New York City’s world-class cultural institutions, incredible diversity and glamorous aesthetic make it a truly remarkable and one-of-a-kind destination to visit.

As the most populous city in the United States, with over 8.5 million people, taking a minute to jot down a few important public safety measures, etiquette tips and unspoken social rules will make sure one is informed, relaxed and ready to tackle the Big Apple.

Forge new connections on your next adventure with the latest advice from our weekly newsletter.

What to wear in New York City 

A day in New York can easily swing from a walk through cobblestoned downtown neighborhoods, which are best explored in casual wear and sneakers, to catching a ballet performance or living it up on a glamorous night out where more upscale attire is required. Pack both.

It is always better to be overdressed for the event than underdressed in New York City. When in doubt, wear all black or all white for a guaranteed chic monochrome look.

When possible, rely on your credit and debit cards and don’t bring excessive amounts of cash. And, as always, trust yourself and your intuition in all scenarios. It's okay to walk away if something doesn't feel right.

Diners at Katz's Deli
Diners at Katz's Deli © Gary Latham / Lonely Planet

Eating and drinking out in New York

Renowned for its diverse dining options and exceptional restaurant culture, tableside manners and etiquette can run the gamut. 

Be respectful of your neighbors while dining, and be sure to always tip servers – 20% is just enough but not too much – 25% is best for excellent service.

Always dress to the occasion. If it’s a casual restaurant, stay casual. If it’s upscale, up the glamour.  

A restaurant will not deny you entry for wrong attire, but the appropriate dress is a sign of goodwill and respect for the restaurant’s patrons, staff, and hard-working chefs.

New York drinking water is fully potable and safe to drink from all faucets and water fountains citywide. At restaurants, drinking water is free of charge, and your server will refill your glass repeatedly at no cost. 

Best things to do in New York City 

The lowdown on alcohol and marijuana in NYC    

New York banned all smoking in bars and restaurants in 1995, excluding cigar bars that serve recreational cigar smokers as their main source of income. 

Recreational and medicinal marijuana use is legal in New York City, and visitors can smoke marijuana (and carry up to three ounces) anywhere where smoking tobacco is allowed. However, do note that smoking (of any kind) is prohibited in public parks. 

Consumption or possession of an open container of alcohol in public places is prohibited and could result in a fine.   

 A man wearing a rainbow suit and holding a rainbow umbrella in the NYC Pride March.
The LGBTQIA+ community is celebrated in New York City © Andrei Orlov / Shutterstock

LGBTQIA+ culture 

New York City’s claim to fame and best attribute is its incredible diversity with regard to race, religion, faith, nationality and sexual orientation. Inclusiveness is a source of pride for New Yorkers. Chelsea, the East and West Villages are particularly known for their LGBTQIA+ friendly atmospheres as well as pilgrimage sites like Stonewall Inn.

The West Village hosts the city’s annual Pride parade, which is well-attended annually by allied New Yorkers from all five boroughs. 

New York is a city which invites everyone to just be themselves, from its wholehearted embrace of the LGBTQIA+ community to its diverse representation of all nationalities city and borough-wide.

How to get around New York City 

A man walks his dog in front of street art at the corner of Bleecker and Bowery.
Walking, cycling and by public transport are how most locals get around © Guillaume Gaudet / Lonely Planet

Safety tips for visitors  

Gender discrimination and all discriminatory harassment based on race or origin is strictly illegal in New York City. Catcalling and incidents of discriminatory harassment should be reported by calling "311."

Though crime and disproportionate policing is largely linked to areas far from tourism regions, a September 2020 study by researchers at New York’s renowned John Jay School of Criminal Justice found that African American city-dwellers were twice as likely to be stopped by police than any other group. Likewise, crimes against Asian-American New Yorkers were up 353% from 2020 to 2021. As in any major urban area, watch out for aggression from potentially unpredictable people.

Interactions with police 

Due to isolated incidents of summer crime in the midtown area in recent years, police presence has significantly increased in the Times Square, Midtown, Hell’s Kitchen and the Hudson Yards neighborhoods, which for some people adds to the overall feeling of safety and security in these regions.

If you feel unsafe in any given scenario and want to call the police – “911” is the number to call for both police and ambulance service. And, as always, be kind and respectful to your fellow citizens and to law enforcement.  

A driver helping a man in an electric wheelchair on a bus in Lower Manhattan.
All five boroughs of the city have more work to do for equal access for everyone © Jeff Greenberg / Universal Images Group via Getty

Accessibility is a challenge in New York

New York City is a concrete jungle, and as a result, most visitors and residents get around on the subway or by walking. The majority of inhabitants don’t own a car, and the city still has a very long way to go with regard to catering to people with different needs, such as ramps and wheelchair access.

Wheelchair-friendly subway stations exist but are unique to high-traffic hubs. Many of the city’s 472 subway stations lack elevators and ramps.

One hundred and twenty-four stations offer full access for visitors with a walking impediment and, although a valiant effort, all five boroughs of the city have their work cut out for them with regards to true and equal access for the individuals with physical disabilities.

Street smarts and subway safety

Paying attention to all aspects of street and pedestrian activity is paramount. The city’s drivers and bikers are notorious for fast driving. Obey all walk signs and watch bike lanes vigilantly for oncoming riders. 

Below street level, 5.5 million riders use the subway daily so crowded platforms require extra precaution. Never enter the subway tracks under any circumstances, even if you drop something – they are live-wired with high-voltage electricity. 

Always stand a few feet or more from the subway platform edge.

Panhandlers are also common on the subways, and it is illegal to give them cash. However, I often see homeless outreach services and churches perusing carriages, offering sandwiches, snacks, and drinks to the needy on the subways – it is beautiful to witness. 

It is also the height of city etiquette to always offer your seat to anyone who is elderly, pregnant or in any way physically disabled. As the classic New York Metro Transit Authority quote states, “Courtesy is contagious and it begins with you.”

This article was first published August 2021 and updated June 2023

Buy Ultimate United States Travel List

For the first time ever, Lonely Planet's experts have compiled the USA's 500 most memorable, beautiful, surprising and compelling experiences. Ponder the scope of the Grand Canyon, delve into the history of a nation of immigrants at Ellis Island or wander across architectural grandeur at Golden Gate Bridge. Where will you go next?

Buy Ultimate United States Travel List

Explore related stories