New York might have a lot of shiny new things, but it’s also got a whole load of history behind it too. There’s a bunch of spots that everyone knows and loves – Lady Lib, the Empire State Building, Brooklyn Bridge – but there’s even more iconic sites that you should add to your list that’ll have the history buffs among you in a proper spin. Let’s cut to the chase, then – here’s our must-visit historic sites in NYC.
At the intersection of 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue, the Chrysler Building was briefly the tallest in the world – before being scuppered by the Empire State Building in 1931. Even that pointy bit at the top – built in secret inside the building before being attached – wasn’t enough to keep it at the top of the charts. That being said, its distinctive Art Deco style, with all those ornate decorative elements like gargoyles and eagles and those triangular windows right at the top, almost make it more impressive than the Empire State in our books…
Designated a National Landmark in 1976, the Chrysler Building was designed for the Chrysler Corporation for its head honcho, Walter P. Chrysler. Its construction in the 1920s was fraught with competition, with a whole bunch of men, such as John Jakob Raskob, the financial executive of General Motors, and former New York Governor Al Smith, all wanting to build the tallest skyscraper in the world. Maybe they were compensating for something, who knows.
The observation deck has been out of commission for decades now, but there are plans to bring it back – in the meantime, entry to the lobby is free, and you can check out the mural by artist Edward Trumbull and a ceiling mural by artist Edward Steichen.
It might look like a medieval European monastery, but the MET Cloisters actually opened to the public in 1938. Located in Fort Tryon Park in Upper Manhattan, New York City, this branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is all about the art, architecture and gardens of – you guessed it – Medieval Europe. Like a lot of things in New York, it was funded by a Rockefeller.
Housing a vast collection of medieval European art and artefacts, stretching from the 9th to the 16th centuries, it’s got illuminated manuscripts, sculpture, and paintings to boot, as well as those famous Unicorn Tapestries (you might know them from the Harry Potter films, where they were included as part of the decoration at Hogwarts). But the gardens are where it gets real special. With herb gardens and water features all tied in to evoke the feel of a medieval garden, it’s serene with a capital S – and it comes with mega views of the Hudson River and New Jersey Palisades.
It’s open Thursday – Tuesday from 10am to 4.30pm, and tickets cost $30 for adults – but this’ll get you entrance to the MET too! Due to it’s landmark status, there is limited accessibility to those in wheelchairs or who need step-free access, but these is a free shuttle to gain entrance should you need it.
Coney Island Cyclone
Coney Island’s most famous resident, the Cyclone is a classic wooden coaster, first opened to the public way back in 1927 and still going strong today. It’s got steep drops, sharp turns, and an overall pretty intense ride experience. It’s not for the faint of heart, is all we’ll say.
In the early 70s, the Cyclone faced the possibility of demolition, but due to public outcry and efforts from preservationists, it was saved and eventually designated as a New York City Landmark in 1988. In 1991, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991 – and all this for a roller coaster! But as any New Yorker will tell you, the Cyclone isn’t any old coaster, it’s the coaster – an iconic fixture of any New Yorker’s childhood (and adulthood).
Even for the non-natives amongst us, the Cyclone is just as familiar, thanks to being heavily featured in many a film over the years, and we reckon it’s definitely one of the must-visit historic sites in NYC.
Flat Iron Building
Another historic Manhattan skyscraper, the Flat Iron Building is chiefly famous for looking like a, well, flat-iron (or just an iron to you and us). It was actually originally known as the Fuller Building (clearly didn’t stick), competed in 1902, and it’s triangle-ness was all just down to the constraints of the plot of land it sits on at the intersection of Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and 23rd Street.
A classic New York snapshot, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and stands out for its intricate Beaux-Arts detailing (well, that and its triangle-ness). And did you know that it actually gradually widens as it rises?! Anyway, it’s the home of Macmillan Publishers now, so they only real access you can get to it is the lobby, unless you become a hot-shot author. But that iconic shot from the outside won’t cost you a dime, and it’s got a firm place on our list of must-visit historic sites in NYC.
St Patrick’s Cathedral
This place stands out amongst the metal and glass of Midtown Manhattan like a Gothic thumb. The seat of the archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, St Patrick’s Cathedral is all pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and elaborate ornamentation, with a spire that rises to a height of 330 feet! Its stained-glass windows could make anyone a believer, and its general grandeur makes it one of the must-visit historical sites in NYC, whether you’re one of the flock or not!
Visitors can explore the interior, attend Mass (it’s still a fully functioning place of worship), and learn about the history of the cathedral through guided tours of its religious artwork, statues, paintings, and mosaics. You can even opt for a Behind the Scenes Tour with a Cathedral Historian, including the Archbishop quarters where the Pope changed his outfit during his visit, if that’s your thing.
Another one of the must-visit historic sites in NYC is the birthplace of the modern Gay Rights Movement. The Stonewall Inn means a whole lot to a whole lot of people. Considered the ‘Rosa Parks moment’ of LGBTQI+ history, this spot is where on June 28th 1969, the Stonewall Inn regulars fought back against the city-sanctioned harassment they faced by the local police department. A raid of the premises, which had become the norm in 1969, didn’t go as planned when the patrons of the bar decided to fight back instead, with several protests and clashes with the police held in the days following.
Now a National Historic Landmark, today it’s considered the homeplace of Pride as we know it, and you can find it in Greenwich Village, at 53 Christopher Street.
Portal down to Old New York
If you don’t know what you’re looking for, then you might just miss this slice of the city’s Dutch history. Known as the ‘portal down to old New York’, this spot at Pearl and Broadstreet in Lower Manhattan is where you can see the actual remnants of colonial-era New York, or New Amsterdam as it was known at the time.
Discovered during a major archaeological dig in the 70s, the area reveals some of the oldest parts of the city, back when it was just a couple of blocks, including parts of the original Town Hall and the Lovelace Tavern. Sure, it might not be as impressive as a lot of the other things on this list, but you can claim to have seen a part of New York that even most New Yorkers haven’t seen!
Next up on our list of must-visit historic sites in NYC, this place gives the Cloisters a run for their money when it comes to how peaceful it is. Set on Brooklyn’s highest point, this burial ground stretches for more than 478 acres, with a whole load of tombs, mausoleums, lakes and spots of forest all connected by a network of roads and footpaths.
Over 560,000 people have been laid to rest here with beautiful views over Manhattan (not a bad final stop), including a whole bunch of people you might just be familiar with: inventor Samuel Morse (of the Morse code), designer Louis Comfort Tiffany (of those famous Tiffany lamps specifically, but also the son of the guy who started Tiffany & Co), artist Jean-Michel Bisquat, and composer Leonard Bernstein.
Entry to the cemetery is free, and there’s also free maps available to help guide your way.
TWA Flight Center
If you’re flying out of JFK, we reckon you should head to the airport a day early and spend the night at this old terminal turned mega cool airport hotel.
Originally a terminal for Trans World Airlines, it opened in 1962. Characterised by its mega futuristic and avant-garde appearance, with a distinctive wing-like roof and a sweeping, curvy structure, it was all about embodying the optimism and forward-looking spirit of the Jet Age. And the inside was just as fancy too, with a sunken lounge, tall windows, and white terrazzo floors – nice!
After TWA went bankrupt in 2001, it was left empty for several years, but campaigns against demolishing it were successful and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005 – phew! Then, in 2019, it reopened as the TWA Hotel, following an extensive renovation and restoration project which saw it keep the original design elements of the terminal, as well as adding in some extras, like an infinity pool that overlooks the runway and the Connie Cocktail Lounge – a 1958 Lockheed Constellation plane turned cocktail bar where you can get a Vodka is My Co-Pilot, their take on a martini.