Looking for non touristy things to do in NYC? Then look no further than these top tips for cheaper and less crowded New York City alternatives from a real New Yorker, travel blogger Mike Baron, founder of www.fivepax.com. For a local expert guide to NYC’s best bagels, rooftop bars, skyline views, beaches, delis and diners with singing waiters, read on…
Avoiding the crowds with non touristy NY alternatives
New York City is one of the most visited cities in the world, and for good reason. New York has a plethora of bars, restaurants, museums, and nightlife. It is also a cultural melting pot that epitomizes the founding principles of the United States. While it is certainly safe and welcoming, with the pace and the sheer number of people, it can also be a bit overwhelming to visitors who are not used to the crowds. As a local, I am often asked how to enjoy the city, but avoid the crowds, so I have compiled this list of some of the top attractions in New York City along with non-touristy alternatives.
1. Non touristy things to do in NYC - accommodation
Most people visiting New York City will stay near Times Square, or at least somewhere in Manhattan. Tourists usually target hotbeds such as Knickerbocker in Times Square or the setting for the Great Gatsby in The Plaza overlooking Central Park.
To be sure, these are great options, but non-touristy New York City alternatives include staying in one of the boroughs and using public transportation into Manhattan. Good neighborhoods include Long Island City, Astoria, or Sunnyside in Queens or Williamsburg or downtown Brooklyn. When we have our family visit, unfortunately, our apartment is the size of a shoebox so we have them stay at the Nu Hotel in Brooklyn.
2. Non touristy alternatives for eating - bagels, deli's and diners
There are many good food options in New York City, including many good family-friendly food options for those who need a little extra space for the stroller or large group. Food is really one of the highlights of New York City. While there are definitely a few extremely popular destinations that rightfully earned a following, there are non-touristy New York City alternatives.
Where to find the best NY bagels?
Unless you have a gluten intolerance, you can’t visit New York and not have a bagel. After living in the city for 9 years, I have sadly become a complete and total bagel snob. My 30-year-old self would be disappointed in my snobbery, but the bagels here are so good I just can’t help myself. I have a bagel with cream cheese at least twice per week. I ask how many minutes ago the bagel was made before I decide to toast it or not, and I spent the better part of the last 3 months testing out different bagel shops to decide which one is the best.
So after all this research and extra notches on my belt, I consider myself an expert. A lot of people consider Russ & Daughters the bagel shop in the city. These bagels are good, but I also enjoy any of the following:
Where is the best NYC deli?
New York is known for its delicious Jewish delis. One of the best is Katz’s Delicatessen on Houston Street. Known for enormous corned beef or pastrami sandwiches as well as an infamous scene in the movie When Harry Met Sally, Katz’s is a favorite of locals and tourists alike. A cheaper and less crowded New York City alternative is Sarge’s Deli in the Flatiron district. While you might miss the nostalgia of a movie you may or may not have seen, the portion sizes are the same and there are some who claim Sarge’s pastrami is the best in the city.
Non touristy diners in the Big Apple
One thing I don’t understand is the tourist obsession with diners in the city. This might be because I grew up eating in diners so I can’t differentiate a New York City diner from the roadside diners I’ve frequented as a kid. Either way, I digress. A lot of people will opt for the overwhelming Ellen’s Stardust Diner in Times Square. If you want another over the top option with singing waiters there’s Gayle’s Broadway Rose, but if you want a local favorite, check out either Tom’s in Brooklyn or Cozy Soup and Burger in Greenwich Village, which is literally right next to my office so say “hi” to me if you’re there, or better yet, buy me a beer.
3. New York deserts - smores, milkshsakes and cheesecake
Once again there are a few good iconic options for dessert. The city is filled with unique treat options, from frozen smores to snickerdoodle cookie dough pumpkin ice cream sandwiches. For the best outlandish treat in our book, however, try a milkshake from Black Tap.
Finally, I see a lot of people trek into Brooklyn for a slice of cheesecake from Junior’s. An alternative is Eileen’s Cheesecake in SoHo. I like Eileen’s because SoHo is a really cool fashion hub of the city, but also because it is close to America’s first pizzeria in Lombardi’s. For those traveling without kids, another food option across the street is La Esquina. On the surface, also known as street level, it is a really good taqueria and restaurant, but if you call ahead and are a little lucky, you can also make a reservation at their underground hidden brasserie. SoHo is also the first neighborhood I lived in New York City so it holds a special place for me.
4. Where is the best place to grab a drink in New York?
Rather than force you to choose one over the other, below are a few general suggestions and drink options in the city:
- Rooftop Bars – There are plenty of debates on where to find the best rooftop bar in the city and in a city that has so many tall buildings, there are also plenty of options. It’s hard to go wrong in good weather so your best bet is to just use Google or Yelp to pinpoint a rooftop bar that fits in your itinerary.
- Brooklyn Bowl and Brooklyn Brewery – Conveniently located right next to each other in Williamsburg, one of my favorite suggestions for tourists looking for cheap and less crowded New York City alternatives is to grab a beer (or 4) and take the tour at Brooklyn Brewery, then go enjoy some live music while bowling. If you’re traveling with your kids, you can stop raising your eyebrow right now. Brooklyn Bowl offers a weekend Rock and Roll Playhouse featuring kid-friendly cover bands from some of your favorite artists aimed at the kids. If you are without kids and really want a taste of the hipster scene and want to catch some either cutting edge or potentially weird music, check out Baby’s Alright nearby, which is open until 4:00 a.m.
- Speakeasy – not kid-friendly, but pretty darn cool are speakeasies. Technically a speakeasy is an illicit establishment that sells alcohol, but in New York, these are totally legit businesses that were most likely established during the prohibition. They still maintain the mystique, however, because they are unmarked and often require what feels like sneaking in via a back door, or even a phone booth. PDT or “Please Don’t Tell” is typically the one most people end up at, but I’m also big fan of Attaboy or anywhere else recommended by TimeOut New York.
- Another good New York City alternative that’s not as crowded is Brooklyn Crab. You will be hard-pressed to find tour busses lining up at this local favorite, but there’s plenty of room, great food, and great views to enjoy the city.
5. Best alternative New York sights - the best views in New York?
I’m not going to try to convince anyone to do something instead of Times Square or the Statue of Liberty, but there are a few good non-touristy alternatives to some of the typical tourist destinations in New York City
I see a ton of people target the top of the Empire State Building as a destination, but for a less crowded and non touristy alternative, I highly recommend either the Top of the Rock or the top of One World Observatory. Both are excellent so from a view perspective I can’t recommend one over the other, but Top of the Rock will be less crowded. I actually prefer the view from both of these options over the Empire State Building. From Top of the Rock, you can see Central Park, and see a birds-eye view of the Empire State Building, and see Times Square. From One World Observatory, you get an excellent view of the entire city as well as a cool view of the Statue of Liberty, the bridges, and the outer boroughs
6. Entertainment - alternative New York shows and comedy venues
In addition to, or instead of a Broadway show, consider a comedy show. The Comedy Cellar on Macdougal is a fantastic option to catch an A-List act in an awesome setting. High profile celebrity comics will often crash the last act of the night, and will then stay for a drink at the bar upstairs. Fun fact, Comedy Cellar is located under Cafe Wha, which is where Jimmy Hendrix was discovered. It’s also near my son’s daycare. He’ll never remember it, but Aerosmith was hanging out outside his daycare one day having a smoke while the set was being assembled.
Another option is something bizarre like an interactive dinner at Batsu in the Lower East Side. The act is modeled after Japanese-style variety show where losers undergo a variety of wacky punishments like electric shocks and paintballs to the chest. Guests can elect to participate in the “competitions” but fortunately will avoid all punishment.
7. For New York culture - head to Queens
Chinatown is one of my favorite areas in the city so I have a hard time making this recommendation, but if you want an authentic experience that isn’t targeting tourists, you can also check out Flushing, Queens. There are a lot of great food options. Because it is a more affordable Chinese alcove in the city, it may actually cover more ground than Chinatown in Manhattan.
Instead of hitting up one of the mega museums in the city, again venture into Queens and take a look at the Museum of Moving Image. There’s a really cool Jim Henson exhibit that the kids will love and it won’t be as much of a madhouse as the MET or the MoMA
8. Best non touristy things to do in NYC: parks - head to Brooklyn
For those looking to walk the Highline, another non-touristy option is Hudson River Park. Hudson River has a great green walkway that won’t be nearly as crowded as the Highline and it also has fun activities such as putt-putt at Pier 25 and free kayaking.
9. Best non touristy things to do in NYC - alternative beaches
I really do enjoy Coney Island, but if you’re interested in actually going to the beach, try Rockaway Beach instead. Coney Island is great for a Cyclones game, the aquarium, the amusement park, and most importantly people watching, but beach wise, Rockaway is the best and the local favorite. It’s less crowded and more of a beach vibe.
10. Best way to get around NYC? Ride the Subway
My final recommendation for non touristy NYC things to do is to consider using the subway rather than those hop-on hop-off busses. I’ve been on one of those busses and listened to the facts about random buildings and historical figures. The information added zero value to my life. We also got stuck in traffic and one time the bus was too full to accept new passengers.
At rush hour the subway can be maddening and crowded, but otherwise, it is a great option. Next to riding my bike, which I do not recommend for anyone who values their life, I find the subway is the most reliable method of transportation in the city. It is also the cheapest. At most, it will cost $2.75 per ride, but if you plan on taking the subway more than 12 times, a 7-day unlimited metro card will save you even more.
Thanks to Mike for these insider top tips. Looking forward to exploring some of these non touristy things to do in NYC myself next summer, especially the bagels!
Do you have any other hidden gems for us out of towners? If so, please share in the comments below!
About Mike Baron
I’m a software engineer and father of three young boys. I’m lucky enough to work closely with a study abroad program at a large university in New York City so I get a healthy dose of culture at home and get to travel to amazing places for work. When I’m not staring at a screen trying to figure out why a semi-colon is causing an entire system to malfunction, I enjoy spending time with my family outdoors immersed in culture and nature.
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