With so many iconic attractions ranking among the best things to do in NYC, it can feel like a daunting task to get through the entire list. And while everyone should see the Empire State Building at least once, skipping a few mainstream stops and going off the beaten path can be exciting and rewarding. Whether you’re looking for the best museums in NYC with quirky exhibits or the best NYC parks ideal for relaxing, here are best lesser known attractions to visit in New York.
RECOMMENDED: Full guide the best New York attractions
Best lesser known NYC attractions
Housed in what was once a military residence at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, this small museum pays homage the historical significance of the former shipbuilding center—which, at its peak during World War II, employed close to 70,000 people. History buffs can geek out over permanent exhibits like the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor and the Pearl Harbor casualty USS Arizona, which were both built at the Navy Yard, and explore the previously unheard stories of women and people of color who toiled on repairs of battleships and carriers.
It could take a lifetime to explore all that NYC has to offer, but this institution makes Gotham easier to tackle by sticking all the boroughs in a single room. The Panorama of the City of New York, a 9,335-square-foot model of the city, lets visitors examine every inch (each of which represents 100 real feet) without venturing outside. Peer down from above and pinpoint the miniature version of your corner deli. You can even “adopt” your favorite scaled-down apartment for as little as $50 (the cheapest real estate you’ll find around here!).
Opened in March of 2016, this new branch of the Metropolitan Museum is not yet as established as longtime standbys like the MoMA or the Whitney Museum, which formerly occupied the space. The location—named after the Hungarian architect Marcel Breuer, who designed it—is meant to make the Met a key player in the world of 20th- and 21st-century art. Recent exhibits have included “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible,” which includes incomplete works by masters ranging from Leonardo da Vinci to Andy Warhol, as well as a show by Indian modernist Nasreen Mohamedi.
The history of this beautiful estate dates back to the 17th Century, when Thomas Pell signed a treaty with the Siwanoy Indians to purchase what is now the Bronx borough. Located within today’s Pelham Bay Park, the current house was built between 1836 and 1842, and was sold to the City of New York in 1888. Re-opened as a museum in 1946, it now offers tours of its furnishings, carriage house and formal gardens.
Sitting just a ferry ride away from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, this Staten Island gem, a former home for retired sailers, is still somewhat of a secret. Spread across 83 acres, the area boasts an enormous botanical garden and cultural center surrounded by cobblestone streets and tiny paths of Victorian and Tudor homes. One of the most popular attractions here is the Chinese Scholar’s Garden, fitted with magnificent rocks meant to resemble mountains inspired by the poetry and paintings of Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist monks, as well as a bamboo forest path and Koi-filled pond.
This quirky institution houses all sorts of New York City ephemera, from old postcards featuring the Statue of Liberty to a vintage subway turnstile, as well as permanent exhibits on the history of burlesque in NYC and the 1939 World's Fair. The museum is also an active presence in the community, organizing special events (like a bike parade) and fund-raisers.
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.
This century-old building is one of New York City’s 20 tallest, and at the time of its completion in 1913, it was the tallest in the world. Its lights were turned on in a fancy opening ceremony by President Woodrow Wilson, who pushed the on switch from Washington, D.C. Since the demise of the Woolworth Company in the ’90s, the building has passed hands to property developers who plan to convert the top 30 floors into luxury condos. You can still tour the lobby, however, with its stunning glass and marble interiors.
In 1986, artists and activists created this 4.5-acre city park over a landfill. Now, it hosts large-scale sculpture exhibits year-round, and is one of the few locations in the city specifically designated for artists to create outdoor works. The splendid Queens space looks out over the Manhattan skyline and is open 365 days a year, with a Greenmarket, free yoga and tai chi classes and more.