23 of the Most Unique Things to Do in New York City
New York City is hands down one of my favorite cities in the world. While the Big Apple may just be another concrete jungle to many people, to me there exists a mashup of culture, history, cuisine, and experiences that you can only experience in New York City. However, rather than have me, an occasional NYC tourist tell you about it, I reached out to one of my favorite female traveling writers, Katka Lapelosová, who happens to be a New York City local, to share some of the cool, unusual and unique things to do in New York City. Read her take below with 23 of the most unique things to do in New York City.
Most unique things to do in New York City
1. Take the bus.
No, not the open-air- double-decker buses highlighting the “best of NYC” – use your MetroCard for the #5 or #103 buses, which will take you from the top to bottom of Manhattan. You can hop on and off as you see areas that tickle your fancy, and enjoy the best stories and people-watching from fellow passengers. Just avoid it between 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., aka rush hour, when you’ll feel like a sardine (and smell like one too).
2. Explore Chinatown.
But like the real Chinatown – not just Canal Street. Getting to Manhattan's Chinatown is relatively easy. Simply follow the scent of fish in Lower Manhattan through the alleyways until you discover the shops of Chinatown. Here you'll find Chinese goods, Eastern medicine, tea, cheap foot massages and some of the best underground dim sum (literally, as some are in a basement under the shops).
3. Do happy hour right.
It's no secret that cocktails in New York City can be insanely expensive. Nonetheless, don’t be afraid to drink between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. for some of the best drinks in Manhattan that won't cost an arm and a leg. The Soul, Jazz, Funk Happy Hour at historic 169 Bar features a $3 beer and shot special, or hit up Machiavelli for free aperitivo (Italian snacks) and pizza weekdays 4-6pm.
4. Experience New York City life at the turn of the century.
New York City has a lot of cool museums, but the Lower East Side Tenement Museum is one that actually brings history to life. Lower East Side Tenement Museum is filled with artifacts representing some of the most influential cultural groups to land in New York City (Italians, Irish, Jewish, etc.), and there are even actors there to make it feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
5. Get soul food in Harlem.
Contrary to what some may think, you are not going to get shot if you visit Harlem. Harlem is a really understated area filled with great diversity, family culture, and excellent regional cuisine. Among my recommendations is to hit up a place called Manna’s, where the home-cooked buffet will keep your belly filled, while the locals will keep you entertained.
6. Take a pole dance class.
Yes, seriously. The best workout of your life comes in the form of sexy dancing on a metal pole. You may be sore for days, but fit as a result. For me, I love the sassy instructors at Le Femme Suite. Sign up for Class Pass if you intend on being in the area for a longer amount of time.
7. Eat at an “only.”
If you’re looking to open a niche restaurant that specializes in one specific food item, then New York City is the place to do it. We’ve got places that only sell meatballs, only sell mac ‘n cheese, only sell pudding, and only sell biscuits. We’ve got a shop dedicated to just grilled cheese sandwiches, potatoes, taquitos, and steak frites. Do your own self-guided crawl of all the different types of "only" restaurants.
8. Visit the oldest forest in Manhattan.
Central Park is cool and all, until it’s overrun with tourists and hot dog vendors. So it's better to head uptown and discover nature that has largely been untouched since the Native Americans called Manhattan home. I recommend visiting Inwood Hill Park, home to the oldest forest and salt marsh in Manhattan. It. Is. Awesome.
9. Go Native.
While many museums tout a “suggested donation” (and give you the stink eye for handing over a dollar), one of the only legitimately free museums in New York City is the National Museum of the American Indian. And it’s pretty amazing, to say the least. Past exhibits include galleries of Native American photography, a display about skateboard culture on reservations, and archery showcases from the past to the present.
10. Eat a $1 slice of pizza. But only if you’re drunk. Otherwise, splurge on a proper New York City slice, such as at Joe's or Prince Street Pizza.
11. Get pastries at Ferrara’s Bakery.
Little Italy is sort of like Disney World – a lot of lights, sugary scents, and guys dressed up in costumes trying to lure you into their authentic Italian restaurants. So you'd better just head all the way back to Grand Street where you can try authentic Italian cheesecake, cannolis, rainbow cookies, and any of the other scrumptious desserts they have on offer. Food comas optional.
12. Go to Times Square at 1 a.m.
It’s pretty trippy to see Times Square when all of the shops are closed, the theaters are empty, and the creepy Elmo buskers are gone for the day. The lights still shine brightly and the TV screens still work, so you can get some cool selfies and not worry about moving at a snail’s pace through the busy crowds.
13. Make your own Absinthe.
Hell yes you can do this, and do so legally and all for you to enjoy! Apotheke offers some killer mixology classes, including one where you make your own version of the Green Fairy goodness.
14. Navigate your way through indoor markets.
When it rains outside, head indoors and stroll the many market stalls around New York City. Chelsea Market is the biggest and the best, and soon there will be an international food hall specializing in street food from around the world, owned by Anthony Bourdain. If you're in Brooklyn, hit the Dekalb Market Hall in downtown Brooklyn.
15. Drink around the Financial District after hours.
FiDi closes down after 5 p.m., when the bridge-and-tunnel crowd heads home after a long day stockbroking on Wall Street. That then leaves the streets (some of the oldest in the city) quiet and lovely, and the bars lively for a great pint. It’s a less-touristy diversion from nearby South Street Seaport. A can't-miss bar is The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog, named "World's Best Bar," twice.
16. Try some Czech comfort food at Doma na rohu.
Enjoy Czech comfort food at Bohemian Spirit. It’s worth a trip to Yorkville if it means getting to throw back some authentic Pilsner Urquell with sausages, beef goulash, and Bohemian-style chicken schnitzel.
17. Channel inner Don Draper at the Roosevelt Hotel.
Simply put, the Roosevelt Hotel exudes swank, and a cocktail session on their rooftop in the summertime is a must. In this case, it is totally acceptable to treat yourself with a Richard Sterling three-martini lunch.
18. Chase down a food truck.
Street meat goes beyond hot dogs, soft pretzels and halal carts. As such, New York City artisanal food truck eats are on the rise, and offer some fantastic dishes at discount prices. Use this food truck map for the locations of the Big Gay Ice Cream truck, Luke’s Lobster truck, or Sweet Chili’s Thai food.
19. Discover the artistic landscape of Latin America.
Latinos have played an integral part in the development of New York City, and their contributions and culture are celebrated at El Museum Del Barrio, at the top of Museum Mile. Suggested gallery admission is $9 for adults, albeit with your admission, you can also gain free entrance to the Museum of the City of New York.
20. Catch some improv.
New York City has some awesome traditional comedy clubs, but watching the spontaneity that comes with Improvisational theater is an entirely different experience. $5-$10 gets you great laughs at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, which gave Amy Pholer and Matt Walsh their starts.
21. Visit a European Monastery.
The Cloisters Museum hosts some of the most precious and beautiful Medieval Art in the city. J.D. Rockefeller had the building shipped over brick-by-brick from five separate abbeys across Europe, and it sits atop Fort Tryon Park,, offering a view of Manhattan to rival that of the Empire State Building. And since it is owned by The Met, you can offer a “suggested donation” as payment.
22. Go back to college.
With dozens of top-name universities in New York City, there’s always a lecture going on somewhere. What's more, many of them are open to the public as well, and offer an afternoon or evening of stimulating conversation with professors, students, and academic guests. Scour through NYU, Columbia, City College, FIT and Pace University’s websites for topics relevant to your interests.
23. Indulge in a bottomless brunch.
Not so quick; keep your pants on! The "bottomless" I’m talking about is a “Pay one price, drink as much as you want” brunch special at places like Poco Bar, and many more. You can also often find good Groupons which will treat you to a brunch entrée and a few drinks. It’s the New York thing to do, really.
What do you consider the most unique things to do in New York City?