I lived and worked in New York City and found it was unlike anywhere else in the world. And, without a doubt, Manhattan is NYC's beating heart.
The cool thing about Manhattan is that it's split into a number of neighbourhoods, each with its own unique character. The differences between Chinatown, the Financial District, TriBeCa and SoHo are incredible, even though you could walk through each of them one after the other.
Given these differences, I decided that during my time in New York, I would visit every part of Manhattan and then pick some things I really enjoyed. Since my return, friends have been asking for my tips, so I thought I'd share this more widely. This list shows one thing to do in every Manhattan neighbourhood, with the neighbourhoods defined by the city's own political map.
Financial District - 9/11 Memorial and Museum
The Financial District (FiDi) covers a wide area at the tip of Manhattan, and in some maps it is further divided into Battery Park to the south and west, South Street Seaport to the east and the Civic Centre to the north.
Being the oldest part of Manhattan, there is a lot to do in FiDi; visiting Trinity Church, walking through Wall Street and stopping by the Museum of American Finance, having food and drinks on the historic Stone Street, watching reenactments at Federal Hall and looking across to the New York Stock Exchange or visiting the Museum of the American Indian are just a few of the many things to see and do.
Battery Park is incredible during the Spring, with views over the Hudson toward New Jersey and the Statue of Liberty. The ferry terminal at Battery Park connects Manhattan with Governor's Island, Ellis Island, Staten Island and New Jersey - it's just a hive of energy.
However, my favourite area is the 9/11 memorial and specifically the museum. I won't write too much about it here as I have covered it in some detail before (you can read my review here), but it's one of the best memorials I have ever seen. Everything from the memorial park that contains the footprints of the Twin Towers to the underground museum that tells the story of the attack from the many perspectives that were there on the day.
I've written a detailed blog just on FiDi and its many landmarks that you can read here, and if you're interested in the historical side of FiDi, I've also written an article covering those landmarks that you can read here.
TriBeCa - Arcade Bakery
I probably spent more time in TriBeCa than any other neighbourhood in Manhattan. An abbreviation of 'Triangle Below Canal Street', the previously unfashionable TriBeCa is now one of the more expensive parts of Manhattan - home of many celebrities and the TriBeCa Film Festival.
The neighbourhood was in between my home in the Financial District proper and my workplace in the Civic Centre and therefore it was the perfect place for lunch and hanging out after work, as well as being where I did most of my shopping.
TriBeCa is particularly noted for its many bars and restaurants but for me the standout place is Arcade Bakery. Hidden inside the lobby of a rather unassuming office block on Church Street, it's unsurprising that this gem of a bakery is a locals' secret. In fact, if it wasn't for my colleagues who literally eat there at least 3 times a week, I'm not sure I would have been able to find it.
Why is it so good? It is the only place I have ever visited where the bread tastes nicer than the filling. Don't get me wrong, the filling is very good, but I have never in my life tasted bread like this. It's never overly crowded, even at lunch there's only ever a small queue and it serves everything from loaves of bread, to sandwiches, desserts and pizza. The owner is an extremely friendly guy and after a few weeks knew my order before I'd even open my mouth. If you go to New York, this is a must visit place!
Chinatown - Jing Fong
Chinatown is polarising. My boss went to New York a few months before I did and he absolutely hated it. For me, it was one of my favourite parts of the city. As soon as you cross into Chinatown, it's like being transported into a different continent. Every building is either covered in Mandarin or Cantonese, the aromas of the restaurants, markets and roadside vendors float onto the packed sidewalks and it really is a chaotic place.
In fact, walking through Chinatown during the Spring or early Summer was one of my favourite things (it gets way too hot during the hottest part of the year). It feels like a different world and for a moment, you completely forget where you are.
The best bit about Chinatown is the restaurants - they are by far the cheapest on Manhattan and as it was a short walk from my work, I ended up in the neighbourhood on many occasions. Excellent Dumpling House and Joe's are both famed for their soup dumplings but for me Jing Fong is the restaurant that I miss the most. A large open area, sort of like a Panjabi wedding hall in England is the setting for the restaurant and Chinese (mainly Cantonese) food is carted along the narrow aisles between the tables. You pick what you want, the waiter/waitress stamps your card and off they go. You can pretty much eat till you feel sick for under $10 per person. And it's more than just the food - it's the whole atmosphere, it's the size and the scale of the place that makes it special.
Lower East Side - The Backroom
The Backroom is one of many speakeasies in Manhattan, but it is one of only two speakeasies that were open during the prohibition era. Now before I continue, as I've mentioned in past posts, the alcohol epidemic that plagues the Sikh community is one of the reasons I do not promote bars or clubs on my posts, despite working in a couple during my student days. However, the Backroom is more than just a bar, it's a piece of New York history.
You enter through a small white picket fence and walk down an unassuming flight of stairs between two buildings - it's very easy to miss. You continue through a small passageway before arriving at another building at the back. You enter into a deceptively large room, very dimly lit. The decor is very unique, very old school - with paintings hanging on the wall and comfortable sofas placed all through the bar.
They still serve alcohol in tea cups and brown paper bags, a throwback to the days when alcohol was prohibited in the United States. It's certainly unique and nice throwback to a different era. Even if you don't drink, it's worth a visit to be a part of American history and experience an original speakeasy - imitations of which are now all over New York, and increasingly, in London too.
Little Italy - Parisi
When it comes to serving sizes, they don't get much bigger than this. The biggest sandwich I got during my stay in New York was from Parisi. In fact, it's one of the few times I have genuinely struggled to finish my food. And not because the sandwich wasn't nice. The bread and the ingredients are fresh but the best thing about Parisi is the experience of visiting a bakery that has remained family owned for over 100 years.
When I first moved to Manhattan, I was told if you want to eat good Italian food, avoid Little Italy. As I've mentioned on another post that I wrote on the city, the Little Italy area has grown progressively smaller over the past century, with Chinatown encroaching on the area little by little. What's left is very beautiful to walk through, but for food, it's not that great.
The restaurants are overpriced, and in general, not that good (other than Lombardi's which you can read about here). However, Parisi's stands out. It's a throwback to when Italian communities had congregated around the neighbourhood and the fact that it is still run and owned by the same family is astounding. Don't expect a Subway style service, I had to wait a fair while for my sandwich to be made, but it was definitely worth the wait. Bread that actually tastes good, ingredients that don't taste like they have been in a freezer for a week. Parisi's is definitely worth a visit.
SoHo - La Esquina
I eat food because I need to it to fuel myself. I have written on many different posts that I'm not a 'foodie', I actually dislike that term, it's a very first world phenomenon - so it's perhaps a little surprising that this is my fourth food based entry on this post. The food in New York isn't only very good, but it's also very different to the food back home in England.
We have a large south Asian community, so Indian food in England is as good as you will find it anywhere. But when it comes to Chinese, Italian and Mexican food, you need to follow immigration patterns, and the United States has traditionally been a destination for these groups.
La Esquina in SoHo is one of the best taco restaurants I have visited (the Taco Shop in the West Village is a very close second). SoHo (South of Houston) is a great neighbourhood to walk through. Once the home of artists, gentrification means it's now the home of upmarket stores and modelling agencies. In fact, every time that I walked through the neighbourhood, someone would be taking modelling shops against certain backdrops. Now that's partly because the area has some fantastic traditional redbrick style housing. As rents increased, the artists moved progressively east, first to the East Village, and then across the East River to Williamsburg.
La Esquina is a small 'hole in the wall' type of restaurant with seating outside. The building is a popular photograph point but the food is good, service quick and atmosphere very lively. The Taco Shop in the West Village is another must, but La Esquina is so much more than just the food.
East Village - The Strand Bookstore
The East Village is one of the more fun parts of Manhattan. Almost all of the island south of Central Park is gentrified, but East Village was one of the last, and still retains a very unique appearance, think Shoreditch meets Camden.
Traditionally the home of a large Ukrainian community, an influx of artists from neighbouring SoHO began to drive up rents and prices. It's at night that the East Village comes into its own, and the area is one of the best for good nightlife.
My favourite part of the East Village is an independent bookstore, but the Strand Bookstore is not like any other independent bookstore. Known as '18 miles of the books', the store is literally a maze of aisles with books as far as you can see, from ground to ceiling. Spread over three floors, you can find a book on almost anything, in fact, there are almost 3 million books currently in the store.
The store is so successful, it has its own line of merchandise. The books themselves are a mix between new books and pre-owned books and I spent a number of hours getting immersed in the books over three or four different trips to bookstore. I found some fantastic reads for under $5, but some of the more expensive books cost upward of $1,000.
Greenwich & West Village - Washington Square Park
This is by far my favourite area in Manhattan. Stretching from Washington Square Park all the way to western edge of Manhattan, Greenwich and the West Village feels like the Manhattan you see on tv, and funnily enough, the West Village is home to the apartment from the sitcom Friends which you can still see.
The area is busier than the Financial District to the south but not quite the tourist trap of Midtown and is home to the best bars and restaurants in the whole of New York City (in my opinion). The West Village in particular has a very lively nightlife and is home to a number of famous speakeasies. Greenwich on the other hand has incredibly beautiful streets, amazing small independent stores and a youthful energy distinct from corporate and touristy Manhattan.
Washington Square Park was one of my favourite hangouts in the entire city. Firstly, the park is in a lively part of the city, but secondly, given its proximity to New York University, there is always something going on. The park has an energy about it, whether it's the street performers, small bands, the chess players, cultural themed events or even protests, I don't think I ever visited the park and found it dull or boring. The park is dominated by the Washington Square Arch, an arch built in the late 19th century commemorating the centennial of George Washington's inauguration as President of the United States which perfectly frames the Empire State Building.
Chelsea - The Highline
When I first arrived in New York City, almost everyone there kept asking; "have you been to the Highline yet?"
It's obvious that locals are proud of the urban transformation that has changed an old disused railway line into a near one and a half mile public space, filled with greenery. I ended up visiting the Highline over a number of occasions during my time in the city - it's a good place to hang out, a good place to unwind, a good place to take a date, I can't really fault it.
The Highline opened in 2009 and has steadily been extended over the years. Previously, I'm told, the disused railway line was an eyesore in a sketchy part of town. Now, the fame of the Highline has transformed the area completely, with house prices rising rapidly. In fact, during my time in Manhattan I saw a number of construction projects very quickly go up in the neighbourhood.
The Highline's southern terminus is by the Whitney Museum, and during its winding track northward, it passes by the fantastic Chelsea Market. There are small art installations throughout the walk, old parts of disused track are still visible, but perhaps the most famous part of the walk is the bridge window overlooking a road on Tenth Avenue and 17th Street. It's northern terminus at 34th Street isn't as grand and you're sort of left with a 'where do I go now moment' but on the whole, the Highline is not only a good place to visit, but a great lesson for successful urban transformation.
Gramercy and Murray hill - Pod 39
It's the area where I spent the least amount of time, primarily because it is largely residential. However, the times that I did visit were toward the summer where I visited some of the many rooftops in the area. Pod 39 was my favourite.
Unlike some of the other rooftops I have visited and written about, the views from Pod 39 aren't actually that good. In fact, other than One World Trade Centre that you can see from a distance, you don't actually see much of the Manhattan skyline at all. Perhaps that's part of the charm.
In a city where every rooftop is clambering to show the best views, Pod 39 takes you out of Manhattan a little bit. Tall brick walls and a very laid back atmosphere took me a world away from the busy streets below. I could have been in any city in the world if it wasn't for the accents surrounding me. In fact, it's only when I went back down the lift and onto the streets below that I had my 'ah I'm in NYC' moment.
Midtown East - Chrysler Building
What else but the Chrysler?
In my article on my 10 favourite New York City skyscrapers (which you can read here), I ranked the Chrysler Building right at the top. It really is the jewel in the Manhattan skyline. At 1,046 ft it isn't by any means the tallest skyscraper in the city, nor does it have a particularly large footprint. But the 1930 built Chrysler remains one of the most beautifully designed skyscrapers in the world.
The details of the building are incredible. The corners of the 31st floor are decorated by replicas of 1929 Chrysler radiator caps. More spectacular still are the ornaments on the corners of the 61st floor, beautiful shining eagles that you can make out even from street level. However, the best feature is undoubtedly the crown of the skyscraper. Built with non-rusting steel, there are 7 arches that beautifully merge together and melt into the buildings spire. It is honestly a thing a wonder. The Chrysler is just as beautiful at night. Bright white lights follow the arches and highlight the crown of the skyscraper so it can be seen from miles around.
Although the skyscraper is best viewed from 43rd and Fifth, its home is Midtown East, and a walk down the Midtown East part of Lexington Avenue also affords decent views, of what in my opinion is, the best skyscraper in the world.
Midtown - Bar 65
Let's get this out the way first - I dislike Midtown. Frequently crowded, overpriced, pavements full of slow walking people, there is very little that is redeeming about the busiest parts of Manhattan.
Sure, the first time you see Times Square at night, it's pretty spectacular. Grand Central Station is stunning, and the gorgeous New York Times Building is located in the area. Other than that it's an area that I usually tried to avoid, as do most New Yorkers. In terms of London, it would be the equivalent of Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus, you only go there when you are with out of town friends.
However, it isn't all bad. In fact, the view from the Top of the Rock is one of the best views you can get in the city. The view includes Central Park on one side, down to Lower Manhattan on the other with the Empire State Building holding pride of place directly in front. However, at $36 per person, it's not exactly cheap. That's where Bar 65 comes in.
Located on the 65th floor of the same Rockefeller Centre building, the bar is free to visit provided you are dressed smartly. It affords very similar views to the Top of the Rock, but without the cost. Think of it like Aqua Shard in London. The bar is located on the 31st floor of London's tallest building, providing you with similar views that you would get from the top, but without having to pay the ticket price.
Now, the only caveat is that you can be turned away if you are not dressed appropriately, but a shirt, smart trousers and shoes tends to be enough. What's more, unlike the Aqua Shard, there is an outside area where you can really get much closer to the city, similar to Top of the Rock.
Hell's Kitchen - The Press Lounge
But when it comes to views, they don't get much more unique than the Press Lounge in Hell's Kitchen. Whilst there are many rooftops in other parts of the city, there aren't too many in this neighbourhood, so you get to see Manhattan from a very different perspective.
Now again, as with Bar 65, you need to dress sharply to get in, but as with most of Manhattan, as a Sikh, you don't get too many issues. From the rooftop of the Press Lounge, you are looking at the city from west to east, so you see many different parts of the city, and also different perspectives from the same landmarks you may see from Midtown or Lower Manhattan.
Although bordered by the Hudson on one side, I oddly felt very much in the middle of the city, just because the view was entirely different and unexpected. A small pool of water, lit up beautifully at night, adds another dimension to the venue itself.
And the best bit? You're only a short walk from another of my Hell's Kitchen favourites; Gotham West Market, an indoor foodcourt with a large variety of very tasty and reasonably priced food!
Upper West Side - Boat Basin
I like the Upper West Side. One of my managers lives there, and in the summer it's a very nice place to take a walk and look at some of the brick apartments that made me feel like I was in the New York that I would see on films.
Perhaps my favourite place to hang out on the Upper West Side is the 79th Street Boat Basin. The Boat Basin is a park and marina with a nearby rotunda that hosts a space for food and drink. The site is also used as the launchpad for canoeing and kayaking on the Hudson River.
I visited during the summer, and I can honestly say it was one of the most relaxing moments of my residency in Manhattan. You're close enough to the river to see and hear the water, but only a short walk from Central Park as well. I spent a good few hours relaxing in what felt like a bubble within Manhattan, very different to the hustle and bustle of the areas to the south.
Upper East Side - Metropolitan Museum of Art
On the other side of Central Park is the Upper East Side, home of 'Museum Mile', and for me, the Met is not only the best museum on the Upper East Side, but the best museum in New York City. I wrote a list on my 10 favourite New York City museums (which you can read here) but the below extract perfectly sums up why this museum tops the list.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, better known as the 'Met' is one of New York's premier museums, in fact, it is the second most visited art museum in the world, slightly behind the Louvre in Paris. At roughly 150 years old, it's also one of the city's oldest and unlike most of the museum's on this list, paying for admission is suggested only.
The museum houses collections from antiquity all the way until the modern day. It is what the Louvre is to Paris and what the British Museum is to London. Its collections not only span time, but also space, taking in art from as far as China and Japan, Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. In fact, the breadth of the collection is genuinely impressive, although perhaps not on par with the British Museum in particular.
Where this museum truly excels is the architecture. From the outside it looks like any large museum does, but the inside is very smartly designed. Each room that is dedicated to a different part of the world is decorated to represent that culture, so much so that you really feel immersed in each collection. I found myself walking for hours, collection through collection and it felt like a virtual tour through the world.
The architecture extends to outside the building. It's one of the few museums in the world to have a rooftop bar. The rooftop overlooks Central Park and the Manhattan skyline. The tree line serves to give the rooftop a unique perspective of Manhattan and a visit to the museum is worth it for this alone. It's not easy to find, but it's definitely worth looking for.
If this was an exhaustive list, then I could probably end up writing a novel on things to do in pretty much every area of Manhattan, it really is that lively and vibrant. There were a few parts of the list where I really had to make some tough decisions.
For instance, in Midtown, Grand Central Station is a magnificent triumph of beautiful architecture with functional use. The concourse is a tourist destination in itself (can you say that about London Euston?) There is also the secret private members University Club nearby that a colleague of mine showed me, and it's about as grandiose as buildings get.
And then there's Lower Manhattan with it's incredible history encompassing famous places like Fraunces' Tavern, Trinity Church and Federal Hall, as well as its museums such as the Museum of American Finance and the the Skyscraper Museum. That's before I get started on places to relax such as Stone Street, South Street Seaport and Battery Park City. I'd definitely recommend reading my articles on FiDi here, and looking at the area's historical landmarks here.
Katz's Deli is a Lower East Side institution who's interior is about as unique as you can get for a deli in terms of its size, the way its set out, and the options available.
Greenwich and the West Village was my favourite area of New York. If you like food, you'll love Bleecker Street, if you like bars (and I try not to promote these on my blog due to the aforementioned alcohol epidemic in our community), it has plenty, and everything from small independent bookstores, to boutique shops and higher end stores.
I loved walking through SoHo and NoHo and looking at the redbrick 'typical' New York City apartments. It's definitely a more expensive part of the city, but it doesn't cost anything to walk through and it's well worth doing.
The Whitney Museum and Chelsea Market could easily have beaten the Highline to the entry on Chelsea, and Gotham West Market could easily have replaced the Press Lounge in Hells' Kitchen.
The list is very subjective, I'm sure there will be other things in each of the areas that you may enjoy more, and I'd love to hear about them in the comments section below.
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.