30 Unique Things to do in NYC: Hidden Gems, Unusual Attractions & Quirky Tours

This article has links to products and services we love, which we may make commission from.

If you’re looking to visit New York and avoid the usual touristy parts and instead see some of the weird and wonderful that the city has to offer, this is the perfect guide for you to find all of the unique things to do in NYC.

Even if this is your dozenth visit to the city, but this time you want to try something new and different than Times Square and Fifth Avenue and the rest of the oversaturated spots and go down a little further – even underground – to find some hidden treasure.

From hidden bars to underground burial sites to 5,000-year-old unicorn tapestries, get ready for weird NYC and all it has to hold.

Locals! Did you discover anything new? Tell us in the comments.

You might also like our guide to fun outdoor activities in NYC.

Central Park Yellow Taxis New York

Most Unique Things to do In New York

1. Take a trip to City Island 

Near the edge of NYC borders lies a tiny island that looks like something out of a New England dream come true called City Island

With the main street full of quirky business fronts and numerous seafood establishments, and nothing like the busy streets of New York, visiting the island is one of the more unusual things to do in NYC.

You can go antiquing, browse the art gallery, check out a book from the public library, eat at the diner, or get ice cream or a cold beer at one of the pubs.  

City Island also features in our guide to romantic things to do in NYC.

2. Visit City Island Nautical Museum

If you want to know more about the island, you can check out the City Island Nautical Museum to learn about the town’s maritime history. 

Just a short drive or bus ride away on the other side of the water lies Orchard Beach, a free beach that is untouched by the tourists it’s much less popular and gives you a chance to stretch out on the clear white sand or go into the clean, clear water.

Know Before You Go

  • If you visit during the wintertime, some of the shops and restaurants may be closed for the season.

3. Do the Staten Island Ferry

If you aren’t fussed about spending time on Liberty Island but would like to see the Statue of Liberty from the water, hop on the free Staten Island Ferry.

Join the ferry at The Whitehall Terminal and 25 minutes later you’ll get off at Staten Island.

The ferry runs 24 hours hour a day, all year round so you can wrap you doing at night if you want to see New York all lit up!

The Staten Island cruise also features in our NYC bucket list! How many things have you done?

Staten Island ferry at dawn with sunset

4. Trek up to the Met Cloisters

Near the top of Manhattan, you’ll find The Met Cloisters (99 Margaret Corbin Drive, Fort Tryon Park), an extension of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that is America’s only museum dedicated exclusively to the art and architecture of the Middle Ages.

With fantastic architecture that seems misplaced in a place like NYC, it is an amazing chance to step back in time and see something you would rarely see elsewhere.

The most well-known part is the famed Unicorn Tapestries, a series of seven woven hangings that bring people in from far and wide to see.

Whether you’re a medieval fanatic or just want to visit one of the cool spots in NYC, hit up the Met Cloisters and then spend the rest of your day in Fort Tryon Park, one of the least well-known but most beautiful parks in the city. 

You can walk the eight miles of pathway, relax on the laws, wander through the Heather Garden, play ping-pong, volleyball, and more.

Get a ticket for both museums here.

Know Before You Go

  • Closed on Wednesdays.
  • Visits need to be pre-scheduled. 
  • All visitors age 18 and older must also show a valid photo ID. 

5. Go Back in Time at the Lexington Candy Shop

This original luncheonette has been serving New Yorkers since 1925 and is still the picture-perfect image of vintage New York, making it a great spot if you’re looking for cool things in NYC.

Sit at the old-fashioned soda counter and order a malted or egg cream with your classic American breakfast, a big lunchtime sandwich, or the classic burger and fries.

You’ll find Lexington Candy Shop at 1226 Lexington Ave.

Sadly, it doesn’t bear much resemblance to its name anymore; while it once sold candies and chocolates galore, today, there’s little to no candy sold there at all.

But you can still sip your root beer float and reminisce about days gone by after you spend the day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art just around the corner. 

There is limited seating to expect a wait or to take your order to go during rush times.

6. Ride the Roosevelt Tram

Riding the aerial Roosevelt Tram (59th Street and Second Avenue) is one of the coolest experiences in NYC – all for the cost of an MTA Subway ride.

Hop on the Tram at 59th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan, get off at Tramway Plaza on Roosevelt Island, and see the city from a bird’s eye view.

Initially created in 1976 as a temporary option to shuttle people from island to island, it became such a popular option they continued to keep it operating.

Board the tram at 59th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan and get off at Tramway Plaza on Roosevelt Island to check out this very cool tiny island and see the city in a whole new way.

Running daily every 7-15 minutes from 6 am until 2 am on Sunday-Thursday, and until 3:30 am on the weekend, you can access it almost any time you want. 

Once you’re in Roosevelt Island, don’t just turn around and jump back to Manhattan – there’s so much to see and do!

It’s just under two miles long and a great way to check out a less touristy part of NYC.

This island was once known as Welfare Island and from the 1920s to the 1970s was mainly home to chronic care hospitals and mental asylums and today its history is still reflected.

Notable places to visit are The Octagon, Smallpox Hospital, The Lighthouse, Four Freedoms Park, Blackwell House, and Contemporary art at RIVAA.

If you’re visiting NYC on a budget then this ride is a must-try.

Know Before you Go

  • You must pay by MTA MetroCard.
  • Up to three children 44-inches tall and under ride for free on the Tram when accompanied by a fare-paying adult.
  • Non-service/working animals can only board the Tram if they are enclosed in a container and carried.
Aerial drone photo Roosevelt Island Lighthouse

7. Have one of Rudy’s (Free) Hotdogs

If you happen to find yourself in Hell’s Kitchen with a minimal budget but craving a drink and need something to eat, you’ve got to go to Rudy’s (627 9th Avenue). 

This dive bar began as a speakeasy in the prohibition and has grown ever since and is definitely one of the most unique restaurants in New York City.

Operating as Rudy’s since 1933, it has been beloved by many – including famous faces like Drew Barrymore, Anthony Bourdain, and Paul McCartney – over the years. 

A night at Rudy’s consists of shockingly cheap drinks and a free hot dog with each one plus a jukebox keeping the tunes going all night long. 

Marked by a six-foot pig in a waistcoat and bowtie and a neon sign out front, the inside looks exactly what you’d think a dive bar in NYC would look like: red leather booth seating held together with duct tape, colorful bar stools, and old Tiffany lamps hanging from the ceiling.

The most famed part would be the three mosaics, including Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, and a 12-foot sax, which is a nod to the bar’s early origins in the Jazz era.

If you want to see more of Hell’s Kitchen, try this walking food tour

Know Before You Go

  • The bouncers DO check ID’s so not worth trying to sneak in.
  • Open daily from 12 pm to 4 am. 
  • There’s a terrace through the back, perfect for a summer’s night.

8. Visit the Bryant Park Bathrooms

Using the bathroom isn’t often seen as one of the most unusual things to do in New York City, but going to the Bryant Park bathrooms (42nd Street and 6th Avenue) definitely fits the bill. 

These bathrooms are open daily from 10 am to 10 pm and are manned by attendants, but that isn’t what makes them so unique.

Upon entering the Beaux-Arts building, you’ll come face to face with bouquets of fresh flowers, beautiful paintings (that have been changed throughout the years) made by artists-in-residence, and serene classical music to have a moment of calm in the city’s chaos.

My favorite part is the rotating plastic toilet seat cover; when you walk into the stall, you push a button, and the seat cover will rotate, so you have a fresh and unsullied part to sit on. Furthermore, you aren’t sitting on just any toilet, and it is a Toto toilet, a high-end luxury brand.

Once you’ve done your business, spend some time in Bryant Park, which always has activities no matter what time of year. You can sit in front of the fountain on a sunny day, play ping-pong, ride Le Carrousel, grab a snack, and more. 

Sunny day in Byrant Park in New York with modern buildings framed by trees

9. While at Byrant Park…

Check out The Josephine Shaw Lowell Memorial Fountain.

The fountain is a memorial to Josephine Shaw Lowell, who was a social worker and reformer in the late 19th century.

She was also the first female member of the New York State Board of Charities.

It is thought that Lowell is the first woman in NYC to be honoured by a monument; pretty unique, huh!

The fountain is a 32-foot-wide lower basin and 13-foot-wide upper basin and was designed by architect Charles A. Platt and revealed in 1912. 

The Josephine Shaw Lowell Memorial Fountain Byrant Park. NYC New York

10. Head to the Lightship Frying Pan

The Lightship Frying Pan ( Pier 66 Maritime/W 26th Street) wasn’t always just a plan to get some delicious seafood; it operated from 1930 to 1965 as a lighthouse that guided ships in North Carolina. 

Frying Pan Pier 55 Hudson River. NYC New York

11. Grab a Cuppa in Little Britain

You probably know Little Italy and Chinatown, and you might even know Koreatown, but did you know there was a “Little Britain” in NYC? 

In a tiny corner of the West Village, you’ll find the spot that kicked it all off, Tea and Sympathy for all of your home-cooked British comfort food needs, and they have a shop next door to stock up on crisps, sweets, and any other goodies you can take home with you.

Tea & Sympathy doesn’t take weekend reservations; expect to wait.

12. Eat Fish and Chips like a Brit or Drink Irn Bru like a Scot

If you’re more on the go, you can grab some fish & chips at the nearby chippy called A Salt and Battery served exactly as it would be anywhere in the United Kingdom. 

Myers of Keswick has everything from fresh pork pies to a bottle of the famed Scottish Irn Bru soda, perfect for a DIY picnic that you can carry out to Washington Square Park on a warm day. 

Myers of Keswick operates under UK hours, closing at 6 pm Monday-Saturday and 5 pm on Sunday.

If you’re a foodie you might want to plan a visit to these fall festivals in NYC.

13. Grab a Pint at McSorley’s Old Ale House

Want to check out the oldest pub and most unique places in NYC?

Head to McSorley’s Old Ale House (15 East 7th Street) to experience the most traditional bar around.

Their motto is, “We Were Here Before You Were Born,” and with an establishment date of 1854, they’re more than correct. 

This Irish saloon only began to admit women once legally forced to do so in 1970, and while it now happily welcomes all patrons, that’s the only adjustment they’ve made for over a century.  

If you’re in the mood for a glass of wine or a fancy IPA, you’ll have to go elsewhere; McSorley’s only serves its own brew of light or dark ale, and each order comes in two half-pint glasses.

And when you need to soak up the booze, you can order their classic cracker and cheese plate.

It consists of a sleeve of Saltine crackers, some slabs of cheddar cheese, chunks of fresh tomato, and curls of raw onion & for an extra touch of class, some mustard, and horseradish.

Once you’ve had as many pints as you can manage, wander around the neighborhood and make your way to St. Mark’s Place, where the punk rock culture once was king.

Although much of the area has been gentrified, you can still get a feel for what the area once was.

Know Before You Go

  • First come, first serve
  • Cash only
  • No kids allowed after 6 pm
  • The floors are covered in sawdust

14. Tavern on Jane for Brunch

Head to 31 8th Avenue for Tavern on Jane for very reasonably priced drinks and bar food.

This West Village bar has been serving lunch, dinner, weekend brunch, daily specials and late night bites since 1995.

Look out for specials on games day and live music throughout the year.

Tavern on Jane is popular with newcomers and regulars!

Tavern on Jane with red door. NYC New York

15. Wander the Washington Mews

Just north of Washington Square Park is a hidden private (sometimes gated) street called Washington Mews.

If you need an escape from NYC but don’t have the time, or the budget, just stroll down the cobblestone street of million-dollar homes that were once 18th-century horse stables that carry the colorful feel of old-world European charm.

Once popular with the local artists residing in Greenwich Village since 2018, it has been used as the international houses of New York University.

Spend the rest of your day in Washington Square Park, where something is always happening, whether it’s people playing chess, students picnicking, musicians busking, and more.

Washington Square Park fountain in flow

There is also an array of cafes, bars, restaurants, and food trucks within a short walking distance; many people get their food to go and eat it on the benches surrounding the fountain. 

Check out more of Greenwich Village with this walking tour

Know Before You Go

  • While the gates are usually open, it is technically private property 
  • The gates are often locked once the sun goes down
Yellow Taxi at Washington Square Greenwich Village New York

16. Find a “Hidden” Speakeasy

Some of NYC’s worst-kept secrets are the many speakeasies throughout the city; these hidden bars are a nod to the prohibition era of the 20th Century.

While you don’t have to hide from the law to get a drink, it’s still fun to seek out these quirky, hidden-away bars. 

These are three of my favorite secret places in New York:

PDT (Please Don’t Tell) on 113 St Marks Place sits behind a telephone booth in Crif Dogs, a tiny East Village staple where you can get some of the most creative hot dogs imaginable. 

Once you’ve gone through the secret entrance, you enter a world of dimmed lights and interesting taxidermy and, of course, top-notch cocktails, definitely one of the coolest weird things to do in NYC at night.

Beauty and Essex on 146 Essex Street is a working pawn shop on the Lower East Side with some rare and vintage items available for you to buy.

Make your way to the back, and you’ll enter a glittering world with a grand, wraparound staircase leading to the second floor and a larger-than-life chandelier. 

Enjoy the (pricey) cocktails and food as you sip and dance the night away, experiencing one of the most unique things to do in New York City. 

A little further down from Beauty and Essex is Apotheke bar on 9 Doyers Street, which fronts as an apothecary; the bar carries the theme throughout the decor and the cocktails – over 200 of them.

Check out some other fun activities to do in NYC at night here. 

Know Before You Go

  • PDT can often have long wait times, so come hungry to eat a few hotdogs ahead of time.
  • Beauty and Essex can carry a hefty price tag for both the food and drinks.
  • Apotheke has a “sophisticated” dress code that is strongly encouraged.

17. Visit Strand Bookstore

The Strand Bookstore (12th Street and Broadway) is a family-owned independent bookstore in the East Village.

The store was first opened at its original location on Book Row, in 1927 by Ben Bass.

It become a hub for authors to meet and sell their stories.

Named after The Strand in London where literary greats are said to have drawn inspiration, it is the only standing store on Book Row, located just around the corner from its original address.

Ben’s son, Fred, took over the business and now it is in the hands of Fred’s daughter, Nancy.

You can find over two million new and used books over the four floors at this landmark book shop.

Looking for other things to do in NYC when it rains?

Strand Bookstore red sign NYC

18. Enjoy Free Live Music at Pier 54

Keep an eye on the summer schedule for Pier 54 at the Hudson River Park for live bands.

You’ll also see dance classes and other events taking advantage of the hot temps.

All year round, you can check out the Apple Garden in West Village Park, which is named after the bronze sculpture designed by Stephan Weiss at its center.

19. Explore the Catacombs

If you want to experience one of the weirdest things to do in New York, you’ll have to go underground to check out the catacombs at Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral (260–264 Mulberry Street) by candlelight.

Your 90-minute tour of the 19th-century cathedral will travel to a place where the general public isn’t allowed and explore the two walled cemeteries where many prominent Catholic New Yorkers have been laid to rest. 

When you exit the Catacombs, you’ll be in the heart of Little Italy and should take full advantage!

Find a spot to share some spaghetti and meatballs like Lady and the Tramp or have a glass of limoncello and a cannoli and people watch.

If you want to see some other spooky things you can do in New York, check out this guide.

Know Before You Go

  • The tour is not recommended for children, wheelchairs users, pregnant people, or anyone over 80 years old.

20. Get a Scoop at the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory

Since 1978 this family-run spot has been delighting locals and visitors with their wide variety of regular flavors like Almond Cookie, Green Tea, and Thai Iced Tea.

No matter how many times you the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory (65 Baynard Street), there will always be something new to try; they’ve got a rotation of special appearance flavors such as Caramel Bacon Swirl, Chocolate Lavender, and NYC Cupcake.

21. Chinatown Fair Family Fun Center

Once you’ve eaten as much ice cream as possible, walk around the corner to the Chinatown Fair Family Fun Center as seen in the 1984 film, on Mott Street.

Whether you want to play classic games you played as a kid or try something new; the Chinatown Fair will be a fun way to spend an afternoon experiencing one of the most offbeat things to do in NYC.

See all of the hidden spots in Chinatown with this private guided walking tour.

Know Before You Go

  • The shop is tiny, so the line is usually long, especially in the summertime. 
  • The ice cream ranges from $6.50 – $15.75 for a single scoop to a pint.
Chinatown buildings in New York

22. See the Tiny Wonders in Mmuseumm

Have you ever stepped into a freight elevator and realized you were actually in a tiny museum dedicated to the “overlooked, dismissed, or ignored”?

Well, you’ve clearly never been to Mmuseumm (4 Cortlandt Alley), one of NYC’s tiniest oddities!

Conceived in 2012, they make use of every possible space in the 36-square-foot exhibition with everything from the mundane to the magnificent, with up to three visitors at a time. 

And even if you have, the micro exhibitions rotate between seasons so you can visit again and again and see tiny new treasures every time. 

If you don’t have time to visit, you can always check in through the viewing window is open 24 hours but is best viewed early in the morning or late at night.

There is a small gift shop and cafe next door where you can get a hot coffee and browse through the souvenirs like 3D postcards and apparel. 

Know Before You Go

  • You can book private viewing for a group of up to 5 people for 45 minutes for $10 or a private guided tour for a group of up to 10 people for $100.
  • Access a free audio guide by calling the 800 number. 
  • Mmuseumm is from April – November, Friday – Sunday, 11 am-6 pm.
  • Mmuseumm is wheelchair accessible and provides exhibition text, a phone-based audioguide in English, and docents.
  • There is a $5 suggested donation for admission.

23. Ride the Seaglass Carousel

At the southern end of The Battery Conservancy lives the SeaGlass Carousel, inspired by the original New York Aquarium that operated from 1896 until 1941; this is one of the most unique things to do in New York.

The carousel consists of 30 gigantic fibreglass fish in 12 different species in a 2,575-square-foot pavilion lit up with color-changing LED lights that rotate via four turntables instead of the traditional center pole. 

The atmosphere also has an integrated audio system; combined with the LED “water effect,” it creates an under-the-water feel.

Know Before You Go

  • The carousel is open daily from 11 am – 9 pm hours and opening times vary; check their Facebook page before you go.
  • Tickets are $5

24. Check Out Castle Garden

Once you’ve gone round the merry-go-round enough times, explore the rest of The Battery Conservancy, 195,000 square feet of magnificent gardens, and Castle Garden, where millions of immigrants first entered America in the 19th Century until they began to enter through Ellis Island.  

25. Tour the United Nations Headquarters

Stand in the same spot as Malala delivered her hard-hitting speech to the United Nations and learn all about the role that the UN plays around the world by visiting the UN Headquarters in New York.

If you can’t do an in-person tour, check out the virtual tours on a variety of topics such as black history, focus on women, and also an architecture tour.

United Nations Gun Monument

26. The Morgan Library and Museum

While The Morgan is a Manhattan library and museum open to the public.

Here you can see the draft works of Beethoven and Jane Austen!

It has many lavish rooms such as Mr. Morgan’s Library, Study, Morgan Stanley Estate Galleries, the Marble Hall, and the Morgan Dining Room.

27. Roller Skating and Ice Skating

OK, so roller skating and ice skating don’t sound very unique but it is all about the location!

Riverbank State Park has a covered rink that is used by skaters during the drier seasons and for ice skating in winter.

28. Midnight Moment

Head to Times Square at 11:57 pm to see the shiny billboards take a break from their regular schedule to showcase digital artwork!

The event only lasts for three minutes so don’t blink or you might just miss it!

You may want to check our guide to things to do at Times Square.

29. New York Dinner Cruise

Tuck into a special dinner cruise while floating around New York Harbor and Manhattan.

Not only will you dine on a buffet dinner, but you can also see NYC landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building from the water.

The ride also includes onboard entertainment such as DJ music and interactive games.

The dress code is business to dressy casual attire, so don’t be afraid to get glam.

The boat departs from Pier 61.

Food allergies and dietary requirements can be catered for.

30. Manhattan Sky Tour By Helicopter

See the city from a bird’s eye view during this helicopter ride in Manhattan.

Hit the sky in a luxurious six-passenger Bell 407 aircraft.

You’ll see the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, and Wall Street from above.

Helicopter tours of NYC range from 15 to 30 minutes in length and depart from Downtown Manhattan Heliport at Pier 6 on the East River.

Naturally, photography is allowed so you can take incredible pictures from a unique angle.

Aerial view of lower Manhattan New York City and the Hudson River

Final Thoughts

Because there is so much to do when visiting New York City, it feels easy to get swept into the popular tourist traps, but there really is so much more to see outside of Midtown. 

In this ever-changing city, there is always something a little off the beaten path to see; hopefully, this guide inspired you to see something unique that you would have otherwise missed.

What other hidden or secret parts of New York do you love to see when you visit? Tell us in the comments so we can add them to our travel list!

Enjoy Our NYC Travel Guides

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.