Focusing on Manhattan, New York native Jared Spears introduces his personal recommendations for cool things to do in the city, from community gardens to overlooked jazz dens…
Thanks to movies, music and TV, no traveler approaches New York with a clean slate. The promise of New York glamour has seeped into the back of your mind: the glimmering lights of Broadway and the trendy restaurants frequented by celebrities, just for starters. But the bane of New York’s self-fulfilling hype machine is than any new spot or attraction hailed as the next big thing inevitably becomes just that. So while New York is home to sensational Broadway shows and the Michelin-starred tables of celebrated chefs, these are all massively in demand — meaning unnavigable mobs, intolerable waitlists and outrageously inflated prices. And for every one of these truly exceptional experiences, a dozen tourist traps spring up to ensnare the unwitting foreigner, looking appealing from the outside but lacking any substance.
Skip some of the artificial theme park attractions to discover some of what makes this concrete jungle truly astounding.
So what to make of this dizzying array of distractions on the island native New Yorkers now snidely refer to as “Disneyland”? I encourage visitors to uncover a different side of Manhattan. Yes, see Times Square and catch a glimpse of Lady Liberty, but don’t leave it at that. Here are seven spots and activities to get you started off the beaten path. They each offer a less stereotypical take on New York, ranging from the uncommon to the practically unheard of. Skip some of the artificial theme park attractions to discover some of what makes this concrete jungle truly astounding.
1# Drink in the Roaring 20s
New York’s goings-on after dark justify its reputation as the city that never sleeps (the 4am closing time for bars here is later than other big cities in the States). With so many bars and clubs going into the wee hours, it’s almost impossible to imagine New York when alcohol was outlawed. As a vestige of that gravest American political error now known as Prohibition, New York has the speakeasy: ‘hidden’ establishments where patrons imbibe behind closed doors in the backs of restaurants, barber shops, or unassuming alleyways. No modern speakeasy captures the deviant thrill of Prohibition-style drinking like The Back Room. It claims to have been an actual working gin-joint in the 20s. Entering through the unmarked alleyway in the city’s Lower East Side, it certainly feels like it belongs to another time. Inside, amid Victorian-era furniture, a bronzed ceiling and a crystal chandelier, you can sip cocktails from tea cups as gangsters and playboys did in their heyday. It’s the type of place where you’ll find yourself wondering “is there a hidden passageway behind that bookcase?” (The answer is yes, but the private room is reservation-only). Mondays are your best bet. Those in the know can quickly crowd the small venue on more popular going-out nights, and live music is on-hand to make the jazz-era transformation complete. Don’t forget to check the Facebook page for the daily password before you go.
2# The Cloisters and Fort Tryon Park
When you’ve had your fill of Times Square’s insanity and are ready for a respite, salvation awaits far uptown, at the very edge of Manhattan. Beyond Columbia University and Harlem in Washington Heights, The Cloisters Museum is the antithesis of midtown Manhattan. Built in the 1920s and 30s atop a hill to replicate a medieval monastery, the museum is hidden to the traffic below by towering trees and a maze of uphill footpaths. The art and artifacts within transport the wonder of medieval Europe to Manhattan. The paintings, tapestries, and intricate gold filigrees may be a bit highbrow, but anyone can bask in the beauty of its sun-filled atria, excavated brick by brick from Europe and reassembled here for the enjoyment and edification of the Empire State.
The Cloisters is the crown jewel of the sprawling greenspace of Fort Tryon Park, a gift to the city by the philanthropic son of John D. Rockefeller, American industry magnate. Many more discoveries await those who amble along its twisting pathways, including the Heather Garden, the city’s largest open-access garden. But the highlight is the view across the Hudson from the Billings Terrace, overlooking New Jersey’s Palisades Park (Rockefeller purchased this parcel of untouched woodlands as well, entrusted specifically to preserve the view from the New York side).
3# Jazz Upstairs at Ryan’s Daughter
There’s nothing secret about this two-a-penny Irish sports bar on the Upper East Side. But one wonders how many patrons file into the ground-floor bar for top 40 tunes and a few free-throws on the arcade basketball shooter oblivious to the goings-on upstairs. The second story bar is a stark contrast to the crowded pub below: soundproofed, spacious, and plush, with couches and armchairs scattered around small tables with board games. Here, on Friday evenings, some of the city’s most veteran musicians gather to play, have fun and unwind, completely free of any frills—and free of charge, too. It’s an intimate affair of aficionados, but anyone is welcome and there’s no dress code. Respect and appreciation are the only rules of entry. Walter, the full-bearded barman, is typically on hand pouring pints of the affordable house red ale. A visual artist and full-blown character, Walter is good for a drink as well a story. He’s likely to be spotted wearing a straw hat, or a taxidermy bird on his shoulder, or some other flair of eccentricity. Asked nicely, he may even show off some of his paintings.
4# The Burger Joint
When you inevitably find yourself overwhelmed in Midtown Manhattan, hungry and desperate for quick eats, it’s difficult to avoid the familiar neon glare of the global fast food chains. But sometimes treasures can be found in the most unsuspecting places. Duck into the lobby of the uber-swanky Le Parker Meridien hotel on 56th St, where tucked away behind a tall velvet curtain, you’ll uncover an 80s-era throwback: a wood-panelled hole in the wall for greasy grilling aptly named The Burger Joint. The concept is all nostalgic Americana, reflected by its starkly uncomplicated menu. Burger Joint has only been opened since 2002, but you wouldn’t know it from the decades-old movie posters hanging on walls covered by years of Sharpie signatures, the vestige of patrons come and gone. The whole thing has been a conceit of the hotel management from the start, but their study in downhome authenticity is virtually flawless, right down to the paper hats worn by the cooks behind the counter.
5# Wax Lyrical at East Village Books
Manhattan below 110th street can be overwhelming for its unabashed consumerism and displays of wealth. On weekends, New York’s bourgeoisie line Manhattan sidewalks for their weekend brunch ritual, taking to cafés and restaurants for bottomless mimosas, shopping bags at their side. The conspicuous consumption can be enough to make those of us less luxurious travelers feel a bit uneasy. For these moments, we can find solace in places like East Village Books, one of New York’s more eclectic used book shops located in several city universities. Here you can indulge in an altogether different type of fare—nourishment for the mind and soul.
Crammed unceremoniously into a basement on St. Marks Place, this alleyway of plywood shelving is stocked floor-to-ceiling with used books, vinyls and CDs. The titles reveal an incomparable trove of introspection: philosophy, critical theory, religious studies. There’s also a plentiful supply of classic poetry and fiction—particularly collections of American modernists like the Spartan Hemingway or the more frivolous Fitzgerald. For less than the price of a shrimp cocktail, you can walk out of this shop with months’ worth of food for thought.
6# Alphabet City’s Community Gardens
If perusing Marx and Focault really put in you in a radical mindset, continue the theme in Alphabet City’s nearby community gardens. Between Avenues A and D, a number of small fenced-off gardens occupy empty lots in a starkly residential pocket of Manhattan. The cityscape in this neighborhood is notably indy and undeveloped. You won’t find any Starbucks here, and there’s definitely no double-decker tour busses passing through. In fact, the gardens are the gathering places among community groups actively resisting the commercial development that has come to dominate much of the surrounding neighborhoods. La Plaza Cultural, one of the larger gardens on Avenue C, is a prime example. This sprawling urban oasis is lined with art made of recycled materials. Roosters roam freely within the garden’s gates, and in summer flowers and vegetables overflow. Behind the goldfish pond at the back of the garden, a cultural mural of Latin American heritage adorns an overgrown brick tenement wall with the words “our struggle continues.” This is the side of New York that Hollywood isn’t as keen to export.
The best way to take in the gardens is to wander the area and discover them yourself. Don’t let the neighborhoods rough exterior deter you: provided you observe the visitor hours and rules marked at each garden’s gate, you’ll be greeted with nothing but communal hospitality by caretakers. Placquards bearing names like “Secret Garden” and “Orchard Alley” each promise their own unique treasures behind their gates. For a little more history and context, look into the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space’s exhibitions, events and guided community tours.
7# Vol de Nuit
This Belgian brasserie on West Village is as elusive as the name “Night Flight” (or somewhat more poetically, “Fly-by-Night”) suggests. The bar itself is set back behind its neighboring 4th Street storefronts, the only marking on the brick archway entrance is a small crest hanging over with the name scrawled across a chalkboard in hand-lettering. The recessed entrance allows for a courtyard, dimly lit by tone-setting red light. The din of conversation, the folding-chairs scraping the concrete, the cigarette smoke curling up through the red all evoke a late-night outing in some European metropolis. It’s an altogether singular ambiance for hectic New York — the whole place exudes an approachably intimacy perfect for a night-cap after a night out in company. The list of Belgian and German beers is exceptional, as are the quintessential mussels and frites.
Bonus Tip: The Ruins of Roosevelt Island’s Smallpox Hospital
This historic landmark is only technically a part of the Manhattan borough, sitting on the edge of nearby Roosevelt Island in the East River. But if you’re into people’s history or urban decay, these foreboding ruins are still fairly accessible from the city center by either the F subway train or Roosevelt Island cable car. Here, during the industrial revolution, thousands of New York residents stricken with smallpox were quarantined from the rest of the city. It was built as an impressive public work in a city on the rise, fashioned from the neo-gothic imagination of architect James Renwick Jr., better known for the more highly visible St. Patrick’s Cathedral in mid-town. Now, it remains as eerie reminder of the only disease to be eradicated by human ingenuity. Gawkers can walk freely up to inspect the façade of the ruins, but a fence stands between the crumbling structures and any would-be explorers.
Still craving more NYC travel tips… be sure to call by our Long Weekend guide for a mix of mainstream and alternative tourist attractions along with hotel, restaurant and bar recommendations, or else check out some of our features on the Big Apple, such as this funky Brooklyn street art activity or our photos from the awesome High Line park project.
For more unusual attractions in great cities around the world check out our Secret Seven to Barcelona, our alternative things to do in Budapest and our local Sydney tips. (Ps. did you know we’re on Instagram and Facebook? We’d love you to stay in touch with us!).