Unique New York: 15 Lesser Known Things to Do in NYC
15 Unique Things to Do in New York City
You’ve done Times Square. You’ve done the Empire State Building. You’ve spent countless hours at the Met. You’ve tromped across the Brooklyn Bridge and now you’re looking for something unique to do in New York. I’ve got you covered. I mean, there’s only so many times you can ride the carousel in Central Park. I haven’t hit that limit yet myself but I’ve heard there is one.
After eight visits to the Big Apple I’ve had most of the experiences you expect from New York – Broadway shows, MoMA, the High Line – but I’ve also managed to uncover a few cool experiences that you won’t find on a typical best of New York list.
I love finding off-beat, quirky things to do when I travel and I wanted to make sure this list was extra cool so I also enlisted the help of a few other bloggers to tell me about their own favourite unique thing to do in New York.
What’s the first thing on this list you’re going to do?
Panorama of the City of New York at the Queens Museum
Originally built for the World’s Fair in 1964, the Panorama of the City of New York is the jewel in the crown of the Queens Museum. If a helicopter ride over the city isn’t on your list of things to do in New York, you can get a similar bird’s eye view by visiting this building by building accurate model. In 2009 the museum introduced an Adopt-a-Building program to secure funding for maintenance of the project. For as little as $100 you can get your own deed to a little bit of New York.
The model was built to a scale of 1:1200 where one inch equals 100 feet in the outside world and takes up 9,335 square feet. It was built to be accurate to within 1% of the life-sized city, which is an amazing feat. Each of the city’s 895,000 buildings constructed prior to 1992 and every street, park and some 100 bridges are represented.
The Panorama of the City of New York is certainly worth getting out of Manhattan for.
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Sweet Moment & Taiyaki NYC
I love Instagrammable food as much as the next person. Maybe a bit more, in fact. I mean, I did stand in line for 90min a few years ago to get some rainbow bagels in Brooklyn. Well, I promise you won’t have to line up as long for these Instagrammable sweet treats in Little Italy.
At Sweet Moment you’ll find the cutest drinks this side of Seoul. They offer a cold, creamart drink in 5 different flavours/colours: choco, red velvet, taro, thai, and matcha with a choice of black milk tea of cold brew coffee base. The baristas are skilled at using coloured cream to draw on top of the cream. Almost too pretty to drink.
Meanwhile, at Taiyaki NYC they’re serving up soft serve ice cream that will have you eagerly looking for that perfect Instagram background before your treat starts to melt. I got myself a unicorn (complete with marshmallow horn and ears) in a fish-shaped, red bean paste filled cone. The concept is inspired by Japanese fish-shaped cakes called Taiyaki which are sold by street vendors in Japan. If fish-shaped cones aren’t your thing, if you order the unicorn shake, it comes complete with a mini unicorn pool floatie.
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Hammock Time on Governors Island
If you need a break from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, take a ferry over to Governors Island for a little hammock time. Governors Island is a 172 acre island in the heart of New York Harbor. It’s only 800 yards from Lower Manhattan, and even closer to Brooklyn. It’s easily accessible by ferry and open to the public from May 1-October 31. Hammock Grove is just one of the features of the car-free island and is home to 50 iconic red hammocks for you to chill out and relax in.
You probably know all about the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and Rockefeller Centre, but have you heard of the Woolworth Building? For 17 years, it was the tallest building in the world. Designed by the renowned architect Cass Gilbert in 1913 to be Frank W. Woolworth’s NYC headquarters, the Woolworth Building has long been closed to the public; however, architectural tours of its beautiful vintage lobby are now available so you too can marvel at the stained glass ceiling, marble, and Tiffany elevator.
Museum of the Moving Image
If you like movies, television, and digital media then you should take yourself to the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. Not only do they have 47 Muppets on display in the permanent Jim Henson exhibit, but the museum’s “Behind the Screen” exhibit examines every step of the filmmaking process, with artifacts from more than 1,000 different productions, and 14 classic (playable!) video games, including Asteroids, Ms. Pac-Man and Space Invaders. The museum also has a 200+ seat theatre where you can catch screenings and live events.
I just love miniature things it seems. First the Panorama, now Gulliver’s Gate. It’s the most technologically advanced & interactive museum of miniatures on the planet. From functioning airport and naval locks, to hundreds of hidden scenes and interactive elements, you can travel the world without stepping on a plane. You’ll feel like Gulliver himself looking at the world in miniature, from the Taj Mahal to the Eiffel Tower to the Giant Gherkin in London. While you’re there, see if you can find one of the 47 pizzas located in their miniatures!
Discover your own personal spy profile and what role you’d play in the world of secret intelligence at Spyscape. Profiling was developed by top psychologists and a former Head of Training at British Intelligence so you know they know a thing or two. If you’ve ever wanted to be dropped into Mission: Impossible, dodging lasers and playing with spy gadgets, this is the museum for you. Channel your inner Bond with immersive experiences and challenges in the heart of Manhattan.
Museum of Food and Drink
All that spy work can build up an appetite though. So why not head over to Brooklyn for a visit to the Museum of Food and Drink. It’s the world’s first large-scale food museum with exhibits you can eat. MOFAD wants to educate you on the culture, history, science, production, and commerce of food and drink. If Anthony Bourdain taught us anything, it’s that food is something special that can bridge cultures and help us understand each other. MOFAD will inspire your curiosity about food, what it means, and how it connects with the world around us.
New York has some of the best shopping in the world, without a doubt. Just about every Western brand you can think of has a store in New York, but what if you want something just a bit more unique? Then Brooklyn Flea might be right up your alley. It’s Brooklyn’s largest flea market for vintage, design, antiques, collectibles, and food. You can shop from hundreds of vendors every Saturday and Sunday all year ‘round. It’s been called one of the best markets in the United States as well as one of the great urban experiences to have in New York.
I once called this the best thing you could do in Brooklyn on a Saturday and I still stand by that. Smorgasburg is a food truck lover’s dream come true, minus the actual trucks. Unique vendors sling everything from ramen burgers to fruit juices blended right in the fruit to ice cream blasted with a blowtorch. Whether you’re into Ethiopian, Thai, bbq, or vegan, you’ll find something to get your taste buds going at Smorgasburg. Plus, you can hang out on an honest-to-God sandy beach while you munch on your Honduran baleada or deep-fried cookie dough balls.
When I lived in New York, I was constantly on the hunt for out-of-the-way, non-touristy gems—and I found just that at The Met Cloisters. A satellite of the famous Metropolitan Museum of Art, this northern Manhattan retreat borrows architecture from medieval Europe to display art from the same time period. In fact, architects brought in parts of buildings from religious sites in Europe and incorporated them into this one-of-a-kind museum.
The Cloisters are a peaceful place to look at religious icons or simply sit on a sunny bench in the open-air gardens at the center of the complex. Definitely seek out the Unicorn Tapestries, a stunning series of woven scenes you’ll want to stare at forever. But don’t miss the other art here, from stained glass to religious portraits.
One of the best things about visiting The Met Cloisters is the peace and quiet you’ll find here. It takes a long subway ride (the A train to 190th, then a 10-minute walk), which means it’s off the tourist’s beaten path. That way, you can take a breather from New York’s hustle and simply enjoy yourself.
Catherine Ryan Gregory shares tips, recommendations and hacks to make family travel easier at To & Fro Fam.
The Museum of the American Indian
The Museum of the American Indian is housed in the old NYC customs house in downtown Manhattan. It is part of the Smithsonian and so it is absolutely free! And things in NYC are rarely free.
I like this museum because it celebrates a part of the American experience that is often overlooked. On display are cultural relics, handicrafts, and costumes of the Native American. I especially enjoy the tribals masks. The permanent collection also focuses on the history of the Natives and their impact on our modern world.
There is an interactive kids section focused on the inventions and achievements of Native Americans. My kids really enjoyed learning about the foods that we eat because of the Native Americans.
I highly recommend a guided tour. The tour guides are very knowledgeable and make the museum experience that much more informative.
Tip: The museum is close to Battery Park, so it’s a great stop after a Statue of Liberty tour.
Alicia Richards write for Travels with the Crew. You can also find her on Instagram.
The Tenement Museum
Step right into the history of New York at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. This is my favorite place to learn about the layers of immigration that shaped NYC and the US. Book a tour through the apartments for an unforgettable experience. All tours are small group with an expert guide with a informal, discussion style, rather than a boring lecture.
The Tenement Museum is a series of apartments in the Lower East Side where many immigrant families got their start in the United States. Boarded up in the 1930s, it was “discovered” in 1988 and since been incredibly well-researched to share the stories of the families that lived there. Choose the tour that most interests you; Irish Outsiders, Hard Times, Sweatshop Workers, Under One Roof, and Shop Life. Each one tells the stories of a different layer of the new Americans. I’ve done four tours and haven’t been disappointed yet.
Each time I visit, I learn something new; about the daily lives of New Yorkers in the past, our country’s immigration history, or about the fascinating research techniques the curators use. They have walking tours, food tours, and stellar book store. While you’re right nearby, grab lunch at Katz’ delicatessen.
Megan McCormick writes for Beyond the Photos.
Pisillo Italian Panini, Lower Manhattan
One of the best places I discovered during a whirlwind December weekend in New York was a little Italian sandwich shop called Pisillo Italian Panini.
I discovered Pisillo after an emotionally exhausting visit to the 9/11 Memorial Museum in Lower Manhattan. The minute we left the museum it started to snow quite heavily. My husband and I were hungry but really wanted a place close by the museum so we wouldn’t have to walk too far in the snow.
Pisillo showed up on our map and the reviews stated they had the best sandwiches outside of Italy. Both of us were longing for the incredible food we had in Italy just a few months prior, so we were excited to give it a shot.
We accidentally walked into their coffee shop first since they both had the same name. Luckily, the barista must have to direct traffic often so he pointed us in the right direction. Once we made it to the correct shop, we ordered our sandwiches and took a seat at one of their hightop tables. Seating was very limited, but the tables turned quickly.
We never have cash on us but thankfully we had enough to cover our sandwiches since Pisillo only took cash. They did have an atm inside the store just in case.
Our sandwiches were massive and we definitely could have split one if we had known. I took one bite and I was instantly back in Italy. Those incredible flavors with fresh bread and mozzarella danced in my mouth and made me so happy!
After lunch, I went back to Pisillo’s coffee shop for a latte. I was so glad I did because that was one of the best lattes I’ve ever had.
If you find yourself hungry in Lower Manhattan, make sure you check out Pisillo Italian Panini. You cannot go wrong with this Italian gem in the heart of NYC!
Lauryn Neas writes at LE Travels. You can also find her on Instagram.
Accomplice: The Show
My sister’s bachelorette party was my last trip to New York City. She isn’t the biggest fan of your typical sightseeing, but she loves any sort of puzzle. Escape rooms and scavenger hunts are high on her list of favorite activities and we wanted to surprise her with something like this during our trip.
When we first settled on trying out Accomplice the Show, I wasn’t exactly sure what we were getting ourselves into. The website is purposefully vague to avoid giving away any clues and you aren’t quite sure what it is you’ll be asked to do.
We chose to do Accomplice The Village and found that these “shows” are meant to be part theater performance, part scavenger hunt through different areas of the city. In this case, the show was around Greenwich Village and included several actors to interact with that would provide clues to your next location.
We certainly got a few weird looks as this big group of people (around a dozen of us) met improv actors who didn’t mind causing a scene on the streets of New York, but it was one of the most unique things I’ve ever done in any city. We even had a few drinks included in the process.
Even the location you start is a secret until the day before when you are provided a meeting point and some background about your task. With several different options for events ranging in length and distance traveled, there is something for everyone. Just be prepared to walk a lot around the city, rain or shine!
Danielle Schleig writes for Wanderlust While Working. You can also find her on Pinterest.
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