How to See the Best of NYC Without the Crowds, According to a Tour Guide
When you picture New York City, a few very specific things come to mind: Times Square, the Statue of Liberty and the view from the top of the Empire State Building.
While these are all iconic sites for sure, they’re also super crowded, expensive, and there’s often a cooler and more authentic alternative to explore.
I’ve lived in New York City my whole life (Brooklyn born and raised!) and I’ve never once been to the top of the Empire State Building — and that isn’t because I don’t love a perfect view of the skyline. In fact, I’m just as obsessed with getting a great photo for Instagram of my hometown as everyone else, I just know where to go for a better shot.
Between my knowledge growing up in this crazy city and passing the test to become a tour guide (yes, New York City requires all guides to have a Sightseeing Guide license — and, yes, the test is hard), I know there are all sorts of great sites, neighborhoods and activities that most visitors to the Big Apple simply miss.
But don’t worry, I’m here to help. Here are some of the most crowded and touristy places in New York City, and what you should do instead.
Instead of buying tickets to the Statue of Liberty… take the Staten Island Ferry
Lady Liberty is without a doubt one of the most recognizable and inspiring sights in New York. But between the long lines to board a ferry, the ticket prices that can quickly add up for a family and braving the crowds when you actually land on the island, no one would blame you if you were questioning whether or not it was worth it. And when you finally get there, the angle at which you end up looking up at this icon of American freedom can be kind of disappointing.
Instead, hop on the Staten Island Ferry, which is totally free and provides some of the best views of the Statue of Liberty and the downtown skyline — way better than you’d get by actually being on the island. It departs regularly from the Whitehall Terminal and even operates on holidays. And once you’re in Staten Island, you can do a little shopping at the brand new Empire Outlets, right next to the ferry terminal.
To find: Staten Island Ferry, Whitehall Terminal, 4 South St., Manhattan
Instead of going up to the top of the Empire State Building…head to Long Island City
While getting a good view of the skyline is undoubtedly a must when you visit New York City (or live here for that matter), the view from the top of the Empire State Building is not the best you can get. Yes, you will be high up on the 86th Floor Observatory, but your skyline photos will be missing one of the best parts of the skyline: the Empire State Building itself.
Instead, skip the lines and the pricey tickets and head across the bridge to Queens. From Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City, you can snap panoramic photos of the skyline with the Empire State Building, an Art Deco jewel, as well as see the iconic Pepsi-Cola sign (which was landmarked a few years ago). And while you’re there, enjoy the 12-acre riverside escape with playgrounds, picnic tables and restored gantries, once used to load and unload rail car floats and barges.
To find: Gantry Plaza State Park, 4-09 47th Rd., Long Island City, Queens
Instead of eating in Little Italy…stuff your face on Arthur Avenue
New York City has some of the best Italian food outside of Italy, but there are more authentic spots than the small slice that Little Italy has become. While the neighborhood certainly started out as an Italian enclave with a wave of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it has been shrinking for years and now occupies only a few blocks at best. Sure, you can battle the hordes of hungry tourists for an espresso at Ferrara (though admittedly, their pastries are good), or you can go a bit more north for some truly authentic eats.
Head up to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, which calls itself the “real Little Italy.” The neighborhood saw a boom after Italian families moved there from lower Manhattan and set up shops and pushcarts along Arthur Avenue, and still boasts some of the best Italian food in the city. Sample some of the hand-pulled, fresh mozzarella from neighborhood favorite Casa Della Mozzarella and grab a sandwich from Mike's Deli in the Arthur Avenue Retail Market, open since 1940. After, grab a cannoli or lobster tail from any one of the many bakeries.
To find: Arthur Avenue, near E. 186 Street, Belmont, Bronx
Instead of braving the crowds at the Metropolitan Museum of Art… check out some of the lesser-known and totally underrated museums
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is great, let’s start there. Founded in 1870, it has become one of the most important cultural institutions in the world. But it also gets really crowded, especially on weekends. And while its countless rooms and artifacts mean you could get lost there for hours (in a good way), there are also some lesser-known museums in the city that are equally interesting.
Instead of just going to the MET, head to the museum’s own The Met Cloisters, a medieval-style building overlooking the Hudson River, which contains about 2,000 works of art from medieval Europe (you’ll feel transported to the greenery of Tuscany while sitting in the museum’s gardens). The Tenement Museum is a historical gem on the city’s Lower East Side, offering immersive, guided tours of two tenement buildings and chronicling a very important part of the city’s immigrant experience. Next, see Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (aka The Woman in Gold from the Helen Mirren movie fame) at the Neue Galerie, a museum devoted to early twentieth-century German and Austrian art all housed in a landmarked building from 1914 that will make you feel like you’ve stepped back into New York’s rich past — and it happens to be just a couple blocks north of the MET on the city’s Museum Mile.
Instead of fighting the crowds in Central Park…go on a tour of Green-Wood Cemetery
Ok, hear me out: I know a cemetery doesn’t sound like a fun place to hang out on a sunny afternoon (or after the sun goes down for that matter). But Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn happens to be one of the most underrated sites in the city. Not only does it have several very famous people buried there (like painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York Tribune founder and editor Horace Greeley, and composer Leonard Bernstein), but the National Historic Landmark was one of the first rural cemeteries in the country, founded in 1838. It also happens to be incredibly beautiful.
So rather than fight for a small patch of grass to enjoy a sunny day in Central Park (which is always very crowded), walk around the 478 acres of hills, valleys and ponds in this notable cemetery. Take a trolley tour on Sundays and Wednesdays to learn the cemetery’s history, including where George Washington fought the Battle of Brooklyn.
To find: Green-Wood Cemetery, Fifth Avenue and 25th Street, Sunset Park, Brooklyn
Instead of heading to Chinatown…sample delicacies in Flushing
There are some great Chinese restaurants in Chinatown (we’re looking at you Wo Hop and Nom Wah Tea Parlor), no one would dare deny that. And Chinatown’s long, storied history makes it an essential place to visit — when the U.S. and China began diplomatic relations in 1868, many Chinese immigrated to California looking for gold, and to New York, eventually settling along Mott Street, south of Canal Street, according to the National Park Service. The area remains the heart of Chinatown today.
But there’s another area of New York with a large Asian population and a vast array of authentic Chinese restaurants: Flushing, Queens. And the food halls there will make you forget you’re still in New York. Head to the New World Mall food court where 32 different vendors sling delicious Chinese specialties that will transport you right to China. Or check out the basement of the Golden Shopping Mall where now-mini chain Xi’an Famous Foods got their start (their spicy & sour spinach dumplings in soup and chewy, spicy hot-oil seared hand-ripped noodles are personal favorites).
To find: New World Mall, 136-20 Roosevelt Ave., Flushing, Queens; Golden Shopping Mall, 41-28 Main St., Flushing, Queens
Instead of seeing a Broadway show…check out the Public Theater
The Great White Way is famous throughout the world for plays and musicals, some sporting celebrity performances that make tickets both hard to get and very expensive. There are great opportunities to get your hands on discount tickets (like the TKTS booth), and I won’t pretend New Yorkers don’t also head to Broadway when we want to see a good show. But there are other equally great theater opportunities in the city.
Check out The Public Theater, based in NoHo, which features a diverse array of plays fit for every taste (it’s where Hamilton got its start). The Public Theater is also the group that puts on Shakespeare in the Park, a free summer series at the open-air Delacorte Theater in Central Park that draws big celebrity names each year. Tickets for each day’s performance are available at a few different locations, including in front of the theater in the park and through a digital lottery on the TodayTix app.
To find: The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., Manhattan
Instead of spending all your time at St. Patrick’s Cathedral…check out some of the other historic churches in the city
St. Patrick’s Cathedral is without a doubt a grand church, open since 1879 and serving as a beacon in the community for many. There are, however, other just as notable churches throughout the city, which stand out for their history, beauty and sheer size.
St. Paul’s Chapel, part of the Parish of Trinity Church Wall Street, is the oldest church in Manhattan, first built in 1766. A bucket brigade tossing water on the building helped the church survive the Great Fire of 1776, which destroyed the first Trinity Church. Over the next several years, many famous people attended services there, including George Washington who went to the church from Federal Hall after he took the oath of office to become the first president. St. Paul’s Chapel then earned the nickname “the little chapel that stood” after suffering no damage and becoming a source of relief for rescue workers after the World Trade Center towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001, according to the church.
Another gem in the city is the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in Morningside Heights. It is the largest Cathedral in the world (defined as a church that is also the seat of a Bishop) and one of the largest churches in the world, according to the Cathedral. Construction on the Cathedral started in 1892, but still isn’t finished today, and according to the Cathedral, “will continue to be constructed over many centuries.”
Instead of looking for views at a rooftop bar or restaurant… grill out in Brooklyn Bridge Park
New York City has plenty of great rooftop bars, boasting great views and tasty cocktails or snacks. They all tend to have one thing in common, though: they’re very expensive, and often hard to get a table at.
Instead of jostling for a spot at the bar, pick up some food to cook and settle into one of the salvaged wood picnic tables to barbecue on the shared grills at Pier 5 of Brooklyn Bridge Park. A Trader Joe’s a few blocks away makes for an easy place to pick up supplies, and longtime neighborhood favorite Sahadi’s is excellent for snacks (hint: get the hummus, you won’t regret it). The unobstructed views of the Manhattan skyline make for a dramatic backdrop to your meal. And if you’re hungry for dessert (personally, I don’t trust people who turn down dessert), grab a cone from Ample Hills Creamery, which is conveniently located right next to the tables (try the Ooey Gooey Butter Cake with house-made St. Louis-style ooey gooey butter cake pieces). After, take a walk through the park, which stretches along the East River and includes several playgrounds, a beach, and even a book cart.
To find: Brooklyn Bridge Park, 334 Furman St., Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn
Instead of eating at a single restaurant… check out the city’s great food halls
This is not your mall’s food court. Food halls have been popping up all over the city, but they’re not the kind that feature chain restaurants and fast-food. Instead, these food halls have some of the best food in New York City, often at reasonable prices (relatively, at least) and in a relaxed and casual setting. Not to mention, there tends to be something for everyone — because sometimes there’s nothing harder than trying to agree on a restaurant when you all have different tastes and dietary restrictions.
Head to the Dekalb Market Hall in Downtown Brooklyn where 40 vendors will ensure there is something for everyone. The pastrami sandwiches at A Taste of Katz’s offer the best of Jewish deli without the lines the original location tends to get, while the Mushroom Banh Mi from Bunker is a tangy and savory flavor bomb. For dessert, grab the Nutella-stuffed churros from Dulcinea, a crunchy and sweet explosion of chocolate.
Head to Gotham West Market in Hell’s Kitchen and try the classic Tokyo Shio ramen or pastrami steamed buns with spiced creamy mustard and daikon slaw at Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop. Then head downtown to Chelsea Market where dozens of vendors and shops sell inventive food. Try the Ratatouille pita with roasted eggplant, tahini, and hard boiled egg (my favorite) from Israeli chain Miznon or the crispy mini doughnuts from Doughnuttery, where you can customize your dessert with flavored sugar (like Lemon Pop with lemon, vanilla and poppy seeds, and Spicy Rooster with Sriracha, maple and lime).