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Now worry not. The New York subway, during the day and mid-evening at least, is not the horror that it used to be. Much effort has been made in the last few years to make it safer and believe me, the results have paid off. On the subway lines these days all you're likely to find are heaps of innocent commuters speckled fairly frequently with security officers or even the odd Guardian Angel.
Of course, the same common sense rules apply. Just don't attract attention to yourself by wearing expensive tourist-like clothes and flashing jewelry and cameras about but then, where would you sensibly do that anywhere.
Moreover, walk with a sense of conviction and confidence and you're behaving in the way least likely to attract unwelcome attention. Don't dawdle either, looking with an almost helpless air at all the subway signs and maps. The good thing is, it's actually quite difficult to get lost on the New York subway system.
Many of the subway station names can easily be matched-up to the streets above: For example, 59th Street or 34th Street stations are exactly where they say they are. So is Union Square station. Some of the main subway lines follow the route of roads above: For example, the light orange and red lines follow the diagonal route of Broadway and the green line which almost directly under Park Avenue South and Lexington Avenue.
Most of the subway lines run largely north or south and at various points veer-off to one side or the other, into Brooklyn or Queens. Just a handful of subway lines run east/west across the city, such as those which run below 14th, 42nd or 53rd streets.
The trains are extremely reliable and spotlessly clean. A wait of more then five minutes for the next one is unusual. The flat rate fare for one journey on the subway -- how ever far you're going -- is (at time of publication) one dollar fifty cents. In return, you'll get a small metal token with a hole in the middle which will need to be given up at the entry barrier to the station. You need show nothing at the exit. My best advice is that if you're going to use the subway frequently to get around then buy ten tickets in one go in the form of a Metro Card, which you swipe to get easy access to the platforms.
As soon as you arrive at the subway, ask for a free MTA map which will show you the entire subway system and how it relates to the streets above and the railroad connections from Manhattan to the rest of New York City, Long Island, Connecticut and beyond and New Jersey.
This short list of useful subway stations and where they are might be a help:
WORLD TRADE CENTRE: Cortlandt Street (green colored line).
EMPIRE STATE BUILDING: 33rd Street (green colored line) or 34th street (orange).
BATTERY PARK, LIBERTY & STATEN ISLAND TERMINALS: South Ferry (red line) or Bowling Green (green).
WALL STREET: Wall Street (red).
GREENWICH VILLAGE: Christopher Street (red).
GRAND CENTRAL: 42nd Street Grand Central (green, purple or gray).
CHINATOWN: Canal Street (green or brown).
MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY: 81st Street (green or dark orange).
METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART: 86th Street (green).
WASHINGTON SQUARE: West 4th Street (blue or light orange).
BOTTOM OF CENTRAL PARK: 59th Street (light orange) or 57th Street (dark orange).