I’ve been a New Yorker all my life. I marvel at every bit of her, and am constantly humbled by my privilege to be living here. This list was compiled with a tremendous amount of love, zeroing in on less touristy places and pastimes. (Not that New York needs any more reasons to grace every traveler’s ‘Top 100’ list). I hope these activities shine some light on the hidden gems and lesser-known magic this beautiful city has to offer. Check out some of these unconventional things to do in New York in order to see a city that often gets overlooked by tourists.
1) GO BIRDING IN PROSPECT PARK OR CENTRAL PARK
Bird watching might be one of the most unconventional activities for tourists in New York City. After all, few people think “wildlife” when they picture the City That Never Sleeps. But in two boroughs alone, I logged nearly 60 species!
Birding doesn’t have to be reserved for early risers, but chances are you’ll spot far more winged wonders before noontime if you get an earlier start. This is the perfect excuse to get the entire park to yourself AND discover wildlife you didn’t know existed in New York City! I may be biased (being a Brooklyn native and all), but Prospect Park has more secluded spots, especially The Ravine, which houses so many species.
However, I’ve also found plenty of our feathered friends in Manhattan’s lush Central Park. It’s all about knowing where to look and exercising a great deal of patience. Be sure to check the lakes of either parks for wading birds. Don’t fret if you visit during the colder seasons, there are plenty of wintering avian beauties then too!
2) VISIT AN HISTORIC NEW YORK CITY HOME
Whether it’s the Alice Austen home in Staten Island or the famed Leffert’s homestead in Park Slope, I highly recommend glimpsing into old New York’s past. The Tenement Museum offers a similar experience of the Lower East Side.
If you have a sudden rush of energy, I recommend you go to Richmond Town. This is an entire village of Victorian manors devoted to educating the public on what used to be the #1 vacation spot for New York’s then elite. It might require a train, ferry ride, and a 20-minute bus ride through Staten Island, but I’ve been multiple times and have never regretted it. Not only do you get to travel back in time, but you learn a great deal along the way.
3) A FESTIVAL FOR EVERY SEASON
It doesn’t really matter what time you visit this city, New York is all about celebrating diversity and conserving culture. Each season is filled with so many events.
The beginning of sweater weather, cozying up with a good read, and ordering pumpkin-flavored-everything. This is the perfect time to go to the Brooklyn Book Festival for an unconventional autumnal celebration. There are free panels, famous authors, and some sweet swag; all within the span of a few blocks in Downtown Brooklyn.
Another street festival that takes place in this borough every year is known as the Atlantic Antic, which goes on for about 20 blocks. This event is rich in multi-culture, has live music, street meat as well as sweet confections, and is one of the liveliest festivals of the year.
Do yourself the courtesy of riding the vintage train during the underground jazz festival. I can tell you pretty much no one on the Q-line platform expected 1930’s R1-9 cars to pull into the station. The live vintage music transports you back to a time you’ve probably always wanted to visit. And if you’re lucky, you’ll spot superstar street photographer, Louis Mendes, taking people’s portraits with his old-timey press camera.
It’s all about renewal and there’s no better way to celebrate than to head to Sakura Matsuri (Japanese for Cherry Blossom Festival). The fest is typically held in the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, so it’s a win-win. It serves as the best opportunity to see the cherry blossom trees, visit the Japanese pond, watch live traditional dances, and witness some of the coolest cosplay ever!
This is when all the fun really happens! You’ve got the Governor’s Ball, a three-day, multi-stage music festival on Randall’s Island, and Summer Stage all around New York City for excellent live music. Or check out the Mermaid Parade on Coney Island, complete with a sandcastle-making contest for the perfect way to usher in the season.
4) VISIT A SECRET GARDEN
Well, I guess it’s not such a secret anymore, but the M’finda Kalunga Community Garden is one of the most tranquil places you’ll find in Manhattan. It’s located in the Lower East side, which gets quite busy. So having a place that adds a much-needed calm to your hectic itinerary is a plus!
5) HEAD TO UPSTATE NEW YORK FOR A WEEKEND
The mountainous terrains of Upstate New York are absolutely breathtaking! I’ve narrowed down my suggestions to the following: 1) Bear Mountain in the Hudson Highlands; 2) Hiking Watkins Glen; and 3) Exploring Stamford, NY.
Fun fact: Bear Mountain got its name due to the way the highland is shaped, not because of excessive grizzly sightings (although that would be cool). Bear Mountain’s got annual auto shows, the Hessian Lake, picnic grounds, and so much more.
If you’re game to travelling a little bit more north, I suggest you visit Watkins Glen. The hike is pretty moderate for those hesitant to take on rugged trails. When road-tripping to Niagara Falls, I stopped by the Glen, hiked, and took in all its splendor.
Stamford is the cutest, quaintest little town located in Delaware County, New York. I am fortunate to have friends host me once a year, but Stamford’s got plenty of B&Bs. Nearly everyone owns a horse ranch and if you decide to go in the fall, let me tell you right now: Central Park has got nothing on Upstate New York.
6) WANDER COBBLE HILL
I know everyone’s hung up on the West Village and DUMBO for being the aesthetically-pleasing locations they are, but don’t overlook the smaller unconventional spots. Cobble Hill is a neighborhood in mid-Brooklyn, not stretching more than 10 blocks. It’s got bars, cute boutiques, and all the photogenic brownstones you could want. Very Instagram-worthy.
7) BARGAIN HUNT FOR BOOKS
The best book I ever read was purchased from STRAND’s $1 outdoor stand. Indie bookshops usually have cheap used books, which I prefer to newer ones, especially if they’re classics. One time I found a newspaper clipping from the 70s stashed in the jacket cover, another time a monocle was lodged between the pages. Not only do you get to support independent booksellers, you often come across the coolest literary finds. Other than STRAND on Broadway, I also favor going to East Village Books on St. Marks.
There you have it! I hope this list inspires you to check out some of these unconventional places when you’re planning your next trip to the City That Never Sleeps. Or at the very least, I hope it encourages you to step outside the “tourist” box when visiting one of the most visited cities in the world.
Have you been to New York City? If you have any additional tips for our readers or questions please leave these in the comments below.
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