21 NYC Hidden Gems Most New Yorkers Don’t Know About
From sky-high meadows to the best street food in town, these are some of the best-kept secrets in the Big Apple. Shhh, please don't tell anyone else.
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Cool places in NYC
There are few places on earth, if any, that have more bucket-list items to cross off than New York City: the Empire State Building, Times Square, the Metropolitan Museum of Art—you’ve heard of them all. (But maybe you don’t know these Statue of Liberty facts.) And while many first-time visitors can happily spend their vacation seeing all the iconic sites, there are plenty of other travelers who want the inside scoop on off-the-beaten-path things to do and see.
Whether you’re into scoping out abandoned places in New York City, an out-of-the-way neighborhood or an unexpected killer view, none of these cool places in NYC will break the bank, for those of you traveling on a budget. The next time you’re in town—or this weekend if you live in the city that never sleeps—make a point of seeking out these NYC hidden gems, all recommended by city residents and curated by me, a three-decade New Yorker. You’ll feel like you’re in the know and appreciate the city on an entirely different level once you check them out.
Located at the lower tip of Manhattan in Battery Park between the Staten Island Ferry Terminal and Castle Clinton, the SeaGlass Carousel is an homage to the first New York Aquarium that was located there from 1896 to 1941. This colorful glass and steel carousel, with tickets under $10, recreates an underwater experience with LED lights as you ride around sitting inside iridescent fish. The lawn directly north of it is a great spot for an impromptu picnic, complete with sunset harbor views. Fair warning: Being near the water very well may get your mind thinking about future cheap beach vacations.
Located at the top edge of Central Park, the 40-acre North Woods is as close to Adirondacks hiking as you’d ever dream of finding in Manhattan. There are trails to hike, rocks to scramble over and an actual ravine you climb down to that has multiple little waterfalls. It was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, whose goal was to create a rugged wilderness in the heart of the city for people who couldn’t afford to go on vacation. Mission accomplished, guys. Compared with the crush of people in the south part of the park, this hidden gem is uncrowded and genuinely feels like a mountain getaway.
Escape to a world of green at this park in the sky between two skyscrapers. The Elevated Acre is down in the Financial District on Water Street, where it offers views of Brooklyn Bridge and the Hudson River. The park recently added a beer garden with a few different beers on tap, making it a perfect place to relax with friends after a hectic city day.
Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge
This waterfront park in Queens, near JFK airport, is our nation’s only wildlife refuge run by the National Park Service. Covering 20 square miles of open bay, salt marsh and woods, it’s one of the best places in New York City for year-round birding. Nearly half of all the species in the Northeast have been spotted here—332 bird species in total, including hawks and falcons. There are hiking trails around both ponds and canoes and kayaks for rent. It’s not easily accessible on public transportation, so if you like to use ride-share apps, this would be the place to do that. There is no admission price, but parking will cost you during beach season.
Yes, it’s a hotel, but you don’t have to be staying here to appreciate all the Selina Chelsea has to offer. For starters, you’ll be wowed by the lobby’s rotating gallery-quality art collection. The bright and airy space is perfect for a pit stop with a cappuccino after a stroll on the Highline or grazing through the Chelsea Markets. Or head up to the rooftop bar that offers unobstructed views of the Empire State Building and beyond for a glass of rosé. Looking to try something new and pick up some fresh dance skills? The Selina offers weekly, tango and salsa lessons (complimentary to guests, others pay a nominal fee). More don’t misses are the Sunday puppy brunch and doga class (yoga with your dog).
Grand Central Whispering Gallery
Okay, okay, we’re well aware that Manhattan’s Grand Central Station isn’t a secret to anyone. It’s busier than … well, we all know how to finish that sentence. But not everyone knows about this cool architectural feature on the lower level that lets you whisper to someone across the open space. Right in front of the Oyster Bar and Restaurant is an archway, and if you and someone else stand in opposite corners and whisper into the walls, your conversation will be transmitted over the arch no matter how many trains are coming into or out of the station.
New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden
No need for a long international flight to take in the cultures of the world while you’re in NYC. If you’re looking for cheap places to travel, this Staten Island sanctuary in Snug Harbor, accessible by the always enjoyable (and free) Staten Island ferry, is one of only two authentic classical outdoor Chinese gardens in the United States. With entrance tickets under $10, the New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden is inspired by the lyrical landscape of ancient China—specifically the outdoor aesthetics of the Ming Dynasty—and this serene spot features picturesque pavilions, rock formations, waterfalls, koi ponds and bamboo-edged paths.
Old City Hall Station
Sure, locals live to complain about the subway—although we really do have a soft spot for it in our hearts. The NYC train system is one of the oldest and most extensive public transit systems in the world, and despite millions of riders a day, there are still a few subway secrets left. Here’s a bit of history: In 1904, the inaugural subway ride left from City Hall station. Although its tenure as a stop ended in 1945, the Transit Museum continues to operate exclusive guided tours of the underground landmark. Note: Spots are limited to members.
If you want to take in the splendor of Lady Liberty without riding a boat, there’s no better spot than Brooklyn’s Valentino Pier. The Red Hook neighborhood—settled by the Dutch in the 1600s—was once a shipping industry hub, and the pier pays tribute to that nautical history. In addition to being closer to the statue than just about anywhere else you can view her from, it also has panoramic vistas of Governor’s Island, the New York Harbor and the lower Manhattan skyline. You can make an afternoon of it by grabbing a bite at the airstream trailer sandwich shop nearby, having a slice of Key lime pie or renting a kayak in the summer months to paddle out on the water. Despite what you might have heard, the East River is much cleaner these days!
A food tour of Jackson Heights
The Latin section of the Jackson Heights neighborhood in Queens, lined with street-food vendors, bakeries and restaurants, is one of NYC’s greatest—and most exotic—places to grab a cheap bite. FoodStrolls offers up affordable and fun private group tours that show you all the delicious places you’d never find on your own. The tour includes historical information about the area, and the price includes the food you sample at all the stops—think ceviche, arepas, tacos and sweet treats from a Uruguayan bakery. If you visit the area without a tour guide, take the 7 train to the Junction Blvd. stop to get started. English is not guaranteed at most places, and it’s wise to bring cash. If Mexican, Central American and South American food isn’t your thing, Jackson Heights is also home to Little India, a South Asian neighborhood on and around 74th Street.
Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery is a treasure trove of history, art and architecture—even if you may be a little skittish about hanging out in a bone yard. Founded in 1838 and now a National Historic Landmark, this 478-acre tranquil green space was one of the first rural cemeteries in America. The list of people buried here is a who’s who of NYC politicians and luminaries, including Boss Tweed, Leonard Bernstein and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Make sure you gaze up at the top of the gothic arch entrance on Fifth Avenue to spot the wild parrots that have been nesting there for decades. Green-Wood also has two lakes, a chapel with Tiffany windows and a monument to Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, placed atop the highest point in the cemetery so she’s looking directly across the harbor at Lady Liberty.
United Nations Meditation Room
Even if you can’t be involved in global peace negotiations, the U.N. Meditation Room on the East River in Manhattan may help you find your own inner peace. In Dag Hammarskjold’s original plan for the U.N. Headquarters, opened in 1954, a tiny room was created as a place dedicated to silence. It welcomes everyone, regardless of their religious beliefs. There is a six-and-a-half-ton rectangular block of iron ore in the center of the room, illuminated from above by a single spotlight. The Meditation Room is not usually included in guided tours, but it’s open to the public and found in the main entrance foyer.
Fort Tryon Park
If you don’t have a friend in New England you can visit in autumn, Fort Tryon Park is the ideal place for bonafide leaf-peeping. Situated in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood overlooking the Hudson River, it offers ample space for parkgoers to run or walk along eight miles of hilly, forested pathways, play or lounge on the lawns and enjoy the city’s largest garden with unrestricted public access, the Heather Garden. Fort Tryon Park is also home to the Cloisters, an offshoot of the famed Metropolitan Museum of Art that has nearly 5,000 medieval works in a castle-like building created using several existing structures from Europe.
African Burial Ground
Cultural heritage site
The Deep South may first come to mind when you think about American slavery, but it was also commonplace in New York City before being outlawed in 1827. The African Burial Ground was unearthed in 1991, when human remains were found during commercial construction in lower Manhattan. Around 300 sets of remains from 17th- and 18th-century men, women and children were removed, and it’s believed that almost 20,000 Black people were buried there. Now a National Historic Landmark, it was given a monument in 2003 to honor the work and stories of African Americans who helped build New York City. Entrance is free, but you need to make a reservation if you want a guided tour.
If you’re in the mood for quick trips to the Bronx and the Yankees aren’t in town, look no further than this flowering waterfront oasis for an uptown borough getaway. Wave Hill, a 28-acre estate on the banks of the Hudson River in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, contains pristine gardens, two historic houses (both Teddy Roosevelt and Mark Twain have lived there) and a cultural center. The greenhouse, known as the Flower Garden, contains a variety of peonies, roses, clematis and hydrangeas. The site also offers a public garden guided walk every Sunday at 2 p.m. Admission is free on Thursdays.
Merchant’s House Museum
If you’ve ever been curious what life was like in mid-19th-century New York, here’s your opportunity to experience it. The Merchant’s House Museum, located in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, is considered one of the finest surviving examples of domestic architecture from that era. The 1832 late-Federal and Greek Revival home is a designated landmark on the federal, state and city levels. The affordable tour is hosted by an encyclopedic tour guide who not only shows you the ins and outs of the house—occupied by only one family in its entire history and still containing their original furniture—they also provide context for what life was like in Manhattan when this now-vibrant neighborhood was still mostly farmland.
Renwick Smallpox Hospital
Endlessly eerie, Renwick Smallpox Hospital on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island is accessible from Manhattan by subway or the Roosevelt Island Tram, the city’s only cable car (worthy of riding whether you want to be spooked or not). Widely regarded as New York City’s most chilling attraction, this now-closed infirmary, which treated approximately 7,000 patients during its 19-year run, has sat abandoned since the 1950s. Its ivy-covered ruins and ghostly lore still draw visitors decades later. For a truly frightful experience, explore this spooky site after the sun goes down. Really into the idea of visiting scary stuff? These are the most haunted hotels in America.
Sugar lovers, this one’s for you. New York City’s oldest candy shop, Economy Candy started out as a pushcart in front of a shoe and hat repair shop on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the earlier part of the 20th century, back when it was a neighborhood teeming with new immigrants. This hidden gem has been located in a storefront on Rivington Street since the 1980s, and the jam-packed, no-frills candy emporium offers more than 2,000 different items, from licorice to chocolate and Gobstoppers to jelly beans. Weren’t able to book a cheap flight on one of the budget airlines? Not to worry: You can order your sweets online too.
When Brooklyn’s Loew’s Kings Theatre first opened way back in 1929, it was one of the most opulent film and live-performance venues in the nation. Sadly, an economic downturn that impacted many NYC neighborhoods took its toll, and the curtains closed in 1977. But thanks to a $95 million restoration project, this institution, located in the Flatbush neighborhood and now called the Kings Theatre, is back to its former glory—ornate plasterwork, gold-leaf ornamentation, crystal chandeliers and plush seats. The theater stages live music, dance and comedy events from both world-class acts and up-and-comers. Catching a show there could be part of a perfect weekend getaway.
Greenacre Pocket Park
Even if we didn’t mention a thing about the NYC hidden gem that is Greenacre Park, here’s a well-kept secret right here: Midtown Manhattan is more than just skyscrapers, office workers and tourists. This pocket park, located on 51st Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, is a 60-by-12-foot shaded oasis that offers a refuge from the noise, hustle-bustle and chaos of the city. Tucked away from the street by trellis-covered steps, the first terrace is shaded by honey locust trees and has a fountain that’s a great place to cool off on a sweltering day. It also features a 25-foot waterfall that can give you an immediate and complete change of concrete-jungle scenery.
The High Bridge
Strolling the Brooklyn Bridge is so played out. After being closed for more than 40 years, The High Bridge—NYC’s oldest standing bridge that connects Manhattan and the Bronx—reopened for pedestrians and bicyclists in 2015. The High Bridge was built in the mid-19th century as part of the Croton Aqueduct system, which carried water from the Croton River in Westchester down to thirsty Manhattan. When you cross the 140-foot high, 1,450-foot long span, you walk above the aqueduct’s original pipe, which still lies beneath the walkway of the bridge. The bridge is open daily, although the hours differ depending on the time of year. They offer free public guided tours of the High Bridge Tower on the first Sunday and third Saturday of each month. Next, read on for the best hidden gem in every state.