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The Chinese Scholars Garden at Snug Harbor
Photograph: Courtesy Snug Harbor

The best lesser-known NYC attractions

These lesser-known NYC attractions are hidden gems that are often overlooked but well worth a visit

Edited by
Will Gleason
Written by
Gerrish Lopez
,
Dan Q Dao
&
Annalise Mantz
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NYC is chock full of iconic attractions that are known around the world. From the Statue of Liberty and the Metropolitan Museum of Art to Times Square and the Empire State Building, these NYC attractions should be on everyone’s must-do list. Once you’ve tackled all the most important things to do in the city, branch out and explore these lesser-known NYC attractions.

These under-the-radar attractions range from overlooked parks to quirky museums. New York has many historic buildings that don’t make the best-of lists, but they’re definitely worth a visit. You may be surprised that you’ve never heard of some of these attractions, so check them out now to be in-the-know. For more under-the-radar gems in NYC, check out these off the beaten path tours, hidden restaurants, hidden streets and speakeasies.

RECOMMENDED: Full guide the best New York attractions

Best lesser-known NYC attractions

  • Museums
  • Special interest
  • Fort Greene

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 on the building of ships such as the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor and the Pearl Harbor casualty USS Arizona and explore the previously unheard stories of women and people of color who toiled on repairs of battleships and carriers.

  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Queens

Let's get real, with all of the amazing things to do and places to visit in the big apple, it's not possible to visit everything – no matter how much free time you've got. Luckily, tackling Gotham is made a little easier with this Panorama – and why? Because it combines all of the boroughs into a single room. But don't think you'll be seeing a miniature here, the Panorama of the City of New York still spans for an impressively vast 9,335-square-foot, allowing for fantastic detail that can be discovered by eagle-eyed visitors. Peer down and you'll feel like Google Earth, spotting your local, favourite coffee shop. Plus, if you want to get really involved you can purchase some of the cheapest real estate in New York – scaled-down apartments on this model cost as little as 100 dollars. (Although, to be honest, they aren't far off the size of New York studios, anyway).

 

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  • Museums
  • History
  • The Bronx

The history of this beautiful estate dates back to the 17th century, when Thomas Pell signed a treaty with the Siwanoy Indians to purchase about 50,000 acres of what is now the Bronx. Located within today’s Pelham Bay Park, the current house was built between 1836 and 1842 and 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.

  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Staten Island

Sitting just a ferry ride away from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, this former home for retired sailers is still something of a secret. Spread across 83 acres, the area boasts an enormous botanical garden and cultural center surrounded by cobblestone streets and 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 pond.

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  • Museums
  • History
  • Williamsburg

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 and fundraisers.

  • Things to do
  • Walks and tours
  • Greenwood

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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  • Attractions
  • Historic buildings and sites
  • Financial District

Designed by Cass Gilbert and built in 1913, the Woolworth Building was once the world's tallest and was famed for its Gothic Revival exterior and sumptuous lobby. Unfortunately, only the wealthy residents were privy to its beauty, as outsiders weren't allowed in. The lobby is still closed to the public, but architecture and history buffs can sign up for a tour (Note: tours currently on hold). If you're a film fan, you might also recognise this location from several flicks, including Singin' in the Rain, The Great Gatsby and Fantastic Beasts.

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  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Astoria

In 1986, artists and activists created this 4.5-acre city park over an abandoned 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, outdoor movie screenings and more.

  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Prospect Park

Though it isn’t as well known as its cousin in the Bronx, Brooklyn Botanic Garden is still worth a visit. Founded in 1910, the 52-acre green space encompasses everything from wildflowers in the Native Flora Garden to sacred lotuses in the Lily Pools. Come in the spring for the perennially popular Sakura Matsuri Festival celebrating cherry blossoms and all things Japanese, or just take in the serene Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden—the first public garden inspired by that island nation to be built in the United States.

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  • Museums
  • Movies and TV
  • Astoria

It’s only natural that a city so well represented in film and TV would have its own museum dedicated to the industry. Cinephiles will love spending an afternoon at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, where you can watch classic films in a state-of-the-art cinema, play 14 retro arcade games and examine props and artifacts from real-life film sets. The latest addition, "The Jim Henson Exhibit", includes more than 47 puppets from The Muppet Show and tons of archival footage.

  • Attractions
  • Historic buildings and sites
  • Chinatown

What better place to learn about Jewish culture and history than the first synagogue built on the Lower East Side? Check out the museum’s expansive collection of ritual objects, Yiddish street signs, immigration documents and other artifacts collected from the Jewish community. The exhibits aren’t the only draw, either: Architecture fans will geek out over building’s splendor. And after a recent $20 million restoration, the National Historic Landmark’s Gothic facade, oak pews and stained glass windows are looking better than ever.

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  • Museums
  • Science and technology
  • Midtown West

Part museum, part spy training ground, Spyscape offers aspiring intelligence agents the opportunity to test their mettle. First, visitors can read up on real-life spies like Alan Turing, the mathematician who cracked the Enigma code, and Virginia Hall, the one-legged operative who helped escaped POWs travel to safety during World War II. Then it’s time for your assessment: After you sneak through a hallway peppered with laser beams, submit to a lie detector test and test all kind of other Bond-style skills, the museum uses a profiling system developed by a former British Intelligence officer to grade your performance.

  • Museums
  • Special interest
  • Williamsburg

All the rules go out the window at the Museum of Food and Drink. Ok, not all the rules, but the one that says "don't touch" has been flipped on it's head. Here visitors are expected to not just touch the exhibits, but to really get to now them. Have a sniff, try a taste even. Whether you're one of those people who loves to cook, or prefers the eating part more, you'll find your fancy at the Museum of Food and Drink. Their current display, the long-running "Chow", takes a close look at the history of Chinese culinary culture in America.

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