15 Unique Things to Do in New York: A Local’s Guide to Enjoying NYC

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I still can’t quite believe this, but all three of my kids live in New York City now. My daughter was the first to move there in 2015 and the other two eventually made their way there as well. As a result, I’ve been heading up to NYC three or four times a year for the last few years. We checked off all the touristy must-dos a long time ago, so now I spend my trips hanging out with my kids and doing the things they like to do. New York is such a special city to spend time in, with tons of fun things to do that you probably can’t find in your local city.

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So, today I’m sharing fifteen attractions and activities I’ve enjoyed in NYC while visiting my kids. By the way, I’m not recommending that you skip the tourist must-dos! Everyone needs to experience the many iconic New York landmarks at least once.

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But you’ll enjoy your trip to the city even more if you try a few of these cool things listed below. You’ll get to experience the city like a local and you’ll feel like a hip New York native. You’ll have lots of fun, too.

Can You Visit New York in 2021?

Yes! I just got back from a quick visit to celebrate my son’s 30th birthday and the city is as alive and vibrant as ever. My hotel did require me to wear a mask in the common areas and only provided cleaning upon request, but it was otherwise business as usual. Many of the restaurants offer outdoor seating now in cute little structures that protect you from the elements while letting you enjoy the breeze.

Outdoor Seating for New York Restaurant in 2021

As of June 15, 2021 most restrictions have been lifted and masks are no longer required for the fully vaccinated. Be sure to bring proof of your vaccination status with you, though. I was asked to show my card a few times before dining indoors or visiting a retail store.

Note: as I was literally writing the previous paragraph, I received a notification that NYC will be requiring proof of vaccination in order to visit restaurants, gyms, and other facilities. Rules continue to change and evolve due to the Delta Variant of COVID-19, so be sure and check for any travel restrictions before you visit.

Where to Stay in NYC to Feel Like a Local

The hotels around Times Square have their own unique energy, but you’ll experience more of what locals enjoy about the city by choosing a smaller hotel or AirBnB in a conveniently located residential neighborhood.

I just spent a pleasurable few minutes time going back through my history on booking.com to see a list of some of the places I’ve enjoyed staying in NYC.

Hotels I’ve enjoyed in Manhattan:

  • The Solito Soho. I love any hotel that greets me with a glass of wine, but this sweet boutique hotel is extra special. The rooms are charming and spacious and the staff is extraordinarily helpful. If you like to shop, you’ll love the neighborhood of Soho and it’s close to some of my favorite restaurants in Chinatown and Little Italy.
  • NoMo Soho. This is a great hotel to stay in if you enjoy being the least attractive person in the building. I was the only person in this hotel who wasn’t a model. I love this hotel just the same though. It’s as elegant and hip as you would expect a hotel full of models to be, but the rooms as bright and comfy and the staff was always helpful and accomodating. Another plus: they welcome dogs and all of the models had their cute and tiny designer dogs with them.
Hotel Room at NoMo Soho in NYC
Photo Credit: NoMo Soho

Hotels I’ve Enjoyed In Brooklyn

  • The Pod Hotel. If you’ve never stayed in a Pod Hotel, you might be in for a shock. The rooms are tiny. I’m talking “the toilet is inside the shower” tiny. The rooms are designed for peak efficiency, though, so I never felt cramped and the hotel itself is beautiful, with lots of amenities, including free bike rentals. You can’t beat the price; a standard room is under $125 per night. It’s located in the trendy Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg so you can really experience what it’s like to be a Brooklyn hipster and it’s right next to a subway station that can easily take you straight into Manhattan.
  • The Hoxton, Williamsburg. If you’re not down with your toilet being located in your shower, then I’m sure you’ll enjoy a stay at the Hoxton. The lobby is warm and inviting, with lots of seating if you want to do some work outside of your room. The rooms are still small (true in most New York hotels) but the shower in the bathroom is like your own personal spa. The restaurant at the Hoxton, Klein’s, is a great space to grab a drink with some friends.
15 Unique Things to Do in New York: A Local's Guide to Enjoying NYC 3
Klein’s – The restaurant attached to The Hoxton, Williamsburg

Things to Do in New York to Enjoy the City Like a Local

1. Use the Subway to Get Around

The New York Subway can seem intimidating to a tourist, but it really is the easiest – and typically the fastest – way to get around. A 7-day unlimited pass costs $33. Or you can pay by the ride (typically $2.75) simply by tapping your credit card at many stations.

Google Maps does an excellent job of showing how to get around using the subway and every station has an extensive map showing all the routes. Most stations have a person available who can help answer questions if necessary.

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2. Skip Starbucks in Favor of a Local Coffee Shop

Yes, there’s a Starbucks on every corner but if you want to feel like a native and really understand why New Yorkers are so particular about their coffee, you’ll want to find a local coffee shop to visit every morning. The best places will recognize you and give you a cheery “Hello!” the next time you visit.

Some good choices are: 

  • Irving Farm. A local chain offering their own coffee which is roasted in upstate New York.
  • Think Coffee. Ethically sourced coffee from small producers throughout the world.
  • Oslo Coffee Roasters. Premium ethically sourced coffee and also my favorite coffee shop because my daughter works there. I’m consistently impressed with how well they treat their employees.
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3. Have Some Amazing Dim Sum in a Historic Tea Parlor 

I try to visit Nom Wah Tea Parlor any time I can because the food is wonderful and the experience is always amazing. You might be a little put off when you see the exterior; the building has definitely seen better days.

But what would you expect from a place that has been serving delicious dumplings since 1920? This is a really fun place to visit with a large group where you can share all the yummy dumplings and noodles. 

Entrance to Nom Wah Tea Parlor
Photo Credit: Nom Wah Tea Parlor

4. See a Show

Broadway shows are coming back in September and New Yorkers love Broadway as much as the rest of the country does! They also hate the Broadway prices as much as we all do. If there’s a show you want to see when Broadway reopens, check out Broadway for Broke People to find out how to get the cheapest tickets for any Broadway show.

Keep your eyes peeled for the announcement of when Broadway Week will return. This festival is normally held twice a year and offers a chance to purchase 2-for-1 Broadway tickets.

The famous Broadway TKTS booths will be reopening this fall as well and they now also offer discount tickets that you can purchase in advance on their website.

Springsteen on Broadway
You can get tickets for Springsteen on Broadway right now – if you’re fully vaccinated. And you don’t really need to be a middle aged man to attend.

5. Visit a World-Class Museum for Free

There are so many world-class museums in New York: MOMA, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The American Museum of Natural History and the Guggenheim, just to name a few. Even native New Yorkers love to explore the many museums in the city but they also how to save money by taking advantage of the free admission days that most of the museums offer. 

Timeout has a list of all the Free Museum Days for New York Museums, but check with the museum before you visit to confirm this information is still correct.

COVID has affected the museums as well, of course. I visited the Museum of Modern Art during my last visit in June 2021 and some areas were closed. However, the social distancing requirements actually made my visit so much more pleasurable. I finally got to get up close and really look at Van Gogh’s The Starry Night rather than trying to catch a glimpse from the back of a crowd taking selfies in front of it.

6. Check Out Some of the Smaller Museums as Well

New York locals also know that many of the smaller and lesser known museums are wonderful places to spend a few hours. Some of my favorites are:

  • American Folk Art Museum. Celebrating self-taught artists. Always free admission!
  • The Museum of The Moving Image. Can be a hike to get to because it’s out in Queens, but the exhibits are always fun. A must for anyone who loves Jim Henson and the muppets.
  • The Brooklyn Museum. Interesting exhibits that are often a little edgier than the exhibits are the larger museums. Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party is at the Brooklyn Museum and I was stunned at how amazing it looks in real life.
  • The Tenement Museum. This museum sounds like it’s going to be a depressing snooze-fest, but just ask anyone who’s visited: it’s a fascinating and vibrant look at life in New York life for new American immigrants that makes you feel connected to everyone who came to America in search of a better life for their family.
Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show at The Museum of the Moving Image
Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show at The Museum of the Moving Image

7. Have a Drink on a Rooftop

When the warm weather finally rolls in, New Yorkers love to head outside – and up. Sitting on a rooftop enjoying a cool cocktail and admiring the views of the city is the best way to best the summer heat. Yes, it will be too crowded. Yes, your drink will be too expensive. But the views of the city will be worth all that trouble.

My favorite rooftop bar in New York City is The Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s fairly peaceful, unlike most of the other rooftop bars in NYC and the views of the city can’t be beat. Unfortunately, the bar is still closed due to COVID.

A great alternative is Harriet’s Rooftop on top of 1 Hotel in Brooklyn. It boasts a great view of the Manhattan skyline and a killer margarita.

The New York Skyline as seen from the Roof Garden on top of the Met
The New York Skyline as seen from the Roof Garden on top of the Met

8. Do Some Shopping 

Of course, New Yorkers love to shop! But they’re not traveling to the giant, crowded stores around Time Square to get their fix. Instead, locals like to visit some of many great vintage stores and smaller boutiques around the city. 

Somehow, every trip I take to the city ends up including a shopping excursion. (Could it be because my kids know Mom can be convinced to pay for everything?) So, I’ve visited many great stores in the area.

Some of my favorite second-hand and vintage stores are:

  • L Train Vintage. This is a chain of several vintage clothing stores offering a wide variety of clothes for both men and women. You can always find lots of clothes with a 90s vibe here, but they have pretty much everything.
  • Beacon’s Closet. Another chain with shops throughout the city. The clothes here seem a little higher-end than at other stores and more focused on current fashions. 
  • Housing Works Thrift Shops. These are true thrift shops (as opposed to a vintage clothing store) so prices are lower but the selection is not as curated.
  • Mother of Junk. If you love wandering through a crowded store, picking up items and asking yourself what is going on here, then you’ll want to devote an hour or two to exploring this jumbled mess of a store. The store is packed with items of all shapes and sizes and everything has a light layer of dust, but there are some true treasures to be found among the trash. I always find something I love.

Of course, you don’t need to limit yourself to second-hand items while shopping in New York. There are so many stores with unique finds. Here are just a few of my favorites, in no particular order.

  • & Other Stories. My daughter turned me on this store, which is owned by H&M. They have an online shop, but the only physical locations in the U.S. are in New York and Los Angeles so I always enjoy visiting the store when I’m in New York. They offer classic, romantic styles in natural fabrics that feel so good on your body. The prices reflect the quality of the items, but are still much less than you would expect to pay in any other boutique.
  • Uniqlo. I almost didn’t include Uniqlo on this list because they have locations throughout the country, but if, like me, there isn’t one near your home, you’ll love visiting the Uniqlo flagship store in Soho. Uniqlo sells classic basics and more trendy pieces at amazing prices. I especially love their cashmere sweaters and their warm jackets.
  • Clic. Clic sells clothing and home goods that give off an airy, casual vibe. I particularly like the fun artwork here.
  • Love Adorned. I love the unique jewelry and home accessories you can find at this elegant store.

9. Spend the Day at a Flea Market 

No trip to New York is complete for me without a visit to Brooklyn Flea, where I can wander the aisles for hours checking out handmade furniture, unique accessories, vintage clothing, records, sweatshirts, fresh flowers and interesting crafts from local artists. I always make sure to arrive hungry so I can try some of the amazing food on-site like pork buns and lobster mac and cheese.

Brooklyn Flea has several locations now, but my favorite location is in Williamsburg. They also have a Winter Market, which is housed indoors, so you can get your flea market fix year-round.

Woman browsing a flea market with a dog in her backpack
An iconic New York moment: browsing a flea market with your dog in your backpack

10. Eat ALL the Food

The folks behind Brooklyn Flea also operate Smorgasburg, a giant (and I mean GIANT!) outdoor food market open in spring and summer. They have multiple locations but my favorite is in Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

Important tip: don’t stop at the first food stand you come across! You’ll want to browse all the vendors before you narrow down what you want to eat. You’ll find all kinds of food here: Deep-fried cookie dough, Japanese shaved ice, Korean fried chicken, meat and cheese pies, and even whole lobsters. You’ll leave stuffed and happy.

Street corn at Smorgasborg

11. Walk Through a Park

Some of my most enjoyable moments in New York have been the ones where I was simply strolling around, enjoying the city. Walking through Central Park is a must-do, of course, and I’ve spent many enjoyable moments exploring all that it has to offer.

But there are so many other parks to explore in NYC! If you head out to Smorgsaburg, spend some time exploring Prospect Park, which was also designed Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the architects behind Central Park. Stroll through the 523-acres of grounds and watch the people playing sports, picnicking or just hanging out. Or visit the very cute zoo and admire the peacocks that are strutting about.

My favorite park to visit is Washington Square Park, in the heart of Greenwich Village. In the summer, the park fills up with performers. There’s a new, and different, show every few yards. You can enjoy watching a man who brings his giant Steinway grand piano down to the park, marionette artists, acrobats, chalk artists, and jazz bands. It’s all free and it’s always amazing.

Washington Square Park

12. Brunch So Hard 

 No one loves brunch more than a New Yorker. If you go for a stroll on a Sunday around 11am, you’ll see a line out of every restaurant and every restaurant’s Yelp reviews make it clear just how seriously New Yorkers take their brunch.

I always try to include at least one brunch excursion when I visit New York. I’ve never had a bad brunch in New York (it’s brunch, after all!), but a few that stand out are:

Mimosas at brunch at Forrest Point
Mimosas at Forrest Point

13. Walk Along the High Line

 You can walk off all the food you ate at brunch with a hike along the High Line, the elevated park built on top of an abandoned railway track. On any pleasant weekend, you’ll find the High Line teeming with both residents and tourists out for a sunny stroll.

Yet, somehow the High Line never seems too crowded like the Brooklyn Bridge can often feel. You can people watch while lounging on the many chairs and benches lining the trail or admire the ever-changing art along the path.

A couple kissing on a bench on The High Line in New York
Enjoying a rest break along the High Line

14. Watch a Parade or Visit a Festival

 I always check the TimeOut Guide to NYC Events whenever I plan a trip to New York. Using the calendar, I’ve been able to experience so many things I wouldn’t have known about otherwise: the Chinese New Year Parade in Queens, The Easter Parade along Fifth Avenue, and an exhibit of giant inflatable rabbits, just to name a few. 

These events are always special experiences that really make me feel connected to the city and its residents. If I were visiting the city in August 2021, I would make plans to visit this exhibit of costumes from iconic Broadway Shows. That’s something I can’t see at home!

Colorful Women at New York Easter Parade
The Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. Imagine an entire street of people dressed to the nines in their most colorful finery.

15. Ride a Tram Over the Streets of Manhattan

This is the only activity on this list that I imagine few local New Yorkers enjoy on a regular basis. I added it because I know that it is a favorite thing for locals to do when friends visit from out of town and ask to see something only a local New Yorker can show them.

Very few people seem to know about the Roosevelt Island Tramway and that’s a shame, because it’s a beautiful ride in a tram over the East River to Roosevelt Island. Roosevelt Island is a public park in the East River with lots of family-friendly activities. It’s also a pleasant area to stroll around and enjoy the views of the city and the river.

The best part of the Roosevelt Island Tramway? It’s run by the New York Subway system so the fare is only $2.75 (the regular subway fare) in each direction. It’s also a relatively uncrowded and stress-free journey so it’s a good break if the crowded tourist spots of New York are starting to get to you.

And when you get home, you can show your friends you took from your perch over the city and nobody will believe you when you tell them you took them from the tram that goes over Manhattan.

Roosevelt Island Tram
Photo Credit: Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation

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