Bus tours, harbor cruises, bike tours — the sightseeing landscape in New York City is as crowded as the streets themselves. Yet, many people don’t realize that one of the most authentic, and inexpensive, ways to see the city is by riding public transportation. On board the MTA’s buses and trains, you get to experience the city’s people, as well as building architecture and a wide swath of neighborhoods as they pass by. There won’t be a guide, of course, but if you keep your eyes and your ears open, you’ll definitely learn a thing or two about the Big Apple.
Taking public transit may seem daunting to the inexperienced, but there’s no need to fear. All you need is a MetroCard (get the 7-Day if you plan on taking more than 12 rides) and a map (free in individual stations or download a smartphone app like NYSubView). If you’re taking a bus, exact change is accepted, as well — note that some bus routes now have kiosks on the street to pay your fare, while others have on-board payment. Then, plot your course and you’re off! Just remember to check for service changes, especially on the weekends. To get you started, here are six of New York’s most scenic transit routes — subway and bus — all of which travel above-ground for an up-close view of the city. We assume you’re starting from Midtown, near all major subway line and bus routes, but there are no rules, so hop on (and off) at will and see the city through unvarnished eyes.
Where to get on: From Times Sq. – 42nd St. (entrance at Broadway and 40th Street), catch the Q train downtown towards Brooklyn.
What you’ll see: Start paying attention when the train crosses from Manhattan into Brooklyn over the Manhattan Bridge. The Manhattan skyline will be behind you and the Brooklyn Bridge to your right. The East River, naturally, will be below. The train will temporarily duck underground for three stops, elevating again at the Prospect Park station. At the end of the line (Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue), the above-ground subway swerves around that last corner, where the iconic beach and all of Coney Island comes into focus.
How to get back: At the last stop (Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue), either explore Coney Island or simply stay on board, as the train will reverse and take you back.
Roundtrip: About 1 hour and 40 minutes
Where to get on: On Madison Avenue at 42nd Street, hop on the M4 bus, which will be heading uptown towards Washington Heights/Cloisters.
What you’ll see: Rival to Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue has some of the most prominent designer stores in the world. Even better are their window displays. Look out for Bloomingdales (59th Street), Chanel (63rd Street) and Dolce & Gabbana (69th Street), and among others. The bus skirts the north end of Central Park, passes the Cathedral Church of Saint John Divine and then turns onto Broadway where you’ll go through the Columbia University campus and the Manhattan School of Music. Continuing up through West Harlem and Washington Heights, this rich voyage comes to an end at the beautiful haven the Cloisters (that stop is serviced from 9am to 6pm).
How to get back: Hop off at the last stop and visit The Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval-art branch in Fort Tyron Park. To return, take the M4 bus back the way you came. This time the bus will trek down Fifth Avenue’s Museum Mile and Central Park’s east side. You’ll pass the Jewish Museum (92nd Street), the Guggenheim (between 89th and 88th streets), the Neue Galerie (86th Street), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (between 84th and 80th streets) and the Frick (between 71st and 70th streets).
Roundtrip: About 2 hours and 8 minutes
Where to get on: From 42nd St.-Times Sq. (entrance at 41st Street and 7th Avenue), catch the 7 train uptown towards Queens.
What you’ll see: The 7 starts underground in Manhattan, crosses the East River via a tunnel and then emerges above ground in Queens at Court Square. Elevated until the end of the line, you can see the Manhattan skyline receding in the background and pass by the now whitewashed 5 Pointz, and other borough landmarks such as Citi Field, Flushing-Meadows Park and Silvercup Studios.
How to get back: Leave the confines of your subway car and check out the borough’s Chinatown at the last stop Flushing-Main St. The area is known for its diverse cuisine, including Fu Run and others. If not, stay in place on the last stop, and the train will reverse and take you back to Manhattan.
Roundtrip: About 1 hour and 30 minutes
BxM8 (runs on weekdays to City Island four times daily)
Where to get on: On Madison Avenue at 45th Street, take the BxM8 towards Pelham Bay Westchester Ave via Bruckner Bl. At other hours and on weekends, you can transfer to the Bx29 at Pelham Bay Park.
What you’ll see: The BxM8 is an express bus, which means fewer stops and a higher fare ($6). Begin your journey on Madison Avenue, known for its posh stores. Continue up Third Avenue as the bus weaves through Spanish Harlem, before crossing onto grassy Randall’s Island and then into the Bronx before ending up on City Island, a unique nautical oasis in a borough not known for its quaintness.
How to get back: After exiting the bus, explore City Island, known for its seafood restaurants. To return, board the Bx29 bus on City Island Av/Rochelle St. Take the bus to Bruckner Blvd. /Wilkinson Ave. and transfer to the 6 train. Hop off at Grand Central-42nd St.
Roundtrip: 2 hour and 14 minutes
Staten Island Ferry
Where to get on: From 42nd St.-Times Sq. (entrance on 41st Street and 7th Avenue), catch the 1 train downtown towards South Ferry. Make sure to sit in one of the first five train cars, and get off at the last stop, South Ferry; then walk to the Whitehall Ferry Terminal to take the ferry.
What you’ll see: Running since 1905, the free Staten Island Ferry is a part of many New Yorkers’ morning commutes (60,000 daily), but for visitors it’s also a great way to get to ride the city’s waterways. The 5 mile, 25-minute cruise from Manhattan’s Whitehall Ferry Terminal to the St. George Terminal in Staten Island is the best way to see the Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor and the lower Manhattan skyline without spending a dime.
How to get back: Once you’ve disembarked on Staten Island, head back to the St. George Terminal for the return trip. Disembark in Manhattan, walk to the South Ferry stop and take the 1 train uptown to Van Cortlandt Park-242nd Street. Get off at 42nd Street-Times Square.
Roundtrip: 1 hour and 19 minutes
Roosevelt Island Tram
Where to get on: Take the 4, 5, 6 from Grand Central Station (Park Avenue and 42nd Street) to the 59th Street stop. Get out and walk along 59th Street to Second Avenue and get on the tram.
What you’ll see: The tram transports passengers across the East River into Roosevelt Island Sunday through Thursday from 6am to 2am and Friday and Saturday from 6am to 3:30am. With the swipe of a MetroCard, you can experience an aerial view of Midtown East along its path from 59th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan to Roosevelt Island, located in the East River between Manhattan and Queens.
How to get back: Take your time on Roosevelt Island, home to many historically significant buildings and the FDR Memorial Four Freedoms Park. To return, take the tram back; then enter the 59th St. 4, 5, 6 and head back to Grand Central-42nd St. Make sure to take a minute to check out the world’s largest and one of its most beautiful train stations while at Grand Central.
Roundtrip: 47 minutes