Last Updated on March 7, 2021
When I wrote the first part of this post, I had no idea that it would become one of the most popular articles on this website, but every day people look for unusual things to do in New York City and read my five suggestions for NYC off the beaten path things to do. I have now been spending three summers in a row in New York City and have stumbled across a few more awesome things that aren’t necessarily in the guidebooks, I thought it was time to follow up with five more things that most tourists and locals never do – and they all don’t cost a thing!Without further ado – five free cool New York experiences that I highly recommend, all far from the usual Manhattan tourist stuff:
NYC Off The Beaten Path: Soak up history in Sylvan Terrace
This is the only place on my list that is located in Manhattan, but far north in Upper Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, where not a lot of tourists make it to. Sylvan Terrace is a small mews off St Nicholas Ave, (easy to miss – look out for the small set of stairs on your left if you’re heading south, the street is elevated), and part of the Jumel Terrace Historic District. The street is one of the few remaining cobblestone streets in New York and consists of 20 wooden row houses facing each other at the end of which you’ll find the historic Morris-Jumel Mansion, the oldest building in Manhattan (built in 1765). The mansion has been turned into a museum and can be visited Tuesday – Sunday (admission $10), but even just a stroll along Sylvan Terrace will transport you into a different era, and it is hard to imagine that this area was largely rural when the houses were erected in the late 18th century. What is unique to the houses are that they all look exactly the same with their high stoops, door overhangs, hand-painted house numbers and the yellow, green and maroon color schemes. If you’ve watched Boardwalk Empire, you might recognize the street from one of the first episodes, but even if you didn’t watch the show, you’ll quickly realize that this is one of the more unusual places in New York City.
While you’re up in Washington Heights, you can also check out the beautiful Trinity Cemetery (right off Broadway, between 153 and 155 Str), have a cup of excellent coffee at the Chipped Cup (Broadway, between 148 & 149 St) or stop for some of the best Dominican food in New York at Malecon (Broadway and 175 Str). If you don’t want to venture that far, combine your visit with a walk through Highbridge Park, named after the city’s oldest standing bridge, connecting Manhattan with the Bronx, which recently reopened after more than 40 years for pedestrians after expansive restoration work, and offers lovely views over the Harlem River. The large cliffs and rock outcroppings in the park which are a good indication of what this area used to look like before it was urbanized.
How to get here: Take the C Train to 163 Str – Amsterdam Ave or the 1 Train to 157 Str.
NYC Off The Beaten Path: See Street Art in Bushwick
When I came to New York the first time, Bushwick was known as a gritty neighborhood where nobody would go to unless they lived there. Only a few years later, during my second summer of living in New York in 2014, it was hyped as the most up-and-coming neighborhood in Brooklyn. Now, it’s nothing out of the ordinary anymore to head to Bushwick for a night out, to eat at one of the many excellent Latin eateries, or to sample New York’s best pizza at Roberta’s (trust me, I ate my way through a lot of NY pizza, Roberta’s is hands down the best.), but I still meet New Yorkers who have never been to Bushwick.
While most of the neighborhood still has a gritty feel to it, especially the area around the warehouses, if you’re a street art fan, the graffiti and murals here are not to be missed, particularly the streets where entire walls are covered in large murals painted by the Bushwick Collective. The Bushwick Collective is a group of street artists who have been working together in order to facilitate the creation of murals (instead of mindless graffiti and tagging) in this neighborhood and the collective has attracted famous street artists from all over the world who now stop in Bushwick when they’re passing through New York to add a piece there.
I marked the best spots for street art in the handy map below (you can save the pdf version on your iPad / smartphone via this link), but if you don’t do well with maps or are too scared to venture into Bushwick on your own, you can join a free Bushwick Street Art Tour with Free Tours By Foot and learn a whole lot of back stories about the street artists who colored the walls here and even have them point out the unassuming Roberta’s to you.. hint hint).Visiting the Bushwick Collective has become very popular for tourists in the past few years (somehow it has made its way in all of the major guidebooks – something that was unthinkable ten years ago!), so if you want to get a NYC off the beaten path experience, make sure to check out the neighborhood beyond the street art.
Bushwick has plenty of excellent places to eat and drink these days – check out some of my favorites: Arepera Guacuco for arepas, Forrest Point for brunch, Bunna Cafe for Ethiopian food, the Sampler or the Pine Box Rock Shop for a great variety of local craft beers, Tortilleria Mexicana Tres Hermanos for tacos, Little Skips for mouthwatering grilled cheeses and coffee, Swallow Cafe for a good cup of coffee or Sey Coffee, which was just named the Number 1 Coffee Shop in the entire U.S.A. by Food & Wine, for a superb coffee.
How to get there: Take the L train to Morgan Ave or Jefferson St. (Jefferson St is closer to the Bushwick Collective murals).
Head deep into Brooklyn: Marvel at historic homes in Prospect Lefferts Gardens
If you’re looking to get off the beaten path in New York City, and you love historic architecture, Prospect Lefferts Garden is the spot for you. Most New Yorkers have never set foot in this historic Brooklyn neighborhood! Prospect Lefferts Gardens is not on a lot of people’s radar, even though parts of it are a designated historic landmark and it’s just around the corner from Prospect Park. PLG is known for its large Caribbean population, but as in so many Brooklyn neighborhoods, gentrification has arrived and in recent years, the ethnically diverse residents have been seeing a large number of a new race move in: white people! The still affordable apartments around here make PLG increasingly popular with Manhattanites who are forced to leave the island due to the ever increasing rents there, but even here new studio apartments go for $1,850 and more these days.I recommend strolling down all the streets between Fenimore Street to the south and Lincoln Road to the north, bordered by Flatbush Avenue to the west and Rogers Avenue to the East, a four block radius, which is where the homes in Neo-renaissance, Neo-Georgian, Neo-Federal, Romanesque revival, and later Tudor-revival style, that give the neighborhood its Historic District status, are located. If you feel like venturing a little further, add Sterling Street and Lefferts Avenue between Bedford Avenue and Nostrand Avenue.The neat tree-lined streets of the Historic District are a stark contrast to the less pretty Flatbush Avenue, lined with project housing, cheapie shops and Caribbean food joints, but you shouldn’t skip this area because this is where some of the famed Caribbean food can be found, for example MangoSeed, Peppa’s Jerk Chicken, De Hot Pot or Ali’s Trinidad Roti Shop, If you are in search of good coffee, stop at the Brooklyn Perk for good coffee plus breakfast or American food, or the cozy Bonafini for a delicious breakfast. If you’re a vegetarian, don’t miss the fabulous Zen Vegetarian House. If you happen to find yourself in New York around Labor Day, don’t miss the Caribbean Carnival of the West Indian-American Day Parade.If you feel like walking off your food, I recommend a stroll through Prospect Park which has some of the most beautiful parts close to PLG, like the boathouse and the lake.
How to get there: Take the B or Q Train and get off at Prospect Park. Alternatively, take the 2 or the 5 to Sterling Street.
Go for a stroll in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery
Green-Wood Cemetery is another often overlooked Brooklyn gem, but possibly the most beautiful cemetery in New York City, and it was the largest cemetery in the world at the end of the 19th century. This is definitely one of the more unusual places to visit in New York City.
There is a famous saying in New York that goes ‘It is the ambition of the New Yorker to live upon the Fifth Avenue, to take his airings in Central Park, and to sleep with his fathers in Green-Wood‘. The 478-acre cemetery was one of America’s first rural cemeteries when it opened in 1838, which means it was located way beyond New York’s city borders. The rolling hills make for a wonderful stroll along the historic graves, ponds, impressive family shrines and monuments to civil war heroes, and up to the top of Battle Hill, the highest point in Brooklyn from where you have terrific views over Brooklyn and all the way to Manhattan. Green-Wood is the resting place of many famous New Yorkers, ranging from politicians and entertainers to baseball legends and artists.If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the cemetery and some of the scandals of notable people who are buried here, and you can take a trolley tour or a flashlight tour, which guarantee that you find places like the Memorial Obelisk, the Minerva Statue or the Civil War Soldier’s Monument. Alternatively, you can download the free Discover Green-Wood app, which includes a self-guided walking tour with all the information you could possibly ask for.
This is a great New York off the beaten track thing to do at any time of year, by the way: Green-Wood Cemetery is beautiful to photograph with spring blossoms, colorful fall foliage or covered in snow. Just be aware that the cemetery closes at night, so photographing the sunset is only possible between November and March.
How to get there: Take the R Train to 25 Street or the D, N and R Train to 36 Street. The cemetery is open daily from around 7.45am to 7pm in the summer and from 8am to 5pm in the winter.
Arthur Avenue: Discover the ‘real’ Little Italy in the Bronx
Many people don’t know that Manhattan’s Chinatown and Little Italy are only smaller versions of their bigger, more authentic counterparts in other boroughs. While the substantially larger Chinatown in New York can be found in Flushing, Queens, the ‘real’ Little Italy can be found in the Bronx. For people who are intimated by this giant borough, a stroll around Arthur Avenue and the adjacent streets are the perfect introduction to the Bronx. Little Italy is generally considered the area across East 187th Street from Arthur Avenue to Prospect Avenue, and the first Italian immigrants settled here in the 19th century to help building the Bronx Zoo, and later on the Third Avenue elevated train. The Arthur Avenue area, sometimes also referred to as Belmont, offers some of the finest Italian-American establishments in New York: restaurants, bakeries, butchers, mozzarella makers and espresso machine vendors.The Bronx’ Little Italy shows you a refreshingly different side of New York City, but with red brick buildings, Italian markets and tree-lined streets that make Manhattan’s Little Italy feel pity. Take your time and step into the Arthur Avenue Market, stop at Belmont institutions such as Madonia Brothers Bakery, Cosenza’s Fish Market, La Casa Della Mozzarella or Cerini Coffee. And make sure to come hungry – you’ll want to eat at one of the authentic Italian eateries or at least sample some Italian pastries and coffee at one of the irresistible pastry shops.I personally loved the pizza at 089 and the pastries at the Artuso Pastry Shop, but other recommended restaurants & shops are: Mike’s Deli for giant sandwiches (inside the Arthur Avenue market), Cafe al Mercato (also inside the market) for the best espresso, Terranova Bakery for fresh bread (rated #1 bread in NYC!), Borgatti’s for fresh pasta, Tra Di Noi for what is often declared the best Italian food on Arthur Avenue.
Tip: Combine your visit to Arthur Avenue with a visit to the nearby New York Botanical Gardens. Admission is free all day on Wednesdays and between 9am and 10am on Saturdays.How to get there: The easiest way is taking the D Train to Fordham Road and walk east on 187 Street until you hit Arthur Avenue (about 15 mins walking). The faster way is taking the 343 Train towards North White Plains from Grand Central (run by Metro-North railroad), which is only a twenty minute ride from Grand Central to Fordham Road.