Where to go in New York/Boston for authentic feel
August 11, 2017 9:06 AM   Subscribe

My partner and I have saved a bit of money as we want to go on a 'special' holiday. After discussion - instead of going on a beach holiday we've decided we'd love to go to America and were thinking of New York/Boston. We're not particularly into shopping but would love to go and see the 'real' New York - like in the Sopranos! Also Boston like the bar in Cheers. Any suggestions?
posted by Flowerpower to Travel & Transportation around Boston, NY (31 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
....."the Sopranos" was actually predominantly set in New Jersey, FYI.

But - if you have a little more detail about what you mean when you say "the real New York," that would definitely help. New York and Boston are both multi-faceted cities, so "the real New York" could mean high-energy Wall Street, or historic left-leaning and creative Greenwich Village, or the even-more-bohemian East Village, or little enclaves of Italian-Americans up in the Bronx, or working-class waterfront workers along Brooklyn's waterfront and up in City Island, or suburban-looking tracts in Staten Island, or hipster-heaven north Brooklyn, or carnival-laid-over-seediness Coney Island, or Russian expats in Brighton Beach, or....

It sounds like you are being inspired by films and movies - and that's totally fine, by the way - but there are just so, so many that you may want to narrow things down a little. think about the kind of films that say "New York" to you and use that as a jumping-off point instead. The film and real life may not quite match - the East Village no longer looks quite like "Rent," for instance - but that can be enlightening as well, to see how much a place has changed from then to now.

Or, you could sort of own the fact that you are looking for specific landmarks you've seen in pop culture. That can also be really intersting, is if you have a favorite movie and you look for the specific NYC locations used for it. You may learn that the big imposing building they used for the secret headquarters in Men In Black is actually just the ventilation shaft for an underwater tunnel connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn, but it still looks cool, and will give you a "hey I was there!" photo op.

I hope it doesn't sound like I'm trying to crap on your plans; I sincerely want to help. But you may need to narrow down what you mean by "the real New York" a little because that's just so broad - there are probably 8 million "real New York"'s, one for each of us living here! But some of us like sharing info, so just let me know more what you're looking for.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:19 AM on August 11, 2017 [22 favorites]

As you probably know, tv shows aren't ever going to really give you the "real" versions of any place (and doesn't The Sopranos mostly take place in New Jersey?), but both cities are certainly great places to visit.

You can totally visit the bar in Boston that inspired(?) Cheers, but it's strictly a tourist attraction and given that locals would never drink there, it isn't going to feel very authentic. Boston is great for walking around and soaking up some history (The Freedom Trail is a great activity for tourists). If you want to experience something that's been in the movies, you can drink at the bar that's featured in the Social Network, it's a neighborhood favorite!

Of course New York is worth a visit too. It has definitely changed a lot over the years, but whatever you are looking for in a city while you're on vacation, you can easily find in New York. Boston is only about a four hour train ride from New York, so it's definitely doable to do both in one trip.
posted by cakelite at 9:23 AM on August 11, 2017 [5 favorites]

If you decide to visit Boston (and I hope you do!), you will find that much of the city is "authentic," because there is a strong spirit of preservation of our older landmark buildings. The city is not very large, and is supremely walkable. The following areas of Boston are good places to see:

- Copley Plaza
- The Public Garden
- The Common
- Beacon Hill
- The North End

To name a few. You could start at any one of these and walk to the rest within a single day. There is also a train system that combines underground metro-style cars with above-ground streetcars. All in all the city is easy to explore, and doesn't keep its best qualities hidden. Anywhere you go will probably be "authentic" — just stay away from the "Cheers" bar, as cakelite recommends!
posted by overeducated_alligator at 9:27 AM on August 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

The Sopranos takes place in Northern New Jersey, not New York City. Cheers is a tourist trap. The "authentic" experience of any place is a pipe dream if you don't actually live there.

That said, if you want to enjoy your time in Boston, but don't want to stay downtown all the time, there's a lot to like outside the downtown area: Allston/Brighton, Brookline, the South End, Cambridge, Somerville and so on, all of which offer a lot near their subway stops. Closer to the downtown area is the North End, which is known for its excellent Italian food, and which is in walking distance of even more touristy locations like Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market. Chinatown, like the North End, is within easy walking distance from the Common. I highly recommend the dim sum at Hei La Moon.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:31 AM on August 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

Thanks for replying so quickly! Will check out the links.

I'm not into the high rise side of New York - really wanted more authentic and how the locals live. I'd love to go to cafes that are more for working people than upmarket minimal places.
posted by Flowerpower at 9:33 AM on August 11, 2017

The Bronx has the zoo and the botanical gardens, both world class. It is the poorest borough, and has(relatively) lots of green space. It also has the 'original little Italy' on Arthur avenue. I don't know much about NYC but spending a weekend in the Bronx, I felt I saw how real regular people live in the city, in a way you don't get in Times Square etc.
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:44 AM on August 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

Bronx for a combination of the Botanic Gardens (with the Dale Chihuly exhibit which I think is there through October) and Arthur Avenue is not un-touristy but touristy in a much more authentic way than the times square experience of Little Italy in Manhattan. You wouldn't necessarily need to stay in the Bronx to get this though, as its no more than an hour or so by subway from basically anywhere.

Where are you coming from and what do you want to do other than "not that into shopping" and sitting in a café? When would this trip be?
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 9:51 AM on August 11, 2017

Davis Square in Somerville and Jamaica Plain around Green Street/Stony Brook are easily-accessible areas that are pretty "authentic" in the sense of being places where a lot of locals hang out while still offering a lot for visitors from out of town.

In general with Boston you can visit any random park you see on a map and have a pretty decent time in and around it. The only one I'd steer people away from is the Back Bay Fens. It doesn't offer enough to be worth going out of your way to visit (it's a good 15 minute walk from the closest T stations).

All the museums in town are great, too. Definitely stop by the MFA and/or Isabella Gardner museums if you like art even a little bit.
posted by tobascodagama at 9:54 AM on August 11, 2017 [5 favorites]

New York City has 266 buildings that are taller than 150m, so plenty of locals live in/work in/interact with high rises every day. Nevertheless, I think I understand what you're saying - you're more interested in things that don't feel really segregated for rich folks or tourists. Luckily, there are SO many neighborhoods like that! It's just that you can't cover all that ground adequately even if you spent, like, months there, so you'll just have to pick a few. It sounds like you might do well with a tourist primer on NYC to get a general idea of different areas and refine what you're looking at (for instance, regular people are more likely to go to bodegas than cafes)...NYCgo (the official tourism bureau's site) might be a good place to start.
posted by R a c h e l at 9:54 AM on August 11, 2017

I'm not into the high rise side of New York - really wanted more authentic and how the locals live. I'd love to go to cafes that are more for working people than upmarket minimal places.

That does definitely narrow things down a bit - although even here you're going to have a HUGE range. For that, you may want to go to the smaller neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, and even Staten Island. There are some parts of Manhattan you'll find that, too, to be fair...

Actually, here's a thought: there is a series of guide books I really like, that are self-guided walking tours of different neighborhoods in one of New York's boroughs. Not sure where you're from, so forgive me if this is telling you something you already know: the "boroughs" of New York are distinct geographic areas that together make up New York City. they all used to be independent cities up until 100 years ago, so they all each still have distinct identities. There's a guide series I really like, giving self-guided walking tours in different boroughs - so far there is a book for Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan, each one with about 30 or so walks, each through a different neighborhood in that borough. The author actually does a great job in finding not just the obvious "tourist" place, but in also covering the more insider, "locals" neighborhoods as well. She also points out the different historic landmarks along the way, and tips you off to places to stop for food on the way as well. Even the single distinct neighborhoods of each borough have unique histories and have all developed differently, and these books actually do a fantastic job of exposing you to that. (I've lived here for nearly 30 years and I discover new things with these books myself!).

You may also want to check out the "Food Lover's Guides to....", for Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens; these are similar by-neighborhood breakdowns, but with a food focus, on cafes and diners, but also on food specialty shops.

Ooh! This could also be a really unique and fun idea - see how many different types of different world cuisines you could try just in New York on a single trip. You would then get to try Italian food up in the Bronx, traditional Jewish-American food on the Lower East Side, Russian food down on Brighton Beach, nearly every single kind of Asian cuisine you can think of in Flushing in Queens....
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:00 AM on August 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

You'll want to hit Arthur Avenue in the Bronx for Italian food shopping!
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 10:03 AM on August 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

Bensonhurst for Italian American life. Just went there first time last weekend and was slice of life million miles from Manhattan
posted by sandmanwv at 10:04 AM on August 11, 2017

The Tenement Museum in NYC for sure! Such a cool look into how everyday people (including immigrants) lived not too long ago.
posted by Tamanna at 10:09 AM on August 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

I highly, highly recommend the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side. Yes, it is a museum, yes, it is for tourists, but it will give you an amazing historical foundation for understanding the LES and New York City as it has been experienced by immigrants, the poor and working class. They also do neighborhood walking tours, including food tours. The Museum of Chinese in America in Chinatown is close by too.

Thsee institutions are presenting slices of New York life that are much closer to the ground and much more educational about the daily life of working class and poor New Yorkers throughout history and the modern day. And they are both located in areas where you walk out the door of the museum and you are in the place the museum has just taught you scads about. You'll see these areas in a whole new way.
posted by soren_lorensen at 10:11 AM on August 11, 2017 [6 favorites]

May I ask what country you are visiting from? It would affect my recommendations to some extent. For example, Boston has a lot of Irish pubs, but if you are visiting from the UK, that probably isn't what you are looking for. If you're visiting from Europe you should definitely make sure to have some Mexican/Tex-Mex food while you're here in the US. If you are visiting from Mexico, you will be more interested in something else. Etc etc.
posted by maryr at 10:43 AM on August 11, 2017 [5 favorites]

If you decide to visit Boston (and I hope you do!), you will find that much of the city is "authentic," because there is a strong spirit of preservation of our older landmark buildings.

Yeah, I'm not from Boston but I've been there a lot of times, for family and otherwise. One of my fondest Boston memories involves drinking at a bar whose name I don't even remember--I may never have even known it since I'm sure someone else had the idea--because we were waiting for a table at Neptune Oyster and Neptune Oyster is the size of a closet. Neptune Oyster is also the best restaurant I've ever eaten at, so it was worth it. If I was going back I'd do a vacation version of my last moot court trip which I didn't get to enjoy nearly as much as I should have: Stay at the Liberty, which is gorgeous and near tons of stuff, and pick restaurants based on what had good Yelp reviews that was a short walk from wherever I was at the time, because there are a million great places. And then do all the museums and the historical stuff I hated when I was a kid.
posted by Sequence at 10:58 AM on August 11, 2017

In Davis Square in Boston (well, Somerville), go to the Somerville Theatre and head to the Museum of Bad Art in the basement. It may be more authenticity than you can handle...
posted by Beardman at 11:11 AM on August 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

If your notion of New York includes extreme density and diversity, take the train to Flushing and go eat everything. It's the closest you get to being in China without a flight.
posted by batter_my_heart at 11:25 AM on August 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

I think one of the most authentic places in NYC is Union Square. There is a famous food market, lots of students from the New School, enough hustle and bustle to satisfy anyone. Possibly the most photographed place in NYC is Grand Central Terminal. It may be the best-designed public building in America. Rockefeller Center is touristy, of course, but also the home of NBC.

I had the ghoulish thought that in lieu of the Sopranos, you could, with a little research, find the locations of famous mob murders in NYC.

The thing about the bar in Cheers and the diner in Seinfeld is that they could be on any corner in any neighborhood.
posted by SemiSalt at 11:43 AM on August 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

New York recommendations by neighborhood:

Harlem: museo del barrio and the Schoenberg center, then amateur night at the Apollo theater and dinner at Sylvia's restaurant in Harlem (or if you want to go less touristy, Amy Ruth's) for soul food.

Inwood: check out the flea market then get lunch at an Ecuadorian or Dominican restaurant. Head to Inwood park which is natural space that has just been left as is and never groomed or developed, salsa clubs are a good evening activity and there are a number of hookah bars.

Staten Island: ride the Staten Island ferry and eat Italian or African food on the other end

Brooklyn: check out Coney Island (more locals than tourists), then head to any Russian supper club in Brighton beach for vodka, dinner, and a show--you will see mafia types there, though of the Russian type.

The thing about New York, is that other than Times Square, the touristy parts are the places where real people live and work too, it's all integrated other than purely residential areas in the outer boroughs and maybe Inwood and Washington Heights in Manhattan.
posted by Waiting for Pierce Inverarity at 11:49 AM on August 11, 2017 [6 favorites]

If you want to see the real New York, ride the 7 train through Queens.
posted by Automocar at 12:25 PM on August 11, 2017 [5 favorites]

Going to nth coming to Queens, especially to Flushing. For one thing, Flushing's Chinese restaurants are, in general, far better than the ones you find in Manhattan, and they're not tourist traps like, say, Joe's Shanghai.
posted by holborne at 12:30 PM on August 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

176 Mulberry Street in Manhattan is now known as Mulberry Street Bar, but it's Mare Chiaro. It's been there for ages and you will recognize it from heaps of movies and TV shows, including the Sopranos.

Just walk from Uptown to Downtown in Manhattan. Wander. There is no better way to see the city, it's the best.

Boston is not a city, it's more of a suburb in a lot of ways. Meh.
posted by jbenben at 1:02 PM on August 11, 2017

If you go to Coney Island in Brooklyn you might be able to catch a Cyclones game. Minor league baseball is much less expensive than major league and highly recommended (by my brother).
posted by Botanizer at 1:53 PM on August 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

When I was at school in Boston in the early 90s I would constantly hear tourists coming out of the Bull and Finch on beacon hill whining how it didn't look the way it did on Cheers. They've since opened a branch in Fanieul hall that does.

Roadfood and Boston's Hidden Restaurants are probably your best bets.
posted by brujita at 1:54 PM on August 11, 2017

I don't know when you're planning to go, but I love this Italian parade in Caroll Gardens in September (they also have a good Easter parade). Beautiful amateur music and a real sense of the Italian community. The parades are a long-standing tradition. If you're in the neighborhood, I also recommend Caputo's grocery for a sandwich.
posted by pinochiette at 2:40 PM on August 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

In Boston, Cambridge and Brighton-Allston are probably the best neighborhoods to check out. (They're across the river from each other.) They're residential, so there are plenty of neighborhood-hangout places (as opposed to places like Faneuil Hall, which feel more touristy to me, or Newbury Street, which *is* touristy). If you want specifics, there's a place called Christopher's in Porter Square that my wife introduced me to, and is nice. They claim they've been judged the best fireplace in Boston, and they also have sidewalk dining.

South Boston was a pretty big disappointment to me. I don't see any reason to go there.

I've never been to Jamaica Plain, but other people tell me it's nice. People I like live there, so it must be at least somewhat cool.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:50 PM on August 11, 2017

As far as bars in NYC you should definitely go to Jimmy's Corner. A boxing bar near Times Square (please avoid Times Square at all costs). It is one of the last of a dying breed and a great window into every spectrum of life you can imagine. Dive-y but not gross or dangerous. Go in the daytime, right before Happy Hour. The bartenders are usually great at greeting you as you walk in the door and pointing you to where there might be seats. Only sit at the bar. Thats the whole idea. The last time I was there it was filled with a couple of sailors in their whites, off work publishing types and in-the-know New Yorkers having a drink before hitting a Broadway show down the block. Friendly, or as private as you like. A great place to talk to your bar mates.

I also really love The Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station and try to trick everyone I know into going there all the time. Sit anywhere, but my favorite are the winding horseshoe shaped luncheon counters that feel like something from the 1930's. Out of control fresh seafood, not cheap. Every time I go I have to have a caviar sandwich ($12). It's such a great NY specific place. I've yet to have the Pan Roast but it is a legendary treat, feat. Maybe share one and order other things to go with.

Yes to all who say Chinese food in Flushing, especially dim sum or Szechuan, Hot and Tasty is my fav, but a Chinese friend scoffed at me and said she would really take me to Szechuan. Still waiting.

If you're walking around the West Village I really love Tavern On Jane for food and drinks. Unpretentious, high quality bar food, that's not quite the right term, but good food nonetheless, friendly staff. I go there whenever I have friends in town because tis so relaxed and has a neighborhood vibe and pretty much everyone can find something they like.
posted by Conrad-Casserole at 7:52 PM on August 11, 2017

Tenement museum sounds like WOW!

Thanks to everyone for their suggestions - we're going to be getting 3 weeks holiday so I can't wait.
posted by Flowerpower at 6:14 AM on August 13, 2017

My new 'off-the-tourist-track' suggestion for visitors to NYC is to pick a NJ destination that isn't too far away but is only accessible by NJTransit bus (as opposed to rail), and do a round trip excursion from Port Authority. Navigating the NJTransit buses at Port Authority definitely feels like something distinctively local to me. True, I've needed to do it less frequently in my life as a New Yorker than I've needed to do other things (like walk through Times Square to get somewhere else, which I do not recommend, but walking through Times Square at your leisure after a few drinks with a nice buzz is actually really lovely, and everything and everybody looks spectacular, and I recommend that), but it feels like a locally saturated adventure every time.

Another real NYC experience could be an inter-borough commute (ideally with at least one train change), during rush hour. Please only do this once so as not to clog up the trains unnecessarily, though I doubt you'll be tempted to do it more than once. A variation on this is riding popular bus routes after school lets out (if you are here during the school year), and immersing in various NYC teenager experiences.

You could also try to plan a multi-train excursion on a weekend and not check the subway advisory before, and then you could have the authentic NYC experience of getting all the way to a platform (probably via multiple staircases) before realizing that your train isn't running at that station and you have to reroute.

Other ideas:
*Pick a post office in an un-gentrified neighborhood and try to accomplish the mailing of a package, the purchase of a money order (as though you're putting a deposit on an apartment!) or just buying stamps.
*Try to use the buses sometimes instead of the subway. Some routes, like southern to northern Brooklyn, lend themselves well to this.
*Take transit to/from one of the airports
*Do drop off (or delivery) laundry
*Get coffee/pastry from a street cart, and lamb/chicken with red and/or white sauce from a halal cart. (This is different than the fancy food trucks that are also an authentic thing for many professional New Yorkers).

I don't love recommending AirBnB in NYC because I think it is overall hurtful to the affordable rental market. But, it is afaik technically legal to rent a room in an occupied apartment, and a very authentic way to experience NYC life (where many of us stay in roommate situations through adulthood), and if you stayed out of the most fashionable neighborhoods and changed apartments every week or every few days, you could get to experience NYC from a lot of different neighborhoods and also get more 'authentic' interactions with the transit system.

Call a meet up in NYC! and welcome!
posted by Salamandrous at 8:14 AM on August 13, 2017

Seconding calling for a meetup in NYC.

And I have yet another book to suggest - The Subway Adventure Guide. This is based on "what's in the neighborhood at either end of each of the subway lines"? This would definitely get you out into far-flung corners of the city, and - it'd be cheap to get there, and hard to get lost ("Get on this subway, and just stay on until you get to the last stop"). Not every place is going to be....picturesque (there are a couple places where the book admits that "okay, yeah, the only thing at the end of THIS particular subway line is a couple garages and some auto dealerships"), but in most cases you could end up smack in the middle of the city's biggest Asian community, or on the grounds of a historic college, or Coney Island, or right by one of the city's biggest parks...

Speaking of transportation being your adventure - New York City recently expanded its ferry service. There's been a ferry in the East River that just circulated for the same few stops between Brooklyn and a couple points in Manhattan, but they have just added two more routes that serve further-flung parts of Brooklyn, and they're going to be adding yet more over the next year or so. A ticket on the ferry is comparable to the price of a subway ride, and you get a good view.

The neighborhoods they serve are a bit off-the-beaten-path, too - and fun to explore if you get away from the area right around the ferry and wander a bit. Some of the neighborhoods you can get to by ferry:

* Bay Ridge is middle-class, with a huge mix of people. Part of it is on a cliff overlooking the river, and the houses along the water wlil look quite grand; a few blocks further from the water and you start getting to a lot of Irish, Italian, and Norwegian shops.

* Sunset Park is the site of the highest point in Brooklyn, and has an extensive Chinese community on one avenue - and a Mexican community two blocks over. The ferry would let you out at the site of "Industry City", a former factory that the city is turning into a hub of small-business sites, most of which have to do with food so far.

* Red Hook was a big longshoreman's community for a while, and is starting to get a little "trendy" now - lots of abandoned warehouses that have been turned into craftsmens' studios, wine bottlers, whiskey distilleries, etc. But the neighborhood has avoided being totally overrun by hipsters becuase there's no subway access, so you can still find the gritty longshoreman's bars and things like that. (Try a place called "Sunny's", it's a neighborhood standby. A friend of mine said he went there one and saw Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson there.)

* The Rockaways: If you go to Rockaway Beach, it will feel like the Hipster Coney Island. But the neighborhood just before it makes for interesting wandering.

* Williamsburg - at least where the ferry lets you out - is definitely going to feel like it's a spot for the Young And Hip. Venture east and explore. Greenpoint is also a little like this, but it's still a little up-and-coming, and you can still find a lot of the older Polish shops and restaurants there that have been there for years.

* If your trip will be after September 1, you can also get to Astoria, a really diverse neighborhood in Queens; in one part you'll find things like the Museum Of The Moving Image (a museum about moviemaking in an old movie studio), in another you'll find a big Greek community. There's also a park with a great view of the river.

* Also in September: Roovevelt Island, which is entirely on a very long, narrow island smack in the river between Manhattan and Queens. To be honest, there's not a LOT to do here - there's only a couple food shops and a landmark, and the rest is just somewhat boring-looking apartment blocks - but it does have great views of both the Manhattan and the Queens skyline so it makes for a pretty walk.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:17 PM on August 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

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