Hidden Times Square: An Explorer's Guide - Atlas Obscura

An Explorer's Guide to
Hidden Times Square

There's the Times Square you know, full of blazing billboards, selfie sticks, and costumed characters. Then there's the less familiar one, beyond the lights—the nooks and crannies that most visitors to Midtown Manhattan overlook. They're not obvious, but surprises can still be found along this world-famous stretch of real estate.

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A detail from Toby Buonagurio's ceramic reliefs inside the Times Sq-42nd St subway station. Aïda Amer
Subway Art

1. Overlooked Street Scenes

Your adventure begins in the 42nd Street-Times Square subway station. Most passengers sprinting (or slogging) between the N/R/Q/W corridor and the S platform likely blow right past handmade ceramic reliefs by the Bronx-based sculptor Toby Buonagurio, which are set into the tunnel’s frosted-glass walls. Not you! Thirty-five artworks are scattered throughout this hallway, installed in 2005 as part of the transit agency's efforts to beautify the system with permanent, site-specific art. Buonagurio's frenetic street scenes are rendered in clay and adorned with splashes of bright glaze. In one, a woman in cat-eye glasses, red gloves, and a tropical-fruit charm bracelet fans consults a subway map. In another, a kid trades an enormous dollar bill for a mustard-squiggled hot dog. Step out of the stream of commuters and say hello to them.

Times Sq-42nd St Subway Station, New York, NY 10036

Retro Relic

2. A Door to Nowhere

Up until the first incarnation of the Knickerbocker Hotel shuttered in 1920, commuters were able to enter it straight from the platform. They ambled down a corridor lined with settees and Art Nouveau flourishes. Once inside, they might visit the hotel's infamous watering hole, where the city's elite rubbed elbows and tossed back drinks. There, the bartender Martini di Arma di Taggia is rumored to have invented his namesake cocktail and poured one for John D. Rockefeller. You can still find a sign reading “KNICKERBOCKER” on the far end of Track 1 along the S line, linking Times Square and Grand Central. These days, though, the door is firmly sealed. Like the entrances to supply closets and engineering rooms we so often shuffle past on subway platforms, you can look, but you can’t enter.

Times Square-42nd St Subway Station, New York, NY 10036

High above the hustle and bustle, retro elements were restored to their former splendor. Courtesy The Knickerbocker Hotel
Amazing View

3. Knickerbocker Hotel Rooftop

Its clandestine entrance may be sealed up, but since the Beaux Arts hotel reopened in 2015, you only have to go above ground to step back in time. Enter the hotel from the street and ride the elevator to the roof. Seventeen stories up, you'll find the St. Cloud bar, which provides a pigeon-eye-view that reveals marvels easily missed on the ground.

There are minor wonders to behold on the rooftop itself. Copper lions' heads (with appropriately wind-swept manes) stand guard. Carefully restored when the hotel reopened, they've returned to their early-20th-century splendor. Next, look northwest to the tiered pyramid topped with a glass orb and a four-faced clock. The dramatic rooftop marks the former home of Paramount Pictures, and it’s been a stunner for more than 90 years. Though the film company's eponymous theater is long gone, the graceful clock remains. It's not instantly noticeable from the ground, though, where other, louder buildings demand attention. Glimpsing it from the Knickerbocker's high-up vantage point, you can savor a little Old Hollywood glamor in the heart of Times Square.

6 Times Square, New York, NY 10036

Ornate murals on the ceiling of the AMC Empire 25's lobby. Aïda Amer
Past Lives

4. The Lobby of AMC Empire 25

Blockbuster new releases are on offer in this modern multiplex, but you’re dropping by to visit the past via paint and plaster. This space debuted in 1912, as a theatrical venue called the Eltinge; later, in the mid-1950s, it was rechristened as the Empire. Abbott and Costello are said to have joked around here before they hit it big, and the theater regularly hosted burlesque acts and film screenings—it's just that all of this took place a little bit farther east.

In 1998, this entire building was loaded up on hydraulic jacks and nudged roughly 170 feet down the block, so its proscenium, ceiling, and box seats could serve as a lobby for the new movie palace. The short jaunt took up the entire morning and some of the afternoon, but it went off without a hitch. From just inside the door, you can still spy ornate sphinxes on the ceiling, and a dreamy mural of women dancing with gauzy scarves. Ride the escalator for a close-up view.

234 W 42nd St, New York, NY 10036

Divine Eats

5. John's Pizza

This sit-down pizza joint is a cathedral of sauce, meat, and crust. It makes sense: The building was once home to the Gospel Tabernacle Church. Since the current owners didn’t completely gut the interior, diners can feast on brick-oven pies beneath chandeliers, an octagonal stained-glass ceiling, and a balcony that once held the Sunday service’s overflow crowd.

260 W 44th St, New York, NY 10036

Not just a grate. Aïda Amer
Overlooked Art

6. Sidewalk Sound Installation

In 1977, the aural artist Max Neuhaus installed a permanent soundscape beneath a sidewalk grate. Officially titled Times Square, it’s colloquially known as “the hum,” and it’s often drowned out by grumbling trains, bleating horns, or the hollers of pedestrians milling around to snap pictures with a quintet of Mickey Mouses. Crouch down close to this patch of the pedestrian plaza, though, and it’s unmistakable. Up from the grate drifts a sound that recalls an ethereal whir, or what you might hear if you handed a xylophone to an alien. The piece fell silent from 1992 to 2002, but otherwise, it’s been humming along pretty much ever since, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Can you hear the hum? Listen to the audio postcard below to discover how Times Square visitors described the curious sound.

Broadway between 45th and 46th streets

This inlaid map of Broadway theaters is hiding in plain sight. Aïda Amer
Creative Cartography

7. An Inlaid Map of the Great White Way

If you find yourself turned around or disoriented, walk half a block north and get your bearings by looking at the ground. There, you’ll find a 28-foot map that plots the locations of 40 professional Broadway theaters in granite and stainless steel, built right into the sidewalk. The map also serves as a cartographic memorial to composers, lyricists, and playwrights including Richard Rodgers, Stephen Sondheim, and August Wilson, each of whom have a theater named for them.

Duffy Square, Broadway between 46th and 47th St, New York, NY 10036

Sculptures adorn the sides of a once-famous footwear store. Aïda Amer
Fabulous Facade

8. Showbiz Statues of Israel Miller's Shoe Store

Just east of the sidewalk map, you’ll find a cast of stone actors frozen in pantomime above the facade of a former shoe store. Israel Miller shod New York’s dancers and actors in the 1910s and '20s, and a stone inscription running beneath the cornice heralds the cobbler’s commitment to his bespoke craft: “The Show Folks Shoe Shop Dedicated to Beauty in Footwear.” 

The statues debuted in 1929, representing drama, musical comedy, opera, and motion pictures, with the figures modeled on leading ladies of the day (Ethel Barrymore is on the far left, in the role of Ophelia from Hamlet). Miller died that year, but the store marched along for another five decades. The statues were restored in 2012scrubbed of decades of grime, and finally returned to their perch. These days, their dramatic stances are sharp contrasts to the expressionless mannequins in the clothing-store window below. If you want to marvel at the sculptures, the best seat in the house is across the way, on the south side of 46th Street. 

1552 Broadway, New York, NY 10036

To repair old instruments, Jon Baltimore and his technicians often make their own tools. Aïda Amer
Old-School Shop

9. Jon Baltimore Music Company

Keep walking east on 46th Street, and you’ll arrive at a shop that evokes the district’s heyday as a music capital. Jon Baltimore spent his childhood, in the 1970s, helping out in his dad’s repair shop and apprenticing with Robert Giardinelli, a craftsman who restored instruments on 46th Street for four decades. Baltimore eventually opened his own business in Giardinelli’s old shop, and you can drop in to marvel at walls of saxophones, a full organ, or a centuries-old bassoon. On any given visit, you might see Baltimore working away with tools he fashioned by hand, or inviting a guest to blow through a mouthpiece once owned by Louis Armstrong (it’s still stamped with the musician’s name). Don’t miss the photo collage around the doorway—it’s an intimate tribute to the greats who played their way across the city.

Listen to the audio postcard below to hear Jon reflect on his work.

151 W 46th St, New York, NY 10036

Awe-Inspiring Architecture

10. Ceiling of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin

With its high-wattage billboards blotting out the sky, Times Square is an astronomy lover's hell. Painted heavens are easier to come by. A few storefronts east of the music shop, you’ll find the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, whose deep blue, French Gothic nave is speckled with golden stars. During Sunday mass, the church often clouds with incense, earning it the nickname Smoky Mary’s. If you visit during the week, though, you should have no trouble glimpsing the moody expanse.

145 W 46th St, New York, NY 10036

Refuel at Margon. Aïda Amer
Delicious Deal

11. Latin Lunch at Margon

Directly across the street, you’ll find a delectable, no-frills Cuban eatery that’s a far cry from the chains and anonymous delis jostling for your attention nearby. Margon is special, and not just because you get a lot of bang—and palomilla steak—for your buck. Instead of bland, budget-busting fare, you can get a heaping plate of fried king fish, a hefty sandwich, or a generous bowl of sopa de mondongo con patita (tripe soup with pig feet) for a price many nearby restaurants would charge for appetizers. That’s a very good thing for both your belly and your wallet.

Fair warning: Margon is only open until 5 p.m., and is typically closed on Sundays. 

136 W 46th St, New York, NY 10036

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Forbidden Caverns, ready for its closeup.

7 Underground Thrills Only Found in Tennessee

Famous for country music and hot chicken, Tennessee is also filled with natural wonders. Across the state, caverns beckon. Venturing into some of Tennessee's strangest subterranean haunts is a great way to experience the depths of the state's spell-binding charm. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

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Watch out for any chimp-gator hybrids lurking in the tea-colored water of Honey Island Swamp.

Sink Into 7 of Louisiana's Swampiest Secrets

Louisiana has long had a complex relationship with the wet world. Chitimacha, Choctaw, and Atakapa peoples built communities among the knobby knees of bald cypress trees; French fur traders and pirates eventually made their own marks. Later still, modern engineers attempted to corral waters with levees and dams, or to reclaim land where there had been none. Across the 50,000-odd square miles that make up the state, troves of special places are becoming concealed by rising water. Here are seven places water has revealed or covered up. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

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Diego Rivera's mural sprawls across a light-flooded room in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

7 Mechanical Marvels in Michigan

Michigan is famous for its steep, sweeping sand dunes, freckling of lakes, and unique fossils—but across the state, you'll find slews of automated wonders, past and present. From old animatronic toys to the ruins of early assembly lines, here are seven places to be dazzled by industry. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

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Who doesn't love an old tree?

11 Wholesome Spots in Nevada

Here at Atlas Obscura, we have a fondness for the forbidden, a hunger for the hidden, a gusto for the grim. (You get the point.) But it wouldn’t be so intrepid to simply highlight Nevada’s underbelly, would it? There’s more to the state than extraterrestrial-themed brothels and nuclear bomb test sites. Kids and grandparents might enjoy enormous Ferris wheels, unusual geysers, or pristine parklands. Even Nevada—home to Sin City—has a family-friendly side. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

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All aboard for a plate of pancakes.

7 Places to Glimpse Maine's Rich Railroad History

Maine is widely known for its mottled red crustaceans and stony-faced lighthouses, as well as bucolic towns and the top-notch hiking outside of them. But before all that, Maine was all about one thing: trains. As America industrialized in the 19th century, there was an insatiable demand to build and a hunger for lumber. Maine had plenty of it, and the state’s rivers became swollen with the fallen bodies of pine and spruce, much of which was hauled by rail. Trains did the heavy lifting to coastal hubs including Bangor and Ellsworth, and by 1924, there was enough railroad mileage in Maine to get from London’s King's Cross station to Mosul, Iraq. Over the years, some of the old cars were fashioned into eateries, but many were simply abandoned in the woods. Now, relics of Maine’s railroad history are scattered in museums, restaurants, and more. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

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At Glacier Gardens, the tree canopies are flowers in bloom.

11 Places Where Alaska Bursts Into Color

Picture Alaska. You might see in your mind's eye the granite and stark white snowcaps of Denali National Park, or the dark seas that surround 6,000-plus miles of coastline, or the muted olive of its tundra in the summer. But as anyone who's been there knows, the country's largest, most sparsely populated state can absolutely burst with color, from the luminous green of the Northern Lights, to the deep aqua of its glaciers, to the flourish of wildflowers fed by its long summer days. Here are some places to see the full spectrum of The Last Frontier. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

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Workers assess the exterior of the Washington Monument after an earthquake in 2011.

9 Places in D.C. That You're Probably Never Allowed to Go

The District of Columbia is home to a number of places that you need to flash the right ID to access. From restricted rooftops to government storage facilities and underground tunnels, the city is filled with places that are off-limits to the average visitor. What’s more, many of them are hidden within popular tourist destinations and densely populated neighborhoods—so you might catch a glimpse of them, but never get any closer. These are a few of our favorite restricted spots in D.C., and the stories behind them. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

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2 Perfect Days in Pensacola

If you thought Pensacola, Florida—with its powder-white sand beaches, near-perfect weather, and fresh seafood—was just a place to soak up the sun, think again. In fact, the city and beach of the same name is the site of the first European settlement in the continental United States. Established by Spanish explorer Tristán de Luna in 1559, it was christened Panzacola, a name of Native American origin and the precursor to the city’s modern name. The destination is also the birthplace of U.S. naval aviation and is still home to a naval air station and the thousands of service members stationed there, as well as the Blue Angels, the flight squadron famous for their death-defying fighter plane stunts. This delightful coastal city is an ideal, if somewhat quirky, blend of historical sites (on land and underwater) and activities to get your adrenaline flowing.

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Taste of Tucson

The people of Tucson have been eating off the land for 4,100 years. From grains to livestock to produce introduced by missionaries in the 1600s, this UNESCO City of Gastronomy is home to some of the oldest farmland in North America. What once was old is new again in The Old Pueblo where ancient flavors are found in nearly every dish — trendy to traditional.

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North Iceland’s Untamed Coast

Any travel enthusiast would be hard-pressed to open any social media channel and not see photos of Iceland, with its jaw-dropping peaks, natural hot springs, pure glaciers, northern lights and snow-covered landscapes. But the island nation’s appeal goes well beyond the well-worn paths of Reykjavik, the Golden Circle and the southern region's countryside. Travel to the untamed north along the Arctic Coast Way to discover otherworldly beauty—sans crowds—around every bend.

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Look closely and wander widely: Parliament Square is full of charm.

Hidden Edinburgh

Crowds clog Edinburgh's Royal Mile, the main artery between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace. The road is dotted with stores selling Nessie trinkets and lined with bagpipers and street performers pulling off dazzling tricks. But look beyond the tartan tourist traps, and you’ll discover tucked-away gardens, remnants of the city’s medieval past, and much more.

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Hidden Haight-Ashbury

In 1967, 100,000 artists, activists, and hippies gathered in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood for the Summer of Love. Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix played free concerts for fields of college dropouts, and San Francisco established itself as a countercultural capital. More than 50 years later, in a city increasingly known for Twitter and tech rather than art and activism, travelers who come on a pilgrimage are often disappointed to find expensive, skin-deep psychedelia. But if you know where to look, you’ll find a walk down Haight Street to be wonderfully weird, full of historic links to hippiedom and modern takes on the vibe.

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The Many Flavors of NYC’s Five Boroughs

More than eight million diverse individuals call New York City home, and many of them share their heritage through food. Whether it’s a billiards hall that serves stellar Bhutanese fare or a mosque where Malian vendors sell snacks for just a few hours each Friday, the city offers a vast culinary landscape for those willing to explore it. Venture beyond the flashy hotspots with months-long waiting lists and you’ll find New York’s true flavor lies within the small restaurants and stands rooted in its thriving immigrant communities.

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Musical instruments in the courtyard of SecondLine Arts and Antiques in New Orleans' French Quarter.

Hidden French Quarter

It may be famous for Mardi Gras, but New Orleans has subtle, surprising wonders on tap all year long—even in the touristy French Quarter. Around every cobblestoned corner, you’ll find historic ephemera, bits of Creole culture, environmentalism, and no shortage of spooky stories, whenever you happen to visit.

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art

From the street, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is hard to miss: The institution’s two-million-square-foot main building, at 1000 Fifth Avenue, spans four New York City blocks and stretches into Central Park. Inside the galleries, you’ll find thousands of objects spanning 5,000 years of world history. With so many treasures under one roof, it's inevitable that some fascinating pieces are tucked into the museum's lonelier nooks and crannies, hiding in plain sight. The next time you spend a day at the museum, keep an eye out for these overlooked wonders.

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The RV/MH Hall of Fame.

Motown to Music City Road Trip

Detroit and Nashville are synonymous with two all-American music genres. It’s no surprise that visitors flock to these cities each year to get a feel for the places where artists such as Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross &amp; the Supremes, Johnny Cash, and Dolly Parton began their careers. A (relatively) straight, north to south route connects the two cities, as does musical heritage. Load up the RV, make sure your speaker system is in tip-top shape, and create a playlist filled with old-school Motown and Country hits. If you're not driving on the trip down south, you should be dancing.

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The East Texas Bayou.

Gulf Coast Road Trip

The terrain along the Gulf of Mexico is sometimes called the “Third Coast,” but for an offbeat road trip, it’s second to none. Starting in Houston and ending in Pensacola Bay, this journey takes you through some of America’s most diverse landscapes. You’ll cross Cajun swamps, drive along sparkling white sand beaches, and even spend some time in the Big Easy. Take an RV and camp along the way to truly immerse yourself in this wondrous region. The world’s largest gulf, it turns out, holds some of America’s best-kept secrets.

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Coachella Valley Preserve.

Hidden Coachella Valley

The Coachella Valley and its environs boom in the spring, when tens of thousands of music lovers flock to catch their favorite artists perform in front of a dramatic, mountainous backdrop. But this region stays wonderfully weird all year long. If the festival drew you to the area and you only have a day to explore, choose a direction: Either head north, toward Joshua Tree and Landers, or southeast to the Salton Sea and nearby oases for a blissful respite. If you can spare a couple of days, lucky you—go forth and see it all.

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A view of L.A. from the top of Highland Park.

Highland Park

Los Angeles’ Highland Park is a diverse, eclectic neighborhood that Native Americans and Latinx communities have inhabited for centuries. Celebrated for its history, art scene, ethnic diversity, and cuisine, Highland Park is filled with surprising delights that more and more people are discovering every day. Exploring the neighborhood's nooks and crannies is one of the most rewarding ways to spend a day in L.A.

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The heart of Venice.

Venice

Once referred to as “The Coney Island of the Pacific,” L.A.’s beachfront neighborhood of Venice has long been a popular tourist destination. Its colorful characters, quirky architecture, and carnivalesque atmosphere are well-known the world over. But take a moment to look past the kitsch, and you’ll discover a place where artistic ingenuity thrives more than a century after Abbot Kinney endeavored to bring a grandiose version of Venice to America. The bohemian beehive has always attracted artists and performers, and everyone is welcome to enjoy the show.

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Artist Colette Miller's tribute to the City of Angels.

L.A.’s Downtown Arts District

The 1970s brought a wave of artists into this former industrial area in Downtown Los Angeles. They sparked a fuse of creative imagination that burned for years. Up-and-coming creators took advantage of the then-low rents and built a foundation for the creative mecca that exists here today. In its infancy, L.A.’s Downtown Arts District came to life behind-the-scenes, with artists mostly working in closed studios. Today, the art has spilled onto the streets in the form of colorful murals, attractive gallery spaces, and stylish storefronts. But the curious explorer can still find literal and figurative traces of the ‘70s. In addition to the more historic spots that remain, a creative, entrepreneurial spirit abounds.

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The Whitehall Banqueting House is full of topsy-turvy views.

Hidden Trafalgar Square

Wedged between Charing Cross and Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square is known for the throngs of people flocking to its famous attractions. Weave around the tourists on the National Gallery stairs and dodge the crowds clogging the street corners. Instead, duck down dreamy alleys and pop into unique, overlooked museums and shops. There, a secret side of this busy area waits to reveal itself.

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An elevator shaft in Tribeca opens to reveal a museum of small wonders.

Secrets of NYC’s Five Boroughs

Few cities on Earth are as well-trodden as New York–but as any intrepid traveler knows, the more you explore a place, the more wonders you find. You may not be able to discover all of these spots in a single trip, but that could be a good thing. No matter how many times you return, the city that never sleeps never ceases to surprise. Visit NYCGo to uncover more of the city’s secret spots.

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Plenty of sweet treats are on offer at Pastelería Ideal

Mexico City's Centro Histórico

Anchored by the Zócalo plaza and the architectural splendor of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City's historic center rightfully draws scores of visitors from around the world. If you look, smell, and taste carefully, you’ll also find a universe of culinary offerings that tells stories of immigration, adaptation, and imagination. With the help of Culinary Backstreets, we assembled a primer on eating and drinking your way through the district.

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View of the Hollywood Sign from Babylon Court

Hidden Hollywood

Hollywood Boulevard is world-famous—for the Oscars and the Walk of Fame, for schlocky souvenir shops and crowded tour buses. But beyond the terrazzo stars and the occasional celebrity sighting, there’s plenty left to discover. Here’s how to make Hollywood’s acquaintance, whether you’re a visitor or a local who keeps a practiced distance from these busy, saturated blocks. Look closer and you'll find a neighborhood full of nature, history, and wonder.

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Upper Hoh Road, Olympic National Park, Oregon.

Summer Radio Road-Trip

Follow along on our 2,200-mile adventure with NPR's 'All Things Considered.'

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Amsterdam

Forge your own path in this tourist magnet, toward places that are less crowded but no less wondrous.

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Buenos Aires

Find faded grandeur and vibrant street life in Argentina's largest city.

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Chicago

Just when you thought you knew the Windy City, it finds new ways to surprise you.

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Detroit

Find secret vistas, labyrinthine bookstores, and eclectic public art.

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The dome of Estrela Basilica in Lisbon.

Lisbon

In the homeland of explorers, your best bet is to keep looking.

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Miami

Go beyond the beaches in the continental United States’ only truly tropical city.

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Queens

New York City's most diverse borough is also its most rewarding.

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San Diego

Southern California's second city holds plenty of sparkling secrets.

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Savannah

Find surprises around every corner in a U.S. city that embraces history like no other.

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