11 Tourist Traps To Skip When You Visit Times Square

Visiting Times Square when traveling to New York is a rite of passage; you should see it at least once. Bright lights, award-winning Broadway shows, window shopping, diverse restaurants, and eclectic performers are among the top reasons to explore this famous spot. Add one-of-a-kind people-watching to the list, and you'll find an endless number of things to do there. That said, there are quite a few places (and people) that you'll want to avoid when touring this Manhattan hub. The popular square (it sees about 360,000 visitors daily, according to the official website) is rife with people willing to exploit unsuspecting tourists, which is a big reason locals steer clear of the area. From costumed characters who can become aggressive to dishonest ticket sellers and overpriced chain eateries, there are plenty of tourist traps to skip when you visit Times Square.


Our list will help you navigate the seediest areas for a safer, more enjoyable, and more authentic experience. We pulled on our first-hand experience as former New Yorkers to determine where you should avoid. Years spent weaving our way through these streets and encountering deceptive scams have made us authorities on the most important spots to miss. Be vigilant while you're visiting. Times Square is entertaining and glitzy, so it's easy to get distracted. Any busy tourist spot is a prime target for pickpockets, and Times Square is no exception. Also, be sure to tip any "character" you take a photo with (or of); otherwise, things could get ugly.

Hard Rock Café

It's no secret that the Hard Rock Café is a tourist trap; it has a gift shop, after all, which is a dead giveaway. That said, many tourists love visiting these restaurants — that's why you can find them in many major U.S. cities. This particular Hard Rock is bemoaned for its overcooked meat, slow service, and overpriced menu. One recent Yelp reviewer wrote, "I am convinced this Cafe is called 'Hard Rock' because their steaks have the texture of being hard as a rock." Inside, you can see paraphernalia from iconic stars like Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, and The Beatles, and you can buy merch to add to your collection, but when it comes to food, we say skip this joint!


To be honest, any chain restaurant in Times Square (we're looking at you, Applebee's Grill + Bar and Olive Garden) is a tourist trap. Plus, if it's a chain, you can visit it pretty much anywhere in the U.S. and it's bound to be cleaner and quieter than this buzzy locale. Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. is no exception and it, too, boasts a gift shop. While reviewers on Yelp have commended the friendly service, tasty drinks, and views over Times Square, we say, hit the store so you can say you've been there, bought the t-shirt. Then, head to Victor's Café, a fun and funky eatery where locals flock for a tasty Cuban bite. It's on 52nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues.

Paparazzi photographers

Recently, a new brand of rip-off artist made their mark on Times Square. Calling themselves paparazzi, these randos appear with large, fancy-looking cameras (or sometimes just a cell phone) and take photos of tourists while admiring the sights or merely walking through the streets with their travel buddies. You might feel like a fashionista walking a runway for a moment, but things can quickly turn uncomfortable if the photographer is pushy. Now you can understand how stars like Taylor Swift might feel.


Once the photographer finishes clicking, they'll turn the camera around to show you the shot, often saying "paparazzi" as they do so. If you walk away, they might follow you for a bit, asking (or sometimes yelling at) you to buy the photos they snapped. As a rule of thumb, anyone trying to sell you something on a street in Times Square is attempting to scam you in some way. If you want a memorable photo from your holiday, ask another tourist to immortalize your family with a picture or organize a professional shoot before you visit.

Costumed characters

Elmo, the Hulk, Minnie, and Mickie Mouse can all be found in Times Square, sometimes in varying states of undress. Speaking of undress, the Naked Cowboy has also been known to hang out here, although, luckily, he wears tighty whities to hide his bits. You never know what or who you'll encounter when wandering through the main pedestrian area (between 42nd and 47th streets). And if you dare to take a photo with, or of, a costumed character without offering a tip, they can get pretty nasty. We're talking F-bomb and insult-throwing nasty. In 2023, a group of characters chased a UK tourist who took photos of them without tipping. Minnie Mouse even dropped her pants, aggressively mooning the tourist. In 2019, a Times Square "Elmo" grabbed the backside of a 14-year-old girl as she posed for a picture. Sadly, those weren't isolated incidents.


According to The New York Post, 47 percent of New Yorkers reported having an "unpleasant interaction" with one of these characters. Another 22 percent of New York residents said they experienced "unwanted physical contact" with one of the creepy creatures. To make Times Square a more enjoyable place to explore, New York's Department of Transportation has created sections called "chill zones" for people to sit and relax, "express lanes" for others to walk without being bothered by photographers or ticket sellers, and "designated activity zones" to house costumed characters so they don't impose themselves on people elsewhere.

M&M's Times Square

Chocolate lovers may disagree with adding M&M's Times Square to this list of tourist traps to skip when you're in the area, but hear us out. Yes, this is a giant, three-story-tall store filled with candy. And yes, that candy is vibrantly colored and accompanied by adorable plush characters that will unleash your inner child. So, what's not to like? Well, the crowds, for one. It seems no matter what time you visit this store, it's packed. As local parents to M&M-obsessed kids, we were begged to visit this shop on multiple occasions. While we often found excuses to avoid trudging through the mayhem, we did cave occasionally. Here's why we won't return any time soon.


In addition to having to elbow your way through crowds, the cost is a significant factor here. Expect to pay about $18 per pound of candy, excluding tax. Then, you'll likely be swindled (probably by your child) into purchasing even more overpriced merch. From t-shirts to stuffed M&Ms to pillows to mugs to dog toys, they have it all. On the upside, the store features a personalized printer that allows tourists to create customized M&Ms in about two minutes; plus, they can make their own M&M combo from a selection of 15 colors. Cool, right!? Be prepared to wait your turn, though.

Chain clothing stores

There's no lack of shopping in Times Square. Whether you're looking for cheesy souvenirs, sweets from Hershey's Chocolate World, or a watch from Swatch, you'll find it within the borders of this tourist zone. Times Square is also home to a bevy of chain stores. Target, Express, Forever 21, Levis, H&M, and Old Navy are just a few of the bigger names plunked in the heart of this raucous neighborhood. While it may be tempting to dash inside for a peek, these stores can be uber-crowded and sometimes dirty. Plus, they won't offer anything different than what you'd find in your local chain store; if you live in America, that is (we'll give international visitors a pass on shopping at these chain stores in Times Square).


In a city known for its fabulous shopping districts (hello, Chelsea Market, Fifth Avenue, and NoLita), don't waste your time in a box store that lacks the charm and eccentricity you can find in spades elsewhere. Instead, head to Williamsburg for some epic vintage shopping, visit a pop-up shop in SoHo, or blow your savings at the luxury stores on Madison Avenue. You may spend more than you would on a chain store T-shirt, but the eclectic finds you bring home will be more memorable and unique.

Caricature artists

If you're one of those people who have trouble saying "no," visiting Times Square might feel extra stressful. Whether it's someone selling fake Louis Vuitton purses or an "Avenger" pressing you to take a photo with them, plenty of strangers want your money and will do almost anything to get it. Caricature artists are members of this group. They're generally less pushy than the costumed characters, and most of these artists have talent -– there's no denying that. But do you really need an ink-drawn caricature of yourself or your kids?


First off, these unique and strange drawings can be expensive. Second, you should strongly consider what you will do with this drawing when you return home. Do you plan to frame the art and put it on a wall or shove it in a drawer, never to be seen again? If you're sure it's the latter, you may want to smile politely and take a pass. If you're determined to buy one as a keepsake, you can always try to haggle over the price.

Counterfeit peddlers

No matter what time of day or year you visit Times Square, you're bound to encounter peddlers selling counterfeit goods. Spread across blankets that line the dirty sidewalks, fake purses, sunglasses, wallets, and more entice travelers with an eye for designer brands. Don't get sucked in! There are so many reasons against buying counterfeit goods. Most importantly, these fake items are illegally created and sold and could be supporting the use of forced labor or human trafficking. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, counterfeit goods are also poorly made and potentially harmful. Plus, this illegal business takes money (and even jobs) away from legitimate companies.


The good news for tourists who still have their hearts set on fake merchandise is that buying counterfeit goods on the black market is not illegal in New York (per The Fast Law Firm, P.C.). Manufacturing and selling the items, however, is what lands people in the slammer. These types of arrests happen frequently in New York, most often on Canal Street. If you're still determined to purchase a knock-off, negotiate the price and be prepared to walk away with a subpar product.


Pedicabs can certainly look fun and romantic, especially if you've just exited a Broadway show or restaurant to find one adorned with colorful, twinkly lights. Essentially a bicycle with a carriage on the back, these unique "taxis" are pedaled in high-tourist areas (i.e., Times Square) across the city. By law, pedicab drivers are permitted to set their rates, which must be posted at the front of the cab so potential passengers can easily see them. Ask about their charges before sitting in the cab, which could indicate that you agree to their prices. Some unsuspecting tourists have been charged up to $600 for a ride, found an inquiry completed by ABC's 7 On Your Side Investigates.  


According to NYC Pedicabs, the standard pedicab rate should not exceed $3 to $7 per minute. If the driver tells you that it's more, don't get in. Search for another pedicab instead. Also, ask to see the pedicab driver's license and agree to the price upfront. Or make your way to Central Park, where you can take an iconic Horse Carriage Ride. It will cost more (a 45-minute ride costs about $140), but this unforgettable experience is a bucket-list thing to do for many first-time visitors.

Unauthorized ticket sellers

No matter how much time you spend in Times Square, you're guaranteed to be approached (or screamed at) by someone. Often, these encounters involve a person trying to sell something -– like the fake products we mentioned earlier, a photo, or even a city tour. Frequently, these deals sound too good to be true, which most likely means they are. Instead of falling for a scam, be wary. Don't buy tickets to a Broadway show from someone selling them on a street corner. The tickets may be incredibly overpriced or, worse, fake. Yes, some might be legitimate, but is it really worth the risk?


Instead, buy last-minute discount seats from TodayTix, visit the box office of your dream show as soon as it opens, or stand in line at TKTS. If you want to embark on a tour of the city, great! Just buy your passes from an authorized online seller like Viator or NewYorkSightseeing. The same goes for comedy clubs, museum passes, and other tourist sites. It's safest to purchase your tickets in person at the attraction or from an official website.

The NYE Ball Drop

Seeing the ball drop in Times Square on New Year's Eve is a bucket-list adventure for some. And yes, it will be an adventure — one that starts hours (8 or more) in advance if you're hoping to secure a good viewing locale. Access points are found at 49th, 52nd, and 56th Street from 6th and 8th Avenues. The festivities don't begin until 6 p.m. when the Waterford crystal ball is raised on the pole above One Times Square. Musical performances start around 7 p.m., and the countdown, of course, begins at 11:59 p.m.


Once you arrive, you'll be put into a viewing "pen." If you leave the pen, you pretty much can't return, so there's no chance of going to the bathroom (even if you could find one) for hours. Some revelers wear diapers in preparation. Add to that the fact that it's likely cold, raining, or snowing, and you can't bring an umbrella or folding chair, and you could be in for a pretty uncomfortable time. You'll also be surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people. One Reddit user's comment sums up the Times Square NYE Ball Drop experience: "I'm happy for the memory, but it was pretty miserable. No intention of ever doing it again."

Ellen's Stardust Diner

Ellen's Stardust Diner could be deemed another controversial addition to our list of tourist traps to skip when you visit Times Square. A place that New Yorkers avoid, you can expect to dole out $24 for a sandwich or $25 for a burger. That's not outrageous, considering this is New York, but the fact that you may have stood in line for hours for this pleasure makes the price more painful. Not a fan of singing, dancing, or Broadway? You'll want to miss this quirky attraction. Set at the corner of 51st and Broadway, this restaurant has been around since 1987, feeding and entertaining the Times Square crowd for over 37 years. Inside, the décor is 50s-themed, and when it first opened, the servers wore poodle skirts and sang while serving their customers.


Today, you'll still find singing waitstaff, many of whom are aspiring (or current) Broadway actors. In fact, this popular diner has been deemed "a breeding ground for singers." You'll hate this restaurant if you're shy or don't like a scene. The waitstaff constantly sings and may even put props on you (i.e., a hat) while you await your food. If you hate standing in line, you'll also want to steer clear of Ellen's Stardust Diner, especially during popular tourist times like summer or before or after Broadway shows. This eatery doesn't take reservations, and the line can extend anywhere from about 15 minutes (at off-times) to two hours.

How we chose the Times Square tourist traps to skip

We've spent multiple years exploring the city as current and former New Yorkers. As travel writers, we've visited (and often dragged our families to) every touristy thing we could find -– art museums, history museums, science museums, children's museums, dress-up spots, concert halls, theaters, and of course, Times Square. Times Square is the most vibrant, buzzy, and touristy attraction of all the places we've toured. It is also one of the seediest spots to visit in New York City. This heady square is filled with people showing off eclectic outfits, offering unique services, and even showcasing stellar vocals when you least expect it. Sandwiched between chain restaurants, overpriced tourist shops, and enough stores to keep you shopping for days, the pedestrian area is where most of the action takes place. Trust us, it's never dull in Times Square.


We wrote this article based mostly on our experiences as seasoned travel writers, parents, tourists, and locals. To create this piece, we chose the tourist traps we would most definitely skip when visiting Times Square. At times, we consulted reviews on Yelp or Reddit to back up our claims (there's no way you'll catch us dining at Hard Rock Café in Times Square when there are so many better, cheaper, quieter, and less kitschy spots only blocks away). With all that combined research, you can rest assured that we've saved you from some scams you were prepared for and many you might not have been aware of. Stay vigilant, have fun, and enjoy the bright lights and excitement that only Times Square can provide.