Last Updated on August 22, 2023
Settling into New York City life, I’ve finally gotten 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.
5 amazing off-the-beaten-path experiences 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 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. The island used to be open only during the summer months, but since 2021, it’s been open year-round.
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. 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. In 2022, European day spa chain QC Spa opened its first spa in the U.S. on Governors Island, which makes the island even more attractive now for those seeking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, offering a number of saunas and heated pools with amazing views over the New York harbor and the Manhattan skyline.
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 $4 for adults, children under 12 ride for free. Get to Governors Island for free: Passengers ride free on Saturdays and Sundays before noon!
2. Explore Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood
Red Hook is one of the ‘up-and-coming’ neighborhoods in Brooklyn, 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 has seen a number of independent stores, restaurants and art galleries arriving over the last few years and rejuvenating the formerly decaying industrial 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 in 2008 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
Beer lovers will enjoy the three craft beer breweries in Red Hook: Strong Rope (185 Van Dyke Street), Keg & Lantern (158 Beard Street) and Sixpoint (40 Van Dyke) – all just a short walk from each other, perfect for a craft beer crawl!
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 and enjoy free movie screenings during the summer months, or just take in 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 ($4 per ride). 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, 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 free performances take place here at night during the summer.
How to get there: The Elevated Acre is located on 55 Water Street. The closest subway stations are South Ferry (1), Whitehall St (N, R), Wall Street (2, 3), Broad Street (J) and Bowling Green (4, 5).
4. Take the aerial tramway to Roosevelt Island
Roosevelt Island is another little island in the East River that is worth a visit. Located 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 meters). 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 may recognize from the last Spiderman movie), the best way to arrive on the island. In my opinion, the Roosevelt Island offers one of the five best views over the Manhattan skyline! 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.
Finish your visit with rooftop drinks at the Panorama Room, Roosevelt Island’s only rooftop bar (atop the funky Graduate Hotel, 22 N Loop Rd).
How to get here: The 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 (it’s included in the unlimited weekly pass; a single ticket is $2.90). 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 view 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. Tour 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’ll have to get off the ferry to make it count though 😉), you’ll experience much more diverse and authentic neighborhoods.
My favorite one of the five boroughs? Brooklyn! Over the past couple of decades, Brooklyn has become increasingly popular, but many people who want to visit Brooklyn just don’t know where to start. It is New York’s most populous borough, comparable in size to cities like Rome or Paris!
There are roughly 73 vastly different neighborhoods to explore in this massive borough: You can eat in authentic Russian eateries in Brighton Beach, take in the West Indies vibes of Flatbush, or stroll through the charming streets of historic Brooklyn Heights, lined with beautiful Brownstones. You can 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.
It is easy to get to Brooklyn by bus or train, and getting around is easy, too: subways and buses connect the different neighborhoods of the borough, Uber is widely available, and if you enjoy cycling, you can rent the popular Citibikes and explore Brooklyn by bike. You can easily spend a week in Brooklyn and still not run out of things to do! The further away you get from Manhattan, the farther you 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 five completely different sides of Brooklyn, while introducing guests to five neighborhoods, none of which are anything alike. My guests get to see how diverse Brooklyn truly is when I show them classic Brooklyn brownstone architecture as well as the ‘hipster’ side of Brooklyn, with street art and vintage shops and flea markets and life in local parks like the offbeat Maria Hernandez Park. I also include amazing Manhattan views, an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood and make sure people want to see more of Brooklyn after the tour.