NYC Attractions to Skip (and What to Do Instead)

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New York is, objectively the greatest city in the world…at least in my opinion. I’ve lived here for six years and am still constantly finding new things to do, and just as importantly, learning what not to do. When you’re planning a trip to the City, it’s highly likely the first thing you do in preparation is Google “NYC attractions” … and unwittingly walk into some of the biggest tourist traps in the City. I’ve been to all of them, and there are much better alternatives to many of New York City’s most famous locations. Some of the more popular attractions are 100% worth it, even essential to getting the full New York experience. Here’s a local’s guide to the best NYC attractions (and the meh).

Top of the Rock (skip the Empire State Building): I have written about this one multiple times, because I honestly think that if you do one thing while visiting New York, it should be Rockefeller Center / Top of the Rock (unless it’s Christmas…see below). This is, in my opinion, the best view in the City. It’s fairly pricey…around $40, which is similar to the admission cost for the Empire State Building. You can see the ESB from Top of the Rock—the observation deck looks out over lower Manhattan to the south, and Central Park to the north. It’s a great place to take pictures, or just stand in the sun and take in the views.

Top of the Rock NYC view

Afternoon Tea at Alice’s Tea Cup (skip the Plaza): Alice’s Tea Cup, like the Plaza, is located on the Upper East Side and serves afternoon tea in addition to plenty of hearty breakfast classics with a sophisticated twist. Unlike the Plaza, it’s not ridiculously expensive and almost intolerably snooty. It’s still pretty bougie and not the kind of place I frequent, but I like it when I have guests in town, especially people with kids. The Palm Court is a classic, and I like the Plaza’s cafeteria, but you couldn’t pay me to pay $95 for tea. Alice’s Tea Cup is classy without being too stuffy, and has a quiet charm the Plaza lacks.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Frick Collection (skip MOMA): I’ve never been a huge fan of the Museum of Modern Art. The Met has a really nice collection of modern art, in addition to literally every other kind of art—more than you can possibly see in a day or even two or three. The museum itself is gorgeous, and they have a great rooftop bar. In the Fall and Winter, the bar moves inside on Friday and Saturday nights, when the museum is open late for fancy appetizers and drinks, and there’s a band (classical music). The Frick Collection is a smaller museum, not too far from the Met. It’s got a nice little collection of art, mostly classics from the Medieval era through the early 1900s. The building was originally the home of Henry Clay Frick, a robber baron of the Gilded Age who left a massive collection of art behind when he died, much of which remains part of the permanent collection. It’s smaller than the other major museums in the City, still a New York classic.

Met Metropolitan Museum of Art NYC

Flushing, Queens (skip Chinatown…it’s nice too, but I prefer Flushing for amazing Chinese food): Flushing is home to the best Chinese food in New York. Chinatown is great too, but not as unique and authentic as Flushing. I also find Flushing to be cooler, and younger. There’s more regional cuisine in Flushing, and Chinese food really varies by what area of the country you’re in. My favorite places in the neighborhood are Szechwan Absolute, Shanghai You Garden, and Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao.

The Union Square Christmas Market (skip Rockefeller Center): I absolutely hate Rockefeller Center at Christmas. Hate. It. You can’t actually see the tree. I’ve tried multiple times, but I’m about as big a fan of RC in December as I am Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Maybe it’s worth it to just be able to say you went, but checking off a bucket list item is really the only reason to go. And there are so many awesome things to do in New York during the holidays. I prefer to be downtown around Christmas, and I especially love the Union Square Christmas Market. It’s the holiday edition of the Farmers Market (hot cider, Christmas cookies, tons of great gifts) and pretty much epitomizes downtown Manhattan during the holidays. I also recommend bar hopping in the East Village in December—most places decorate intensely, it’s super festive, and everyone but the bartenders is in a great mood. Do NOT go out during Santa Con. I accidentally did this last year and wanted to die. Every bar was full of drunk elf girls and frat boys in Santa suit tee shirts and velour hats from Duane Reade. I also have to confess I’m just getting old and did participate in Santa-Con myself one year in college. It was fun. My roommate peed in the road and we had a great time. But five years later, I’ve become a cantankerous old man, and despite my consistent lack of chill am annoyed by anything too extraRolf’s being one exception. Rolf’s has absolutely no chill. It’s literally covered in classic Christmas decor and full of tourists. Not as bad as Rockefeller Center, but you’ll want to make reservations far in advance. It’s pretty great though. Amazing German food, and obviously very festive.

Brighton Beach (skip Coney Island): I lived here for two years, wanted to move the whole time, and complained about it constantly. But now I love it (figures, I always realize I like things after they’re over). It may be the weirdest, most unique neighborhood in New York. It’s also right down the boardwalk from Coney Island but much less crowded. Brighton Beach is a very, very Russian neighborhood mostly populated by people over 65…they’re all very *stylish* and the old women sometimes go topless at the beach. The bars are kind of creepy and the train ride out is long. Sounds great, right? But seriously, the beach is great, clean, and usually quiet. Coney Island is a fifteen minute walk away if you want to go to Luna Park (once it opens back up, in 2021), check out the brewery, or sit downwind of an overflowing trash can. For now, there’s something especially magic about Brighton Beach in the fall, and for Russian food, there’s no place better.

Brighton Beach boardwalk

The Museum of Jewish Heritage (in addition to the Freedom Tower and 9/11 Memorial): The 9/11 Memorial is beautiful and profoundly moving. The two massive fountains set deep in the ground, in the imprint of the Twin Towers, are surrounded by the names of the dead inscribed in bronze. It’s truly gorgeous and haunting. The Freedom Tower is also really nice and has great views. But while you’re down around the Financial District, close to Battery Park, I would also visit the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. The museum is dedicated to Jewish history in general, with a focus on the Holocaust and the years preceding and following. Like the 9/11 Memorial, it’s really painful but also really important. They’re open again—Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday.

Governors Island (in addition to Ellis Island): Ellis Island is definitely interesting, and there’s something incredibly inspiring about standing where so many people came to the U.S. in search of the American Dream. So I won’t say to skip it. But it’s not my favorite island off Manhattan. Governors Island is the perfect place for picnicking, bike riding, and taking in the incredible view of Manhattan. You can even camp there, if you pay for it…and it’s a kind of annoying new-age glamping situation. I’ve considered just missing the last ferry and sleeping in the bushes because the sunset, which is after the final ferry, is apparently gorgeous. But a full day on the island is plenty.

Island Oyster Governors Island view

Obscurities, Antiques, and Oddities and The Evolution Store (skip Ripley’s and Madame Tussauds): I love weird shit. But Ripley’s and Madame Tussauds are campy and too crowded. There are plenty of oddities to be found around the City, many in more low-key locations. And I prefer oddities you can take home. Both OAO and Evolution are full of strange antiques, taxidermy, and medical diagrams. They’re great places to stop if you’re in the East Village or Noho, respectively.

DO go to Times Square: I am not the biggest fan of Times Square…but you really can’t go to New York and skip it, on principle. Just for God’s sake, do not go to the Hard Rock Cafe. And avoid the guys in dingy off-brand Superhero / Disney costumes. Just stand there and take in the intense New York energy. It might be good to hit up Times Square on your way in or out of town if you’re coming in by bus or train. You don’t need a ton of time here.

DO go to Central Park: Iconic, of course. And it really is huge. There’s so, so much to do here…I’ll have to do a separate post on it sometime, but for now, I’ll just say I love Sheep Meadow, and Belvedere Castle. Ice skating is nice in the winter but crowded. And Bethesda Terrace is gorgeous, perfect for photos.

Central Park boathouse view
(Near the boathouse)

So there you have it. Avoiding the worst crowds is perhaps the single best way to make a good trip to New York City truly great. And my opinion is fact because I live here and hate most things…especially overcrowded tourist traps and overhyped, mediocre views. But I’m a big fan of the aforementioned NYC attractions. It may not be possible to hit all of them, depending on how long you have in the City. If you’re headed to town for a weekend getaway, I’ve outlined a little itinerary to help you get the most out of New York City in three days. And if you’re on a budget, it pays to know where to find affordable (and delicious) eats.