16 Unique Landmarks in New York (That Aren't the Empire State Building)

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New York, New York — the city that never sleeps — is on everyone’s travel bucket list. And certainly there are numerous must-see attractions in the Big Apple. You can’t miss the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building. Even some of the cooler, newer spots aren’t exactly a big secret — most visitors would be remiss to skip the High Line and Chelsea Market. But what about those under-the-radar places that even local New Yorkers don’t know about? Here are a few of our underrated favorites that will excite art fans, history buffs, flower lovers, foodies, and more.

City Hall Station

View of the unique architecture at City Hall Station in New York.
Credit: Michael Freeman/ Alamy Stock Photo

City Hall Station, located within New York’s subway system in downtown Manhattan, remains one of the grandest stops in the network. That said, you can’t catch a train there or even explore the space — but you can catch a glimpse of it. Built in 1904, the station features vaulted ceilings and skylights, Art Deco glass tiles, and massive chandeliers. Sadly, the station was all form and no function — there were no turnstiles, few entry points, and no way to access the express train tracks. With commuters favoring the nearby Brooklyn Bridge stop, the City Hall Station became the least-used station in the subway system, closing in 1945.

You can’t get off the train to experience this impressive space, but the skylights have been reopened and the lights have turned back on. To view the City Hall station, stay on the southbound 6 train after it terminates at Brooklyn Bridge. As the train loops around to head back north, you’ll spot City Hall. Better yet, the New York Transit Museum offers limited tours throughout the year.

Green-Wood Cemetery

The Green-Wood Cemetery with a view of Manhattan in the background.
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Greenwood Heights is deep in the heart of Brooklyn, but there’s a fascinating reason to make the trek from Manhattan. The neighborhood is home to Green-Wood Cemetery, a 478-acre garden cemetery that not only offers sweeping city views, but is the final resting place for many notable New Yorkers. Inventor Samuel Morse, composer Leonard Bernstein, F.A.O. Schwarz of toy store fame, piano company founder Henry Steinway, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, politician Boss Tweed, and newspaper-founder Horace Greeley are all buried here, among many others.

Green-Wood is a bucolic refuge away from the busy city streets. The landscape inspired the design of Central Park and features charming stone footpaths, gentle hills, century-old trees, and lush gardens. Many of the headstones and monuments — stunning obelisks, stylized mausoleums, and intricate sculptures — are architecturally and historically important. And, you’re certainly not alone in visiting this special spot: A perennially popular attraction, Green-Wood Cemetery rivaled Niagara Falls in the 19th century in terms of visitors. The volume of tourists led to the construction of the cemetery’s imposing Victorian gates, ferry and trolley services, and guided tours. Today, there is still a trolley to help folks get around the grounds, while maps are available to help locate famous names.

The Explorers Club

The name plate outside of The Explorers Club in New York.
Credit: Patti McConville/ Alamy Stock Photo

Located inside an imposing Jacobean Revival-style mansion on East 70th Street is one of New York City’s most unique clubs. The Explorers Club, founded in 1904 by a group of seven renowned polar explorers, is an international society for scientists and explorers. The building that houses it was built for Stephen Clark, heir of the Singer Sewing Machine Company fortune. It became the club’s international headquarters in 1965, and is known as the Lowell Thomas building — named for the club member and famous writer and broadcaster. The interior resembles a miniature natural history museum, complete with an incredible collection of taxidermy and books displayed among impressive wood-paneling and stained-glass windows. The various specimens, publications, and ephemera are gifts from past and present society members.

It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to become a member of this elite society, but you can still visit the club’s international headquarters. Register to attend a lecture or film screening offered from September to June. The events are held in the Clark Room among retired expedition flags from around the world. Or, schedule a group tour or stop by during open hours for a quick visit. You might be allowed up to the top floor, where the gallery features taxidermy displays and trophies (including a woolly mammoth tusk!). The research archive houses roughly 13,000 books, 5,000 maps, and 500 films.

Noguchi Museum

An instillation at the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Queens, New York.
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New York is famous for its hustle and bustle. Visitors needing a quiet respite from all that should check out the Noguchi Museum — just across the East River in Long Island City, Queens. Founded by Isamu Noguchi, the museum could be one of the most peaceful places in all of New York. Noguchi, a Japanese-American artist who died in 1988, was among the 20th century’s most important sculptors. In addition to his abstract stone sculptures, he worked in architecture, set design, garden design, furniture, lighting, and ceramics. His bamboo-and-paper lanterns are especially iconic — especially for anyone interested in mid-century modern design.

The intimate museum offers two floors of gallery spaces: The lower level features a permanent display of Noguchi’s most famous sculptures and lighting, while the upper level boasts rotating exhibits chronicling the artist’s various themes and favorite mediums. The museum’s exterior is also worthy of notice — the courtyard covered in ivy houses a lush sculpture garden perfect for quiet reflection. Design fans, on the other hand, shouldn’t skip the gift shop to buy art books and souvenirs.

Museum of the American Gangster

Cars line the curbs of Saint Mark's Place on New York on a Sunday.
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New York is home to plenty of speakeasy-style bars intended to evoke a glamorous bygone era of nightlife complete with flappers, gangsters, and illegal cocktails served in teacups. One space, an actual former speakeasy, is now devoted to the history of gangsters, along with the Mafia and organized crime. Located on St. Mark's Place in the East Village, the Museum of the American Gangster displays photographs, articles, illustrations, ephemera, and even weapons that tell the story of America’s most famous criminals, such as Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, and Al Capone.

Founded by Lorcan Otway in 2010, the two-room museum is a tribute to the building’s history. It was once owned by Frank Hoffman, a gangster, bootlegger, and long-ago proprietor of said speakeasy. Otway’s father bought the building in 1964. In the basement was a safe, dating back to the building’s days as a Prohibition-Era Mafia hangout. The safe contained almost $2 million in gold certificates, beer bottles from the 1940s, and a photo of a mystery woman. Otway grew up in the building and spent his life fascinated with the safe and the building’s somewhat sordid history. After inheriting the building and spending years researching and collecting, he believes he can identify the woman — Hoffman’s mistress, model, and singer — Ghia Ortega.

Brooklyn Grange Farms

View of the rooftop of the Brooklyn Grange in Queens, New York.
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Visit a farm — right in New York City! Since 2010, the Brooklyn Grange has operated two huge rooftop farms. One is in Long Island City in Queens, atop the Standard Motor Products Building; the other is at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and is home to the city’s biggest apiary (honeybee farm). At just over two acres of total grow space, the Brooklyn Grange produces a whopping 40,000 pounds of organic produce each year. Even if you don’t visit these spaces, you might try the food — a significant portion of the yield is served at New York City restaurants. The rest is available at city greenmarkets and via Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs.

But, a visit to the Grange is a delight — the flagship location in Queens is open to the public each Saturday during the growing season, from May to October. Visitors are welcome to wander the rows of crops, volunteer alongside farm staff, peruse the farm stand for seasonal specialties, enjoy the spectacular skyline view, or attend guided tours, workshops, group suppers, and yoga classes.

Flower District

Workers in a florist shop arrange bouquets in the Upper East Side of New York City.
Credit: Stephanie Keith/ Getty Images News via Getty Images

Take a break from the concrete jungle and head to 28th Street. The block running between 6th and 7th Avenues is New York’s Flower District, and there isn’t a prettier or more inspiring spot to explore. Rather than feature flower stands or stalls, New York’s Flower District is made up of individual shops with very different specialties — roses, orchids, tulips, silk flowers, tropical plants, garden supplies, seeds, and more.

In fact, the storefronts on and around this strip encompass one of the busiest flower markets in the country, although many New Yorkers don’t even know about it — perhaps because the flower district generally sees lower foot traffic than the areas around Penn Station to the north and 23rd Street to the south. The district is where the best florists in the city (and the Tristate Area) convene to sell their exotic blooms — chocolate-hued calla lilies, massive branches with cherry and crabapple blossoms, whimsically-dyed roses and daisies, and peonies and hydrangeas in rare shares of red and coral. Not all of the flower shops sell retail, however, and instead choose to cater to wholesalers like fellow florists and event planners — so ask before you get your heart set on that variegated philodendron. However, browsing is free and always welcome!

The Judd Foundation

Museum goers walk by Donald Judd's untitled aluminum sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art.
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Whether or not you’re a fan of minimalist art, a stop at the Judd Foundation is a must. Located in SoHo, the space — once the home and studio of renowned artist Donald Judd — has been preserved to reflect how Judd and his contemporaries once lived and worked, years before the neighborhood became home to some of the wealthiest New Yorkers and the high-end shops they frequent. The massive building, built in 1872, was once a textile factory, and its design and cast-iron construction are typical of the area. By the 1960s, these monumental structures were mostly vacant and in danger of being torn down to accommodate an expressway. Instead, the artists moved in; Judd purchased the space for a mere $65,000 and thoughtfully customized it as a home and studio for himself, his wife (dancer Julie Finch), and his children. He opened up the spaces, letting light shine in and exposing the skeleton of the building — becoming sort of a template for New York City lofts.

The interior is very much how Judd left it after he passed away in 1994. Guided tours offer visitors a chance to see his artwork, including one of his iconic metal cube sculptures, alongside pieces by his contemporaries (Dan Flavin, Claes Oldenburg) and his idols (Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters) in the spots Judd carefully chose for them. Tour participants will also see Judd’s workspaces and living quarters —  industrial kitchen fixtures that juxtapose his collection of antique crockery; self-designed builtins; furniture designed by Gerrit Rietveld and Alvar Aalto; and even his collection of Stetson hats.

Panorama of the City of New York

Panorama of the City of New York found in The Queens Museum of Art.
Credit: Michael Ventura/ Alamy Stock Photo

New York can be a lot for anyone to take in. Here’s one way to actually see all of it: the Panorama of the City of New York exhibit at the Queens Museum. This scale model — all 9,335 square feet of it — captures the entire sprawling city in a scale of 1:1200 (in other words, one inch of this model equals 100 feet, making the Empire State Building 15 inches tall). The model, which covers all five boroughs, was conceived to celebrate the city’s massive infrastructure by urban planner and World’s Fair President Robert Moses for the 1964 World’s Fair. Around 100 artisans built the model over three years, led by Raymond Lester and Associates — a world-renowned creator of architectural models.

Of course, the 1960s were a long time ago — and modifications have been made to the miniature city over the years to keep it accurate. In the 1990s, the panorama had a major overhaul accurately depicting some 895,000 individual structures (that’s every building, street, and park in the city as of 1992). So, it is a bit of a time capsule — but no less breathtaking.

Wave Hill

A look at the Wave Hill Public Garden in The Bronx.
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This expansive park and garden spans 28 clifftop acres and offers unrivaled views of the Hudson River and the Palisades. Wave Hill comprises two former estates in the Bronx’s Riverdale neighborhood. Over the years, these grand homes played host to 19th and early 20th-century luminaries, including former President Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and composer Arturo Toscanini, in addition to boldfaced names representing J.P. Morgan, the American Museum of Natural History, the United Nations, and the Union Pacific Railroad.  As the population of New York City exploded in the 19th century, the city’s affluent residents headed north to the Bronx to build spacious estates in what was then countryside along the Hudson River.

The land was donated to the city in 1960, and Wave Hill opened as a public garden in 1965. Today, the oasis features broad lawns, a restored native woodland, a terraced herb garden, shady trails, gazebos, vibrant flower beds, and the Alpine House — a structure packed with exotic potted plants. Interior spaces within the two imposing estate houses on the property offer art and historical galleries, a café, and a shop featuring unusual plants, seeds, and garden accessories. Check the garden’s calendar for guided tours, workshops, yoga classes, and other special events.

Roosevelt Island

The Roosevelt Island Tram and the Queensboro Bridge.
Credit: Jungseok Park/ iStock

Roosevelt Island is a slim, two-mile island just east of Manhattan in the East River — one of the many islands that comprise New York City. To visit Roosevelt Island, take a ride on the bright red Roosevelt Island Tram. With the swipe of a Metrocard, the tram whisks riders across the river to the island, offering incredible views of the city and the water below. Once you arrive on the island, check out the Gothic-style ruins of the former smallpox hospital and its current resident cat colony; visit the Blackwell Island Lighthouse, a Gothic Revival-style structure dating to 1872; and feast your eyes on the Octagon — an imposing, eight-sided structure that once served as an asylum entrance, was featured in Charles Dickens’ writings, and now contains some very high-end residences. Roosevelt Island is also home to the Blackwell House, one of the oldest structures in New York City. The clapboard home dates to 1796 and is open to visitors.

Moving to the present day, check out FDR Four Freedoms Park at the southern tip of the island. This tribute to former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was designed in the 1970s by world-famous architect Louis Kahn, but was only completed in 2012. And art buffs won’t want to miss the Roosevelt Island Visual Arts Association (RIVAA), which exhibits contemporary works by 35 member artists, in addition to exhibits featuring international guest artists.

The Pomander Walk

Pomander Walk, which stretches from 94th to 95th Streets between Broadway and West End Avenue.
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The Upper Westside of Manhattan is certainly a desirable place to live. It’s well-known for its pre-World War II apartment buildings and townhouses featuring brick façades, spacious rooms, generous builtins, and intricate tilework. The area also boasts many restaurants and delis and is bordered by sweeping parkland. But even knowing all that won’t prepare you for the Pomander Walk. Tucked behind and between sky-grazing, brick apartment houses, Pomander Walk is a charming row of 27 two-story Tudor houses and lush gardens lining a narrow lane. The homes alternate between brick and stucco and feature half-timber details, wrought iron railings, old-fashioned lamp posts, and beautifully blossoming window boxes.

The Pomander Walk was built by hotelier and restaurateur Thomas Healy in the 1920s, with the homes intended to be a temporary income stream until he raised enough money to level them and build a grand hotel. Healy died before the hotel was realized, and the homes remain private residences. By the 1970s, the homes were in rough shape. Landmark designation rescued the colony in 1982, and the storybook lane was beautifully restored. Located between West 94th and 95th streets, the lane is accessed by a gate and stairwell that could easily be mistaken for a neighboring building’s service entrance. Although the walkway is private, you can catch a glimpse of these homes — inspired by a hit Broadway play that took place in a charming British neighborhood — from 94th Street between Broadway and West End avenues.

City Reliquary

A look at the Dodgers 42 memorabilia in the City Reliquary Museum.
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What started as a quirky window display at a ground-floor apartment in Williamsburg is now a museum displaying New York’s everyday objects, relics, and ephemera. Dave Herman’s City Reliquary is quite a tiny exhibit, and from the outside, it looks like a bodega with its multicolored awning. But the space is packed with a rotating assemblage of subway tokens, postcards, paint chips, cornerstones and cobblestones, skeletons, glass seltzer bottles, vintage baseball cards, a fortune-teller’s booth, and other collectible oddities. The scope of the museum is broad and entertaining — with tributes to Jackie Robinson, Teddy Roosevelt, and burlesque star Little Egypt sharing the same space.

The collection — including plenty of objects donated by locals and visitors — is a feast for the eyes and chronicles the cultural history of New York through mundane items rather than priceless artifacts. In addition, the Reliquary hosts films and events throughout the year that range from tributes to doughnut pop-up shops to bike festivals. The shop is also worth a visit — it features classic New York City souvenirs alongside items made by local artists.

Sandy Hook

An aerial view of the Jamaica Bay that includes the Gateway National Recreation Area.
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Sandy Hook, or the topmost sliver of the Jersey Shore, is part of the 27,000-acre Gateway National Recreation Area (the other two portions are on Jamaica Bay and Staten Island). A narrow barrier peninsula, the strip forms the eastern border of New York Harbor. To get there, you can take a high-speed ferry from Midtown or Wall Street. And while it sounds like a trek, the journey is well worth it. The ferry ride offers passengers first-class views of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Once you arrive, however, you’ll be wowed by the sandy, seven-mile strip. It boasts some of the most spectacular beaches in the region and incredible vistas of open sea and city skyline.

Birders flock to the spot to catch a glimpse of tiny, colorful warblers and kinglets during migration, thriving raptor populations, and a year-round parade of gulls, ducks, and seabirds. Hikers will enjoy trails through maritime forest and grassy dunes, while bikers can speed by on miles of paved, protected lanes. Anglers covet the plentiful striped bass, crab, and bluefish, while kayakers and canoers glide through peaceful lagoons. And history buffs can check out America’s oldest-operating lighthouse, plus an impressive array of historic military forts, barracks, and gun batteries.

Ford Foundation

Outside of the Ford Foundation building in Mid-Town, New York City.
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There are a couple of reasons to hit up the Ford Foundation’s headquarters. The first is simply the neighborhood — Tudor City is located on the far east side of Manhattan on 42nd Street and is famous for its historic Tudor Revival architecture, its leafy streets and landscaped plazas, and its cliffside location offering sweeping views of the East River and the United Nations complex. But the Ford Foundation building — Henry and Edsel Ford’s long-running humanitarian and social justice organization — is a stark Modernist-style structure. Completed in 1967, the building houses a public, 160-foot-tall atrium complete with mature trees, a reflection pool, and adjacent exhibit spaces featuring contemporary works.  
Restored in 2018, the glass-and-steel enclosed courtyard is 12 stories high and is essentially an oversized tropical greenhouse. It’s home to 39 species of plants, ranging from magnificent magnolia trees, ferns, and flowering annuals, to overgrown shrubs and palms. Concrete terraces slope around a sensory garden landscaped with plants visitors are encouraged to smell and touch, along with a series of reflection pools (kept full via rainwater collection systems along the sloping glass roof). Climbing up two sides of the spaces are tiered, open-plan offices — every desk has a view at the Ford Foundation.

Life Underground

A Life Underground art installation close-up in the 14th Street Eighth Avenue Station.
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Hiding in plain sight, Life Underground is a charming and expansive public art installation that thousands of commuters and visitors walk right by each day. But the works are worth taking note of — these tiny, cartoonish bronze figures pose along the platforms and tell real and imagined tales of everyday life in the Big Apple. Featuring over 100 playful sculptures, Life Underground is located at the 14th Street/8th Avenue subway station. It was created as part of a 2001 station renovation by artist Tom Otterness — a controversial sculptor and performance artist. Otterness’ characters represent the tension between rich and poor and commerce and community in a city characterized by financial extremes and constant development.

A few favorites to look out for include a sewer alligator nipping a one-percenter with a money bag head, an elephant in high heels and a hat, figures holding subway tokens alongside folks sneaking over and under the gates for a free ride, and a dismayed payphone with human features.

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