Exploring New York City’s Hidden Gems

Welcome to New York! As Taylor Swift sings, it’s been waiting for you. Chances are you’ve been planning this trip for a while, and you may already have a pretty firm idea of what you’d like to see. While all those famous Manhattan monuments are certainly must-sees, and its popular activities are unmissable, we suggest that you take the time to seek out a few of the hidden gems in NYC. So read on for our list of 29 unusual things to do in New York, created with our expert Big Bus Tours New York staff.

Secret culinary delights: best hidden restaurants NYC

Empanada Mama
Various locations
This vibrant Latin restaurant is known for having the biggest and best empanadas in NYC. There are four different locations dotted around Manhattan – you’ll find them in Hell's Kitchen, Lower East Side, East Village and Times Square. So instead of that pizza slice or hot dog, pick up one of their empanadas – fast, delicious and flavourful meals that won’t break your NYC budget. Our Assistant General Manager Claudia and Business Administration Manager Miryam recommend the Cheeseburger, Reggaeton and Pernil empanadas!

Fraunces Tavern
54 Pearl St (closest Big Bus stop: Wall Street)
Established in 1762, Fraunces Tavern is New York's oldest and most historic bar and restaurant. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Tavern is a New York City Landmark that once served as a watering hole for many of the Founding Fathers. In addition to enjoying a drink or meal here, our bus driver, Henry, recommends exploring the history of the building and its artifacts in the museum on the second and third floors.

Fraunces Tavern in New York
Fraunces Tavern in the Financial District is claimed to be Manhattan's oldest surviving building and once served as George Washington's headquarters.

Los Tacos No.1
Various locations
Created after three friends from Mexico and California decided to bring the authentic Mexican tacos to the East Coast, Los Tacos No.1 is home to beautifully authentic dishes made with fresh quality ingredients imported directly from Mexico. The menu is short and simple, but delivers on that West Coast flavour. Claudia and Miryam say that anything with Adobada (marinated pork) is amazing!

Russ & Daughters
Shop: 179 E Houston St (closest Big Bus stop: SoHo)
Café: 127 Orchard St (closest Big Bus stop: SoHo)

This New York culinary and cultural icon is best known for ‘appetizing’ foods. Appetizing is a Jewish food tradition particularly local to New York, and essentially refers to some of the foods you typically eat with bagels, like smoked fish, caviar, salads and cream cheese. Due to Jewish dietary laws, meat and dairy products cannot be eaten or sold together, so stores selling cured and pickled meats became known as delicatessens, while shops that sold fish and dairy products became appetizing stores. The shop is perfect for picking up items for an on-the-go lunch, whereas the cafe is ideal if you’re looking for a sit-down meal (no reservations necessary). Our Operations Manager Amy shared a fun fact about Russ & Daughters with us: In 1933, founder Joel Russ renamed the business, taking into consideration his daughters, Hattie, Ida and Anne. It thus became the first American business with “& Daughters” in its name!

Russ & Daughters Appetizers in New York
The family-owned and operated Russ & Daughters has been appetizing since 1914. Image courtesy of Russ & Daughters.

Mei Lai Wah
62 Bayard St (Closest Big Bus Stop: Chinatown / Little Italy)
This unassuming, no-frills Chinese bakery has been situated in the heart of Chinatown since the 1960s, and specialises in fresh, hot sweet and savoury buns, stuffed with a variety of spicy fillings. The signature is the char siu bao (baked roast pork buns), which are a firm favourite with locals. Prices are low, demand is high (especially for the pork buns), so go early and don’t be surprised to find a line!

Quirky and Unique NYC: Unusual things to do in NYC

The Highline from start to finish
(closest Big Bus stop: Hudson Yards)
Whether you begin on Gansevoort Street in the south or from 34th Street in the north, the Highline really rewards its through-hikers. Take the time to slowly walk the full 1.45 miles, stopping to admire the regularly changing sculpture and art installations, smell the flowers, observe your fellow walkers and perhaps indulge in some refreshments. The High Line is one of the best places for pictures in New York – Claudia advises that the High Line’s top photo spots can be found at the Amphitheater above 10th Ave., and at the Hudson River Overlook between 14th & 15th Streets.

The High Line in New York
The old railway line was nearly demolished, but in 1999 the Friends of the High Line advocacy group was founded to preserve and reuse it as open public space.

City Climb at Hudson Yards
30 Hudson Yards (closest Big Bus stop: Hudson Yards)
It’s the highest open-air building ascent in the world, and it isn’t for the faint-hearted (but it IS for thrill-seekers who just love views). Perhaps one of the weirdest things to do in New York, this activity involves scaling the exterior of the top of the 30 Hudson Yards skyscraper, climbing a 45-degree angled staircase to the top, and then leaning out into the thin air, 1,200 feet above Manhattan. Unhinged, yes, but all the safety measures are in place, and the experience will surely stay with you for life. If it’s all too much, take it down just a notch and head to the building’s Edge – the highest outdoor sky deck in New York, framed with glass panels and flooring. In a city of iconic viewing platforms, this is one of the newest.

Beat the Bomb Brooklyn
255 Water St (nearest Big Bus stop: Brooklyn Bridge)
The immersive experience is designed to replicate the thrill of a video game. Playing in teams of 4-6, you suit up in hazmat gear and advance through challenges involving lasers, puzzles and code-cracking in order to disarm either the world’s largest paint bomb or the world’s largest foam bomb. This unusual New York activity is one of Brooklyn’s hidden gems and receives rave reviews.

Night Markets
Various Locations
In the summertime, Night Markets pop up in multiple New York boroughs, with a variety of cuisines, crafts and creations on offer. Visit to discover up-to-the-minute street food trends and pick up unique souvenirs! Our staff picks are the Queens Night Markets at New York Hall of Science in Flushing Meadows, the Vegan Night Market in Central Park, West Harlem’s Uptown Night Market at 133rd St and 12th Ave, The Bronx Night Market at Fordham Plaza, and the Brooklyn Night Market at Industry City on 36th St. Note that Night Markets usually only open on specific dates between May – October.

Harlem Uptown Night Markets in New York
The Uptown Night Market in West Harlem. Image courtesy of MASC Hospitality Group.

The Chelsea Flea
29 West 25th Street (closest big Bus Stop: Flatiron District)
The Chelsea Flea is a historic outdoor New York flea market, founded in 1976. It operates every Saturday and Sunday between 8:00am–4:00pm, and is home to a treasure trove of random goods, particularly high-quality antiques, vintage, architectural salvage, and collectibles. As the Chelsea scene grew in the 70s, the Flea became the place to see and be seen, with the city’s creatives seeking inspiration and intrigue from its wares. It’s still an iconic market today, beloved by New York locals. This is the place to go if you’re looking for an unusual trinket to take home.

Softball at Hecksher Ballfields
Central Park (closest Big Bus Stop: Columbus Circle)
Against the stunning backdrop of the New York skyline, watch teams from a variety of New York’s professional industries slug it out over the softball diamonds at Heckscher Ballfields in Central Park. The Broadway Show League brings the entertainment, with casts from the city’s top productions pitted against each other. But the most ruthless group is the New York Media Softball League, where teams from publications like the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Buzzfeed and even High Times step up to hustle it out.

Hecksher Ballfield in Central Park, New York
The Heckscher Ballfields consist of six softball fields located near 63rd Street in Central Park

New York’s Secret Romantic side

Outdoor Movie Nights
Various Locations
The stars might be upstaged by the city lights, and there’ll always be the mild soundtrack of traffic, but in summertime an outdoor movie makes for a relaxed romantic date night in New York, perfect for unwinding after a day of busy sightseeing. Pull together a little picnic and chill out with an old classic or something new. In Manhattan, you can see outdoor movies at Bryant Park, the Lincoln Center, Chelsea Piers, Hudson Yards, the Seaport Cinema and various rooftops and city parks. In Brooklyn they’re regularly held at Prospect Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Fort Greene Park & McCarran Park. Best of all, most of New York’s outdoor movie screenings are free!

Glamping on Governors Island
Nearest Big Bus stop: Statue of Liberty / Battery Park
Located just a short distance from the Battery in Manhattan and only accessible by ferry, Governors Island is a National Monument and public park with two former military fortifications. It’s one of New York’s best-kept secrets, and now you can glamp there, enjoying peaceful activities like morning yoga, leisurely bike rides, sunset cocktails and s’mores around the evening bonfire, all with the epic backdrop of uninterrupted Manhattan skyline views. Viewing the twinkling city across the water while ensconced in your elegant villa or tent really does make for a luxuriously cosy contrast – Claudia recommends this as one of her top romantic activities in NYC.

Governors Island, New York
Govenors Island first opened to the public in 2005. It was originally a seasonal fishing camp for the Lenape, who called it Paggank (“Nut Island”) due to once plentiful hickory, oak, and chestnut trees. In 1637 it was purchased by the Dutch West India Company, reportedly for "two ax heads, a string of beads, and a handful of nails".

Visit a Speakeasy
Various Locations
Impress your companion with a visit to one of New York’s best speakeasies. These unique bars are inspired by the heyday of 1920s prohibition, when drinking establishments had to be concealed from the authorities with hidden entrances, decoys and special passwords. Hidden behind a telephone booth within a hot-dog shop in the East Village, PDT (Please Don’t Tell) is a genre classic of the mid-2000s Speakeasy revival. The Back Room on Norfolk street, hidden by a decrepit sign that says ‘LOWER EAST SIDE TOY COMPANY’, hams up the vibe with cocktails served in teacups and beer bottles handed over in paper bags. Above a Five Guys on Bleecker St you’ll find The Garret with whimsical tin ceilings and chandeliers. And the clandestine quality is especially captured by the luxe dark interiors at La Noxe, tucked underground inside the 28th street subway station.

Ice Skating
Various Locations
For romantic wintertime fun, head for a spin on the ice at one of the city’s iconic outdoor ice rinks. The Rockerfeller Centre’s rink, with its sparkling Christmas Tree, is the famous backdrop for romantic moments from films Elf (2003) and Autumn in New York (2000). The Wollman rink, in the southern end of Central Park, notably features in Serendipity (2001), Love Story (1971) and King Kong (2005). If you’re after something to make your own, there are a wide variety of other rinks operating in the winter months. Visit the rink at Bryant Park’s Winter Village, head to Sky Skate for the city’s highest skating rink, twirl under the bridge at Glide in Brooklyn, and enjoy picturesque views at Prospect Park’s LeFrak Center, which transforms from roller rink to ice rink in winter.

Ice Skating in Central Park, New York
The Wollman Rink in Central Park is located just a few minutes' walk from the south entrance of W. 59th Street and 6th Avenue.

Visit the Tin Building
96 South Street (closed Big Bus Stop: Wall Street / Charging Bull)
If you and your date share a love of food and interesting historical architecture, don’t miss a visit to the Tin Building, a new marketplace that has taken over the heritage site of the old Fulton Fish Market at the Seaport. Sprawling over 53,000 square feet, this culinary destination features multiple restaurants, bars, specialty gourmet shops and a central market with locally sourced seafood, meats, cheeses, seasonal produce, chef-grade pantry staples, and rare ingredients. Don’t miss the focaccia bread at T. Café – it’s our Business Administration Manager Miryam’s absolute favourite.

Pottery Class at Pottery Studio 1
1026 6th Ave (nearest Big Bus stop: Times Square East)
For an intimate creative moment, take your date to make a plate (or vase or bowl or mug) at Pottery Studio 1, conveniently located right near Times Square. A romantic evening behind the potter’s wheel will bring you together, teach you something new and leave you with a personalised memento of a romantic New York experience.

Unusual Museums in New York

The Cloisters
99 Margaret Corbin Drive (nearest Big Bus stop: the Met Museum)
Located in Fort Tryon Park overlooking the Hudson River, The Cloisters is a medieval art museum that feels like a European castle. Although it looks like it’s been there since the Middle Ages, it was built less than 100 years ago. The collection includes the famous 500-year-old Unicorn Tapestries, and the peaceful gardens outside have featured in many on-screen moments - recently in Steven Spielberg's 2021 remake of West Side Story.

The Cloisyters Courtyard Garden in New York
The Judy Black Garden in The Cloisters Museum is modeled after a medieval monastery's rectangular open-air courtyard surrounded by covered passageways. The yard enclosed within these arcades is known as a garth.

El Museo del Barrio
1230 5th Ave (nearest Big Bus stop: The Met Museum)
El Museo del Barrio is an East Harlem museum that specialises in Latin American and Caribbean Art. The 6,500-piece permanent collection ranges from pre-Colombian artifacts to contemporary installations. It was founded in 1969 during the during the Nuyorican and Civil Rights movements, when African American and Puerto Rican parents, educators, and community activists sought to improve the cultural diversity of the barrio's educational programs and opportunities.

The Tenement Museum
97 Orchard Street (nearest Big Bus stop: Chinatown / Little Italy)
The Tenement Museum, a series of two restored tenement apartment buildings in the Lower East Side, is one of New York’s best hidden gems. Between 1863–2011, these apartments were home to at least 15,000 people from over 20 different countries. Today, the historically recreated apartments illustrate 19th and 20th century living conditions, giving particular insight into how a century of the New York immigrant experience created one of the most diverse cities in the world.

A recreated apartment at the Tenement Museum in New York
Spartan living conditions are recreated inside an apartment at the Tenement Museum.

New York Transit Museum
99 Schermerhorn St (nearest Big Bus stop: Wall Street / Charging Bull)
A Brooklyn hidden gem, the New York Transit Museum is located within the decommissioned Court Street subway station. The museum takes a deep dive into an essential element of New York life: the public transit system. You’ll see historical artifacts from the subway, bus and commuter rail systems, including a collection of vintage train cars, historic subway turnstiles, way-finding and etiquette signage and even a working subway signal tower from 1936.

The City Reliquary Museum
370 Metropolitan Avenue (nearest Big Bus stop: SoHo)
This treasured not-for-profit community museum in Williamsburg showcases New York City's history through an eclectic collection of artifacts, from vintage subway tokens to pieces of old buildings. The City Reliquary Museum started in 2002, when Williamsburg resident Dave Herman began creatively displaying objects in the windows of his ground-floor apartment. Donations and loans of relics grew the collection, which moved to its current location in 2006.

A room at the City Reliquary Museum in New York
The City Reliquary Museum is dedicated to artifacts that tell unique stories of New York City’s past. Rotating exhibitions of community collections celebrate the archival work of New York collectors, and temporary exhibitions showcase vital, yet often overlooked stories of the city. Image by Gabrielle Gowans, courtesy of the City Reliquary Museum.

The Hip Hop Museum
575 Exterior Street (nearest Big Bus stop: The Met Museum)
In 2024, the much-anticipated Hip Hop Museum is set to open on the Bronx Waterfront, with thousands of artifacts, images and testimonies dedicated to telling the story of hip hop culture and how it changed the world. With a close look at DJing, emceeing and rapping, breakdance, graffiti and Hip Hop knowledge, the museum also seeks to celebrate the Bronx as the birthplace of Hip Hop.

Unique Things to See in New York

Shakespeare in the Park
Delacorte Theater, Central Park (nearest Big Bus stop: The Met Museum)
For a month every summer, the Public Theater stages free performances of one of Shakespeare’s plays at the open-air Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Performances usually run Monday through Saturday, with free tickets available on the day in person or via digital lottery. Stars including Meryl Streep, Al Pacino and Denzel Washington have previously performed at Shakespeare in the Park, making this activity one of the best free hidden gems in NYC!

Shakespeare In The Park at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park in New York
Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Image credit: Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Little Red Lighthouse
Fort Washington Park (nearest Big Bus stop: The Met Museum)
This tiny lighthouse is Manhattan’s last remaining lighthouse. Built in 1880, it was the inspiration for Hildegard H. Swift's 1942 children's book, The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge. Well off the beaten path, the Little Red Lighthouse is one of the best hidden spots in New York, with interesting views across the Hudson River, under the George Washington Bridge, and through the surrounding parkland.

African Burial Ground
290 Broadway (nearest Big Bus stop: Brooklyn Bridge)
Situated atop the oldest and largest known excavated burial ground in North America for both free and enslaved Africans, this peaceful monument represents the role slavery played in building New York City. It’s estimated that over 15,000 African Americans were buried here in the 18th century, with remains discovered when the site was excavated in 1991. The monument was dedicated in 2007, and has features and symbolism designed to reflect the circle of diaspora, the ancestral chamber, the middle passage and the meeting of two worlds. The Interpretation Center is located nearby within the lobby of 290 Broadway.

Time Out Market Rooftop
55 Water Street (nearest Big Bus stop: Brooklyn Bridge)
If you’re feeling hungry, the Time Out Market is the perfect place to head to after a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. You’ll be delighted with the huge variety of eateries to choose from, and captivated by the incredible views of Manhattan back across the East River. There’s lots of outdoor seating at the market, and plenty of space outside on the boardwalk to sit or walk and soak up the views. Our whole team recommend this as one of the best places to take photos in New York!

Roosevelt Island Tram
254 E 60th St (nearest Big Bus stop: Central Park Zoo)
Crossing the East River between Roosevelt Island and Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the Roosevelt Island Tram is a unique aerial tramway that’s one of New York’s more unusual transport icons. You might remember it from the films Nighthawks (1981) or Spider-Man (2002). The 110-person-capacity trams travel 3,140 feet (960 m) across the river in less than three minutes, suspended at a height of 230 feet. A ride on the tramway is perfect for getting unique photos of New York, and gives you the opportunity to explore off-the-beaten-track Roosevelt Island.

Fraunces Tavern in New York
The Roosevelt Island Tram was the first commuter aerial tramway in the U.S. It opened on May 17, 1976, to serve the new residential developments on the island.

Doyer’s Street
Chinatown (nearest Big Bus stop: Chinatown / Little Italy)
Once known as one of the deadliest streets in New York City, this tiny 200-foot curved street follows the route of an old stream. In the early 20th century it became known as the “Bloody Angle” after numerous hatchet murders by the Tong Gangs of Chinatown. Today it’s a pedestrian-only street lined with colorful shops and pretty lanterns. Stop for some pictures and possibly lunch at a noodle house, and feel grateful that you’re a century late for the street’s notoriety!

Experience New York like a local

There’s so much to see in New York City, so you’d be forgiven for creating a manic itinerary to follow. It is indeed the city that never sleeps, but keep in mind that local living probably won’t center around the city’s busiest landmarks or must-see attractions. Instead, you’ll need to take the time to head to one of our recommended destinations and simply stop and observe. It’s even better with a snack, so go have a picnic in Central Park, do brunch anywhere in the city (Claudia recommends The Standard, Jack’s Wife Freda, or Bubby’s) or pick up a ‘hero’ (sandwich) from the nearest bodega (convenience store) and try to coincide with the local lunch-break crowd at a small inner-city park like the Elevated Acre or Greenacre Park. Even just walking around New York City will keep you entertained! Walking will help you to discover your own hidden gems in NYC (and you might just get the opportunity to shout “Hey! I’m walkin’ here!”)

Friends discovering New York with a Big Bus Tours bus in the background

Ten Insider Tips for NYC

  • Don’t eat your pizza with a knife and fork. A ‘slice’ is triangular, a ‘grandma slice’ is square, and a full pizza is a ‘whole pie’
  • Take an e-bike around Central Park. It’s an easy way to see a big place if you don’t have a lot of time
  • The subway is usually faster than a taxi
  • Smaller shops and independent vendors often only accept cash, so keep some on you
  • Don’t suddenly stop on the sidewalk or let your group block it. Just ‘pull over’ to the right
  • Wear some comfortable shoes – your step count is going stratospheric
  • Stick with the A-ratings when eating out. These should be displayed prominently at all restaurants
  • Ask someone for directions if you’re lost, but don’t bog them down with small talk
  • Take every bathroom break you can get
  • Don’t bend your Metrocard!