Screenwriter and longtime resident Nora Ephron adored the Upper West Side so much she once said, “I began, in my manner, to make a religion out of my neighborhood.” Perhaps she worshipped the acres of green space and majestic prewar buildings towering above the avenues. Or maybe it was the leafy brownstone blocks and their small-town feel, unlikely in a city of millions.
A world away yet minutes by train from the throngs of tourists in Midtown, the Upper West Side unveils a glimpse of real life in New York along with undeniable charm and character, and a dynamic arts and culture scene. Historically an epicenter for creatives and intellectuals, the Upper West Side is comfortable, if not relaxed. But it’s far from cool or hip like the West Village, Soho, and other downtown siblings. Still, a unique quality of life exists here, a draw for denizens who put down roots and for curious visitors who pass through.
The UWS, as it’s called by locals, begins at 59th Street-Columbus Circle or the south end of Central Park and stretches to 110th Street or the north end of the park (a newer dividing line, as it was once 96th, but the border has crept up over the years). With a population of more than 220,000, it’s by no means small, but the Upper West teems with small-town flavor yet promises the conveniences of big city life. Seven subway lines run through the neighborhood, giving good reason to venture out and experience the rest of New York.
The UWS is wedged between Central Park – where you could easily spend a day (or several) discovering its myriad gardens, monuments, lakes and ponds – and Riverside Park, which runs beside the Hudson River. The deeply cinematic (it’s often featured on the silver screen) architecture is grand and some of the most alluring (and storied) in the five boroughs. Pay special attention to The Apthorp (2211 Broadway), The Ansonia (2109 Broadway), The Dorilton (171 W 71st St) and The Dakota (1 W 72nd St), where Judy Garland, Rudolph Nureyev, and John Lennon once lived. Stop by the ‘Imagine’ mosaic shrine in Central Park’s Strawberry Fields – a tribute to the late singer -songwriter– set across the street from The Dakota.
Because of the vast green space and a stock of spacious apartments, the area is decidedly family-friendly (don’t be surprised if you witness a stroller or scooter collision while marching down Broadway), making it a suitable base for those traveling with kids. Like many areas of Manhattan, Broadway is the main artery. A landscaped island peppered with public art projects gracefully divides the four-lane boulevard where you can browse a parade of storefronts, both large chains and boutiques, mingled with restaurants.
Don’t skip over Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues – both east of Broadway – two thoroughfares offering a mishmash of national retailers, bodegas, and mom-and-pop specialty shops, as well as a slew of watering holes and eateries. All three avenues clamor with activity while UWS locals wander around, walk dogs, sip coffee, spend, and socialize. It’s the side streets (they run east to west), however, where you’ll sight picture-perfect brownstones and the leafiness that the neighborhood is famous for. Blocks in the West 70s, in particular, are some of the most picturesque that you’ll come across in Manhattan, each feeling like its own small town.
Central Park West (CPW), alongside the eponymous park, as well as West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, which hugs Riverside Park and the Hudson River, are regal residential avenues lined with majestic prewar high-rises. Stroll any of these stately streets and you’ll imagine that you’ve stepped back to a New York of days gone by, perhaps a city somewhere in the 1920s, ‘30s or ‘40s, as many of the structures and their extraordinary details remain intact.
After walking West End and Riverside, duck into Riverside Park at 91st Street. Meander down the hill and you’ll be in You’ve Got Mail territory. Managed by The Garden People, the 91st Street Garden was featured in the final scene of Ephron’s romcom, where it appears far larger than it is in person. Still, the two lushly planted parcels are Riverside Park jewels and shouldn’t be skipped, especially in spring, summer, and fall.
Within the confines of the Upper West Side lie some of New York’s most prized cultural attractions. Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts houses 11 organizations including the Metropolitan Opera, American Ballet Theatre, the New York Philharmonic, and the New York City Ballet. Jazz at Lincoln Center directed by Wynton Marsalis features musical soloists and ensembles. The world-renowned performing arts conservatory, Juilliard, also has its home here.
For world-class concerts and comedy, the Beacon Theater (attached to the hotel by the same name) has hosted the likes of Cyndi Lauper, Joan Baez, and Jerry Seinfeld. The American Museum of Natural History, New York Historical Society, American Folk Art Museum, and the Museum of Art & Design also share the neighborhood, allowing tourists to capture a taste of UWS arts and culture. Tip: Don’t miss Theodore Roosevelt Park. Surrounding the Museum of Natural History, it’s a pleasant detour away from the traffic of Columbus Avenue and a lovely respite in the midst of the city.
Named after a short-lived airway beacon atop the building’s 24 stories, Hotel Beacon (2130 Broadway) is one of New York’s hidden gems. The inn provides spacious accommodations, each equipped with a marble bathroom and kitchenette. Catch the after-work crowd at Beacon Bar just off the lobby, a modern yet cozy place featuring cocktails and light bites.
The nearby Arthouse Hotel (2178 Broadway) fuses tradition with chic, sophisticated style. Choose from guest rooms, lofts, and suites, all inspired by New York apartments. Two excellent on-site restaurants – Serafina for Italian fare and Red Farm for contemporary Asian cuisine – allow guests to dine in the hotel after long days sightseeing in the city. Before or after a meal, pop into the speakeasy-themed Arthouse Bar and unwind with a signature libation.
Luxury abounds at the Columbus Circle outpost of Mandarin Oriental (80 Columbus Circle). Enter to a sleek, modern space and travel to the sky lobby on the 35th floor. This grand reception area connects to The Aviary, one of New York’s most avant-garde drinking dens where mixologists sling theatrical cocktails that pair perfectly with over-the-top city views. Room perks include sumptuous bedding and toiletries as well as floor-to-ceiling windows with tons of natural light. Splurge on lunch or dinner at Asiate, an elegant dining space adorned with crisp white tablecloths and delicate magenta orchids.
Eat and Drink
An UWS institution, Barney Greengrass (541 Amsterdam Ave) features a traditional takeout deli with all the fixings as well as a casual restaurant that’s changed little since it opened in this location in 1929. Indulge in gravlax, kippered salmon, and pickled herring (Barney himself was labeled ‘the Sturgeon King’), home-made borscht, matzoh ball soup, noodle pudding, and other Jewish soul food classics at the cash-only establishment that remains a family-operated business.
Savor epic French Dip sandwiches garnished with big dill pickles at Maison Pickle (2315 Broadway). Beyond the classic dips, Jacob Hadjigeorgis and his crew plate comfort-loaded dishes such as bone marrow with baked clams, fried chicken n’ toast, and filet mignon au poivre. Start your meal with a pretty bowl of pickled crudité, the ‘d’olived’ eggs (deviled with extra virgin olive oil) and the pulled apart bread and butter, surely worth the carbs. An inventive cocktail list measures up to the food, and so does the wine and beer menu. Be sure to visit sister eatery Jacob’s Pickles (509 Amsterdam Ave), known for fried chicken and other Southern-inspired dishes.
Luckily for Upper West Siders, Xi’an’s Famous Foods (2675 Broadway) set up an outpost in the northern end of the neighborhood. Started in a 200-square-foot basement stall in Flushing, Queens, the eatery aimed to bring the previously unknown cuisine from Xi’an, China to the United States. Since its startup in 2005, the laid-back spot has expanded to include more than a dozen locations, becoming a top pick for authentic Chinese food. Patrons can expect yummy hand-pulled noodles, secret spice mixes, many with Middle Eastern influence, and fiery Xi’an burgers between homemade flatbread.
Sip generous pours of Côtes De Rhône and Mourvèdre at Amelie (566 Amsterdam Ave), a quaint café occupying a narrow space that’s heavy on atmosphere. The wine bar-cum-restaurant offers an extensive list of Old World choices by the glass and bottle along with an ample selection of small plates and entrees. Warm bacon and a runny poached egg make heaven of the Lyonnaise salad, and the ever-classic Coq au Vin sates hearty appetites. Other must-tries include the moulés mariniere and steak aux échalottes. Don’t miss happy hour at Amelie; it may be the best deal in town with glasses of wine for $7, flights for $12, and appetizer specials.
The seasonal Boat Basin Café (W 79th St) is only open from April through October (and occasionally on a warm day in March), but packs in locals ready to escape their cabin fever as soon as the weather permits. Located within the historic walls of the 79th Street Boat Basin, the outdoor bar provides stunning views of the marina and Hudson River, as well as kaleidoscope-like sunsets over New Jersey. Pre-made frozen margaritas are a major draw, but the Boat Basin keeps a full bar plus beer and wine. For eats, expect a step up from the usual bar food, with fresh salads and sandwiches as well as the New York ‘dawwg’, tacos of the day and other street foods. Because it’s an open-air venue, the Boat Basin is one of the only dog-friendly watering holes in the city.
What happens when great friends Connie McDonald and Pam Weekes marry their talents and passion in hopes of baking the world’s greatest chocolate chip cookie? Levain Bakery (167 W 74th St and Amsterdam Ave and 351 Amsterdam Ave). Lines are long but customers will attest that the scrumptious baked goods are well worth any wait, especially those sinful, crunchy-on-the-outside, gooey-on-the-inside chocolate chip walnut cookies. Levain’s breads are also decadent, with brioche, country boule, ciabatta and crusty French baguette baked fresh daily.
Shop unmentionables galore at Town Shop (2270 Broadway), a New York mainstay since 1888. Still family owned and operated, the lingerie boutique stocks pretty and practical undergarments from Chantelle, Natori, PrimaDonna and Spanx, to name a few. Besides lacy bralettes and boy shorts, Town Shop also sells sleepwear, swimsuits, shapewear, hosiery and socks. The store attracts buyers from around the city, as it’s garnered much praise over the years for a well-rounded selection and friendly staff.
New York’s go-to discount retailer for designer labels is Century 21 (1972 Broadway). Shop for fashionable treasures like a vintage Louis Vuitton handbag and a pair of Jimmy Choo lace-up pumps. Discover deep discounts on other luxury brands like Carolina Herrera, Dolce & Gabbana, Diesel and Derek Lam. Century 21 also stocks home goods such as bedding, dinnerware and rugs, plus luggage, tech, beauty items, kids’ clothes and toys.
Novels, memoirs, poetry collections, course books, and anthologies cover the shelves of Book Culture (450 Columbus Ave). As one of the remaining and thriving independent bookstores in New York, this refreshing shop is a meeting place and centrally located spot that represents the Upper West Side’s deep-seated sense of community, as well as a terrific source to buy the next best seller. Book Culture hosts readings, discussions, book releases and other adult events, as well as story times for young readers.
No trip to the Upper West Side is complete without a visit to Zabar’s (2245 Broadway). Set in the same location since 1934, the family-owned grocery, deli, and café is legendary for smoked salmon, house-roasted coffee, freshly baked breads and an impressive cheese selection from around the globe. The foodie emporium sells everything from knishes to cold cuts to sushi, as well as a long list of gourmet foodstuffs for carry-out. A trip to Zabar’s may go something like this: eat a New York bagel with a ‘schmear’ in the café. Meander through the grocer and deli next door, tasting as many free samples as possible. Peruse the diverse collection of small kitchen appliances and gadgets upstairs on the mezzanine. Finally, leave with more food-filled Zabar’s bags than anyone can carry.