You already know that you need to visit New York City and that while you’re here you ought to see the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge and the City’s other major attractions. NYC’s most popular draws have earned their reputations by embodying some of the five boroughs’ most indelible qualities—think ambition, creativity, resilience and, naturally, chutzpah. Read on to understand the reasons visitors love these landmarks, and where to find those same traits at some of the City’s more unexpected sites.
Empire State Building
What it signifies: Ambition
Why: To build the world’s tallest building is an ambitious endeavor, period. To do it in one year and 45 days, bolder still. To move forward with such a plan in the middle of the Great Depression reflects a level of drive rarely matched. The tallest building in the world from its completion in 1931 until 1970 (when the north tower of the World Trade Center topped out and surpassed it), the Empire State Building might be the best-known skyscraper anywhere.
Where else you can find ambition in the City: In other tall skyscrapers, like the Chrysler Building. At Flushing Meadows Corona Park, where remnants of the World’s Fair remind us of New Yorkers reaching for a better future. And on every sidewalk, where New Yorkers move with a sense of purpose toward achieving their goals.
What it signifies: Creativity
Why: There are plenty of streets named “Broadway” all around the United States, but the one in Manhattan has a symbolic quality. “It is perhaps best known,” says Valerie Paley, vice president, chief historian and director of the Center for Women's History at the New-York Historical Society, “as shorthand for the shows featured in the theaters of its Midtown stretch.” The 41 playhouses in New York City’s Theatre District bring together actors, singers, writers, dancers, set designers, makeup artists and others at the top of their game.
Where else you can find creativity in the City: In theater Off- and Off-Off Broadway, in live music from every genre (check out new rock and hip-hop in Brooklyn, for instance, and jazz at places like Smalls and Blue Note) and at the City’s many comedy clubs. New York draws creative people from all around the world and inspires some of their best work.
Statue of Liberty
What it signifies: Diversity
Why: The Statue of Liberty, a gift from France to the United States, has come to symbolize New York City’s and America’s proud tradition of welcoming immigrants—partly because it was among the first things new arrivals saw as their ships pulled in at Ellis Island from 1892 through 1954. Paley says that Emma Lazarus’ words from “The New Colossus,” the poem inscribed on Lady Liberty—“Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—are “tightly associated not only with the statue, but also the diversity of immigrants, residents, and visitors who have passed her in New York Harbor.”
Where else you can find diversity in the City: More than a third of New Yorkers were born in a foreign country, and many others are the children and grandchildren of immigrants. That has a major influence on the City’s dining scene, which has restaurants serving cuisine from every corner of the globe. You’ll hear hundreds of different languages on the City’s sidewalks; neighborhoods like Chinatown, Little Italy, Jackson Heights and Greenpoint are strongly associated with immigrant communities. The Tenement Museum and El Museo del Barrio are great places to delve further into the City’s heritage. And speaking of Ellis Island, you can research your own family lineage there if your ancestors passed through on their way in to the United States.
What it signifies: Contrasts
Why: More than 8 million people live in New York City—we’re America’s most densely populated major city—and Central Park is the City’s 843-acre backyard. As Paley says, the green space is “a paradoxical study in contrasts. It is a bit of country in the city: nature amidst concrete—a pastoral break from the City’s dense concentration of people and buildings.”
Where else you can find contrasts in the City: In a five-star restaurant where the staff will fold your napkin every time you leave the table and a hole-in-the-wall where there’s nowhere to sit but the falafel is amazing. In brand-new glass towers next to century-old townhouses. Downtown in the evenings, where businesspeople in suits hurrying to the subway cross paths with pink-haired bohemians on their way to concerts. (And hey, maybe the businesspeople are just going to get changed before catching the show.)
One World Observatory
What it signifies: Resilience
Why: After the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, New York’s and America’s recovery included the construction of this, the tallest building in the western hemisphere. At its foot is the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. The experience of riding to the top of the tower and looking out over the City speaks to NYC’s ability to rebuild.
Where else you can find resilience in the City: While the events of September 11 were uniquely dark, New York City has had other difficult moments. The City overcame the financial crisis of the 1970s; Times Square rebounded from a long period during which it was seedy and dangerous; and the city continues to repair its infrastructure after 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, most notably along its miles of beaches.
What it signifies: Industry
Why: It’s a key site for one of New York City’s most prominent industries (television, as the home of NBC Studios at 30 Rockefeller Plaza), with Josep Maria Sert’s mural American Progress in the lobby of 30 Rock helping drive home the symbolic point. Rockefeller Center bears the name of one of America’s most prominent industrial families, and is home to restaurants and a slew of stores selling virtually every kind of goods imaginable.
Where else you can find industry in the City: Everyone in New York City has a hustle, and you can see more of the City’s workers downtown on Wall Street—the heart of the world economy—and in Brooklyn spaces like Industry City, where light manufacturing has made a comeback and yielded artisanal chocolate, clothing and more. Publishing, music and film, too—New York exports more culture than any other city, and you can find it all if you know where to look.
What it signifies: High wattage
Why: Times Square is so closely associated with its neon lights and gigantic advertising video boards that it’s the only place in New York City where regulations require a minimum amount of display lighting. Marquees and screens make the area bright even in the wee hours of the morning.
Where else you can find high wattage in the City: One of the major benefits of spending time in New York City is our 24-hour culture. Areas like Macdougal Street, near NYU, are full of always- or almost-always-open restaurants, cafés and comedy clubs. The Meatpacking District and Williamsburg have great dance clubs, and Harlem is a place to enjoy jazz or live performance. Classic institutions like the Apollo Theater, Radio City Music Hall and Katz’s Deli are strongly identified with their bright signage.
The Met Fifth Avenue
What it signifies: High culture
Why: The Met’s massive collection—and stunning Upper East Side campus—has made it among the most famous museums on the planet. Visitors can take in exhibits from the museum’s trove of 2 million artworks, which covers 5,000 years of human history. Says Paley, “During the era of great American cultural institution building in the late 1800s, the Met’s quick ascension as the nation’s incomparable art museum helped cement the City’s lock on its important claims to high culture.”
Where else you can find high culture in the City: MoMA, the Guggenheim and the Brooklyn Museum—any of these would be the preeminent institution in most other cities. There’s also the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet, the New York Philharmonic and other cultural staples that make us the best place to experience artists’ work up close.
What it signifies: Excellence
Why: The Yankees are one of the most successful teams in the history of professional sports. As their fans will tell you, unbidden, the Bronx Bombers have claimed an astounding 27 World Series championships. Their ballpark, opened in 2009 in almost the same spot as the original, is saturated with reminders of the team’s extraordinary accomplishments, including Monument Park—which has plaques honoring team greats like Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson and Lou Gehrig—and an on-site museum. See a game in the warmer months, or take a tour during the off-season.
Where else you can find excellence in the City: Madison Square Garden, in addition to being home of the Knicks and Rangers, often represents the pinnacle of a career in music or comedy. The USTA National Tennis Center is where the world’s best tennis players compete in the US Open. And in the arts, Carnegie Hall is so synonymous with high achievement that the joke about how to get there has become a cliché. We’re also the top of the pyramid in business, publishing and, let’s face it, most fields worth pursuing.
What it signifies: Connection
Why: Manhattan and Brooklyn are physically connected by this span, whose 1883 construction—a miraculous engineering feat—was one of many steps that eased the City’s move toward consolidation into five boroughs (including the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island). Walking across the postcard-perfect landmark, designed by John Roebling, is a favorite activity for many visitors.
Where else you can find connection in the City: Surrounded by water, New York City is linked by bridges and tunnels all around. From Staten Island, you can take a free ferry to Manhattan. In fact, we have more ferries to transport us around the waterfront, not to mention the most comprehensive subway system in the world. And the 8.5 million of us who live here—and 65 million more who visit—are all connected by our interests, our diverse backgrounds and our shared history.
What it signifies: Chutzpah
Why: All these years later, Coney Island still features the noisy, terrifying Cyclone Roller Coaster (not to mention the Circus Sideshow). On July 4, the neighborhood hosts the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. And every year, some very hardy individuals swim in the ocean off Coney Island on January 1 (generally, the area is best enjoyed in the warmer months when Luna Park is open). This entire endeavor—a residential neighborhood primarily identified with an amusement park, which has spent more than a century as NYC’s amusement district—is a bit nutty. But what can we say? It works. That, as Yiddish speakers would tell you, is chutzpah.
Where else you can find chutzpah in the City: Some randomly selected examples: John Varvatos’ move into the space formerly occupied by CBGB, which was itself a living act of chutzpah for much of its existence; the bold improvisation at the UCB Theatre, which now has classy digs but originated in a former adult movie theatre; the people who perform on Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater and risk the wrath of a very discerning crowd; and anyone who dares to live in or visit New York City, a wonderful place where the challenges are part of the charm.