When most people think of Manhattan, they think of the grand stores and fancy high-rises in Midtown and the Financial District. What most people don’t realize is that it’s often the smaller neighborhoods that offer the richness and diversity that made New York City famous throughout the world. This is especially true of the Lower East Side, making it a premier destination for anyone looking for an authentic New York City experience.
Welcome to the Lower East Side of Manhattan
The Lower East Side was a working-class neighborhood for many years, home to immigrants who left their mother countries seeking prosperity in America. As such, the Lower East Side has hosted a diverse group of people and cultures, including Jews, Italians, Irish, Poles, and Ukrainians (at one point, the area was even known as ‘Little Germany’). The Lower East Side has more recently been home to Puerto Rican and Dominican communities, but it started to undergo rapid gentrification in the early 2000s. Upscale boutiques and swanky restaurants are now common in the neighborhood, though the historic area remains best known for its cultural landmarks and lively late-night music scene.
The Lower East Side is bordered by East Houston Street to the north, Canal Street to the south, Bowery to the west, and the East River to the east. Due to a combination of factors, The National Trust for Historic Preservation has placed the Lower East Side on its list of America’s Most Endangered Places. Nearby subway lines include the J, F, and M lines.
Go shopping in the Lower East Side
What’s the best part of shopping in the Lower East Side? The prices! Famous streets like Park Avenue may be able to get away with exorbiant price tags, but those with taste on a budget always find themselves in the Lower East Side.
Orchard Street is one of the best streets for shopping in the Lower East Side. It’s mainly occupied by delis and boutiques, but definitely check out the nearby Bluestockings, a famous bookstore, fair trade café, and activist center only a block away. They host new events every day, so it’s worth taking multiple trips.
No LES shopping spree is complete without a visit to Delancey Street. Home to mostly young professionals, Delancey Street is one of the main roads in Manhattan, connecting to the Williamsburg Bridge and Brooklyn. It’s known for its historic Jewish culture, bargain clothing stores, and the Essex Street Market.
If you have a sweet tooth, don’t leave without visiting Economy Candy on Rivington Street, only a block away. Otherwise, the Essex Street Market is undoubtedly the hub of activity on the Lower East Side. It’s home to over 20 merchants, each specializing in a wide variety of gourmet culinary products. Try food from around the world during their annual Melting Pot Food Tour. One of the most famous shops in the market is Pickle Guys, which sells New York City’s favorite homemade kosher pickles.
Coffee shops, restaurants, and bars in the Lower East Side
One of the benefits of such a culturally diverse neighborhood is that you’ll never be bored by the food! Here are a few places that offer some of the best cuisine in the Lower East Side.
Who doesn’t love a great cup of Joe? For some of the best roasts in town, visit the Roasting Plant Coffee Company, The Atlas Café, or Lost Weekend. Besides great coffee, Doughnut Plant is known for fabulous doughnuts, and more than one customer has had to resist the urge to try all of their flavors. The Berkli Parc Café specializes in adding unique flavors and ingredients to its brews, and don’t leave town without trying one of Kung Fu Tea’s magnificent bubble teas. The Lower East Side is also right next to Chinatown, so be sure to check out our video tour of the neighborhood!
For an upscale evening or an artsy date, Apizz and Verlaine are your best restaurant options. Barrio Chino is great for an upscale meal if you’re seeking Mexican food with an Oriental flair. Katz’s Delicatessen is famous for serving the best pastrami and hot dogs in New York, but be sure to visit after 2:00 p.m. to avoid the lunch rush. If you stop by the Meatball Shop, be sure to let us know which meatball was your favorite; no one can agree! Save room for dessert at the Clinton St. Baking Company, because their pumpkin cheesecake is to die for.
The Lower East Side is also a great place to grab a bite if you’re on a budget. Dumpling fans should make time to visit Prosperity Dumplings and Vanessa’s Dumpling House. Although there are few things more American than a good burger from Mikey’s Burger, their chili cheese hot dog is also a great choice. Other great places include Tiny’s Giant Sandwich Shop and guacamole from Taqueria Lower East Side.
Bars and pubs
The Ten Bells and Local 138 offer a demure atmosphere, while Subject and Attaboy bring life to the neighborhood with their classic NYC themes. Clandestino is the place to be if you’re seeking local beers, but they also make a great Whiskey Mac.
Live like a local in the Lower East Side
If the vibrant neighborhood, active nightlife, and affordable prices aren’t enough of a reason to stay in the Lower East Side, the architecture will be. Living in the neighborhood is like walking through a cultural mosaic, so whether you’re looking to live with a roommate or rent a whole furnished apartment yourself, the Lower East Side has something for you.
For short-term visits, consider staying in a vacation rental apartment, as it’s often less expensive and more fun than booking at a hotel. You’ll be right in the middle of everything, guaranteeing that you’ll leave with a more authentic perspective of this beautiful city.
What to do and see in the Lower East Side
Whether you’re chatting with a 19th-century immigrant or picturing yourself on Hollywood film sets, you’ll never be bored thanks to the Lower East Side’s rich heritage!
The Lower East Side is connected by two major bridges. The Williamsburg Bridge connects Manhattan to Brooklyn, and was once the longest suspension bridge on earth. Equally famous is the Manhattan Bridge, which unites Manhattan with the fancy Brooklyn neighborhood of Fulton Landing. It’s most known for its extremely grand entry arches, and is featured prominently in famous films like King Kong, The Dark Knight Rises, and Once Upon a Time in America. If you’re interested in bridges, our article on the top 5 bridges in New York is definitely worth a look!
Another great landmark in the Lower East Side is the Angel Orensanz Center, an event center hosting great artists, writers, and thinkers from around the world.
There’s no better time of year to have a picnic than the spring, and no better place to go than East River Park. With 57 acres of waterside property, this park is a great place to relax or jog, and the amphitheater hosts annual indie rock concerts each summer. Though small, Sara D. Roosevelt Park is also a hub of activity with its own courts and fields.
If gardens are more your speed, drop by La Plaza Culturel and M’Finda Kalunga Community Garden. Both parks are wildlife havens in the concrete jungle, featuring grand trees and beautiful flowers. M’Finda Kalunga even has some famous local residents: a group of domesticated chickens that were “donated” to the park and now call it home!
Museums and culture
For a touch of elegance, visit the beautifully restored Museum at Eldridge Street, a bastion of architecture and Jewish culture. The Tenement Museum is also a huge hit with New Yorkers due to their guided tours. Museum-goers can interact with costumed “residents” and learn what life was like for turn-of-the-century immigrants.
See art at Culture Fix, an artists’ space right off E. Houston Street on Clinton Street, and check out Landmark Theaters’ famous Sunshine Cinema for a taste of New York’s best independent films.
For a more in-depth view, take a peek at Part 1 and Part 2 of our video tour of the Lower East Side! Of course, with a neighborhood as diverse and eclectic as the Lower East Side, all this is just the tip of the iceberg. What are your favorite local spots to visit?