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Where to Go Instead of Times Square When Visiting NYC
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Where to Go Instead of Times Square When Visiting NYC

Nick Douglas, Gawker Media

Photo by chensiyuan

When I recently advised that New York City visitors skip Times Square , I was met with righteous anger by people who don't live in New York. To be clear: You're allowed to visit Times Square! But you're not allowed to go there, then tell everyone that New York is smelly, crowded, too expensive, and full of jerks. That's like going to Disney World and deciding everyone in Florida is named Mickey Mouse.

Ironically, while Times Square is made for tourists, almost everything in it has a superior counterpart somewhere else in New York. And I don't mean superior for New York snobs, I mean better for you, the visitor. Some are cheaper, some are more special, most are both. And some are still a secret to many New Yorkers. Below, some of the most popular Times Square tourist traps, and my favorite alternatives to each:

Museums

American Museum of Natural History (Photo by InSapphoWeTrust )

If you had your heart set on the Times Square Madame Tussauds, I'll admit that there will definitely be some celebrity statues in this Tussauds that aren't in this chain's 24 other locations. But for a little less money ($29 less if you skip the "suggested donation") you could see actual one-of-a-kind art and artifacts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art .

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The Met is so large that you could spend an entire day taking in the art without coming even close to seeing the whole collection. Highlights include the Egyptian temple, European paintings, and the Arms and Armor room, and there are always multiple stunning temporary exhibits.

Other popular world-class options include the American Museum of Natural History , which features a T-rex skeleton and a life-size blue whale statue, and the Museum of Modern Art (just a few blocks from Times Square). Take a guided tour of the historical apartments and workshops of the Tenement Museum , or see the gymnasium-sized model of New York City at the Queens Museum.

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If you really want to gawk at some wax figures, try the creepy collection of faces and body parts at the House of Wax , a plush cocktail bar in Brooklyn's new City Point, upstairs from the indoor street-food smorgasbord Dekalb Market Hall .

Shopping

Housing Works Bookstore Cafe (Photo by Marginalmonkeys )

Times Square has decent shopping, but it's outclassed by the equally crowded promenade of stores along Broadway down near Houston Street (pronounced "How-stun") in SoHo. And those stores are surrounded by much more relaxed, welcoming neighborhoods in every direction.

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Or try the boutique shops sprinkled throughout the area, just a few blocks east of Broadway. The clothing can be breathtakingly expensive, but it's fun window shopping, and there's affordable jewelry at the sidewalk stands. Unlike Times Square, SoHo has two great bookstores: McNally Jackson for new books, the charitable Housing Works Bookstore Cafe for used.

Fancy Candy Stores  

Dylan's Candy Bar (Photo by m01229 )

The giant M&M's store at Times Square is pretty one-note. The flagship Dylan's Candy Bar on the Upper East Side has a much richer variety of novelty candies and chocolates. Dylan's also has stores at Union Square, Columbus Circle, and JFK airport. Or try the more working-class Economy Candy on the Lower East Side.

Broadway Theater

Upright Citizens Brigade (Photo by mofesta )

If you've got the money for a Broadway seat, by all means go for it. Broadway shows are good! But if you're on a budget, or you want a more intimate experience, consider off-Broadway (the term applies to theater size, not location) at Playwrights Horizons , Lincoln Center , or Signature Theatre . The actors and playwrights often have Broadway, TV, and film credits to their name.

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Want something funny? Skip the tourist-trap "free comedy" that the guys in Times Square are begging you to come to, and try standup at the Comedy Cellar , or improv at the UCB Theatre's Chelsea and East Village locations where tomorrow's sitcom actors prove that improv can actually be good.

And for something more experimental, catch the weekly New York Neo-Futurists show The Infinite Wrench , formerly known as Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind .

Street Artists, Costumed Characters, and the Plaza

Mermaid Parade (Photo by Richie S )

As street performers go, the topless ladies and costumed Elmos of Times Square aren't half as impressive as the live bands, dancers, and other artists in Washington Square Park . If you come in June, you'll see far more scintillating costumes at Coney Island's annual Mermaid Parade .

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All the art stands along Broadway, with their quick-draw caricatures, generic airbrush paintings of the skyline, and photos of John Lennon in an "I ❤️ NY" shirt are readily available in Central Park (a much more pleasant environment) or down at Union Square (which also has a farmer's market four days a week).

Italian Restaurants

Eataly (Photo by blese )

I have three friends who eat at the Times Square Olive Garden, and they're all hipsters. Don't be a hipster. Save the Olive Garden for home, where it's cheaper.

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Instead, go pretty much anywhere in Little Italy. If you don't check Yelp (or Foursquare , which works better in New York than elsewhere), you might end up somewhere with mediocre food, but a great old-timey atmosphere.

For high-quality Italian (though it's not in Little Italy), go to Eataly , Mario Batali's market-style grocery store/restaurant/bar/food museum in the Flatiron District. It's crowded, but for a good reason. Or eat at the local high-end chain Parm , which is comfort-food delicious and generously portioned, especially for its medium price range.

While there are good restaurants near Times Square, they don't outclass the options in the Lower East Side or the East Village. Just find any local magazine's list of best restaurants, like the annual winners of New York 's "Best of New York."

Souvenir Shops

Fishs Eddy (Photo by Shinya Suzuki )

If you want to bring home something that says "I carried this home on a flight from LaGuardia," skip the Times Square shops and get a city-themed trinket at Fishs Eddy , New York's best dish-and-housewares shop. Something light and unbreakable, like a tea towel.

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If you head to Brooklyn (you could spend a whole vacation just walking through Park Slope, Gowanus, and Cobble Hill) stop by the Gowanus Souvenir Shop for memorabilia of New York's smelly Superfund-site canal.

Giant Ads

Houston St. mural (Photo by Dan DeLuca )

Those giant blinking LED billboards are beautiful, or I think they are, from the two seconds I've ever stood still to look at them before someone shoved me. I'm more impressed by the street art all around the city, as listed in Architectural Digest , Resource Magazine , Time Out New York , and Business Insider .

The Ed Sullivan Theater

Criminal Intent shoot in Manhattan (Photo by Terry Bain )

I won't pretend you can replace a visit to the Late Show set or Rockefeller Center. But if you just want to get near some show business, check On Location Vacations to see what TV shows and movies are shooting where today. Or even visit the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, which is located on an active studio lots, and chock full of movie memorabilia as well as kid-friendly, interactive exhibitions.

Skyscrapers

View from the Empire State Building (Photo by chensiyuan )

You know what's cooler than staring up at tall buildings, or quoting movies from 2010? Staring down from tall buildings. New York looks amazing from above, and it's worth the trip up to the top of the Empire State Building or World Trade Center . See? You can be touristy! Just be touristy at the good stuff.

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And hey, if you go to the World Trade Center, stop by the Irish Hunger Memorial . The city disappears for a second and you'll feel like you walked through a portal into a windswept moor. Then you'll walk up and see the Jersey skyline emerge. The experience is moving.

You'll never see everything in New York. No one does, even if we live here. So make the most of your time here, and see the good stuff.

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