14 alternatives to touristy New York attractions

Tired of tourist traps? Check out these alternative things to do in New York for out-of-towners and savvy locals alike.
Brooklyn Bridge Park
Photograph: Shutterstock
By Annalise Mantz and Drew Toal |
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Don’t be seduced by hop-on, hop-off buses and promises of a once-in-a-lifetime trip: If you’re going to all the most touristy attractions in NYC, it won’t be memorable in a good way. Instead, hit up these lesser-known NYC attractions that lie off-the-beaten-path. Ready to scope out some of the city’s best museums? There are plenty of options besides the packed galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and American Museum of Natural History. The same goes for observation decks, botanical gardens and peaceful parks. You’ll escape the crushing crowds, make some truly wonderful memories and maybe even discover the secret New York that everyone’s so keen to find.

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best New York attractions

Manhattan views

Empire State Building
Photograph: Shutterstock
Attractions, Monuments and memorials

Touristy: Empire State Building

icon-location-pin Midtown West

It’s as iconic as a landmark gets, but it’s not even the best observatory in its immediate area. (That honor belongs to Top of the Rock.) Still, there’s something to be said for following in the giant footsteps of Kong.

Sunset Park, Brooklyn
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/
Attractions, Parks and gardens

Alternative: Sunset Park

icon-location-pin Sunset Park

The thing about the wondrous Manhattan skyline is that you can’t really appreciate it from Manhattan. For a truly memorable look at the cityscape, travel to the highest point in this South Brooklyn park. The vista is especially striking during the time of day for which the green space is named. Hell, from here, even New Jersey looks good.

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Robb Todd

Museum

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photograph: Wendy Connett
Museums, Art and design

Touristy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

icon-location-pin Central Park

New York has many prestigious institutions, but the Met might just have them all beat. Even after the removal of the pay-what-you-can entry fee for visitors from outside New York state, near-constant herds still trample through the exhibits. In fact, a record-breaking 7 million people swarmed the museum's three locations in 2017.

Photograph: Virginia Rollison
Museums, Art and design

Alternative: The Cloisters

icon-location-pin Washington Heights

Tucked away in scenic Fort Tryon Park, the Cloisters—an annex of the Met—showcase art and architecture from medieval Europe. Numerous artifacts, illuminated manuscripts and ephemera fill the halls. Even the building itself—constructed from European monasteries transferred to the U.S.—looks like something out of Game of Thrones.

Park

Attractions, Parks and gardens

Touristy: Central Park

icon-location-pin Central Park

This is where people go to escape the concrete jungle, and as such, it’s not really a place to escape other people trying to escape the city.

Fort Tryon Park
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Kristine Paulus
Attractions, Parks and gardens

Alternative: Fort Tryon Park

icon-location-pin Washington Heights

This Washington Heights green space was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., son of one of the men behind Central Park. And in some ways, the little guy’s work outshines his dad’s. Fort Tryon Park provides a much more intimate outdoor experience than does Central Park, Prospect Park or most other designated open-air acres in the city. For some of the most breathtaking views, make your way to Linden Terrace near the Cloisters, or wander through the two main gardens.

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Kristine Paulus

Chinatown

Roasted duck at Pho Hoang
Photograph: Todd Coleman
Attractions, Parks and gardens

Alternative: Flushing, Queens

Queens has been a prime borough for non-American fare for a while now, and generally speaking, its Asian restaurants offer more variety than the ones in the Manhattan enclave. On the whole, it’s a slightly less overwhelming experience—and it’s tough to go wrong here, so take your pick among Zhu Ji Dumpling Stall, Pho Hoang or the original Xi’an Famous Foods.

Artsy neighborhood

Things to do

Touristy: Chelsea

Between the Gagosian galleries, Andrea Rosen, Anton Kern and dozens of other spaces, this neighborhood remains a destination for huge, museum-sized shows and art openings. But it ain’t the only one.

Photograph: Filip Wolak
Museums, Art and design

Alternative: Long Island City

icon-location-pin Long Island City

LIC may lack Chelsea’s number of galleries, but in terms of quality, it more than holds its own. There’s MoMA PS1, which mounts cutting-edge shows like the current exhibition of Ian Cheng’s computer-generated Emissary video trilogy. During the summer, the museum also hosts Warm Up, its weekly outdoor music series. And if you’re still jonesing for a culture fix, hit nearby attractions like the Noguchi Museum, the Flux Factory or SculptureCenter.

Photo op

Attractions

Touristy: Times Square

icon-location-pin Midtown West

Everybody wants to see the center of the world, but it’s hardly the same as it was when the sailor kissed the girl on V-J Day. Now your backdrop choices range from the M&M Store to T.G.I. Fridays. What are all the tourists here to see, anyway?

Bushwick street art
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/
Things to do

Alternative: Bushwick street art

Thanks to The Bushwick Collective and other local muralists, this neighborhood's alleys and warehouses have become examples of some of the best local street art. Wander through the outdoor galleries of Morgan Avenue, Siegel Street, East Moore Street and other local thoroughfares to snap some actually Instagram-worthy photos.

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Eric Gross

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Historic architecture

Grand Central
Photograph: Shutterstock
Attractions, Historic buildings and sites

Touristy: Grand Central Terminal

icon-location-pin Midtown East

With its grand Beaux Arts architecture, beloved brass clock and cerulean blue ceiling dotted with constellations, Grand Central Terminal is certainly an architectural wonder. But (and here’s a big but) most people probably don’t need more than a brisk walk through the station on the way to the subway to take it all in.

Woolworth Building
Photograph: Shutterstock
Attractions, Historic buildings and sites

Alternative: Woolworth Building

icon-location-pin Financial District

When the Woolworth Building—the tallest structure in the world at the time—opened in 1913, President Woodrow Wilson flipped a switch at the White House to turn on the lights. Suffice it to say, this neo-Gothic building is kind of a big deal, but it’s been off-limits to the public for the last few decades. These days, the only way to get a peek at the grand marble arcade and stained glass ceiling light is to book a guided lobby tour. Something this exclusive always gives you a delicious thrill.

Brooklyn Bridge views

Brooklyn Bridge
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Andrea Schaffer
Attractions, Historic buildings and sites

Touristy: Brooklyn Bridge

icon-location-pin Manhattan

Close to 100,000 cars cross the toll-free Brooklyn Bridge every day, and we’d be willing to bet that the daily foot traffic also numbers in the thousands. In fact, on a clear, sunny day, you can barely find space to walk, let alone bike, on the upper pedestrian deck. Yes, the granite and limestone Gothic towers and views of lower Manhattan are pretty spectacular, but is braving a sea of selfies worth it?

Brooklyn Bridge Park
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/
Attractions, Parks and gardens

Alternative: Brooklyn Bridge Park

icon-location-pin Brooklyn Heights

For the exact same views of Manhattan and an even better look at the Brooklyn Bridge, stroll the footpaths in Brooklyn Bridge Park. It never feels as crowded as bridge itself, thanks to the 85 acres of waterfront. After you snap the obligatory photos, take a spin on Jane’s Carousel or go for ice cream at Ample Hills Creamery.

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/dumbonyc

Food market

Shopping, Shopping centers

Touristy: Chelsea Market

icon-location-pin Chelsea

Thanks to its picturesque location in a former National Biscuit Company factory and collection of cult-favorite eateries, Chelsea Market has become the city’s most popular food hall. This fact is especially obvious to anyone who visits on a weekend: The hordes of tourists wandering through the building makes it nearly impossible to enjoy your street tacos from Los Tacos No. 1 or halva ice cream from Seed+Mill.

Smorgasburg
Photograph: Jolie Ruben
Restaurants

Alternative: Smorgasburg

Though just as many hungry patrons flock to Smorgasburg, the outdoor setting at least makes the crowds a little more manageable. The beloved food festival also draws just as many locals as tourists—a distinction that’s especially apparent at its Prospect Park location. A wider selection of vendors also cuts down on long lines, although the year’s hottest trends—think 2013’s ramen burger or 2016’s raindrop cake—will likely create a healthy queue.

Garden

NYBG
Photograph: Virginia Rollison
Attractions, Parks and gardens

Touristy: New York Botanical Garden

icon-location-pin The Bronx

We love the Orchid Show as much as the next guy, but it can be tough to appreciate the flora and fauna when you’re pushing your way through a throng of visitors. If you must get your flower fix, head up to the Bronx on a weekday or stick to the outer edges of the 50-acre forest to evade the crowds.

The Chinese Scholars Garden at Snug Harbor
Photograph: Courtesy Snug Harbor
Attractions, Parks and gardens

Alternative: Snug Harbor Cultural Center

icon-location-pin Staten Island

Once a retirement home for aging sailors, Snug Harbor reinvented itself as an arts center and botanical garden in the 1970s. Explore the property's nine distinctive gardens, including the bamboo forest and koi ponds of the Chinese Scholar’s Garden and the intricate maze of boxwoods at the Connie Gretz Secret Garden. Since it’s on the north shore of Staten Island, you’ll encounter far fewer tourists than you would in any of the other boroughs.

Classic venue

Radio City Music Hall
Photograph: Michael Kirby
Theater

Touristy: Radio City Music Hall

icon-location-pin Midtown West

Known as the “showplace of the nation,” Radio City Music Hall has hosted everything from Lady Gaga concerts to the Rockettes’ high-kicking Christmas Spectacular. The Art Deco decor is lovely, sure, but the massive marquee is what most tourists come to see. Snap a picture or two from the sidewalk if you must, but don’t spend your hard-earned money on a show here just to check it off your list. 

Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts
Photograph: Sean Pavone / Shutterstock.com
Theater, Performing arts space

Alternative: Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts

icon-location-pin Upper West Side

You’ll be blown away by the architecture of Lincoln Center’s main plaza: The gurgling fountain is framed on three sides by the gorgeous glass facades of the Metropolitan Opera House, David Geffen Hall and the David H. Koch Theater. It’s certainly a more elegant environment. And, since it’s the home to the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet, the New York Philharmonic, Jazz at Lincoln Center and a bevy of Broadway and off-Broadway shows, you also have a much wider array of performances to choose from.

Filming location

Friends apartment
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/

Touristy: The Friends apartment

On any given day, you’ll find several Friends fans jostling position on the corner of Bedford Street and Grove Street. Why? They’re trying to get just the right angle for their photo in front of the apartment at 90 Bedford Street, which you might recognize as the exterior of Monica and Rachel’s place. Not only can the crowds be annoying, but the visit isn’t even worth it: You can’t enter the apartment, there’s no Central Perk on the ground floor and the show wasn’t even filmed in NYC.

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Benjamin Kraft

House from The Royal Tenenbaums
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Garrett Ziegler

Alternative: The Royal Tenenbaums house

Hamilton Heights is known for its stunning architecture and the home at the corner of 144th Street and Convent Avenue is no exception. In fact, Wes Anderson was so taken with its red brick facade and intricate tile work that he used it as the family home in The Royal Tenenbaums. The home is a private residence today, but visitors can peep its gorgeous exterior from the sidewalk.

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Garrett Ziegler

Sweet treat

Restaurants, Bakeries

Touristy: Dominique Ansel Bakery

icon-location-pin Soho

No shade to the creator of the Cronut—in fact, Dominique Ansel Bakery is one of our favorite French bakeries in NYC—but the line at the Soho location can be torturous. Travelers who don’t have several hours to spend waiting for frozen s’mores or a chocolate chip cookie and milk shot would be better off skipping this bakery.

Crack pie from Momofuku Milk Bar
Photograph: Jessica Lin
Restaurants, Bakeries

Alternative: Momofuku Milk Bar

icon-location-pin Williamsburg

Pastry chef Christina Tosi’s whimsical bakery now has nine locations spread around NYC, so shoppers with a sweet tooth don’t have to wait for ages for cereal milk soft serve, crack pie or compost cookies. If one taste isn’t enough for you, sign up for one of Milk Bar’s hands-on classes to learn how build and decorate their famous cakes and truffles.

Kid-friendly attraction

Museum of Math
Photograph: Jessica Lin
Museums, Science and technology

Alternative: Museum of Mathematics

icon-location-pin Flatiron

Long division, algebra, geometry—they’re all pretty much the worst. Or are they? MoMath pushes the reset button on deep-seated calculus hate and seeks to make the art of numbers more accessible. Now that the pressures of homework and the SATs are long past, maybe it’s time to re-engage with the Euclidean party, people.

Ready to explore more of New York City?

Flatiron Food and History Tour
Photograph: Shutterstock
Things to do

18 things you can only do in NYC

Thanks to its dense population (one in every 38 people in the United States live here) and storied history, NYC offers plenty of things to do you won’t find anywhere else.

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