Updated September 2020.
Sometimes the most underrated attractions in New York City are the most interesting. With all the options available to both the tourist and the native New Yorker, it is easy to miss gems hidden in plain sight as well as weird and unusual NYC oddities. Come with me on a tour of some of the most underrated attractions in NYC and judge for yourself if it needs to be on your must-visit list.
11 Underrated Attractions in New York City You Must See
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum
Are you a descendant of immigrants? If you are, you will love The Tenement Museum. This museum is located in an actual tenement on the Lower East Side of New York City, ground zero for immigrant concentration for centuries.
The museum celebrates the immigrant experience through a series of ever-changing exhibits that take you into the tenement itself. The various immigrant experiences are recreated in different apartments and tell the story of the families that lived there.
One exhibit I recently enjoyed was “Under One Roof,” the story of three families: the Jewish Epsteins, the Puerto Rican Velez family and the Wongs from China, who lived in that tenement from the 1940s to the 1980s. Each apartment is recreated to match the furnishings and the period. The guided tour explains the immigrants’ lives through photos, letters and, in many cases, the recordings of the people that lived there. The tour is enlightening and interesting.
There are many other tours covering all aspects of immigrants’ lives. The museum also offers neighborhood walking tours. It’s a great way to experience the Lower East Side and learn about the immigrant experience first hand.
For a total immigrant experience, get to know the history and culture of the Lower East Side through food. New York City’s, Big Onion Walking Tours offers the Multi-ethnic Eating Tour where you sample the foods of the ethnic groups that help build the city. It is an incredibly informative experience led by knowledgeable tour guides. The best part is the food; everything from Italian pastries to Malaysian BBQ to Vietnamese spring rolls. Come hungry!!
A trip to Roosevelt Island is one of the underrated attractions in NYC. The main reason is that when you’re on Roosevelt Island, you can look straight at NYC and appreciate the view from a unique perspective. But Roosevelt Island has a lot more to offer and makes for a nice day trip from Manhattan.
Named for Franklin Roosevelt, the island is 2 miles long, connects to midtown Manhattan and can be reached from Manhattan via the bridge, subway and the only commuter tram in the U.S. The tram can be boarded with a metro card and the 5-minute ride is a fun experience. You’ll see great views across the East River, the 59th Street bridge and, of course, Manhattan.
The island has a fascinating history. From 1921 to the early 1970s, the island was known as Welfare Island because it was used mainly for hospitals such as an insane asylum and a smallpox hospital. The insane asylum is now an apartment complex, and the smallpox hospital is abandoned and crumbling.
Today the island is a pleasant community of about 11,000. On the north end of the island is a lighthouse and on the southern tip is a park dedicated to Franklin Roosevelt. The walk on the riverside promenade is very pleasant. There is even a cat sanctuary on the south side!“One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.” ― Tom Wolfe Click To Tweet
New York Conservatory Garden
Right on the outskirts of Central Park on 103rd Street is one of the prettiest gardens in Manhattan, The Conservatory Garden. It may be one of the most underrated attractions in the city because it is uptown far from the regular tourist routes. But it is definitely worth the trip. The entry to the garden is through the iron wrought gates that were rescued from the Vanderbilt mansion before it was torn down. The mansion once stood where Bergdorf Goodman stands today on 59th Street and 5th Avenue.
Inside the garden are three separate and distinct gardens: the Italian, the French and the English garden with beautiful statuary positioned throughout.
Each season has its own charm in the garden, but spring is especially dramatic with the blooming spring flowers and blossoms exploding across the gardens.
Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum
This is one of the most underrated attractions in NYC because it is just one of so many awe-inspiring museums. New York City has 113 museums. How can you possibly see them all, especially if you are just visiting?
The Cooper Hewitt sits uptown across the street from Central Park on 91 Street and 5th Avenue. It is the only museum in the U.S. dedicated exclusively to design. It is chock full of fascinating exhibits and stunning eye candy.
Built in the early 1900s, the museum itself is the former home of industrialist, Andrew Carnegie. With its 64 rooms, this Georgian mansion is a perfect example of the opulent lifestyle of the Gilded Age magnates. The mansion itself, with its expansive lawn and garden, is the main attraction of the museum. There is also a cafeteria. Get a sandwich or salad and eat it on the lawn imagining a Gilded Age lawn party in 1902.
“What's the use of a great city having temptations if fellows don't yield to them?” ― P.G. Wodehouse, Carry on, Jeeves Click To Tweet
Flushing, New York
Flushing is a neighborhood in the New York borough of Queens. It is one of the most underrated attractions in NYC. Why? Flushing has the biggest and fastest growing Chinatown in the United States. However, visitors to NYC looking for a great Asian meal tend to head to the city’s Lower East Side Chinatown and miss Flushing altogether. Big mistake! Flushing is a delicious melting pot of Asian ethnicity.
Originally founded by the Dutch in 1645, Flushing was mainly farms for most of its life. As the city expanded, Flushing grew and attracted immigrants. Today the area is over 70% Asian–not just Chinese but Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Korean, Malaysian, Japanese and others.
It’s easy to get to Flushing. Take the subway’s #7 train and get off at the last stop, Main Street. You will feel like you are in the middle of downtown Hong Kong. Go and explore the neighborhood, which includes many historical locations like the John Bowne House, a center of religious tolerance in Dutch New Amsterdam and one of the oldest houses in New York.
The highlight of your time in Flushing will be deciding where to eat in this wonderland of Asian restaurant options. From high-end restaurants specializing in subtly flavored Cantonese seafood to underground malls with tiny hole-in-the-wall snack stands selling spicy Szechuan, Flushing has one of the finest collection of ethnic restaurants in NYC.
Flushing is also the site of the Uniglobe, iconic symbol of the 1964 World’s Fair and Flushing Meadow-Corona Park. This beautiful park with its tree-lined walkways, zoo and sports fields is an excellent place to walk off your meal.
Outside of Flushing, check out these great places to eat in NYC without going broke.
“I regret profoundly that I was not an American and not born in Greenwich Village. It might be dying, and there might be a lot of dirt in the air you breathe, but this is where it's happening.” ― John Lennon Click To Tweet
Why would The Cloisters be on a list of underrated attractions in NYC when they are so glorious? Because they, like other destinations mentioned here, are far from the main tourist track.
This amazing collection of medieval artifacts and gardens form a part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art network, and they are no less stunning than the museum itself. The museum consists of four cloisters that were purchased in Europe, dismantled, transported to the U.S. and reassembled in Fort Tyrone Park in Washington Heights, New York in the 1930s.
The location, as well as the collection, was purchased by John Rockefeller and donated to the MET. The intention of the curators was to recreate French monasteries and abbeys in NYC exactly as they would have been in their original locations. They succeeded.
Although there are over 5000 works of art, the prize of the museum collection are the famous Unicorn Tapestries, an amazingly well-preserved collection of 7 tapestries dating from the early 1500s.
The High Line
The High Line is a public park built on an abandoned elevated train track. It runs from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District north to West 30th Street. It is difficult to explain the concept of this park to people that have not seen it because the construction is so unusual. But it is, most definitely, a NYC park with hundreds of wildflowers and grasses growing between the tracks and around the walkways.
More interesting still are the views of the Hudson River and NYC skyline from this unusual perspective. You also can’t help but peek into the apartments that line both sides of the tracks on some sections. Some sections even run through buildings. Glass enclosures allow you to see directly into a NYC street from the track’s high perspective.
This unique park almost did not come into existence. It was slated for demolition after decades of neglect after the trains stopped running. A neighborhood group successfully fought for the park’s re-purposing.
Today, besides the beautiful plants and flowers, the park features artworks and snack stands. It is open year round although at different times depending on the season.
Harlem is one of my favorite neighborhoods in NYC. There is so much to do and see in this historic section of NYC.
Originally settled by the Dutch, Harlem has been home to many ethnic groups: Irish, Italian, Russian and Eastern European Jews, African -Americans and most recently Senegalese. Each group left a piece of their heritage in Harlem in the form of architecture, cuisine and music.
One landmark Harlem institution is the Apollo Theater where Wednesday night the theater hosts Amateur Night at the Apollo, a performance competition featuring up and coming artists. This is a can’t miss event and definitely one of the most underrated activities in NYC. The audience selects the winners with their applause and the talent is amazing.
Nighttime is when Harlem really shines. Some of the best jazz clubs in the city are found in Harlem. Among them is Minton’s Playhouse, Smoke Jazz and Supper Club and Ginny’s Supper Club. Having an excellent meal while listening to some of the sweetest sounds in the city should be on everyone’s NYC checklist.
“As for New York City, it is a place apart. There is not its match in any other country in the world.” ― Pearl S. Buck Click To Tweet
The Frick Collection
The Frick Collection is a wonderful museum across the street from Central Park on 70th street and 5th Avenue. It was the former home of the industrialist Henry Clay Frick. I find it amazing that some of these massive mansions turned museums — some with interior gardens and fountains — were once private homes.
This museum has one of the best European art collections in New York including works by Renoir, Gainsborough, Rembrandt, Titian, El Greco, Manet and 3 paintings by Vermeer. It also houses my single favorite work of art, Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein. The red velvet of the model’s sleeve is so realistic you can almost reach out and feel it between your fingers.
All this glorious, spiritually uplifting beauty is accessible for pay-what-you-wish on Wednesdays from 2 to 6 p.m. and is totally free on the first Friday of every month from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m., except during September and January. Regular admission is $22 for adults, $17 for 65+. During these free Fridays, the Frick museum sponsors chamber music performances by the fountain and offers free snacks and art supplies to encourage the budding artist.
It is worth going out of your way to visit the Frick.
The New York City Transit Museum
Think you’re not interested in the history of the construction of the New York City subway? Think again. Come to this wonderful museum, and you will be surprised at the number and variety of things you will find interesting.
The entrance to the museum is down the stairs into a subway. After you pay your $10 admission fee (less for children and seniors) you travel back in history to the subway’s origins. The displays and vintage photos tell the story of immigrant labor doing dangerous and often fatal tasks. You will marvel at what an amazing feat of engineering is was to construct these tunnels.
The exhibit goes on to show subway paraphernalia from the late 1800s to present day: what the first turnstiles looked like; how tokens, subway advertising and maps changed over the decades. The most interesting exhibit is one level down on the actual subway tracks. There sits a collection of retired trains from the first ever vehicles to the most recent additions lining the tracks. Visitors are welcome to walk through the trains and sit on the wicker seats from the 1930s.
If you know New York City for several decades, you will love the memory trip back through the trains of the past. If you’re a history buff, you will be engrossed and engaged throughout. Kids will love it too, especially when they can “drive a NYC bus.”
This quirky, unique museum is a delight and definitely ranks as one of the underrated attractions in NYC.
New York Marble Cemetery
I love cemeteries. They are full of history and offer an opportunity to learn about the area from a different perspective, and I really looked forward to visiting this one. This peaceful little slice of history is one of the most underrated attractions of NYC because it is only open a few times a year and few people know it exists.
Established in 1831 the New York Marble Cemetery is the first non-sectarian burial ground open to the public. The cemetery is located off 2nd Avenue between 2nd and 3rd Streets and is one of the most interesting cemeteries of the United States.
You access the cemetery through an alley off 2nd Avenue which opens up to a large patch of green grass in the middle of the bustling city. You can leave the city behind and relish the quiet of the lovely gardens, if only for a short time.
According to the cemetery’s information, “In response to fears about yellow fever outbreaks, recent legislation had outlawed earth graves, so marble vaults the size of small rooms were built ten feet underground in the excavated interior of the block bounded by Second Avenue, Second Street, Third Street, and the Bowery. Access to the 156 family vaults was by the removal of stone slabs set below the grade of the lawn. Vaults are in pairs; there are no catacombs or passages connecting them. Markers were never placed on the ground; instead, marble plaques set into the Cemetery’s long north and south walls give the names of the families interred nearby.”
The cemetery is no longer used as a burial place, but it is rented for special occasions and corporate events. It bills itself as a small cemetery in a big city and is a beautiful place to visit.
I cannot think of a more underrated activity in NYC than the New York Marble Cemetery.
Honorable mention for underrated attractions in NYC has to go to Times Square and the Theater District. This crossroads of the world has gotten a bad rap lately but it is still a hive of electric activity and excitement.“Every true New Yorker believes with all his heart that when a New Yorker is tired of New York, he is tired of life.” ― Robert Moses Click To Tweet
Make sure to bring guidebooks and maps with you to maximize your time in the Great Metropolis.
Can’t get enough of New York City? Check out these other posts with even more NYC secrets.
What do you think are the most underrated attractions in NYC? We’d like to know.
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