New York is very much a city of neighbourhoods, most compact enough to be explored on foot (at least below 59th Street). This guide to the best places to visit in New York starts at the southern tip of the island and moves north.
The Harbour Islands – Liberty, Ellis and Governors islands – were the first glimpses of New York (and indeed America) for many nineteenth-century immigrants, a legacy celebrated in Ellis Island’s excellent Museum of Immigration.
The Financial District encompasses the skyscrapers and historic buildings of Manhattan’s southern reaches, including the tallest structure in town, One World Trade Center, rising from the ashes of Ground Zero.
Immediately east of here is City Hall, New York’s well-appointed municipal centre, and the massive Gothic span of the Brooklyn Bridge, while to the west is swanky Tribeca, a loft-filled residential district with plenty of happening restaurants. Soho, just to the north, was a big centre for art galleries in the 1970s and 80s; it’s better known today for its shops and street scene, as well as some historic cast-iron buildings.
East of here is Chinatown, Manhattan’s most densely populated ethnic neighbourhood and a vibrant locale great for Chinese food and mooching around. Now more a haven for pasta-and- red-sauce tourist traps than Italians, Little Italy next door is slowly being swallowed by Chinatown’s hungry expansion, while the Lower East Side, traditionally the city’s gateway neighbourhood for new immigrants – whether German, Jewish or Hispanic – has been almost totally gentrified by young urban professionals, but preserves its history in the thought-provoking Tenement Museum.
The East and West villages are known for their gorgeous, tree-lined streets, bohemian history and their hip bars, restaurants and shops. Chelsea has displaced the West Village as the heart of Manhattan’s gay scene, scooped Soho for exciting gallery spaces and added outdoor gems in the High Line and Hudson River Park developments.
The areas around Union Square and Gramercy Park feature some lovely skyscrapers, including the Flatiron Building, that nicely complement the green spaces, as well as an exciting eating scene. This is where the avenues begin their march north through the busy, regimented blocks of Midtown.
In its eastern portion, Midtown is dotted with some of the city’s most impressive sights, including the Empire State Building, Grand Central Terminal and the Museum of Modern Art. Modern and postmodern skyscrapers punctuate this business district. To the west, Times Square and the Theater District provide a commercialized look at the popular image of New York City, while Hell’s Kitchen, along Ninth and Tenth avenues, at least harkens back to a slightly grittier day.
Beyond the high-rise blocks of Midtown, the character of the city changes quite rapidly. The neck-cricking architecture and flagship stores along Fifth Avenue run into 59th Street, where the classic Manhattan vistas are broken by the broad expanse of Central Park, a supreme piece of nineteenth-century landscaping.
Flanking the park, the Upper East Side is wealthy and grandiose, with many of its nineteenth-century millionaires’ mansions now transformed into a string of magnificent museums known as “Museum Mile”; the most prominent of these is the vast Metropolitan Museum of Art. The residential neighbourhood boasts some of the swankiest addresses in Manhattan, as well as a nest of designer shops along Madison Avenue in the seventies.
On the other side of the park, the largely residential, less patrician enclave of the Upper West Side is worth a visit, mostly for Lincoln Center, the American Museum of Natural History and Riverside Park along the Hudson River; studenty Morningside Heights, home to Columbia University, tops off the neighbourhood.
Immediately north of Central Park, Harlem, the historic black city-within-a-city, numbers elegant brownstones, Baptist churches, jazz landmarks and a strong community spirit among its high points.
Still farther north, past residential Hamilton Heights and Washington Heights, a largely Hispanic enclave that few visitors ever venture to visit, stands Inwood at the tip of the island. It’s here you’ll find the Cloisters, a nineteenth-century mock-up of a medieval monastery, packed with great European Romanesque and Gothic art and (transplanted) architecture – in short, one of Manhattan’s must-sees.
In addition to the points of historical and contemporary interest in each, places to visit include some of New York’s most vibrant ethnic neighborhoods. Consequently some of the city’s best food can be found out here: the Greek restaurants of the Astoria district in Queens, for example, or the Italian bakeries and trattorias of the Bronx’s Belmont section.
Individual sights like the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx and Museum of Moving Image in Queens have plenty of pull, too, and a ride on the Staten Island Ferry is a free thrill that’s hard to beat.
It’s Brooklyn, however, that tends to steal the show and is more or less Manhattan’s equal – or at least rival. You can sample locally made food and buy snappy duds in hip Williamsburg, wander the brownstone-lined streets of Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights, view cutting-edge exhibits at the Brooklyn Museum, ride a rickety roller coaster and soak up the old-world charm of Coney Island or hit Central Park’s counterpart, activity-filled Prospect Park.