Off the Beaten Path in NYC
If you’re visiting NYC for your first or even second time then by all means visit the Empire State Building, Times Square and the Statue of Liberty! These sites are famous for a reason, after all, and truly nothing compares to your first day in NYC, being swallowed by the concrete and movement. But if you consider yourself a frequent visitor, or if you’ve finally been able to call New York your home, then consider stepping off the beaten path and fill your itinerary with some of these awesome experiences instead.
Below, we have a number of our favorite experiences that don’t quite fit into any specific categories. Then read on to discover our favorite parks, annual events, stores, nightlife and spots to get an awesome view of the skyline. NYC offers so much; after 9 years, we’re still discovering more and more!
This board game cafe is super cute and super cramped (though that just adds to the ambiance!) You’re going to want to make reservations or go midday if you hope to get a table. The Uncommons boasts a large collection of board games and card games that you can play during your visit, as well as unopened games that you can purchase. They serve junky snack foods like mini pizzas and pigs in a blanket, as well as lattes, espessos and hot chocolates. Grab a snack, a hot drink and cram into one of their crowded tables for a full night of fun.
Queens Night Market
This may be one of our very favorite events in New York City. In the summer, Cornoa hosts the Queens Night Market. This market was created to resemble the night markets of South East Asia; it boasts international cuisines from countries like Palestine, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Mauritius, El Salvador, Afghanistan and so much more! All food items have a mandatory price point of $5, so not only is it much more unique than Smorgasburg, it’s also much more affordable. It’s a melting pot of so many different cultures, peoples and food - a glimpse at what a peaceful world would look like, all in one park.
Jacob Riis Beach
Our favorite NYC beach is near the Rockaways, but it’s a little bit more of a secret! This beach is much less crowded than Coney Island, cleaner than Staten Island’s beaches, and always seems to have awesome waves. We usually park at Jacob Riis Beach ($10 entry per car). You can also stop by the Riis Park Beach Bazaar for some delicious (albeit expensive) eats from NYC favorites like Brooklyn Star and Ample Hills Creamery.
One of our favorite spots in NYC! It’s exactly what it sounds like: a library full of rows and rows of sketchbooks. You cannot just pull a sketchbook from the wall; you have to “check it out” on one of their ipads and they’ll bring it to you (you can request a sketchbook by style or subject, or just ask for a random one), but this makes it such a magical experience. You just never know what sort of whimsy you may find. It’s an incredible place to get swept away in.
Sleep No More
You cannot miss this trippy event! Get tickets to Sleep No More and wander through the 5-floor McKitrick Hotel in Hell’s Kitchen. This is an immersive theatrical experience that is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. You are wandering throughout the hotel during the show while actors are in character around you. At some points you’ll find yourself following a character throughout their timeline, other times you’ll be sprinting through the hallways to chase someone you only just got a glimpse of, and still other times the characters will pull you into the story and (silently) interact with you. (For example, one of the actors pulled me into a private room and poured me a shot of whiskey, and another actor kissed Daniel on the forehead during a dance scene.) To add to the trippy experience, all “guests” of the hotel are wearing masks. Our tip: be brave enough to split up. You’ll enjoy the solitary experience, and you’ll have so many stories to swap at the end of the show when you finally meet up with your party again. Oh, and you’re definitely going to want to try and be an audience to the orgy + goat sacrifice scene.
NYC has a lot of history, too. From its tenement museum, to its speakeasys and prohibition rooms, to the Fraunces Tarvern that George Washington would frequent; but most excitingly, it has Alexander Hamilton’s home. Of course, we never thought to visit his home until after we saw Hamilton on Broadway (just being honest), but access to this site is free and the neighborhood surrounding the home is gorgeous! Definitely worth a visit if you’re a history buff, a fan of the musical or you’d just like to explore a new part of the city!
Most cities now have bike sharing, and NYC’s bike share system is Citibike. For $12/day you can have unlimited access to Citibike’s fleet. We love riding along the Manhattan waterfronts; their bike paths from the Financial District all the way up to Riverside Park are fantastic. But whether you bike along the Hudson, cruise through Central Park, or brave a ride in Midtown traffic (all of which we’ve done), be prepared to dodge hoards of tourists! Nimble bike-handling skills are a must.
Central Park is an obligatory favorite for all New Yorkers. In fact, Central Park may be one of our favorite places on the entire earth. Both Central Park and Washington Square Park are the sort of places you wander through and know you’re bound to experience something magical – artists creating mosaics with colorful sand on the ground, a photographer at night taking over-exposed photos with fireworks, a Husky meet-up with well over 30 Huskies – you never know what you may experience. But New York City has parks that teem with the same sort of magic, while also being off the beaten tourist path.
Gantry Plaza State Park
This park in Long Island City, Queens is probably our favorite of this category: it’s just one train stop into Queens (or one water ferry stop), so it has excellent views of the expansive skyline. The park has waterfront walking and biking paths, hammocks, lounge chairs, tables for chess and checkers, playgrounds and dog parks, and it’s backdropped by the Pepsi Cola Sign, a historical landmark. In the 1940s, this sign stood atop of Pepsi’s enormous bottling plant; now it adorns residential buildings. For the most part, this park is a Queens secret. Maybe someday it’ll be overrun by tourists like the Brooklyn Promenade, but until then, we’ll make use of it.
Socrates Sculpture Park
The Socrates Sculpture Park in Astoria, Queens is an outdoor art gallery; it frequently changes the sculptures that is displays, so it’s a new experience every time you go. Each piece has information about the artist and inspiration so that you can truly immerse yourself in the art. A few of the pieces are even interactive and can be climbed, walked or posed on (though pay attention to the signs and be respectful fo the art!). It, too, has a view of the NYC skyline.
I guess we like waterfront parks because Transmitter Park is also positioned right on the edge of the East River, in between Greenpoint and Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This sprawling park is laid back and built around a big, beautiful open lawn (a luxury in NYC!). It also also includes a pedestrian bridge that follows the shore, and (my personal favorite part) a gorgeous mural on the warehouse beside it. It’s possibly my favorite mural in NYC! Visit Transmitter Park for the photogenic views and the art.
North Brooklyn Farms
And our last (also waterfront) park: an urban farm in Williamsburg, Brooklyn situated right beside the now-unused Domino Sugar refinery. You can actually become a member of this park and have access to the fresh fruits and veggies grown here! We love wandering through the gardens, posing beside their gorgeous sunflowers, and wandering in and out of the ‘Fruin Farmhouse,’ a colorful art installation created by Tom Fruin.
A lot of NYC’s claim to fame comes in the incredible events that the city hosts every year. From the US Open, to the Jingle Bell Ball, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, NYC hosts hundreds of famous events. But here are some less-famous options that are equally (or probably even more) exciting to attend:
Macy’s Flower Show
Every year, to welcome Spring, Macy’s hosts a flower show; they fill their 34th street flagship location with out-of-this-world creations made from flowers. This year (2018)’s theme was “Once Upon a Springtime” – the incredible displays were themed around a magical fairytale. You could actually walk from one installment to the next and read “chapters” of the story about feuding princesses and friendly dragons. In the past, they’ve themed their show around carnivals, art galleries, fashion shows and more.
Every year, the Pride Parade marches in lower Manhattan to memorialize the Stonewall riots that took place after a police raid at the Stonewall Inn in which LGBT lives were taken. The Stonewall Riots are considered one of the most important events that led to the gay liberation movement in the USA. Today, the parade is full of rainbow flags, flowers, glitter, and thousands of happy, joyful and proud people celebrating their freedom to love. Though there is still so much discrimination to be fought, NYC’s Pride Parade and the openness of NYC’s LGBT community is one of the most electric events to take part of. 2019’s Pride Parade will be held on Sunday, June 30th.
A Night of Philosophy and Ideas
The Brooklyn Public Library hosts this awesome event each year. They call it “an all-night marathon of philosophical debate, performances, screenings, readings, and music.” And being a philosophy major myself, I find myself completely engrossed! When you arrive, you’ll be given an itinerary of the events and lectures. Pick your favorite and plan your night - you’ll feel enlightened by the end of it!
Midsummer Night Swing
In the summer, Lincoln Square hosts Midsummer Night Swing, a series of dance classes and live music. Each nights hosts different genres; from swing dancing, salsa, ballroom dancing, big band swing and more. There are leaders on the stage teaching the crowd basic dance moves then, after the “lesson,” there is live music and open dance! Sometimes they even hold contests in which people can show off their moves. It’s guaranteed to be a lively night! Tickets are required to attend this event, season passes also exist.
We wouldn’t have learned of this event if we didn’t live in Jackson Heights! Jackson Heights has the highest Tibetan/Nepalese populations outside of Tibet and Nepal; so finding momos (Tibetan-Nepalese dumplings) is not hard! And let me tell you what: Daniel and I have definitely become fond of momos. Every year, Jackson Heights hosts the Momo Crawl; you start in Diversity Plaza so that you can collect your map of all the participating restaurants, and then you can visit as many as you’d like and get momos for $1 each! It’s a super fun event and a great way to see a part of NYC that people don’t often get to, as well as to satiate yourself with Nepalese dumplings!
Meet the Breeds
Every February, the American Kennel Club hosts Meet the Breeds. The dogs are already in town for “Westminster Week” (a variety of dog shows and agility contests hosted by the AKC and WKC), so Meet the Breeds brings them all together into a cumulative event where you can meet every single one of them! From Akitas to Xoloitzcuintlis and everything in between; if you love dogs, you are not going to want to miss this event. Tickets are generally in the $15 range.
Forget Gucci and Tiffany’s, NYC has a collection of equally exciting stores with much more personality, culture and quirkiness.
Enchantments in the Lower East Side is New York City’s oldest occult store; it is small, inviting and dimly lit - glitter litters the floor and incense permeates the air. Root through their interesting collections of books, candles and herbs or attend an event like a tarot reading or candle carving workshop. The best part are their familiars - the silky, black cats that wander through the store. They don’t allow photos so I snagged these from their Instagram!
Visit Brooklyn Charm in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to create your one-of-a-kind piece of jewelry. They have rows and rows of chains, jewels, pendants and charms that you can sift through as you build your treasure. Once you choose your chain and charms, the jewelry maker will craft your bracelet or necklace right in front of you! I still wear the bracelet that I created at Brooklyn Charm two years ago; but just the experience of sifting through the countless options was entertaining and unique enough to add Brooklyn Charm to this list!
Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company
We love this cool chain of stores that exists in a few urban areas throughout the country. (There’s a Pirate Supply Store in San Francisco and a Spy Supply Store in Chicago.) These quirky stores actually serve as a front for 826NYC, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting students, ages 6-18, with their writing skills. On first glance, it seems like a normal (albeit quirky) retail store, but the kids enter the room where they receive their tutoring through a hidden door in the wall! But even if you aren’t a student, the store is fun to spend time in. In Brooklyn’s superhero supply store, they sell capes, masks, “superpowers” by the pint, and short stories written by their students. You can try on the capes on a platform that will give you the boost of wind you need to see how the cape would look while you’re flying, as well as take their quiz to find out whether you’re a superhero or a villan. That, and more! This store is a worth a visit.
Amazon Bookstore & Amazon 4-Star
I’m sure, one day, these Amazon stores will be all over the globe; but for now, visit them in NYC! The Amazon Bookstore is a unique experience, and one that I genuinely like browsing through when compared to other bookstores like Barnes and Noble. The Amazon Bookstore displays all of their books by cover (just like you would view them when browsing their website.) In fact, they built the whole store about the Amazon website browsing experience: they advertise best sellers with a “if you liked this, then you’ll like these” sign pointing to a slew of similar options. They arrange books by “Fiction Rated 5 Stars,” or “NYC Locals Love These” or “Most Wished For” (books popular on people’s Amazon wishlists) or “Unputdownable” (books finished in 5 days or less.) It’s an interesting, modern spin on an older model and we really enjoy browsing.
Amazon 4-Star is a retail space that only sells items rated 4 or 5 stars on Amazon. It’s more cluttered than their bookstores because the collection is so eclectic (everything from Amazon Echos to dog leashes), but it’s also an enjoyable browsing experience and there are plenty of cool things to sift through.
One thing about me (Amanda) and my siblings: we love candy! Economy Candy is my favorite candy store in the city; it’s jam-packed – wall-to-wall – with every sort of candy you could dream of. Classic candies, foreign chocolates, and unique spins on fan favorites (like strawberry and white chocolate Kit Kats). They also have (I’m convinced) the best rock candy I’ve ever had.
Starbucks Reserve Roastery
If you like Starbucks, definitely put the Reserve Roastery on your list! We visited the one in Seattle a few years ago, but they finally brought one to NYC last year. This is a whole new, elevated way to experience Starbucks. With a sparkling bar, expansive gift shop, and even available tours of how they make their coffee. Grab a seat and let their waiters come to you - Daniel loves the cold brew malt. You can also try espresso flights, pair your coffees with chocolate truffles, or try a “chemex for two” at their “experience bar.”
Just to preface our nightlife section: Daniel and I aren’t really the “go out and drink until the wee hours of the morning” sort of people. We’d rather have an awesome activity that we’re focused on, while also sipping wine or ciders. If you’d rather be swallowed up by lights, music and booze, our nightlife suggestions probably aren’t for you.
A ping-pong night club. Yes, it’s as cool as it sounds. Rent a table for $19-$29/hour (depending on the time of day) and get treated to full bar service, awesome food, and unlimited ping pong. Fun fact about myself: I love ping pong. My entire family used to host a “marathon” every year during Christmas – cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents would all play. It’s in the blood. Plus, this club is just super swanky.
Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club
Ever been shuffleboarding? Well, now’s your shot! If you have a party of 4 or more, call ahead to reserve your board and get ready for a night (or afternoon!) of fun. Just like at Spin, there is full bar service during your shuffleboarding games, and Royal Palms also brings in new food carts every day for your perusal. You’ll find yourself sipping some beers while enjoying an activity you didn’t know you’d enjoy!
For the View
Forget spending $40 a person for a ticket to the observation deck of the Empire State Building, One World Trade Center or Top of the Rock (though, if you were going to pick one of those, we say Top of the Rock has the best view); instead, spend next to nothing and have a more unique experience while snapping your pics of the New York skyline!
For the cost of one metrocard swipe you can take this sky tram to Roosevelt Island! It’s a unique experience that gives you great views of the skyline; forget paying $40 for an observation deck ticket and experience this local secret instead.
Staten Island Ferry
Board the FREE, 30 min ferry ride to Staten Island and grab your seats toward the back of the boat (snag a seat outside if it’s nice!) to snap your pic of the Financial District and the Statue of Liberty. When you get to Staten Island, exit the boat and turn around to walk right onto the next one (exiting, however, is mandatory) or stop by one of only two Dairy Queens in New York City, like we usually do.
So that’s that! Nearly a decade’s worth of NYC experiences weeded down to our very favorites. Step out of Midtown and make memories of NYC’s limitless opportunities. Oh, and for when you get hungry after all that exploring? Check out some of our favorite spots!