If you’re like most people who plan to visit The Big Apple this year, you’re probably going to want to do some of the more obvious “touristy” things like take a tour bus around Times Square, visit an art museum, or see a broadway show. As nice as these things are, I’d like to suggest an alternative– going off the beaten path.
You might wonder why. Well, deciding not to do typical tourist activities has several upsides. Number one, you get to avoid the frustration of dealing with the long lines, massive crowds, and other annoying pitfalls that tend to come with visiting tourist traps. Two, you get to see a more authentic side of your travel destination, since tourist attractions are heavy on artificiality and– in an attempt to play things safe– often err on the side of sterility. Lastly, you become privy to sights and sounds that can sometimes be even cooler and less expensive than a locale’s most exalted tourist attractions. So in a nutshell, by going off the beaten path, you get to have a richer, more rewarding experience out of your trip than going the typical tourist route.
Now that I’ve whet your appetite, you’re probably wondering how you can take the road less traveled on your trip to The Big Apple. In that case, just check out this list of the top ten “off the beaten path” activities and places you can see and do in New York City.
1. Visit Roosevelt Island
Remember the movie “Dark Water?” This horror movie about a creepy water leak in a rundown apartment building wasn’t filmed on a Hollywood backlot but on Roosevelt Island, a sliver of land nestled between the borough of Manhattan and Queens. There’s a reason why it was chosen to be used as a backdrop for that movie– because of the island’s unusual history and its most famous landmark, the Renwick ruins (a smallpox hospital from the 19th century), it’s always had a certain type of creepy, atmospheric mystique appealing to those with a taste for the gothic.
If the whole “creepiness factor” isn’t your thing, there are other reasons to visit Roosevelt Island. Besides offering some terrific views of the Manhattan skyline, it’s just an interesting place to visit– if not for the architecture, then for its quirky “city within a city” charm. And let’s not forget the red-colored tramway, the aerial cable car that’s become it’s unofficial symbol. Take a trip on this ferry service that transports Roosevelt Island natives out to Manhattan, and you’ll be able to see some spectacular aerial views of NYC for just the price of a bus or subway fare.
2. Check out Chinatown
Want to really see some local color in New York? Then take a trip to NYC’s Chinatown, a bustling area of Asian businesses, restaurants, stores, and street vendors offering everything from cheap costume jewelry to authentic Thai, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Chinese cuisine. Although Chinatown is growing into a major tourist area, it is definitely not an overly sanitized, Disneyland-like tourist trap catering to people wanting to play it safe. It’s about as gritty and authentic as they come– just check out the grease-stained window displays of cooked ducks hanging from their necks if you don’t believe me, or the exotic fruit being sold by curbside vendors!
Of course, there’s more to Chinatown than greasy window displays and weird fruit. If you’re the type of person who’s into authentic Asian cuisine; are looking for interesting Asian gifts, collectibles, and household items; or just want to buy enough Pocky sticks to last you the year, you can do no better than to come here.
3. Visit the South Street Seaport
It almost seems odd that an oh, so modern city like New York would have an area that pretty much looks like a quaint maritime village, but that’s the great thing about this city; it’s just full of surprises. You’ll be surprised too when you visit the South Street Seaport, a historic cobble-stoned shopping area, museum, and pier surrounded by tall ships and breath-taking views of the NYC skyline, the East River, and the Brooklyn Bridge. Purchase some cool souvenirs, dine at one of its many restaurants, check out the museum, or participate in one of its many schedule events. This is also a cool place to bring a camera, as the ships permanently docked at the pier couldn’t form a more picturesque photo op.
4. See the Best of New York’s Architecture
Are you an architecture student? Or just someone who loves architecture? If you’re in New York, you have the perfect opportunity to see a lot of architecture’s greatest buildings in the flesh, as opposed to squinting at photos of them in a text book. Many of the world’s most famous buildings are here– from the Guggenheim Museum to the Chrysler Building– and believe it or not, quite a few are within walking distance of each other. Of course, you may not have the time to see all of them during your trip, but with a street map and decent planning, you could probably visit a sizable chunk of them in the span of a day.
5. Do Some People Watching in Union Square Park
Union Square is not just any park, but the last vestiges of bohemia left in a now overly homogenized New York City. There’s always something “groovy”, offbeat, or just plain wacky going on here, whether it’s people protesting a political cause, performance artists strutting their stuff, or some spontaneous event of one type or another being held by one of New York’s more eccentric inhabitants. It’s the perfect place for people watching or to catch a classic, “it could only happen in New York” moment.
Even when something quirky isn’t going on, Union Square is just a great place to visit anyway, as it’s the site of many outdoor markets, most notably the weekend-held farmer’s market–which sells organic produce– and the annual Christmas market.
6. Cross the Brooklyn Bridge
Between its beautiful architecture and the sweeping views of the East River, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge on foot is one of the best ways to really experience the best that NYC has to offer, and also a great way to start or end a day of touring. You’ll not only get terrific 360 degree views of the city, you’ll be up close and personal with one of engineering’s greatest marvels. Just a bit of advice– if you plan to cross it, make sure you bring some decent walking shoes, as it takes approximately a half hour to travel the length of the bridge.
7. Visit Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park
Many people assume that New York is just one huge concrete jungle, devoid of any nature or major scenic views. Little do they know that in the borough of Brooklyn, there are two large parks along its waterfront that offer just that– Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park. Stretched out in between two architectural behemoths (the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridge), they are the city’s best kept secrets. Picnic on the grass over open sky, watch East River boat traffic from the pier, or set up a tripod and take a dramatic picture of the glittering skyscrapers of Manhattan at sundown.
8. Take the Staten Island or IKEA Ferry
Want to see great views of the NYC skyline and New York harbor without paying a dime? Then take a hop on either the Staten Island Ferry or– on the weekends– the IKEA Water Taxi Ferry. The Staten Island Ferry is a free service that transports residents of Staten Island back and forth between their homes and lower Manhattan. The IKEA Water Taxi, which runs free on the weekends, is a courtesy offered by the furniture giant ferrying Manhattan residents to its Brooklyn location. No, you don’t have to be a Staten Island resident or IKEA shopper to use either ferry, and don’t worry– you can’t get stranded, as round trips are part of the service.
9. Go to Governor’s Island
Formally the home of the US Army personnel and the Coast Guard, Governor’s Island was closed for many years, but then recently re-opened to the public. It’s now become a hugely popular place to visit, and with good reason. Because the campus buildings and homes of military personnel and their families have been left intact, visitors are allowed to sneak a peak inside them and learn a little about the island’s rich history, which goes back to American revolution days. Governor’s Island isn’t all about history, though– visitors may also hold picnics, rent bikes, enjoy the island’s many scheduled events, or have a drink at “Water Taxi Beach.” If you do in fact plan to go there, make sure you check that it’s open, as the island is only accessible on the weekends during the summer months.
10. Check out St. John the Divine
When it comes to NYC cathedrals, most people only know about St. Patrick’s Cathedral, located across from Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan. However, New York has another equally as impressive one further north. Called the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, this massive structure, started in 1892, isn’t complete. Yet even in its unfinished state it is a sight to behold. Its nave is literally the size of two football fields, and the church, though incomplete, is the largest gothic cathedral in the world. Take a stroll through its cavernous space, attend an event, light a votive cancle, or just enjoy a moment of solace in a hustling and bustling city.