The New York City Subway for Tourists: A Visitor’s Guide to Traveling Underground in NYC

The New York City Subway is legendary for its complexity. To the untrained eye, or even the trained one, a subway map could appear as no more than a multi-colored plate of spaghetti.

Below in a simplified explanation of the New York City Subway to help the novice or the traveler navigate without pulling his hair out.

Simple Subway System Directions: Take the A Train

The A Train deserves special mention for tourists. The A Train is an express train (the C Train runs on the same track locally) that will take the traveler from John F. Kennedy Airport to Times Square, going through many New York City tourist spots on the way. To the traveler, the A Train will be their best friend.

New York City MTA in Manhattan

Most travelers will be spending their time in Manhattan. Luckily, the Manhattan trains are the most forgiving to a mistake. Since most of the trains run near each other, if you get on the wrong train, you just get off and walk a few blocks.

The easiest way to remember the trains is:

  • the Red and Blue (including the A Train) trains run down the West Side
  • The Green trains Run down the East Side
  • The Yellow and Orange trains run down the middle.

Note that no New Yorker will ever refer to a train by its color, they will refer to it by its letter or number designation. Recognizing the colors, however, will help the novice until they know the lines better, or until they go home.

The Brooklyn Subway System

Brooklyn has many trains running through it, and they diverge as one gets further from Manhattan. The Blue Line (A and C) will take you through the Northern part of the borough. Most of the attractions in Brooklyn are in the Central and Southern parts though. The Yellow and Orange lines run here, in parallel routes.

The Three trains to remember, beginning from West to East, are:

  • The D Train
  • The F Train
  • The B Train

This becomes easier to remember with the mnemonic, “Don’t Forget Brooklyn.” Feel free to substitute a mnemonic of choice.

All three of these trains end at Coney Island. The B ends at Brighton Beach, the F at the New York Aquarium, and the D at Stillwell Avenue.

Queens for the Tourist

The most important train to remember for Queens is the 7 Train. The 7 runs from Times Square to Shea Stadium and The Arthur Ashe Tennis Stadium, where the US Open is played. There is very little else for the tourist in Queens and unfortunately, no train runs to LaGuardia Airport.

The other important trains in Queens are:

  • The E (Blue Line)
  • The F (Orange Line)
  • The R (Yellow Line)

These three lines, along with the 7 Train, will get the traveler where he needs to go.

On the El in The Bronx

In the Bronx, the Subway is called “the El,” because the tracks are elevated. Often a location is described as “under the El tracks” or near them. The only Tourist location that can be described in this way is Yankee Stadium.

The Bronx is the easiest to navigate. The three lines a visitor might need to know are from West to East:

  • The 4 (Green Line)
  • The 5 (Green Line)
  • The 6 (Green Line)

The 4 Train will take you to Yankee Stadium and ends at Van Cortlandt Park. The 5 Train runs past the Bronx Zoo. The Six Train Runs through the South Bronx and ends at Pelham Bay Park.

When possible, take the Express Trains instead of the Locals, otherwise the constant stops will put the tourist on edge.

Staten Island by Subway?

There is no subway in Staten Island, further proof that Staten Island is not part of New York City, despite what the maps say.

A visitor could easily be overwhelmed by the subway. The best way for a vacationer to find his way around is to understand which subway lines are important, and which to ignore. Thinking in this manner will not get the visitor everywhere in the City, but it will get them close enough to walk, the most essential New York transportation.