One of the most important things to understand about New York City is that it’s separated into five boroughs—Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. And within those boroughs are individual New York neighborhoods, each one having its own distinct personality and appearance. Many of the historic ethnic neighborhoods are starting to lose a bit of their original flavor (Little Italy, for example), but there’s still plenty of intriguing and distinctive distinctions between the various neighborhoods, even in ever-changing Manhattan.
Say you live in “the Village” and locals who know their New York neighborhoods will swoon. This leafy neighborhood, filled with historic brownstones, stretches from Fifth Avenue to the Hudson River, W. 14th to Houston Streets. There are actually two neighborhoods that make up the Village. The names “Greenwich Village” and “West Village” are generally interchangeable, but locals use West Village to demarcate the more tranquil section between Sixth Avenue and the Hudson River, while “Greenwich Village” is generally referred to as the area surrounding the intersection of Bleecker and MacDougal Streets. The latter area might interest fans of the 1960s, as it was here where young, struggling artists named Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, among others, got their start.
Sprawling and dense at the same time, New York’s Chinatown isn’t just the chief neighborhood in which to attain knockoff designer bags and super cheap “I Love NY” t-shirts (though both items can be found here). Immigrants from China began settling in the area in the 1850s and it has grown and expanded at a furious rate since. It’s not the biggest Chinatown outside of the motherland—that distinction probably would go to the Chinese-area or Cholon in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam—but estimates suggest there are about 100,000 Chinese living in this Manhattan enclave. There aren’t many Chinese landmarks here either, so put away the map and wander the streets to catch glimpses of the markets swimming with live seafood and numerous restaurants.
Named for the graceful and elegant three-sided Flatiron Building that sits at the intersection of 23rd Street, Broadway, and Fifth Avenue, this small patch of neighborhood is one of the more striking in Manhattan. The famed Flatiron Building, which was the world’s tallest skyscraper until 1913, sits on Madison Square (the heart of the neighborhood), which is one of the city’s most beautiful public spaces. There aren’t many “destination sights” here, but the vast amount of turn-of-the-century architecture makes it a worthy stroll.
Many New Yorkers don’t find enough excuses to take the N or Q subway lines out to this Queens neighborhood, but the people who live in Astoria are wild about the place. For starters, there’s Bohemian Hall, one of the last remaining beer gardens left in the borough of Queens (at one time there were hundreds), which makes for a fun suds-soaked afternoon. The neighborhood has a great ethnic food scene, especially Greek. The neighborhood was named for John Jacob Astor, one of the richest men in America, but it’s not all wealth here; in fact, the neighborhood is a nice, middle-class, ethnically diverse part of town.
Ciao, bella. Benvenuto al’Italia Piccola. Also known as Little Italy, this swath of all things Italian isn’t what it used to be. For decades the area has been losing its Italian expression to encroaching Chinatown. But that hasn’t stopped the masses of tourists from descending upon what’s left: Mulberry Street. Little Italy today is a collection of shops peddling in Italian food products and mediocre restaurants (complete with aggressive barkers trying to lure every passerby inside). Nurse a cappuccino at an outdoor café if you must, but don’t waste much money (or stomach space) eating at any of these restaurants (with the exception of Torrisi Italian Specialties).
Upper West Side
Sedate and tranquil compared to the rest of Manhattan, the Upper West Side is for many a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of Midtown or lower Manhattan. Largely residential with quiet tree-lined streets, the neighborhood has a few attractions that may inspire a visit: the American Museum of Natural History as well as Columbia University (on Broadway and W. 116th St.) and St. Patrick's Cathedral. Fans of Seinfeld should most certainly wander up: the coffee shop on the corner of Broadway and W. 112th St. may look very familiar.
In all probability the hotel you’re staying at is in Midtown. If you’re visiting, it’s inevitable you’ll spend some time in this bustling skyscraper-laden part of town, which stretches from 34th to 59th St. and the Hudson to the East River. Not only is it crammed with hotels, but there are many attractions: Times Square, the Chrysler Building, the Museum of Modern Art, Rockefeller Center, Grand Central Terminal, and the Empire State Building. It’s also the media nerve center of the city (which is the media capital of the country). NBC, Condé Nast (publisher of magazines like The New Yorker and Vanity Fair), CNN, CBS, The New York Times, and Hearst (known for publications like The Oprah Magazine and Popular Mechanics), among many, many others all have homes here. So if you thought that woman who just walked by looked a lot like Katie Couric, it probably was.
Lower East Side
Sometimes this New York neighborhood feels like a movie set. Five-floor tenement buildings, their facades partly masked by snaking fire escapes; narrow streets and subterranean shops mark the territory. It all makes for one of the city’s most atmospheric neighborhoods. A century ago, the Lower East Side was a bastion of new immigrants —mostly central and Eastern European —and then it became known as the place not to go (lest you wanted to come back without your wallet). Today, though, the Lower East Side has become synonymous with one thing: partying. Its streets are overflowing with bars, but there are also some great restaurants. Don’t miss the very engaging Tenement Museum.
The grittier, artier version of the West Village, this is one of the areas to hit if you want to go on a pub crawl or discover an off-the-radar boutique clothing shop. There aren’t many traditional sites of interest in the East Village —which stretches from Fifth Avenue to the East River and E. 14th to Houston Streets, but it’s a fun neighborhood to stroll around. The far eastern section of the East Village —where the avenues are lettered (i.e. Avenue A, Avenue B, etc.) —is traditionally called Alphabet City, but most locals still refer to it as the East Village. The neighborhood has also become a great part of town for small restaurants, particularly between First Avenue and Avenue B.
Upper East Side
Unless you live in one of the posh doorman buildings or the ubiquitous high rise towers that hug the East River, there are few reasons for tourists to trek to the Upper East Side. That said, a few of those reasons are big ones: the Guggenheim with its fantastic Frank Lloyd Wright design, as well as the vast Metropolitan Museum of Art and the somewhat overlooked Whitney Museum all make their home in this otherwise unexciting neighborhood. The neighborhood boundaries stretch from E. 59th and 110th Streets and from Fifth Avenue to the East River.
Stretching roughly from W. 14th to 34th Streets and Sixth Avenue to the Hudson River, Chelsea attracts a wide variety of people: it’s the main gay neighborhood (with the West Village coming in a close second). It also attracts clubbers and art lovers, as the far western side of the neighborhood (toward the Hudson River) is crammed with clubs that only get hopping after midnight and small art galleries. It’s also home to the famed Hotel Chelsea where countless celebrities, musicians, and artists have holed up from time to time.
This atmospheric neighborhood with its cobblestoned streets and low-level buildings has seen quite a few incarnations over the decades. As the name suggests this was the place that handled the city’s meat. But as industry moved to the outer boroughs for cheaper rent, the area fell into decline. During the 1980s and ‘90s, it was a no-go zone (unless, that is, you liked your prostitutes of the transsexual variety). But since the late ‘90s, the Meatpacking District has become almost too hip for its own good. The one-time meatpacking factories are now upscale restaurants and clubs and even a couple incongruous high-end hotels have risen. The latest addition to the neighborhood is the Highline Park, an elevated park/walkway that was once an abandoned train track. The neighborhood is small, from Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River and W. 14th St. to Jane St.