The must-see list for the one-day visitor to New York — especially the first-timer — is mind-boggling. Don’t fret; you’ll return. We’re assuming you’re well aware of the major attractions: Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art (better known as MoMA). We’re here to guide you to the top 10 places where tourists don’t normally go (though, let’s be honest, they’re everywhere), places where New Yorkers live and play.
1. Central Park
Give yourself a gentle introduction to the city by exploring its beloved, natural gem. Though Central Park may not exactly be free of tourists, there are ways to avoid the herds.
Designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, Central Park is home to 843 acres of verdant views, vibrant flora and hidden histories. The best way to see it all? By bicycle. For an early morning jaunt, head to the park anytime after 6 a.m. You can rent a bike for two hours and go solo for $20, or you can book a two-hour expedition through Central Park Bike Tours, which takes off at 9 a.m. and costs about $47 per person. With well-marked routes of 6.1, 5.2 or 1.7 miles, you can take your time cycling through the hilly terrain, stopping to see the model sailboats at the Conservatory Water, the Alice in Wonderland sculpture, Belvedere Castle atop Vista Rock, or the Bow Bridge — one of the park’s most photographed locations. Completed in 1862, the Bow Bridge’s cast-iron arch stretches 60 ft. over the lake, connecting Cherry Hill and the Ramble.
While you pedal along, it’s more than likely you’ll hear a guitar strumming in the distance. Follow the music and pay homage at the Imagine Mosaic, a tribute to sometime New York resident John Lennon, in the park’s Strawberry Fields. Following your bike ride, treat yourself to Sarabeth’s Central Park South, where you can gorge on a range of quirky specialties, including lemon-ricotta pancakes and pumpkin waffles.
2. West Village Stroll
This neighborhood of quaint brownstones clustered along tree-lined cobblestone streets remains virtually unchanged since the 19th century. You’ll need a map to navigate the puzzling geography — how does West 4th Street intersect with West 10th Street, exactly? — as it’s one of the few areas in Manhattan that strays from the orderly street grid. Better, though, to just wander aimlessly. Highlights include the Jefferson Market Courthouse, a former women’s detention center that once held Mae West, and the shops along Bleecker St. and Commerce St. — the most beautiful block-long side street in NYC. Ignore the temptation to join the curiously long line outside Magnolia Bakery (they’re queuing for cupcakes — repeat, cupcakes). Head two blocks west instead to the Spotted Pig, a bustling gastropub where you can recharge your batteries with a cask-conditioned ale.
3. Film Forum
New York is a film-lover’s town and Film Forum is Mecca for the city’s cinephiles. See here the movies you may otherwise only read about in the New York Times. Smart programming ranges from provocative indie features and documentaries to the best foreign art cinema culled from the world’s top film festivals. The always-entertaining repertory calendar is a mix of the de rigeuer (Woody Allen retrospectives), the artsy (Godard’s ’60s) and the audacious (Pam Grier blaxploitation festival). Try the concession stand’s lemon-poppy sponge cake.
New Yorkers love to argue about the best pizza, with Di Fara’s, John’s and Lombardi’s being among the primary contenders. We won’t settle that score here, but if you have only 24 hours you can’t go wrong with Grimaldi’s, a coal-fired pizzeria under the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. Not only will you get a memorable pie, you’ll also get a memorable view of Manhattan from one of the oldest — and most picturesque — parts of Brooklyn. Not to mention a jukebox filled with classics by Frank Sinatra, who, legend has it, had Grimaldi’s pies flown to him in Vegas.
5. Empire State Building
If you must visit an ultra-touristy site, the ESB is the one. The stately deco architecture rivals the nearby Chrysler Building for Best in Class honors and it is, once again, New York’s tallest structure. The view from the 86th-floor observation deck is breathtaking. You won’t be the only one who’s decided to visit, so prepare to wait in line; to avoid the throngs, the best times to come are at 8:30 a.m. or during lunch and dinner hours, Monday through Wednesday. Tickets are steep, but worth it: $22 for adults; $45 for an “express pass” that whisks you pass the hordes. For an extra $15 you can buy a ticket to the more intimate 102nd-floor observation deck. Buy your ticket online to reduce waiting-in-line time.
6. Little Branch
You met someone on the flight into LaGuardia. You flirted. You exchanged numbers. Now what? Slide into a cozy booth and get better acquainted at Little Branch (open Monday–Saturday 7 p.m.–3 a.m.), a dimly lit cocktail lounge that practically whispers tryst. Mixology is a serious study at the third establishment of the famed drink slinger, Sasha Petraske. The suspender-clad bartenders lovingly mix and pour a tantalizing menu of classic cocktails over ice chipped from blocks. With live jazz performances Sundays through Thursdays, you may very well be seduced — by the bar.
7. P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center
MoMA is home to the modern masters. But head to MoMa’s cutting-edge kid sister across the East River to see the virtuosos of tomorrow. Located in a refurbished public school, P.S. 1 consistently mounts challenging exhibitions from the world’s most provocative artists. Don’t miss James Turrell’s transcendent installation, Meeting (seasonal, and weather permitting), and, in summer, the always-changing architectural garden. Also, on summer Saturdays, hit the early evening Warm Up session, a free weekly dance party that’s become a must-stop on the city’s nightlife calendar.
8. Bergdorf Goodman
Now that Barneys — still a stellar place to shop — has become a national mini-chain, Bergdorf’s is the sole remaining New York–centric luxe department store. Even if you can’t afford a thing, it’s still fun to browse and dream. But if you can, rev up your credit card. For the ladies, an all-star roster of couture designers is on hand, from Alexander McQueen to Zac Posen. Tight on time? Arrange for a personal shopper to help you out. Guys get their own store across the street, which is no less exquisite — and no less expensive.
9. Bowery Ballroom
Hands down the best music spot in New York, Bowery Ballroom should be visiting music-lovers’ first stop. Up-and-coming national acts with indie-rock leanings occupy the two-level music venue, home to the city’s best sound system. The downstairs bar is a great place to warm up before the show. The Ballroom is the crown jewel of the Bowery Presents chain of local venues, which includes the Music Hall of Williamsburg (the Ballroom’s Brooklyn twin), Mercury Lounge (local bands, smaller national acts), Terminal 5 and Webster Hall (both of which book bigger touring bands). Among them, there’s something for everyone.
10. Grand Central Terminal
Take the express back to a bygone era. Grand Central Terminal — don’t call it Grand Central Station — is a living, bustling temple to New York’s illustrious past. Gaze at the celestial ceiling mural above the vast main concourse. Slurp some Kumamotos at the legendary Oyster Bar downstairs, and wash them down with a Manhattan at the swank Campbell Apartment. Tell a secret to your partner in the Whispering Gallery: stand at the end of either Oyster Bar ramp and whisper into the wall; you’ll be heard way across on the other side. Mingle with the commuters in the gourmet culinary market. Explore the “secret” elevated passageways for a spectacular view of the concourse. Even if you have nowhere to go you can spend hours in the 100-year-old depot and never get bored.