Historic New York: Uncover America's Past Through Its Manhattan Sites
New York City is a vibrant town jam-packed with traffic, skyscrapers and people. But when European settlers descended upon "New Amsterdam," it was nothing more than an island with plenty of room for growth and expansion.
Over the centuries, New York City has had a hand in shaping America into what it is today. Serving as the first capital of the United States under President George Washington, defending its people from the British throughout the Revolution and War of 1812, welcoming thousands upon thousands of immigrants, and acting as the home to founding fathers, presidents and generals, the city boasts rich history around every corner, just waiting to be uncovered. In Manhattan alone, there are 300 National Historic Landmarks.
Yet despite all this, most visitors to the Big Apple visit only the most iconic of sites: the World Trade Center, the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center and Broadway, to name a few.
If you have "been there, done that" and want to delve deeper into the city's past, the following are lesser-known (and less crowded) places with tons of stories to tell.
Dates Back To: 1719
Tucked away in lower Manhattan is one of America’s oldest restaurants: Fraunces Tavern. During the American Revolution, the tavern was used as a meeting place for the Sons of Liberty. Once the war was won, George Washington gave his final farewell to his Continental Army troops with a grand feast here.
Fraunces Tavern Now
Visit the tavern today to enjoy a full menu and drinks, often with live music on weekends. A museum on the second and third floors features artifacts from the tavern’s history and the American Revolution, and you can stand in the very room where Washington toasted his men.
Where: 54 Pearl Street
Hours: Monday-Friday: 12 – 5 p.m.; Saturday - Sunday: 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Dates Back To: 1703
New York City’s Historical District in Lower Manhattan was an important setting during the American Revolution. On Wall Street, surrounded by towering skyscrapers, you can find Federal Hall, which once felt the footsteps of Revolutionary leaders such as George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.
It was in these storied halls where the Stamp Act Congress first protested “taxation without representation” and where the Congress of the Confederation gathered for meetings. When New York became the first capital of the United States, the building was home to the 1st Congress, swearing in President Washington on the front steps.
Federal Hall Now
Today, the building is managed by the National Park Service and serves as a national memorial.
Where: 26 Wall Street
Hours: Monday – Friday, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.; closed on weekends
Dates Back To: 1814
Many forget the significance of New York City and its people during battles with the British, but a walk around New York will showcase the city’s fortifications. In Central Park, a piece of Manhattan’s place during the War of 1812 can be seen at the Blockhouse, the oldest building in the park.
Created to keep watch and defend New York at the upper end of Central Park, the stone structure once held a cannon and was connected to a fort that housed 2,000 men.
The Blockhouse Now
The Blockhouse is now empty and closed — but if you’re taking a stroll through the park, head over to get a glimpse of history, as it is the last remaining structure from the original fort that guarded the area.
Where: Central Park West at 109th Street
Dates Back To: 1811
To see a true fortification from the War of 1812, visit Castle Clinton in Battery Park, one of four forts built among the islands to defend New York’s Harbor. Armed with 28 cannons, the Southwest Battery served as the General’s command center, but it never had to fire a shot to defend New York. The fort was later renamed Castle Clinton – not for former President Bill Clinton, but in honor of New York’s mayor and state Governor Dewitt Clinton.
Prior to Ellis Island opening as an immigration processing center, 8 million people came into the United States through Castle Garden between 1855 and 1890 – two-thirds of all U.S. immigrants at the time.
Castle Clinton Now
Today, the site is a National Monument with 30-minute guided tours led by the National Park Service, and offers a ticket office for visitors to ferry over to see the Statue of Liberty.
Where: Battery Park
Hours: Varied tour dates and times
General Grant National Memorial
Dates Back To: 1897
Ulysses S. Grant, former president of the United States, has gone down in history as arguably one of the country’s greatest generals, commanding the Union Army during the Civil War. After his presidency, Grant and his wife, Julie, retired to New York City. A product of West Point in New York, the general could have been buried in West Point’s cemetery, but wanted instead to be buried with his wife.
More than $600,000 was raised from donations that poured in from around the world – the largest public fundraiser ever, at the time – to build Grant’s Tomb when he passed away in 1885.
General Grant National Memorial Now
The granite and marble building is these days operated by the National Park Service – a fitting tribute considering Grant established the first U.S. National Park, Yellowstone, in 1872.
Where: Riverside Drive and W. 122nd Street
Hours: Wednesday – Sunday, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site
Dates Back To: 1848
Although the original house was demolished in 1916, the brownstone between Broadway and Park Avenue South that was home to a young Teddy Roosevelt was reconstructed in 1923 as a tribute to the former president. Born in the home in 1858, Teddy lived in the mansion until 1872 and age 14.
Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site Now
A replica of Teddy's home was designed to perfectly mimic the original brownstone and includes a neighboring museum. Inside, furnishings and décor were provided by Edith Roosevelt, the president’s widow, so although it is not the original structure, it is thoroughly authentic.
Step back in time to see where one of America's most consequential presidents spent his formative years.
Where: 28 E. 20th Street
Hours: Wednesday – Sunday, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Cathedral of Saint John the Divine
Dates Back To: 1892
When people think of New York City churches, often it is St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue that comes to mind. Many are surprised to learn of a different Manhattan cathedral that's equally impressive: the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.
Still the largest cathedral in New York, this Gothic Revival-styled Episcopal church was built to rival – and eventually outdo – the newly constructed Catholic St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The Morningside Heights cathedral didn’t open until 1941, as construction was interrupted by two World Wars, but it achieved its mission when its doors were finally opened.
Cathedral of Saint John the Divine Now
Modern-day visitors can take a tour of the cathedral, including climbing 124 feet to the top to take in views of the city from the buttress.
Where: 1047 Amsterdam Avenue
Tickets: $14 - $20
Hours: Varied, depending on tours
African Burial Ground National Monument
Dates Back To: 1600s
At a time when African Americans were not allowed to be buried in white cemeteries, New York’s African Burial Ground was the first cemetery dedicated to Black people, and it remains the largest in the country with this mission to date. The final resting place for both free and enslaved men, women and children, the land served New Amsterdam from the 1600s until 1795.
In the 1800s, the land was sold and used for homes and, eventually, buildings. It wasn't until the 1990s that the burial ground was revealed. Excavations uncovered more than 400 remains, as well as an intact portion of the cemetery.
African Burial Ground National Monument Now
The National Monument was the first in the nation dedicated to African Americans, and can be explored with the help of ranger-led tours.
Where: 290 Broadway
Hours: Tuesday – Saturday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Dates Back To: 1863
On the Lower East Side stand two buildings that housed 15,000 immigrants from more than 20 nations between 1863 and 2011.
Tenement Museum Now
Today, the structures have been united to stand as a museum to highlight the experience of immigrants who arrived in New York City.
Inside, the museum, which opened in 1988, showcases apartments as they would have looked during the tenement years, with tours led by costumed guides to provide the full look and experience of the times.
Archives, a documentary film and educational programs are also available at the museum.
Where: 97 Orchard Street
Tickets: Varies by tour
Hours: Friday – Wednesday, 10 a.m. – 6:30 p.m.; until 8:30 p.m. on Thursdays
Looking for more history? Check out America's great cities, then and now.