Don't be intimidated by the big crowds and bigger buildings. New York can be a friendly and manageable city for visitors if you heed some of this time-tested advice.
1. Don't be afraid to wander. Start spreading the news: New York is the safest big city in the United States. Gone are the days when people were warned not to venture into Alphabet City or the Lower East Side. Pretty much nowhere in Manhattan is off-limits – though it's still an urban area, so do use your common sense (for instance, you may not want to walk around at 3 a.m. by your lonesome). Most of Manhattan, with the exception of a few downtown neighborhoods like the West Village, the Lower East Side and Battery Park, is laid out on a grid system with very few hills, making it extremely easy to find your way around. In fact, a highlight of your trip will likely be strolling the streets gazing at the fascinating people, buildings and sights that pop up on every corner.
2. Take the 'A' (and the 'B' and the 'C'…) train. Though the New York subway system is ancient – the first underground line started running in 1904 – the trains are well-marked and surprisingly fast, often a better bet than cabs if you're trying to cross the city from east to west or vice versa, or traveling during the morning or evening rush hours. The subways do run 24 hours a day, but if you're alone, you may feel more comfortable taking a taxi after midnight, though you'll find many people still riding the rails. Try HopStop.com to figure out which subway line will help you reach your destination fastest, but keep in mind that there can be a lot of routes re-routed or closed for maintenance, especially on weekends, so also check the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's website for the latest subway route updates. Tip: The 7-day unlimited ride MetroCard is usually a good deal so you don't spend $2 on MetroCards each time you hop on the train.
3. Eat dinner early – or late. When New Yorkers eat out, they like to take their dinner between 8 and 10 p.m. If you want to eat at the same places they do, it's best to make a reservation in advance – at least a week ahead of time for most places and a full month ahead for perpetually booked favorites such as Daniel, Babbo and Le Bernardin – and to go for an evening between Sunday and Wednesday rather than the always-crowded Thursday through Saturday. But if you've left things till the last minute, try calling a day or two ahead and reserving a table either for before 7 p.m. or after 10:30 p.m., which exponentially increases your chances of getting seated, even at the hottest spots in town. Of course, this tactic won't work at the handful of trendy restaurants that don't take reservations in advance, like Momofuku, Boqueria and Bar Jamon. There, you'll have to queue up with the rest of the ravenous foodie masses.
4. The world on a menu. New York City houses so much diversity of cuisines that it's a shame to stick to tourist neighborhoods or chain restaurants you probably have at home. Travel to some of the city's ethnic enclaves to sample delicious, cheap and authentic fare. In Queens, an easy subway or cab ride from Manhattan, there's renowned Indian food in Jackson Heights (the area's Jackson Diner is regularly rated some of the best Indian food in NYC) and hard-to-find Egyptian cuisine in the "Little Cairo" neighborhood of Astoria. Astoria is also home to many old-time Greek restaurants, primarily situated on Broadway or Ditmars Blvd. You can have a more authentic Italian meal on Arthur Ave. in the Bronx than in the tourist-clogged streets of Manhattan's Little Italy, and it's hard to beat the soul food found in Harlem, including the famed, family-run Sylvia's. Consider expanding your boundaries with a guided neighborhood food tour, such as one offered by Savory Sojourns and run by Addie Tomei, mother of Marissa.
5. Scout out the smaller shops. It's nearly impossible to visit one of the fashion capitals of the world and not drop some dough on clothes, shoes and other goodies (unless you have a lot of willpower!). But don't just confine yourself to the shopping meccas of SoHo and Fifth Avenue, though each does have its own New York charm — SoHo for its beautiful 19th-century cast iron buildings and Fifth Avenue for its elegant department stores and proximity to Central Park. Head to the Lower East Side to check out intimate boutiques that feature local designers as well as trendy new and vintage pieces that you can't find anywhere else. You'll also find special shops sprinkled throughout the downtown neighborhoods of the West Village, the East Village and Nolita, as well as across the East River in artsy Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
6. Buy-buy Broadway. With the opening of Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein last year, the top price of a Broadway ticket reached $450 for the first time ever. Though this is an extreme case, it's difficult to find a seat at a popular Broadway show for less than $100 nowadays. A couple of options can save you money: Sign up for the free discount ticket listings at www.theatermania.com and www.playbill.com, which offer savings on advance ticket purchases for select Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. Or get in line at a TKTS Discount Booth on the day you want to see a performance to save up to 50% on a variety of plays. (Tip: The South St. Seaport location is usually a lot less busy than the Times Square one, and only there can you purchase tickets the day before for matinees.) That said, if there's a particular Broadway show you've set your heart on, buy tickets as far in advance as possible (and be prepared to spend top-dollar). If your show's sold out, check out the online ticket brokers such as www.stubhub.com or www.razorgator.com, where people sell extra seats or re-sell ones they won't be using.
7. Hear the music. It's tough to claim boredom in New York. Every night of the week you can listen to world-class musicians of all types in venues across the city, from classic settings like Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and Radio City Music Hall to gritty downtown (or, increasingly, Brooklyn) rock clubs to traditional jazz bars (though the era of the traditional smoky bar is over, since smoking was banned at bars and clubs in 2003). You can find indie rock events listed at www.ohmyrockness.com, classical music events at www.classicaldomain.com and jazz at www.gothamjazz.com. Best of all, some of these concerts are free of charge, especially in the summer months.
8. Pack your running shoes. On the weekends, Central Park closes to traffic and becomes a huge open-air running (and biking and inline skating) track. Enjoy the prime people-watching as you exercise, or opt for other scenic paths along Riverside Park on Manhattan's Upper West Side, along the Hudson River heading downtown to Battery Park, on a trail next to the East River, or across the Brooklyn Bridge. Though it's more comfortable to run in the spring or fall, you'll find many hardy New Yorkers braving the extreme heat and humidity of summer or the bitter chill of winter for their outdoor fitness fix.
9. Don't crowd yourself out. A lot of tourists (and relatives visiting local family members) who come to NYC can't get over how crowded the city is. The crazy secret about New York is that many locals can't stand crowds – which is why they stay away, at all costs, from Macy's anytime except weekday evenings, holiday store windows and Rockefeller Center between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and Times Square whenever humanly possible (except when they must venture over there to work or to catch a show). While you may want to see these iconic parts of New York City, consider planning your visit so that you're not hitting the big department stores, say, the week before Christmas – unless you think that braving hordes of pushy people is part of that old-fashioned New York City charm. (And it really isn't!)
10. Mind your city etiquette. Unfortunately, tourists have a reputation for doing a few things that drive New Yorkers crazy: taking up the entire sidewalk so that other walkers can't pass; coming to a complete stop at the top or in the middle of the subway stairs, thus blocking the way down; looking over a shoulder or down at a guidebook while ambling straight ahead, thus sideswiping people walking toward them. New Yorkers like to walk quickly with a purposeful strut and are often in (or appear to be in) a hurry. Respect their sense of purpose and be mindful of the space around you – and you'll win renewed respect for tourists from the world over! On the other hand, if you need directions or if you drop something on the subway or sidewalk, New Yorkers will be the first to run after you, offering their assistance. They really are nice folk, after all.
Liz Humphreys is the author of USATODAY.com's New York City Guide.