Top 10 Things To Do and See in Manhattan's East Village

The Charlie Parker Jazz Festival takes place in Tompkins Square Park
The Charlie Parker Jazz Festival takes place in Tompkins Square Park | © Jack Vartoogian / Getty Images
Photo of Alex Wexelman
Staff Writer6 January 2020

A major change occurred in Manhattan in the 1950s. Amid an artistic renaissance led by the Beats, the East Village seceded from the Lower East Side to become its own entity. Throughout its storied history, the neighborhood has been the birthplace of punk rock and the Nuyorican literary movement and has served as host to the Off-Broadway theatres and poetry venues. Here are the best things to do in New York’s East Village neighborhood to discover a bit of the storied neighborhood’s history as well as what still makes it one of the city’s most exciting nabes.

KGB Bar, East 4th Street

Bar, Pub Grub, American
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A hammer and sickle adorn the books of matches up for grabs at KGB’s bar counter. It’s all part of the “Communist chic” theme honoring the second-floor venue’s history as a former Ukranian speakeasy where socialists would meet behind double-locked doors to protect themselves from McCarthy’s “red scare.” Today, you’re more likely to hear speculative fiction or poetry than you are quotes from a pamphlet by Marx. With readings happening almost nightly, KGB is the perfect place to crack open a Baltika and soak in the new voices of the lit scene.

Tompkins Square Park

Park, Church, Shop
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Hundreds Of Drag Queens filled the streets for the New York
Tompkins Square Park is a beautiful green space in New York | © Pacific Press / Getty Images
New York has some idyllic green spaces. Covering 10-and-a-half acres, Tompkins features playgrounds, basketball courts, a dog run, ping pong tables, handball courts and built-in outdoor chess tables open to the public. Musicians and skateboarders gather in the park, along with sunbathers in the warmer seasons, and it is the site of annual events such as the outdoor drag festival, Wigstock, and the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, which honors the saxophonist who lived on Avenue B.

Mast Books

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It’s always heartening to see so many New Yorkers reading their paperbacks on public transit. Mast Books is one of the dozens of stores that cater to the literary cognoscenti by carving out a niche carrying rare titles in art, poetry and cinema. The curation is what sets Mast apart from the herd. Every store carries the new Jia Tolentino, but it’s special stumbling across a hand selected early edition of a Patti Smith chapbook or limited printing of a modern design tome.

Nuyorican Poets Cafe, New York

Music Venue, Theater, $$$
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Exterior of Nuyorican Poets Cafe
The Nuyorican Poets Café was founded as a haven for Puerto Rican poets not accepted by the mainstream literary community | Courtesy of Nuyorican Poets Café
Begot out of necessity, the Nuyorican Poets Café, originally run as a living room salon in the East Village apartment of poet Miguel Algarin, was founded as an outlet for the fledgling movement’s writers who were shut out of the established publishing industry. Two years later, the collection Nuyorican Poetry: An Anthology of Puerto Rican Words and Feelings, co-edited by Algarin and Miguel Piñero, ushered a poetry renaissance with the café serving as a centerpiece to cause. Today, programming includes weekly poetry slams, open mics, Latin Jazz and Hip-Hop concerts, theatrical performances, educational programs and visual art exhibitions.

Russian & Turkish Baths

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Navigating the subways, catching a reservation during rush-hour, standing on your feet for hours in the Met – a trip to New York is not exactly a vacation. That said, The Russian & Turkish Baths on East 10th Street are the perfect place to unwind, have a schvitz and regroup so you’re ready for your next adventure. Opened in 1892, the bathhouse – where the likes of Frank Sinatra and John Belushi could be spotted – has an old-world charm. Opened originally to serve as 19th-century resource for overcrowded immigrant communities before hot water was available in most homes, today the baths offer a bevy of modern services, from a fragrant essential oils wash to Swedish massages.

Big Gay Ice Cream Shop

Ice Cream Parlour, Dessert Shop, American, $$$
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WV Shop 3
Big Gay Ice Cream serves up unique flavours | © Big Gay Ice Cream
Before you could buy a pint at your corner bodega, the Big Gay Ice Cream company was a brick-and-morter storefront in the East Village (and before that, it was a truck for two years). The descriptor ‘gay’ here is double-pronged: its co-founders Doug Quint and Bryan Petroff. Both are gay men, but the term reflects their mission to be the happiest ice cream parlor in New York City. This is evident in the fun names of concoctions (such as Salty Pimp and Bea Arthur) as well as the nontraditional ice cream flavors, such as olive oil, blood orange infused balsamic vinegar and Maldon salt, or toppings such as wasabi peas and caramelized bacon.

The Museum of the American Gangster

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Anyone who has seen The Godfather knows about New York’s storied history as a mafioso meeting point.The Museum of the American Gangster, opened in 2010, was founded to explore the history of organized crime and preserve documents associated with the Prohibition Era. Appropriately housed in a former speakeasy, in a neighborhood where notorious gangsters Al Capone, “Lucky Luciano” and John Gotti once walked the streets, the museum features artifacts such as John Dillinger’s death masks, seven .45-caliber bullets from the St Valentine’s Day Massacre and a shell casing recovered from the car in which Bonnie and Clyde’s Clyde Barrow was shot to death.

Yoga to the People

Yoga Studio
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The ancient Indian discipline of yoga has been gaining popularity as a workout in the west for the last two decades. Since then, it’s become more prohibitive to those seeking to stretch and sweat. Yoga to the People’s mission is to make yoga available to everybody by not enforcing financially burdensome prices; instead there is a $10 suggested donation for classes. Yoga is good for your health, body and breathing and YTTP offers three class types: power vinyasa flow, traditional hot yoga and hot vinyasa.

Webster Hall

Nightclub, Pub Grub, $$$
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Lukas Nelson And Promise Of The Real In Concert - New York, NY
Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real perform live in concert at Webster Hall | © Debra L Rothenberg / Getty Images
When it opened, Webster Hall was described as being for “balls, receptions, Hebrew weddings and sociables,” according to a December 1886 article in The New York Times. During Prohibition, it was known for its wild parties where the police turned a blind eye to alcohol consumption. Famous artists and writers such as Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Stella, Man Ray, F Scott Fitzgerald and Langston Hughes were known to be in attendance. Recently, Webster went through a $10 million renovation and continues to operate as a nightclub and music venue with a capacity of 1,400 where events are hosted nightly.

This article is an updated version of a story created by Michael Manukian.

These recommendations were updated on January 6, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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