Off the beaten track in New York: gangsters and a speakeasy!

Travel writer Julia Hammond takes us to some of the more unusual sites in New York City. With gangsters, a prohibition-era liquor den, and hidden museums and parks, New York is a city worth hanging around in after you’ve ticked off the major sights.

Since moving to the countryside a few years ago, crowded cities hold far less appeal for me than they once did. I find myself irritated by the hum of the traffic, the jostling of commuter shoulders, and the claustrophobia of high-rises packed so tightly that the sky all but disappears.

Yet a few cities have a magnetism that I still find irresistible. I can’t disagree with Samuel Johnson’s famous words, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford”. But I’d like to point out that they could equally hold true for New York City.

New York skyscrapers

Start by visiting the Freedom Tower, now known as One World Trade Center, if only for its elevator ride. As you ascend, the city develops around you in one of the best multimedia presentations I’ve seen anywhere. There’s a twist at the top, but I won’t spoil the surprise.

Not far away, the tiny Skyscraper Museum, tucked away in a forgotten corner of Battery Park, flies under the radar of most of those queuing for the Statue of Liberty ferries. Its models and photographs explain the engineering and architecture of many of the tallest structures that crowd Lower Manhattan and Midtown. You might be wondering why there’s a gap in between these areas, and I’ll tell you: the soft bedrock just wasn’t up to the job of holding up these monster tower blocks.

Museums and the Muppets

But a city is much more than its physical geography. If you’re keen to get a handle on its psyche, then the Museum of the City of New York should be your next stop.

It’s worth the trek up to the top of the Museum Mile on the Upper East Side to fill in the gaps and learn a little about what makes this city tick. The temporary exhibits are the most rewarding if you’d like to find out which issues have ignited the passions of its residents over the decades. New Yorkers are nothing if not opinionated, and this is where you can find out what’s riled them the most!

New York City is blessed with many more fascinating museums. The Brooklyn Transit Museum fills a void underneath the spot where Boerum Place meets Schermerhorn Street. Some of the exhibits in this subterranean collection of vintage subway cars are over a hundred years old. And the best bit? No one minds if you hop on board!

Out in Astoria, I loved getting reacquainted with the Muppets at the Museum of the Moving Image. In the Lower East Side, don’t be in too much of a rush to dash off once you’ve eaten at Katz’s famous deli.

The High Line Park

The High Line is now one of New York’s top five parks by visitor numbers. It was once an elevated railway, but a community-led group fought to save it from demolition and turned it into a green space. There’s lots of amazing planting, architectural interest by retaining the tracks, and hardwood furniture so you can lounge. Very New York!

In the ten years it’s been open, it’s been extended and now goes from the trendy Meatpacking District to the new development at Hudson Yards. It’s one of my favourite places in the city, whatever the weather—I’ve even been up there in the snow.

Lesser-known parks

Across the East River, a derelict industrial space once used as a sugar refinery has been transformed into Brooklyn’s answer to the High Line. But unlike its Manhattan counterpart, Domino Park has yet to find a place on the well-trodden tourist trail, and you’ll have peace and quiet—and space—as you take in the famous skyline across the water.

Another of my favourite green spaces, the New York Botanical Garden, located in the Bronx, takes a bit more effort to reach. Nevertheless, it’s well worth a visit, particularly in the autumn when the extensive collection of trees becomes a riot of russets, ochres, golds and crimsons. Central Park, eat your heart out.

Gangster museum and an authentic speakeasy

But back to Manhattan. The unprepossessing façade of the Museum of the American Gangster means that many wandering the streets of the East Village won’t even notice it and will walk right on by. But climb its steps, and amid a room of scruffy cuttings and faded photographs, the chilling tales emerge of some of New York’s most infamous characters. The basement still bears the scars of a decades-old gunfight, with bullet holes in the ageing brickwork.

Between 1920 and 1933, alcoholic drinks were banned throughout the United States. This was known as the prohibition era, and it gave rise to many illegal secret drinking dens, known as speakeasies.

A few doors further down St Mark’s Place from the museum, hidden behind the door of a telephone booth in a hot dog restaurant, is my favourite speakeasy, Please Don’t Tell. You’ll need a password to sip a cocktail at the bar and mull over the Prohibition years while night falls over the 21st-century city outside. What is it? I could tell you, but then I’d have to…