A Short List of the Best Historic Sites in New York City

I am a New Yorker. And by that I mean that I am from New York State. Technically I am from Long Island, but I have spent a large amount of time exploring New York City.

Can I get around NYC like a pro? You bet your ass I can.

Can I do it without consulting a map? Nope definitely not, but then again, neither can most people.

A huge history nerd, I tend to spend more time carting my tourist friends to my favorite historical sites than actually letting them see any traditional NYC tourist spots. So I was asked to write a list of my favorite historical spots in the Big Apple (a name made popular by the journalist John J. Fitzgerald in the 1920s). Since there are too many sites in the city to mention, this list is limited to strictly within the boundaries of Manhattan Island proper; my sincerest apologies to the remaining four boroughs and the river islands. So here they are in no particular order:

  1. New York Public Library (5th Avenue at 42nd Street)

This glorious example of American architecture is my island of solace in the hellhole that is Midtown Manhattan. It opened in the 1911 and was designed in the Beaux Arts style by Carrère and Hastings the former protégés of McKim, Mead, and White. The public library offers a variety of wonderful things: beautiful architecture, marble staircases, vaulted reading rooms, more books than you could read in your life, clean free public restrooms, and my personal favorite, a Gutenberg Bible. There are only 48 of these bad boys left in the world, and you can see one here.

  1. Stone Street (Financial District)

    Stone Street via (allwomenstalk.com)
    Stone Street via (allwomenstalk.com)

So you’re walking through the financial district and all you see are shiny buildings and business suits. Suddenly, however, you turn a corner and you’ve stepped back in time. Now you’re in a little slice of old New York with cobbled streets and buildings that haven’t changed since before the Civil War. The Stone Street Historic District is now one of the cultural hubs of Lower Manhattan full of excellent restaurants and bars. In the summer all the local establishments put tables out on the road so the entire street feels like one giant communal restaurant. By the way, there are two sections of Stone Street, and the one off Williams Street is way better.

  1. The Cloisters (Fort Tyron Park)

One of the best parts of living in Europe is the ability to walk through a city and suddenly end up in a building older than the United States. Do you want to be able to do this in New York? If so, look no further than The Cloisters. Manhattans very own faux-medieval monastery. A pick-n-mix of a building, it is made of several different medieval monasteries that were moved from Europe to New York in the 20th century. The Cloisters is chock full of one of the largest medieval art collections in America. Located way up north in Morning Side Heights, The Cloisters are nifty enough to be worth a subway ride that far uptown.

  1. Cooper Union (Cooper Square and 4th Street)

Established in 1859 by Peter Cooper, this school was founded on the principle that all higher education should be “open and free to all.” Race, religion, and gender didn’t matter as long as you were smart enough to qualify, and it was totally free! Perhaps most importantly, it is the site of the Cooper Union Address, a very famous speech made by Abraham Lincoln just before his run for office in 1860. In it, Lincoln condemned slavery and said there was no reason to let it break up the Union. He concluded with “LET US HAVE FAITH THAT RIGHT MAKES MIGHT, AND IN THAT FAITH, LET US, TO THE END, DARE TO DO OUR DUTY AS WE UNDERSTAND IT.” I have this in capitals because I imagine that Abe declared this in triumph, dropped his non-existent mic, and strutted out of there to the roar of the crowd like a BOSS.

  1. Dyckman House (Broadway and 240th Street)

In the 1620s the Dutch originally purchased Manhattan from the Native Americans for a rather small sum of money. However, Manhattan became an English colony in the 1670s. Over the next century the remaining Dutch settlers spread throughout Manhattan and built little Dutch Colonial farmhouses all over it. Sadly, only one of these houses remains, the Dyckman House, located way uptown in Inwood. Built in the 1780s by a grandson of the early Dutch settlers, this is one of the only remaining structures of the original colonists of Manhattan. Clapboard siding and Dutch gables, what’s not to love?

  1. Grand Central Station (42nd and Park Avenue)

    Grand Central Terminal via stylewisetrendfoolish.com
    Grand Central Terminal via stylewisetrendfoolish.com

This is what a train station should look like, instead of the monstrosity that is the modern Penn Station. It was designed by the firm Warren and Wetmore and originally owned and operated by the Vanderbilt family, a family whose history I probably know better than my own. With a famous clock, Tiffany windows, whisper rooms, astrological murals, and a sort-of-secret cocktail bar, there are just too many things to love.

  1. Trinity Church (Corner of Trinity Place and Rector Street)

This is arguably the most famous church in Manhattan. The current structure is actually the third incarnation of Trinity Church, completed in 1846, but it was built on the same site of the original. Trinity Church has been host to a who’s who of famous Americans over the years. The churchyard is brimming with the graves of some of our national treasures–Alexander Hamilton anyone? It was also where Columbia University was founded, then called Kings College. Oh, and according to Hollywood, the Knights Templar buried King Solomon’s treasure underneath it, so there’s that.

  1. St Paul’s Chapel (Church Street between Vesey and Fulton Street)

This is the way more interesting but often overlooked little brother of Trinity Church. It is the oldest church building in Manhattan. When it was completed in 1766 it was the tallest building in the city. Besides having the distinction of being the granddaddy of all NYC churches, St. Paul’s has been host to pretty much all the badass American delegates from the First Continental Congress. George Washington’s Inauguration Day services were held here. St. Paul’s also has the unique distinction of being directly across the street from Ground Zero, and played an important role in the aftermath of 9/11. The church survived the attacks without so much as a broken window, and served as a refuge for all recovery workers for months afterwards. There are currently small exhibits in the church in honor of the NYPD, FDNY, and aid workers.

  1. Battery Park Irish Hunger Memorial (North End Avenue and River Terrace)

    Irish Hunger Memorial via batteryparkcity.org
    Irish Hunger Memorial via batteryparkcity.org

This attraction is a memorial for the 150th Anniversary of the Irish Famine and was erected in the mid 1990s. It is composed of an actual Irish cottage abandoned during the famine that was scooped up and placed in Battery Park. While not actually part of the New York’s built history, it says a lot about New York’s immigrant history. Picture yourself walking around and suddenly there is an artificial hill in the middle of the city over looking the Hudson. Resting upon it, native Irish plant life and tumbled stone buildings. It genuinely feels like you are in the Irish countryside. The only thing missing is sheep.

  1. Tenement Museum (Corner of Orchard and Delancey)

Have you always wondered what it would be like to live in Manhattan’s Lower East Side during the days before New York had housing laws that required landlords to have any compassion for their tenants? If your answer is “yes,” then the Tenement Museum is for you, located in a building that has barely changed since city laws required the installation of indoor plumbing. The exhibit spaces take you on a tour through what life was like for immigrant families from the 1860s until the 1930s.

Not everyone might agree with this list and to quote the locals “what you think you’re betta than me?!” So if you think you can do better, keep it to ya self.


One thought on “A Short List of the Best Historic Sites in New York City

  1. Love this!! I miss New York so much!! And Kirsten, you’ve definitely dragged me to half of these places, even when I lived there. And if it weren’t for you, I never would’ve found the Irish Hunger Memorial xx


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