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The best things to see, do, eat, and more in NYC, according to locals.

By Alisha Prakash
December 08, 2020
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There’s an unassuming brownstone in Harlem, where the walls vibrate every Sunday. Step inside the downstairs door, and you’ll find it’s the work of a soulful saxophone, bass guitar, and rat-a-tat-tatting drums — assembled with the kind of verve that gets your toes tapping and head bopping on command.

For over two decades, the American Legion Post 398 has hosted weekly jam sessions in which rotating jazz musicians from around the world share a humble stage. Haze fills the tight quarters, cut only by the thumping music and wafting scent of homemade Southern-style cooking. 

It’s a time machine of sorts, a window into Harlem back in the day — some of the musicians have played with big-names like Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole. These days, the audience is an improbable group of old-timey veterans and a new generation of locals and tourists, who follow the menagerie of bluesy, brassy sounds to find an unexpected surprise waiting inside. (Oh, to be back in that room again.)

That’s the thing about NYC — it’s filled with hidden gems, no matter if you’re a lifer or a fresh transplant. Live here long enough and the city becomes the kind of place where even the new starts to feel familiar — a man training a parrot on the J train won’t phase a true New Yorker. But you’ll still stumble upon something novel every day, whether that means discovering a hole-in-the-wall restaurant or finding a temporary home in a jazz club that feels a lot like a living room. The city unequivocally takes you in, giving you a home.

But as a place of contradictions — it can be both magical and merciless — the city also tests your loyalty in unforgiving ways. And the pandemic this year pushed our limits to an extreme. We went from rubbing shoulders with strangers in packed subway cars and bars to keeping our distance, slowing down, withdrawing inside, and staying still — it was not our fast and frenetic nature. But as New Yorkers do, we adapted and found new ways to come together: singing and dancing from the rooftops, celebrating milestones like weddings outdoors on sidewalks, and of course, marking time by clapping for our first responders and frontline heroes. 

When the city does open again, and it will, those surprises will be there, and we’ll unwrap each one like little gifts. Until then, here’s a list of the tops spots in New York — places we can’t wait to get back to again — according to New Yorkers themselves. 

Central Park Reservoir

Buildings by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in New York City
Credit: Getty Images/Canvan

“Located just across the street from my apartment — when I lived in NYC — I would escape between the trees of Central Park and run around the reservoir almost daily. One time, when I was dating my husband, we were both running and saw that a stranded duck had found its way out of the water and couldn't get back in to its babies because of the fence around the water. The duck gave chase, but we finally caught it, and put it back over the fence.” — Deanne Kaczerski, Digital Content Editor

Anable Basin Sailing

Anable Basin Sailing pier
Credit: Paul Brady

“For my money, there's no better place for an outdoor beer than this no-frills patio on the banks of the East River in Queens, as you watch the sun set behind the Chrysler Building, the UN, and the rest of the Manhattan skyline. Grab a picnic table, order some out-of-this-world chevapi (Balkan sausages), and watch the boats cruise by. And if you happen to notice that strange digital clock on the facade of the next building over, you can even impress your friends with this factoid: It's counting down the days and hours left in President Trump’s term.” — Paul Brady, Articles Editor

AIDS Memorial Park at St. Vincent's Triangle

A woman walks past the New York City AIDs memorial in St Vincent's Park in the West Village, NYC on October 27, 2017.
Credit: Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images

“The AIDS Memorial Park opened just before I first moved to New York City and something about this perfect little green space being new to the area — just like me — always made it feel extra special. Looking into its history, the park is dedicated to the 100,000 New Yorkers who died of AIDS and is purposely situated outside of what used to be known as St. Vincent Hospital, which housed one of the first wards on the East Coast dedicated to fighting the disease. Today, a beautiful and massive memorial stands with a fountain, along with dozens of benches and tables for reading or eating lunch. The park serves as a little piece of solace next to busy 7th Avenue and a great spot to meet up with friends before browsing around the West Village.” — Christine Burroni, Digital News Editor

Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Tenement Museum Lower East Side Manhattan
Credit: Getty Images

“Museums have had to pivot this year, and it’s important that we support them — particularly smaller institutions that don’t have the funding of larger ones. The Tenement Museum, which normally gives tours in their two buildings on Orchard Street, has now shifted to doing outdoor walking tours of the neighborhood. Nothing can totally replace seeing in person what the cramped indoor quarters of a tenement were like — and truly understanding what living conditions in the late 19th century were like for many families. But a guided walking tour does provide other context: We were able to see the area’s first movie house, the Spanish-Baroque Loew’s Canal Street theater, and the Jarmulowsky Bank, still standing after all these years.” — Jacqui Gifford, Editor-in-Chief

Classic Harbor Line

Night cruise of NYC Harbor to see Statue of Liberty
Credit: Nick Martin

“In all my years of living in New York City, I've never been to the Statue of Liberty. For now, the interior of the monument remains closed. But I was able to get an up-close view on a beautiful fall day with Classic Harbor Line, which offers two-hour, socially distanced, jazz sailings on 80-foot schooners — wine and snacks included. Architecture tours are also available for those who want a more in-depth understanding of the history of New York City.” — Jacqui Gifford, Editor-in-Chief

Rezdora

Plates of food at Rezdora
Credit: Courtesy of Rezdora

“Chef Stefano Secchi's intimate restaurant, inspired by the culture and cuisine of Italy's Emilia-Romagna region, is one of my favorite places to go for a decadent plate of pasta and a glass of wine. And the energy around outdoor dining is fantastic — you never know when you'll bump into celebrities like Anne Hathaway and Danny Meyer. Don't miss the gnocco fritto or the cacio e pepe in Emilia (lettuce draped with pecorino dressing and cracked pepper). It puts the Caesar salad to shame.” — Jacqui Gifford, Editor-in-Chief

City Island

Street of City Island in Bronx, New York
Credit: Getty Images

“Everyone who moves to New York has certain expectations of the city. Mine, I must say, did not include a New England-inflected fishing town on a tiny island in the Bronx — but there you have it. To get from my apartment to this little enclave in Pelham Bay, I take the 4/5 to the 6 to the Bx29 bus for a ride totaling 90 minutes on a good day. But what awaits is a getaway that feels totally removed from the city: a quaint main street with antique stores and galleries, Hennessy piña coladas at Johnny's Reef, crowds (in non-pandemic times) gathering in the sunshine to eat fried seafood on the waterfront, a walking path to Orchard Beach that takes me through grassy marshes populated by turtles and egrets. New York really has everything.” — Hannah Walhout, Associate Editor

Washington Square Park

Washington square park aerial view New York City
Credit: Getty Images

“I’m always reminded of this John Updike quote when wandering through Washington Square Park: ‘The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.’ Stroll through this nearly 10-acre oasis in NYC’s Greenwich Village, and you’ll soon understand why. I’ve visited this iconic neighborhood spot — thrumming day and night — more times than I can count, but each time, the experience is wholly different. Here, a menagerie of musicians, jugglers, chess players, street artists, skateboarders, NYU students, and neighborhood residents all vie for attention — an endless swell of people pulling your gaze here, then there. It’s the type of place you can visit every single day and still find something new, and although you can cover the entire place in 20 minutes tops, lingering on one of the park benches, by the fountain, or under the Washington Arch is highly recommended to truly absorb the contagious energy reverberating from every corner.” — Alisha Prakash, Senior Digital Editor

Enoteca Maria

Nonna's cooking at Enoteca Maria in Staten Island
Credit: Courtesy of Enoteca Maria

“Enoteca Maria, a warm and inviting restaurant tucked away in Staten Island, attracts locals from all five boroughs with an extra-special secret ingredient: grandmothers. Here, a rotating cast of nonnas from Italy and beyond whip up authentic, comforting, good-for-your-soul dishes from their home countries. The menu changes daily — one day, you might find yourself luxuriating over lasagna bianca (each sheet of pasta lovingly layered with parmesan, mozzarella, artichoke, mushrooms, and butternut squash and coated with bechamel sauce) or canolicchi di mare (razor clams simmered in white wine with garlic); the next, savoring specialties from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Japan, Russia, and the list goes on. Every day offers a new surprise — and if that’s not a perfect metaphor for living in New York City, then I don’t know what is.” — Alisha Prakash, Senior Digital Editor

Happyfun Hideaway

Interior of bar at Happy Fun Hideaway in Brooklyn
Credit: Tanner Saunders

“Bushwick — the Brooklyn neighborhood home to street art, Dominican restaurants, and the JMZ train — will always hold a special place in my heart. And Happyfun Hideaway, a queer dive bar with a big backyard and even bigger characters, is an essential part of my NYC. For years, it’s been the place I catch up with my friend on Mondays over Tecate and tequila. On weekends, it’s home to drag queens and dancing, but also quaint little nooks to chat with friends or strangers about this or that. Most importantly, it’s welcoming of all — and that’s something we very much need right now.” — Tanner Saunders, Associate Digital Editor

Tompkins Square Park

Tompkins Square Park East Village Manhattan
Credit: Getty Images

“For a real taste of New York City, wander through the East Village and spend an afternoon — rain or shine — at Tompkins Square Park. Here, you’ll find finance-types walking their dogs, live musicians playing rock covers, sunbathers in the summer and even winter, skateboarders, artisans, chess players, and a motley crew of people that make up the vibrant and textured fabric of the neighborhood. It’s the place for people-watchers, and you’ll probably find me there — in the dog park — on any given Sunday.” — Tanner Saunders, Associate Digital Editor

Whispering Gallery at Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal in New York City
Credit: Getty Images

“If you’re heading down to the Oyster Bar (or to catch a train on the lower level), you'll often spot a couple people facing opposite corners and speaking quietly into the walls. It's a cool acoustical trick: The arched ceilings in that spot conduct the sound in a way that one person can hear the other perfectly — even amid the rush hour crowds and announcements.” — Sarah Bruning, Senior Editor

The Elevated Acre

Elevated Acre in Financial District, New York City
Credit: Getty Images

“You’d be forgiven for breezing right by the outdoor escalators of 55 Water Street in Lower Manhattan. They don't look like much from the street, but if you take them one flight up, you’ll be rewarded with this lovely one-acre green space. It has East River and Brooklyn Bridge views, plus plenty of beautifully landscaped pockets, so it’s a great place to bring a picnic (or takeout from one of the local poke spots).” — Sarah Bruning, Senior Editor

Cobble Hill Park

Cobble Hill Park in Brooklyn
Credit: Malcolm Brown/NYC & Company

“This past spring and summer, when everyone in Brooklyn was mostly confined to their apartments and immediate neighborhoods, this little patch of green offered an escape for those in the surrounding areas of Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens. The park’s small size — just a half-block long — makes it seem like you’ve stumbled on a secret garden, and it’s bordered by 19th-century brownstones and row houses so that it feels as if you’re in a period film about Old New York. My favorite thing to do when the weather is nice is grab a prosciutto sandwich from Poppy’s to-go window (they also have excellent baked goods) and eat it here after finding an empty bench under the shade of a plane tree.” — John Wogan, Special Projects Editor

Rockaway Beach

Rockaway beach, quiet and empty ocean with a peaceful glow in the background.
Credit: Nino Qasoshvili/Getty Images

“I grew up, in part, at the beach in Southern California, and I didn’t think the ocean was something I’d see much of when I moved to New York. Luckily, the Rockaways are just the escape from the city that I’d been missing. And after a long day of swimming and sunbathing, there’s nothing better than fish tacos and a beer from Tacoway Beach before taking the train or the ferry back home.” — Madeline Diamond, Associate Digital Editor

King Mother

Exterior of King Mother wine shop in Brooklyn
Credit: Courtesy of King Mother

“My husband and I moved into a new apartment in Brooklyn in late March, exactly when the city shut down due to the pandemic. We would walk through our new neighborhood, peering inside dark restaurants and looking up menus online, preparing for the day when we could dine out again. One in particular caught our eye: King Mother, on Cortelyou Road, with extensive wine and cheese lists. The minute it opened for takeaway, we were at its door for to-go drinks and, hands down, the best focaccia I’ve ever had. It quickly became our neighborhood spot. The tables are generously spaced, the staff feel like your best friends, and the wine flows endlessly.” — Erin Agostinelli, Editorial Operations Manager

Green-wood Cemetery

Tomb in Green-wood Cemetery in Brooklyn
Credit: Carrie Thompson/Getty Images

Green-Wood Cemetery is such an enchanting part of South Brooklyn. Most wouldn’t consider such a place reminiscent of death to be described that way, but during the height of the pandemic in NYC, it became my refuge. It was a place I could safely walk without running into crowds, and the relative silence of the large historical place was perfect for reflecting. Pick any part of Green-Wood and you’ll discover nature and wildlife, like the famed parakeets, groundhogs, and enormous, breathtaking trees. The expansive green space is also the perfect place to uncover New York history, from the family mausoleums to the famous historical figures. Even if I lived nearby for over a year without going in, I’m so happy I spent those weekends and afternoons finding solitude and learning more about the history of this beautiful city and its people.” — Mariah Tyler, Photo Editor

Peaches HotHouse

Plate of Hot Fried Chicken and greens from Peaches HotHouse in Brooklyn
Credit: Courtesy of Peaches HotHouse

“A majority of my seven years in Brooklyn was spent in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. It will always be the best neighborhood, in my humble transplant opinion. While my favorite coffee shop with the best Haitian patties closed its doors this year, the best place to spend a hot afternoon or cold night is Peaches HotHouse. Arguably some of the best fried chicken and cornbread in Brooklyn can be found here.” — Mariah Tyler, Photo Editor

Border of Lower East Side With Two Bridges

New York City's Lower East Side and Chinatown, between bridges
Credit: Karen Chen

“If I had to choose my favorite five square blocks in all of New York City, it would be below Broome Street and above East Broadway, between Bowery and Essex in the lower Lower East Side. It’s got the greatest concentration of my favorite bars, restaurants, and authentic ethnic food spots all in one little pocket. I just love wandering those streets — lined with street art and always buzzing with that unmistakable New York energy — picking up my favorite bites (pastries from Kamboat Bakery, pork buns from Super Taste, tamales from Factory Tamal, pizza from Scarr's), meeting friends for dinner and a drink (Cervo’s or Kiki’s followed by Reception and Bar Belly), or just soaking up the sun with a good book on the benches lining the small pedestrian park along Allen Street (Google Maps apparently calls it ‘Allen Malls’).” — Karen Chen, Editorial Producer

Louis Valentino, Jr. Park, Red Hook

Louis Valentino Jr. Park in Red Hook
Credit: Karen Chen

“During the height of the pandemic, when we were really only meant to leave our apartments for the essentials (exercise, fresh air, groceries), I found my salvation in running to different neighborhoods around Brooklyn. This small park at the tip of Red Hook was an amazing place to feel the sun and sea breeze on my skin, smell the ocean, and feel a little bit removed from, well, everything. Now, it's still a favorite spot to spend an afternoon. Get some picnicking essentials from nearby neighborhood favorites — a bottle of wine from Red Hook Winery, a sandwich from Court Street Grocers (the Red Hook outpost), dessert from Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies — and watch the sun set behind the Statue of Liberty with the Manhattan skyline twinkling in the distance.” — Karen Chen, Editorial Producer

Blossom

Interior of Blossom in NYC
Credit: Courtesy of Blossom

“As soon as outdoor dining reopened in the city, my husband and I decided to pick one of the regular-ish spots in our brunch rotation and make it our only brunch spot. We've been outdoor brunching at Blossom, a friendly plant-based spot on a lively stretch of Columbus Avenue in the Upper West Side where the restaurants have really nailed their outdoor dining games every weekend this summer and fall. I've got a standing order for a Bloody Mary at this point, though it’s anyone’s guess whether I’ll accompany it with a burger, a pizza, a vegan Benedict, or a plate of nachos; my husband’s fully devoted to the Southern sandwich and a plate full of French toast.” — Skye Senterfeit, Photo Editor

College Walk, Columbia University

View of lawn at Columbia University's main campus in Morningside Heights, New York City
Credit: Getty Images

“I'm lucky to live in a neighborhood sandwiched between Morningside and Riverside parks, two great expansive green spaces. But when I’m too lazy to commit to a proper park outing (which is often) I head to College Walk, on the Columbia University campus, for a quick breath of fresh air. The wide, greenery-lined pathway cuts through the campus at 116th Street and is fairly serene, but also a little buzzy. It’s a well-loved local spot, so you’ll rarely ever be there alone, but there’s plenty of room to spread out and ample benches (and the steps of the Low Library!) on which to perch with a coffee or book. I’ve always used the pathway as a convenient neighborhood cut-through, but have really appreciated this local bit of public space more than ever this year.” — Skye Senterfeit, Photo Editor

Paisanos Butcher Shop

Paisano's Butcher Shop in Brooklyn
Credit: Kendall Cornish

“Living in Cobble Hill has allowed most of my European lifestyle dreams to come true stateside. One of these dreams is virtually never stepping foot into a supermarket and only visiting local specialty shops for whatever I may be making for dinner that evening. Paisanos Butcher Shop, one of the oldest and most well-known in the neighborhood, is dangerously close to my home, so I spend at least two hours every week waiting in the short line outside (a new COVID-19 safety effort) and perusing the seemingly endless isle of quality cuts. Strangely, this is one of my happiest places in NYC, and I can't recommend the chimichurri skirt steak enough.” — Kendall Cornish, Associate Digital Editor

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Egyptian Art, the Egyptian Temple of Dendur
Credit: Getty Images

“I haven't lived in the city for very long, so I don't have cool, under-the-radar spots to share. When I first moved to New York City, though, my parents gave me a membership to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it’s one of the best, most useful gifts I’ve received. I’ve spent countless hours wandering the galleries, and each time I visit, I find something new I've never noticed before. My perfect Sunday consists of a Met visit followed by cookies from the nearby Levain Bakery and a stroll through Central Park.” — Elizabeth Rhodes, Associate Digital Editor