Nowhere else in New York causes more controversy, from a tourism perspective than Times Square. The beating heart of the City the square is loved and loathed in equal measure. Locals steer well clear, Veteran Tourists and “Expert Travel Guides” will advise you to avoid it. Times Square appears on all “worst of” lists and is frequently cited as one of the most disappointing Travel Destinations! It is the poster child for Disappointing Vacation destinations, yet 130 Million+ people visit the square every year, with a daily footfall of over 360,000 every day.
That is an enormous number of disappointed tourists if the Square is as awful as the “experts” maintain! Something is a-miss, it just doesn’t add up. If the square was a hideous tourist trap visitor numbers would go down not up, yet the square still attracts higher visitor numbers than Disneyworld! In our Times Square Survival Guide, we take you through what it is really like Visiting Times Square NYC, What to Expect, What to Avoid, How to get out “alive”, the Traps and Pitfalls, along with the good and the Highlights.
We will start off with the questions most people ask, and then explain how we came to our answer, before looking at all the ways you can make your Times Square Visit far more rewarding so you don’t come away hating the place and joining the chorus of people who bad mouth the area.
What exactly is Times Square?
One of the first things we all want to do in New York is Visit Times Square. Along with the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and Central Park, the bright lights of Times Square are at the top of everyone’s list. But few take a second to really think about what is it? Why are we visiting?
We feel this is where a lot of the disappointment comes from. People go in with unrealistic expectations and find the reality is not really what they expected. After all Times Square isn’t really anything!
The Square is really just a clearing in the concrete jungle, two large Boulevards, Broadway and 7th Avenue, cross paths and the resulting confluence creates a gap, two city streets wide, where the towering concrete canyons open up. This small break in the endless towering skyscrapers has been adopted as the spiritual center of the City. Towering electronic billboards light the square with a dizzying array of adverts, and throngs of people pack into the square to join the queues for mundane activities such as entering a restaurant or crossing a road!
The Name Times Square comes from the days when the New York Times had its main headquarters in the One Times Square Building. The name has stuck ever since, even though the Times moved out and the Square is anything but Square. Technically the Square is the junction of Bradway and 7tha and runs between 47th and 4nd Street. But there is no defined boundary and what can be considered Times Square is very liberal. Many “Times Square” Hotels, Bars, and Restranunts are well outside the actual Times Square definition.
Unlike most cities’ central squares there is no natural focal point such as a cathedral or town hall. Instead, the square itself is their focal point and once there, that is kind of all there is to it. With the colossal walls of lights and hoards of people, you simply have to take it all in, grab a few selfies and that’s about all there is to it! so…
Should We Visit Times Square, New York?
Unequivocally, without a doubt, categorically, YES!
Even if you know you are going to hate it, you still have to visit it to see why. How can you authentically say you hated the crowds, the men in grotty costumes, and the overpriced souvenirs and hotdogs without experiencing them firsthand?
Times Square is just part of the New York Experience. If you are going to avoid the Square because of some internet NeySayers, you might as well skip Central Park, 5th Av, and the Statue of Liberty too, just stay in your Hotel, in fact why bother coming at all!
Of course, on top of this, there are many reasons to actually enjoy the Square, there are downsides to it, not everything is rosy and the criticism is often genuine, but they are not the whole story. We want you to visit the Square and come away with a Nuanced view, taking the rough with the smooth. While it is never going to be anyone’s highlight of their NYC trip it is an essential ingredient!
You won’t find any Locals there!
The most often cited piece of evidence from the detractors is the lack of locals. If the square was worth visiting why do the Locals stay away? Well, First do they? Or is this just a myth? Like we say most of the square’s criticism is genuine and there are very few locals around (Apart from workers) in fact the only time Locals head to Times Square is when relatives from out of town visit and drag them there. Otherwise, it’s pretty much a No-Go area for New Yorkers.
But this is hardly surprising. It is far from a residential area and pretty much every New Yorker has been to the square many times, so they are not going to go and see it just for the thrill! Restaurants are all more expensive and busier, and they can probably get better locally. In fact, there is very little reason for a New York resident to head to Times Square. More than this, New Yorkers lead pretty localized Lifestyles, traffic is so bad that people tend to stay in their neighborhoods most of the time. These self-contained districts have pretty much everything you may need so people just stay put.
This is pretty typical behavior in any City. The big tourist district of any City is practically devoid of Locals, think of your own local big city how often do you head to the tourist attractions?
As a Tourist, the way you interact with a City is completely different. You seek out the attractions and head all over the City to see what is on offer, you are looking for a snapshot of The Whole of New York, not a realistic depiction of what life is like there. If you want that, go to work all day, come home exhausted, and watch Netflix! After all, that is how most people in most Big Cites, and beyond really spend their time!
So while it is true Most Locals avoid Times Square, this is just being used to sway your opinion, it should have absolutely no bearing on whether you should Visit or not!
It is also worth noting that it has just become “cool” to hate on Times Square!
Personally, despite not really being the biggest fans of the Square, and having been there, done that, countless times, we still find ourselves drawn there more than just about any other part of the City, how come? What is the Draw?
Heart Of the City
This is the crux of the debate, Times Square really just is the center of everything. As a tourist, it is practically possible to avoid the area completely. You don’t even need to plan time in Times Square it almost always happens organically!
The Main Pedestrian Plaza is a throbbing hub of life and activity, with the Giant screens, and bright lights above the ever-present throng of people milling around and taking in the scene. While there are many reasons to avoid the area, see below, the general Buzz and beating heart of the City really is found right here. If you have not been to Times Square you really haven’t been to New York, so don’t allow the doom-mongers to put you off.
It is very possible you will hate the place! It really is insanely busy and intensely commercialized, but even if you detest it and want to leave almost immediately, at least you have experienced it, the most depressing thing we hear is “oh, we didn’t go to Times Square because we heard it was busy”. Travel is about the experience, the rough with the smooth, and Times Square is an integral part of the New York experience…Experience it, even if you find it rough!
Things to See and Do in Times Square
People always come up a bit short of things to do in Times Square. They arrive, survey the madness then pretty much leave. While there is not a whole heap to do in the Square, you can while away an hour or two taking in the sights sounds, and attractions.
As Times Square is the Confluence of 7th Av and Broadway it is no suprise that there is a huge selection of Broadway Shows on offer. While Broadway, the Avenue, runs almost the length of manhattan, what people know as Broadway, the home of Stage and Theatre, is centered around the part that transects Times Square.
This in part is what makes the Square so popular as people come for their pre or post-show dinner. Dinner and a Show at Times Square/Broadway is a real must! (See Below for restaurant Ideas)
Really you can’t help it, you are in one of the most recognizable locations in the world, you have no choice but to whip your phone out, take a selfie and show the world YOU are in Times Square.
M&M’s and Hershey’s World
Two Giant Shops filled with chocolate wonders. The owners have a crafty way of luring you in by pumping chocolate-scented air out into the street. Just walking past and your nose comes alive and the smell. Inside you will find a million colors and flavors of M&Ms and every imaginable Hersey product all available in Pick and Mix form. Look out for free samples too!
One Times Square
If there is a Focal point it’s one Times Square. Home of the NYPD and the world Famous Ball. The Building marks the official boundary of Times Square and offers one of the most photogenic focal points. No longer home to the New York Times the Building is largely empty. However, the lower floors are occupied by large Wallgreens.
At the other end of the Square is the TKTS Booth. Offering Half-Price, Same-Day Broadway Tickets it’s a great place to check out. More importantly, they decided to turn the roof of the booth into a giant Staircase/Platform. You can walk up to grab an elevated View of the square or grab a seat on the steps to take a few moments time-out to take everything in. This is the Number one place for Selfies as it overlooks the whole square with One Times Square in the Background.
The Ride is a fun little tour around the highlights of Midtown, starting and ending in Times Square. We were very dubious about this attraction but on the whole, had a great time. Read more about it here.
Restaurants in Times Square
One of the many reasons people head to Times Square is for the myriad of restaurants that line the square. On the whole, these are overpriced, over-busy, chain restaurants that can be enjoyed all over America at better prices and with better service (Service will always be poor when a restaurant is bursting at the seams!)
While these Chain establishments are immensely popular, They are fairly uninspiring. Hard Rock Cafe, Bubba Gump Shrimp, Planet Holywood, Olive Garden, Red Lobster, McDonalds, and Starbucks all line the Square with their Flagship restaurants.
However away from the big names are a few excellent and unique Times Square experiences.
Ellens Stardust Diner – A New York Icon and a really fun place to grab a bite. If you can face the lines, which can be over 1 hr at busy times (No Reservations) Expect a really Crazy place to eat your Lunch. The food is so so, but it’s big portions and decent quality, but Ellens is all about the Experience.
Toni’s De Napoli – Family Style Italian servicing huge portions of fantastic Red Sauce Italian Pasta. Spaghetti Meatballs, Seafood Linguine, and amazing Ravioli are all served Family Style on giant plates. The whole vibe is New York Italian with a distinct whiff of Mafia Boss in the Corner booth. It’s a great Vibe and fantastic food!
Junior’s Restaurant and Bakery – Yes this is Chain, but it is a New York Chain and the Times Square Location is pretty Iconic. Deli Sandwiches are the top menu item and the Slabs of meat dwarf the bread in true NYC Deli style. The Cheesecake is also a thing of beauty, Giant slabs of New York Cheesecake or their amazing Red Velvet Cheesecake are a must. We tend to be forced to order the Cheesecake to go after the size of the Sandwiches.
Aside from the restaurants, there are many quick-eat options, with various food trucks and takeaways lining the street. NYC Pizza by the Slice at Ray’s Pizza, New York Hotdogs, Hot Nuts and Pretzels, and many other varieties of Street food are all on offer.
Should We Stay in Times Square?
There are a lot of hotels in Times Square and most people dream of staying in a Times Square hotel, overlooking the bright lights, right in the heart of the City that never sleeps. However, a stay in the busiest tourist center in the whole of the country can come with some significant downsides.
The Crowds, as we discuss below can be horrendous, and with a Times Square location there is little respite from them and you will need to do battle daily to even get out of your hotel. They are likely to be far more expensive, in a city with some of the highest prices in the world already. For any form of motorized traffic, Times Square is practically a no-go, making Taxi’s and Uber’s hard to get and expensive (unless you walk yourselves clear first).
However, there are plenty of benefits too and the question is quite nuanced, while all the experts simply say “avoid” we understand the drama and lure of staying right in the heart of the city too. Would we live there, not a chance, but for a short stay the square offers a vibrant alluring location to base your stay. read more here.
Tourist Traps, Pitfalls, and Scams!
As we have said though, Times Square isn’t all bright lights, Smiles, and Selfies. There is a Darker Side and plenty of Tourist traps and negative elements to the Square. These are often the reasons cited as to why Times Square is so disappointing and listed as the worst tourist destination. In reality, as long as you are aware and know the best ways to avoid the traps and navigate the Pitfalls they really can be overlooked.
The first is really laughable. But so often cited as a negative and dredged up by guides and experts. It always astounds us people’s inability to use a Mirror! YES, Times Square is FULL of Tourists…and YES you are one of them!
For so many tourists they simply can’t accept they are just that, everyone else is a tourist but they are somehow not, despite being thousands of miles from home, staying in a hotel, wearing a backpack, and taking photos of everything. Accept it and embrace it. You are a tourist, and yes so are we.
On a quiet day in early November in the rain with very little going on, Times Square is insanely busy. During busy periods such as around the Holidays, 4th of July, and Summer, the place is simply unimaginably busy. We have queued 30+ Minutes just to use a Crossing! There are times when walking forwards is simply impossible and you are met with a seemingly endless wall of people.
When it is bad it really is terrible. While Times Square gets more Daily visitors than Disneyworld, the latter is the equivalent of well over 66 Square City Blocks, Times Square is less than one! That is an incredible amount of people in a small space!
They really are hard to avoid, and once in the square basically impossible. The best way to avoid them is to avoid the square, just a single block on either side and the crowds evaporate, so if you are heading north or south just slip a block across and proceed unimpeded then cut back when you are at the appropriate street.
But this is no help once you are in the actual Square, here the key is to go with the flow, trying to move against a wall of people will be time-consuming, awkward, and verging on impossible. There will always be a natural flow and the best bet is to ride it. Should you find yourself against the flow, switch sides.
The Square is largely pedestrianized but there are still a few active roads. Do not be tempted to step out into the road. The NYPD is very hot on pulling up Jay-Walkers!
There are many Food carts and stands in the Square, and on the whole, they are all fine. However, they are all hugely overpriced. The licenses for these stands are unbelievably expensive (over $100,000 for prime spots) and they need to turn over a lot of products to cover that. By relying on people’s laziness they can bump the price a few dollars and people will still pay.
Move a few blocks away and the same or better hotdog can be bought for a few dollars less! Also, be aware of Bait and Switch, the big juicy dogs you see on top will not be the ones on offer for $3-5 these will be produced from inside the cart and are usually pretty insipid and unappetizing!
Again any souvenir shops close to the Square will be paying astronomical rents and the same tacky souvenirs can be bought for a lot less at shops away from the square. We do not discourage buying tacky junk to remind you of your trip, and we have our own stash of fridge magnets, snow globes, and module Empire State buildings, but there is no need to overpay.
Ahh, the infamous Costumed Characters of Times Square. These Characters dress up as famous masked Characters such as Spiderman, Elmo, Ironman, Hulk, etc, and stand around posing for photographs with unwitting tourists. Once the tourist has their photo they then mention the $1-5 “tip” required for the privilege.
Again this is fine if you know about it, but it is rarely mentioned upfront. The law states all photos are free, Charging is Illegal, and all Tips are completely voluntary, but the language used by the “performers” rarely comes across that way! They have even been known to Photo-bomb people and then “demand” tips for the privilege.
Really the best course of action is to avoid them altogether. The City has finally implemented Green Zones that the Characters must stay in. So if you want nothing to do with them avoid these areas (Marked with paint on the floor).
One issue can be kids wanting photos with their favorite character, but unlike at Disney World, we don’t recommend parents encourage it. Be honest and explain they are buskers not real characters and most kids see the appeal evaporate.
While these guys are not really doing anything wrong, their tactics are borderline intimidation at times and some of the costumes leave a lot to be desired in terms of quality and cleanliness! Some are excellent and have hours of craftwork involved but others are little more than fancy onesies.
There is a reason the City allows them though, and that is the fact they are popular, people really actually love having their photo’s taken with them. So if that’s you and you want that Time Square selfie with Elmo, go for it, just be upfront about “tips” and don’t take any upselling or intimidation. The NYPD’s finest are always on hand to resolve any disputes!
You may come across budding new Artists looking to raise their profile by handing out CDs for free. At least that is what they tell you. The reality is they are at best Selling CDs. And while there is likely music on there, and some of the artists are quite talented, if you wanted a CD you would be going into a music store. If the Sellers stopped you and said “hey want to buy a CD” you would likely keep walking.
They rely on handing you a CD claiming it’s free, then pressuring you into paying them for something you don’t want. They may claim it’s all above board but really it is a pure scam. If someone offers you a CD DO NOT TAKE IT. You will be faced with an awkward situation where you must reject the CD or pay the seller for the item you didn’t want. Just keep walking and smiling!
After all who even wants CDs nowadays? On the whole, these hustlers are harmless, it’s just their way of doing things, but it is really only a few levels up from begging!
These are less prevalent in Times Square as there are fewer attractions there, but you may still encounter them. We always say avoid anyone who is not an official ticket seller. The chance to save a few $ is outweighed by the huge chance of buying stolen, part-used, canceled, or counterfeit tickets. Either way, when you get to your attraction or show the chances of the ticket being invalid are very high.
New Years Eve
We can’t fail to mention New Year’s Eve in Times Square. One of the single biggest gatherings of people every year. Over a million people flock into the Square to watch the world-famous Ball Drop above One Times Square.
The reality of watching the ball drop is a bit of a nightmare really and we have put together a full Survival Guide. The viewing pens open from around midday and getting a good spot requires 12+hours in situ, unable to leave your pen, even for a toilet stop, often in the sub-zero temperatures of a New York Winters night! So yeah a Survival guide is needed and the name is very apt!
Have Your Say
Times Square will always divide opinions. Some people just do not get it. And that is fine. There is SO much to see and do in New York, you can pretty much ignore Times Square. But don’t ignore it completely, even if we know someone will hate it we still say go as you have to hate it with authority? We do not go as far as hating it, and no trip to NYC is complete without taking in the madness.
But we already know the topic will raise a load of controversy with people hating it feeling they should warn others off. Feel free to join in the Debate and let us know your opinion. Times Square is anything but perfect and many people genuinely do hate it but it’s all part of the New York Experience. So just fire away whatever you have to say…Keep it clean though!