After years of taking friends and relatives around the City that Never Sleeps, I’ve been forced more than once to endure the tourist traps that define this great concrete jungle, but no real New Yorker ever tries to visit unless absolutely necessary. Here are my Top 5 Most Overrated NYC Attractions, and a few alternatives to get the same or similar experiences, without overpaying and braving the slack-jawed masses.
5. Ice Skating at Rockefeller Center
Everyone wants to go ice skating at Rockefeller Center. Beneath the famous Christmas tree and the gaze of Prometheus, 150 skaters at a time can skate around in circles while being gawked at by hordes of tourists.
$25-$32 will get you admission to the rink and $12 will get you rental skates. Ouch.
Rock Center is beautiful and a must-see during the holiday season, especially. In the summer there’s a great outdoor bar and cafe that’s erected over the rink – so it’s a great place to be year-round. But, you don’t need to skate there.
Instead: Go ice skating at Bryant Park or The Rink at Brookfield Place – basically anywhere else.
Bryant Park‘s skating rink is free (yes, FREE!) with skate rentals of $20, and the Winter Village is definitely worth a look. You can store your bags for a fee and pay $28 to skip the line. Just allow plenty of time and you won’t need to do that, though. If you’re visiting, plan to visit during working hours, when the poor folks who live here need to be at work. And know that I’m envious of you!
The Rink at Brookfield Place, in the shadow of the World Trade Center, right by the water and surrounded by fabulous shopping and restaurants, is a great deal at $15 per 90 minute session and a $5 skate rental. You can even pay a bit extra to take a skating lesson from former U.S. Olympic skaters. How cool is that?
4. Statue of Liberty
Sure, Lady Liberty is a beaut’ and she celebrates her 125th anniversary this year. But, do you really want to get on a boat with a bunch of other tourists and be held captive, then corralled around the queue to get in, then wait some more, go up to the crown (if you reserve well in advance) and then putz around Liberty Island for a while before catching a ferry back? I don’t think so.
The Statue of Liberty symbolizes the greatest things about the United States and its history of immigration. It was a beacon of hope for those huddled masses that came here through New York City for so many years. But in the end, it’s just a statue that you can go inside of. Why not make a more memorable visit and learn more about the immigrants that came to the United States another way?
Instead: Head to Ellis Island and also check out the Tenement Museum.
Personally, like nearly 40% of all Americans, my ancestors came through Ellis Island. Their names are on the wall there. If you’re American (or not and have family that emigrated to the US through Ellis Island) you can search the archives and pay a small sum of money to get high resolution photos of the registers and other information associated with your ancestor. Even if you have no personal connection to Ellis Island, it’s the actual place where boatloads (literally) of immigrants (over 12 million) came to the U.S. from Europe, mainly, from 1892 to 1954.
One can see when visiting how the immigrants were processed, how they were treated, what they were forced to endure and what they brought with them from their former homes, all in the hopes of achieving the American Dream.
If that’s not enough of the story of sacrifice and hardship of America’s 19th and 20th century immigrants for you, then check out the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side. Many immigrants coming through Ellis Island (about 1/3) stayed in New York, and they had to live somewhere. And so they crammed into crowded apartments called tenement houses, usually with many families sharing one apartment, condensed around the Lower East Side. Again, my family were among these – on both sides (mother’s and father’s). The Museum is a reconstructed and restored tenement house, built to show how those people lived. Add in the walking tour or a food tour, which complements the guided tour of the museum, for the full experience.
3. Top of the Empire State Building
I get it. The top of the Empire State Building is iconic, it’s been in tons of movies (hello, Sleepless in Seattle) and it’s usually on everyone’s list. Don’t wait in a ridiculous line and pay way too much money (currently $34 USD for an adult for the main deck (86th floor) and a whopping $57 for the top deck (102nd floor)) to go here, unless you shell out a bunch more for a VIP pass ($60, $80 or $100, depending). People wait in line for hours in a not-so-great neighborhood (basically just shopping and Koreatown, although I love Koreatown) to be herded like cattle up to the top. Why should you give it a miss, you ask?
Because you can’t see the Empire State Building from the Empire State Building, for one. That’s kind of obvious. And it’s the universal symbol for NYC. Wouldn’t you like an awesome aerial skyline photo that features it? This is why I think the Empire State Building is one of the top overrated NYC attractions.
Instead: Go to the Top of the Rock or One World Observatory.
Now, in a clever move, all of the base-level tickets for the three observatories are $34 USD. I’m sure this is no coincidence. However, there’s a reason why the other two are better.
I haven’t personally been to One World Observatory yet but friends who live here have said it is amazing. It’s situated at the 100-102nd floors of One World Trade Center (the Freedom Tower) and its elevators are truly state-of-the-art. They have live music some nights and offer a champagne-sipping evening package is $52. If you want to “See Forever™”, then this one’s for you.
However, I have been to Top of the Rock. It’s at the 70th floor of 30 Rockefeller Center (yes, that “30 Rock“) and the perk of getting one of these tickets is you can get a combination ticket for a tour of Rockefeller Center itself, or a ticket for the MoMA. A regular ticket for an adult just for the observatory is $34 USD. A combined ticket for Top of the Rock and a tour of Rockefeller Center is $48, and a combined ticket for Top of the Rock and MoMA is $52 ($10 off buying them separately).
Feeling a little thirsty? Instead, bypass the Top of the Rock and at 5pm head instead to Bar SixtyFive at the Rainbow Room. This bar is on the 65th floor of 30 Rock and charges no admission fee, per se. Now, if you plan on having a couple of cocktails anyway, this sounds like the choice for you, doesn’t it? The views from the classic, elegant and swanky Rainbow Room do not disappoint! Note that there is a dress code (collared shirts for men) so don’t show up in a t-shirt and shorts.
2. Canal Street
Getting off the subway at Grand Street or Canal Street stops, one must physically and mentally steel themselves against the immediate barrage of Chinese hawkers the second you reach street level. “You want handbag?” “Handbag, handbag!” “Wristwatches!”
Canal Street is known for its illegal knockoff handbags and watches, as well as other faux designer goods imported from China or at least trafficked in by the Chinese. It creates a level of anxiety that’s unnecessary. Overrated NYC attraction? You bet.
Instead: Go get yourself a quirky bag by a local artisan at the Bleecker Street Market, The Brooklyn Flea or the LIC Flea.
Knockoffs are sooo 20th century. Or, if you just want a great deal on a REAL designer bag, head to Century 21 down by the World Trade Center or do some research to find out what sample sales are going on while you are in town (usually in SoHo). Be aware that sample sales usually have a restriction on how many you can purchase, but it’s better than stepping over rotting vegetables and braving the crowds (and sketchiness) of Canal Street.
And the most overrated NYC attraction is…
1. Times Square
You don’t want to go to Times Square for more than 2 seconds to snap a photo and be on your merry way. Or take like, 10 minutes and climb the red staircase above the TKTS booth, take some photos, and leave. I’m serious. Leave.
Why don’t you want to stick around? Because there are thousands upon thousands of other tourists around, gaping at the lights and smells and sounds around you, seemingly frozen in place. There are tons of second-rate cartoon characters, superheroes and other children’s characters (Elmo is the classic) roaming around, whoring themselves out for photos in exchange for cash. There’s the now creepy-old Naked Cowboy. There are now topless women in body paint trying to make a buck. Yes, being topless is legal in NYC, but I don’t think it means you should go out tits-out in Times Square to flirt with scary old men for a couple of dollars. Most overrated NYC attraction ever.
Instead: Check out Union Square or Brookfield Place at the World Trade Center for shopping, eating and people watching.
That’s about all, folks. Hope you enjoyed this list and that I can help you save some headaches on your next (or first!) trip to NYC. Just avoid these overrated NYC attractions to hang with the real New Yorkers (instead of tourists), and you’ll be all set.
Am I just being a jaded New Yorker? Let me know what you think in the comments section!