New York is one of the few cities on Earth where you can spend a lifetime discovering new things every day. Even people that never visited NYC know about its most famous places like the Empire State Building, Central Park, the Hamptons, or the Statue of Liberty. These are the first places people usually go to when visiting New York for 3-4 days. However, in the shadows of these attention-grabbing attractions, you’ll find a lot of hidden gems in New York, quirky museums, less-famous but important monuments, and under-the-radar, untouristy places that don’t get as much attention but the experiences they offer are just as exciting.
Many of these hidden gems in New York are only known to locals and fall out of the spotlight only because New York City has so many things to offer. However, life in NYC runs far deeper than the main tourist attractions and sights. If you’re ready to see a new side of the Big Apple, filled with secret spots, amazing nature, and amazing eateries, keep reading- here are the best-hidden gems in New York City. If you’re only in town for only a few days and you want to see the main highlights, that’s okay too. You can always join a Big Bus tour that features the main tourist attractions.
Side note: Keep in mind that there aren’t a lot of transport options to get to some of the places on this list. Hence, it would be a good idea to rent a car for your NYC trip.
Visit the Old City Hall Station
We’re starting off this list of hidden gems in New York off the beaten track with the Old City Hall Station. In 1904, the first subway in NYC departed from this small but lovely station. It features a gracefully curved platform and an elegant skylight. Unfortunately, its curved platform was abandoned because it was too complicated to lengthen for the growing number of passengers. Although it is no longer a working station, you can still sign up for tours with the Transit Museum. But be sure to look carefully and plan head – these tours are infrequent!
See a part of the Berlin Wall
Speaking of hidden gems in New York, many people don’t know this but New York is home to a small 12×20 foot remnant of the Berlin Wall. The western side of the wall is covered with beautiful street murals while the eastern side is empty. The piece of the wall was donated to Manhattan’s Battery Park by the city of Berlin. If you want to visit, you can find this hidden gem in a small Midtown plaza at 520 Madison Avenue.
Explore the tunnels beneath Columbia University
A little known fact: the land on which Columbia University is located today was home to Bloomingdale Insane Asylum. Another thing even fewer people know about is that there’s a hidden tunnel system located right beneath the university which according to some estimate date back to the 18th century when the asylum was built. Getting inside the Columbia tunnels isn’t easy but if you know someone studying/working at the university or roam around long enough, you’ll find “guides” who are willing to take you there and show you around.
Visit Smallpox Hospital on Roosevelt Island
Once the premier center for smallpox treatment in the New York Area, today this old building is forgotten and abandoned, even though technically listed as a landmark by the local authorities. The old building is one of the finest samples of Gothic Revival architecture in New York and if you’re a fan of architecture this is one place you definitely should not miss. The building still stands proud today and looks relatively good, considering it hasn’t been renovated since the 1950s.
Take the Pomander walk
If you want to see a different side of New York, head to Upper-West Side and prepare for a surprise. When I visited this part of the city, I really didn’t expect to see a whole neighborhood of Tudor-style houses hidden behind the endless stretch of skyscrapers of the Big Apple. The neighborhood was built in the 1920s, inspired by a Broadway play that became a huge hit. 100 years later, this neighborhood is not only still alive but also listed as a National Landmark.
Enjoy the view from Little Red Lighthouse
This pretty lighthouse was one of the first attempts to decrease the number of traffic accidents at the Hudson River. It was constructed in 1889 and reconstructed in 1948 when it got its current name after the eponymous children’s novel. Since 1979, the lighthouse is a New York City monument but still, not a lot of people know about it. If you’re looking for a peaceful place where you can take a long walk and enjoy some amazing views of the Hudson River and the iconic George Washington Bridge, definitely consider visiting. If you want, you can even come inside the lighthouse during one of its monthly open house days.
Visit NYC’s tiniest Mmuseumm
Talking about hidden gems in New York, we just have to mention one of the quirkiest museums in town. Located inside a freight elevator, MMuseum (pronounced museum) is the tiniest museum in New York. The museum displays artifacts and collections that are overlooked or ignored by most other museums.
Some of the most interesting items in the museum are the shoe that was thrown at George W. Bush, a collection of personal possessions found in the Pacific, a collection of home-made weapons and many other quirky items. If you like museums and want to see the best NYC has to offer, consider getting a City Pass and saving up to 44% on visiting New York’s most famous attractions.
See the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world- Hart Island
Hart Island’s history is steeped with death and suffering. The first mentions of Hart Island date back to the Civil War. During this era, the island was used as a prison camp where hundreds were tortured and killed. In the 1800s the prison was turned into a hospital facility for treating people infected from the yellow fever epidemy and at one point, the island was even a lunatic asylum. Having this history in mind, along with the fact that no people live on the island, Hart Island was recently turned into a Potter’s field; a graveyard for unknown individuals, in case you’re not familiar with the term. This makes the island the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world.
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Get inspired at Houdini Museum
Even though he was quite famous during his days, the museum dedicated to the great magician Houdini doesn’t get nearly enough attention as it should. Inside the museum, you can find hundreds of items related to Houdini’s life journey. Some of them include the famous 1907 escape coffin, a lot of iconic photographs and illustrations of his achievements and some curiosities like the x-ray of the bullet he allegedly caught with his bare hands. If you’re a fan of quirky museums, this is one of New York City’s hidden gems you really shouldn’t miss.
Try to find Ramble Cave
No list of hidden gems in New York off the beaten track can be complete without the legendary Ramble Cave. Even though Central Park is one of New York’s most famous attractions, the park is so huge it still hides some places that are relatively unknown and unfrequented. This cave was discovered in the early 1900s and was one of the most popular spots in town.
It was also known as ‘Indian Cave’ because the cave floor showed evidence of early Native American inhabitants. However, after several incidents near the cave, including a murder in the 1920s, the cave was sealed off. The steps that lead to the cave are still there but if you don’t know about this beautiful hidden gem, they’re the easiest place in the world to walk past without knowing what hides behind it.
Admire the beauty of Sisyphus Stones
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If you’re walking along the Hudson near Fort Washington, you’ll inevitably notice what-appears-to-be a group of stone people. This unusual but beautiful creation is the work of an artist named Uliks Gryka who was inspired by the numerous jagged rocks on the shore.
The rocks were torn down several times by vandals but they have been reintroduced time after time and nowadays locals contribute to this modern landmark by adding to this impressive collection, thus increasing the colony of stones on the shore that seems to have found a permanent home. Today, locals refer to this place as “the Sisyphus Stones”.
See the longest-continually occupied military base – Fort Wadsworth
Before its closing in the 1990s’, Fort Wadsworth was the longest-continuously-occupied military base in the US. Today, the fort’s remains are part of the Gateway National Recreation Area with parts of the site still under military control but the site is open for visitors and it’s a great picnic area and one of the best birdwatching spots in town.
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Discover Staten Island’s Boat Graveyard
Outside the city in the southwest of Staten Island you’ll find a very interesting sight; a ship graveyard. A tidal strait called the Arthur Kill has caused the wrecks of about 100 boats that remain strewn across this salvage yard. This location is a bit off-the-beaten-track, but it provides an eerie thrill and even historical relevance, as many of the ships are well-known vessels of the early 20th century.
Say hi to the seals of Swinburne Island
Swinburne Island is an artificial island built in the 19th century to house quarantine hospitals for newly-arrived immigrants. However, as time passed by, the need for such a quarantine station disappeared. The island hasn’t been used by the people of New York for quite some time now but the island found a new purpose when a colony of harbor seals decided to move in. Today, more than 100 seals live on the peaceful island away from the busy, noisy streets of New York.
Visit one of NYC’s forgotten places – Calvert Vaux Cove
Today, it seems like all of New York City is named, categorized, and labeled but if you know where to look for, you can still find places without names, places on the margins that have been forgotten by everyone. One such place is the park in the cove of Gravesend Bay. The site was an illegal junkyard in the 1970s and was supposed to become a seaside residential area but this plan was never fulfilled.
Today, on a glance, this park looks like Brooklyn’s very own junkyard and it’s certainly not a place for everyone. However, if you like abandoned places and want to see a different side of NYC, it’s definitely worth checking out.
Have a drink in the Booze History Museum
If you’re not a drinker or don’t like alcohol, you should skip this one and scroll down. From the outside, this modest museum looks like an ordinary part of Staten Island. However, after stepping inside, you’ll discover that this is in fact, one of the quirkiest museums in New York. Inside, you’ll find hundreds of drinking-themed objects, prohibition artifacts, etc.
You can learn about the most creative ways people used to get alcohol during the Prohibition era; an era when you could get a prescription (alcohol) for anything. The most unusual room in the museum is definitely the disinfection room. Here, the owner sprays vodka into visitors’ mouths with a spray can that looks like a fire extinguisher. After visitors are “disinfected”, they can proceed to the actual exhibition.
See the Statue of Lenin and the “Red Square”
You probably wouldn’t think that New York City of all places on Earth will be home to a Lenin statue but it actually is and this is just another proof of New York’s diversity. Even more ironically, the statue points towards Wall Street, the heart of capitalism. The statue is located on top of a building on 250 East Houston Street and is inaccessible to the public (unless you know someone that stays in the building but it’s visible from almost every part of East Houston Street.
Check out the world’s oldest subway Tunnel- the Atlantic Avenue
The legendary Atlantic Avenue Subway Tunnel is the oldest one of its kind in the whole world. The tunnel was built in 1844 but was abandoned and forgotten by everyone. Today, the tunnel is not in use anymore and technically closed to the public but curious visitors can still explore the tunnel on one of the few offered guided tours.
Even though not the greenest city in the world, New York has a lot of small parks scattered across the city, some of which are relatively unfrequented and unknown to most tourists. One example is the small private park in the middle of the concrete jungle of Midtown Manhattan. This small private park is technically located inside an office on 43rd Street but it’s open to curious visitors that can actually find it. The two giant windows on the top create a tropical climate in which the garden’s tropical plants can thrive in.
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A secret sunset spot
Finally, we’re rounding up this list of hidden gems in New York off the beaten track with perhaps the most underrated sunset spot in NYC. Most tourists race to the top of the Empire State Building every evening to take unforgettable sunset photos with New York’s beautiful panorama in the background.
As beautiful as this view might be there are a lot of other great sunset spots in New York. And some of them aren’t nearly as crowded. One such place is a park located in a South Brooklyn neighborhood named Sunset Park. From here, you can see the spectacular Manhattan skyline from afar; a sight equally beautiful as the one on the top of the Empire State building.
Helpful resources for traveling to New York
Do you want to cover New York’s biggest attractions but your time is limited? Join a Big Bus tour and get a 15% discount.
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Last but not least, check out this list of things I wish I knew before visiting the US.
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Did you ever visit the Big Apple? What are some of your favorite hidden gems in New York? Let us know in the comments!
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