Best Historic Sites in New York

Tracking New York City's Beginnings Through its People

The race is on to preserve town halls, fire engine company buildings, sidewalk clocks, terra cotta factories, police stations and a host of historically significant places that are a testament to New York City’s biography. Today more than 35,000 buildings throughout New York City are protected landmarks, interior landmarks, scenic landmarks or part of 139 historic districts in all five boroughs. Never mind the startling plain-faced-glass-luxury apartment buildings that are piercing New York City’s skyline with their needles and severe right angles, don’t miss the brick and mortar action below with a cast of citizens working to also preserve the flesh and blood stories behind the buildings. Communities recognize the need to pass on the tales of yesterday to future generations and are transforming local efforts into preeminent museums such as the Museum of Chinese in America, or the decades of fundraising it took to rebuild the Eldridge St. Synagogue with a Museum inside it. Or, those institutions that developed because one individual had a dream to create what grew into the Smithsonian Institute with jewels like the lively National Museum of the American Indian. Museum Mile is home to the Museum of the City of New York that is experiencing a rebirth as is the New-York Historical Society, while the place-based Lower East Side Tenement Museum adopts more former tenements from complete ruin. So catch a big wide, breath of air, walk the Brooklyn Bridge, hop the ferry to pay homage to the green lady with the torch and Ellis Island where you can track your own history by viewing decades of ship manifests right there where so much of our families first set foot in America.


Overlooking the western rim of Central Park, this neoclassical structure guards some of the oldest artifacts associated with the city of New York. It was founded in 1804 as New York's first museum and has been at its present location since 1908. The Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture on the fourth floor is being redesigned to showcase its preeminent collection of Tiffany lamps, displayed in a sparkling glass gallery. The new Center for the Study of Women's History will be a permanent space devoted to women's history exhibitions and scholarship--the first of its kind in a U.S. museum. During winter holiday season, N-YHS transforms into a magical wonderland with "Holiday Express," a dynamic installation from its renowned Jerni Collection of model trains, scenic elements, and toys from a bygone era.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: Fabulously installed exhibits of the Audubon watercolors, the Underground Railroad Collection, the new room of Tiffany Glass and dozens of Hudson River School paintings.

Maria's expert tip: New-York Historical Society offers free daily tours of the Museum's collections at 2 PM and 3:30 PM; its Caffe Storico is a good spot to catch your breath.

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The historic gateway to America, Manhattan's Lower East Side is home to the place-based Lower East Side Tenement Museum. In the 19th century, millions of European immigrants poured into New York Harbor. A tour of the Tenement at 97 Orchard Street illustrates the way of life for many of the European arrivals. Recently, the Museum has adopted yet another tenement at 103 Orchard St. that tells the stories of Chinese, Puerto Rican and Jewish immigrants in the mid-20th century. All tours begin and end at 108 Orchard Street. Tours are offered daily with the first tour beginning at 10:15 and the last tour beginning at 5 pm. Special tours: Neighborhood Walking Tour, Shop Life, Sweatshop Workers and Tastings at the Tenement last 90 minutes; all others are 60 minutes.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: Set in a landmarked tenement building, The Museum interprets the lives of more than 7,000 immigrants from 20 nations who called this building home.

Courtney's expert tip: After your visit, refuel at any of the latest the Lower East Side's popular new eateries or hustle your way to Chinatown for an Asian feast. Ask about Thursday night activities.

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Museum of Chinese in America or MOCA started off in 1980 as the New York Chinatown History Project by historian John Kuo Wei Tchen and community resident/activist Charles Lai. Housed in what Architectural Digest says is among Maya Lin's most memorable designs within the triangle that links SoHo, Little Italy, and Chinatown. Known as the preeminent museum of Chinese American culture and history in the U.S., the collections comprise more than 60,000 letters, documents, business records along with oral histories, clothing, textiles and precious photos. The Core exhibit is designed around the heart of the museum, a light-filled courtyard like the rooms of a traditional Chinese house. Today, MOCA offers the Chinatown Food Tour and From Coffeehouses to Banquet Halls Walking Tours.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: MOCA illustrates a heroic journey of obstacles, triumphs, understanding and ultimately, the home we share.

Maria's expert tip: The Weekend Gallery Highlights Tour on Saturdays at 3PM is free with admission; free admission on First Thursdays; you'll need reservations for Chinatown Walking Tours.

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Spanning the East River from City Hall to DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights, the Brooklyn Bridge has welcomedNew Yorkers since 1883. Until 1903, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. A must-see and must-do for any visitor is to take the 30-plus minute, 3,455-foot expedition and walk it. The wide pedestrian walkway is unparalleled and the views of Manhattan, Brooklyn and the East River are incredible, making it easy to understand why poets and painters have been fascinated by it. Walt Whitman described the view as the "most effective medicine my soul has yet partaken." Look for the plaque written to Emily Warren Roebling however who ws the critical link between her ailing husband who supervised the building of the bridge and the men who actually constructed it.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: For the most stirring New York experience you'll ever have, take this walk in the sky on the National Historic Landmark known as the Brooklyn Bridge.

Maria's expert tip: Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge is stroller friendly as long as you stay in the bike lane. As memorable as this experience is, think twice before going on a cold and rainy day. Best photo opp: from the Brooklyn side with the Statue of Liberty in view.

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The Museum is housed inside the Eldridge Street Synagogue, the first great house of worship built in America by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. With its soaring 50-foot ceiling, decorative painted finishes, and luminous stained glass, the synagogue feels like a short ride to heaven and is an inspiring contrast to the crowded tenements, factories and shops of the Lower East Side. Since it reopened in 2007 following a $20 million restoration, 250,000 people have visited on tours or participated in cultural events that take place nearly every night. At the heart of the new visitor center opened in June 2014 is a permanent exhibit of Yiddish signs, Jewish ritual objects, historic photos and most poignant of all, excerpts from the Museum's collection of oral histories. Do check on the Festival calendar such as the Egg Rolls, Egg Creams & Empanadas Festival celebrating the nabe's diversity.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: A National Historic Landmark – one of only two synagogues and ten sacred sites so designated in New York City.

Maria's expert tip: Explore the Lower East Side, add a trip to the Tenement Museum, dine in Chinatown all with magnificent tales to tell. Pay what you wish Mondays.

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Even if going to a library isn't on your list of "must-see" attractions back home, be sure to make an exception for the awe-inspiring Beaux-Art landmark known as the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd St. NYPL's mascots, the lions "Patience" and "Fortitude," were so named because Mayor Fiorello La Guardia felt that these qualities would be much needed during the Great Depression; one of them served as a hiding place for the cowardly lion in The Wiz. This branch of the NYPL holds more than 52 million items from books, periodicals, drafts of Presidential speeches, maps, videos, musical scores, manuscripts and archives. A café was added to the entryway on the first floor. Do take the majestic stairways to duck inside the Rose Main Reading Room on the second floor and peruse the rotating exhibits in the hallways.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: The origins of library date back to the time when New York was emerging as one of the world's most great centers of urban culture.

Maria's expert tip: Designated for quiet study, the Rose Main Reading Room and Bill Blass Public Catalog Room are featured on the daily tours of the NYPL at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Don't miss them.

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As the tallest building in the world from 1931 to 1971, the Empire State Building is the ancestor of all super tall skyscrapers and makes a lasting impression in the minds of all who have stood beneath, or atop, this international icon or inside the 86th or 102nd Floor Observatories. The building opened in 1931 at a cost of $41 million after about a year of construction, making it the fastest development of any major skyscraper (4.5 stories per week). At 1,454 feet and currently the 28th tallest building in the world, this landmark soars more than a quarter mile into the Manhattan sky. Be treated to amazing 80-mile visibility on clear days from the observation decks. Mornings are less crowded, yet the views at night are magical. View the Empire from another building, and see the top 30 stories wildly illuminated by varying color combinations on holidays a New York City-style Empire celebration.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: Once the tallest building in the world, the Empire State Building was an attempt to boost the city's morale during the Great Depression.

Maria's expert tip: Best times to visit: early in the morning (around 8 a.m.), in mid-afternoon (around 3 p.m.) or after 11p.m. Enhance your visit with the free Empire State Building Experience app.

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The three-gallery permanent exhibition presents all you ever wanted to know about the dramatic 400-year history of NYC from a striving Dutch village to today's "Capital of the World." The exhibition features more than 400 objects from New York City icons like Alexander Hamilton, Walt Whitman, "Boss" Tweed, Emma Goldman, JP Morgan, Fiorello La Guardia, Jane Jacobs, Jay-Z, and dozens more. Occupying the entire first floor in three interactive galleries of the Museum's landmark building on New York's Museum Mile, "New York at Its Core" is shaped by four themes – money, density, diversity, and creativity – that have combined to make NYC a center of innovation in the arts, business, science, politics, and urban development. Established in 1923 the MCNY was originally housed in Gracie Mansion, the present residence of the Mayor of New York, the city was offered its present location in a Georgian Colonial-Revival building.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: MCNY just launched its permanent exhibition "New York at Its Core," jewel in the crown of a 10-year, $100 million renovation of the entire Museum.

Maria's expert tip: Live or work in the zip codes of 10029, 10035, or 10037? Then you qualify for the "I'm a Neighbor" program and admission fee is waived.

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The Statue of Liberty is among New York City's–and America's–most familiar landmarks: a massive copper-and-steel cast of a green lady raising a torch, clutching a tablet and donning a seven-point crown. The monument welcomed generations of immigrants to the United States as they passed through Ellis Island, the nation's main entry station between 1892 and 1924 (it eventually closed in 1954). Its American Family Immigration History Center contains millions of passenger arrival records and hundreds of ship pictures from the time; anyone whose family arrived in America this way, or who has just a passing interest in the nation's immigrant history, will find the Ellis Island Museum is an excellent bonus to a statue trip–or a reason to visit in its own right.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: On October 28, 1886, a million New Yorkers cheered the official dedication. Since then nine million immigrants passed through until 1954.

Maria's expert tip: Don't miss out on visiting the statue because it's only accessible by boat, set on a government-run island in the middle of New York Harbor; it's easy to work into your trip with some advance planning.

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The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in New York is located inside the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House on the south side of Bowling Green, in lower Manhattan, adjacent to the northeast corner of Battery Park, just about where this City was born. Rich in architectural and historic significance, the Custom House is a National Historic Landmark, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Permanent and temporary exhibits installed in this magnificent building often include rare collections of photography, jewelry, basketry, sculpture, textile work, accompanied by dance and music performances, symposia, hands-on activities, storytelling times and special events such as Day of the Dead or their observance of American Indian Heritage Month.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: Housed in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, a splendid Beaux Arts buildings in New York, NMAI tells the story of the real first Americans.

Maria's expert tip: Don't miss the Reginald Marsh murals in the dome of the rotunda that depict early explorers of the Americas and trace the course of a ship entering New York's harbor. Combine with a trip to Battery Park just outside the door or the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island.

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Meet Maria Lisella

No matter how many countries Maria Lisella has visited (62), this native New Yorker finds the world at her doorstep in amazing Queens where its residents speak 138 languages.

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