What to See and Do on the Lower East Side, New York City

Economy Candy is part of the historical fabric of the Lower East Side
Economy Candy is part of the historical fabric of the Lower East Side | © Sipa US / Alamy
Photo of Anne Bauso
6 July 2021

The Lower East Side is home to a convergence of Manhattan’s best art, food and music. Catch a show at the Bowery Ballroom, browse feminist literature at Bluestockings or tuck into hot arancini balls at the Hester Street Fair.

New York’s vibrant immigrant history and contemporary cultural life collide on the Lower East Side. Here, old-school Puerto Rican joints, historic tenements and round-the-clock bodegas neighbor edgy art galleries, buzzy celebrity chef restaurants, underground clubs and hipper-than-thou cocktail dens. Here’s what not to miss on the Lower East Side.

Treat yourself at the Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery

Bakery, Dessert
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Magnolia, who? This long-time LES cult-fave bakery – now in the new Essex Market – churns out addictively delicious cakes, puddings and pies. But what they’re really known for are their cupcakes – fan favorites include the Holla Back Girl (banana cake with cream-cheese frosting), Ooey Gooey (chocolate cake with chocolate almond frosting) and the perfectly-sweet-but-not-too-sweet Sunshine (yellow cake with vanilla buttercream).

Hunt for treasure at the Hester Street Fair

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Hester Street Fair's Ice Cream Social competition is an annual event which brings local ice cream vendors to claim audience award, Manhattan on JULY 2
© Wojciech Migda / Alamy
Since its debut season in 2010, Hester Street Fair has provided a platform for up-and-coming chefs, artists, jewelers, vintage specialists and other local vendors. In fact, more than one now-brick-and-mortar downtown mainstay (such as the all-day Malaysian café Kopitiam in Chinatown) got its start at the weekend street fair.

Indulge yourself at Economy Candy

School, Shop, Store
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Satisfy your sweet tooth at this old-fashioned candy emporium, catering both to kids, and kids at heart. Standing since 1937, family-owned Economy Candy boasts an enormous candy inventory, including gummy bears, imported chocolates and halvah. A worthy destination for nostalgic snackers, the shop also stocks an extensive collection of old time favorites like PEZ dispensers, Pixy Stix and taffy.

Browse books at Bluestockings

Bookstore, Store
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[historical storefront] Bluestockings Bookstore, 172 Allen St, New York, NY.
© Robert K. Chin – Storefronts 2 / Alamy
Feminism, activism and social justice are the driving forces behind this radical indie bookstore/community center, staffed by volunteers and owned by collective members. Through its stellar selection of socially minded books and programming (book clubs, readings), Bluestockings creates a positive community space that’s become an LES institution. After more than two decades on Allen Street, Bluestockings has since opened its doors in a bigger, disability-friendly space on Suffolk Street.

Shop at Reformation LES

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Nail downtown’s laid-back style with the help of Reformation, an American boutique offering clothing with a conscience. Using repurposed materials to produce locally made, limited collections, the clothing store caters to eco-friendly shoppers looking for bohemian dresses, breezy jumpsuits and quality separates. Its affordable prices and admirable mission make it easy to accept the company’s invitation to “join the reformation.”

Catch a show at the Bowery Ballroom

Music Venue, Shop
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New York, USA. 26th March 2013. Kate Nash performing at The Bowery Ballroom on March 26, 2013  (Credit Image: Credit:  Rahav Segev/ZUMAPRESS.com/Alamy Live News)
© Rahav Segev / ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy
Along with its sister venue Webster Hall, the Bowery Ballroom is the quintessential downtown spot for indie music. Its intimate size and killer acoustics mean there’s not a bad seat in the house; concert-goers can see and hear clearly from nearly any point on the floor (lucky for you if you snag a primo spot on the balcony). Bonus points for well-priced drinks at the second-floor bar and downstairs lounge area.

Ponder contemporary art at the New Museum

Museum, Store, Building, Cinema, Forest
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The New Museum defies expectations. Instead of the grand, polished exterior you might expect of an art institution, the museum surprises with a building resembling a precarious stack of welded steel boxes. Inside, you’ll find an impressive array of edgy, uber-contemporary installations by largely underrepresented artists. Past exhibitions include work by iconoclastic painter, Peter Saul.

Relive your youth at the Two-Bit's Retro Arcade

Bar, American
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This LES dive bar will transport ‘80s babies directly to the arcades of their youth. The grungy space houses dozens of classic games like Frogger, Donkey Kong and pinball, plus there’s a bar pouring cheap pints of Radeberger and Bell’s. A projector beams movies and sports for extra den-like vibes.

Need somewhere to stay as you’re exploring the Lower East Side? Book a stay at one of the best hotels near Manhattan Bridge now with Culture Trip.

Julia Goicochea contributed additional reporting to this article.

These recommendations were updated on July 6, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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