Historical attractions in New York you shouldn't miss

Get a history lesson along with your sightseeing by visiting these top historical attractions, which offer a glimpse into New York City’s past.

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Photograph: Shahar Azran

Apollo Theater

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BLDG 92

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Photograph: Michael Kirby

Brooklyn Bridge

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Photograph: Charles Denson

Coney Island Cyclone

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Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

The Cloisters

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Empire State Building

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Flatiron Building

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Photograph: Virginia Rollison

Flushing Meadows–Corona Park

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Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

Green-Wood Cemetery

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The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum

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Photograph: Moira Brazier

New York Public Library, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

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Photograph: Alex Strada

New-York Historical Society

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Photograph: Krista Schlueter

New York Transit Museum

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Photograph: Michael Kirby

Radio City Music Hall

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Photograph: Michael Kirby

St. Patrick's Cathedral

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Statue of Liberty

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United Nations Building

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Photograph: Wendy Connett

Washington Square Park

New York City is home to plenty of historic landmarks and links to the city’s past. Check out our guide to these top historical attractions, and find out where you can see old buildings, noteworthy architecture, and vintage sights that hark back to New York’s origins.

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Apollo Theater

The 78-year-old Harlem institution has been the site of more than a few historic moments: Ella Fitzgerald’s first performance happened here in 1934; Live at the Apollo, recorded in 1962, practically launched James Brown into the mainstream; and a young Jimi Hendrix won an Amateur Night contest in 1964. Despite its storied history and grand decor, this living link to the Harlem Renaissance feels rather cozy inside. As of late, the theater has attracted big-name comedians (Aziz Ansari, Tracy Morgan, Jim Gaffigan) and huge rock stars (Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen), while still welcoming under-the-radar talent to its famed Wednesday Amateur Night.

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Harlem

BLDG 92

Located in a former military residence on the grounds of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, this small museum chronicles the mighty history of the former shipbuilding center—which, at its peak during World War II, employed close to 70,000 people. Permanent exhibits examine the yard’s origins and significance throughout history; for example, a number of massive vessels, including the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor and the Pearl Harbor casualty USS Arizona, were built at the Navy Yard. But the institution also looks to the manufacturing future of the space and increasing number of businesses moving in each year businesses (including Brooklyn Grange, which operates an apiary on site). The location includes a café, weekend bus tours ($18–$30) and an 8,000-square-foot exhibition space that features the permanent “Brooklyn Navy Yard: Past, Present and Future” exhibit, as well as rotating offerings. A free weekend shuttle departs from Jay St at Willoughby St every 15–20 minutes.

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Fort Greene

Brooklyn Bridge

No mere river crossing, this span is an elegant reminder of New York’s history of architectural innovation. When it opened in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge was a feat of engineering: It was the first structure to cross the East River and, at the time, the longest suspension bridge in the world. (It also made use of steel-wire cables, invented by the bridge’s original designer, John A. Roebling.) Now it attracts thousands of tourists and locals, who enjoy spectacular views of lower Manhattan and other city landmarks (such as the Statue of Liberty and Governors Island) as they stroll its more-than-mile-long expanse. Heads up, though: You may run into the occasional cyclist trying to navigate through the crowds on the pedestrian walkway.

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Dumbo

Chrysler Building

We won’t argue if you want to call this glimmering pinnacle of Art Deco architecture NYC’s most eye-popping skyscraper. Triangle-shaped windows in its crown are lined with lights, creating a beautiful effect come nighttime. Oozing a moneyed sophistication oft identified with old New York, the structure pays homage to its namesake with giant eagles (replicas of ones added to Chrysler automobiles in the 1920s) in lieu of traditional gargoyles and a brickwork relief sculpture of racing cars, complete with chrome hubcaps. During the famed three-way race to construct Manhattan’s tallest building, the Chrysler added a needle-sharp stainless-steel spire to best 40 Wall Street—but was outdone shortly after its completion in 1930 by the Empire State Building.

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Midtown East

The Cloisters

This Middle Ages museum may have been constructed in the ’30s, but it feels much older than that. Set in a bucolic park overlooking the Hudson River, the structure re-creates architectural details from five 15th-century monasteries and houses items from the Met’s medieval art and architecture collections. John D. Rockefeller, who donated the land for the museum, even purchased a tract across the river to preserve the pristine view. Make sure to inspect the tapestries, including the famous 16th-century Hunt of the Unicorn.

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Washington Heights

Coney Island Cyclone

Nothing offers a thrilling jolt of Brooklyn nostalgia quite like a ride on the Cyclone. The roller coaster dates to 1927, when Coney Island was a booming seaside resort, but shuttered for six years starting in 1969, marking one of many troubled economic periods for the ’hood. Aside from grabbing a beer and hot dog at Nathan’s Famous, riding the Cyclone is the thing to do at Coney Island on a lovely summer day.

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Coney Island

Empire State Building

Try imagining New York City’s skyline without the towering spire of the Empire State Building. Impossible, right? Taking a mere 11 months to construct, the 1,454-foot-tall emblem became the city’s highest building upon completion in 1931. (When One World Trade Center is finished, it will tower over the ESB by a good 300 feet.) During your visit, pay special attention to the lobby, restored in 2009 to its original Art Deco design. You can also impress your pals with these tidbits while queuing for the observation decks: In 1945, 14 tenants were killed when a plane crashed into the 79th floor during heavy fog; a terrace on the 103rd level was once intended for use as a docking station for airships; and the topper’s three tiers of lights can illuminate up to nine colors at a time. High-speed elevators shoot visitors up 1,050 feet to the 86th-floor observatory, where you can either peer out at the city from the comfort of a glass-enclosed pavilion or brave the elements on the open-air decks. Tickets to the 102nd Floor Observatory are an additional $17. Daily 8am–10pm: The New York Skyride Visitors take a motion-picture tour over, through and below the city streets ($29; seniors, students and children 6–12 $19).

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Midtown West

Flatiron Building

This 21-story Beaux Arts edifice once dominated midtown. Although it’s now dwarfed by other structures, when it debuted in 1902, the triangle-shaped monolith represented the threat and the thrill of modernity: Naysayers claimed it would never withstand the high winds plaguing 23rd Street, while revered photographer Alfred Stieglitz—who captured it in an iconic shot in 1903—wrote that it was “a picture of a new America still in the making.” Today, it’s possibly the least tourist-friendly New York landmark. The space above the ground-floor shops, occupied by publishing house Macmillan, is inaccessible to the public, but during office hours you can admire black-and-white photos and read a few panels on the history of the tower in its lobby. If you want to see the “point” offices (just over six feet wide at their narrowest), we suggest getting to work on the Great American Novel.

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Gramercy & Flatiron

Flushing Meadows–Corona Park

Give the city’s second-biggest park a day and it’ll show you the world: Its most enduring icon is the Unisphere, the mammoth steel globe created for the 1964 World’s Fair. But there’s also first-rate culture and sports at the New York Hall of Science, Arthur Ashe Stadium and Citi Field (depending on how the Mets are doing). The rolling green fields also encompass a zoo, a boating lake, a skate park, a barbecue area, playfields, and a $66 million aquatic and hockey center. In 2011, wetland plants such as swamp azalea and swamp milkweed were added to better handle the park’s water runoff, improving the catch-and-release fishing in Meadow Lake.

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Flushing

Green-Wood Cemetery

Critics' pick

A century ago, this site vied with Niagara Falls as New York State’s greatest tourist attraction. Filled with Victorian mausoleums, cherubs and gargoyles, Green-Wood is the resting place of some half-million New Yorkers, among them Jean-Michel Basquiat, Leonard Bernstein and Boss Tweed. But there’s more to do here than grave-spot: Check out the massive Gothic arch at the main entrance or climb to the top of Battle Hill, one of the highest points in Kings County and a pivotal spot during the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776.

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Sunset Park
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