Subway FAQ: Self-Guided Subway Tour Ideas
So, you're in New York City from out of town and you have some time to kill riding the subway. Here are some tips and some subway fan's ideas for where to go and see the best sights.
Is it safe? Yes. You'll find the New York subway is not what you're familiar with from seeing it on TV. It isn't the crime ridden, graffiti infested thing commonly depicted in movies anymore. Overall crime rates are way down and the subway system's maintenance standards are relatively high (certainly compared to the low point in the early 1980s).
What neighborhoods/stations should I avoid? This is really a matter you need to answer for yourself depending on how comfortable you are in different types of areas. Use common sense. Keep your wallet put away and your camera close at hand. Don't get in people's way. Don't bring anything with you that you don't need. If you're traveling from overseas, find some other safe place for your passport. If you look and act like you know you don't belong somewhere, you're an easier target. While there is very little risk of getting mugged, play it safe. As for what areas are safer than others, chances are you are not going to be exiting the subway in those areas and walking around anyway. All the trains are safe during "daytime" hours (loosely defined, daytime is 5:00 am to midnight). There are some areas that I feel wary leaving trains and milling around the stations, most particularly the A, C, and G lines in Brooklyn. I feel that the elevated stations seem more safe than the underground stations.
The rule of thumb is: don't leave the stations if you aren't familiar with the area! This is not to say that exploring is inherently unsafe. Just use some common sense. After all, late at night, when ridership and train frequency declines, you'll be back in your hotel room anyway.
As you ride around, you'll undoubtedly need to stop off for food and comfort breaks. I can personally vouch for the outer terminals of the 1 (Van Cortlandt Park), 6 (Pelham Bay Park), 7 (Flushing Main Street), A (Rockaway Park), B/D/F/N (Stillwell Avenue), B/D (205th Street), J/Z/E (Jamaica). These are safe areas with plenty of food places to enjoy a mid-ride repast. Before you embark on your journey, buy a Metrocard Fun Pass (good for one person for boardings all day long), and familiarize yourself with the map of the system so you have a rough idea of where you're going and where you need to make transfers. This will avoid you being caught without a fare or looking like you don't know where you are or where you are going.
Itinerary contributed by David Pirmann
Here's a one-day itinerary that assumes you start very early, and concentrates on some elevated lines. Pick a day with good weather!
- Assuming you are staying in a Midtown hotel, start from 34th St. & 6th Avenue on the BMT Broadway Line and take the "Q" or "Q express" train to Brooklyn. Stay on the train all the way to Prospect Park. Along the way you will have an express run down Broadway then a ride across the Manhattan Bridge.
- Heading down the BMT Brighton Line, stop off at Prospect Park and ride the Franklin Shuttle to Franklin Avenue and back. This line has recently been renovated head-to-toe. The tunnel entrance on the way back is the site of the Malbone Street Wreck.
- Get back on the southbound B train (or Q, for a front-window view), and keep your eyes open along the scenic Brighton Line. At Coney Island, watch the trains from the pedestrian overpass for a while or perhaps stop at Nathan's (outside the station at the corner of Stillwell and Surf Avenues) for an early lunch.
- Then, take the "F" train northbound from Stillwell. Stop at Smith/9th Street and enjoy the view there (the highest point on the elevated system).
- Get back on the "F" to Roosevelt Avenue in Queens. You could take the "G" train instead but I think the "F" will be faster even though it goes into Manhattan and back out. Transfer to the #7 - IRT Flushing Line - toward Flushing and get off at Willets Point/Shea Stadium. Walk toward the World's Fairgrounds on the bridge and take a look at Corona Yard.
- Ride the #7 back to Roosevelt. If you didn't have lunch yet, there's lots of places for lunch right around Roosevelt Ave. station. Switch to the "E" to Jamaica Center, and switch to a "J" or "Z" train to Broadway/East New York. Take a look at the junctions from the "L" train platform.
- Go down to the "A" train platform and ride a Far Rockaway train all the way out to Far Rockaway. (The ride out and back will take almost two hours but the view is tremendous. Skip it if the weather is not nice!)
- Ride back on the "A" train all the way to Fulton Street, Manhattan. Transfer at Fulton Street to the #4 or #5 uptown to Brooklyn Bridge. Ride the original IRT line north to Grand Central. Get off there for dinner in the new markets inside the terminal.
- If you're still eager for more, ride the Shuttle across to Times Square, then take a #1 train up to the north end of Manhattan. The stations at 96th, 125th, 168th, 181st, Dyckman Streets are particularly interesting all for different reasons.
Itinerary contributed by Mark Feinman
- The #7 line from 42nd St/Times Square to Main St, Flushing, Queens. Try to time your trip to Main Street during rush hour so you can enjoy the express ride from Queensboro Plaza to Main St. If you really like standing at the "railfan window, be advised that it is available only to Main Street - the R-62A series has the full width cabs on Manhattan-bound trains and the hald-cabs on Queens-bound trains. If you're going to stop for photos, consider Queensboro Plaza (multi-level elevated station transferring with the N train), 111th St (junction with Willets Point Yard, express track rises to a second level) and Mets/Willets Point (exit train onto footbridge into Flushing Meadows Park and cross over Willets Point Yard).
- The Brighton Line (B/Q) into Coney Island, Brooklyn. Be advised that through 2009 and 2010, many of the Brighton Line's stations are undergoing complete rebuilds, so there is no express service on the line at this time. Many stations are being skipped between Newkirk Ave and Brighton Beach. The Brighton line has different types of running: over the Manhattan Bridge (suspension bridge over the East River), tunnel, open cut, elevated ROW and typical EL south of Neptune Ave into Coney Island). The double-decked El structure between West 8th St and Stillwell Ave has always been one of my favourites to photograph. The R-68s that are used on the D line do not have the railfan window, although sometimes the window into the train operator's cab is not obstructed with a sign or jacket. Suggested photo locations include Beverley Road from the Coney Island bound platform, Ave J for the runbys, Brighton Beach, Ocean Pkwy (facing West 8th St), West 8th St and Coney Island - Stillwell Ave. There's an overpass at Stillwell Ave over all the lines that terminate there (4 lines D/F/N/Q, all terminating at Island Platforms). Go to Nathan's for lunch - a Coney Island institution for over 75 years. And take a walk on the Coney Island Boardwalk (head East towards Brighton Beach). The return trip from Coney Island can be up to you. If you like mostly open cut running, use the N train. The N is running all new trains now (R-160s). If you like mostly elevated running, return with the F (with a nice trip over the Smith St viaduct, highest point in the system not counting suspension bridges). You could also take the D (which is my preference) with a winding route through Brooklyn and a nice express run between 36th St and Pacific Street.
- Take the #2 train to 241 St / White Plains Road, Wakefield, the Bronx. Nice long elevated stretch through the Bronx. Photo opportunity at E 180 St. Overpass connecting Bronx and Manhattan bound platforms at Southern end of station giving nice views of the El approaching from the south. Photostop recommendations are East 180th Street, E Tremont Ave, Bronx Park East, East 238th Street / Nereid Ave and Pelham Parkway.
- Runners Up: The J line from Broad/Wall Sts to Parsons/Archer. Long El through Brooklyn and Queens. Also the spur from Myrtle Ave to Metropolitan Ave along the M route. Lots of old El structure to be seen, some dating back to the turn of the century. Consider buyinh a fun pass and walking parts of this line between Marcy Ave and Myrtle Ave. The fleet on these lines consists mostly of R-143s with only an occasional R-40 now. The N train to Coney Island has some interesting views as it goes right through the Coney Island Yard. That offers a view of a facility normally not available to the public.
- Also make the Transit Museum in downtown Brooklyn a required stop when you're here. No other place like it (other than the London Underground museum at Covent Garden, London, England).
From some of the field trips I've taken previously, I'd recommend the following stops:
- West 8th Street (D,F). Exit the station, proceed on the overpass to the Boardwalk & Aquarium, stop about mid-way across Surf Avenue. Also from Stillwell-Ave bound D platform, there's a good shot up the F-line looking towards Neptune Ave - Van Sicklen.
- Stillwell Ave, anywhere. (Take a trip on the Wonder Wheel's stationary cars for a good view of the subway lines.) Also tops my list of where to go for a quick bite with the world-famous Nathan's available to you across the street from Stillwell Ave. Station.
- Bway Jct - East New York (L,J,Z). Great shots available of the massive above-ground junction and of the Easy NY yard. (A/C also stops here in the subway.)
- Queensboro Plaza (N,7). Anywhere near the station. Great shots of N's rounding the curve from Queensboro Plaza hearing to Astoria. Also, walk partway onto the Queensboro Bridge and watch N/W trains exiting the 60th Street portalonto the elevated structure.
- Astoria Blvd (Hoyt Ave) - wide open shot of virtually entire station from the street and Ditmars Blvd - Astoria (both N/W lines), where the connection to the Hell Gate Bridge passes over the elevated terminal.
- 111th St (7 line), express track runs above local platforms, yard lead from east end of platform.
- The Bronx
- Elder Avenue (6 line). Get there when morning rush hour is almost over and there will be lots of #6 locals heading back to Pelham Bay Park or 177th St. East end of Pelham-bound platform affords a good view up the 6 line.
Some other highlights
- Marcy Avenue (J/M/Z) and Myrtle Avenue (J/M/Z)
- Anywhere on the Brighton Line (Cortelyou Road/Ave. H are nice)
- Whitlock Avenue (6)
- East 180th Street, Gun Hill Road (2/5)
- Dyre Avenue Line (5)
- 9th Avenue/36-38th St. Yard area (B/M)
- Williamsburg & Manhattan Bridge runs... (J/M/Z, and B/D/Q respectively)
Some other highlights, off the subway:
- Penn Station; west end of tracks 11 and 12 offers a good view of trains coming from/going to New Jersey, with double ladder tracks on each side.
- Grand Central; labryinthine! Take a walk all around the various platform levels; use the elevators to take you to other lesser known areas.
- PATH to Newark: Twisty-turny tunnels, two drawbridges, a long, fast straightaway through the middle of freight and passenger rail yards, and the 1930s WPA Newark Penn Station.
- While in Newark, don't miss the Newark, New Jersey Light Rail/City Subway, a trolley operation built in the right of way of a former canal bed.
- On the way back from Newark, stop at Exchange Place station and take a ride on the New Jersey Transit Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, the region's first new trolley line since the 1930s Newark Subway!
- At 97th Street & Park Ave. there is an overpass over the Metro-North main line providing good spotting opportunities during rush hour (less frequent service off peak).