15 Hidden Gems in New York City

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You already know the famous museums, iconic buildings, and celebrity hotspots. The next time you find yourself with some free time in the City That Never Sleeps, embrace the unknown by checking out some of the less-hyped attractions that make the city unique.

1. Fort Totten Park

This Queens treasure is almost certainly the only place in New York where you can swim, sunbathe, and canoe amongst the ruins of a Civil War fortress. And unlike other urban ruins, exploration of the old fortress is encouraged. Park rangers lead regular tours through it, including some by pleasantly spooky candlelight.

2. Pomander Walk

A whole neighborhood of Tudor-style houses is probably the last thing you’d expect to find amid the steel skyscraper jungle of New York, but if you look hard enough, you’ll find it. Nestled on the Upper West Side since 1921, these little fairytale cottages were originally intended to be temporary housing inspired by a hit Broadway play of the same name. More than 90 years later, the houses are not only still occupied, the neighborhood is now considered a National Landmark.

4. Decaying World’s Fair Buildings

Though Central Park gets all of the glory, Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens has remnants of not one, but two World’s Fairs: 1939-40 and 1964-65. The World’s Fair grounds includes two time capsules to be opened in 6939, and ruins of the New York State Pavilion and Observatory Towers. But this one might not be a hidden gem for long—efforts are underway to raise funds to restore the retro-futuristic buildings to their former glory.

5. Prospect Park South

If you’re feeling more Victorian than Tudor, look no further than Prospect Park South in Brooklyn. That’s where a developer bought 50 acres in the late 19th century and constructed 206 Victorian homes to show that the same design principles that worked so well in rural homes could be tweaked to create beautiful houses on city blocks.

6. Nathan Hale’s Famous Words

In the hustle and bustle of modern-day New York, it’s easy to forget that a big part of the Revolutionary War took place here—including one of the conflict’s most iconic moments. Before Continental Army soldier Nathan Hale was hanged, he uttered the words “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” That inspiring speech happened in New York—somewhere. A couple of different locations claim to be the spot where Hale went down in history: a statue of Hale at City Hall Park and a plaque near Grand Central Terminal. Both are worth checking out if you’re a history buff.

7. The High Line

In 1934, the city of New York built a high-line railway to cut back on accidents pedestrians were having with the street-level trains. After the railway was decommissioned decades later, many people wanted to demolish the railway to make room for progress. When urban explorers discovered that Mother Nature had adorned the track with wildflowers and sumac trees, however, they started an organization to preserve and even aid the natural reclamation process. Today, the mile-long track is a wildly popular urban park and greenway suspended unexpectedly above the city.

8. The Heather Garden

Located at Fort Tryon Park, the Heather Garden is one of the largest on the East Coast. The three-acre park sits on slopes above the Hudson River and offers breathtaking views of the New Jersey Palisades.

9. The Hess Triangle

In the early 1900s, the city of New York razed some buildings in order to widen streets and sidewalks. This included David Hess’ five-story building. By 1914, the only piece of land Hess had left was a tiny triangle. The city wanted him to donate the tiny plot, but Hess staunchly refused, instead creating a mosaic tile for the top of the triangle that read, “Property of the Hess Estate which has never been dedicated for public purposes.” Hess eventually sold the triangle to the cigar store behind it, but the tile remains in place at Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue South.

10. Titanic Memorial

New York has had a special connection to the world’s most infamous maritime disaster since the RMS Carpathia delivered traumatized Titanic survivors to Pier 54 at Chelsea Piers. To honor her fallen comrades, the Unsinkable Molly Brown herself insisted on the construction of a lighthouse memorial. As usual, Molly got her way—the lighthouse was erected on top of the Seaman’s Church Institute in 1913, complete with a time ball that dropped daily at noon. It was moved to the South Street Seaport in 1967 and stands there to this day.

11. The New York Marble Cemetery

Half cemetery, half secret garden, this half-acre hideaway in the East Village is easy to miss. It can only be entered through an alleyway between 41 and 43 Second Avenue. Although the cemetery was founded in 1830, there are no tombstones typical of the era. Instead, marble tables are set into the stone walls to memorialize the vault owners.

12. Little Red Lighthouse

One of the few surviving lighthouses in NYC, the Little Red Lighthouse in Fort Washington Park once used a 1,000-pound fog signal and flashing red light to guide ships through a treacherous section of the Hudson River. If you’re interested in one of New York’s unique treasures, visit one of the lighthouse’s monthly open houses.

13. Toynbee tiles

It’s easy to walk around New York looking up to take in the skyscrapers, but sometimes it pays to look down. In big cities all over the world, cryptic messages on tiles have randomly been embedded in paved sidewalks and streets. At least 130 of the tiles are believed to exist—and more than 30 of them can be found in Midtown between 36th and 57th Streets. To this day, no one knows for sure who placed the tiles or what they mean.

14. Berlin Wall pieces in Midtown

What appears to be a public mural in Midtown’s Paley Park is actually a little slice of history: Five sections of the Berlin Wall were installed and painted by German artists in 1990.

15. The Witte Marine Scrap Yard

Though gazing at a pile of rusted junk may not typically be anyone’s idea of a good time, this marine scrap yard in Staten Island is surprisingly fascinating. Decommissioned ferries, tugboats, and barges are all sent here to end their careers, making this stretch of the river part junkyard and part maritime museum.

And to see how Heineken is encouraging New Yorkers to embrace the unknown, check out “The Payphone,” featuring Portlandia’s Fred Armisen.

August 28, 2014 - 2:15pm
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