If you’ve been to New York City for a vacation before, chances are you visited the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, Times Square, Central Park— all the usual tourist traps that draw in millions of people each year.
We’d never disparage that. There’s definitely nothing wrong with hitting some of the most classic, albeit cliche, attractions the City That Never Sleeps is known for. We have been to NYC many times, with our little kids and can truly say, we have tried it all!
However, you’re leaving a number of hidden gems on the table. By working a few unique things to do in NYC into your itinerary, you’ll get even more value from the trip and come away with a few unique stories (and great pics!) to show for it.
Unique Things to do in NYC
Without further ado, here are the 10 most unique things you’ll find to do between the Hudson River and East River. Let’s go!
1. Take a scenic walk on the High Line
The Big Apple is all about skyscrapers, bustling city streets, bright lights— the whole nine. That’s why, when the metropolitan vibes start leaving folks yearning for a touch of nature to break it up, tourists tend to go to Central Park.
It’s an easy choice. Everyone’s heard of it. It’s smack dab in the middle of Manhattan. Why wouldn’t you check it out as a bona fide NYC tourist?
Again, we wouldn’t advise against it, if you’ve never been to NYC, but return visitors could do better and check out the 1.45-long High Line, which stretches high above the Chelsea neighborhood on the West Side.
Since 2009, this former freight rail line has been converted into a public park and made an excellent place to visit, boasting lush gardens, public art installations, and unparalleled views of the Hudson River and city skyline.
If nothing else, it’s also a super cool way to get from Downtown closer to Midtown. Try it out if you’re on the West Side and looking for a cool way to spend an afternoon.
2. Take a Tour of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York
Another often-overlooked activity in New York is located in the just-as-overlooked neighborhood of FiDi. The Financial District, once a haven for Wall Street brokers and businessmen, has become much more accessible to families and tourists these days, boasting a number of restaurants, museums, and other family-friendly attractions that everyone can enjoy.
It’s also where you’ll find the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which offers visitors a free glimpse into one of the world’s largest repositories of gold. There are literal tons of gold bars stored in a highly secure underground facility. You’ll be awe-stricken at the site, and don’t be surprised if you and the little ones spend the afternoon plotting a caper to do away with the gold and live the high life on your very own private island.
We’d imagine the events would look like a mix of Money Heist and Minions, and we would definitely binge-watch a series like that!
3. Visit the Cloisters
Visiting the Fed in FiDi requires you to channel your inner Petula Clark and “go downtown,” so you might prefer the Cloisters if you’re more of a Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” kind of person. Way up in Washington Heights, you’ll find this hidden gem, a part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Cloisters boast a collection of more than 5,000 artifacts from the 9th to the 16th century, ranging from illuminated manuscripts to tapestries, from sculptures to paintings. Plus, the architecture looks like it hails straight out of a medieval fantasy film, featuring serene courtyards amidst gothic stone columns and spacious interiors.
Make sure to check out the famous Unicorn Tapestry while you’re there!
4. Watch a Movie at the Rooftop Cinema Club
This one’s a bit seasonal, since New York winters are known to be brisk, but the outdoor Rooftop Cinema Club lets you sit on top of one of those famed NYC high-rise buildings and catch one of your favorite flicks high above it all.
You get a comfy deck chair to sit back and relax as well as a complimentary pair of wireless headphones, so the honking of traffic below doesn’t interrupt your viewing experience. Then again, half the fun is peeking over the sides of the roof to check out the surrounding buildings and bustling action below.
Grab a bite beforehand or pick from a wide selection of classic concessions, including popcorn, candy, and soda. There is actual food too (and cocktails!) so you get a real “dinner and movie experience” in a super unique location.
Whether you’re looking to fill time on a solo adventure, trying to put together an impressive date night, or in search of a family-friendly activity that’ll keep the kids busy for an hour or two, the Rooftop Cinema Club in Midtown has got you covered.
5. Experience the Immersive Performance of Sleep No More
Another classic NYC must-do is to catch a play on Broadway, but is it the only way to get your fill of the arts?
Sleep No More tells us otherwise. One part musical theater and equal parts haunted house, escape room, and murder mystery, the Shakespeare-inspired production takes place in a massive five-story warehouse in which guests are expected (and encouraged!) to explore.
What’s most unique about the experience is that, unlike your standard “sit and watch” play, you’re welcome to interact with the actors as you move through the warehouse. You get to uncover details of the plot through your own observations and exploration, which is super cool.
If you’re traveling with kids, however, make sure to get a sitter or leave someone behind to watch them, as Sleep No More features sexual content and violence that will not be suited for children below the age of 18. Also, it makes a lot more sense if you’re acquainted with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, as the plot revolves around this work.
Oh, and wear comfy shoes. You will be walking quite a bit during the performance! As if you didn’t already get your steps in running to and from subways all afternoon!
6. Take a Tour of the Abandoned City Hall Subway Station
Speaking of subways, the abandoned City Hall subway station is a hidden gem that offers a fascinating glimpse into the city’s history.
The City Hall station opened in 1904 to much fanfare, as it was among the original stops of NYC’s first subway line. It enjoyed much use in the decades leading up to its shutdown, as, after 1945, it was rendered useless because of its curved platform that couldn’t accommodate the newest trains.
Today, it’s largely untouched, with the formerly problematic curved platform becoming an interesting sight to match the bowing arches overhead. The design elements remain the same too with impressive mosaic work, specifically the Guastavino tile vaulted ceiling, ornate chandeliers, and stained glass skylights that give it a real old-school kinda vibe.
Tours are free and last barely an hour, making it an easy and interesting way to kill a little time while taking in some history. After all, there’s no reason your NYC trip can’t be unique and educational at the same time, right?
7. Visit the Tenement Museum
So, if you’re really going to lean into the history part of NYC during your visit, the Tenement Museum is another unique stop while journeying off the beaten path. This living museum on the Lower East Side shows how immigrants lived in the city after the mass immigration that took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The exhibits are immersive and interactive, really showcasing the cramped quarters these people lived in once they arrived in the Land of Opportunity. It’s an eye-opening experience that should (hopefully) give your children, and you, some perspective.
You can freely walk through the museum or take a guided tour. There are also educational programs, workshops, and other special events that deal with matters relating to immigration, past, present, and future.
You might’ve heard about all the immigration if you visited the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island, but the Tenement Museum paints a picture far more vividly of how people truly lived more than 100 years ago. Check it out and see for yourself!
8. Shop Chelsea Market
New York is known for a great many things, including being one of the best foodie destinations in the United States and possibly even the world!
Chelsea Market offers a variety of options, including more than 35 unique vendors selling artisanal and gourmet products, fresh seafood, handmade pasta, fancy chocolates— the list goes on! All this is located inside the National Biscuit Company building, an industrial-chic space that once housed a factory in the early 1900s.
You’ll find eclectic options like Japanese-inspired Mexican, Korean grub, and Parisian snacks, as well as classics like burgers, pub fare, and American cuisine. Of course, you’ll find NYC staples like bagels and pizza too!
9. Go Kayaking on the Hudson River
Outdoorsy folk might feel out of place in the urban jungle, as Central Park is the closest thing to connecting with nature unless you hop on the Metro North and go to nearby Westchester County for the hiking trails and parks there.
You don’t technically have to leave the city though to get some great outdoor fun going. Simply rent a kayak from any of the waterfront vendors and hop on the Hudson River to check out the city’s sights in a new way that most people couldn’t dream of.
From your own personal kayak, you can paddle past the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the towering skyscrapers of Manhattan while enjoying stunning views you’ll never forget. Lots of places offer guided tours too, so you don’t need to navigate as you paddle away. Simply follow your guide and take it all in!
Is kayaking too labor-intensive for your tastes? You can rent a jet ski instead and go zipping down the river like you were Henry Hudson himself. For the adrenaline junkies out there, this one’s a real must!
10. Visit the Museum of Ice Cream
What sweeter way to end your NYC visit than by visiting the Museum of Ice Cream. This one-of-a-kind interactive museum celebrates ice cream and other sweet treats by showcasing immersive installations and exhibits that everyone will love.
Pop by the famous Sprinkle Pool where millions of rainbow sprinkles are just begging you to dive right in. Explore the science behind ice cream making. Snap a pic for the ol’ Instagram in any of the many colorful rooms.
And that’s not all; the Museum of Ice Cream provides plenty of stuff you can actually eat, from ice cream samples to candy and other snacks. It’s a paradise for children, foodies, and literally anyone with a sweet tooth.
Plus, there are loads of nifty ice cream-themed souvenirs in the museum’s gift shop, from T-shirts to tote bags and everything in between.
As they say, there’s always room for ice cream, so you should for sure visit the Museum of Ice Cream while visiting NYC!
Frequently Asked Questions about Unique Things to do in NYC
Where are the most unique places to eat in NYC?
The thing about NYC is that, whatever cuisine or food item you’re craving, chances are you’ll find it there, and often not far from wherever you are at the time!
Some of the most unique places to eat in NYC include:
Lucky Cheng’s Drag Cabaret– If you’re a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, you simply must visit Lucky Cheng’s, where the restaurant is staffed solely by glamorous drag queens. Dine on an Asian-American inspired menu while enjoying the sass, energy, and cabaret variety show. Just make sure to tip or they’ll read you to filth!
Trailer Park Lounge – Grab a burger and friends at this “tasteless” spot that decorates like it’s come straight out of an RV park. Despite the tacky decor, the food is actually pretty good. Order with a can of Bud Light for a truly authentic experience!
Harlem Shake – Remember that early 2010’s dance craze called the “Harlem Shake;” which was basically the original TikTok, now that you think about it? Well, they named a great NYC burger joint after it and you and your kids will love the greasy deliciousness and nostalgic decor here.
Koneko Cat Cafe – What’s better than a great cafe with excellent coffee and pastries? How about a Downtown NYC cat cafe featuring Japanese-inspired snacks, espresso, matcha, and adoptable kitty cats too? It’s a great spot if you love a cat, but tread lightly if your kids will hound you to take one home and you aren’t able to for any reason.
Beyond these unique eateries, the Chelsea Market and Essex Market are also must-visits.
Can I fit all of these activities in one day?
If you’re a really fast walker, then maybe. Manhattan is about 13 miles long and barely more than two miles wide which, combined with the extensive subway system and prevalence of taxis and rideshare services, makes it manageable.
That said, why would you try to cram everything in one day?
Give yourself time to truly enjoy each attraction by selecting a few activities each day, based on how close they are to one another, and factoring in a nice buffer in between for bathroom breaks, unforeseen travel delays (which NYC is 100% known for), and a little bit of “going off script” so you don’t feel shackled to a schedule from start to finish.
Where is the best place to stay in NYC?
The best place to stay will provide accommodations to your personal tastes, and you definitely have options while in NYC. From luxury hotels that provide white glove service to cute boutique spots with intriguing design elements, there’s something for every taste.
We recommend picking a spot based on the neighborhood and nearby attractions. Midtown and Times Square are popular for tourists, since they’re centrally-located, but you’ll likely find the bright lights and nonstop action overwhelming once it’s time to get some shut eye.
Instead, look at quaint neighborhoods like Chelsea, Greenwich Village, SoHo, or FiDi for a little more peace and quiet. They’re not far from the action anyway, so you certainly won’t be missing out in any way.