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12 Cool and Unique Things To Do in New York City

Explore NYC's quirky side at spots including the unique MoMA Design Store
Explore NYC's quirky side at spots including the unique MoMA Design Store | © Randy Duchaine / Alamy Stock Photo
Residents and tourists alike can’t be expected to know about all of the cool and unique things to do in New York City. We’ll help you keep track by breaking down hip spots to visit.

New York City is renowned for its cultural institutions, including world-famous museums, opera houses, clubs, restaurants and parks – plus incredible shopping. And while the Empire State Building is worthy of admiration, there are so many places off the beaten track that a bus tour will never bring you to. From La Monte Young’s Dream House installation to a restaurant that’s hidden behind a pawn shop storefront, we break down the most cool and unique places to visit that you can’t see anywhere else.

Mmuseumm, New York

Museum
At 60 sq ft (5.6 sq m), Mmuseumm, housed inside a former freight elevator, is the city’s smallest museum. While it’s open only on weekends, the ode to ‘object journalism’ is accessible 24 hours a day through a peephole. Each exhibition tells a story through unusual artifacts, with former exhibits featuring last meal receipts, world leader-used tissues, and a collection of products that bear Donald Trump’s name, including aftershave, energy drinks, liquor and games.
Permanently closed
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Strand Bookstore

Bookstore
Strand Bookstore, East Village, Manhattan, New York, USA
© Stefano Politi Markovina / Alamy Stock Photo
While Strand isn’t exactly a secret (it’s a 90-year-old New York institution), it is unique in its breadth and depth. With a book collection that could span 18 miles (30km) when laid spine-to-spine, this three-floor behemoth is one of the US’s largest independent bookstores. Any fan of the written word could easily spend an entire day picking through the dollar carts outside or gazing at the rare books room on the third floor, which includes early printings and signed editions.
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The Earth Room, New York

Building
Back in the 1970s, filling a SoHo loft with 280,000 lbs (127,000kg) of dirt was called ‘art’ and not ‘a real estate misstep of the ages’. Alas, as Ai Weiwei proved, sometimes you have to break a few eggs (or a million-dollar vase) to make art. The New York Earth Room was created in 1977 by Land artist Walter de Maria who referred to it as a “minimal horizontal interior earth sculpture.” Land Art was a movement in the late 1960s and 1970s that rejected commercialization and utilized natural materials such as rocks and earth to create impermanent, environmental installations. The New York Earth Room’s soil is the same that was introduced more than 40 years ago. It’s raked once a week and occasionally mushrooms grow from it, but otherwise it is a monument to stasis in a constantly changing world. From noon to 6pm, Wednesday through Sunday, the space is open to visitors at no cost.
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Wed - Sun:
12:00 pm - 3:00 pm
Wed - Sun:
3:30 pm - 6:00 pm

The Dream House

Art Gallery
Tribeca’s Dream House bills itself as a sound and light environment. For a donation fee visitors can hang out in a room filled with incense, incandescent light and an interminable drone created by minimalist mastermind musician La Monte Young, with accompanying visuals by his romantic and collaborative partner, Marian Zazeela. The concept first occurred to Young in 1963, though it took 30 years before the current installation on Church Street became a reality. It’s the perfect place to pull up a pillow and just sit and think (or not think) and escape from the hustle and bustle of New York City living. The Dream House is open 2pm to midnight Wednesday through Saturday.
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Museum of Sex, New York

Museum, Shop
Museum of Sex in NYC
© Xinhua / Alamy Stock Photo
The Met it is not. This NoMad museum is more fun than it is serious – for example, ‘Jump for Joy’ is a bounce-house room upstairs where the inflatables are shaped like giant breasts. But that isn’t to say that this institution is all sex without substance. The MoSex is dedicated to the exploration of the history, evolution and cultural significance of human sexuality, and its permanent collection features over 20,000 artifacts comprised of works of art, photography, clothing and costumes, technological inventions and historical ephemera. Past exhibits have focused on punk rock’s defiant sexuality and disco’s liberating spirit.
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MoMA Design Store

Museum, Store
New York, USA. 22nd Oct, 2019. People walk past the MoMA Design Store in Manhattan of New York, the United States, Oct. 22, 2019. MoMA was reopened to the public on Monday after being closed since June 15 for renovation and reorganization of its galleries
© Xinhua / Alamy Stock Photo
Art doesn’t only have to be a painting that hangs on a wall that can never be touched. Pick up some art for everyday use at the Museum of Modern Art Design Store. Each object in the shop is vetted by a two-step process: first, it has to meet eight criteria of good design, then the proposed product is evaluated by MoMA’s curatorial department. You’ll find a Bluetooth speaker that looks like a 1950s FM radio, a glass table that is functional vertically and horizontally, a Breur folding chair and other items that are fun and distinct.
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Mon - Thu:
10:00 am - 6:30 pm
Fri:
10:00 am - 9:00 pm
Sat - Sun:
10:00 am - 6:30 am

The Evolution Store

Shop
Customers inside of the Evolution Store in Soho.Lower Manhattan.New York City.NY.USA
© Bruce yuanyue Bi / Alamy Stock Photo
You don’t have to be a lepidopterist (someone who collects butterflies or moths) to enjoy the collection of curios at Greenwich Village’s Evolution Store. Part-museum, part-enthusiast shop, the store opened in SoHo in 1993 and moved to its current locale in 2016. It’s best described as if The Natural History Museum had price tags affixed to its displays. Here, you’ll find taxidermied alligator heads, scorpions safely housed in glass paperweights, bat skeletons in domes and all sorts of other eerie and interesting natural gifts. If a preserved piranha doesn’t do it for you, perhaps minerals, such as the Brazilian agate coasters, will.
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China Chalet

Restaurant, Chinese, $$$
Store front of the China Chalet restaurant / lounge in New York City
© Elizabeth Wake / Alamy Stock Photo
With Manhattan rent prices as they are, operating a dim sum restaurant is not a foolproof plan. China Chalet, a FiDi food staple since 1975, closes its kitchen at night, clears the tables and turns into a raucous nightclub. Two bars, disco balls and a dance floor pop up and the 800-capacity venue goes from the Chinese spot next door to Studio 54. Partygoers line up hours before doors open on weekends to boogie down. At its launch, Steve Buscemi, Debbie Harry and John Waters joined the revelers for a throwback to the long-lost heydays of the Manhattan ‘it-club’.
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Beauty and Essex

Restaurant, American, $$$
Beauty and Essex is a speakeasy bar hidden behind a pawn shop on Essex Street, Lower East Side, New York
© Elizabeth Wake / Alamy Stock Photo
Looking in as a passerby on the Lower East Side’s Essex Street, you might see this unassuming storefront as nothing more than just another pawn shop hawking boomboxes and used instruments. But for those in the know (you after reading this), it’s also a hip cocktail bar and restaurant hidden behind a secret door. Once inside, a staircase will lead you to your table where chef Chris Santos’ small plates can be shared, from chile relleno empanadas to grilled cheese and tomato soup dumplings. Signature cocktails include the Beauty Elixir (gin, cucumber, strawberry and sparkling rosé) and the Earl of Pearl (vodka, earl grey tea, lemon and mint syrup).
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Welcome To The Johnsons

Bar, Pub Grub, American
Welcome to the Johnsons, 123 Rivington St, New York, NY. exterior storefront of a local bar in the Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan.. Image shot 07/2011. Exact date unknown.
© Robert K. Chin - Storefronts / Alamy Stock Photo
Not to be confused with Brooklyn’s The Johnsons, an offshoot of this Lower East Side bar, Welcome to the Johnsons is a dive known for its cheap drinks and grandma’s basement vibe. Replete with wood-paneled walls, sports trophies and family portraits, the kitsch charm makes up for its somewhat dingy setting. Come for the pool table and jukebox, which add extra entertainment value, but stay for great music, unbeatable prices and a local haunt feel.
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The Dead Poet

Bar, Pub, Irish, $$$
March 2 is Dr Seuss’ birthday; March 12 is the day Jack Kerouac was born; and May 16 is the birthday of poet Adrienne Rich. If you happen to share a birthday with any of these authors (or a slew of others), the Upper West Side’s The Dead Poet has your tab covered. Otherwise, this literary Irish pub is still a great place to grab a Guinness for bibliophiles and the illiterate alike. Opened in 2000 by a former English teacher, The Dead Poet celebrates an age-old combination: authors and alcohol. Its cocktails are loving tributes to bygone writers such as the Matsuo Basho, a famous writer of haikus, whose namesake drink’s ingredients – Japanese Whisky / Cube of Sugar, Orange Zest / Juice of fresh lemon – actually follow the 5-7-5 syllable count of the poem’s form.
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Film Forum

Movie Theater
If you’re looking to see the latest blockbuster action film, AMC has you covered. But New York is a city of options and Film Forum’s programming is a balm for those jaded by the big studio’s near-monopoly on entertainment. Open since 1970, Film Forum is home to independent features and serves its community as the only autonomous nonprofit cinema in New York City and one of the few in the US. It’s where the preservation of film history comes alive with black-and-white oldies from Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’ introduced by experts, avant-garde documentaries, and foreign cinema you can’t see anywhere else.
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These recommendations were updated on February 24, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.