Tourist Traps in New York to Watch Out for

By Stuart Bak

Want to avoid the Big Apple taking a bite from you rather than, you know, the other way around? Our guide to the tourist traps to watch out for in New York is here to help! We’re talking cartoonish scams on Times Square, totally avoidable Empire State Building queues, and the perks of side-swerving Central Park. Read on for our whistle stop guide to New York's most notorious tourist traps, plus how to avoid them and what to do instead…

New York Tourist Traps: The Statue of Liberty

Man photographing the Statue of Liberty

We know, we know, but hear us out! Of course we understand that you can’t go to New York without checking out the Green Goddess at close quarters. That would be crazy, right? Right. But there are good ways and bad ways of experiencing *the* emblem of American freedom.

Case in point: it'll set you back a cool $20+ to disembark with the tourist hordes at Ellis Island, have a poke around the so-so Immigration Museum then spend the next half hour taking awkward selfies that, at such proximity to Lady Liberty, are always doomed to failure. Sure, you can climb the spiral staircase inside to get a view from the statue’s crown. But a) there’s an additional charge for that; b) there are 354 steps and c) you can’t actually see the Statue of Liberty from here because, well, you’re inside it.

Novelty souvenir rubber ducks including one as the Statue of Liberty

Our advice? Save your time and dime and avoid this classic NYC tourist trap. There are fine views of the statue to be had from all over Manhattan: try the Brooklyn Bridge or indeed any observation platform (of which there are many). Better yet, take the free – yes, free – Staten Island Ferry for a 25-minute round-trip across New York Harbor that affords some of the best views of the Statue of Liberty in town. It runs 24/7, year-round, so there are plenty of opportunities to travel in lull periods. Oh, and did we mention it’s free?

New York Tourist Traps: Times Square

Times Square street sign and yellow NYC cab

Like innocent moths to a particularly gaudy flame, tourists are drawn to Times Square in their multitudes. You can spot them a mile off: slightly bamboozled expressions, phone cameras held gormlessly aloft as they clog the sidewalks, all eager to secure that essential Insta-perfect selfie. But tourist traps don’t come much more crass, crowded and over-commercialized than Times Square. 

Astronomical prices at glossy-looking chain restaurants like the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and Olive Garden should be matched by out-of-this-world food. Alas you’re paying a premium for location only, and the distinctly average food is likely to bring you down to earth with a bump. Even the legendary Magnolia Bakery dessert store just isn’t worth the looooong wait.

Store selling souvenir NYC snow globes

Stores hawk overpriced souvenir tat that’s seemingly designed to self-destruct five seconds after purchase and Broadway tickets offered by street touts at prices that seem too good to be true are precisely that. After all, $50 is *a lot* to fork out for a souvenir fake Hamilton ticket.

Wanna see Mickey Mouse drop character and morph into a pushy, big-eared street rat? Course you do! Times Square is overrun with third-rate Mickeys, Donalds, Elmos, and Marvel and DC superheroes, i.e. characters designed to appeal to kids. None of these are affiliated to the entertainment companies that spawned them and all of them will try to trick you into having your photo taken with them before aggressively demanding ‘tips’ for their troubles. Avoid, avoid, and furthermore, avoid!

New York Tourist Traps: Empire State Building

Manhattan skyline including the Empire State Building

The image of King Kong clinging to his beloved Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) and batting away airplanes from atop of the Empire State Building is one of the most iconic in movie history. But does that mean you should visit this Art Deco monolith? No, dear reader, it does not. Sure, it’s an architectural masterpiece and yep, it’s bucket list material for sure. But popularity means queues as long as the tower is tall (1,453 feet). Ok maybe not quite that long, but you get the general idea. Prices are also sky high, and increase the higher up the tower you want to go. In short: it’s a classic New York tourist trap. But if astronomical prices, super-long queues, and being crammed into elevators like sardines is your thing, then go for it!

Alternatively, johnny-come-lately observation platforms like Edge and Summit One Vanderbilt offer more modern, multi-sensory experiences as well as – perhaps critically – boasting views of the Empire State Building itself. Try the City Climb at Edge for a knee-knocking al fresco stroll across the roof of one of NYC’s tallest skyscrapers. Or enjoy rather more down-to-earth views from the Brooklyn Bridge, a New York must-see in its own right.

New York Tourist Traps: Central Park

Busy Bethesda Terrace in Central Park, New York

Central Park is free to visit, and don’t the tourists (and scammers) just know it! It’s amazing how a tract of land that’s many times the size of Monaco, more vast than the Vatican City, and could fit upwards of 600 football fields can feel so incredibly… busy. Tourists flock to this Big Apple centerpiece for its indisputably fine collection of attractions. To wit: a cute miniature castle that doubles as a weather station, a tranquil memorial to John Lennon, the gorgeous neoclassical Bethesda Terrace and Fountain, and the extraordinary Metropolitan Museum of Art. And that’s just for starters.

Central Park pedicabs

Pedicab drivers swarm the paths, charming unsuspecting tourists into taking rides that will likely end up costing you anywhere from $5-11 per minute! Frankly you might be quicker if you walk. You’ll certainly be richer. In summary: if crowds ain’t your bag, give Central Park a wide berth. In spite of its huge size, you’ll be hard-pushed to find a quiet spot here at any time of year.

Instead, hit up the equally pleasant (and far less busy) Hudson River Park (great for cycling!) or Brooklyn’s pretty Prospect Park. The latter was designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, the celebrated 19th-century architects who were also responsible for – yup, you guessed it – our old pal Central Park. Prospect is a little over half the size of its more famous cousin and provides a tranquil retreat from the madness of the city, counting sprawling areas of woodland, great meadows, a lake, a zoo and a carousel among its many charms.

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Exploring New York’s Upper West Side

New York’s endless and diverse neighborhoods give the city its character; the Upper East Side, for instance, is vastly different than SoHo. Here, we've got tips for exploring New York’s Upper West Side. From pastries to parks, we've got where you should go. Café Lalo When you explore New York’s Upper West Side, you’re going to get hungry. And you may well want something sweet. If the inside of Café Lalo looks familiar and you haven’t actually been there before, that’s probably because you’ve seen it in a movie – it co-starred in You’ve Got Mail, with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. The lovely cafe has a European vibe and a fabulous array of pastries. (They also have a bar, a brunch and food menu that’s served all day, and live music.) But you’re there for a capuccino and some Grand Marnier mousse. Or a piece of German chocolate cake. Or...what the heck, just have them all. Riverside Park New York’s Upper West Side has no shortage of parks. Stretching for four miles along the Hudson River, Riverside Park (hence is name) includes a beautiful promenade, sports fields and tennis courts, dog runs, playgrounds, bike paths, and plenty of green space for hanging out. It’s just about the prettiest waterfront park in the city, and the wide promenade has a distinctly European feel. Go to picnic, to skateboard, to gaze at the marina on 79th street, or simply to sit on a park bench or wander. Lincoln Center The premiere arts venue in New York City is one of the premiere spots in the entire country to hear opera, watch dance, enjoy world-class theater, and partake of a family program. (It even has its own branch of the Public Library.) In one venue you can watch the New York City Ballet dance The Nutcracker every winter; listen to lectures about films (and watch actual films); or check out the White Lights Festival, which explores global themes and cultural intersections. Plus there’s the iconic outside fountain (great for a photo op), and the nearby atrium that offers free programs. If you’re exploring New York’s Upper West Side, Lincoln Center should be on your list. Cathedral of St. John the Divine Do you know where the largest cathedral in the world is located? Nope, it’s not Paris, or Vienna, or London. It’s right here in New York City—it’s the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The cathedral is renowned for its spectacular architecture, its inclusive and welcoming programs, and the peacocks that roam its grounds. (Yes, you read that correctly.) You can participate in a family program, attend a crafts show, or attend a Blessing of the Bikes service (yes, really.) No matter what your goal, it’s worth a trip; it’s literally jaw-dropping. American Museum of Natural History Exploring The American Museum of Natural History is truly one of New York’s great pleasures. The main attraction, of course, is the dinosaur skeletons, but they’ve also got (live) butterflies and metorites, the giant blue whale replica, and exhibits that focus on the natural and scientific worlds. You could practically spend the entire day in the Planetarium, or in the history of evolution, or wandering through the animal dioramas. It is truly a “something for everyone” kind of place. And don’t miss the dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets in the cafeteria! (And if you want tips for more fun days out, we've got them here. Zabar's True fact: There are people who live in New York who have been to the Upper West Side to visit only two places: Lincoln Center (see above) and Zabar’s, the specialty food store in the West 80s on Broadway. It’s probably the most famous specialty store in New York, having been opened in 1934, and since then supposedly having introduced New Yorkers to brie and sundried tomatoes, among other foods considered exotic at the time. These days, you can get your Sunday-morning lox and bagels, your lunchtime salad, your New Year’s Eve caviar, the entrée to serve your in-laws, and the cookie to munch on for a snack, plus breads, coffee, olives, soups, Zabar’s merchandise, and more. The store itself is loud and crowded—but you won’t leave empty-handed. All in all, it’s a quintessential New York experience, and something you must include when exploring New York’s Upper West Side. If exploring some of the Northern part of the city has given you a hankering to see more, check out Greenwich Village! Pick up a New York Pass® and get out exploring the very best the Big Apple has offer! You'll make great savings using the pass vs paying at the gate.
Go City Expert
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Tips to make the most of Christmas in New York

Tips for preparing for your Christmas trip to New York It'll be around 40 degrees or lower, so make sure you pack warm clothes and a jacket. If you plan to make the most of the Christmas markets or take a walking tour, wear a pair of shoes that will be kind to your feet – stilettos need not apply. If you're planning on loading up on artisanal gifts, make sure you take a bag to ensure you're an eco-conscious traveler. There are a number of camera-catching moments during the holiday season in New York, so don't forget to bring your camera! If you choose to be dazzled by the high kicks and the glamor of New York's Christmas shows, polish your dress shoes and iron your shirt. Ice-skating at the Rockefeller Center is perhaps the city's most famous seasonal spot. The lines can drag on for hours, so reserve your ice time at Bryant Parks winter village. Bring your Christmas wish list – you never know when you might bump into Santa. If you're scared of not bumping into Santa, visit Macy's Santaland to see the big guy himself. If you only have a few days in New York it can be overwhelming when thinking about what to see and do. Plan your trip and experience the top attractions – The New York Pass can help you decide which attractions to explore. Our favorite Christmas attractions in New York Holiday shopping in Bryant Park The holiday shops at Bryant Park are on pretty much everyone's list of must-do holiday experiences in the city. Inspired by open-air European Crafts fairs, the market features vendors from literally all around the world. The little kiosks offer the same kind of choice as full-sized shops and feature goods ranging from African baskets to one-of-a-kind jewelry handcrafted in Brooklyn. Columbus Circle Holiday Market With its festive, candy-striped booths, the Columbus Circle Market is visually one of the most appealing holiday markets. Located right across from the Time Warner Center and nestled into the entrance to Central Park, it's also in an ideal location, easily accessed by public transportation. Browse jewelry, home goods, crafts, and food to find something for just about everyone on your list. Take a tour There's no better way to get into the holiday spirit than by taking a guided tour of New York's best traditional markets. Learn about the city's Christmas traditions. Take in the holiday lights. Wander around movie locations of your favorite festive movies. You'll also have the opportunity to browse artisanal goods, local art and winter attire stalls while enjoying traditional foods and indulgent desserts. With your New York Pass, you'll be able to enjoy this tour without paying more than the pass price. Journey down Fifth Avenue to see the department stores lit up before hitting up markets from Bryant Park's Winter Village where you can also use your pass to get in a spot of ice skating. For more things to do in New York, check out what attractions you can get with The New York Pass: you'll pay nothing but the pass price.
Kirsten McCroskrie

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