17 Unusual Things to Do in New York
New York City is filled with unmissable attractions that appeal to a wide range of travelers. The Empire State Building, Central Park, Brooklyn Bridge, One World Trade Center, and several others are on nearly every tourist’s New York Itinerary. But there are also plenty of off the beaten path, unusual things to do in New York for intrepid adventurers.
Many visitors get tired of the same tired sites and want to find intriguing places for a better glimpse of the real New York City. I already covered a lot of the usual things to do like Times Square, taking the Staten Island ferry, visiting Socrates sculpture park, seeing Madison square garden, the Brooklyn botanic garden, Coney island, and Grand Central station in my posts on Backpacking New York and the itinerary above.
This post is for the stranger and lesser-known activities.
Fortunately, a grandiose metropolis like New York City has thousands of unique activities waiting for you to discover. From perplexing museums to peculiar inventions, here are 17 unusual things to do in New York City.
17 Unusual Things to Do in New York
1. Smallpox Memorial Hospital
Located on Roosevelt Island, the Smallpox Hospital ruins are for those fascinated by creepy, abandoned places most tourists would never fathom to visit. Smallpox has devastated civilizations for thousands of years, and it still ravaged the United States in the 1800s. The hospital was specifically for smallpox patients due to its isolation from the rest of New York City’s population.
The building would eventually be abandoned in the mid-20th century and left to rot on the island. Although the hospital has been declared a city landmark, it remains a ramshackle structure to this day. Taking the train or ferry to Roosevelt Island and walking amongst the ruins will give you an unsettling glimpse into New York’s past.
2. Patrick’s Cathedral Catacombs
St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral was one of New York City’s first Roman Catholic churches. Although overshadowed by the more extravagant St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the historic church now offers a spooky experience for fans of everything macabre.
Previously closed to the public, the underground catacombs of the church are now accessible via a guided tour. Discover the final resting places of New York residents from centuries ago and feel goosebumps from this candlelight journey.
The Catacombs by Candlelight Tour will be an eye-opening glimpse into New York City’s history as you stroll through one of the rare catacombs in America.
3. House of Yes
Anything goes at this high-flying, acrobatic performance that welcomes all sorts of eccentric characters to Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighbourhood. The House of Yes is an eclectic space where artists are free to unleash their creative energy in a variety of unique expressions.
Local artists established the venue to make inspirational pieces of art without a care in the world. The place has transformed into one of New York City’s grooviest nightlife spots with colourful costumes, dance performances, disco parties, and burlesque shows.
It’s all about self-expression the moment you step inside, and you’re free to let your creative soul run wild.
4. Brooklyn Superhero Supply
Have dreams at night of soaring through the air or lifting buildings like your favourite superhero? Maybe you’d rather be the arch-nemesis and unleash your bad side. Either way, Brooklyn Superhero Supply is the place to live out all your eccentric fantasies.
Pick out your costume, cape, mask, and anything else you need to fight crime or create chaos. There are all sorts of novelty items, gadgets, and props to make you feel like an authentic superhero or evil villain.
In reality, the retail storefront serves the community as a non-profit group dedicated to improving the writing skills of local children. Dedicated volunteers help thousands of students polish their creative writing talents and progress in their education.
5. Tenement Museum
Located in the Lower East Side, the Tenement Museum lets you walk into the shoes of New York City immigrants. Journey back in time and discover the living conditions of those who made the daring quest to start a new life in America.
Different tours represent various periods and waves of immigrants that came to the country. The historic tenement buildings were constructed in the mid-19th century, and immigrants from dozens of nations resided there over the years.
Immerse yourself in the story of each group and witness their perseverance to make a new life in New York. After your tour, browse through the gift shop to find interesting souvenir items you won’t find elsewhere.
6. Museum of Sex
Although sex museums may not be the most unusual or risqué thing to do in other parts of the world, the topic still clings to such connotations when visiting America. Manhattan’s Museum of Sex opened its doors in 2002 and was one of the first such museums in the country.
Thousands of artefacts, photographs, artwork, and other items relating to sex’s impact on humanity are on display. Don’t expect the exhibits to be raunchy, but more scholarly in their approach.
Tickets for the museum are pricey, so make sure you get the most of your visit the day you decide to browse through this eye-opening attraction.
7. Museum of the American Gangster
Gangsters captured the imaginations of Americans during the Prohibition era, and notorious criminals thrived during this heyday. Remnants of crime bosses can be found in major cities around the country, and New York City is no different.
One of New York’s less-featured museums pays homage to these mobsters and showcases relics from their operations. The Museum of the American Gangster is upstairs from a family-owned theatre in the East Village.
During the theatre’s renovation in the 1960s, a series of tunnels and safes were found inside. As it turned out, the building was once a speakeasy visited by the likes of Al Capone and Lucky Luciano.
A visit to this unique museum gives you a peek of organized crime in America, and you can stop by the William Barnacle Tavern to sip on absinthe after your tour.
8. New York Transit Museum
Manhattan doesn’t have all the museum fun in New York City. The New York Transit Museum falls under the radar of many tourists, and the downtown Brooklyn venue houses incredible pieces of the city’s history.
The museum is inside an abandoned subway station and features vintage train cars upwards of a century old. Models of train cars, buses, and trams are on display, and exhibits provide insight into the challenging work needed to construct the New York City Underground. Interactive exhibits like the simulated bus driver are a joy for the kids if you bring the youngsters along.
For any train enthusiast or lover of old-school advertisements, this is a goldmine discovery in New York.
9. Sunshine Laundromat
What could possibly be so unusual about visiting a laundromat? No, it’s not a fancy way they wash your clothes or some type of secret detergent.
Hidden in the back of this Greenpoint laundromat is a world-class collection of classic pinball machines. Even stranger, this whimsical venue also has a bar serving craft beer and wine. Flip wizards will discover pinball utopia with the laundromat’s nearly two dozen retro pinball machines.
If you ever have a load of clothes that need washing, stop by Sunshine Laundromat to hang out with some of the world’s greatest pinball players.
10. The Hindu Temple Society of North America
New York City may be a melting pot of cultures, but Queens is still a peculiar spot to see a towering Hindu temple. Located in Flushing, the temple was constructed in honour of Lord Ganesh and is supposedly the first-ever Hindu temple in the United States.
The temple was crafted by skilled architects who lived in the growing Hindu immigrant population of the borough. Although the place is a house of worship and community centre for locals, visitors can tour the facility.
If you head to the basement of the temple, you’ll find the local canteen which serves typical South Indian cuisine. A friendly atmosphere to meet members of the community and have some of the tastiest dosas outside of India.
11. Green-Wood Cemetery
Walking through a graveyard certainly wouldn’t top many to-do lists in New York City, but this enormous Brooklyn cemetery has more than meets the eye. The 478-acre cemetery is among the most tranquil escapes from the New York City chaos and features lots of artistic monuments.
Many prominent figures of the 19th century are buried in the cemetery with fascinating mausoleums around the gravesites. The landscape is kept in immaculate condition with beautiful trees, serene ponds, and scenic walking paths.
If you don’t feel like walking around the whole cemetery, trolley tours are available to drive you around the cemetery’s beautiful sites.
The Vessel is one of the newest attractions in New York City and among its most confusing architectural creations. This intricate structure consists of over 150 interconnected staircases and stands as the centrepiece of the Hudson Yards development.
The spiralled building gives you dozens of incredible viewpoints of the city, and it’s not a bad way to get an interesting workout. Although you’ll have to make a reservation to climb the interactive artwork, free tickets are available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
If you’d rather skip the climb, there’s an elevator that takes you to the top of the structure for a bird’s eye view of the Hudson Yards.
13. Pier 54
History buffs will get a kick out of this decrepit pier that welcomed the survivors of the devastating Titanic disaster. The ship’s ill-fated maiden voyage took the lives of roughly 1,500 souls, and those who escaped its sinking sailed to New York City on the Carpathia.
Today, the pier is mostly abandoned with hardly a trace of the role it played in one of history’s most studied tragedies. Pier 54 can be found in Hudson River Park but is closed for visitors walking past the gate. However, the rusty metal gate with the words “Cunard White Star” remains visible for a photo op.
14. Commercial Street Cat Village
If you venture to the Greenpoint waterfront, you’ll likely stumble upon a gang of felines whose job is to ward off pesky rodents. Operated by the non-profit group “Neighborhood Cats,” the program traps, neuters, and releases feral cats living in the area.
A brisk walk down Commercial Street will lead you to the crates that house the furry pest controllers. Don’t be surprised to find cats on patrol or sprawled out on a sunny afternoon.
The dedicated members of Neighborhood Cats work tirelessly trapping cats, educating the public on the benefits of the program, and collaborating with animal shelters to care for every feline. They are responsible for many tenets utilized in the TNR program due to their hands-on efforts.
15. Sprinkles Cupcake ATM
Don’t you hate craving that sugar rush in the middle of the day, and the nearest bakery seems light years away? What if there was a convenient machine that dispensed scrumptious desserts? That’s exactly what you get at the Upper East Side and Brookfield Place Sprinkles Cupcake ATMs.
The delicious cupcakes come in a variety of flavours such as red velvet, lemon coconut, and cinnamon sugar. Whenever your sweet tooth is yearning for a treat, make a quick stop by this unique ATM for dessert on the go.
Inside a lower Manhattan freight elevator, this quirky museum features obscure items from modern society. The founders frequently replace the objects, and they always find a way to pique the interests of wandering travelers.
Only a handful of guests can walk into Mmuseumm at a time, but you can peep at exhibits through the windows. Bring earbuds during your visit, and you’ll be able to learn more about each object on the audio guide. Regardless of each exhibit’s size, there’s often a thought-provoking message behind them.
If you have some extra cash to dish out, this swanky nightclub has some of the flashiest décors in Manhattan. Located in the posh Nolita neighbourhood, Goldbar is a 2,500 sq. ft establishment adorned with crystal chandeliers and gold skulls on the walls.
The staff offers one of New York City’s most extravagant nightlife experiences and you can feel like you’re on the set of high-class Indiana Jones movie set. A night here gives you the chance to hang with the elite crowd in a setting mimicking a spooky vault.
Just make sure you come dressed to impress to get past the bouncer at the door.
If you want to reduce the cost of going to all these attractions check out the New York City Smart Card Pass.
You can take day trips from New York easily too such as heading to Point Pleasant to check out the beach for a day.
What’s your favorite of these unusual things to do in New York? Got one you’d add to the list? Let me know in the comments below.
Like it? Pin it ?
Camping is among my top recommendations for an adventurous Alaskan vacation. Surrounded by jaw-dropping scenery and the peaceful sounds of nature will complete an unforgettable trip to this beautiful state. When I need a break from society to clear my head, camping is...
Whale watching is a personal pastime of mine, and Alaska is a bucket list destination for wildlife enthusiasts. Every summer, whales make their long migration from the warmer waters of Mexico and Hawaii to the food-rich waters of Alaska. Travelers who dream of...
Alaska is a hiker’s paradise, and anyone who loves nature will never want to leave this wild frontier. The state is home to turquoise lakes, alpine tundra, sparkling rivers, temperate rainforest, and some of the highest peaks in North America. It’s enough to leave me...
Alaska is dubbed the Last American Frontier. It’s arguably the last place in the United States where you can unplug from the modern world and feel at one with Mother Nature. Its isolated wilderness, dramatic landscapes, and diverse wildlife make Alaska one of the...
Utah has unbelievable natural scenery, and it’s one of my favorite places to hike in the United States. There’s no shortage of incredible trails in this geologic wonderland. From the hoodoo amphitheatre of Bryce Canyon National Park to the sandstone arches of Arches...
Far away from the red-rock cliffs of Zion National Park and sandstone arches of Arches National Park, Washington’s Olympic National Park feels like a different universe. Its temperate rainforests are unlike anything I’ve ever seen in America, and its rugged coastline...