Like many other big cities, New York can be very daunting for the first time visitor. It can also be very expensive, though it doesn’t have to be. Many people I know that have visited there several times still end up staying in expensive places and doing the same old tourist things.
Now, don’t get me wrong. The view from the top of the Empire state building is pretty awesome, and a visit to New York without going to the Statue of Liberty would be pretty much incomplete. There are plenty of “must do” things in the city. But what about the secret New York that only ‘in-the-know’ locals are aware of?
Having spent several years living in Manhattan, I can tell you that if you don’t have a friend in town, you will usually not find some of the more unique places. It’s a big city, and without someone to show you, they tend to remain a little elusive. Most of the guidebooks won’t tell you either, simply because they are geared towards “The Tourist.”
So in the interest of making your upcoming visit more fun, I will share some of the lesser known destinations in the city that are worth going to. They are in no particular order, but all have something different to offer. Get out and see the oddities.
Manhattan is an island with fantastic public transport. But most people never go any further north than the top of Central Park. Jus a few block further north is 125th street, and that’ where Harlem starts. Many people don’t want to venture there because they think (rightly or wrongly) that it is dangerous. But if you take the A train to 190th Street, you’ll be surprised at how different this area is from central Manhattan. Leafy green areas await you. Just walk north along Margaret Corbin Drive for about ten minutes and you will come to The Cloisters. Owned by the Metropolitan Museum, the Cloisters was built in the 1930s to resemble the architectural styles of European medieval abbeys. They studied medieval manuscripts to design and plant the herb gardens in the style of the time period. Inside the buildings are 5000 European medieval works of art from the 12th through the 15th centuries. You can wander around this place all day. Pack a picnic and dine in the outdoor lavender gardens.
New York has one of the busiest subway systems in the world. It’s cheap too, for just $2.75 you can go across the entire city, and it’s even less with a MetroCard. It’s an old system, started in 1904, and there are countless disused stations under the city that even most locals don’t know exist. Most are illegal and dangerous to visit, though if you catch a glimpse of one while passing in a train, you will often see spooky art exhibitions left by intrepid underground artists. But one place you can easily see is the abandoned City Hall station. It was opened in 1904 as the crown jewel of the system but was closed and boarded up in 1945 because the newer longer cars did allow for a safe exit from the train anymore. This combined with the fact that only about 600 people ever used it, resulted in its demise. There were plans of turning it into a transit museum but it never happened.
It’s not open to the general public, but if you simply stay on the number 6 train at the Brooklyn Bridge stop during its turnaround you’ll see the station in all its glory. It’s like a trip back in time. Very few locals even know that the MRT allows people to do this.
St. Marks Place
Between 6th and 8th street in the lower east side of Manhattan, you would think that you would find 7th street, right? Nope. This is St. Marks Place. It’s a center of bohemian atmosphere, with lots of cool retail shops, cafes, bars and amazing historic architecture. There are loads of cheap places to eat and drink. The street even has the famous building from the cover of Led Zeppelins “Physical Graffiti” album. In the local bars you’ll often see old local Ukrainians side by side with actors, musicians, poets and travelers. I met Alice Cooper there, as well as Joey Ramone, Deborah Harry and Christina Applegate. It is definitely a cool place to just hang out, eat shop and take photos.
Staten Island Ferry
Summers can get hot and sticky in the city, and a good respite is the Staten Island ferry. There is really not much to see or do in Staten island itself, but the ride on the ferry is absolutely free, so you don’t have to stay there but just go and come back. It’s 25 minutes each way, and besides giving you some well needed fresh air, you get amazing views of the NYC skyline and the Statue of Liberty. Bring your camera.
And some things that most people pass right by….
In New York, most people s are consistently in a hurry. Often they miss things that are right in front of them everyday. If you know where to look, you just might see some pretty cool things. Even the most jaded New Yorker is often surprised when they notice some of these things that are barely hidden in plain sight.
It’s cool, it’s art deco. The lobby of the building that housed the Daily News from 1929 to 1995. Set into the floor of the lobby is a 4,000-lb globe of the world, lit dramatically from below through tiers of frosted glass. Looks just like in the Superman movie.
Vaults of Gold At The Federal Reserve Bank
Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 33 Liberty Street
Take a tour of the Federal Reserve Bank and prepare to have your mind blown at the visual of $300 billion in gold. In one room. The tour takes you 80 feet below street level and behind a 230-ton revolving door. And right there, behind thick wire mesh and stacked 6 foot high is a wall of solid gold. This tour is not for the claustrophobic.
Sitting in plain sight in a quiet courtyard of this office building on Madison Ave next to a few cafe tables stands what looks to be just a graffiti wall. In fact, it is a five-panel stretch of the former Berlin Wall. The artwork is that of the French painter Thierry Noir and his renegade artist friends who risked their lives almost every night, sneaking into the “no man land” area to transform the bleak wall. Over five years, Thierry and his friends covered two and a half miles of the wall, probably the longest painting in history.
In virtually every big city you’ll encounter hidden gems that will only be known to some locals. Do a bit of research before setting off and you never know what you might find. This blog I wrote for Pink Perception in Jan, 2014. I have written and continue to write for various blogs and travel publications.