In the shadow of attention-grabbing attractions like the Empire State Building, Central Park, and the Freedom Tower lies a beautiful assortment of museums, sights, and experiences that may not generate as much star power but offers no less enlightening experiences. Many of these hidden gems in New York City are hardly hidden to locals, but they often fall just outside the spotlight for visitors, especially first-timers.
Hidden Gems in New York City
Here’s a good starting point for discovering local favorites and hidden gems in New York City.
More guided experience than traditional museum, this hidden New York City attraction shares stories of immigrants and refugees who started life anew on the Lower East Side between the 19th and 21st centuries. Two historic Orchard Street buildings, estimated to have housed more than 15,000 people from different countries and walks of life, make up the Tenement Museum. The recreated spaces, including apartments and businesses, illuminate how real people lived, struggled, worked, and strived for a better life.
Walking tours showcase the neighborhood’s significance and provide insight into how immigrants shaped, and continue to shape, the city and country at large. The sweatshop workers tour is particularly eye-opening and moving.
Randall’s Island is one of the hidden gems in New York City that surprises locals and visitors alike. This urban oasis, located just off Manhattan in the East River, hosts many large-scale marquee events such as the ultra-popular Governors Ball Music Festival. Wildflower gardens and bird and butterfly sanctuaries exist in harmony with spaces for recreation and athletic pursuits. Miles of cycling and walking trails run along the waterfront, offering skyline views, and there are plenty of playgrounds and picnic areas for families.
The island also features dozens of athletic fields, tennis courts, a driving range, and miniature golf courses. Pedestrians and cyclists can access the park via the 125th Street bridge, and water taxis run frequently during special events.
For intimate, cabaret-style performances, there’s no better spot than this club in The Public Theater. From jazz and world music to modern dance, comedy, and burlesque, Joe’s Pub showcases a diversity of talent, including rising stars and renowned artists. Both Amy Winehouse and Adele had their first U.S. headlining gigs at Joe’s, and many legendary performers have lit up the marquee including Leonard Cohen, David Byrne, Prince, and Lady Gaga.
The recently renovated space features superior acoustics, great sight lines, and a warm, engaging vibe. Table service is efficient and doesn’t distract from the show, making for a romantic setting for dinner, drinks, and entertainment.
Conservatory Garden of Central Park
More than 40 million visitors a year know that Central Park is one of NYC’s greatest attractions, yet only a small percentage make it to the northern reaches where the Conservatory Garden rests in serene solitude. Six acres of formal gardens showcase European landscaping traditions. You’ll see more flowers and birds than visitors as you stroll through lush and ornate zones including Italian, French, and English gardens.
Fittingly, the English garden features a lovely fountain in honor of Frances Hodgson Burnett, the author of the children’s book The Secret Garden. Look for the enormous wrought-iron gate on the park’s east side on Fifth Avenue between 104th and 105th Streets. Once the entrance of a grand mansion, Vanderbilt Gate provides magical entry to this hidden New York attraction.
Rubin Museum of Art
The manageable scale and Zen atmosphere of this museum in Chelsea make for one of NYC’s most alluring artistic showcases. The Rubin spotlights Himalayan art through works from Nepal, Pakistan, India, China, Tibet, Bhutan, Afghanistan, and Mongolia, weaving together cultures dominated by the highest mountains in the world. Buddhist imagery, sound installations, scroll paintings, textiles, and sculpture stand out in airy galleries set around a striking spiral staircase.
Check the schedule for frequently offered hands-on activities with artists in residence, and consider visiting during special evening hours on Friday when admission is free.
Staten Island Ferry
Serving as the last vestige of a once-expansive public ferry system, the Staten Island Ferry has whisked passengers between lower Manhattan and Staten Island since 1906. Although most of the 70,000 daily passengers are commuters traveling to and from work, the five-mile, 25-minute ride is a hidden gem in New York City for visitors seeking dramatic views of the Manhattan skyline, Ellis Island, and Statue of Liberty.
And the price is always right—this ferry ride is free. Boats run every 15 to 20 minutes on weekdays during rush hour and every 30 minutes at non-peak times and weekends. There’s just enough time to grab a beer and hot dog onboard before arriving at St. George, where you can walk along the Esplanade to the stunning memorial Postcards, created in honor of the 275 Staten Island residents killed in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Have a glass of wine and charcuterie platter at popular restaurant Surf before embarking on a return ferry.
The Met Cloisters
In the upper reaches of Manhattan lies one of the true hidden gems in New York City: America’s only museum dedicated solely to the art and architecture of the Middle Ages. This branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is dramatically perched in Fort Tryon Park overlooking Hudson River. The collection, including stained glass panels, tapestries, and illuminated scrolls, is housed within reconstructed sections of a French abbey. The museum’s centerpiece is a monastery with covered walkways surrounding a lushly planted open courtyard.
One of the most popular works, The Hunt of the Unicorn, is composed of seven tapestries dating from 1495 to 1505, portraying a medieval hunting party and its magical prey. The work’s complexity and grandeur are alone worth the subway ride to 190th Street.
Dizzy’s Jazz Club
New York City offers no shortage of extraordinary jazz clubs, from Blue Note to Smalls and Village Vanguard. What sets Dizzy’s Jazz Club apart is the sophisticated setting inside Jazz at Lincoln Center’s base in the Time Warner Complex. From the entrance near Columbus Circle, take the Jazz elevators up to Dizzy’s and sister venue Rose Hall, both acoustically designed to illuminate the warmth and tones of jazz.
Evening shows feature headlining talents, but the best deals—and often the most lively shows—are special late-night sessions, with doors opening at 11:15 p.m. Snag a bar seat for the best view of the performers and the NYC skyline through the venue’s floor-to-ceiling windows.
The Lightship Frying Pan
Docked at Pier 66 at the Hudson River Park, you will find one of only 15 remaining floating lighthouse ships once commissioned by the U.S. Coast Guard. While the fleet was created to guide ships into safe passage, the Lightship Frying Pan could have used a guide of its own. The vessel ended up on the bottom of Chesapeake Bay before being salvaged and finding new life as a seasonal and mostly hidden New York City attraction.
Take a tour of the deck and keep your eyes open for barnacles still attached from the submersion, then grab a drink on the neighboring barge, itself one of New York’s under-the-radar hot spots.
Washington Square Park
One of NYC’s favorite gathering spots serves as open-air theater at its Greenwich Village finest, as an endless parade of street performers and buskers—including many students from neighboring NYU—show off their talent. Washington Square Park‘s fountain and marble arch honoring George Washington set the stage for classical pianists, folk singers, brass bands, dancers, jugglers, painters, and beyond, representing the city in full, bold color.
For Instagram-worthy images, gaze north along Fifth Avenue for a dramatic view of the Empire State Building, framed by the arch. Then look south to the Freedom Tower in Lower Manhattan.
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—Original reporting by Jess Simpson