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
UPPER EAST SIDE
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.