Searching for some of the best non-touristy things to do in NYC? From discovering the Asian cuisine scene of Flushing in Queens to topping up your tan on an urban beach, there are plenty of activities and attractions in New York that only the locals know about.
For many reasons, New York City is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. But if you’re anything like me, you’d probably prefer to explore the Big Apple without constantly having to rub shoulders with excitable mobs of visitors.
Fortunately, there are many non-touristy things to do in NYC that give you the chance to experience the city from a unique perspective. Of course, you’ll want to visit world-famous attractions like Central Park and the Empire State Building while holidaying in New York. But to see the city through the lens of a local, you should also visit lesser-known gems like Sunset Park, Governors Island and the Cloisters.
Below, I shed light on some of my favourite things to do in NYC that are at least slightly off the beaten path. Hopefully, you’ll gain a few ideas on how to inject some originality into your next trip to the Big Apple.
Things to do in NYC that only the locals know about
From taking in Manhattan’s skyline from Sunset Park to camping on Governors Island, here are some of the best non-touristy things to do in NYC.
1. Soak up Manhattan from Sunset Park
You’ll no doubt want to take in some spectacular views of the Big Apple during your trip. Of course, you’ll find plenty of observation decks on the top floors of iconic skyscrapers that tower over the city. But if you want a less tourist-centric skyline viewing experience, you might want to head over to Sunset Park.
Sunset Park rarely gets a mention when it comes to things to do in NYC, but it’s a gem of a vantage point for postcard-perfect views of Manhattan’s sprawling cityscape. Plus, as Sunset Park is much less famous than tourist hotspots like Central Park and the Battery, it’s easy to find a serene spot for a picnic without the crowds.
You’ll find Sunset Park in South Brooklyn, and the best time of day to visit is – you guessed it – sunset. You can see as far as New Jersey on a clear day. If you’re heading to New York at Christmas, this is a great spot to see the city and escape the festive crowds.
2. Admire the artefacts at the Cloisters
Fancy browsing through an extensive collection of artworks and historical artefacts without having to jostle with the crowds at galleries like the Metropolitan Museum of Art? I suggest exploring the Met Cloisters.
Situated in the picturesque Fort Tryon Park, the Cloisters houses a large collection of art and architecture from medieval Europe. Just some of the exhibits you’ll see include manuscripts, sculptures and religious relics from the Gothic and Romanesque periods.
Even the building itself is a sight to behold. It was constructed using materials from former European monasteries. I can’t quite understand why the Cloisters isn’t a bigger hit with tourists. Until it is, now’s the time to discover this relatively hidden gem.
3. Dine on Asian delicacies in Flushing, Queens
Neighbourhoods such as Chinatown in Manhattan may be famous for their Asian heritage and fare, but you don’t need to stick to the busy tourist areas to treat your taste buds to something new and exotic. The borough of Queens is well-known with the locals for its array of Asian restaurants. And the best neighbourhood in Queens for foodies is undoubtedly Flushing.
Flushing is my favourite neighbourhood in NYC for non-American fare, and the fact that there are barely any tourists around only adds to its appeal. Some of the area’s most popular restaurants include Pho Hoang (Vietnamese), Zhu Ji Dumpling House (Chinese) and Xi’an Famous Foods (Xi’an-style Chinese fare).
If you’re staying any longer than 4 days in New York, you might want to do some cooking at home. So, while you’re in the area, you can pick up Asian ingredients to prepare at home from stores such as the Old Town Asia Market, Jmart and US 1Supermarket.
4. Broaden your cultural horizons in Long Island City
If you want to culture up and explore incredible galleries without rubbing shoulders with the hoards of tourists that flock to Chelsea, you might want to visit the less touristy attractions of Long Island City.
Long Island City may not have as many galleries as Chelsea, but the quality of its installations gives Chelsea’s galleries a run for their money.
One of the most interesting cultural attractions in Long Island City is MoMA PS1, a contemporary art installation in Court Square. If visiting during the summer, don’t miss out on attending one of MoMA’s weekly live outdoor music events.
Other popular attractions in Long Island City include the SculptureCenter, the Flux Factory and the Noguchi Museum. This place really is an art lover’s paradise – make sure you explore it before it becomes overrun with visitors.
5. Discover the street art of Bushwick
Looking for some or the best urban photo opportunities while visiting New York? Forget the commercial and over-the-top Times Square (I actually wholeheartedly recommend visiting this place) and instead wander the colourful, street art-filled streets of Bushwick.
The streets of Bushwick have been painted in colourful works of art and murals by The Bushwick Collective with the help of a myriad of local artists. Now, Bushwick is one of the most photogenic areas of NYC, and it doesn’t attract crowds that are anywhere near the size of those at places like Times Square.
You’ll find the best outdoor galleries in Bushwick along Siegel Street, Morgan Avenue and East Moore Street. Don’t forget your camera!
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6. Stroll underneath Brooklyn Bridge
You may want to walk or cycle across the elevated footpath of Brooklyn Bridge while visiting New York – the views of Manhattan are incredible. But if you want the same views of Manhattan on top of amazing views of Brooklyn Bridge itself – with the added benefit of small crowds – you need to take a stroll through Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Admittedly, Brooklyn Bridge Parks is relatively popular with tourists, though the park’s 85 acres of waterfront gives it a peaceful and serene atmosphere. After soaking up the view of New York’s skyline, go for a spin on Jane’s Carousel. You might also want to treat yourself to a tasty dessert from Ample Hills Creamery.
7. Relax at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center
Fancy strolling through pristine gardens filled with beautiful arrangements of plants and flowers from across the globe? The New York Botanical Garden may be the obvious place to go, but if you’re looking for non-touristy things to do in NYC, you might prefer the Snug Harbor Cultural Center.
What was once a retirement home for elderly sailors has been a locally adored botanical garden and arts centre since the 1970s. The property boasts nine distinctive gardens, some of the prettiest being the Chinese Scholar’s Garden and Connie Gretz Secret Garden, where you can attempt to find your way through an intricate maze amid the boxwoods.
You’ll find the Snug Harbor Cultural Center on the north shore of Staten Island, conveniently tucked out of the way from the main tourist attractions.
8. Visit one of NYC’s lesser-known filming locations
The Big Apple has set the scene for countless blockbuster films and TV shows. Plenty of tourists flock to 90 Bedford Street to check out the block of apartments in which Friends was set. But if you want to take some slightly more original photos, you might want to visit The Royal Tenenbaums house in Hamilton Heights.
Released in 2001, The Royal Tenenbaums was a smash-hit comedy-drama film starring huge names such as Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Ben Stiller, Bill Murray and Gwyneth Paltrow. Director Wes Anderson himself chose the filming location on the corner of 144th Street and Convent Avenue after being taken aback by the intricate, red-brick architecture of the house that stands here.
The Royal Tenenbaums house is a private residence, meaning you’ll only be able to admire it from the outside. However, if you’re determined to follow in the footsteps of Stiller, Wilson, Murray and Paltrow, you can reserve this house all to yourself on Airbnb.
9. Explore New York City by bicycle
If you really want to explore New York like a local, you might want to keep your use of the subway system to a minimum and instead cycle around the city.
Of course, the locals use the subway all the time, but cycling is becoming increasingly popular. It’s not only green and healthy but also a fantastic way to soak up the city’s sights while travelling from A to B.
Thanks to the increased popularity of cycling, New York now has its own bike sharing programmes. Citi Bike is NYC’s biggest rental bike provider. You’ll find bike stations all over the city – simply download the app to pick up a rental bike from any Citi Bike station.
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10. Top up your tan at the beach
That’s right – you can actually grab yourself a spot on the sand and catch some rays while holidaying in New York City. Sure, the Big Apple may be lacking in tropical vibes, but its public beaches offer a welcome escape from the bustle of the concrete jungle.
One of the most popular beaches is located on Coney Island, but there are plenty of quieter sandy stretches if you’re looking for non-touristy things to do in NYC. In Brooklyn, Manhattan Beach and Brighton Beach are top picks. I also really like Orchard Beach in the Bronx and Rockaway Beach in Queens. If you’re staying near Staten Island, you might like Midland Beach and Cedar Grove Beach.
11. Go hiking in a unique park
When you think about all the amazing things to do in NYC, hiking probably doesn’t spring to mind. Still, the city has plenty of greenspaces that provide the perfect settings for a peaceful walk. If you’re looking for something a little less tourist-focused than Central Park, I recommend heading to the High Line.
The High Line is a 1.5-mile-long elevated park and walkway that occupies a former railroad on the west side of Manhattan. While following this footpath, you’ll be surrounded by some of the most iconic landmarks in the Big Apple. Along the route, you’ll bump into plenty of local food vendors, seating areas and vantage points.
12. Go glamping on Governors Island
Believe it or not, one of my favourite suggestions for non-touristy things to do in NYC is camping. Yep, you can actually camp legally in the Big Apple. While I wouldn’t recommend sleeping on the streets of Manhattan, I can strongly recommend sleeping in a luxury tent on Governors Island.
The 172-acre Governors Island lies just a few hundred metres south of Manhattan, offering amazing views of the skyline. In the island’s 42-acre park, you’ll find art installations, cultural exhibits and a plethora of recreational activities. If you decide to go glamping here, you’ll be able to take part in activities like wine tastings, yoga sessions and island explorations. Glamping on Governors Island is certainly one of the best ways to escape the hectic city life of New York.
What are your favourite non-touristy things to do in NYC?
As you can see – New York may be one of the world’s most popular destinations with tourists, but that doesn’t mean you have to explore like a typical tourist while you’re here. Instead, you can sprinkle some of the lesser-known attractions into your trip so that you can experience the Big Apple like a local. You’ll probably save yourself a few dollars in the process.
Some of my favourite non-touristy things to do in NYC include glamping on Governors Island, hiking the High Line, strolling through Sunset Park and cycling around the city streets, but there are plenty more amazing unique attractions and activities in New York to see and do. What are some of your favourite non-touristy things to do in NYC?
Let me know in the comments below.
Quick list of best local things to do in NYC
- Soak up Manhattan from Sunset Park
- Admire the artefacts at the Cloisters
- Dine on Asian delicacies in Flushing, Queens
- Broaden your cultural horizons in Long Island City
- Discover the street art of Bushwick
- Stroll underneath Brooklyn Bridge
- Relax at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center
- Visit one of NYC’s lesser-known filming locations
- Explore New York City by bicycle
- Top up your tan at the beach
- Go hiking in a unique park
- Go glamping on Governors Island