I know there is bajillion of these kinds of bucket lists for New York City, and they all probably have the same experiences on them. Will this list be any different? Slightly lol. Don’t expect a list of secrets to get you in to anything crazy in New York or an “off tourist list” – this is simply some of my favorite personal experiences from traveling to New York City for over 2 decades.
#1. The Met Museum
“Secrets are the kind of adventure she needs. Secrets are safe, and they do much to make you different. On the inside where it counts.”
Yes I am aware this is one of THE most popular things to do in NYC and I am also aware that there are a million of other more “hole-in-the-wall” museums to compete with, but the Met will always have my heart. You can probably blame the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler for my undying love and fascination with this museum. 🙂 However, as an art historian I also have some tips for you if you are going to step into the treasure trove of the world history and art.
The most important thing is to not try to see it all in a day; I tried that and it is physically, mentally, and emotionally impossible. My suggestion is to do a little research about their different collections and pick 4-5 to see. That way you are less stressed, get to see something you personally enjoy and still get your money’s worth. We all have types of art we are more fond of (mine is medieval) but I always try to branch out to see something different, that way I am always expanding my boundaries.
Read more: AP Art History @ The Met
#2. Picnic in the Park
“I just want to go through Central Park and watch folks passing by. Spend the whole day watching people. I miss that.”
— Barack Obama
The best picnic I’ve been on in New York City included food and beer picked up from a the nearby Italian grocery/gourmet restaurant Eataly, a simple park bench and fantastic conversation. While on the other hand, the most simple picnic included a slice of pizza, another bench, and the silence of being alone in a crowd. It’s not fancy or five-star but its a fun way to see the city in a different light than the neon glare of Time’s Square. New York City’s streets and parks are literally the living rooms of locals during the summertime, so why not join them and slow down a little in the city that never sleeps?
Read more: Enjoying the Great Outdoors while in NYC
#3. Spend Moment of Silence in St. Patrick’s Cathedral
“For the sun that we see rising every day, rises at His command.”
— The Confessions of St. Patrick
Even if you’re not Catholic, St. Patrick’s is a gem of a church! I personally love church hopping and visiting churches wherever I go but even if religion is not your thing, go in for the art (and to cool off in the heat!). There are audio guides you can get, although I’ve never done them so I cannot recommend, but normally audio guides are good to help you get a lay of the land. My favorite game to play in any new church is “Name that Saint” in which my traveling companions and I try to guess who the different saints are without looking at their names. 🙂 Nerdy I know.
Read more: Visiting St. John the Divine
#4. Walk across the Bridge(s)
“I once started to walk around the world but ended up in Brooklyn, that Bridge was too much for me.”
— Lawrence Ferlinghetti
The Brooklyn Bridge gets all the love and rightly so, it is gorgeous! I had the pleasure of walking across that bridge with program participants nearly everyday for 2 weeks this past summer. But, because the bridge is so popular, it is jam-packed with tourists posing for awkward Instagram photos, bicyclists with no mercy, and Manhattan office workers in their sneakers and suits. It can be hard to enjoy the view of the Lady Liberty and the Manhattan skyline with so much going on around you.
Although the Manhattan Bridge is way uglier and not quiet at all because of the trains zooming by every 2 seconds, you do get lovely views of the Brooklyn Bridge. So if you find yourself more uptown and need to get back to Brooklyn, the Manhattan Bridge might be a fun way to change it up (ladies, do not cross it at night alone – it’s dark and cramped).
Read more: Travel Tips: Keeping Active while Traveling
#5. Get out of “The City”
“In the Bronx, you have the southern Italians; in Queens, the Greeks, Koreans and Chinese; in Brooklyn, the Jewish community; and in Harlem, the Hispanics – all with their own markets.”
— Daniel Boulud
New York City is actually 5 boroughs: Manhattan, Staten Island, Queens, Brooklyn, and The Bronx. However, when most people visit they usually just stay in Manhattan. Of course that is the most famous part of the City and has the most do to but it can totally be worth it to take a day or even just an afternoon to explore outside the main island.
On my last NEH program we stayed in a dorm in Brooklyn Heights. At first I was peeved I would have to take a subway or walk every day to get to the East Village, but then I quickly learned to love to straddle these two worlds for the two weeks. I’m falling more and more in love with Brooklyn every time I visit and there is a lot to do there too: the Brooklyn Museum & Prospect Park for starters!
Another amazing thing “outside the city” is Governor’s Island. My uncle’s girlfriend actually grew up there when it was a Coast Guard base but now it’s a public park. The best part? Fantastic oyster bar ($$$) with gorgeous views of the tip of Manhattan.
Read more: Visiting the Bronx Lourdes Grotto
#6. Lower East Side Tenement Museum
“Everyone ought to have a lower East Side in their life.”
— Irving Berlin
The Tenement Museum will be like NOTHING you have ever experienced before! The museum has multiple tours and time slots you can sign up for (FYI: you can only visit via a tour). Each tour has a different focus; I did the “Under One Roof” tour which led a small-group through recreated rooms of 3 immigrant families: Chinese, Puerto Rican, and Jewish. Instead of standing there looking at artifacts this tour literally brings them to life with videos, personal objects, a lively and knowledgeable tour guide, and a small-group experience with people sharing their stories. After doing this one tour, I now want to do them all and I will certainly be adding this to my “must do” NYC list every time I go back!
Read more: Museums with Kids (& Fidgety Adults)
#7. Find an Awesome Rooftop
“Big lights will inspire you, let’s hear it for New York, New York, New York.”
— JAY-Z feat. Alicia Keys, “Empire State of Mind”
Whether you pay the mega bucks for a stupidly expensive drink at a rooftop bar (I almost did that then I had to haul ass out of there!) or find a free roof, seeing the city from the top is a must! It doesn’t matter if it’s at night to watch the lights twinkle or during the daylight hours to watch the hustle and bustle below, viewing New York City from a bird’s-eye view is like nothing else.
*Disclaimer: my free rooftop access is all in thanks to my cousin who lives on the Upper East Side soooo I know that can’t be on everyone’s radar. It might be worth the $22 for a glass of wine for the view…
Read more: Thanksgiving NYC & Boston 2016 Itinerary
#8. Wander around an Immigrant Community
“New York is the meeting place of the peoples, the only city where you can hardly find a typical American.”
— Djuna Barnes
New York might be the most diverse city in the world (I just made that up that so I have no idea if it’s true or not…probably is though). Nowhere else can you hop from a tiny Chinatown shop selling herbs you’ve never seen before to a muslim grocery store in Bay Ridge to a Hasidic Judaica store in Crown Heights to Queen’s hispanic haven! I love putting myself into new cultural situations, sometimes awkward ones, but visiting New York City allows you to weave in and out of lives that are so different from yours. Even if it’s only for an hour, I highly recommend exploring a community where people might speak different, pray different, eat different, and hopefully recognize that no matter what separates us, we are all one global family.
#9. Eat the Best Georgian Food
“…the magical name of Georgia came up constantly. People who had never been there, and who possibly never could go there spoke of Georgia with a kind of longing…”
— John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal
Do you find this list item oddly specific? Well, it is but I think this may be one of the best meals I’ve ever had and I still dream about it. During an NEH in 2017, one of our program participants visited an old student and went to this restaurant called Oda House. He came back and raved about it so I recommended it to a friend I was meeting up with in Greenwich Village. Holy cow! The meal knocked my socks off. So much so, that when I went back this past summer I knew I had to make my pilgrimage to Oda House and I was not disappointed!
Food pictured above: adjaruli (bread boat), lobiani pinto beans, kinkalil (dumplings); add a bottle of good red wine, a wonderful dinner date and you are good to go!
Read more: Eating in the Big Apple
#10. See a Live Performance
“Give me such shows – give me the streets of Manhattan!”
I’m going to define “performance” very loosely because sometimes in the city you will stumble upon something magical and amazing right on the street while other times you’ll spend mega bucks to see a Broadway show. Both are awesome and both are valid. I tend to lean more on the impromptu performance art but if you are into theater or live music than New York City is where it’s at!
During the summertime there are a myriad of open air options too. Nearly every park has shows of live music, or you can wait in line for the famed Shakespeare in the Park, or see fantastic street performers. If you are going to see a Broadway show then I highly recommend making time to ogle at Times Square first, preferably at night when the glaring lights stand in stark contrast to the dark night sky.
#11. Live out your Favorite Movie Scenes
“When I’m in New York, I just want to walk down the street and feel this thing, like I’m in a movie.”
— Ryan Adams
Whether it’s staring in the window of Tiffany’s like Audrey Hepburn or running through the Plaza Hotel à la Eloise or escaping the claws of Penguin in Central Park like the 1992 Batman, if it is a street corner in New York City then I am sure some movie has been filmed there. Now, I’m not a huge (or even mediocre) movie buff but it does feel strange to literally be in the scene from countless favorite movies.
Central Park for me always brings up iconic movie scenes: sitting at the Boathouse cafe watching struggling yet kind of romantic couples row boats on the lake evokes When Harry Met Sally. Or hey, you might even end up in a live filming. One day we literally passed 3 different film crews, nothing super exciting, but who knows, maybe I’m an accidental extra!?