Looking to get a little more out of the Big Apple? Look no further. Culture Trip’s curated list covers the best things to do in the big city, from jazz concerts in a Harlem home to art lessons in Grand Central.
New York is one of the world’s great cities, home of the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, the Yankees and Jay-Z. Yet there’s a lot more to the big city than this. Make your visit to New York a memorable one by checking out these culturally immersive and active experiences, from joining a salsa class to kayaking in the Hudson.
Sketch and the City – Grand Central
Sketch the magnificent ceiling of New York's Grand Central | Courtesy of benponte.com
This immersive sketching experience is hosted by Australian/New York-based artist Ben Ponté, providing an opportunity to observe New York from new and unusual perspectives. Put your device aside for a few hours and pick up a pencil and pad (included) – even novices will be surprised at how much you can achieve with Ben’s guidance. Tours spend at least an hour in Grand Central, where you might sketch the tiny stars in the magnificent ceiling, the ornate stonework or just New Yorkers rushing to catch trains.
Grand Central Terminal is an iconic New York landmark. Marvel at this architectural masterpiece and explore the impressive building alongside a native New Yorker. Unravel secrets only the locals know about, gaze at the beautiful celestial ceiling mural and see if you can remember which films were shot in this historical hub.
Jazz aficionados Gordon Polatnick and Amanda Humes at Big Apple Jazz Tours offer a fabulous introduction to the Harlem jazz scene, with walking tours that take in some of the lesser-known clubs and plenty of jazz history. The Harlem Juke Joint Tour might include a visit to the intimate, no-frills American Legion Post (Col Charles Young #398), where the Harlem Groove Band features an iconic Hammond B-3 organ; or Bill’s Place, home of local star saxophonist Bill Saxton.
Plenty of outfits offer eating and drinking tours of New York, but not like this. Beginning at the White Horse Tavern – where Dylan Thomas famously supped his last drink – local actors guide you to several of the most prominent bars in Village literary history. Over a few drinks they’ll regale you with anecdotes and read from poems, plays and novels – anything from the Beats (Kerouac, Ginsberg) and James Baldwin, to poets Edna St Vincent Millay and Hart Crane.
Yes, New York really does boast specialized pizza tours. Scott’s Pizza Tours (led by Scott Wiener and his team) offers a guide not just to the city’s best slices (included), but also a hefty dose of culinary history and pizza slinging lore mixed in. Sample the delectable coal-fired version at 1950s joint Arturo’s, rich Sicilian pizza at Famous Ben’s (of Sex and the City and Men in Black 2 fame), and the quintessential New York slice at Joe’s Pizza.
Some of the performers are OK, some are truly inspired, and some are just plain rubbish, but open-mic nights in New York are part of the city’s cultural fabric, whether there’s an audience of 10 or 200. The Sunday session (5pm) at Pete’s Candy Store in Williamsburg has provided a springboard for many local performers, while artsy Bushwick Public House hosts a night of music and/or comedy on Tuesdays. Over in Manhattan, Monday nights at Arlene’s Grocery feature punk and heavy-metal live band karaoke (put your name on the list to sing).
Every Sunday (3.30–6pm), a free jazz concert takes place in the home of legendary singer Marjorie Eliot at 555 Edgecombe Ave in Harlem (buzz Apt #3F). Marjorie started the concerts in her living room in 1992, as a way to cope with the premature death of her son Phil. It’s become something of a rite of passage for local jazz fans, and it’s definitely a unique New York experience. Just buzz in and join the small audience in front of Marjorie’s piano (go early to get a good seat).
Enjoy unlimited ping pong at table tennis bar SPiN | Courtesy of SPiN
Actress Susan Sarandon is a co-owner of SPiN (48 East 23rd St), a huge table tennis club with 19 tables, bar and a restaurant. Open till 2am Friday and Saturday, this is more like a lounge than a sports club, with comfy banquettes and booths, DJs, live music, high-quality booze and snacks on offer – Sarandon often pops in to play a few games. Just $9 gets you unlimited ping pong play after 9pm. You can also watch the pros play on Sunday afternoons.
Enjoy an immersive theater performance by Punchdrunk | Courtesy of Punchdrunk
Immersive theater comes to New York in the form of Sleep No More, created by British company Punchdrunk. Set in a fictional 1930s hotel (the “McKittrick”) this “film noir” 3-hr performance is loosely based on Macbeth. Audiences move freely through the hotel at their own pace, choosing their own path through the story, amidst actors who dance, fight and embrace but rarely speak. All guests are required to wear a mask (provided), adding to the sense of fantasy.
Test your investigative skills at a murder mystery evening at the Historic Mount Vernon Hotel Museum – as one of the last 18th-century buildings left in Manhattan, it’s the perfect setting to solve a mystery crime. Get after-hours access to wander around the grounds, team up or work alone and figure out where the mystery skeleton came from.
Poetry slamming is like freestyle rapping – performers take turns presenting stories and poems (often mostly or entirely improvised) on stage. The performers are usually compelling and fairly talented here, and the atmosphere is always friendly – audiences tend to be very sympathetic if you fancy a go yourself. Bowery Poetry hosts “PoetNY Open Mic” every Sunday, while Nuyorican Poets Café is home to several weekly and monthly Open Mic events, including “All That! Poetry, Hip-Hop & Jazz”.
Pioneer graffiti artists started “tagging” New York in the late 1960s. Brooklyn Unplugged and Graff Tours offer the chance to create your own, swirling, candy-colored murals guided by real street artists in Brooklyn. Getting creative with a spray can is fun (and surprisingly cathartic) though you won’t be defacing public property in these workshops. All supplies are provided, and you can take home the canvas at the end. Both outfits also run highly rated street art tours.
Kayaking the mighty Hudson River provides a whole new perspective of the city, as seagulls squawk and Manhattan’s skyscrapers sparkle in the distance. Free kayaks and canoes can be rented from the Downtown Boathouse (May–Oct at weekends) at Pier 26 in Manhattan and Pier 101 on Governors Island. Manhattan Community Boathouse offers a similar program from Pier 96 in Manhattan, while access to the East River is provided by Brooklyn Bridge Park Boathouse at Pier 2.
It’s not just in movies – Roller Derby is a real contact sport in the US. Games consists of a series of short “jams” in which two roller skating “jammers” score points by lapping members of the opposing team. Both teams attempt to block the opposing jammer, often with hilarious (if slightly bruising) results. New York’s league (April–Nov), the Gotham Girls Roller Derby, features four teams – Brooklyn Bombshells, Queens of Pain, Manhattan Mayhem, and the Bronx Gridlock. Games take place in venues around the city.
Greenwich Village (aka the West Village) has been the city’s bohemian heart since the early 1900s, and though it’s become relatively posh (and expensive) today, it remains one of New York’s most beautiful neighborhoods. It’s also (allegedly), haunted. Learn all the spooky historical facts, hear chilling tales of celebrity spirits, lost children, phantoms, and more as you stroll through Washington Square Park (which still has its “Hanging Tree”) on a nighttime walking ghost tour.
New York’s craft beer renaissance is in full swing, with some of the city’s most highly prized craft beers hailing from the outer boroughs. Most small-batch producers have no-frills tap rooms for sampling brews; the Bronx Brewery, Finback Brewery in Queens and Other Half Brewing and Threes Brewing in Brooklyn, to name just a few. It’s easy to go it alone, but organized tours can take the hassle out of navigating the subway after, ahem, a few drinks. The New York Beer and Brewery Tour takes five hours and visits Birreria Brewery, Brooklyn Brewery, Spuyten Duyvil, and Singlecut Brewery.
African-American churches are known for their uplifting Sunday gospel choirs, which feature a blend of spiritual soul, R&B and rousing, hand-clapping hymns. The weekly service at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem has been popular with visitors for years – and can be very crowded – but several other churches feature electrifying choirs and foot-stomping music. The First Corinthian Baptist Church, Bethel Gospel Assembly and Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem welcome visitors, as does the Brooklyn Tabernacle. But remember – this is not a show, and participants must dress and act respectfully.
Indie theatre and off-Broadway productions thrive in New York, often providing an insight into under-represented and minority communities. The WOW Café Theatre is a women’s theater collective in the East Village, promoting the empowerment of women through the performing arts. Its smart, cutting-edge shows are produced, acted and directed by women and transgender people, including those who identify as lesbians, bisexual and queer. Recent shows have included burlesque performances about breakups, and a play that unravels the secrets and lies surrounding racism and sexuality in the south.
In New York even museums can transform into thumping dance clubs. Over in Queens, MoMA PS1 runs the summers only Warm Up series, featuring live and electronic music (think DJs Derrick May, DJ Premier, and Ritchie Hawtin). “One Step Beyond” (temporarily on hiatus) usually takes place inside the American Museum of Natural History (the one with all the dinosaurs), with the likes of Questlove, Louie Vega and Prince Paul spinning tunes in the Rose Center for Earth and Space. Brooklyn Museum transforms into a performance and live music venue (with booze) every first Saturday night of the month.
Each of the elaborate parties features a distinct theme | Courtesy of Dances of Vice
Walking into a Dances of Vice party is like stepping into a surreal, Halloween version of Louis XIV’s Versailles, with participants sporting baroque wigs, harlequin jumpsuits and a variety of dazzling costumes. Burlesque dancers, contortionists, jugglers and assorted performers hanging from acrobatic swings, on stilts or rolling around in giant orbs provide visual entertainment (many performers have worked for Cirque du Soleil). Each party (which take place several times a year) features a distinct theme, along with DJs, live music, artfully curated cocktails and fabulously over-the-top décor.
Established in 2010 by artist/historian Kamau Ware, Black Gotham Experience organizes events and tours that aim to promote the contribution of the African Diaspora to New York history, specifically in the development of Manhattan. Ware organizes walking tours and talks, but also holds his popular “Nerdy Thursdays” throughout the year – a book club and after-work mixer. These include anything from readings, DJs, curated panels, signature cocktails, and snacks, all centered on a particular theme. It’s a great way to meet real New Yorkers, especially from the African-American community.
Explore the surrounding neighborhoods of New York on a walking tour with a local New Yorker guide, who also doubles up as a photographer and will be snapping candid pictures of you throughout the day, so that you can have photos to remember the day by. Get insider tips about where to eat, drink and spend your time, wander through the trendy streets and unravel a side of the city only usually known to the locals’.