A Washingtonian Guide to Navigating the NYC Subway


I lived in DC for 11 years and just recently moved to New York City. As of yesterday I no longer own a car which means I’ve learned to find my way around town without a set of wheels. I wrote the following guide for a friend who’s coming from DC to visit. I figured he’s probably not the only one who could benefit from it, so here you go. A few tips on getting around Manhattan and Brooklyn:

In general Google Maps is terrific for finding your way. Just select “Public Transit” as your mode and let the directions do the rest. Here’s an example. I would recommend sticking to just the subway lines at first, but if you’re feeling adventurous the bus system is pretty straightforward also.

You’ll need to purchase a metro card from one of the MTA vending machines found near most of the entry gates inside the station. You can use the same card for both the subway and the bus. The fare is the same price ($2.50) regardless of where you’re going, and you only have to swipe it upon entry (not exit).

Here’s a downloadable subway map. There’s an app for Android that is very handy.

The NYC Subway is very different from the DC Metro in a few key ways:

  1. The destination can vary at different points along the route. Typically they list the next major neighborhood or borough they are going to. For example: it may say “Trains to Uptown” …or Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, etc.” This is where Google Maps is especially helpful because the directions will tell you which way to go.
  2. Not all entrances are created equal. There is not a consistent look to all the subway stations –unlike DC, it’s not always obvious where the entrance is, so you may need to look closely. Often it’s a stairwell with a little green railing around it, but sometimes it’s inside a building or breezeway. Additionally, you’ll need to read carefully which direction the subway is going before you walk down the steps to enter the station. Generally the trains will follow the same direction as traffic, so if the entrance is on the right side of a road that’s going north, the trains are probably going that way as well. Sometimes you can get to the other side of the platform underground, but not always. The sign will typically tell you where the other entrance is or if you can walk to it from within the station.
  3. Possibly the biggest difference is that system is much more complex. DC’s most complicated station is L’Enfant Plaza because there are tracks going in two directions on two different levels. Some of the bigger stations in NYC have 4 or 5 different levels and a whole mess of tunnels connecting them. When you enter the station look for signs on the ceiling showing where to walk for the appropriate line. Keep following (and trusting) the signs on the ceiling and no one will know you’re not a New Yorker.
  4. There are express trains and there are local trains. If you look closely at the subway map you will see stops represented as white dots and black dots. The white dots are where the express trains stop. The local trains will stop at both the black and white dots. Additionally, under the name of each stop you will see a few small letters and numbers that show exactly which lines stop there.
  5. Several stops have the same names, but they’re on different lines. For example, there are five separate stations all named “23rd Street.” They are not the same stop, and they’re not connected. Double check the intersection before you plan your trip. There’s nearly a mile between 23rd on the C train and 23rd on the 6 train.

Here’s a couple other things to keep in mind:

  • Your cell phone won’t work in the subway, so don’t rely on pulling up directions en route. I will usually put my phone on airplane mode so it doesn’t waste battery searching for a signal.
  • The buses and trains run 24 hours. However they are not nearly as frequent at night or on the weekends.
  • You can eat and drink on the subway.
  • The trains, platforms, and tunnels are smaller than they are in DC. It’s not claustrophobia inducing, there’s just a reduction of personal space.
  • Not all stations have screens displaying when the next train will come.
  • Taxis are fairly cheap and easy to find in Manhattan. Brooklyn is kind of a different story.

I’ll update this post as I learn more, but please feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments. I hope this helps!