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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  • Historical attractions in NYC

    Photograph: Shahar Azran

    Apollo Theater

    Historical attractions in NYC
  • Historical attractions in NYC

    BLDG 92

    Historical attractions in NYC
  • Historical attractions in NYC

    Photograph: Michael Kirby

    Brooklyn Bridge

    Historical attractions in NYC
  • Historical attractions in NYC

    Photograph: Charles Denson

    Coney Island Cyclone

    Historical attractions in NYC
  • Historical attractions in NYC

    Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    The Cloisters

    Historical attractions in NYC
  • Historical attractions in NYC

    Empire State Building

    Historical attractions in NYC
  • Historical attractions in NYC

    Flatiron Building

    Historical attractions in NYC
  • Historical attractions in NYC

    Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Flushing Meadows–Corona Park

    Historical attractions in NYC
  • Historical attractions in NYC

    Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    Green-Wood Cemetery

    Historical attractions in NYC
  • Historical attractions in NYC

    The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum

    Historical attractions in NYC
  • Historical attractions in NYC

    Photograph: Moira Brazier

    New York Public Library, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

    Historical attractions in NYC
  • Historical attractions in NYC

    Photograph: Alex Strada

    New-York Historical Society

    Historical attractions in NYC
  • Historical attractions in NYC

    Photograph: Krista Schlueter

    New York Transit Museum

    Historical attractions in NYC
  • Historical attractions in NYC

    Photograph: Michael Kirby

    Radio City Music Hall

    Historical attractions in NYC
  • Historical attractions in NYC

    Photograph: Michael Kirby

    St. Patrick's Cathedral

    Historical attractions in NYC
  • Historical attractions in NYC

    Statue of Liberty

    Historical attractions in NYC
  • Historical attractions in NYC

    United Nations Building

    Historical attractions in NYC
  • Historical attractions in NYC

    Photograph: Wendy Connett

    Washington Square Park

    Historical attractions in NYC

Historical attractions in NYC

Photograph: Shahar Azran

Apollo Theater

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.


RECOMMENDED: The 50 best New York attractions you have to see


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

Green-Wood Cemetery

  • Critics choice

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.

  1. 500 25th St, (at Fifth Ave)
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Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum

  • Price band: 3/4

There’s more to this decommissioned aircraft carrier than an unparalleled collection of fighter jets, a Blackbird spy plane, a Concorde, the nuclear submarine USS Growler, a prototype space shuttle and a capsule that returned one of the first astrotourists to earth (though all are worth the price of admission alone). Permanent exhibits address the human element, from a harrowing 30-minute video with audiovisual effects about the kamikaze attacks the Intrepid suffered to a chance to see how the crew lived and admire their graffiti. )

  1. Pier 86, Twelfth Ave, (at 46th St)
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New-York Historical Society

  • Critics choice

New York’s oldest museum, founded in 1804, was one of America’s first cultural and educational institutions. Instead of the niche perspective on NYC’s past that some of our favorite attractions offer, this institution gives a comprehensive look at the New York of yesteryear. Exhibits here are wide-ranging, covering all aspects of city life, and the museum’s permanent holdings—many of which are on view in the open-storage galleries on its fourth floor—offer a glimpse into quotidian urban living, with items such as vintage toys, furniture and clothing on display. A massive renovation, completed in 2011, made exhibits more compelling and interactive, helping visitors gain a clearer, deeper understanding of the city.

  1. 170 Central Park West, (between 76th and 77th Sts)
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New York Public Library, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

  • Free

The century-old main branch of the NYPL is about as regal a setting for reading—either on your laptop or those old dusty things called books—as you’ll find in the city. Two massive Tennessee-marble lions, dubbed Patience and Fortitude, flank the main portal and have become the institution’s mascots. Once inside, check out the cavernous Rose Main Reading Room, spanning almost 300 feet and outfitted with chandeliers and stunning ceiling murals. Though it’s a classy setting in most instances, it’s also where Bill Murray uttered, “Are you, Alice, menstruating right now?” and “Back off, man, I’m a scientist” in Ghostbusters.

  1. Fifth Ave, (at 42nd St)
More info

New York Transit Museum

  • Price band: 1/4
  • Critics choice

Other archives may offer broader perspectives on city history, but we love the Transit Museum because it goes deep into one essential element of New York life: the public transit system. Opened in 1976 in a former IND subway station, the museum displays historic artifacts—including a collection of vintage train cars spanning the 20th century—as well as more timely pieces, such as works from the MTA’s Arts for Transit program.

  1. Boerum Pl, (at Schermerhorn St)
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Radio City Music Hall

  • Price band: 3/4

New York City is full of legendary performance venues, but few match Radio City Music Hall in terms of sheer elegance. The Art Deco concert hall remains one of the prettiest in the city: Designed by Donald Deskey, its interior features opulent chandeliers and lush carpets, while the stage and proscenium are meant to resemble a setting sun. Although Radio City is probably best known as the home of the Rockettes, a plethora of noteworthy performers have graced its boards, including huge pop stars (Lady Gaga, the Jonas Brothers) and indie faves (Pulp, Grizzly Bear).

  1. 1260 Sixth Ave, (at 50th St)
Buy tickets

St. Patrick's Cathedral

  • Free

Even though it faces off against the imposing Art Deco Rockefeller Center, architect James Renwick's Gothic Revival building holds it own with intricate marble towers, a cavernous ribbed vault, pointed arches and buttresses. But the real treasures are inside this active house of worship, which is bursting with awe-inspiring works. While the stained glass, along with much of the exterior, is currently covered in scaffolding for an ongoing $175-million restoration project, due for completion in 2015, the cathedral is still worth a visit. More than 200 saints are represented throughout the church, with many alters helpfully explaining their stories for those who cut Bible studies class. Seek out the alter of Saint Louis, just north of the Lady's Chapel, designed by the Tiffany workshop and donated by Jackie O's father Michael Bouvier. To the south of Saint Louis is an oversized copy of Michelangelo's Pieta, made by the same sculptor who fashioned the lions outside the New York Public Library on 42nd Street.

  1. 14 E 51st St, (between Fifth and Madison Aves)
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The Statue of Liberty

  • Price band: 1/4
  • Critics choice

Perhaps no other New York attraction is as iconic—or as avoided by tourist-averse New Yorkers—as Lady Liberty. The landmark was closed in the fall in order to repair damage sustained during Hurricane Sandy, but happily, it will reopen to the public on July 4. (How apropos.) Our tip: Dodge the foam-crown-sporting masses and skip the line for the ferry by prebooking a combo cruise-and-tour ticket (visit statuecruises.com for more information). A climb to the crown affords a panoramic view of New York Harbor and the chance to see the literal nuts and bolts of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s creation. We also recommend stopping in the museum on Liberty Island, if only to marvel at the initial ambivalence of 19th-century New Yorkers when they were asked to fund the construction of the pedestal.

  1. Liberty Island
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United Nations Headquarters

Technically, the U.N. complex is international territory, but that doesn’t mean you get immunity when you enter (so don’t steal from the Delegates Dining Room buffet). The striking, 39-story Secretariat Building (designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer) is the complex’s most eye-catching structure, but it’s not open to the public. Visitors can instead tour the midcentury assembly room whenever dignitaries aren’t using it, or enjoy free art in the lobby. The U.N. even has its own post office, but the personalized stamps sold there are only good if mailed from that spot.

  1. U.N. Plaza, First Ave, (at 46th St)
More info


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