New York For Geeks: A Pop Culture Attractions and Travel Guide

Are you a pop culture fanatic visiting New York? We've got just the places for you to visit.

Geek Travel Guide to New York City and State

This article is presented to you by Red Roof Inn.

If New York City is the Big Apple, New York State is still an impressive bushel. The fourth most populous state is home to more than 19 million people and has a richness beyond the cultural hub of NYC. To that end, this is by no means a comprehensive breakdown of landmarks and locations to explore, but is just a kickoff to get you in an Empire State of mind. 

WEIRD

The Cardiff Giant at Cooperstown, New York

The Cardiff Giant

Cooperstown, New York

Cooperstown, New York, is home to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the setting for James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, and the resting place of one of the biggest hoaxes in American history. The Cardiff Giant was the result of tobacconist George Hull having too much money on his hands, and a desire to goof on those who believed the bible’s claim that giants once walked the Earth.

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In 1868, he spent about $50,000 in today’s money to create a 10-foot-tall petrified man statue. He buried it for a year on his cousin’s property where it was “discovered” later as a well was being built. Hull, and his cousin William Newell, then made a lot of money charging people to see the giant (even though archaeologists, geologists, and paleontologists all debunked the authenticity of the giant). Hull eventually sold off his stake in the giant for $450,000 – nice return! – to a syndicate that then refused to sell it to P.T. Barnum, who created his own fake. The battle of giants led to a court hearing about which giant could claim to be the “real” giant. I’ll save the ending, but you can check out the Hull’s Cardiff Giant on display at The Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown. And stick around for the baseball.

Harry Houdini

Houdini’s Grave

Machpelah Cemetery

Glendale, Queens, NY

Until his death on Halloween, 1926, escapist and illusionist Harry Houdini was a celebrity on the level of Elvis Presley, Babe Ruth, and Marilyn Monroe. And his legacy as the world’s greatest “magician” continues, as does his interesting impact in the realm of paranormal pop culture via his role debunking trickery at the height of Spiritualism. As such, his fingerprints are felt around the world, but perhaps nowhere more so than his adopted hometown New York City. There are plenty of Houdini landmarks to visit in the city: The Houdini Museum of New York; the exterior of his Harlem home; McSorley’s Ale House — even if those aren’t Harry’s handcuffs hanging on the bar.

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But one should take the trip to Queens to visit Harry’s final resting place at the Jewish Machpelah Cemetery. The bust that once stood was vandalized, then replaced, then stolen. But it’s still worth visiting the majestic tribute to the icon. While Houdini’s grave is not particularly weird on its own, it’s a testament to the delightful weirdness of the showman.

WILD WEST

The Gangs of New York

The Gangs of New York

New York, New York

The west may have been wild in the late 19th Century, but the east wasn’t exactly tame. In fact, the Bowery and Five Points neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan were destitute and run by gangs (with names like the Bowery Boys, and Dead Rabbits). There were larger-than-life fiends, river pirates, saloons, and gambling dens. And the deeds of this era were so notorious that the 1927 book The Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury became the inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s film of the same name 75 years later. There are multiple resources to explore this era of Wild NYC, but Big Onion walking tours is a highlight.

West Side Cowboys

West Side Cowboys

New York, New York 

Although New York City is not associated with Wild West imagery of saloons and shoot outs, it was home to the West Side Cowboys. In the 1850s, while the West was being “won,” freight trains traveled along 10th and 11th Avenues in New York. There were so many accidents, and deaths resulted that 10th Avenue became known as “Death Avenue.” Urban Cowboys were hired to ride in front of the trains, to give warning of the oncoming behemoth, and also to ensure the train maintained its speed limit. The elevated High Line tracks (now a greenway park) was established for trains to run above the streets, but cowboys still rode on the along the ground-level route until 1941. A plaque commemorating Death Avenue is installed on the wall of the “Death Ave” restaurant at 10th Avenue and 29th Street. Read more on it here.

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POP CULTURE

Ghostbusters Firehouse

 

Ghostbusters Firehouse

New York, NY

Head to the Hook & Ladder Company 8 firehouse at 14 North Moore Street in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood, and you’ll find the cinematic home to Venkman, Spengler, Stantz, and Zeddemore. While a Containment Unit is not likely located in the basement, the firehouse’s role as the exterior of GBHQ is honored by the company’s familiar ghosty logo (which marks the ground outside the main gate). Ladder 8 was also a first responder on September 11, 2001, and Lieutenant Vincent G. Halloran gave his life in duty that day.

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Niagara Falls, New York

Niagara Falls, New York

In Superman II, Lois Lane and Clark Kent travel to this natural wonder on assignment as a married couple when she discovers his big secret. Also, it’s where Jim and Pam said their “I do”s in The Office season 6. But those two are just drops in the bucket of projects filmed on the U.S. side of the falls. Canadian Bacon, Sharknado 2, Bruce Almighty, and more can lay claim to getting their film feet wet at the landmark bordering Ontario, Canada, with the most powerful waterfall in North America.

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HAUNTED

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

 

The Legends of Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow, New York

If you hop on the Hudson – Metro North Line and head 30 miles outside New York City, you’ll find yourself in Sleepy Hollow, a village to lose your head over. Formerly known as North Tarrytown until 1996, it was made famous by Washington Irving’s 1820 story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” starring schoolmaster Ichabod Crane, and the Headless Horseman – and set during Halloween season. Along with landmarks such as the Old Dutch Church (where Irving is buried, and where he said the horseman was, as well), and Irving’s Sunnyside home, the town goes all in with a slew of events celebrating the Headless Horseman story. What’s more, Sleepy Hollow is also supposedly home to many ghosts, such as its own Lady in White, a Bronze Lady in the cemetery, the specter of Benedict Arnold’s conspirator, Major John Andre – and yes, there are indeed stories of a headless Hessian horseman who died during the American Revolutionary War.

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Rolling Hills Asylum

Rolling Hills Asylum

East Bethany, New York

Established as the Genesee Poor Farm in 1827 before it became known as Rolling Hills Asylum, the self-sufficient facility in a rural area of New York would house orphans, the elderly, “paupers,” the physically and mentally disabled, as well as criminals. Before it closed in 1974, the so-called “inmates” who were able bodied worked the asylum’s farm, and raised livestock. There was also a cemetery on the grounds, but the location of which is a mystery. Now the quite large building is famous for its alleged hauntings, not surprisingly considering the poor treatment inmates — especially those with mental illness — received. Most famously there are reports of a seven-and-a-half foot tall “shadow person” believed to be the patient Roy, who suffered with gigantism, and died in 1942. Alleged hot spots at Rolling Hills include the morgue, the psych ward, and the second floor on the east wing, aka the “Shadow Hallway.”

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TRUE CRIME

Al Pacino and Marlon Brando in The Godfather

Mob City

New York, New York

The Italian-American Mafia, aka La Cosa Nostra aka The Mob, took root in the late 19th Century, and eventually established its modern incarnation in the 1930s with Charles “Lucky” Luciano’s Commission that governed the Five Families of Crime. And the Mafia were underworld rulers of NYC (although there were also Irish, Jewish, and Chinese gangs). Little Italy, Chinatown, the East Village, Brooklyn, and more; there are a lot of stories of organized crime to be told in the Big Apple. And you can even join a Prohibition Pub crawl, along with various other gangster tours, to learn about them.