You're probably aware of the must-see places to visit during a trip to New York, but a city as big as this one is full of possibilities, original things to do and secret places to discover. Take a look at the different things to do in the Big Apple!
1. Listen to heavenly music at a Harlem Gospel Mass
One of the most original things to do in New York is to leave the skyscrapers of downtown for a morning to experience the cultural diversity of one of the city's most interesting neighbourhoods: Harlem.
In the early 20th century it became the epicentre of African-American culture and civil rights advocacy in the United States. This was accompanied by the flourishing of a musical and artistic movement led by Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald performing at venues such as the legendary Cotton Club.
A tour of Harlem with a Gospel Mass will show you the most authentic side of this neighbourhood. It will take you to the main sights such as the Apollo Theater, the Cotton Club, the Morris Jumel Mansion and the historic streets of typical flats.
What is a Gospel Mass like?
You'll also visit a local church for a live, authentic gospel service. I recommend going on Sundays, as you'll find a larger congregation and therefore a more genuine experience.
A Gospel service in New York City usually lasts around two hours, although the tour only takes you there for one hour. The experience is highly recommended! The service consists of a combination of singing and sermon. You'll enter moments before the service begins and will usually be seated in the upper box, where you'll have a magnificent view of the proceedings.
Isabel's Traveller Tip
Remember there is a dresscode for attending a Gospel service: avoid tank tops or tank tops and skirts and shorts.
2. Ride a bike in Central Park
Central Park is New York's most famous park. A true green lung for the city and the most visited urban park in the world.
Given its size, I know from experience that walking through Central Park will take you several visits as it is huge and there is so much to see. If you don't have much time to invest in this visit, one of the most entertaining ways to explore Central Park is by renting an electric bike, which will take you to the most iconic places in the park as well as others that normally go unnoticed by tourists.
You'll also discover the origins of Central Park in a fun way and see some of the locations of movies that have been filmed here, as well as several of the houses of celebrities.
Why do I like this tour?
I love it for autumn in New York, when the sun is still warm in the morning. The light is dim and the landscape is tinged with reds, ochres, browns, oranges... It's a colourful spectacle to admire! Take your camera and get ready to take the most beautiful pictures of your trip.
3. Step inside New York's Ghost Subway Station
The streets of New York are exciting, there is always something new to see in this ever-changing city. On the surface there are tourist attractions to suit all tastes but not many know that beneath it lies a secret location known as the ghost underground station of City Hall, which has long been plunged into darkness.
The name alone makes you want to find out what it's all about, doesn't it? All you have to do is enter the subway and take line 6 to the end of the route, as the train continues to travel through this station. After Brooklyn Bridge you can pass by the ghost station of City Hall and admire it from the train car.
Unfortunately, it' s not possible to get off to see it, but at least the underground runs at a very slow speed, so with a little skill you'll be able to take several photos of this piece of New York history, which tells us about the origins of this public transport at the beginning of the 20th century.
What does the ghost station look like?
City Hall was never a station much used by New Yorkers, as most of them got on and off at the nearby Brooklyn Bridge, and it was eventually closed to the public in 1945 for a variety of reasons.
Perhaps this has allowed it to remain in such good condition, as have the original tiles, glass, chandeliers and stained glass windows that decorate it. Many people find a certain resemblance to the decoration of Grand Central Station, what do you think?
Another way to get a glimpse of the station is from above ground. In the middle of City Hall Park there is an area reserved for pets. If you pay attention, you'll see an iron opening from which you can peek inside.
4. Enjoy street art in High Line Park
Of all the parks in New York, one of the most original to me is High Line Park. A new urban garden, barely a decade old, built on an old elevated railway line and filled with greenery, mural art and sculptures on the west side of Manhattan. One of New York's almost secret places waiting to be discovered on your trip.
High Line Park is located between Gansevoort Street and 34th Street. Its two-and-a-half kilometre straight line route starts (or ends depending on which direction you take) to the north near Hudson Yards, the trendy new Midtown neighbourhood along the Hudson River. It then runs through Chelsea and finally ends in the south in the Meatpacking District next to the Whitney Museum.
From end to end, the High Line Park walkway is lined with skyscrapers, designer buildings and interesting sculptures. But in addition to the urban art you'll see along the High Line Park, I suggest you take a break from the walk to exit at the 23rd Street entrance and take a stroll around the area to see some of the graffiti by Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra. Three of the most striking and which have become true icons of the neighbourhood are:
- We love NY²: featuring Einstein expressing his love for New York squared.
- Mount Rushmore: on the facade of the Empire Diner, a tribute to artists Andy Warhol, Frida Hahlo, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
- Tolerance: paying tribute to Gandhi and Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
With a few souvenir photos, head back to High Line Park to continue the route. Don't put your camera away because a little further along 21st Street, on the left, there is a very unique sculpture under whose arch you can take a few more cool photos.
5. See the best Hispanic art north of Harlem
New York is one of the most important cultural centres in the world. The museum offer is vast (MoMA, the MET, the Guggenheim Museum...) but not many travellers know that in New York's Upper Manhattan, west of Broadway, is located the Hispanic Society of America, an elegant Beaux Arts-style building that houses the most important collection of Hispanic art in the world outside Spain. Amazing, isn't it?
If you love art and history as much as I do, the Hispanic Society of America will blow you away, with treasures ranging from the Palaeolithic to the 20th century! It has more than 18,000 works in almost every field (sculptures, decorative arts, drawings, paintings...) and its collection includes such important artists as Diego de Velázquez, El Greco, Francisco de Goya, Joaquín Sorolla, Mariano Fortuny, Ignacio Zuloaga and Francisco de Zurbarán.
Why go to this museum?
It is true that due to its location between 155th and 156th streets north of Harlem, the Hispanic Society of America is not part of the traditional route through the iconic museums of New York, but this institution is a jewel that is well worth a visit not only because of the great legacy it houses within its walls but also because admission is free.
And since you're going to Harlem , you can combine it with a tour of Harlem with a Gospel Mass to immerse yourself in the culture and history of this neighbourhood where the African-American community has traditionally lived. You'll kill two birds with one stone!
6. Visit secret waterfalls amidst skyscrapers
On the way to any of the tourist attractions in downtown New York, it's always a joy to discover little treasures that don't normally appear in the guidebooks.
Especially gardens in a city as bustling as this one, where traffic on the streets and people in a hurry are a constant. It is wonderful to find small oases where you can take a break surrounded by water and greenery. Such is the case of Greenacre Park and Paley Park, both in Midtown Manhattan.
Why go to these parks?
What makes these two secret spots in New York different from other parks are two beautiful waterfalls that adorn the surroundings and the sound of the water transports you to a peaceful place where you can escape the hustle and bustle of the city while reading a book or sipping a coffee at one of the cozy little tables available to visitors. The trees in Greenacre Park and Paley Park create the sense of intimacy and serenity that I love about this place.
My favourite time to visit is in spring and autumn, when the flora is at its peak. For example, in autumn the trees were beautiful and decorated with pumpkins so typical of Halloween and Thanksgiving. It makes for some great pictures.
- Greenacre Park: Located in Midtown East at 217 E 51st Street.
- Paley Park: Located between 3 East 53rd Street and Fifth Avenue.
7. Experience a night at the movies in Bryant Park!
Why not spend an afternoon going to the movies in New York during your trip? A good plan for Monday evenings during the summer in the city, when the temperatures get hotter, is to head to Bryant Park to enjoy its outdoor film festival.
This little oasis in the middle of bustling Midtown Manhattan is one of the most beloved gardens by New Yorkers and has a great cultural agenda: from writing workshops and meetings with authors, to talks and film festivals to musical concerts and a long etcetera.
Going to the movies in Bryant Park is one of my favourite summertime activities. In front of the park's famous fountain, a giant screen plays classic films while the audience picnics on the lawn and enjoys the evening lying on the grass.
When does the curtain open?
The viewing area opens at 5PM for people to take their seats but the film starts between 8PM and 9PM. From experience I recommend you go early to get a good spot on the lawn and a popcorn cone, which is free at the entrance if you arrive early.
While you wait for the movie to start you can relax on the grass, read, review what you have left to see of the city or just have a picnic while you enjoy the atmosphere in Bryant Park.
Isabel's Traveller Tip
Did you know that at this festival the audience chooses the film of the night? To participate, follow the @vultur Twitter account, which proposes several options and the one with the most votes will be broadcast.
8. See New York from above!
One of the most original things to do in New York and a unique experience to have during your stay is to take a helicopter ride to get a bird's eye view of the city.
The New York skyline is a spectacle in itself, but seeing it from a helicopter with the adrenaline rush of flying at over 200 kilometres per hour takes the experience to another level.
Normally, the flight operator does not offer helicopter tours beyond 8PM. Depending on the views you are looking for, you can choose a time around noon to see the New York skyline in all its glory or choose a time at the end of the day to watch the sunset and the first lights of the night.
9. Party at the museum!
Fotografiska New York is anything but your average museum. The outside of the building is a marvel, but the inside doesn't have a traditional museum atmosphere - I love it because it's a mix of photography, art, music and nightlife!
It never ceases to amaze because there is no permanent collection - every exhibition is unique! It's a constantly changing, living art space that showcases the latest movements and social issues by emerging and established artists through a vibrant cultural programme.
The elegant interior design, the ambient lighting of the rooms and the soothing ambient music make for a totally different experience every time and a reason to come to Fotografiska New York on every trip to the city.
Isabel's Traveller Tip
Fotografiska New York often organises events with live music and special exhibitions, so you'll enjoy the New York night in a very original way!
10. Kayak the Hudson River
If you want to do something different during your trip to New York and see the skyline from the water without spending a penny, head to Pier 96 on the Hudson River near the Intrepid Air and Space Museum. From late May to October you can kayak and enjoy the Manhattan skyline on board one of these boats. The company offering this free activity is Manhattan Community Boathouse.
How to get involved?
It's easy to participate. You don't have to make a reservation, just go to the dock where the company operates and sign a waiver stating that you know how to swim. After storing your belongings in a locker, you will only need to be assigned a kayak and a paddle to dive into the water.
If it's your first time doing this sporting activity, as it happened to me, don't worry because there are monitors at each dock who will show you how to get in and paddle. They will also give you a life jacket for your safety.
The kayak tours on the Hudson River last 20 minutes but you'll enjoy them a lot. The area where you can paddle is marked by buoys and you are not allowed to leave the area.
Isabel's Traveller Tip
Wear summer clothes, even a swimming costume if you have one. Swimming is not allowed but you will get soaked during the kayak trip. If you want to bring a change of clothes, there are usually changing rooms in the area.