21 Actually Cool Things to Do in NYC This Fall

Your new autumn plans include forest bathing in Green-Wood Cemetery, apple cider donuts, pumpkin picking in Staten Island, and more.

With the city deep into Phase 4 of reopening, New Yorkers are getting more comfortable closing our laptops and venturing back out into the world. When you put on your mask and step outside your apartment (Ahh! Doesn’t that feel nice?), you’ll find that the city is full of creative ways to keep your distance and do something actually cool.

This fall, you can run the New York City Marathon from anywhere; host your own feast of San Gennaro on Little Italy’s closed-to-traffic Mulberry Street; kick off Pumpkin Spice season with a trip to a real live pumpkin farm on Staten Island; or still grab a great slice of pizza all over town. We’ve rounded up the best ways to explore the city IRL or online so you can stay six feet apart while having the best fall ever.

Get a sneak peek of the city's architectural secrets

Open House New York, which lets New Yorkers peek inside some of the city’s most amazing (and off-limits) architecture for one weekend every fall, is shifting this year’s festival to offer unprecedented access even in the time of coronavirus. With a combination of virtual tours, citywide scavenger hunts, hyperlocal itineraries, and self-guided outdoor adventures, you’ll get an up-close look at NYC’s most incredible spots -- right from the comfort of your own apartment, if you’d prefer. 

Watch the New York Film Festival go virtual

The show will go on at the annual New York Film Festival, which brings films and filmmakers to the city every fall. This year, it’ll be a hybrid of virtual and in-person events, allowing you to take part in the 58-year tradition while staying safe and socially distanced. They’ve also added new folks to their curatorial team, ensuring diverse programming with films by and starring people of color. Catch a short film or a documentary, listen in on a panel, or watch a live performance -- the New York Film Festival makes it all happen.

Kick off Halloween season with a trip to the cemetery

Want to up the spooky factor this fall? While 2020 seems like it was frightening enough, there are still plenty of scares to be had. Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery -- the final resting place of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Leonard Bernstein, and “Boss” Tweed, among many other New York notables -- is great for forest bathing and has both virtual and IRL events to put you in the Halloween mood. Join a Zoom meeting of the “Death Café” or BYO cocktail to the cemetery grounds for a happy hour with a historical tour of the cemetery’s spooky secrets. 

Have your own feast of San Gennaro

Little Italy
For only the second time since 1926, the Feast of San Gennaro has been canceled this year. Started by immigrants from Naples in Little Italy, it was a small gathering on Mulberry Street to break bread and raise funds for needy neighbors. As the feast evolved, it turned into an 11-day street fair in September complete with sugar-dusted zeppole and spicy sausages served from street vendors. Even though the feast is canceled, you can DIY your own celebration through the city’s Open Streets program -- Mulberry Street from Broome to Hester will be closed to car traffic through the end of October, so you can eat your way through Little Italy like it’s 1926. 

Hop the Staten Island ferry to go pumpkin picking

Staten Island
Take the ferry to Staten Island’s historic Decker Farm for tractor-pulled autumnal hay rides, an Instagram-worthy stroll through a pumpkin patch, and a bungee-controlled “pumpkin chucker” to release all your anger at 2020 by smashing rotten pumpkins into smithereens. Since the pumpkin picking at the farm is all outside, it’s easy to keep your social distance from the rest of the farm-goers while looking cute in your infinity scarf, booties, and Pumpkin Spice-colored mask.

Get a new view of the island of Manhattan

Chelsea Piers
Take a cruise along the Hudson River for an autumnal alternative to walking, biking, or driving the city’s streets. From Manhattan, you can board a 1920s-style yacht or white-sailed schooner to make your way up to the Hudson Valley with the crisp fall breeze in your hair. See the George Washington Bridge, the Cloisters, and the Little Red Lighthouse from a new vantage point -- all while sipping a hot cup of cocoa or coffee to celebrate the end of the summer of 2020. 

Pound apple cider donuts at the farmers market

Ready for fall’s first taste of apple cider donuts? Score a greasy paper bag of the cinnamon-sugared treats at your local green market, where you can wash them down with a fresh-pressed jug of cider. There’s bound to be a farmers market in your ‘hood -- GrowNYC, the non-profit bringing fresh fruits and veggies to the streets, makes it easy to find the closest one. While the peas and peaches of spring and summer may be finished, make decorative gourd season your next seasonal leisure.

Run the NYC marathon… virtually

Didn’t train to run 26.2 miles this year? That’s okay -- the NYC Marathon is going virtual for 2020. Anyone can register to run for free, allowing you to complete (or not complete, depending on how your quarantine exercise regimen is going...) a marathon anywhere, at any time, between October 17 and November 1. There’s no time limit for the marathon, but you must complete the full 26.2 miles in a single go to be a Finisher. If not, well, why not run for a few miles and then meet your friends for socially distanced brunch?

Sip a pumpkin beer at your local brewery

With their giant outdoor spaces, the city’s breweries offer some of the best places for socially distanced drinking. Or -- if you prefer to drink in peace -- you can order your brews for pickup or delivery and get toasted on your very own coach. Fall brings some of the year’s best beers, with pumpkin ales; malty Oktoberfest lagers; and rich, dark Weizenbocks. Pull on a cozy sweater, make a date with somebody new, and toast to the first post-COVID cuffing season in NYC. 

Get weird at the annual Village Halloween parade

Greenwich Village
While trick-or-treating is probably canceled (just think of all those doorbells you’d need to touch!), the Village Halloween Parade is still on. This year will mark the 47th anniversary of the outdoor event, which brings New Yorkers of all stripes (and spots, and wings, and claws…) to the streets of Greenwich Village. You can march in the parade with the puppeteers and bands, or simply watch from the sidelines -- either way, it’s the perfect excuse to build an outfit around your mask.

Nom Wah Tea Parlor
Nom Wah Tea Parlor | Paul Wagtouicz

Stroll Chinatown and make-up for all of the meals you’ve missed

Chinatown has been devastated by drops in foot traffic and business since the onset of COVID-19. Help save the historic neighborhood, now back and better than ever with plenty of outdoor seating, by ordering up as much as you can through takeout, delivery, or al fresco dining. 

Go for a socially distant hike in your local park

While the city’s parks can get packed, simply head to the road less travelled during off hours (in the middle of the weekday? early in the morning?) for a socially distant hike. With plenty of green space in every borough, our lesser-known parks have miles and miles of hiking trails for a safe taste of the great outdoors. Pick a path in your local park, wear a mask, and get some fresh air in your lungs and some sunshine on your shoulders.

Gitano Garden of Love
Courtesy of Gitano

Have a cocktail in the great outdoors of outdoor dining

While indoor dining has yet to resume, outdoor dining is here until at least the end of October and will also be returning in 2021. Find a patio, a sidewalk, a rooftop, or a backyard, and order up a meal -- and a cocktail -- that you didn’t have to make yourself. With the city’s Open Streets program, restaurants have taken over real estate that used to belong to car traffic, making all of NYC seem a little bit like Paris. Just wear your mask when you’re not eating or drinking, okay?

Stream an off-Broadway show

Some of the greatest minds behind NYC’s off-Broadway scene have brought their programming online. The Public Theater streams archived shows on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays; La MaMa is hosting online happenings and artist talks; and the Theater for the New City performs live on their website every weekend. The city’s stages might be dark for a while, but you can help keep them alive by streaming, donating what you can, and enjoying the performances from home.

Fornino | Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Try a slice of the city’s best pizzas

Never managed to score a table at Lucali? Now’s your chance to eat some of the city’s best pies without worrying if you’ll get marinara on your “going out” clothes. Order Beyoncé’s favorite pizza for takeout from Lucali, get a couple slices of The Mootz from Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop, score a classic Sicilian square pie from L&B Spumoni Gardens, or go for a new classic from Roberta’s or Emily. Order them one at a time, or -- for the ultimate pizza showdown -- get ‘em all at once for an at-home taste test

Toast to the city with an everything bagel

Multiple locations
Remind yourself of the best the city has to offer with a whirlwind tour of takeout bagels. Eat your weight in lox, schmear, and poppy seeds with takeout or delivery from Tompkins Square Bagels, Russ & Daughters, and/or Black Seed Bagels. If you decide to eat ‘em all in one day, just drink a lot of water, OK? Otherwise you’ll end up as salted as that gravlax you pounded.

Get a little weird with House of Yes

Known for its freaky parties, wild costumes, and metric tons of glitter, House of Yes has transformed their signature getdowns for the era of social distancing. At their outdoor lounge, you’ll find DJs spinning, cocktails flowing, and food to keep you from getting so drunk you forget that a pandemic is still raging. Just remember -- it’s not a dance party, so be sure to keep your hands and hips six feet away from everybody else.

Catch new releases from the comfort of your couch

Sick of streaming the same old sitcoms? See what the city’s cinemas are streaming online. BAM is playing fan favorites and new releases; Film Forum’s “Virtual Cinema” offers their signature eclectic mix of programming; and the Angelika is sending new releases straight to your home. You could keep clicking around Netflix, but why not let the experts show you something the algorithm would never offer up?

Cross the Brooklyn Bridge

City Hall/Brooklyn Bridge Park
While this tourist destination is usually crowded, these strange times have made it strangely empty. Grab a sandwich from Bread & Spread at your starting point in DUMBO, then reward yourself with a cocktail from Hole in the Wall on the other end before turning back around. Make sure to bring a camera to capture the skyline and the once-in-a-lifetime view of the quiet bridge.

Spend an afternoon gallery hopping

As the city’s galleries begin to reopen, you can make a reservation to ooh and aah over art while social distancing. Lehmann Maupin, David Zwirner, and Metro Pictures are all open for gawking as museums remain closed for now (but will start reopening next week with 25% occupancy). Although the pandemic has led some galleries to close their doors permanently -- Gavin Brown’s enterprise will be sorely missed -- this is still a city of art and artists, and the pandemic is sure to inspire more great work to come.

Keep the river on your right... or left

Brooklyn Bridge Park/Brooklyn Heights Promenade, Hudson River Greenway
Take a socially distant walk or bike ride for a sunny morning or afternoon spent outdoors. Bring your phone for a couple of sweet ‘grams along either the Hudson and East Rivers from Manhattan and Brooklyn, respectively. Both have dedicated cycling and walking paths so you can be safe from cars and other bike riders and pedestrians. (Just wear a mask, please!)

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Rachel Pelz lives and writes in Brooklyn.