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25 unique experiences in NYC you shouldn’t miss

Discover 25 unforgettable and unique experiences in NYC, from iconic landmarks to hidden gems. Explore the city like never before.


Unique experiences in NYC

Ready to dive into the heart of the Big Apple and uncover its hidden gems? Whether you're a wide-eyed first-timer or a seasoned city slicker, New York City always has a trick up its sleeve. There are plenty of unique experiences in NYC to help you make unforgettable memories in the city that never sleeps.

From the iconic landmarks to the hidden treasures waiting to be discovered, in this article we'll help you experience New York like never before.

25 unique experiences in NYC

When you're visiting NYC, it's easy to get caught up in the typical tourist traps. If you’re seeking unforgettable experiences beyond the well-trodden tourist trails, we’ll share the secret spots that will make your visit truly remarkable, and include a few popular places that do deserve a visit.

1. Explore Central Park

First up, let's talk about Central Park. Sure, it's not a secret, but there's so much more to this iconic green space than meets the eye. Did you know there's a zoo, a castle, and even a reservoir tucked away inside?

One of our favorite things to do there is rent a rowboat and paddle around the lake. It's a great way to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and pretend you're in a romantic movie scene.

you can have Unique experiences in Central Park

2. Visit Coney Island

Next on the list is Coney Island. This beachfront neighborhood in Brooklyn is like stepping back in time to the glory days of amusement parks. The iconic Cyclone roller coaster and Wonder Wheel are must-rides, but there's much more to explore.

One of the most classic unique experiences in NYC is grabbing a hot dog at Nathan’s Famous, which was opened in 1916. Afterwards, take a stroll along the boardwalk and soak up the quirky, carnival-like atmosphere. 

If you're lucky enough to be there in June, don't miss the annual Mermaid Parade - it's a wild, colorful celebration of all things nautical and nonsensical.

visiting Conney Island and eating a hot dog is one of the Unique experiences in NYC

3. Discover iconic filming locations

New York City is a dream come true for movie and TV buffs, with countless iconic filming locations scattered throughout the city. Get ready to walk in the footsteps of your beloved characters and bring your favorite moments to life.

You can channel your inner Rachel or Ross by snapping a selfie in front of the Friends apartment building or reenact your favorite Ghostbusters scenes at the firehouse that served as their headquarters.

4. Explore the Catacombs

Among the unique experiences in New York City, visiting the catacombs under the old St. Patrick’s Cathedral stands out. This historic landmark in Lower Manhattan has served as a refuge for waves of immigrants, including Irish, Italian, Hispanic, and Asian communities.

The cathedral's catacombs became the final resting place for many prominent Catholics, such as Congressman John Kelly, the Delmonico Family, Civil War veteran General Thomas Eckert, and socialite Countess Annie Leary.

For nearly 200 years, these catacombs were accessible only to clergy, workers, and family members of those entombed. In 2017, the basilica opened the catacombs to the public, allowing visitors to explore this fascinating underground world.

visit NYC Catacombs

5. Take a day trip to Niagara Falls

If you have a little extra time in your itinerary, consider taking a day trip to Niagara Falls. It's a bit of a trek from the city but it's worth it.

The roar of the water, the cool mist on your skin, and the breathtaking views – Niagara Falls is an experience like no other. Take a thrilling ride on the Maid of the Mist, immerse yourself in nature along the trails of Niagara Falls State Park, or soar above the falls in a helicopter for a truly unique perspective.

Niagara Falls

6. Learn about immigration at the Tenement Museum

The Tenement Museum offers a deep dive into the lives of US immigrants who once lived on Orchard Street. By meticulously researching and recreating the environment of these tenements, the museum showcases their stories through authentic artifacts and restored interiors.

Visitors can choose from various tours that highlight different immigrant experiences, potentially connecting with their own heritage. The interactive tours are led by either actors or knowledgeable guides. Additionally, the museum provides walking tours of the Lower East Side, offering insights into the historical significance of the area's buildings.

7. Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge

This iconic structure has been connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn since 1883, and it's just as impressive today as it was back then. The pedestrian walkway is elevated above the car traffic, so you can stroll across at your own pace and take in the breathtaking views of the city skyline and East River.

One of the best times to walk the bridge is at sunset, when the light is soft and golden, and the city starts to light up. Just be prepared for crowds, especially on weekends and holidays. Our advice? Go early in the morning or later in the evening to avoid the worst of the foot traffic.

walking across the Brooklyn Bridge is a classic NYC experience

8. Indulge in artisanal ice cream flavors

You simply can't leave NYC without sampling the city’s artisanal ice creams. One ice cream joint that always hits the spot (and has vegan options) is Van Leeuwen. They started small with a single truck, but now you can find their shops all over the city. Another must-visit spot is Morgenstern's Finest Ice Cream on the Lower East Side, which brings a contemporary twist to the traditional ice cream parlor.

If you're a fan of soft serve, you can't miss Big Gay Ice Cream. What started as a whimsical ice cream truck is now a mini empire with multiple storefronts, each one more colorful and quirkier than the last. Their signature cones come topped with everything from crushed pretzels to dulce de leche, and they even have a flavor called the Salty Pimp.

No matter which ice cream shop you choose, be prepared for lines, especially on hot summer days. But the wait is worth it for a scoop (or three) of pure, creamy bliss.

9. Soar above the city on a helicopter ride

For a truly unforgettable experience, consider taking a helicopter ride above New York City. Seeing the city's iconic landmarks from a bird's eye view is absolutely breathtaking. From above, you can really appreciate just how vast and impressive the cityscape is.

There are several companies offering helicopter tours. Most rides last between 15-30 minutes, so you can pick the length that fits your schedule and budget.

helicopter ride over NYC

10. Immerse yourself in art at the Met

As an art lover, no trip to NYC is complete for me without a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Affectionately known as "The Met", this iconic institution is one of the world's largest and most comprehensive art museums.

The sheer scope and diversity of its collection is impressive. With over 2 million works spanning 5,000 years of human creativity, there's truly something for everyone. From ancient Egyptian artifacts to contemporary American art, you could spend days exploring the museum's seemingly endless galleries.

While it's impossible to see everything in one trip, there are a few masterpieces not to be missed, such as Van Gogh's "Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat", Monet's "Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies", and the Temple of Dendur.

In addition to its permanent collection, The Met hosts special exhibitions throughout the year. These immersive displays dive deep into specific artists, eras, or themes. Give yourself plenty of time to wander, absorb, and appreciate the astounding works on display.

visit MET

11. Watch Shakespeare In The Park

Shakespeare in the Park is a renowned theatrical program that presents Shakespearean plays at the Delacorte Theater, an open-air venue in Central Park. Managed by The Public Theater, this program offers free tickets distributed on the day of the performance.

Each summer, the theater features two different Shakespeare productions, ranging from classic interpretations to contemporary adaptations, usually incorporating modern themes. The productions are of exceptional quality, often involving world-class directors, set designers, and famous actors.

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12. Go on a themed walking tour

New York City is a treasure trove of hidden gems and fascinating stories, and there's no better way to uncover them than by embarking on a themed walking tour.

Among our favorite themed tours are the food tours. Any foodie will love exploring the city's diverse culinary scene and discovering hidden gems along the way. On a food tour of the Lower East Side, for instance, you can sample everything from authentic New York-style pizza to delectable dumplings in Chinatown.

For those who prefer a more spine-chilling experience, a ghost tour is a must. Among other options, there is a fun tour of Greenwich Village's haunted locations. As you walk through narrow, dimly lit streets, the tour guide tells tales of ghostly encounters and eerie happenings.

In you’re an architecture buff you’ll love the city's many walking tours that showcase its stunning buildings and landmarks. From the art deco masterpieces of Midtown to the brownstones of Brooklyn Heights, there's no shortage of architectural wonders to admire.


13. Step back in time at the Jazz Age Lawn Party

For a truly unique NYC experience, head to the Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governors Island. Held twice a year, this event transports you back to the roaring 1920s for a weekend of live jazz, dancing, and vintage glamour.

From the moment you step off the ferry onto Governors Island, you'll feel like you've traveled back in time. Attendees dress to the nines in 1920s attire, from flapper dresses and pearls to suspenders and newsboy caps.

At the heart of the party is the live music. Top jazz bands and musicians from around the world take the stage, playing everything from lively swing tunes to smooth blues. When you need a break from dancing, there are plenty of other activities to enjoy. Try your hand at vintage lawn games like croquet or test your luck at old-fashioned carnival games.

14. Explore the vibrant Union Square Greenmarket

If you're looking for a unique and authentic New York City experience, look no further than the Union Square Greenmarket. This vibrant outdoor farmers market is a hub of activity, with locals and tourists alike flocking to browse the stalls and sample the fresh, locally-sourced produce.

Everywhere you look, there are stalls piled high with colorful produce, from crisp apples to juicy tomatoes. And let's not forget the artisanal cheeses, homemade jams, and locally-sourced honey that are sure to make your mouth water.

One of the best things about the Union Square Greenmarket is the opportunity to meet the farmers and producers behind the products. These hardworking individuals are passionate about what they do and are always happy to chat with customers about their growing practices and the stories behind their products. It's a great way to feel more connected to the food you eat and the people who grow it.

The Union Square Greenmarket is also a hub of activity, with seasonal events and activities happening throughout the year. In the fall, you can enjoy apple cider and pumpkin picking, while in the spring, you can browse the colorful tulips and daffodils. Cooking demonstrations and live music add to the festive atmosphere.

Union Square Greenmarket

15. Marvel at the beauty of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

For nature lovers, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden is an oasis amidst the bustling city. This 52-acre urban paradise is a feast for the senses, with lush gardens, tranquil ponds, and stunning floral displays that change with the seasons.

One of our favorite spots in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden is the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden. This serene oasis is designed to mimic the natural landscape of Japan, with winding paths, stone lanterns, and a tranquil pond filled with colorful koi fish.

Another must-see spot in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden is the Rose Garden. This stunning display features over 1,200 varieties of roses, from classic tea roses to modern hybrids. In the spring and summer, the garden is a riot of color and fragrance, with blooms ranging from delicate pinks to vibrant reds.

And if you're lucky enough to visit the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in the spring, you won't want to miss the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. This beloved event celebrates the fleeting beauty of the garden's collection of cherry trees, which burst into bloom for just a few short weeks each year.

Botani Garden

16. Grab a drink at Please Don’t Tell

Please Don't Tell (PDT) is a speakeasy-style bar that's tucked away behind a phone booth in a hot dog shop. To get in, you have to pick up the phone and dial a secret number. Once inside, you'll find a cozy, dimly lit bar serving up creative cocktails.

17. Visit The Explorers Club

If you're a fan of adventure and exploration, you won't want to miss the Explorers Club. This private society is dedicated to scientific exploration and houses a unique collection of artifacts from around the world. From polar bear specimens to moon rocks, there's no shortage of fascinating items to discover here.

The Club welcomes visits by members, scholars and others interested in the history and practice of exploration. Building tours are offered during public events. It also hosts an annual dinner to honor accomplishments in exploration, which is known for its very exotic cuisine.

18. Explore the Liz Christy Garden

Another hidden gem in NYC is the Liz Christy Garden, the first community garden in the city. Founded in 1973, this garden features a variety of plants, trees, and flowers, as well as a pond and a wildflower meadow. It's a peaceful retreat from the chaos of the city and a testament to the power of community activism.

19. Visit the New York Transit Museum

Founded in 1976, the New York Transit Museum is dedicated to telling and preserving the stories of mass transportation. Housed underground in an authentic 1936 subway station in Downtown Brooklyn, the Transit Museum’s working platform level spans a full city block and is home to a rotating selection of twenty vintage subway and elevated cars dating back to 1907.

Visitors can board the vintage cars, sit at the wheel of a city bus, step through a time tunnel of turnstiles, and explore changing exhibits that highlight the cultural, social, and technological history – and future – of mass transit.

NYC subway station

20. Discover the City Hall Station

Still under the same topic, you can get a glimpse into New York City's past by heading to the City Hall Station. This abandoned subway station features stunning architecture, including arched ceilings and intricate tilework. While it's no longer in use, you can still catch a glimpse of it by riding the 6 train past the Brooklyn Bridge stop.

21. Have breakfast on Lexington Candy Shop

One of the most unique experiences in NYC takes you back in time. Founded in 1925, Lexington Candy Shop is New York City’s reminder of a bygone era when soda fountains and luncheonettes were present in every neighborhood.

Continuously owned and operated through three generations of family and partners, it is located in the heart of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, just three blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

have breakfast at an old luncheonette in NYC

22. Dine in an old bank vault

Did you know that the basement vault at the Trinity Place Bar and Restaurant was originally commissioned by the New York Realty Bank? They serve meals with seasonal ingredients so you can dine in a bank vault built at the turn of the century, owned by Andrew Carnegie. The enormous vault doors are quite impressive.

23. Have fun at the Color Factory

If you’re feeling playful, visit the Color Factory for a different type of unique experience in NYC. This interactive museum celebrates color in a vibrant and playful way, featuring everything from colorful macarons to a confetti room and a giant ball pit.

There are many opportunities to engage with art and color, and visitors are encouraged to play and interact with the exhibits. It's great if you’re traveling with kids of if you’re looking for a fun indoor activity for rainy days.

Unique experiences in NYC

24. Try the doughnut grilled cheese from Clinton Hall

If you're a foodie, visiting Clinton Hall is a must-do in NYC. Known for its famous doughnut grilled cheese, this popular beer hall and eatery boasts several locations throughout the city. The Financial District spot offers ample outdoor seating and board games to enjoy while you wait for your meal.

25. Discover Little Island park

Little Island at Pier 55 is an artificial island and a public park within Hudson River Park, just off the western coast of Manhattan. Opened on May 2021, it quickly became an unmissable attraction in NYC. The floating park is located on top of a concrete structure with 132 columns shaped like giant tulips, emerging from the Hudson River.

Little Island Park

Get a free stay and find more unique experiences in NYC

Did you know you can stay in the city for free while living like a local and uncovering more unique experiences in NYC? Just sign up to Worldpackers, a platform that connects travelers with hosts who offer accommodation and other perks in exchange for volunteer work. It's a great way to explore new places affordably and immerse yourself in local culture.

Hosts often provide insights into the city's best-kept secrets, such as lesser-known cafes, parks, and cultural spots. You'll likely meet other travelers and locals, making connections that can lead to unique experiences and friendships. And you’ll have the opportunity to participate in activities and events that locals enjoy, from neighborhood block parties to underground art shows.

How Worldpackers works

  • Find a host: Create a free profile on the Worldpackers website or app and use the platform’s filters to search for hosts in New York City. These could be hostels, homestays, NGOs etc.
  • Apply and connect: Once you find a host that matches your interests and skills, apply by sending a personalized message that explains why you’re interested in that project and how you can help. Then, communicate directly with them to discuss the details.
  • Volunteer: Upon arrival, you'll volunteer a few hours a day, helping with various tasks like reception work, social media management, gardening, web development etc. In return for your work, you receive free accommodation, which can range from a bed in a shared room to a private space, and possibly other benefits like meals and tours.

Worldpackers makes it possible to explore New York City in a meaningful, immersive, and affordable way. 

Check out some of the opportunities available there:

Click here to see all the work exchange programs in New York.

volunteer in NYC

New York City is one of the best US cities to travel to, as it's place of endless wonder, where every corner holds a surprise. Just when you think you've seen it all, you'll find a hidden gem that takes your breath away. Whether you're wandering through the streets or seeking out new adventures, the Big Apple will always find a way to steal your heart.

It’s definitely worth it staying there for more than just a few days, and volunteering in exchange for accommodation is the cheapest and most fun way to do that. You’ll get to live like a local and stumble into many more unique NYC gems. Create a free profile on Worldpackers right now and start saving your favorite opportunities to your wish list! 

You might also like to read: The 18 best beach getaways in the USA

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