It’s not all bright lights and LED screens: New York City is still home to plenty of historical attractions that link the city to its storied past. Our list of the city’s most significant landmarks includes plenty of beautiful NYC buildings, classic New York music venues and even a few NYC parks. Whether you’re brand new to the Big Apple or call this city home, you’ll learn something new about its history at each and every one of these places. It’s one of those things you can only do in NYC.
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Historical attractions in NYC
The 103-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 Amateur Night.
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. History buffs might also want to sign up for weekend tours covering manufacturing during World War II, or take a peek into the yard’s future with a tour of new businesses like Brooklyn Grange and American Heirloom.
The Brooklyn Bridge’s elegant arches serve as a reminder of NYC’s history of architectural innovation. When it opened in 1883, this bridge over the East River was the longest suspension bridge in the world. The bridge’s original designer, John A. Roebling, invented the steel-wire cables used. It’s also the site of an early victory for feminism. After both Roebling and his son died during construction, his wife Emily Warren Roebling took over as chief engineer and became the first person to cross the finished structure. Tourists still flock to the mile-long expanse to take in spectacular views of lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty.
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.
This museum dedicated to the art and architecture of the Middle Ages may have been constructed in the 1930s, but it feels much older than that. Set in a bucolic park overlooking the Hudson River, the structure incorporates architectural details from five 15th-century monasteries. 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 The Hunt of the Unicorn, which dates back to the 16th century.
At nearly 100 years old, this wooden roller coaster is one of the oldest in the nation. But the part of Luna Park it occupies is also the site of another piece of amusement park history: The first roller coaster in the U.S., the Switchback Railway, was built here in 1884. Today, the Cyclone offers thrill seekers a chance to experience “The Nation’s Playground” as it was during its heydey. Adrenaline junkies won’t be disappointed by the twists and turns, either: The Cyclone covers 3,000 feet of track in just under two minutes, topping out at 60 miles per hour.
Between 1892 and 1954, more than 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island’s doors in search of a better life. The on-site museum incorporates their voices and stories into a series of evocative exhibits meant to give modern day visitors a sense of what each room was like during the early 20th century. The immigration process required registration, legal hearings, inspections, medical treatments—a daunting ordeal when you don’t speak English. After you get a sense of the struggle, you can look up your ancestors in the searchable passenger database.
Try imagining New York City’s skyline without the towering spire of the Empire State Building. Impossible, right? Taking just over a year to construct, the 1,454-foot-tall emblem became the city’s highest building upon completion in 1931. When construction on One World Trade Center finished, it claimed that title by more than 500 feet. During your visit, pay special attention to the lobby, restored in 2009 to its original Art Deco design. 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. You can also impress your pals with these tidbits while queuing: In 1945, 14 people 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.
Federal Hall had a different name when it was built between 1699 and 1703: New York City Hall. Some 80 years later, when the United States first became a fledgling democracy, New York City became the capital and the government commissioned Pierre L’Enfant to remodel what is now known as Federal Hall. George Washington took the oath of office to become the first president here, and the building was also home to the first Congress, Supreme Court and Executive Branch offices. Though the structure was eventually torn down and rebuilt, standing on the very spot where so much history took place still gives you goosebumps.
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Aleksandra M.
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.