worth being in a central neighbourhood and in a hotel with less noise, and I would pay more for this rather than be way out of the centre or in a noisy setting. Accommodation aside, I think you could have a mid-comfort solo trip with a few museums and attractions on $50 a day. However, on a tighter budget and sticking to cheaper attractions and restaurants, and stocking up on basics at the local grocery store or Duane Reade, you could get away with $35-40 per day. Remember that things like free city tours are technically free, but require you to tip at the end. You also need to budget for sales tax in shops, and tips in bars and restaurants, as tipping levels are pretty high in the US! Enjoy your trip, and let me know if you have any more questions.

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