We all have seen photos of New York’s biggest tourist attractions like Times Square, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, and the iconic New York City skyline millions of times. Whether it serves as the backdrop of a Hollywood film, the screensaver that mysteriously shows up on your computer, or the artwork at your favorite pizza place, the streets and attractions of New York have deservedly gained a special place in the hearts and minds of people from all over the world.
While NYC is so big it seems almost impossible to see it in a single lifetime, there are many off-the-beaten-path destinations that allow you to see the heart and soul of the Big Apple. Since we love the city with all our hearts, we’ve created a list of NYC’s hidden gems. These are the places that many New Yorkers don’t even know about.
Take your own bite out of the Big Apple with Let’s Roam!
Millions of tourists flood into New York every single year hoping to have an amazing experience. Let us help you make your trip to NYC extraordinary! With 50 incredible scavenger hunts in New York City, you can’t go wrong, but if you’re into scoping out rare finds, why not start with an art walk? Our “Manhattan Merry Mayhem Hunt” will lead you to the best public pieces in the city, including murals by the likes of Stik and Eduardo Kobra. Street art doesn’t last forever, so don’t miss out on this unique tour!
The Best Places in New York That Only the Locals Know
New York is full of unique attractions you won’t find anywhere else in the world. In this guide, we’ll take you to the places in New York that only the locals know. This is based on many years of living and working in the city and taking every opportunity to explore.
Before we get into all of the fun off-the-beaten path things that you can do in NYC, let’s quickly cover some of the logistics of traveling around there. This will help everyone from first-timers to repeat visitors when navigating the city.
The Five Boroughs
When most people think of New York City, they imagine the glittery streets of Manhattan and the trendy neighborhoods of Brooklyn. However, New York City is actually made up of five boroughs which include Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, and State Island.
Most visitors spend the majority of their time on the island of Manhattan. It’s divided further into a slew of different neighborhoods such as Midtown, the Financial District, the Lower East Side, Greenwich Village, the Upper West Side, and the Upper East Side. Brooklyn lies just across the East River from Lower Manhattan while Queens lies roughly east of Midtown and the Upper East Side, and the Bronx is located just north of Manhattan. All of these are easily accessible via the subway. Meanwhile, Staten Island is located a short ferry ride from the southern tip of Manhattan and is actually partially tucked under New Jersey.
The other thing that’s important to know about NYC geography is that Broadway isn’t just a district. It’s actually a major avenue that runs diagonally from Manhattan’s Battery Park in the Financial District all the way up to Washington Heights.
Generally, the cheapest and easiest way to get around is by taking the NYC subway. It operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week which makes getting around the city relatively painless. It’s important to remember that most of the trains run north to south in Manhattan, and you don’t often find places where the trains run north to south unless they’re heading towards Brooklyn or Queens. It’s usually faster to simply walk across town or hop on a bus rather than trying to take the subway.
You can buy a Metrocard that offers unlimited train service for the day, week, or month. Or you can purchase value-based cards that you can then top up. If you’re going to be ping-ponging your way around the city, it’s usually better value to buy an unlimited subway card rather than a value-based one.
Safety should always be a consideration wherever you roam in the world. Luckily, compared to other big American cities, New York is relatively safe, especially if you stay in the main touristy areas. Follow the same safety protocols that you would in any big city, and you shouldn’t have any major issues. Don’t carry huge amounts of money or valuables with you, don’t walk on deserted streets or through parks alone at night, and don’t get inebriated.
1. Explore The City Hall Subway Station.
When you look at a subway map of New York City, you may notice the City Hall Subway Station at the southern end of the Number 6 Train Line. The station sits adjacent to New York City Hall where Guiliani and Bloomberg once held court.
However, something much greater lies beneath the surface of Manhattan here. That is the original City Hall Station. This station was built in 1904 and was known as the City Hall Loop due to the way that it curved around. This Romanesque Revival station was one of the original 28 subway stations. Thanks to its colored glass tilework, brass chandeliers, Guastatinvo tile, and skylights, it was the showpiece of the IRT subway. However, by 1945, it was too short to be used by modern subway cars. The new City Hall Station was built instead, and the old one seemed like it would be forgotten forever.
Luckily, this wasn’t the case, and you can easily discover it simply by taking a ride on the number 6 train! The new City Hall Station is the last stop on this line but after dropping off their passengers, trains continue making their way along the tracks. Subway cars on the 6 train line now use the old City Hall Station as a place to turn around before they make their way back towards Uptown Manhattan and The Bronx. The original City Hall Station is now a New York City designated landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Alternatively, you can take a tour of the old City Hall Station through the New York Transit Museum. Tickets cost $50, and you must be a museum member in order to join the tour. Tickets go on sale just three times a year and are sold on a first-come, first-served basis.
2. Get a closer look at New York’s history at The Tenement Museum.
The Lower East Side of Manhattan has historically been one of the most ethnically diverse places in the United States. European immigrants flocked to this neighborhood when they arrived in New York throughout the late 19th and early 20th century. The result was a mix of Germans, Italians, and Eastern Europeans rubbing shoulders, opening businesses, and developing friendships.
The New York Tenement Museum takes you deep into the private lives of some of the residents who lived, worked, and died in the neighborhood through artifacts carefully displayed in a remarkably well-preserved 19th-century tenement building.
3. Take a ride back in time at the New York Transit Museum.
Located in an old subway station in Brooklyn, the New York Transit Museum brings history to life. The upper part of the station features a small museum detailing the history of public transport in NYC. You can view old subway tokens, turnstiles, and maps as well as exhibits detailing how some of the biggest feats of engineering were accomplished.
You can then make your way downstairs to the subway platforms where you’ll find a dozen vintage subway cars waiting on the tracks with their doors wide open. You can walk through the historic train cars, looking at the different types of seating configurations and the old advertisements plastered along the ceiling. It’s a fascinating look into not just the history of the subway, but also into how MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) helped NYC grow into the diverse city that we know and love today.
4. Fly high above the city streets on the Roosevelt Island Tramway.
Roosevelt Island is a small island nestled in the middle of the East River close to Midtown East and the Upper East Side. The island has housed everything from a hospital and a leper’s colony to a prison ground and poor houses. Today, the island is mostly residential with a handful of towering apartment blocks and inviting parks, and some interesting historical landmarks. These include a late 18th-century farmhouse that is now used as a visitor’s center, the ruins of the mid-19th-century smallpox hospital, a historic lighthouse, and a laboratory dating back to the 1890s.
From the island, you can get sweeping views of Manhattan’s east side. Since there are no cars on the island, it’s easy to meander your way around, enjoying the tiny breath of fresh air and the laid-back vibe of the island.
There are two ways you can get to Roosevelt Island. The first is via the F train which runs along the orange subway line. The other is by taking the Roosevelt Island Tramway. This tram whisks you high above the streets of Midtown East before making its way across the East River and then touching down on the southern end of Roosevelt Island. We highly recommend taking this option as it gives you an amazing bird’s eye view of the city streets. The Roosevelt Island Tramway is the only commuter cable car in the USA. Best of all, it only costs the price of a subway ticket to ride.
5. Go on a thought-provoking walking tour.
The Big Apple has a seemingly never-ending supply of quirky and niche walking tours where you can learn more about everything from the scandalous histories behind many of the buildings in Times Square and Broadway, try all of the best bagels in Williamsburg, and explore the World’s Fair structures in Flushing Meadows. These guided tours are a wonderful way to learn more about some of your favorite topics from the experts themselves.
Rather than going through some of the big NYC travel companies, we suggest looking on Airbnb for some unique experiences or searching through different Facebook groups to find freelance guides. This will really help you get off the beaten path and see parts of New York that only the locals know.
6. Climb the Empire State Building.
The Empire State Building is one of NYC’s most iconic sites. Opened in 1932, this art deco masterpiece was the tallest building in the world until 1971 when the World Trade Center surpassed it. This enormous building was built on the site of the original Waldorf Astoria Hotel and became a symbol of the wealth and power of the United States, even during the height of one of the world’s worst depressions.
Although it has now been gracing the New York skyline for nearly a century, this spectacular building still stands head and shoulders above most of the other famous buildings in Manhattan. While many tourists rush to take the elevator up and admire the sweeping views of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and New Jersey, there’s a far more interesting way to get to the top. And that is to climb it! This doesn’t mean you need to go all King Kong. Instead, every year, the Empire State Building opens its doors, and its stairwells, to athletes from all over the world.
While this is certainly a unique, and rewarding, way to explore one of the world’s most famous buildings, it isn’t for the faint of heart. In order to reach the top, you must pay the hefty registration fee (currently set at $150 for 2023) and be able to climb all 86 flights of stairs to the observation deck. Although the registration fee is kind of steep (pun intended), how many people do you know can claim that they climbed to the top of the Empire State Building?
7. Check out the medieval art at The Cloisters.
Specializing in European medieval art, The Cloisters is an annex of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Located in Fort Tyron Park in Washington Heights, this interesting museum boasts one of the most fantastic settings of all of NYC’s major museums. Designed by architect Charles Collens, the museum is located on a steep hill and features lower and upper levels that have been designed to replicate medieval gardens and chapels.
The museum offers themed galleries and showcases Romanesque, Gothic, and Spanish works and the whole place gives the overall feeling that you have just stepped into a monastery in 14th century Europe. There are more than 5,000 works of art in its collection, most of which date back to the Byzantine and early Renaissance periods including wood and stone sculptures, ornate tapestries, religious panel paintings, and ancient manuscripts.
While the collection is without a doubt amazing, the setting and architecture of the museum is what really makes this place special. Make sure to spend a little extra time here exploring the grounds and taking plenty of photos. We guarantee most people you show them to will never believe that it’s Manhattan!
8. Explore the remnants of the World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows Park.
The 1939-1940 World’s Fair was held in none other than The Big Apple. This expansive affair was one of the most expensive American world’s fairs of all time, and more than 44 million people headed to this park far out in Queens to take a look at the world of tomorrow. The 1964 World’s Fair soon followed. Both fairs have left their mark on this spacious park.
Some of the exhibits on display at the 1939 fair included new-fangled inventions such as air conditioning, fluorescent lights, television, and colored photography. There was also a time capsule of everyday items that were meant to show what life was like in the early 20th century. Perhaps rather optimistically, this is scheduled to remain buried until the year 6939.
While all of the pavilions and exhibits are long gone, there are a handful of relics left from the era that make it a fascinating place to visit for all of the history buffs out there! From the 1939 fair, you can see the Unisphere, a 12-story-tall stainless steel globe that stands perched on its own platform above a fountain. You can also the New York Pavilion. This was used during both world fairs and in the interim, it stood as a makeshift home for the United Nations. The building has now been transformed into the Queens Museum (which fittingly holds a few smaller World’s Fair relics).
9. Go wild at one of NYC’s zoos.
New York City is home to a number of zoos that are all part of one zoological network. The Bronx Zoo is the crown jewel of the New York Zoo system. This massive zoo is home to more than 10,000 animals including tigers, elephants, giraffes, gorillas, bears, and red pandas. The zoo is laid out amongst wooded parkland and is open all year round. Despite feeling like it’s in the middle of nowhere, it’s easily accessible via the subway. In fact, it’s so close to some of the residential areas nearby that it’s rumored local residents can hear the lions roar at night!
If you want to stay a little closer to the action, then you may want to head over to the Central Park Zoo. Made famous by the animated movie Madagascar, the Central Park Zoo is situated right in the heart of Central Park. Although the zoo doesn’t have the same variety of animals that you see at The Bronx Zoo, it does offer snow leopards, monkeys, sea lions, grizzly bears, and red pandas. It also has an interesting array of historic buildings that are remnants from when the zoo was originally opened back in the 1930s.
10. Let your inner child run free in Coney Island.
Coney Island is known for a lot of things. It’s an idyllic 100-year-old boardwalk that stretches along the Atlantic Ocean, the sweeping seaside views, a plethora of eateries serving cotton candy, ice cream, and funnel cakes, and a wide array of slightly terrifying-looking amusement park rides and carnival games. Coney Island is also famous for hosting some of New York’s most unique annual events including its New Year’s Day Polar Bear Swim and the Mermaid Parade.
Located in one of the far corners of Brooklyn, you can reach Coney Island via the subway. Once you’re there, you can either take a walk along the boardwalk, play games or ride on roller coasters to your heart’s content, or admire the historic architecture you see all around you. Coney Island feels old-school through and through, and visiting it almost stepping back to an era where life was a little slower and a little more gentle. This is the perfect place to let your inner child escape for a few hours before going back to the normalcy of adult life.
11. Discover the hidden corners of Grand Central Station.
Opened to the public in 1913, Grand Central Station served as a welcoming point for millions upon millions of New Yorkers and visitors as they made their way into Manhattan from places across the United States. This breathtaking Beaux-Arts building is still just as beautiful as it was a century ago with beautiful stonework, soaring ceilings, and delicate furnishings.
While many people pass through this train terminal as they rush to catch trains to destinations in Long Island, visitors should take the time to explore the hidden corners of this heritage spot. From the mysterious acoustics of the Whispering Gallery to hidden tunnels that once connected the station to surrounding buildings to the Gilded Age bar that once served as an apartment for John C. Campbell, a business tycoon, there are a ton of great things to find if you take the time to explore.
12. Grab a drink at one of New York’s most historic dive bars.
While it’s easy to find trendy bars in cities all over the planet, nothing quite compares with the experience of visiting a historic NYC dive bar when it comes to wetting your whistle. Many of New York City’s most beloved bars have been open for close to a century. Although they’ve had to renovate over the years, it’s easy to find vestiges of yesteryear if you know where to look! Some of our favorites include Rudy’s Pub and Grill in Hell’s Kitchen, McSorley’s in Greenwich Village, and Jeremy’s Ale House in the Financial District. Check out this list of the best bars in New York City for more info!
13. Take a tour of the New York Public Library.
While the New York Public Library is one of the city’s most recognizable buildings, many visitors only catch a quick peak inside the hallowed halls of this imposing building. One of the first things that’s important to know is the library you see on the corner of 5th Avenue and 42nd St. is one of many public libraries in New York City. Some of these are housed in gorgeous buildings while others are… not so much.
Although the New York Public Library Main Branch is no longer a circulation library, it remains one of the most visited libraries in the NYPL system. This is largely thanks to its awe-inspiring interior full of marble floors and ornate decor. Seriously, the building resembles more of a European palace than a library.
While you can wander around the hallways, the best way to really see what is inside this spectacular spot is by joining one of the frequent guided tours. These guided tours will take you to the library’s must-see places, including the historic Rose Main Reading Room. Along the way, you’ll learn more about the history and architecture of this Beaux-Arts building and will undoubtedly leave with a better appreciation of it! Tours depart at 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The tour is free but limited to the first 20 people that register, so make sure to book your tour well in advance to avoid disappointment!
14. Enjoy New York’s green spaces.
While Central Park receives much of the fanfare when it comes to green spaces, it’s certainly not the only impressive park in the city. In fact, not only was Brooklyn’s Prospect Park designed by the same famous architecture firm that Central Park was, it’s rumored they learned from their experiences to make Prospect Park even better than Central Park.
The result was nothing short of spectacular and today, Prospect Park remains as one of New Yorker’s most beloved green spaces. While you’re there, you can do paddle boating or kayaking, walk along the tranquil pathways, or simply relax on one of the lawns like many Brooklyn-ites do.
Other great parks and green spaces to explore include Governor’s Island, Brooklyn Bridge Park, the High Line, Bryant Park, and the Hudson River Parkway. Each has something really unique to offer whether it be tranquility, sweeping skyline views, or free events and activities. Make sure to check out the NYC Parks website to find out what events are happening while you’re there!
15. Catch a Broadway show.
Yes, yes, we know watching a Broadway show is hardly what you consider an off-the-beaten-path attraction. However, how you get the tickets to the show can be an adventure all on its own! You can take the sure-fire, easy way and simply go onto Ticketmaster or the box office website to book tickets, but where’s the fun in that?
New Yorkers hate to pay full price for anything, so luckily, there are many ways you can score discounted tickets to your favorite Broadway shows. Many theaters offer rush tickets that you can apply for virtually a few days before the show. Others will offer discounted tickets last minute for some of the nose-bleed seats. Broadwaybox.com is also a great resource to find discounts for tickets that you can either purchase online, or if you want to save the hefty service fees, you can simply print off the coupon code and take it directly to the box office to get the discount.
16. Watch a free show filming.
Most people know that New York is the filming location for many popular TV shows. However, many people don’t realize that many of these shows offer free tickets to watch the show being filmed! Some of these include Good Morning America, Saturday Night Live, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and Late Night with Seth Meyers. Although it’s suggested you book tickets at least one or two months in advance, if you’re flexible, you can often grab last-minute tickets. If there’s something you really want to see but can’t get tickets to, keep checking as you never know when something will open up!
17. Breath in the fresh air at Wave Hill.
Another Bronx attraction—Wave Hill is a mini-botanical garden and historic estate lying right along the Hudson River way up above the Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem. The property was first developed in the mid-19th century as a private residence. Guests of the owners included illustrious figures like Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt.
Since its not-so-humble beginnings, the property has been converted into a public park and cultural center featuring flower gardens and greenhouses. From here, you can also get fantastic views of the New Jersey Palisades. Wave Hill offers a wonderful opportunity to get away from the business of the city. Since it is easily accessible by New York City transit, all you need to enjoy this beautiful place is your Metrocard!
18. Get out of the city.
We get it. You’ve paid a lot to get to New York City, and you may not love the idea of leaving. However, hear us out on this one. New York City is surrounded by a bevy of interesting towns, some of which are just a short train ride away. From the historic Victorian towns located along the Hudson River Valley to the gorgeous beaches of Long Island, there are plenty of reasons to escape the hustle and bustle of the city for a few hours or a few days! Check out our guide to the best small towns in New York to learn more!
19. View NYC’s best street art.
Move over art galleries and museums! Street art has exploded onto the art scene in recent decades. Cities around the world now boast colorful murals that give an in-depth look into the history and culture of a place. Let’s Roam’s Murals in New York City Art Walk takes you through the Lower East Side and gives you the opportunity to see some of the Big Apple’s best street art. Unlike other art walks, you can go at your own pace and stop to take as many Instagrammable-photos are you want!
20. Kayak on the Hudson River.
While many visitors may not think of New York City as being a place with lots of outdoor activities, New Yorkers love to get out into the environment. Not only is the city covered in parks and green spaces, but you can even get out onto the Hudson River for some outdoor pursuits! There are boathouses located along the Hudson River where you can borrow or rent kayaks and stand-up paddleboards and take them out for a spin. This is a fun and very unique way to see the city skyline. Plus, it helps you work out those arms and abs!
Ready to roam?
We hope this list of off-the-beaten-track destinations has inspired you to get out there and see all the unique things the Big Apple has to offer. If you’d love to read more about the city, make sure to head over to the Let’s Roam Explorer blog and download the Let’s Roam app. Here, you’ll find all of our great scavenger hunts as well as tons of user-generated tips and tricks for destinations not only in NYC but also for destinations across the country.
Frequently Asked Questions
From climbing the Empire State Building to kayaking on the Hudson River, New York City has a ton of unique things to do that are well off the beaten path!
If you want to escape the tourist crowds and visit some unique NYC attractions, you can venture up to Wave Hill in The Bronx or go for a tour at the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side.
New York has so much to do that not all of the best attractions have hit the tourist trail! You can visit The Bronx Zoo, go on a niche walking tour, spend the morning hanging out in Battery Park, and more!
New York is full of great year-round attractions. From world-famous museums like The Met and the Guggenheim to off-the-beaten-path places like the Tenement Museum and Coney Island.