Discover the New York City that's waiting just below the surface.
Have you already visited the Met, Times Square, the Brooklyn Bridge, and New York’s other quintessential things to do? It’s time to dig deeper (perhaps literally, like descending into the depths of the subway to discover an abandoned station). In a city with more than 8 million inhabitants, there are bound to be plenty of offbeat and under-the-radar things to do. From visiting the tranquil Noguchi Museum in Queens to exploring the creepy history of Roosevelt Island, this list of the best under-the-radar things to do will inspire you to get outside your comfort zone and rediscover New York.
The Noguchi Museum
Founded by Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, this museum might be one of the most peaceful places in all of New York. Outside, there’s a small sculpture garden. Inside, the galleries are filled with Noguchi’s stone sculptures and famous paper lanterns. This is a great place to visit when you want to escape the city’s hustle and bustle and find some peace and quiet.
Museum of the American Gangster
When Lorcan Otway’s father bought the building that houses the Saint Marks Theater in the East Village, he discovered something surprising in the basement—a safe containing $2 million. It turns out the building had been a mafia hangout and a speakeasy during Prohibition. Inspired by the building’s history, Otway created this small, informal museum, which displays artifacts, photographs, and newspaper clippings from the era when mob bosses ran New York.
In Red Hook, Brooklyn, the 19th-century headquarters of the Pioneer Works machine manufacturing company has been converted into a contemporary art center. It hosts artists in residence, who have studio space upstairs, and puts on temporary exhibitions on the ground floor. It also has a big garden, where it hosts events for the community. Check the website to see what’s on.
Jefferson Market Library
Once a courthouse, the Victorian Gothic building standing tall on 6th Avenue now houses a branch of the New York Public Library. The landmarked 19th-century building by Frederick Clark Withers and Calvert Vaux (who also had a hand in designing Central Park) has original stained glass and a charming little garden out back. The clock tower is normally off-limits to the public, but Untapped Cities—an online magazine and tour company—offers exclusive tours of the tower through its Insiders program.
Hallett Nature Sanctuary in Central Park
One of Central Park’s best-kept secrets, the Hallett Nature Sanctuary was a bird sanctuary closed to the public for 79 years. This 4-acre patch of wilderness is one of the park’s three woodlands, home to native flora and fauna. It’s open daily from 10 a.m. until 30 minutes before sunset, and you can tour it with the Central Park Conservancy.
The Players Club
Entering this illustrious private club on Gramercy Park feels like stepping back into Gilded Age New York. And it’s no wonder—the Players Club is the oldest private club still in its original location. It was founded by Edwin Booth (a great Shakespearian actor and brother of John Wilkes Booth) as a way to make amends for his brother’s crime. It’s normally open to members only, but sometimes hosts private events and tours by Untapped Cities.
The City Reliquary
This tiny museum in Williamsburg acts as a repository for all kinds of banal, everyday objects from New York’s not-too-distant past. Old subway tokens, glass seltzer bottles, vintage baseball cards, and a fortune-teller’s booth are just a few of the oddities you’ll find in the collection. It also hosts temporary exhibits and has a small shop where you can buy New York memorabilia.
Tennis Courts Inside Grand Central
Perhaps you’ve been to the secret bar hidden deep inside Grand Central Terminal, but did you know the massive train station also has tennis courts? Located upstairs, with grand arched windows overlooking Midtown, the Vanderbilt Tennis Club is open to the public. If you want to play, you can rent the court for a fee. Call ahead to confirm availability.
Street Art Murals in Bushwick
Brooklyn in general is known for its street art, but to find the highest concentration of murals, head to Bushwick, home of the Bushwick Collective, which puts on a huge block party every year. You’ll find that the streets around the Jefferson Street L stop—in particular Troutman Street—are lined with full-scale works by established street artists like Beau Stanton, Icy & Sot, Buff Monster, Fumero, and many others.
Chaim and Renee Gross Foundation
Delve into Greenwich Village’s artistic history at this museum inside the home and studio of sculptor Chaim Gross. The four-story townhouse, which Gross purchased in 1963, provides an intimate look at his drawings, prints, and sculptures as well as pieces of African, Oceanic, pre-Columbian, American, and European art he collected. The foundation is only open for one-hour guided tours on Thursday and Friday.
The Morgan Library
Gilded Age banker J.P. Morgan constructed this gorgeous edifice to house his collection of rare books and medieval and Renaissance art, and today it’s one of the city’s most enchanting museums. Ogle the ornate library with its shelves of leather-bound books (including three Gutenberg Bibles) and peek inside Morgan’s office and vault. A modern wing by award-winning architect Renzo Piano hosts rotating exhibits.
The Brooklyn Grange
Who says you can’t find fresh produce grown right in New York City? The Brooklyn Grange operates two massive rooftop farms, one in Long Island City and another at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which together grow more than 50,000 pounds of organically cultivated produce per year. They even have their own apiaries, which produce honey on roofs scattered around the city. They host guided tours, workshops, farm dinners, and even yoga.
Rooftop Reds Winery
Rooftop Reds in the Brooklyn Navy Yard lays claim to the title of the world’s first commercially viable rooftop vineyard. The 14,800 square-foot rooftop produces 6 wines made from grapes sourced from upstate New York’s Finger Lakes region. Visits are available by reservation only.
New York Distilling Company
One of the only craft distilleries within city bounds, the New York Distilling Company in Williamsburg produces three types of gin and two kinds of rye, which are stocked in many local bars and liquor shops. Stop by for a tour and tasting on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. At the attached bar, the Shanty, you can sip craft cocktails made using its spirits. Beware: these gins are potent.
Abandoned City Hall Subway Station
Despite its gorgeous architecture replete with vaulted tile ceilings, leaded skylights, and chandeliers, the early-20th-century City Hall subway station was decommissioned in 1945. The only official way to visit is through the New York Transit Museum, but stay on the 6 train at the end of the line and you might just catch a glimpse of the station as the train turns around to head back uptown.
The New York Earth Room
It may seem crazy that in SoHo, where real estate prices rise through the roof, there’s a room containing nothing but a massive pile of dirt, but that’s exactly what the New York Earth Room is. Commissioned by the Dia Art Foundation in 1977, land artist Walter de Maria installed 280,000 pounds of dirt in 3,600 square feet of space, and it’s been there ever since. The installation is free to visit, but don’t try to walk on it.
Donald Judd Foundation
Fans of minimalist art should plan a visit to the Judd Foundation at 101 Spring Street in SoHo, where the artist lived and worked before the neighborhood was cool. (Imagine this: he bought the textile factory for just $68,000 in 1968.) It’s a fascinating look at Judd’s aesthetic philosophy—he designed much of the furniture himself and used the space to display his own work and art by his friends, including Dan Flavin. Be sure to book in advance; reservations are required.
It’s easy to forget that New York City is made up of a bunch of islands, but Governors Island is becoming an ever-more-compelling place to go. Besides festivals like the Jazz Age Lawn Party, there are more permanent attractions that you can visit from May to October when the island is accessible by ferry. Island Oyster (by the team behind popular oyster-bar boats Pilot and Grand Banks) slings refreshing cocktails and freshly shucked bivalves with fantastic views of the city. Rotating public art installations up the island’s cultural ante. Collective Retreats recently opened a series of glamping tents, so you can even spend a night on the island.
Roosevelt Island Tram
Take the cherry-red Roosevelt Island Tram across the East River and spend some time exploring Roosevelt Island. This 2-mile stretch of land has a dark yet fascinating history as home to a Smallpox Hospital, infamous asylums, and a prison, the vestiges of which you can still see today. It’s also home to the FDR Four Freedoms Park, designed by renowned architect Louis Kahn in homage to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.