We’ve all been there -- your friends or family are coming to NEW YORK CITY and you’ve got absolutely no idea what to do with them. So you start to panic and then you wonder -- what do New Yorkers actually do with their free time? What do YOU do with your free time? Have you truly availed yourself of the best restaurants, bars, parks, and museums this city has to offer? Have you ever left your apartment, ever, or do you just go to work and then go home and watch Netflix every day? Is the Statue of Liberty a myth???
Everybody has needs. Your guests need to have thebest trip ever and you need to make it look like you actually know what’s going on around here. So we’ve rounded up the best places to hear live music, go dancing, eat dumplings, imbibe, and give them something to write home about. Some are classic, some are obscure, and not one involves going to Times Square. You may even want to save a few for yourself.
These Roller Coasters Break National and World Records
$-$$$ Williamsburg, Park Slope Even if you managed to taste everything at last season’s Smorgasburg, this year’s edition is worth a second look. NYC’s premier outdoor eating and drinking destination has 25 new vendors for 2019. Now’s your chance to try fluffy Japanese-style pancakes, sweet potato cinnamon rolls, kombucha popsicles, and photogenic sweet treats all under one roof.
Free - $$ Downtown Manhattan; Sunset Park, Booklyn; Flushing, Queens Shops, groceries, and (of course) restaurants abound in each of NYC’s three biggest Chinatowns. Brooklyn’s Fei Long Food Court is a cornucopia of inexpensive, yet delectable dumplings, roasted meats, and noodle soups. A stroll around Flushing is best concluded at the Queens Botanical Gardens. If you take Manhattan, tell me what street compares to Mott Street?
Keep the River on Your Right... or Left
Free - $$ Brooklyn Bridge Park/Brooklyn Heights Promenade, Hudson River Greenway Easily-accessible and budget-friendly as you please, a long river walk or bike ride is an engaging way to spend a sunny morning or afternoon. Highly Instagrammable views are plentiful along either the Hudson and East Rivers from Manhattan and Brooklyn, respectively. Both have dedicated cycling and walking paths, piers where you can play or take a breather, and some enticing food and drink options. Bring a scarf or jacket for when it gets breezy.
The Cloisters/Fort Tryon Park/Inwood Hill Park
Free - $$ Manhattan If you needed more evidence that New York City has everything, here’s a medieval castle. The Cloisters is a branch of The Met, housing, among other fabulous works art, medieval tapestries. Enter through Fort Tryon Park's lush gardens and you’ll glimpse breathtaking views, worthy of their own visit.
Wave ‘Hi’ to Wave Hill
$ The Bronx Wave Hill is one of NYC’s most beautiful parks. Hop the Metro North to Riverdale or take the 1 train to the end of the line and catch the free shuttle to discover rolling hills, wildflowers, waterlilies, and dramatic views of the Palisades. Guided tours, concerts, and year-round art and nature programming makes Wave Hill enticing any time, but it’s particularly lovely during the spring. It may be somewhat off-the-beaten-path, but trust us: it’s worth it.
$-$$ Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn NYC has more world cuisine than you’ll find anywhere else in the country. Drop the burger, throw that hotdog into the river, and sample some of our best. Dig into Japanese chicken-skin skewers at Yakitori Taisho. Eschew utensils for tasty injera flatbread at Ethiopian Awash. Bite into flaky Balkan pies await at Ukus. Let your mouth water over Dominican pork Pernil at Puerto Viejo. Delight in West Indian spices at Melting Pot Cuisine. Or graze the globe outdoors on a Saturday evening at the Queens Night Market.
$$-$$$ Citywide That stuff you’ve been eating at the mall food court -- that’s not pizza. If you want to taste why, learn some history, and traverse a neighborhood, a guided tour through the landscape of New York’s (second) most iconic food is a charming way to learn what all the fuss is about -- and why it’s 100% warranted. For public tours, you can either hoof it or take a bus. Private tours are also available by request.
See where theater lives
$-$$$ Manhattan, Brooklyn Dinner, drinks, and theater makes a quintessential NYC evening, but why shell-out for overproduced Broadway schlock when there’s fantastic stuff happening off-Broadway at places like The Public Theater (which hosts Shakespeare in the Park starting in May) and Saint Anne’s Warehouse? Off-off-Broadway (yes, that’s real) productions peopled by passionate up-and-comers at places like The Flea, La MaMa, and Theater for the New City are where lot of your favorite stars cut their teeth -- you never know who you might see.
$$ Citywide As old a New York tradition as complaining about transit, an afternoon of Russian/Jewish/Turkish steam rooms, swimming pools, saunas, hot tubs, ice-cold plunges, and tea will keep your body and mind limber. Be advised: some of these establishments are … traditional, and uphold strict (sometimes religiously-based) rules regarding who gets to use what amenity when. Schlep to Russian Baths of Brooklyn, the East Village’s Russian and Turkish Baths, or downtown’s Wall Street Bath & Spa.
$$ Citywide As fun and goofy or intense and competitive as you want to make it, bowling is a perfect date, family activity, or night out with friends. There are alleys all over, most serve booze, and they all provide ample opportunity for a little physical activity. Queens’ Whitestone Lanes is open 24/7, Brooklyn’s Melody Lanes is an institution, Gutter Bar is bowling à la hipster, and in Manhattan Bowlmor Lanes is so, so extra.
$$-$$$$ Citywide Skip the ‘I [heart] NY’ apparel and invest in a souvenir that will last a lifetime. Some of the world’s finest tattooers proudly ply their trade in NYC. Make an appointment for a few hours of custom work or walk in for some quick flash, but don’t just waltz into a shop on West 4th expecting to live without regret. Nice Tattoo is a chic Brooklyn up-and-comer, Manhattan’s Kings Avenue boasts amazing guest artists, and there’s no finer American Traditional work than at Bushwick’s Allied Tattoo. Remember to tip your artist.
$$-$$$ Citywide Summer isn’t the only time to gather around a sizzling grill, and KBBQ is way more capital-F fun than a typical restaurant. K-Town is the quintessential locale, and is always a safe bet, but there are plenty of outer-borough spots worth a trip. Snag a post-meal private karaoke room at Gowanus’ Insa, polish off some char-grilled kalbi at Mapo Korean BBQ in Murray Hill, or get your fix any 24/7 at Miss Korea Barbecue.
$-$$ Citywide This is not family Monopoly night -- it’s tabletop gaming improved by adult-sized egos and booze, should you choose. Get down with classics like MtG or DnD, or, guided by wonderfully patient staff, try something new like Splendor or Eldritch Horror. Twenty-Sided Store makes tabletop gaming cool in Williamsburg, playtime at The Uncommons in Greenwich Village is bolstered by craft beer, and Brooklyn Strategist welcomes players with a café, a massive selection, and spacious tables.
$-$$$$ and beyond Citywide Tourists go gaga for those sweeping skyline views, and even real New Yorkers appreciate the genuine pleasure of a cocktail on a sunny rooftop. You might pay $15 for a so-so drink, but the Instagram will be priceless. Once you score a seat, it’ll be hard to give up, so drink slow or prepare to spend a king’s ransom.
Free-$$ Citywide Art for art’s sake is fine, but art for likes’ sake has its place, too. Catch culture (and maybe a few new followers) at the city’s most photogenic cultural institutions like the Museum of the Moving Image and the New York Hall of Science, or stay on the cutting edge of exhibitions at pop-up newcomers like Color Factory.
Eat old-school European food at a Brooklyn throwback
$ Williamsburg Breaking bread together is among the best ways to spark cultural exchange, and Gottlieb’s Restaurant has been hosting the Orthodox Jewish community and curious strangers since 1962. The kosher, meat-forward menu dishes up matzo ball soup, pastrami, and other Jewish staples that are as delicious as they are unhealthy. Slightly more obscure finds include cherry soup, and a sweet noodle pie called kugel. Don’t plan your visit for a Saturday, which is the Jewish Sabbath. Gottlieb’s will be closed.
$$ Midtown East Strap on a pair of goggles and indulge in a variety of virtual realities at VR World -- a multi-level futuristic gaming mecca where $39 buys two hours of game-play. Become a fruit ninja and slice up produce with a virtual sword, or sweat buckets boxing with a virtual opponent. Sick of your boss? Let out your rage in a job simulator game where it’s OK to willfully ignore her instructions. Make-believe will make you thirsty, so sip libations from the actual reality bar.
Elevate your karaoke game with a dance party
$ Upper East Side Once you’ve exhausted every spot on our karaoke guide, check out Iggy’s for something a little different. From the outside, it looks like any other Second Avenue dive. But inside, you’ll find a rollicking singalong dance party. Wannabe rappers, rock stars, and pop divas entertain the crowd with alcohol-fueled, off-key warbling and hilarious moves. Boozy karaoke is old hat in NYC, but Iggy’s animated, high-octane amateur superstars make it stand out from the pack.
$ Park Slope Get ready to rumble with Brooklyn’s sharpest Bingo players -- longtime residents of the borough with little sympathy for confused hipster interlopers. Fifth Avenue Bingo Hall may not coddle rookies, but be brave and you just might win some cash in this nondescript Park Slope storefront.
$$ St. George Take the beautiful (and free!) boat ride from lower Manhattan to Staten Island, and you’ll be rewarded with meals prepared by “nonnas of the world.” Enoteca Maria's kitchen taps grandmothers from locales like Poland, Colombia, Japan, and Egypt. Each nonna informs the eatery’s ever-changing menu with her unique fare, and even a little love. Cooking nerds can sign up for free daily afternoon cooking classes with the guest chefs to learn how to make meals from their home countries.
Free Meatpacking District A perpetually packed museum may not sound ideal, but you can catch the Whitney’s rotating contemporary American art galleries for free on Friday evenings. (Or pay what you wish, a fancy phrase for free.) Once you’ve made the rounds, blow all that cash you saved at Untitled, the museum’s restaurant. Doubly impress your guests and arrive via the High Line.
$ Williamsburg By day, Baby’s All Right is a solid brunch spot with lots of boozy specials. By night, it turns into one of the city’s coolest live-music venues, with new performers every night and tickets starting at just $10 per show. If your guests need any more convincing, let them know the floor is etched with a replica of the maze from The Shining.
Walk the Brooklyn Bridge
Free City Hall/Brooklyn Bridge Park Yes, it can get crowded. But with great eating and drinking options on either end (The Dead Rabbit in FiDi and Nom Wah in Chinatown; Juliana’s in Dumbo), not to mention those skyline views, this traditionally touristy activity is actually worth revisiting.
Free Rockefeller Center It may sound a little touristy, but being part of a live studio audience is kind of fun. Not only can you tell everyone you know to look for a cameo of your semi-obscured face on tonight’s episode of The Tonight Show but there’s just something exciting about watching TV being made (especially when you’re doing it for free). While Saturday Night Live tickets must be procured long in advance, Late Night and The Tonight Show both have much wider availability and rehearsal tickets are available day-of.
$ Astoria Heading out to Astoria to visit this media-focused museum is not only a great way to circumvent the lines at the Met, it’s also the best place to learn the history of movies, TV, video games, and other digital media. Not even your most museum-loathing friend will be bored here. And since you’re in the neighborhood, check out some of the best Greek food in the city.
$ Multiple Locations Ever imagine taking a yoga class in total darkness, at 90-degree temps, all while hip-hop music is blasting? If so, Y7 just made your yogi dreams come true. Started in 2013, this innovative yoga studio is just hitting its stride, and with classes starting at $25 a session it’s the perfect fitness trend to try with visiting family or friends.
$ Various locations The weather in New York rarely cooperates, so kill a day indoors with drinking and gaming at one of NYC’s many arcade bars. Ace Bar and Fat Cat are at the top of our list, but Full Circle Bar, Barcade, and Troy Liquor Bar are all great choices for a day of beers, Skee-Ball, and Ms. Pac-Man.
$-$$ Gowanus This is as close as you’ll get to resort vibes near the Gowanus Canal. Striped cabanas line the back wall, palm trees teeter on the edges of gleaming shuffleboard lanes, and ridiculous selfie props (leis, straw hats, novelty sunglasses) abound. Visitors needn’t be proficient in grandma’s favorite cruise activity to enjoy the enormous space, well-poured cocktails, or DJ sets, but, here’s a secret: Shuffleboard is actually fun.
Discover Grand Central Terminal
$ Midtown East Between the people watching and the wide variety of shopping, dining, and drinking options, there’s plenty to do at Grand Central. Take a tour of the history-rich terminal, grab some oysters and martinis at Grand Central Oyster Bar, check out the “Whispering Gallery,” and wonder why Penn Station still hasn’t caught up to this.
$ Chelsea Chelsea Piers has lots of great activities, but the indoor rock wall is convenient, cheap, and seriously fun. Tough enough to be a challenge but still friendly for beginners, instructor-led climbing sessions are available every Wednesday and Thursday night for just $25 a person -- a small price to pay, considering you’d probably just be drinking otherwise.
$ Bushwick If your companion is fixated on going out -- like out out -- Bushwick’s underground party venue turned bar/club/aerial performance space will hit the spot. This place has everything. There will be live music. There will be costumes. There will be trapeze artists. There will be glitter. Get your tickets in advance and costume yourself accordingly.
Free Chelsea Fancy New York City art galleries have become pop culture tropes. Some rube makes a faux pas that ultimately teaches scenester snobs a lesson they never saw coming. But our art spaces are actually quite welcoming. The Chelsea galleries open their doors to the public on Thursdays, and, get this, often even serve wine. Take a drink every time you hear someone say, “My kid coulda done this.”
Grab a sandwich and people-watch in Tompkins Square Park
$ Alphabet City While Washington Square Park or Central Park may be at the top of the tourist itinerary, Tompkins is a lesser-tapped resource almost exclusively filled with neighbors walking through or picnicking in nice weather. Grab a bagel with rainbow sprinkle cream cheese at Tompkins Square Bagels, a spicy Asian-fusion sandwich at Sunny & Annie’s Deli, or some snacks from Ray’s Candy Store and pick a bench to watch East Villagers (and not infrequently, celebrities!).
Dumpling hop in downtown Flushing
$ Flushing People love associating New York with extravagant prices, so give your guests a much-appreciated shock when they bite into the best dumplings of their lives for only a couple bucks. Stop at White Bear for the wontons in chili oil ($5.50), Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao for Shanghai shao mai ($3), Tianjin Handmade Dumplings for assorted meat and veggie dumplings (12 for $5) and sniff your way to the rest of the day’s cheap eats spots.
$$ Midtown East We love brunch around here. The only socially acceptable time to eat cake for breakfast and get drunk before noon, it’s like church for New Yorkers. And when you want your chilaquiles with a side of razzle-dazzle, it’s drag brunch time, baby! The Broadway Brunch at Lips on East 56th Street is one part Great White Way, one part eggs any way, and a whole lotta fun.
$$$ Chelsea Not for the faint of heart, Sleep No More is an immersive theatrical reimagining of Macbeth set in Chelsea’s McKittrick Hotel. You’ll don a paper mask and follow mysterious characters, explore vacant hotel rooms, and wander in and out of scenes. Stumble upon a woman shivering in a bathtub, a lovers’ quarrel, or a blood-soaked murder scene. It’s a zag from the typical Disneyfied Broadway show.
$ - $$ Financial District Crowds, lines, and selfie-sticks are to be expected when visiting One WTC, but these minor annoyances will be worth every minute spent atop the highest building in the Western Hemisphere. The observatory isn’t just a view, it’s an all-out experience -- one that’ll leave your guests (and even you, no matter how jaded you may be) practically speechless.
Listen to live jazz
$ - $$ Multiple locations The city is packed with amazing venues to catch live jazz -- among them, Jazz Standard, Arthur’s Tavern, and Minton's. But the one you absolutely need to take your guests to is The Django. Nestled into Tribeca’s Roxy Hotel, its vaulted ceilings, vintage lighting, and excellent craft cocktails make for an experience that feels very old New York.
$ - $$ Various locations NYC is home to more food halls and markets than ever before, meaning you can likely find one in whatever part of town you’re already in and give your guests a tour of all different kinds of cuisines. Be sure to check out Brooklyn's Dekalb Market Hall, featuring an off-shoot of beloved Jewish deli Katz's, plus other must-try vendors selling things like pierogi and cake push-pops.
$-$$ Multiple locations in Brooklyn If you’re sick of playing tour guide, check out the showtimes at Williamsburg’s Nitehawk Cinema, Bushwick’s Syndicated, or Downtown Brooklyn’s Alamo Drafthouse, all of which show both new releases and classic movies with chef-created menus (not just butter-sauce covered popcorn) and cocktails served while you watch.
$$ Williamsburg Unlock the secret to those crazy tasty Momofuku cakes with this user-friendly baking class based on Christina Tosi’s best-selling Milk Bar cookbook. Learn how to build the perfectly layered masterpiece and turn scraps into cake truffles, and then take home every delicious morsel you bake.
$$ Astoria This beast of New York beer halls doesn’t just offer a great excuse to check out Astoria, it’s also a certified beer mecca that really celebrates its founders' Czech and Slovak heritage. Enjoy a huge variety of brews for $18 a pitcher, and be sure to order some authentic brats and kielbasa off the perpetually fired-up grill.
$$ Flatiron Boasting one of the most extensive whiskey selections on the East Coast, The Flatiron Room is THE place to get your brown booze on, one shot at a time. Finally learn the difference between whiskey and rye from educated bartenders and their guide-like menus, then dive in with one of the half-dozen tasting flights.
$$ Flushing Nothing takes the stress out of some mandatory tourist activities (they just hadto see Times Square) like a day spent in saunas, whirlpools, and maybe a massage. Head to Spa Castle, where a day pass is $40 on weekdays and $50 on weekends, for unlimited access to three floors (and a rooftop) full of spa facilities from 8am-midnight.
$$ Red Hook Taking the ferry to Red Hook is an activity in itself -- with its close-enough views of the Statue of Liberty -- but the real treat is spending the better part of a day strolling through this tiny neighborhood to shop at the boutiques on Van Brunt Street, taste locally made wine at the Red Hook Winery, fill up on seafood and play a round of mini-golf at Brooklyn Crab, and catch a concert or exhibit at Pioneer Works.
$$ Greenpoint Once housed in a warehouse, the newest rendition of the Brooklyn Bazaar, located inside an old event hall, features a full-service restaurant hawking buckets of fried chicken; a bar; a stage for nightly events including concerts, comedy, and free movie screenings; a reservable karaoke room; and more attractions, all in one very Brooklyn-feeling dark space.
$$ Chelsea Suburban visitors may be all about the BYOB wine and paint nights, but New Yorkers have one up on the poorly mimicked Van Gogh recreations no one really wants anyway. Book a session at Craft Jam where you can learn to make embroidered wall art, macrame plant hangers, and more on-trend crafts you’ll actually want to keep -- or be proud to gift.
Get fancy with a super-posh high tea
$$ - $$$ Multiple locations You’re classy, right? Right. So why not show off your sophistication with a classic high tea? There are options to suit any number of budgets (Tea & Sympathy and Bosie Tea Parlor in the West Village are among the most affordable) but if you really want to impress your guests, go big with splurge-worthy teas at The Plaza, The Pierre, or The Ritz-Carlton.
$$ - $$$ Multiple locations Dining out is one of the best things about visiting NYC, which is why a diverse tasting menu should definitely be on your to-do list (especially when there are actually several great ones for less than $100). The Lower East Side’s newly Michelin-starred Contra has a nightly rotating seven-course menu for just $89.
$ Red Hook Cult favorite ice cream purveyor Ample Hills in July opened a brand-new, 15,000-square-foot factory in Red Hook -- its 10th, and largest, NYC location. Browse the interactive confectionary museum while you savor butter pecan brittle in a sugar cone (brown sugar ice cream studded with homemade pecan brittle).
$ Various locations Meditation initiative The Big Quiet has managed the impossible: getting New Yorkers to shut up. The hosts of what they call “mass meditation for modern people,” the group offers large-scale meditations after hours in iconic locales like the Museum of Natural History. Register with your email to receive details on the next location.
Free Various Locations The most exclusive ticket in town is . . . your library card. The Culture Pass program is free and unique to New York residents, or folks who work or go to school in the city. Book in advance and bring up to three guests -- tourists or otherwise -- to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, The Frick, The Intrepid, and 30 other other cultural institutions, depending on availability.
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