New Yorkers' New York

From the April 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Though I’m not usually very chatty on planes, I do love when, flying home to New York City, I end up sitting next to first-time visitors. They almost always have a slightly wild look in their eyes; it’s a sign that they’re worried they won’t be able to see everything. Their questions spill out, and I’m happy to answer them: Where should I go for dim sum? How do you get to Brooklyn? Have you ever been to the Apollo? What they really want to know: Is three days or five days or even a week enough time?

No. No, it’s not. Sorry. I’ve clocked 40 years living in or near the city, and, though my love/hate for the place grows stronger each year, I would be a fool to say I know it, that I’ve seen all of it. I know my version of the city. I have my New York. It overlaps the New Yorks of my family members and friends, but my personal map and experience of the city has been of my own making. You will have yours, too.

Lose the list of must-see attractions. Decide that this will be one trip of many. And do as we do: Get to know the city’s neighborhoods. In town for a week? Choose three neighborhoods. Maybe four. Spend a day or two in each. Walk up the avenues. Wander the side streets. Select a random pizza place/food cart/coffeehouse and pronounce it NYC’s best. (But say it out of earshot of any locals. We’re nicer than you’ve heard but three times as opinionated.)

Give your neighborhoods of choice a chance. Reject or love them for totally irrational reasons. (New Yorkers do it all the time.)

By day two or three you’ll see that each neighborhood is its own New York. The city is no perfect jigsaw puzzle. Smash some pieces together and create your own map. —Jenna Schnuer

Central Park and the East River bracket this well-heeled neighborhood’s undersung charms.

The Upper East Side may be the oddest of underdogs. Its blocks—stretching from 59th Street to 96th, from the East River to Central Park—house the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, the Whitney, and the Frick. Prominent names live on Park Avenue. Pricey shops—Calvin Klein, Prada, Giorgio Armani—line Madison Avenue. But the Upper East Side gets very little respect from other New Yorkers. “For years it was kind of synonymous with ladies who lunch, and people don’t want to be associated with that,” says Susan Cheever, a lifelong UES resident and author of Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography. Upper East Siders don’t rush to correct the record. They’re happy keeping the neighborhood’s riches for themselves—and we’re not talking money here.

“It’s a small village. It’s sophisticated but not uptight,” says Eric Ripert, chef-owner of Michelin-starred Le Bernardin, who moved to the UES from the Upper West Side in 1996.

People don’t just live in apartments on the Upper East Side. They live on the Upper East Side. They don’t live near the museums. They use the museums as extensions of their living rooms. And then there’s Central Park—claimed by all New Yorkers but a true backyard for those who live uptown. “I’m a fanatic of Central Park,” says Ripert, who spends at least part of every day he’s in town on its paths. “I know the saxophone player and the Rollerbladers. I know everyone over there.”

Feel free to pick your own favorite park bench. Afterward head across Fifth Avenue on 86th Street to the Neue Galerie’s Café Sabarsky, which serves Viennese coffee on silver trays. The café’s soft pretzels (paired with Bavarian sausage) put street-vendor versions to shame. Or stroll over to the corner of 81st and Third to share meze at Beyoglu, the best Turkish restaurant in the city. (I’m not usually fond of superlatives, but Beyoglu deserves it.) If you get in line at Two Little Red Hens Bakery on Second Avenue, pray that the people ahead of you are placing big orders. You’ll need time to decide between the Brooklyn Blackout cupcake and all those cookies.

Pay homage at the Met but escape to one of its tucked-away spots. Ask a guard in the Asian galleries to point you toward the moon gate of the Astor Court, recommends Cheever. Walk through it into a Ming dynasty scholar’s garden. Don’t ignore the neighborhood’s smaller cultural gems like the Cooper-Hewitt for modern design or the Jewish Museum, housed in a mansion built in 1908.

Visit the independent bookstores that still dot the Upper East Side, including Crawford Doyle, the Corner Bookstore, and Kitchen Arts & Letters.

On a bright spring day, it’s challenging to secure space around one of the best free with-or-without-kids entertainments New York City has to offer: the small-dog run at Carl Schurz Park. A standout little sibling to Central Park and named for the first German-American senator, Carl Schurz starts at the butter yellow Gracie Mansion and curves down along the East River. “The Esplanade on the East River is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, especially at night,” says Cheever. “The river is just alive with activity.”

You don’t mind if we keep it our little secret, do you? —Jenna Schnuer

Around the Corner There’s no shame in taking a break to see a movie at the Ziegfeld Theatre in Midtown (141 W. 54th Street). One of the last single-screen houses in New York City, the 1,169-seat theater turns movies into events. Crystal chandeliers light the grand (though suitably shabby) interior, awash in gold and red velvet. But this is no art house theater. Blockbusters rule the screen. If you’re lucky, you’ll be in town for the opening night of a musical flick. The place often inspires audiences to burst into applause as credits roll. —J.S.


Old-school attractions mix with hot newcomers where gangs once roamed.

If the name Hell’s Kitchen sounds uninviting, be glad that at least “Battle Row,” “House of Blazes,” and “Death Avenue” didn’t stick. The monikers evoke a time in the early 1900s when the Parlor Mob, the Gorillas, and the Gophers gangs stalked the streets and nearby docks. But while the neighborhood between 34th and 57th Streets, bordered by Eighth Avenue on the east and the Hudson River on the west, has a dangerous past, today you’re more likely to knock elbows with a Broadway star than a rabble-rouser.

Hell’s Kitchen runs right up to the Theater District, which makes for a nice commute for Chad Kimball, the Tony-nominated star of the musical Memphis. He has lived in Hell’s Kitchen for over a year. “I knew the closer I was to the theater, the odds of being late to work would decrease,” he says. “I’ve been half right.”

When he’s not on stage, Kimball likes to unwind at neighborhood spots like the whiskey bar On the Rocks and art-filled restaurant Druids. The latter used to be called the Sunbrite Bar, where the Westies, a predominantly Irish group of thugs, hung out in the 1970s and ’80s. Now you can graze on Long Island duck and peruse the local artwork for sale without fear of Eddie “The Butcher” Cummiskey showing up.

Rudy’s Bar & Grill serves up free hot dogs when you stop by for a drink. Just look for the giant pig out front, then head in and take a seat at a booth covered in red duct tape. Or enjoy the tropical vibe and fruit-infused rum at the area’s surf hangout, Réunion.

The neighborhood’s reputation for great food has outlasted even the gangsters. Stroll down Restaurant Row—46th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues—and you’ll come across Barbetta, an Italian restaurant that’s been around since 1906. Don Draper romanced Bethany at Barbetta (much to Betty’s dismay) in Season Four of Mad Men, an honor that’s not lost on current owner (and daughter of the original owner), Laura Maioglio. “Andy Warhol and Woody Allen filmed movies here,” she says. “Scenes for The Departed were shot here. But nothing has had an impact like having our menu on Mad Men.”

Save room for dessert because Hell’s Kitchen bakes some devilish sweets. Amy’s Bread makes calories-be-damned almond brioche toast and coconut dream bars. If you swing by Cupcake Café, you may bump into WNYC/WQXR radio host David Garland, recovering from the “stimulus overload” of browsing the nearby Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market. The weekend-only market offers everything from old chemistry beakers to a vintage Dukes of Hazzard wristwatch.

If you miss the flea market, the Thrift & New Shoppe stocks an extensive collection of antique glassware arranged by color. Catch the owner, Minas Dimitriou, when he’s not too busy tinkering with jewelry and he might ask you to join him for a glass of wine. The goods at Domus are brand new but no less intriguing. The owners travel the world to find handcrafted gifts, like pillows from Peru and soaps from Afghanistan.

Besides neighborhood shops, Hell’s Kitchen has industrial areas and behemoth structures like the Port Authority Bus Terminal (the largest bus station in the country) and the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, which floats on a 27,000-ton WWII aircraft carrier docked on the Hudson River.

And yet the neighborhood surprises with unassuming architec­tural masterpieces. Tucked between an Italian restaurant and a crepe shop, the Film Center Building entrance is easy to miss. But step inside, and you’ll see why the lobby, created by Ely Jacques Kahn in 1928, is often regarded as one of the finest examples of art deco in the city.

Another unlikely building stands on West 55th and 9th. Opened in 2005, the Joan Weill Center is the largest dance complex in the country and home to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Check out an open dance class; while there, you might share an elevator with Ailey dancer Hope Boykin. She says Hell’s Kitchen is a tight-knit community where employees at her local nail salon greet her by name. “They know when I’m on tour,” she says, “and welcome me back with a hug.” —Amelia Mularz

Around the Corner Le Parker Meridien hotel (119 W. 56th Street) is too far east to be within Hell’s Kitchen, but the lobby’s hidden Burger Joint has all the allure of underground hangouts from the neighborhood’s colorful history. Peel back a curtain near the front desk to reveal a backroom grill and indulge in one of the juiciest burgers in town. Or satisfy your craving out in the open at Knave, the lobby’s Gothic café and bar, where you can get an artful latte. The cocktails won’t disappoint, either, and the addictive deep-fried olives are free. —A.M.

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Winding streets lined with style-setting shops—and one telegenic bakery—make for ideal aimless strolls.

Greenwich Village is the Big Apple equivalent of the Latin Quarter in Paris or Trastevere in Rome—one of those neighborhoods that inspire ambling and swoons and silent wishes that you could, even just for a short time, call it home. The Village, to use the local parlance, stretches from Houston to 14th Streets, going south to north, and Broadway to the Hudson River, east to west. Already an established village, it managed to escape being harnessed by the 19th-century grid plan for Manhattan’s streets and remains a bewildering labyrinth of winding lanes and unlikely intersections (W. 10th and W. 4th Streets, anyone?).

Artists such as Allen Ginsburg, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Jimi Hendrix (whose Electric Lady Studios still buzzes at 52 W. 8th Street) once got their start in the Village. Cheaper rents and bohemian life have since decamped to other parts—unless you know where to look. Beyond the map-wielding tourists, the long queues at Magnolia Bakery (which had cameos in the TV show Sex and the City), and the style-setters who patrol the high-end clothes shops that now flank Bleecker Street (one of the most popular thoroughfares in the Village), a real neighborhood still thrives.

It’s all right to put the map away and just wander. You may stumble upon a Picasso sculpture in the shadow of the I. M. Pei–designed apartment towers near Washington Square Park. Or be surprised by the discovery of artist/filmmaker Julian Schnabel’s gargantuan pink Italian palazzo around the corner from Richard Meier’s three modern glass-and-steel towers, adding to the Village’s incongruent skyline.

Architect Richard Meier, who used to live on Perry Street and whose first major assignment, in 1969, was in the Village (the Westbeth artist colony), says he’s seen the neighborhood change dramatically in the last few decades. “The brownstones were a mess, and the area was dangerous. But now everything has been renovated in a wonderful way,” he says. “You go in the middle of the week and see people biking and hanging out in cafés.”

Every few blocks a coffeehouse, the interior usually clad in warm wood, seems to pop up. Writers and artists hang out at Jack’s Stir Brew, where the tables are shared, and friendly conversation flows. Just down the street at Bonnie Slotnick’s rare and out of print cookbooks shop, top chefs scan the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the hope of finding an old recipe to reinvent.

The Village boasts four Michelin-starred restaurants—Soto, Annisa, Blue Hill, and Wallsé. But to really eat like a local, step into English gastropub The Spotted Pig—for a pint of Old Speckled Hen and pig-centric plates such as crispy pork belly with polenta and chard—or one of Gabriel Stulman’s three locavore-leaning restaurants: wood-paneled Joseph Leonard, convivial Jeffrey’s Grocery, and 1950s-style Fedora.

“In this city filled with commercial, skyscraper-laden neighborhoods, I think people love the Village for its sense of community,” says Stulman, who lives above his restaurant Joseph Leonard.

He’s right. And we love it because it’s the last neighborhood in New York where you can truly get lost. —David Farley

Around the Corner The High Line, the second elevated park in the world (after Paris’s Promenade Plantée), earned raves from the day it opened in June 2009. Stretching from the Meatpacking District to W. 20th Street (and eventually to W. 34th Street), this erstwhile elevated cargo railway was saved from demolition by neighborhood activists. It now makes for one of the most pleasant strolls in the city, with gardens, benches, artwork, and views of the Hudson River. Enter the park at Gansevoort and Washington Streets. —D.F.

This former skid row now blooms with cutting edge art and architecture.

New Yorkers don’t come to the Bowery to find classical beauty. Lined by a mishmash of buildings—representing nearly every major architectural style since the late 18th century, locals claim—the Bowery is a neighborhood-like street of uneven sidewalks and few trees. From Cooper Square to Chatham Square, it runs like a scar down southeast Manhattan, splitting the neighborhoods of Greenwich Village, the East Village, SoHo, the Lower East Side, and Chinatown.

What the area lacks in aesthetics it makes up for in gritty energy, a fascinating history, and, most recently, a dizzying rate of change. Just half a decade ago, the Bowery was New York’s skid row, made up of flophouses and restaurant supply shops. But in the last couple of years, the druggies and delinquents, bums and boozers have moved on, and only one flophouse still operates. The Bowery has quickly become one of Manhattan’s most dynamic parts, with hip high-rise hotels flipping on the lights and noteworthy restaurants firing up their burners. In many ways, though, the new-look Bowery is simply reverting to its pre-skid row days.

For most of the 19th century, the Bowery served as the city’s entertainment center. New Yorkers came here to eat, drink, and see theater. But in 1878 a new elevated railway above the Bowery suddenly cast the area in daytime shadows, inspiring illicit behavior and, eventually, a migration elsewhere for most of the Bowery’s legitimate businesses (theaters, for example, fled to Broadway in Midtown).

In the last half of the 20th century, artists—Mark Rothko, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Maya Lin, Keith Haring—began moving into the area, taking advantage of the spacious living quarters and cheap rents. Bands that got their start at the legendary (and recently defunct) club CBGB—The Ramones, Blondie, Patti Smith—all came to roost on the Bowery at one time or another.

No surprise, then, that in 2007 the trailblazing New Museum, which showcases the work of underrepresented contemporary artists, opened its doors on the Bowery with a striking new building that resembles a stack of seven off-kilter boxes. “We wanted to help pioneer the rebirth of the Bowery,” says Lisa Phillips, the New Museum’s director.

And that they did. Well-turned-out crowds flock to new restaurants like Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud’s meat-and-beer mecca, DBGB; Pulino’s, owned by arbiter of New York dining cool Keith McNally; and southern-accented Peels.

The brash Standard, East Village, which looks like an escapee from the Dubai skyline, now competes for guests with the posh Bowery Hotel. Three Pritzker Prize–winning architects have new buildings on the Bowery: Sir Norman Foster’s sleek Sperone Westwater art gallery, Thom Mayne’s seemingly armor-clad Cooper Union building, and Tokyo-based SANAA’s New Museum. And the Bowery’s last flophouse? An upscale hotel company recently bought the building. That means in a year or two, you can expect to see a new “it” place to lay your head. —David Farley

Around the Corner Ask any doughnut expert—and yes, they do exist—his or her opinion on the best doughnuts in the country, and you’ll likely get pointed to the Lower East Side. There, Mark Isreal runs the Doughnut Plant (379 Grand Street), which serves doughnuts made from all natural ingredients, including fruit from farmers markets and nuts roasted on-site. Signature flavors include crème brûlée and tres leches, but fans line up for the seasonal appearances of flavors like marzipan and rose petal. Isreal opens a second location at the Chelsea Hotel this spring. —D.F.

Trees—and fine dining—grow in this low-key Brooklyn neighborhood, a favorite of New York’s creative class.

Brooklyn is big. Real big. If it were a separate city, it would rank as America’s fourth largest, more populated than Boston, Seattle, and San Francisco combined. Recommending one neighborhood inside its amorphous boundaries is no easy task. But exit the F train at Bergen, and before the subway rumble fades, you’ll smell wood-burning fireplaces, hear the piping call of a blue jay, and witness block after block of blossoming cherry and dogwood trees, crooked sidewalks, and stunted Italianate row houses. Despite what some people may think, the borough isn’t limited to roller coasters and tattooed Williamsburg hipsters. Brooklyn has a soft side, too.

For urban-weary Manhattanites, Boerum Hill—originally named after Simon Boerum’s 18th-century family farm—has long served as an express getaway to “the country.” Developed from 1840 to 1870 between leafy and elegant Brooklyn Heights and pious and prominent Park Slope, the neighborhood lacked the grandeur of both. Its low-key sensibility continues today, ensuring its place as a sweet spot favored by NYC’s creative class, particularly editors and writers who can regularly be found nursing pints at The Brooklyn Inn, one of several speakeasies from the neighborhood’s Irish-dominated Prohibition period.

Boerum Hill’s ancient corn, squash, and bean fields now lie deep underneath its brownstones and acorn-strewn streets. The area has since become particularly known for its food. The neighborhood’s main corridor, Smith Street, bucked Manhattan’s celebrity chef trend and took advantage of its farm heritage by spearheading the city’s locavore movement five years ago. The Franco-forward eatery Saul snagged a Michelin star in 2007 for homey dishes such as pan-roasted rabbit with sweet corn and heirloom beets with Honeycrisp apples. Newcomer Brooklyn Fare clinched the area’s food status in 2010 when it received two Michelin stars, a Kings County first. The casual café/grocery store now requires reservations six weeks in advance. One stretch of Smith Street is home to five different French restaurants. Its Thursday night $1-oyster special is popular with locals. In July, three blocks of Smith are closed to traffic for a Bastille Day fête.

But there’s more to Boerum than French fare. Mile End on Hoyt Street gave the city its first taste of Montreal-style smoked meat and sweet, chewy bagels, earning it a nod from New York magazine as Best Deli of 2010. Shoppers find $20 Hecho en Brooklyn T-shirts at Brooklyn Tattoo, attend readings by such local authors as Jonathan Franzen at Book Court, buy Brooklyn wine totes from Annie’s Blue Ribbon General Store, and even fill them with vino made at one of Brooklyn’s wineries in Red Hook at Brooklyn Wine Exchange.

A few blocks south, where Boerum bleeds into neighboring Carroll Gardens, cheese shop Stinky Bklyn fills an all-Brooklyn-made food basket with locally made pickles, cookies, and chocolates.

After eating and shopping, walk 15 minutes west to check out the new Pier 6 extension of Brooklyn Bridge Park stretching along the waterfront from the end of Atlantic Avenue.

Yes, changes loom in Boerum. A recent rash of indie actors, including Michelle Williams and Emily Mortimer, have replaced old guard residents, such as writer Jonathan Lethem, who championed Boerum Hill in his book Motherless Brooklyn before moving to California in 2010. And Atlantic Avenue is undergoing an upscale corporate makeover: Interior designer Jonathan Adler and designer discount retailer Barney’s Co-Op have both opened outposts here recently.

Boerum’s Middle Eastern community, also concentrated along Atlantic Avenue, is the most threatened by this upgrade. Colorful fruit stands sit beside Yemeni travel agencies and Lebanese restaurants that serve fattoush and baked kibbe. No grocer is more beloved than Brooklyn-born Charlie Sahadi, whose family has run Sahadi’s since 1895. Known for its candies, olives, and fragrant roasted pistachios, Sahadi’s also has the best spicy hummus in the city, hands down. Many a shopper can be seen buying a container en route to a sunset picnic along the water. Sahadi has faith in the area’s evolution and even plans an expansion of his store. “Walk down any street today,” he says, “and you’ll hear different languages and see different religions and people with different skin colors living together as brother and sister.” —Adam H. Graham

Around the Corner Wander 15 minutes south on Court Street to Carroll Gardens, an Italian neighborhood having its own food renaissance, largely due to Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo, owners of Frankies Spuntino (457 Court Street) and its adjacent sister restaurant Prime Meats (465 Court Street), which plates up homegrown German food. The Franks emphasize affordable, high-quality ingredients for items like their sausage and broccoli rabe sandwich (left) and attention to detail, right down to the period coat hooks and suspender-clad servers. —A.H.G.

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