Touristy: Empire State Building
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.
Alternative: 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. Enter at Fifth Ave and 41st St, Sunset Park, Brooklyn (718-965-6533, nyc.gov/parks)
Touristy: Dominique Ansel Bakery
Ah, the cronut. According to the Dominique Ansel website, it’s “the most virally talked about dessert item in history.” There’s no denying the pastry mash-up’s deliciousness—or the absolutely ridiculous lines it’s caused—and if any food fad can stand the test of time, it’s this one.
Alternative: Peter Pan Donut & Pastry Shop
For times that don’t call for a cronut or some artisanal, gluten-free baked good made with pesticide-free ingredients from the south of France, duck into this Greenpoint staple. Peter Pan offers an old-school, no-frills doughnut-eating experience. Its thick, cake-style treats cost a dollar each (less if you buy in bulk), as does the coffee. Sometimes the best part of waking up is a giant red-velvet doughnut dunked in your cup. Note that lines do snake out the door on weekends, but the payoff is worth it. 727 Manhattan Ave between Meserole and Norman Aves, Greenpoint, Brooklyn (718-389-3676)
Touristy: Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises
As Magellan strove to circumnavigate the globe, Circle Line rings Manhattan. It also leads night voyages and jaunts to the Statue of Liberty.
Alternative: East River Ferry
These vessels move along the coastline of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn at a pretty impressive clip—maybe not Miami Vice caliber, but enough to feel the wind in your hair—and they provide a lot of the same sights you’d get on Circle Line, for a fraction of the price. Each craft stops at midtown, Long Island City, Greenpoint, North and South Williamsburg, Dumbo and Wall Street—and, yes, all include indoor seating so you don’t freeze to death. Departure points vary (800-533-3779, eastriverferry.com); single trip $4, day pass $12.
Touristy: Downtown Manhattan
Hey, we still love Nom Wah Tea Parlor as much as the next dumpling enthusiast, but the ’hood sometimes reaches, you know, annoying levels of crowdedness.
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 (40-52 Main St at 41st Ave, 718-353-6265), Pho Hoang (41-01 Kissena Blvd between Barclay and 41st Aves, 718-762-6151) or Little Pepper Hot Pot (133-43 Roosevelt Ave between Prince St and College Pt Blvd, 718-690-2206).
Touristy: Rockefeller Center
Cruising the cold stuff here is a New York holiday tradition, as is getting trampled by the omnipresent, spatially challenged crowds waiting to get in.
Alternative: McCarren Park
A year after opening its pool to swimmers for the first time in three decades, McCarren Park turned its central plaza (“The Beach”) into an ice-skating rink. This frozen expanse has all the amenities—rentals, lockers, food and the like—of its Manhattan counterpart, but almost certainly far less in the way of unstoppable human waves. 776 Lorimer St between Bayard St and Driggs Ave, Greenpoint, Brooklyn (mccarrenrink.com, 347-482-7798). $8, seniors and students $5; skate rental $5.
Touristy: Fifth Avenue
Saks Fifth Avenue. Armani. Tiffany & Co. What are “places we can’t afford to shop,” Alex?
Alternative: Brooklyn Night Bazaar
Now in a new location and open Friday and Saturday nights year-round, BNB hawks its wares in a sleek industrial space. Besides a pleasing variety of independently made goods—featured vendors include FONY, Well Rounded Sound and Noli Noli—one can find food, drink, live music, Ping-Pong (30mins $5) and minigolf (nine holes $5). And, unlike at the stores lining Fifth Avenue, you won’t feel out of place dressed in your usual vagrant uniform. 165 Banker St between Norman and Merserole Aves, Greenpoint, Brooklyn (bkbazaar.com)
Touristy: Kinky Boots
Cyndi Lauper’s Tony Award–winning musical is great, but a Broadway show isn’t necessarily the best place for absorbing New York City’s drag culture.
Alternative: Bless This Mess
A lot of the more high-profile drag shindigs happen in and around Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan, but an insurgent variety of the art form has popped up in North Brooklyn. Every Thursday night, Trey LaTrash hosts this rowdy affair, where up-and-comers do their thing. Wreck Room, 940 Flushing Ave at Evergreen Ave, Bushwick, Brooklyn (718-418-6347). 11pm; free.
Touristy: McSorley’s Old Ale House
While it’s true that McSorley’s is one of the most ancient bars in the city, it’s also true that it didn’t allow women inside until 1970.
Alternative: The Brooklyn Inn
This bar was reportedly transported to Kings County from Germany in the 1870s, which is impressive because modern Germany was only really established in 1871 by Otto von Bismarck following victory in the Franco-Prussian War. (But that’s neither here nor there.) The cash-only establishment stocks solid beers—your Old Speckled Hens, your Sixpoints ($6 each)—and the dark wood, cozy layout and large windows looking onto the nabe’s beautiful brownstones are suitably dignified. 148 Hoyt St at Bergen St, Boerum Hill, Brooklyn (718-522-2525)
Touristy: Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York has many prestigious institutions, and the Met is among the prestigiousy-est. Add a pay-what-you-can entry fee, and you’ve got near-constant herds trampling through exhibits.
Alternative: The Cloisters
Tucked away in scenic Fort Tryon Park, the Cloisters—an annex of the Met—showcase art and architecture from medieval Europe. Numerous gardens, 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. Enter park at Margaret Corbin Circle, Fort Washington Ave and Cabrini Blvd (212-923-3700, metmuseum.org). Suggested donation $25, seniors $17, students $12, children under 12 free.
Touristy: Private room at Pulse
A Platinum VIP Suite package at Pulse will run you about $50 per person, and its business-casual dress code means you can't wear your Slayer T-shirt.
Alternative: Metal karaoke at Saint Vitus
Every Saturday at midnight, this Greenpoint headbanger haven hosts Kill ’Em All Karaoke, where armchair James Hetfields unleash their inner church-burning Swedish gargoyles. If you’ve been dying to move out of your Journey comfort zone and lead a not-quite-adoring crowd in your own rendition of “Symphony of Destruction,” this is the place to do it. 1120 Manhattan Ave between Box and Clay Sts, Greenpoint, Brooklyn (saintvitusbar.com). Free.
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.
Alternative: Long Island City, Queens
LIC may lack Chelsea’s number of galleries, but in terms of quality, it more than holds its own. There’s MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Ave between 46th Ave and 46th Rd; momaps1.org; $10), which is showing Mike Kelley’s sculptures and drawings through the beginning of February; Dorsky Gallery (11-03 45th Ave between 11th and 21st Sts; dorsky.org; free); the Noguchi Museum (9-01 33rd Rd at Vernon Blvd; noguchi.org; $10); and many others. And if you’re still jonesing for a culture fix, hit the Flux Factory (39-31 29th St between 39th and 40th Aves; fluxfactory.org; free) or SculptureCenter (44-19 Purves St at Jackson Ave; sculpture-center.org; suggested donation $5).
Place to feel like a kid
Touristy: American Museum of Natural History
There’s something about walking under a blue whale or standing next to a cast of a T. Rex footprint that makes a ten-year-old out of even the most jaded Gothamite.
Alternative: Museum of Mathematics
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 reengage with the Euclidean party, people. 11 E 26th St between Fifth and Madison Aves (212-542-0566, momath.org); $15, children 12 and under $9, children under 2 free.
Touristy: The Statue of Liberty
Between getting to Liberty Island, climbing the steps, descending and returning to civilization, the green lady proves a little high-maintenance.
Alternative: The Unisphere
Before the world was ravaged by unchecked capitalism, war and pollution (call us cynical), there was legitimate hope that mankind could, through science and understanding, overcome earth’s surly bonds and ascend to a higher plane of existence. The 1964–65 World’s Fair represented the peak of this belief, and the fair’s symbol—the beloved Unisphere—is all that remains of humanity’s naive optimism. The parkland is lovely, and 120-foot-wide globe itself remains an emblem of hope, if not promise fulfilled. Enter Flushing Meadows–Corona Park at United Nations Ave and 111th St, Flushing, Queens (nycgovparks.org)
Touristy: Carolines on Broadway
This club remains the place to go for heavy-hitting comic acts—and often two-drink-minimum sets. December will see Damon Wayans, Steve Rannazzisi from FX’s The League and Tracy Morgan doing multiple shows.
This smaller offshoot of UCB Theatre regularly features some of the city's best rising stars, along with the super-hugest of talents. Amy Poehler, Horatio Sanz, Dave Hill and, recently, Zach Galifianakis have all done sets here. The Friday Night Hot Chicks Mic, HelloGiggles NYC, Airwolf and Indie Cage Match are among UCBEast’s recurring offerings. 153 E 3rd St between Aves A and B (212-366-9231, east.ucbtheatre.com). Prices vary.
Touristy: Central Park
This is where people go to escape the concrete jungle. As such, it’s not really a place to escape other people trying to escape the city.
Alternative: Fort Tryon Park
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. Enter at Margaret Corbin Circle, Fort Washington Ave and Cabrini Blvd (212-795-1388, nyc.gov/parks)
Touristy: Times Square
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.
Alternative: Bowery Graffiti Wall
We were deeply saddened when Long Island City’s street-art nexus, 5 Pointz, was covered in white paint in mid-November. (The building’s owners plan to erect condos there.) But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still choice spots for snapping shots of quality alfresco pieces, such as this urban canvas in the East Village. Its latest work, by notable artist Swoon, is a colorful tribute to the victims of Hurricane Sandy, complete with inspirational messages like RISE ABOVE THE CHALLENGE and depictions of New Yorkers giving each other a hand in their time of need. E Houston St at Bowery