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Settling into New York City life, I finally got around to seeing parts of the city that I never had time for on previous, shorter visits. With all the tourist attractions checked off the list, I wanted to get off the beaten path in New York City and uncover spots that tourists, and even most locals, usually don’t visit.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t – and here’s why: each one of these stops offers a completely authentic view of New York City, whether it’s insight into the way the city really runs and what makes it tick or actually providing unique views of the Manhattan skyline. Of course there are tourist attractions that are well worth paying for, like the fantastic new observatory on top of the One World Tower, but I’d like to give you some ideas for things to do that aren’t in the guide books and introduce you to some hidden gems in New York City.
1. Take the ferry to Governors Island
Governors Island is a small 172-acre (70 ha) island, about half a mile from the southern tip of Manhattan. The island used to be a fort and military outpost for centuries, and has only been open to the public since 2006. Now, visitors can take the short ferry ride from Brooklyn or Manhattan during the summer months and enjoy an artificial beach, giant green spaces and a cycle path around the island when they feel they need to get away from Big City life. You can still see historic buildings there, like Castle Williams and Fort Jay, both built in the 18th century, or just enjoy the gorgeous views of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. You can rent bikes there (or bring your bike on the ferry), bring a picnic or enjoy a meal from the food trucks on the island, or explore the island on foot. Currently, only the northeastern half of the island is open to the public, but the southwestern half is being redeveloped and will be opened as a park and picnic area soon. Noteworthy events include Figment, an annual participatory art festival, photography exhibitions, the skate truck and several art fairs.
While Governors Island is popular with locals – especially on summer weekends – if you go on a weekday, you’re likely to have the island almost to yourself – one of the best hidden gems in New York City.
How to get there: Ferries run on weekends from Brooklyn’s Pier 6 and Manhattan’s Battery Maritime Building (about every thirty minutes, see here for the full Governors Island ferry schedule). A round trip is $3 for adults, children under 12 ride for free. Get to Governors Island for free: Passengers ride free on Saturdays and Sundays before noon!
***Note that Governors Island is only open from May 1 to October 31.***
2. Get out to Red Hook
Red Hook in Brooklyn is one of the ‘up-and-coming’ neighborhoods in the city, expected to grow in a way similar to trendy Williamsburg, which has become the area with the highest hipster population in New York. But for now, Red Hook is not quite there, and going there definitely means venturing off the beaten path in New York City. Red Hook is well on its way to become the next hot neighborhood in Brooklyn with independent stores, restaurants and art galleries arriving over the last few years and rejuvenating the formerly decaying waterfront community. Red Hook’s biggest challenge is its location – way out on a peninsula southwest of Carroll Gardens, bordering on the Hudson River. Strangely enough, IKEA is helping them overcome that hurdle, having opened there recently and bringing in an upswing of visitors with their free water taxi available from Manhattan each weekend.
While it was formerly a mainly industrial area, you’ll now find cute restaurants that take pride in using local ingredients, creative shops and galleries, a large community garden, seafood pubs and bars with views over the water, and more businesses opening on a monthly basis. There is even an artisan chocolate factory (Cacao Prieto, 218 Conover Street) and a whiskey distillery (Van Brunt Distillery, 6 Bay Street) where you can take free tours. Ice cream lovers should head straight to the Red Hook Factory of Brooklyn-based ice cream maker Ample Hills (421 Van Brunt Street). Especially kids will love the interactive ice cream museum, but adults will also enjoy watching the ice cream making process. Don’t leave without sampling some ice cream – as in every Ample Hills branch, there is one flavor that you can get only at this location: The Hook (burnt sugar ice cream mixed with salty fudge bites and Dutch stroopwafels).
The 20-minute ferry ride from Manhattan’s Pier 11 alone is worth the trip, offering the same spectacular views that the ferry to Governors Island has, but going way beyond that. There are several walkways along the waterfront, piers that are featuring art projects now, and at the Louis Valentino Jr park right at the Hudson River you can rent kayaks during the summer months or just enjoy the views of the Statue of Liberty across the bay. Most of the restaurants and shops are located on Van Brunt Street and the surrounding roads.
How to get there: The cheapest way to get here is via the free IKEA ferry that runs for free on weekends (every 20 minutes from 11am). The ferry also runs on weekdays, but charges $5 one way. NYC Ferry’s South Brooklyn ferry also stops in Red Hook. You can take the ferry from the Wall Street Terminal – here is the NYC ferry schedule to Red Hook.
The closest subway stops are Carroll Street or Smith-Ninth Street on the F and G train. The B61 bus goes all the way to Downtown Brooklyn and stops at the Smith-Ninth Street Subway Station. The B57 bus also goes to Downtown Brooklyn.
3. Discover the Elevated Acre
The Elevated Acre is, as the name indicates, an acre of green space on an elevated level between Lower Manhattan’s massive skyscrapers. We were surprised to find out how few New Yorkers actually knew about this space, even though it is just around the corner from Pier 11 and from Wall Street. Tourists haven’t found out about this lovely spot either, even though hotel booking websites offer many hotels within in walking distance from this rooftop park, which makes it one of the best hidden gems in New York City.
While it is packed with office workers during the weekday lunch hours, this is a great little hidden spot with superb views over the East River, the Brooklyn Bridge and Governors Island. Get here early, bring a book and a coffee and while away for an hour or so. The Elevated Acre also has a seven-tiered amphitheater and movies are shown here at night during the summer.
4. Take the aerial tramway to Roosevelt Island
Roosevelt Island is another little island in the East River that is worth a visit. Tucked in between Manhattan’s Upper East Side and Queens, this long, but narrow island stretches over two miles (3 km) from Manhattan’s East 46th to East 85th Streets, but only has a maximum width of 800 feet (240 m). Even though the island itself doesn’t have much on it other than residential apartment blocks, there is a lovely waterfront park on the island’s south side, Southpoint Park, that makes for a great spot to take your date on and watch the sunset from.
You can also walk up to the Northpoint Lighthouse, which dates back to 1872. The views over Manhattan’s East Side are lovely, and the best way to see them is actually from the areal Roosevelt Island Tramway (which you might recognize from the last Spiderman movie), the best way to arrive on the island. Plan an hour or two to walk around the park or bring a picnic for a relaxed afternoon. Even though you’re just across the river from Midtown’s hustle & bustle, you’ll feel like you’re very much off the beaten path in New York City.
How to get here: The most scenic way to arrive is via the Roosevelt Island Tramway which leaves from 2nd Avenue between 59th and 60th Street and takes you high up above the roofs of Manhattan. You can use the tramway with your MTA metro pass. Make sure to get a spot near the front window and don’t worry about all the locals on there rolling their eyes as you vie for the best spot to take pictures. They could have easily taken the F Train, which also stops on Roosevelt Island, so they’re doing this for the views, too!
5. Discover Brooklyn
If you want to experience an authentic part of New York, then make sure to leave Manhattan. No matter if you’re heading to the Bronx, to Queens or to Staten Island (you have to get off the ferry to make it count though 😉 ), you’ll experience much more diverse and authentic neighborhoods. My favorite out of the five boroughs? Brooklyn! Over the past few years, Brooklyn has become increasingly popular, but while many people want to visit Brooklyn they still don’t know where to start. It is after all New York’s most populous borough, and there are around 70 neighborhoods to explore. You can eat in authentic Russian eatery in Brighton Beach, stroll through the charming streets of historic Brooklyn Heights, marvel at street art in Bushwick or get a glimpse of life in a Jewish Orthodox community in Williamsburg or Crown Heights. I wrote a whole article about why everyone should visit Brooklyn on a trip to New York.
You can easily spend a week in Brooklyn alone and would still not run out of things to do! The further away you’re getting from Manhattan, the farther you’ll get off the beaten path in New York City. But most people don’t have that much time, which is why I decided to pack as much of Brooklyn as possible in a half-day walking tour. On my Brooklyn Walking Tour I show four completely different sides of Brooklyn, while introducing you to five neighborhoods, none of which is like the other. You will see how diverse Brooklyn truly is when I show you classic Brooklyn brownstone architecture as well as the ‘hipster’ side of Brooklyn, with street art and vintage shops and flea markets. I will show you amazing Manhattan views, take you through an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood and tell you everything you need to know about Brooklyn.
For five more awesome things to do in New York off the beaten tourist trails, check out Five things to discover in New York that most tourists (and locals) never do – Part II
Still looking for a hotel in New York City but not sure where to stay? Check out Booking.com for the best priced hotels in New York City – I’ve been using Booking.com since 2009 and it’s still my favorite hotel booking website.