I am one of those New Yorkers that stops when I see lost tourists puzzling over a map, or standing on a street corner, turning around and around. But every time I’m asked directions to F.A.O. Schwartz or Macy’s or Ground Zero, I want to choose a different, much better destination for them. Usually I just sigh and just point them in the right direction, but if you’re planning a visit to NYC, you really owe it to yourself to try some funkier places, off the well-worn tourist trail. They will be less crowded, more interesting, more fun and usually less expensive. Below are a few of my picks (and certainly add your favorites to my list in the comments).
Instead of: Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island
Now that the crown and pedestal are closed for renovations through 2012, the Statue of Liberty is pretty dull. There’s just not much to see other than a closer view of the statue’s feet. Ellis Island is pretty neat, but there are better ways to get a feel for the immigrant experience.
- See much more on a Hidden Harbor Tour. Led by maritime historians, you’ll see relics of NYC’s maritime history, plus its current activity. And you’ll still see the Statue up close. Since the two-hour tours run in the evenings, you’ll see the sun set behind Lady Liberty — magical. Adults: $29, kids $15, plus discounts for seniors and families.
- Take a ride on an 1885 schooner, the Pioneer. It’s pricey ($40 for adults, $30 for kids), but you don’t get to climb aboard a four-sail ship everyday, and the fee benefits the South Street Seaport Museum. The two-hour tour includes up-close views of Lady Liberty and a harbor tour.
- Imagine immigrant life at the Tenement Museum. Guided tours through this 1863 tenement building recreate the lives of the working poor in old New York. This is a wonderfully transporting museum. Adults $22, students $17 (kids under 5 free).
Instead of: Dylan’s Candy Bar (or the M&M store)
PLEASE don’t go to these places! Dylan’s (owned by Ralph Lauren’s daughter, Dylan) is fantastically overcrowded, fantastically expensive and not nearly as big as you think it should be. The M&Ms store is huge, and all of the M&M colors are neat, but it’s not worth the high prices and crowds.
- Go all ‘Veruka Salt’ at Economy Candy. In business on the lower east side since 1937, candy stores don’t get much better — it’s simply stuffed to the gills with everything from old-fashioned favorites to gourmet imports. And it’s all a lot cheaper than Dylan’s or the cheesy M&M store.
Instead of: Chinatown
Every big city has a Chinatown. Ours is dirty, crowded and nothing special. Plus there’s better dim sum in Flushing, Queens.
- Imagine yourself in a Bollywood film in Jackson Heights. Take the #7 train to Roosevelt Avenue to explore Indian restaurants, sweet shops, spice shops and clothing stores. Buy some great, inexpensive souvenirs at Butala Emporium on 74th street and have lunch at Jackson Diner (or any one of dozens of restaurants).
- Sing ’til you’re hoarse in Little Korea. Bypass Macy’s and head for 32nd street between Broadway and 5th avenue for Korean food and a couple of hours of karaoke. You get your own room with TV and audio setup, microphones, tambourines and a huge menu of American (and Korean) songs to choose from. Most places charge about $10 per person, per hour. Try Karaoke Duet on 35th street.
Instead of: Renting a bike in Central Park
It’s not that cycling around Central Park is bad — it’s great, but you’ll be battling so many other bicycles, pedestrians, baby strollers and special events that you’ll hardly notice the sites.
- Rent a bike in Riverside Park. Walk all the way west on 70th to find Bike and Roll rentals. Head north on the car-free Hudson River Greenway to enjoy gorgeous river views, taking time to ogle the fancy apartment buildings on Riverside Drive. Heading south takes you past cruise ships and old piers, all the way down to Battery Park if your legs have the energy. $14 per hour, less for kids
- Kayak in the Hudson. It’s free! There are three locations along the Hudson to choose from. You’ll be safely paddling in small areas with great views. Did I mention it’s f-r-e-e? It’s run by volunteer staff at Downtown Boathouse.
Instead of: Macy’s
Macy’s isn’t what it used to be. Twenty years ago, it was a nice place, with salespeople that had worked there for years, and wonderful vintage wooden escalators. But the escalators have been replaced and all of the employees are just part-timers who don’t care. Same goes for Century 21, a crowded nightmare.
- Hit the sales at Lord and Taylor (5th ave. and 39th street). Unlike Macy’s you’ll still meet some people who’ve worked at Lord and Taylor for 20 years. They know their stuff. The seasonal sales for women’s clothing are fantastic (it’s not so great for menswear). Ask other visitors or staff if there are any coupons this week — there often are.
- Get gadget envy at B&H. If electronics are your thing, you will have a seizure in B&H (34th street and 9th avenue). They’re especially strong in SLR cameras and pro audio, but you don’t have to buy a thing to enjoy this store. A wild conveyor-belt system carries items to the checkout area. The place is owned and mainly staffed by Hasidic Jews, so it’s closed on Saturday, but open on Sunday.
Instead of: the 9/11 Memorial
I know this one is a little sensitive, but believe me — unless you reserve tickets in advance to the memorial itself (which is lovely), there is nothing here to see except a construction site and other tourists.
- Instead, spend some time on the Voices of 9.11 website. This project features more than 500 interviews with people who witnessed, survived or lost loved ones during the events of 9/11. These videos will move you more than the crush of people and hucksters selling souvenirs near the site itself. The stories from near-miss survivors are especially compelling.
Instead of: Carriage ride through Central Park
Yes, I know your feet hurt and you’re tired of walking, but this gets my vote for the worst of the worst. I have seen these carriage drivers harassing people who don’t tip them enough and inflating prices based on all sorts of crazy shit (“there’s a $20 Saturday surcharge”). But the worst of it is the poor horses. You might think there’s some pretty stable for them in Central Park. But no — they stay in run-down multilevel stables with stalls so small they can’t lie down — EVER. There are regular accidents involving horses and taxis, and you can imagine what happens to the horse. There are better, more humane ways to see Central Park.
- Take a pedi-cab. A strong young man or woman will pedal your rickshaw and point out all the Central Park sites. A one-hour tour for two costs $100; the same tour in a horse-drawn carriage would cost $150.
- Go foraging with the Wildman. For a truly unique walking tour, a real New-York character, “Wildman” Steve Brill will take you on a four-hour walking tour of Central Park, on a hunt for edible plants. Of course, you’ll see lots of other stuff and learn about NYC’s ecology too. $25 suggested donation; reserve in advance. See website for tour schedule.
- Try birdwatching with NYC Audubon. Central Park is perfectly situated on major migration routes, making the park a great place to spot finches, hawks, buntings, ducks, waxwings and more, depending on the season. NYC Audubon runs “birding for families” tours on Sundays (through Nov. 25) from 10:00 to 11:00 a.m. It’s free and binoculars are provided. Other tours can be found on the NYC Audubon website.