So we’re top of the heap again.
Earlier this month, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced that New York City looks poised to take top honors in 2009 as the most popular tourist destination in the United States for the first time in nearly 20 years, despite a nearly 4 percent decline in visitor numbers over 2008.
It’s about time.
True, I (and other fast-paced souls) can get annoyed sometimes at having to navigate around crowds of gawking tourists who often block sidewalks. But like most New Yorkers, that doesn’t mean I don’t want people to visit and fall in love with this grand city.
What continues to make New York exciting to me after nearly 20 years of resident status is that practically every time I step outside, I’m entertained by something or someone I see or overhear on the streets or subways. I’m also regularly wowed by factoid gems, both historic and modern, often shared by New York natives—who are entertaining characters themselves. (For some New York trivia, check out this week’s Time Out New York cover feature “225 Things You Didn’t Know About New York.”)
Though visitors tend to stick to the popular tourist sites, which can be pretty pricey (Empire State Building observation deck tickets are now $20), there are plenty of lesser-known attractions in New York that can help you get to know this city like a native. Here are a few of my favorites—all of which cost $5 or less.
1. Bill Brand’s Masstransiscope. Artist Brand completed this vision of color and light, based on the principle of the zoetrope, in Brooklyn’s abandoned Myrtle Avenue subway station in 1980. After years of neglect and graffiti coverage, he raised funds to restore (and protect) the artwork in 2008, and it can be enjoyed again for a mere $2.25 subway ride on the Manhattan-bound B and Q trains. Look for the images just after leaving the DeKalb Avenue station. Check out this video footage of the old and restored versions from Brand’s blog. You’ll also see the now bygone graffiti-covered trains—inside and out—from 30 years ago.
2. Fisher Landau Center for Art. Plenty of people know about the Frick Collection of classic European art in Manhattan, but for those who also appreciate current works, there’s the Emily Fisher Landau private collection in Queens, which includes more than 1,500 pieces of work created since 1960 by top modern and contemporary artists, including Kiki Smith, Chuck Close and Robert Rauschenberg. Plus it’s housed in a former parachute-harness factory in Long Island City, a nice reminder of New York’s vibrant manufacturing history. Open Thursday to Monday, noon to 5 p.m. Free.
3. Steinway & Sons Factory Tour. Steinway, the manufacturer of arguably the best modern pianos in the world, offers a tour of its headquarters and factory in Astoria, Queens, showing how the treasured instruments are made. Tours take place on Tuesdays from 9 a.m. to noon from September through June. You must call or e-mail in advance to reserve a space; walk-ins are not accepted, and tours are usually booked up to two months in advance. Though free, a tax-deductible donation is encouraged to help the company complete its William Steinway Diary Project with the collaboration of the Smithsonian Institute Libraries, which will make the unpublished 19th century source available online.
4. Ocean Parkway Bike Path. This first bike path in the United States opened in Brooklyn in 1894 and was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, the same team who created nearby Prospect Park and Central Park in Manhattan—both excellent attractions in their own right. I didn’t even know about the path until I moved across the street from it a few years ago. The pleasant (if not terribly exciting) tree- and bench-lined route stretches for more than five miles and leads straight to the Coney Island boardwalk, another worthy and distinctly New York site. Take the F or G train to Fort Hamilton Parkway to pick up the path near Prospect Park. Free.
5. Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art. Opened in 1947, the Marchais Museum was designed in the style of a Himalayan temple and is the first example of such architecture in the United States. The Dalai Lama prayed here during his initial visit to the United States in 1991. It’s more than worth the trip to central Staten Island to see the excellent collection of rare Tibetan and Asian art and artifacts, especially during warmer weather, when the surrounding grounds are in full bloom. Admission, $5.
(Photo credits: Financial District, D.M. Airoldi; Fisher Landau Center for Art; Steinway & Sons; Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art)