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How to navigate directions in New York City

Updated on June 19, 2013

Trying to navigate the streets of New York for someone visiting for the first time can be intimidating and confusing. Visitors often get disoriented, especially when exiting the subway system. After following the twists and turns of the underground tunnels even local New Yorkers’ sense of direction is completely thrown off.

Below is an easy and effective manner to find your bearing in this fast and crowded city.

Understanding the City Grid

Up until 1811 the streets of lower Manhattan were largely built and planned around existing business and community structures, as a result the streets were put into place as the city grew and not necessarily in a planned and orderly manner. In 1811 the New York State Legislature made a proposal for the orderly development and sale of the land of Manhattan between 14th Street up to 153rd Street. This innovative plan laid out numbered streets that run East to West and numbered Avenues that run North to South.

The Lay Out

Even though New York is a very hectic city, the street grid is very orderly. Numbered Avenues progress sequentially from, First Avenue in the East side of the island and to Twelfth Avenue in the West side of the island. Two additional avenues with non-number names were interpolated on either side of Park Avenue (formally named Fourth Avenue). Madison Avenue was built between Park Avenue and Fifth Avenue, and Lexington Avenue, was built between Park Avenue and Third Ave.

The numbered streets run North to South.The lower numbers begin at the South of the island and increase sequentially as one moves North.

Finding your Bearing.

The easiest way to find your bearing is to know in which cardinal direction you need to face. Remember.

  • The numbers on the Avenues increase as you travel WEST. And decrease as you travel EAST. First Avenue at the East of the island, Twelfth Avenue in the West side of the island.
  • The number of the Streets decrease as you travel SOUTH and increase as you travel NORTH. 14Th Street lies on the South of the grid and 153rd Street lies on the North of the grid.

If you are on Fifth Avenue and need to travel to Seventh Avenue you need to travel West (avenues increase in number as you travel West). Since the streets are laid out North to South you will be able to find your bearing simply by walking to the next number Street.

If the next street is a lower number than the previous one, you are heading South and Seventh avenue (located due West of you) will be toward your right. If the number of the next street is higher than the previous one you are heading North and 7th Avenue (located due West of you) will be toward your left.

The reason we suggest to walk to the next street to find your bearing, instead of walking to the next avenue, is because the distance separating streets is always one city block, while the distance separating avenues can vary from one to three city blocks depending on the proximity of the avenue to the water front. Avenues closer to the water are spaced closer together than avenues in the middle of Manhattan.

Knowing how to find the cardinal point and the facts that numbered streets in New York city run North to South and that the Avenues run East to West, will make it a breeze to navigate directions during your next visit to New York.

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    • noelr profile imageAUTHOR

      Noel Rodriguez 

      5 years ago from New York

      Thanks Paul. Enjoy your next visit!

    • Paul Maplesden profile image

      Paul Maplesden 

      5 years ago from Asheville, NC

      This is *great* advice, short, practical and to the point. I've only been to NY once, but next time I vist, I'm taking this advice to heart. Thanks for sharing.

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