UPDATED August 30, 2016: I update this list every six months to keep things fresh as NYC is constantly changing. This basically means that you now have more than 150 options to choose from.
New York City is where every contradiction goes to seamlessly merge together in an almost unnatural sync that’s echoed in its protean neighborhoods, culturally varied residents, and its evolution and acceptance of new ‘normals’.
A place they say you can never truly know. There’s no point trying to get to the bottom of it because you can’t.
But doesn’t knowing that simple fact mean you do understand the core of New York?
It’s why locals have an unrelenting passion for it. It’s so much more than a check-off list of Times Square, art museums, and restaurants no local can actually afford. That’s why I’ve put together the most comprehensive post I’ve ever written.
It’s a local’s guide to Manhattan that includes 150 of our favorite tourist hotspots and tips, off-the-beaten path attractions, places to play in the sun, unusual experiences, restaurants you’ve probably never heard of, and bars that will keep you up all night.
While it’s impossible to include everything (trust me – editing this down was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do), just visiting a few of these places will show you a true slice of everyday life in New York City.
We Become Familiar With the Neighborhoods
We’ve got our neighborhoods down to a science. If we want to go vintage shopping, we head to the East Village. When we don’t feel like dressing up but still want to dance til dawn at a low-key club, we head to the Lower East Side. Each has its own special vibe. While not the complete list of Manhattan neighborhoods, below is a quick summary of the main areas below 100th Street.
Chelsea – an artsy scene that’s home to the best independent art galleries in the city with over 100 exhibition spaces. The gay nightlife scene is huge here too.
East Village – a spirited neighborhood with vintage shops on every corner, dusk-til-dawn nightlife, and the best dive bars – especially the ones in and around Alphabet City. The also have numerous sports bars for catching any game and a great foodie scene.
Gramercy/Flatiron – Two of the most architecturally beautiful neighborhoods. Gramercy tenants cater to the wealthy and celebrity sets while Flatiron has a large professional and post-grad residential base. Good restuarants and shops in the areas. Sites include Union Square, Eataly, and the iconic Flatiron Building.
Greenwich Village – a big college student area with its proximity to NYU. The area gave birth to musicians and artists such as Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac and some of the bars that they frequented still exist though the landscape of the neighborhood has changed drastically. Plenty of bars and restaurants dot this area and it has a busy nighttime scene.
Hell’s Kitchen – mainly known for their Restaurant Row (and for its Irish mafia history). This is the best place in the area to have a pre-show dinner or drink if you’re going to a Broadway Show in Times Square. Also home to a big LGBT community.
Lower East Side – a gritty and dingy nightlife area where locals outnumber tourists. There are awesome nighttime gems that draw a lot of musicians and artists. This is where you dance til dawn at places much less pretentious than the clubs in the Meatpacking District. Keep in mind many places are cash only. This is one of my favorite areas in Manhattan.
Financial District – the historic port area where Manhattan was born (and where I currently live). With many corporations and businesses located here, it’s becoming a growing residential area with young professionals – as well as young families – taking advantage of the cheaper rent. New bars, restaurants, and shops are beginning to crop up. This is a great base for exploring Wall Street, visiting Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, biking along the river in Battery Park, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, and seeing the site of the World Trade Center.
Meatpacking District – an upscale and trendy area ripe with stylish lounges, swanky nightclubs, and designer stores. Recent years have seen it become more and more touristy, especially with the edition of the now overcrowded High Line. Not for the budget conscious as bars and restaurants are expensive.
Midtown East – home of iconic skyscrapers and architectural buildings such as the Chrysler Building, Grand Central Terminal, and Rockefeller Center. 5th Ave is a major shopping area while 2nd and 3rd Ave have plenty of okay bars and restaurants.
Midtown West – Times Square, Madison Square Garden, Broadway, and tourists. That’s about it. Very few locals live in this area so if you’re trying to experience the ‘real’ New York, I suggest heading out to the other neighborhoods for dining, shopping, nightlife, and pretty much all other activities. Most of the locals who come to this area are those with office buildings headquartered here.
NoHo – an up-and-coming artsy area that’s a haven for designers and architects with its inspiring architectural buildings and history. It’s also home to hip boutiques and the Great Jones Spa – the best in the city in my opinion.
SoHo – known for their sophisticated cobblestone shopping streets and art galleries. Decent bars and restaurants can be found as well.
TriBeCa – an upscale and quiet family neighborhood that will make you forget you live Manhattan with its abundance of river views and green parks. Dogs, kids, and strollers are seen everywhere and many restaurants are family-friendly because of this. A celeb favorite as well with Taylor Swift living here as one example.
Upper East Side – a neighborhood that’s home to one of the world’s wealthiest zip codes and has a lot of ‘old money’. It borders Central Park; luxury shops flank Madison Ave and it encompasses Museum Mile – home of the MET, the Guggenheim, The Frick, and many other cultural institutions.
Upper West Side – has a very ‘residential’ feel – almost like one of the suburban neighborhoods in Brooklyn. A lot of families live here and you’ll find more Columbia students the further north you go. A lot of the restaurants around here are kid and dog friendly and there are some great bars up near Columbia. Some of the main attractions include Riverside Park, Lincoln Center, Central Park, and the Natural History Museum.
West Village – without a doubt my favorite Manhattan neighborhood with its beautiful tree-lined streets and classic stooped townhomes (it’s my dream to have a stoop). Countless quality shops, bars, and restaurants line the blocks and you’re bound to spot a celebrity going about their everyday business unbothered by the residents who are used to seeing them around.
For accommodation recommendations see the end of this post.
We Act Like Tourists
And not just when friends and family come in town to visit. Sure we’ll b**** and moan about the prices, the crowds, and the persistent clip-boarders trying to rip us off on bike rentals, carriage rides, and attraction tickets – but we’ll still go all the same while reluctantly admitting that they’re totally worth the headache. Below are some of my go-tos.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art – sure we go; but you’d never catch us paying the full ‘suggested entry price’ (you heard me right – the price they give you is not mandatory). $25 is pretty steep. Especially when we normally go to see a specific exhibit or to just spend an hour exploring one or two wings. If you’re planning on spending the entire day, then maybe it’s worth it to pay the full $25. If you’re like most of us and get museum burnout after 2 hours, then I suggest only paying $10 or $15 at the most. If I’m just seeing one exhibit that I know will only take me 30-40 minutes to get through, I’ll give $5.
Top of the Rock – Don’t get me wrong, we love the Empire State Building. Which is why heading up to the observation platform atop Rockefeller Center is always high on our recommendation list. Wouldn’t you rather have a 360-degree panoramic view that includes the Empire State Building? I know we would. Plus there’s the added bonus of not having to hear any Sleepless in Seattle references. Not to mention Rock Center is home to Saturday Night Live and to a Christmas tree tradition that dates back to 1931. Did you know you can even submit your tree for consideration to stand tall behind its iconic skating rink?
Times Square – ok so in actuality we avoid this area like the plague. Seriously, it’s THE WORST. Unfortunately, we do love Broadway (on those rare occasions when we can actually afford it) and to get to 85% of the theatrical shows, we have to force our way through this heinous block of blinding lights and the I-dont-know-how-to-walk tourists. My favorite shows currently running are The Book of Mormon, Aladdin, Wicked, An Act of God, Jersey Boys, Les Miserables, and Avenue Q. Tickets can be purchased here.
9/11 Memorial and Museum – every American remembers exactly what they were doing on September 11, 2001 and those who were too young will read about it in the history books for years to come. The 9/11 Memorial and Museum is a somber experience that honors those who lost their lives in both the 2001 and 1993 WTC bombings. The Memorial covers 8 acres and is free to the public. Reflecting pools and waterfalls embedded into the original site of the twin towers are incorporated into the park as well as a tree that survived the bomb wreckage. Beneath the ground lies the Museum which chronicles the events of 9/11 and the days that would immediately follow. The observation deck at the top has recently opened as well.
Chelsea Market – I LOVE CHELSEA MARKET! Seriously, it’s so much fun and worth braving the crowds. I recommend visiting when it’s cold or rainy outside in the offseason. My mother and I went on a snowy day before Thanksgiving (when it was surprisingly dead) and spent 7 hours drinking and eating our way through the market on our self-made food/pub crawl. It was glorious.
Grand Central Terminal – I’ve commuted through here everyday for the past 5 years and its beauty never fails to astound me. My friends and I love meeting at the refined Campbell Apartment for drinks after work and we still play around at the Whispering Corner.
Other touristy things I enjoy are concerts at Carnegie Hall, checking out contemporary art (that I really don’t get) at the Whitney Museum’s brand new location, and staring at gemstones at the Natural History Museum.
But We Prefer The Lesser Known Museums and Sites
Because we’re in love with every aspect of New York and want you to get to know the little known neighborhood gems that give the city its real character. My favorites are listed below.
The Tenement Museum – this is my number one recommendation for anyone visiting NYC. The city is a melting pot of culture and without a long history of immigration, this city would not have the diversity or character that it does today. The Tenement Museum celebrates and sheds light on the lives of immigrants through intimate and engaging tours of the apartments they lived in throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The museum also offers a range of neighborhood walking tours that explore the less-visited Lower East Side.
Lalique Windows – Henri Bendel is already a tourist destination in its own right (thanks in part to the show Gossip Girl) but little do eager shoppers realize that the windows adorning the second, third, and fourth floors are exquisitely rare examples of the work of famed French glass designer Rene Lalique. Guests can see the intricate etchings on these windows up close by following the signs on the second floor. They can also be viewed in their entirety from the other side of 5th Ave directly across the Bendel’s storefront.
The National Museum of the American Indian – housed in the former US Customs House in the Financial District, this free institution houses a superb collection of Native American artifacts and hosts daily guided tours. My favorite museum secret (that ironically has nothing to do with Native Americans) is its rotunda. Tucked away inside, its domed ceiling is decorated with murals depicting the early American pioneers.
The Cloisters – way up at the upper echelons of Manhattan – in an area known as Washington Heights – sits a little piece of medieval Europe. This branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibits over 2000 artifacts dating from the 12th to 15th century and includes stained glass, tapestries, sculpture and one-of-kind illuminated manuscripts. The structure housing these works of art was constructed using historically accurate architecture taken from various medieval periods. The museum offers views over the Hudson River and rests on a park with beautifully cultivated gardens.
Gallery Hopping in Chelsea – a huge player in the New York City art scene, Chelsea is home to a high concentration of independent art galleries – arguably the best in the world. Exhibit spaces feature a healthy mix of established artists as well as many unknowns trying to break into the ever-evolving art scene. Admissions to the galleries are free and it’s easy to spend an entire day browsing everything the neighborhood has to offer.
Museum of the American Gangster – we’re nostalgic for the 1920’s and romanticize Prohibition Era New York like no other. New speakeasies crop up (or rather descend down) in every neighborhood and French 75’s and Sidecars are now found in every cocktail bar. So it makes complete sense that a museum dedicated to gangsters and mobsters – another staple in 1920’s New York – would be housed in an old Lower East Side Speakeasy. It’s one of the only museums in the world dedicated to the history of organized crime and is an experience many visitors to NYC don’t know about.
We Spend Time Outdoors
Winter is coming has nothing to do with Eddard Stark. No, this has always played on repeat inside our heads for years – it starts the minute the last day of winter hits and stays in the back of our brains until winter comes round again. What it really means is Winter is coming – so play outside while you can. So, play outside we do.
Eating and Drinking on Stone Street – Rumored to be the oldest paved street in New York City, this pedestrian-only cobblestone path lies rich in history between a row of revived buildings now occupied by several restaurants and bars. Home to various outdoor festivals and block parties, Stone Street is an all-around fun, al fresco day-drinking venue and remains a local favorite in the quiet Financial District.
South Street Seaport – I hate to say it but the best thing that ever happened to the Seaport was Hurricane Sandy. Most of it was destroyed during the storm but the rebuilding process has completely revitalized the area. I should know – I’ve lived there for 5 years and have watched the transformation first hand. New shops, restaurants and farmers markets are popping up and many pre-hurricane favorites have reopened their doors. Even Smorgasbord (a cult favorite in Brooklyn) has moved in with their numerous food vendors. Local hint – there is also a TKTS booth for discounted Broadway tickets – a much shorter line (if any at all) than the one in Times Square. My roommate and I consistently hit up the below on the weekends:
- Lee Lee’ s Forest – a cute boutique with affordable hippie-esque clothing and accessories.
- Jack’s Stir Brew Coffee – small community coffeeshop. The Mad Max and their speciality Matcha blend are my go-tos.
- South Street Seaport Museum – exhibits tell the story of downtown New York and how the old port town rose to what it is today.
- Pasanella and Son Vintners – a lovely (both in atmosphere and in staff) wine store that offers free tastings on the weekends. They have a wonderful collection of wines from small family-run vineyards.
- Restaurant Picks – Cowgirl Seahorse (for Southern Po Boys and a quirky atmosphere), Dorlan’s Tavern (for oysters – and writing – the owner lets me sit at the bar and type away), Keg 229 (for beer and mac n’cheese), and El Luchador (for tacos and quesadillas).
Battery Park – Historic Downtown New York is where Manhattan Island originated back in the 1600’s. The route around the southernmost tip is now one of the preeminent places in the city for jogging, walking, and biking. Rent a bike from Blazing Saddles at the Seaport and follow the path along the water all the way around to the West Side Highway. Highlights of the journey include:
- Battery Park – has exquisite gardens, promenades, monuments, memorials, and even a brand new indoor ‘aquarium’ carousel.
- Pier A – this freshly restored 129 year old building is the last surviving historic pier in the city and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The previously abandoned structure now houses bars, restaurants, and private event spaces with sweeping views of the harbor and the Statue of Liberty.
- North Cove – the summer months are particularly nice for superyacht spotting as the boats drift in and out of this marina while their guests visit the city. Brookfield Place has shops and a food market hall with floor to ceiling windows that overlook the cove.
- Irish Hunger Memorial – containing stones from every single one of Ireland’s counties, this memorial stands as a reminder not only of the Great Famine, but also that the problem of world hunger still affects many cultures.
- Shake Shack – the most ‘local’ branch of the famous burger chain and probably the least known in the city. The longest I’ve ever waited at this location is about 8 minutes.
Hudson River Park – the longest waterfront park in the US. It stretches along the west side of Manhattan and hosts summer concerts; offers water activities such as kayaking, canoeing, rowing, and sailing; boasts public tennis courts, basketball courts, skateboard parks, soccer fields, and more; you can even fly high on a trapeze. Check out the link above to see locations for all the activities they have available. A few of my favorites include:
- Cruising the Hudson River – there are many different tour companies that operate cruises on the water and pass the iconic Statue of Liberty. My friends and I love the Schooner Adirondack Sunset Sail operated by Sail NYC. The crew are always incredibly friendly as they mingle with the guests and pour free wine.
- Sunset Salsa – one of the world’s most acclaimed salsa dancers hosts free outdoor lessons at the park every Tuesday evening over the summer. It’s fun and brings together people of all different ages and race.
- Chelsea Piers – has a massive sports facility that features a driving range, rock climbing wall, ice skating rink, bowling alley, and more.
Rooftop Anything – whether it belongs to an apartment building or a restaurant or a bar or a hotel – we don’t discriminate. Some of the best rooftops:
- The McKittrick Hotel – great for a live music brunch in the garden. Or great for cocktails any time.
- 230 Fifth – a tourist favorite. But you really can’t argue with its stupendous view of the Empire State Building.
- The Skylark – just south of Times Square. Has great cocktails, great views (both indoor and outdoor) and wonderful food. Best to avoid this places on a weekends. Best time to go is around 6pm on a Monday – less busy and mostly locals.
- The Jimmy, Gansevoort Park, and The Dream – our favorite rooftop pools. Warning – you may have to sweet talk (or sneak) your way in if you’re not a hotel guest.
- Loopy Doopy at the Conrad Hotel – watch the ships pass by on the Hudson. Oh – they also put fresh fruit popsicles in your prosecco cocktail. You’re welcome.
Other outdoor activities we love include produce shopping at the Union Square Farmers Market, biking over the Brooklyn Bridge to Williamsburg, and picnicking or playing ultimate frisbee in Central Park.
Combine the most important meal of the day with the fact that New York City is very much a see-and-be-seen kind of place and voilà – brunch culture emerges. The below can frequently be found in my weekend planner.
Miss Lily’s – Forget your typical order of Eggs Benedict, this Jamaican establishment brings authentic Caribbean flare to its brunch dishes. Favorites of mine include the Jamaican Rancheros and Coconut Pancakes accompanied with one of their freshly squeezed organic juices. Locations in SoHo and the East Village.
Freemans – hidden at the end of an inconspicuous alley off the not-so-very-scenic Bowery, Freemans isn’t much to look at. But once inside, you’re immediately enveloped by a cozy atmosphere reminiscent of a colonial American taverna that serves up simple and rustic dishes. The Hot Artichoke Dip and Baked Skillet Eggs are to die for. Located in the Lower East Side.
Bubby’s – a self-proclaimed ‘Grandma’s recipe stealer’, this boisterous and family friendly neighborhood spot cooks everything from scratch. The Fried Chicken and Biscuits taste straight out of the South. Located in TriBeCa.
The Little Owl – known for the building it’s housed in (where the fictional Central Perk would be if Friends was a reality TV show), The Little Owl serves Mediterranean-style cuisine. The Gravy Meatballs are a staple and the Kale and Potato Frittata is delightful. Located in Greenwich Village.
Fraunces Tavern – both a museum and a restaurant; it offers a range of historical exhibits celebrating Colonial and Revolutionary New York. After exploring its museum, have brunch downstairs at the Tavern where the likes of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton once stood. Be sure to try the Scotch Eggs. Located in the Financial District.
Macondo West – taking its inspiration from Latin street food, Macondo West offers incredible Hispanic food. Start off with the Bunuelos and try the Polenta con Chorizo washed down with unlimited guava mimosas. Located in the West Village.
Amity Hall – confession: I don’t go here for the food – but rather for their extensive DIY Bloody Mary bar. A loud sports bar, this is one of the only places to mix a brunch staple with NFL Sunday Ticket. Located in Greenwich Village.
And We Dine Out For All Those Other Meals Too
Because when there’s 18 bustling restaurants around every block – eating in is just too cruel a rule.
The Grey Dog – One of my top 10 favorite places in Manhattan. It was the first place I discovered upon moving to NYC. Many days were spent at this cafe sitting at one of their cutely decorated wooden tables while I sent out resume after resume after resume. It’s where my friends and I met for our monthly book club and where I still write many of my blog posts. Their food is outstanding too. My usual is the Herb Goat Cheese and Avocado Sandwich. Locations in the West Village, Chelsea, Union Square, and NoLIta.
Westville – known for the quality and freshness of their ingredients, this carnivore and vegetarian friendly spot has great salads and sandwiches. Ordering a selection of their market vegetables is also a must. Locations in SoHo, Chelsea, the East Village, and the West Village.
Match 65 – a cute French Brasserie decorated in typical Parisian fashion. It’s the perfect place for a leisure al fresco lunch with a glass of wine in hand. I recommend the Salad Nicoise and the Moules with Truffle Fries. Located on the Upper East Side.
Rosemary’s – an Italian enoteca and trattoria that has its very own rooftop farm. The lunch prix fixe menu is only $25 and the choices are excellent. Wash it down with a glass (or bottle) of the VinSpina Rosato Frizzante. Located in the West Village.
Bill’s Bar & Burger – Bill’s creates their burger patties with their own secret blend of ingredients and are also known to throw alcohol into their speciality milkshakes. The Grilled Shrimp Burger is my go to accompanied with the Bill’s Brew – which is beer made for them by Six Point (a local Brooklyn brewery). Avoid the overcrowded and touristy Rockefeller Center location and instead visit the one in the Meatpacking District.
Jack’s Wife Freda – an eclectic mix of food greets you at this all day cafe with both Israeli and South African influences. Where else can you order both Peri-Peri sweetbreads and Matzo Ball Soup? Locations in SoHo and the West Village.
Arturo’s – the best coal oven pizza in the city. It originally opened in 1957 and is still owned by the same family who can be seen making the rounds and saying hi to their patrons. Live jazz accompanies dinner every night. Located in Greenwich Village.
Edi & the Wolf – an Austrian restaurant that provides guests with one of the most atmospheric dining experiences in the city. In their own words they want patrons to enjoy “Gemütlichkeit, a sense of conviviality and cozy intimacy that comes from the temporary surrender of everyday responsibilities.” The Liptauer and Pumpkin Seedspread and Wiener Schnitzel are köstlich! Located in the East Village.
The NoMad – expensive, fine dining at its best. Make a reservation requesting to be seated in the semi-private room by the fireplace in the dead of winter. Try one of the truffle dishes if they’re in season. You’ll feel like a star when they bring the truffle out in the jar to make sure the smell is to your liking. Located in the Flatiron District.
Yuca Bar – a lively tapas bar and restaurant serving Latin Fusion cuisine. Get a bunch of plates to share and linger over dinner with one of their great Margaritas, a pitcher of Sangria, or a Pisco Passion Martini. Located in the East Village.
Torishin – the most authentic yakitori spot you’ll find outside of Tokyo, Japan. The chefs cook delicious – and all organic – chicken in traditional Japanese style, earning the restaurant an impeccable reputation (as well as a Michelin Star) among visitors and locals alike. Located in Hell’s Kitchen.
RedFarm – serves farm-to-table modern and innovative Chinese fare. An assortment of Dim Sum is a must – especially the ‘Pac Man’ Shrimp Dumplings. RedFarm does get very busy and won’t take reservations for small groups. I suggest putting your name down (they’ll take your phone number) and then going to the nearby (and famed) White Horse Tavern for a drink. Locations in Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side.
LES Enfants de Boheme – a French bistro unlike any other that’s best for those late night bites (open til 2am; Fri. and Sat. until 3am). The decor is casual and the patronage consists mainly of locals. My favorites include the simple Cheese and Charcuterie Board and the La Moule Coquine. Located in the Lower East Side.
Via Carota – a rustic Italian trattoria with communal seating and a constantly changing menu. Trust the waiter and order the day’s pasta special – no matter what it is. The octopus is always on point as well. Located in the West Village.
Raouls – a classic old New York French bistro that’s been around since the 70’s. If you want the quintessential New York experience then put this place on your list. Order the Steak au Poivre. Located in SoHo.
Caravan of Dreams – an all organic vegan restaurant (that even meat eaters love) that features plenty of atmosphere and nightly live music. The Caravan Burrito is my favorite. Located in the East Village.
Momofuku Noodle Bar – this is probably on everybody’s NYC recommendation list – and for good reason – the ramen is incredible (try the house Momofuku Ramen dish). It’s one of my roommate and I’s favorite restaurants. You can’t go wrong with any of their buns and their milk bar desserts are to die for. Located in the East Village.
Other favorites include Boqueria (Spanish tapas), Supper (Northern Italian), Quality Meats (Steakhouse), Mighty Quinn’s (BBQ) , Palma (Family-style Italian), La Esquina (Mexican), Masa (Sushi), and Jeepney (Filipino).
We Party – Like A Lot
It’s called the City That Never Sleeps for a reason and below are some of the main reasons why a complete REM cycle always eludes me.
Tortilla Flats – ok, so yeah this is actually a Mexican restaurant. But does it really count as a restaurant if it blasts music while the emcee comes to your table and pours tequila down your throat? Or makes you enter a PBR chugging contest? Or a hula-hoop contest? Besides, what kind of so-called “restaurant” has Santa and his Sleigh perched outside all year round? Located in Greenwich Village.
Wilfie and Nell – single? Then this bar is for you. A small space that’s fully encapsulated by gorgeous exposed brick, Wilfie and Nell produces indecently strong cocktails alongside tasty men (or maybe it’s the other way around). Either way, post up at the bar and you’re bound to meet someone to show you around the city come morning. Don’t bother coming before midnight as it doesn’t truly liven up until after. Located in the West Village.
The Wren – still single? The owners of Wilfie and Nell brought their same magic when they established this happening singles watering hole. Just go in, try one on, and decide whether or not to exchange it later. Ever wanted to know how my blog got started? It all happened with a chance encounter on a fateful night (errr…morning?) at The Wren around 2am. You can read that crazy story here. This bar is best after 11pm. Located in NoHo.
Apotheke – inspired by Parisian absinthe dens and old world apothecaries, Apotheke describes itself as a chemistry lab rather than a cocktail bar. They use fresh herbs plucked from their own rooftop garden and blend them with a variety of liquors while garnishing them with fruits sourced from local greenmarkets. Each jewel-toned drink is served in elegant crystal glassware. Located in Chinatown.
The Wayland – a nice after after dinner spot. And yes – I meant that second after. It’s a great second-or-third-bar-after-dinner type of establishment (though crowds can linger until 3am). They have great cocktails and it gets crowded in a fun kind of way. Located in the East Village.
Dark Room – literally a dark room behind a dark door off a dark street. It’s better for dancing after 1am when the DJ really starts to get into the 80’s and 90’s pop mix. Located in the Lower East Side.
The Standard Biergarten – more laid back than the Standard’s main restaurant and rooftop bar (Le Bain is one of the best clubs in the city). It’s fun at any hour of the day and is adorned with communal seating, foosball games, and ping pong tables. Located in the Meatpacking District.
Mulberry Project – a speakeasy marked by nothing but a man standing in front of a red door. They serve incredible tailored cocktails – just tell the bartender your preferred liqueur and taste profile and he’ll whip something up on the spot. There’s also an urban patio out back with the surrounding walls featuring art from various NYC street artists. You typically need to order food to sit out here but groups of females have been able to flirt their way to the back for drinks only. Located in Little Italy.
Kingston Hall – this bar has a nice open space with exposed brick, wooden booths and barstools, and stained glass decor. Though it doesn’t look it – this is a Jamaican bar at heart – as evidenced by its food, rum, and drinks served in coconuts. Good for happy hour and then onwards into the night. Located in the East Village.
Hudson Bar and Books – resembles a billionaire’s private library with its wall sconces, wood paneling, and dark leather seating. Unwind with a highball of whiskey and a cigar – for this was the first dedicated cigar bar in New York City. Located in the West Village.
The Rusty Knot – tucked away on the edge of the Hudson River, you’ll feel like a regular salty dog in this kitschy maritime-themed bar that comes complete with mounted fish and an aquarium. They make one of the best Dark & Stormy’s in the city and The Rusty Knot (a frozen mojito) is a local favorite. Plus, they’re all served in really fun tiki glasses. Warning – stealing them is frowned upon. Located in the West Village.
The Happiest Hour – as if the name isn’t reason enough to go, they also serve free french fries as bar snacks. It has an old school tropical resort vibe with decorative palm trees ornamenting the wallpaper while the Beach Boys play in the background. It’s a purely fun bar and as the name states – it’s best for happy hour. Located in the West Village.
Copper & Oak – for dark liquor lovers only. You won’t find any designer cocktails or vodka here. Hell, the bartender won’t even add mixers (though water, club soda, and ginger ale are available if you request it and then mix it yourself). This is first and foremost a whiskey aficionados dream with over 600 bottles decorating the small space. Located on the Lower East Side.
Other fun nighttime spots I frequent include The Highlands (Scottish gastropub), Employee’s Only (cocktail bar), The Dead Rabbit (cocktail bar), The Crooked Knife (loungy bar), 1 Oak (nightclub) Heidelberg (beer garden), Entwine (wine bar and lounge), and Ulysses Folk House (pub).
We Reject The Social Norm and Embrace the Unusual
Live in New York long enough and nothing phases you. I know it’s the most cliche thing ever but cliche is cliche for a reason – it’s true. We experience the ‘unusual’ on a daily basis. Sometimes on purpose and sometimes by happenstance.
The Drag Queen Scene – having a large LGBT community in the City means there’s an abundance of drag queens that shape a huge part of the showbiz scene in the form of various entertainment. Try Drag Queen Bingo with Linda in the West Village or go to a Drag Queen Brunch at Intermezzo.
Burlesque – a word reminiscent of an earlier time evoking taboo imaginings of women performing seductive acts in a small, concealed bar while donned in scantily-clad lingerie with hints of lace, glitter, and feathers. The image makes us nostalgic for a time when everything was word of mouth and it was still possible to stumble into some unknown underground gem. It may be impossible to completely get that experience back but not in New York City. Head to Nurse Bettie in the Lower East Side for a small, free, and local burlesque show.
Immersion Theater – New York takes the theater experience to a whole new level by actively making YOU part of the show. Sleep No More was one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had – not only in the city – but in the world. I was totally transfixed and truly moved. My aunt thought I was just weird but I’m the artistic sort and my kind tend to get swept up into fantasyland very easily. Drunk Shakespeare is another example where the actors (and audience) pretty much get s***faced during the performance. I’m also pretty sure I got killed at some point and my mom objected and then forced the actors to take a shot of whisky. You had to be there – so yes – go see it now.
Then there are those happenstance ‘only in New York’ moments that somehow don’t seem weird at all…
Like when the bouncer at Small’s Jazz Club hands you and your friend a dog as you wait in line and then disappears. You finally get in and find yourself still with the dog 30 minutes into the set. Another 15 minutes passes before the bouncer finds you and says ‘thanks for watching it’ and then just takes it back. You look at each other, shrug, and then continue to enjoy the music.
Or when you take a lunch break in Central Park and you’re too lazy to walk around the wall so you try to scale it. Someone notices you having trouble so they walk over and tell you to step into their hands (cheerleading style) and they help fling you over the wall. “Thanks”…”No prob”… then you just both continue about your day.
Or when you’re wandering around the West Village and a man yells, “Lesbians. All I want for Christmas is lesbians and a bag of potato chips.”
Or when you’ve had a terribly long day and all you want to do is get home and go to bed. Only the subway breaks down – for over an hour. Somehow you start b******* to the guy next to you – who just so happens to be rather good looking – and the next thing you know you’re exiting the subway together to go have sushi. 7 weeks later you’re still dating and he says to you, “I can’t believe we met on the subway. That just doesn’t happen”. To which you respond, “I know, it’s such a romantic meet cute” while you guilty remember that time a year ago when you got asked out on the L train while dressed up as Harry Potter. And they say bars are the only place you can meet people.
We Get Out of Manhattan
We love the city but every once in awhile we need to get out. Luckily the surrounding boroughs have just as much (if not more) cultural diversity to explore. They each deserve their own dedicated post (maybe in the future when I feel ready for another daunting task) but in the meantime, I’ve outlined a few of my favorite escapes.
Red Hook, Brooklyn – not the easiest neighborhood to get to which is probably why it’s been able to retain so much of its original character and charm. If you’re looking to escape the increasing modernity found in so many of New York’s gentrified areas, then visit Red Hook with its untouched old town urban atmosphere.
Take an uber or taxi and see why locals are happy to keep this place a secret. Highlights include a meal at The Good Fork; wine tastings and waterfront views at The Red Hook Winery; real down home BBQ at Hometown Barbecue; dessert at Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies; games, mini-golf, and daytime drinking at Brooklyn Crab; shellfish at The Red Hook Lobster Pound; taxidermy and drinks at the eccentric Bait and Tackle bar; and beer and music at Sunny’s Bar which has been around since the 1890’s.
Greenpoint, Brooklyn – an up-and-coming historically Polish area. Families, young artistic crowds, and entrepreneurs are starting to relocate here from the Williamsburg area. A low-key, trendy neighborhood whose highlights include breakfast at the Peter Pan Bakery; drinks at Achilles Heel; the best pizza around at Paulie Gee’s; authentic Polish cuisine at Karczma; a panoramic view of Manhattan from Transmitter Park; incredible mixed cocktails and drinks at Esme; Italian and jazz at Le Fanfare; and brunch at Anella.
Other neighborhoods of interest in Brooklyn include Williamsburg, Carroll Gardens, and Boerum Hill. Astoria, Queens has great food and a cool area called Little Egypt. Harlem is always worth a visit. In the summers we flock to beaches in Long Island such as Long Beach and Montauk.
Forget everything I mentioned above. Everything!! New York is a fascinating and ever evolving city. What’s cool one minute is lame the next. The best restaurant today could be the worst tomorrow. Experience the city on your own without an itinerary and wander down whatever street strikes your fancy. I promise you won’t regret it!
Where to Stay
A lot of readers email me asking for accommodation recommendations so I thought I’d include a few places I love below. Most are boutique hotels – if you’re looking for mainstream, chain or luxury hotels, I suggest browsing Expedia or Booking.com.
- The Jane Hotel – a chock-full of character boutique hotel straddling the Meatpacking District and West Village. I’ve been here for dinner and drinks many times and it’s the preferred hotel for my close friend’s parents. Easy to get around to all the trendy bars and restaurants nearby. I love their rooftop bar which overlooks the Hudson. Rooms are on the small side but the atmosphere is fantastic.
- The Ludlow Hotel – once again I’ve only been here for cocktails! But I love the vibe. Right in the heart of the LES. This is a chic, boutique hotel in an oft less-visited area of the city. This is not for super touristy people only interested in the Empire State Building and Times Square (but neither is this post in general!).
- The Library Hotel – a luxury boutique hotel perfect for book lovers as each floor is dedicated to one category of the Dewey Decimal System. Each room is littered with books. I took a staycation here a few years ago and loved it. It’s a good midtown location for tourists looking to be around the more touristy sites.
- The Gramercy Park Hotel – I LOVE THE GRAMERCY PARK HOTEL. This landmark NYC hotel in Flatiron is expensive but if you want to splurge, it’s definitely worth it. My roommate and I stayed here two years ago (I’m a big fan of the staycation!). Guests receive access via a key to a private park next to the hotel. Residents (most of which are wealthy celebs) living in certain estates are the only other people who have access to this park as well. Drinks at the Rose Bar is a must (and will have you feeling like a sophisticated New Yorker, as is a visit to their rooftop terrace.
Whew! That was by far the most comprehensive guide I’ve ever written! Have any other recommendations that I missed? Any questions? Let me know in the comments below!
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