We begin with an admission of bias: We love New York City.1 Sharon was raised on Long Island, where most of her family still reside, and I was raised in upstate New York. Although upstate is closer, culturally, to Peoria IL than “The City,” I have been embraced by Sharon’s family and now am a naturalized citizen of the Big Apple.
This is brief overview of some of our favorite hidden gems of New York City; actually only Brooklyn and Manhattan. Obviously, this list is very limited, not only in its brevity, given the unlimited gems NYC has to offer, but by our interests, and also by our experience and exposure. For over 10 years, we spend a month in the summer and 2 weeks for Thanksgiving in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which gave us the opportunity to explore beyond the highlights mentioned in most tour guides.
We will start in Brooklyn, cross into Manhattan and board a ferry, then return to Manhattan and work our way up Manhattan Island. We will then leave Manhattan for day trips, which will be followed by “honorable mentions” that space constraints force to us to only briefly note.
Green-Wood Cemetery was established in 1836, at a time when it could only be reached by boat from Manhattan. It was a burial place for the well to do, and retreat from the smells, squalor, filth, and crowds of Manhattan. It inspired the subsequent development of Prospect Park, which is nearby, and Central Park in Manhattan. Its significance begins, however, in the Revolutionary War, where the largest battle of that war was fought—the Battle of Brooklyn. Washington’s army was surrounded by a much larger British force, but Washington escaped in the night, saving his army and the Revolution.
The torch of liberty on the Statue of Liberty points to this pivotal spot; the highest point in Brooklyn (Battle Hill). A stature of Minerva, the Roman god of crafts, arts, and also of war, was later erected facing Lady Liberty. The two women are waving to each other. Very moving.
Take a tour. There is much to learn and it can be fun, or at least ours was. We were regaled with stories and song by our tour guide, a Broadway singer, who honored Leonard Bernstein’s memory by standing on the bench at his grave and belting out a song from West Side Story.
There is much going on at this beloved and historic place—concerts, lectures, bird walks, guided nature walks, tours, art installations, and more. We attended a dance concert in the chapel commemorating Isadora Duncan that was a re-creation of a concert given by her.2
Brooklyn Heights/Brooklyn Bridge Park
Stroll along the promenade in Brooklyn Heights which connects with Brooklyn Bridge Park. The views of the Manhattan skyline are unparalleled. Relax on a bench, lay in the grass, there are things to do (i.e., roller skating, kayaking, pickle ball), food stands, picnic tables, and interesting people to watch.3
Leaving Brooklyn. . .
We love the subway. It is an entire city, on the move, underground. It is the “Essence of New York”, the beating heart of the city, with its wild variety of people, languages, attire, behavior, entertainment, and filled with dizzying optical illusions in the train windows. We never have had any fear for our safety—indeed, have witnessed uplifting acts of kindness and generosity. Despite the reputation of New Yorkers as a rough and impatient breed, we are often reminded, above ground and below, of how quick they are to offer help.4
Governors Island, an idyll just off the coast of Manhattan, is a short ferry ride away. Catch the ferry from the Battery Maritime Building at the bottom of Manhattan, where you can also catch the (free) ferry to Staten Island (worth the trip for the views), and nearby you can catch the Statue of Liberty ferry. (Battery Park is itself a nice place to stroll and sometime has great street entertainment). We went to Governors Island just a few years after it opened (in 2001) on a summer afternoon and it was blessedly uncrowded.
Rent a bike, walk, picnic, loll about and enjoy great views of Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, and the New York harbor. Stay over night glamping, which means “glamorous camping.” There are slides, mini mountain hikes, and an array of events, including public art exhibitions, bird walks, music concerts, workshops, and poetry festivals. A restaurant has been added since we have been there where you can relax, have a drink and a bite to eat.5
Every time we go to New York, we go to Union Square. It is the third largest transportation hub in the city where 8 subway lines converge. It is a hive of activity, an oasis amidst the bustle and buildings, and a gathering spot for New Yorkers of all stripes. Music buskers, often of great talent and diversity, from classical to jazz, folk to blues, Peruvian to brass bands, perform. We did see someone playing a baby grand and giving piano lessons—how did he get the piano there?? Subway??
Even if you don’t know anything about chess, the unusual pairing of players offers a poignant, intimate, snapshot of the types of encounters and couplings that occur in this vibrant, diverse city. African American men typically hold the board and take on all comers, for cash. Bobby Fischer came here in his youth to play, as did his coach in his later years, so the hustlers must be very good to survive. And they are. I had lunch with one who said he quit his job because he could make more money playing chess. He was a prodigy, and began winning games in the park when he was nine years old.
Every Friday night the Legendary Cyphers perform freestyle hip-hop. It is thrilling—a cousin to jazz improvisation; angry, funny, dazzling street poetry; an expression of communal solidarity; and joyous entertainment. I never cared much for this kind of music–the rhythm too monotonous, the words too fast. Hearing it, here, in Union Square, was a revolution. So too, the musical, Hamilton, which does much the same thing.
Union Square is transformed into a thriving “Holiday Market” when the Thanksgiving-Hanukkah-Christmas-Kwanza holiday season approaches. Booths offering a cornucopia of goods by independent artisans and local growers, often accompanied by music, create a festive atmosphere. It is worth a visit, even if you don’t buy anything.6
NYC Public Library
This magnificent building opened in 1911, and at that time it was the largest marble structure in the United States. Its grandeur is a monument to the importance of learning, literacy, and commitment to providing free public access to books. Tours are offered—take one if you have the chance.7
Adjacent to the library is Bryant Park, which hosts concerts in the summer, a market in the holiday season, and a quiet, relaxing place to stretch, read, have a coffee, and people watch throughout the year.8
This is our favorite train, and also for many New Yorkers as it is often voted the best train in yearly polls among riders. Here is one reason why we like it: When traveling from Brooklyn to Manhattan, sit on the right side of the train near a window. As you go through the tunnel, if you look close, you will see this artwork, called Masstransiscope. Click here to view it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3IwVD5efXz0 . Once you emerge from the tunnel, stand and go to the left side of the train for a view of Manhattan, New York harbor, and the Brooklyn Bridge as you cross above ground on the Manhattan Bridge.
Continue on the Q train to the last 3 Manhattan stops, which are the most recent additions to the subway system: 72nd, 86th and 96th street stations. Each station is filled with mosaics and worthy of a prolonged visit.9
The Audubon Bird Mural Project is dedicated to publicly, graphically bringing attention to climate change and its effects on birds. The Audubon Society has identified 314 birds who are at risk from the changing climate and is sponsoring murals depicting all 314. So far, 100 murals of 138 species have been completed. The mural “street art” is on storefront grates, sides of buildings, and other, sometimes partly hidden spots.
They are whimsical, visually stunning, playful, and an uplifting contrast to their urban surroundings—like the birds themselves.
Most of the murals are on Broadway between 137th and 177th street. Go on Sunday mornings when the businesses are closed and the storefront gratings are lowered.10
Kykuit is the John D. Rockefeller Sr. estate located in Pocantico Hills north of New York City. You must take a tour to visit and probably should make reservations ahead. It is an American Versailles, with a commanding view of the Hudson River, beautiful terraces and gardens, fountains with whimsical brass ornamental frogs and other creatures, and an array of stunning sculptures situated to highlight both the sculptures and the landscape.
Above are only a few of the many.
The interior of the house is an decorated with fine furnishings, Chinese and European ceramics, a vintage car museum/garage, a tack room with beautiful saddles and other horse equipment, and the lower floor is adorned with the only Picasso tapestries ever made, as well as work by a host of other famous modern artists.11
Union Church, located close to Kykuik, was built by the Rockefellers in 1921, which they regularly attended. When John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s wife, Abby, died he commissioned Matisse to design a stained glass window to commemorate her life. It was the last commissioned work by Matisse. The rest of the church windows, commission later by the family, are by Chagall. We have been to many of the great stained glass churches of France; this small, intimate house of worship illuminated by masters of stained glass, is the equal to the best of them. When we went, we were alone. This is truly a hidden gem. If you go to Kykuit, don’t miss it.12
West Point Academy
West Point is aptly named, situated in a strategic location on a point jutting into the Hudson River from the western shore. It was here that during the Revolutionary War the Colonists installed a Great Chain across the river to block the movement of British ships.
The Academy was established in 1802 and its long and heavy history of service, heroism, sacrifice, and loss is everywhere felt. We were surprised at how much we were moved by the tour, which inspired reverence and gratitude. Interesting statues commemorating famous soldiers, wars, and battles are scattered throughout the Academy grounds. What was most moving was the cemetery. The history of war and sacrifice etched in the stones, including those recently killed; men and women, with brief bios of their brief lives. Heartbreaking.
Honorable (Briefly) Mentioned
Tenement Museum consists of a restored tenement dwelling with the story of family that lived there. Also guided tours of the neighborhood are very informative.13
Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum is a WWII aircraft carrier turned into a museum depicting the ship’s role in WWI. Also includes a guided missile submarine, a Concord jet, and a NASA Space Shuttle.14
Morgan Library and Museum is a book lovers destination, with rare books, engrossing exhibitions, and chamber music concerts.15
Cloisters is a satellite of the Met dedicated to medieval art and architecture, including a chapel and cloister.16
Trail, Tour, Tomb, and Church
The High Line Trail is a park built on an abandoned elevated freight line where you can stroll above the streets, look into windows of adjacent apartments, and enjoy the gardens, green spaces, and art works that adorn the trail.17
Circle Line Cruise Tours circle Manhattan Island offering unique views of New York.18
Grant’s Tomb is a magnificent and fitting monument and resting place for one of the most important people in American history.19 20
Riverside Church has a long history of social activism and is listed on the National register of Historic Places. The stained glass is magnificent, and a New World cousin in color, luminescence, and beauty to those in Chartres Cathedral in France. 21
The Oculus, in The One World Trade Center Plaza, is a magnificent architectural masterpiece. It is a major transportation hub, located in the One World Trade Center near 9/11 Ground Zero. It is meant to inspire. And it does.22
The Brooklyn Japanese Garden is one of the oldest and most visited Japanese gardens outside Japan. It is located in Prospect Park, itself a worthy destination, and adjacent to the Brooklyn Museum, which is the second largest museum in New York City.23
Coney Island still carries a tawdry edge of its “Nickel Empire” heyday in the early 20th century, which drew throngs to its carnival midway, freak shows, beach peddlers, and thrill rides. The flagship for Nathan’s Famous Hotdogs is here, where the annual hotdog eating contest is held, as well as the home for the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball team.24 Great fun.25
Brooklyn Academy of Music, BAM, is a performing arts venue for dance, theatre, music, and film that feature edgy, experimental works. We have seen some memorable performances here.26
Storm King Arts Center is an outdoor 500 acre sculpture park with the largest collection of outdoor sculptures in North America. Located in the Hudson River valley, the large-scale sculptures, many by famous artists, are carefully situated in pristine hills, fields, and woodlands.27
FDR Home in New Hyde Park is the birthplace, home, and burial place of FDR, and the place where many monumental decisions were made during WWII. Looking in on his and Eleanor’s living quarters is an intimate experience, and the tour gives appreciation of the weight and scope of decisions made in these rooms that changed the world. 28
Train along the Hudson River offers a leisurely way to enjoy the beautiful scenery along the river (including West Point) as it winds its way through the Catskill mountains. There are quaint towns along the way and stops where hikers exit to begin treks into the mountains.29