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The Lower East Side of Manhattan is full of history and culture, so suffice it to say it’s one of the most interesting parts of NYC for a weekend of wandering. Historically a Jewish neighborhood, it was known as a center for anarchism and radical politics throughout the 20th century, and has now been fully gentrified and packed with hipster-baiting cafes, galleries, and shops on every corner. Despite this polished progression, however, the artistic and bohemian spirit that characterized the neighborhood persists, and everything from the coffee shops to the bars has a unique and creative edge. There are endless things to do and see here, so if you’ve got a full day in this part of town, here’s how to spend it.
First things first, coffee. There are too many coffee shops in this neighborhood to even count, but Why Not Coffee is a great choice. It’s a huge space with tons of seating for working on laptops, so if you need a place to crank out some freelance writing or check your emails, this is it.
Next, breakfast. Option are limitless, but for something sweet head to Doughnut Plant. Their flavors rotate and can be found in cafes around the city, but this is the original location where the doughnuts are the freshest and the offerings most diverse.
For a more savoury doughnut-shaped breakfast, head to Russ & Daughters – one of NYC’s most famous eateries. You can head to their take-away shop and grab a bagel, lox, and the works, or snag a seat at their new sit-down cafe. Either way, it’s a chance to try what some may argue is the ‘taste of NYC’ – the best bagel with the best lox and cream cheese in town. Russ & Daughters is an institution and fully worth a visit.
After breakfast, wandering the neighborhood and shopping is your best option to really experience that LES vibe. Head to Tictail Market for a very cool, trendy selection of hand-picked wares. For a new pair of shoes, there’s no better boutique than Tani – they sell a range of styles at various prices so you’ll surely find what you need.
If shopping isn’t your thing, check out the art galleries dotted around the neighborhood. In the past decade or so the LES art scene has blossomed with fervor, and now there are several options concentrated into just a few blocks. Most of the galleries show emerging artists with experimental, non-traditional work, so there’s always something interesting on view.
For lunch, one of the best cafes in the area is El Rey Coffee Bar and Luncheonette. It’s a teeny-tiny cafe that from the outside seems to serve your average renditions of avocado toasts, grain bowls, and kale salads. Here, however, they do it better. Chef Mason Lindahl is not afraid to take chances and put his own spin on the classics, and his versions of these popular lunch dishes are truly unique.
After lunch, learn about both the history of the neighborhood with a visit to the Tenement Museum for a spin through its Jewish past, where you can also book a tour of local tenement buildings. There’s also the Museum at Elridge Street – a synagogue from 1887 that is absolutely jaw-dropping in its beauty.
To see the future of the neighborhood, head to the Lowline – the world’s first underground green space/public park. It’s still in development, but can be accessed by the public on weekends. A revolutionary concept that could change what we think of as ‘green space,’ learn more about this groundbreaking project via this interview with the Lowline’s deputy director.
For dinner, whatever you’re craving can surely be found, but if you’re in NYC there’s a good chance you’re craving pizza. If so, head to Speedy Romeo – a popular and friendly pizza joint imported from Brooklyn to the Lower East Side with a second location opening a few months back, much to the delight of locals. For something a bit different, try your luck snagging a table at Wildair. The vibes here are more like a wine bar that happens to serve small plates that are hardly an afterthought. Named one of the top 10 best new restaurants in America by Bon Appetit magazine in 2016, the food is truly unique and delicious.
Appease your after-dinner drinks craving with a visit to local cider hotspot Wassail. This is NYC’s first and only cider bar, and no doubt it will shift your [cider] paradigm. Plus, the food is exceptional if you’re looking for a late-night snack. For a craft cocktail, however, make your way to Attaboy – if you can find it. One of NYC’s many ‘speakeasies,’ Attaboy’s entrance is through a nondescript gray door that you’d never think to stop at, and yes, you have to knock to enter. Once inside, there’s no menu, just tell the genius bartenders what you like and they’ll make you something amazing.
If your after-dinner cravings skew more towards the sweet side, grab a cone at Morgensterns. This retro-style ice cream shop is one of the city’s best, and they’re known for having a wide variety of classic flavors like vanilla and chocolate. Try variations like burnt honey vanilla or Mexican chocolate, of if you want to be really crazy, try their black coconut ash. It’s delicious, and yes – it really is jet-black.
Why Not Coffee, 175 Orchard Street, New York, NY, USA +1 646 682 9065
Doughnut Plant, 379 Grand Street, New York, NY, USA +1 212 505 3700 ext. 379
Russ & Daughters, 127 Orchard Street, New York, NY, USA +1 212 475 4880
Tictail Market, 90 Orchard Street, New York, NY, USA +1 917 388 1556
Tani, 100 Rivington Street, New York, NY, USA +1 212 533 0191
El Rey Coffee Bar and Luncheonette, 100 Stanton Street, New York, NY, USA +1 212 260 3950