While the skyscrapers of Midtown Manhattan, the green pastures of Central Park, and the bright lights of Times Square may spring to mind when you think of New York City, much of the city’s charm is found in its neighborhoods, which can feel like separate villages each with its own character. The five neighborhoods here are perfect for a morning or afternoon of urban exploring because they embody different aspects of the city.
It’s not a comprehensive list, of course. After you have seen them, perhaps you’ll want to head to others not typically on travelers’ itineraries, such as the Upper East Side or West Side neighborhoods like Morningside Heights and Washington Heights. Or you can follow NYC and Co.’s new-in-2021 itineraries that spotlight Asian culture in Long Island City, Black-owned businesses in Harlem, and the Latinx experience in Bushwick, long home to Dominican and Puerto Rican communities. That’s just for starters. You plan to visit New York City again, right?
Go for: Dim sum, shopping, and the city’s ongoing immigration story
One of Manhattan’s most distinct neighborhoods dates back to the 1870s, when immigrants from China settled around Mott, Doyers, and Pell Streets in lower Manhattan. Get an introduction to its history with a visit to the Museum of the Chinese in America on Centre Street in a building designed by Maya Lin, the architect best known for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Afterwards head south to Canal Street, the main artery of the neighborhood, bustling with stores and sidewalk vendors selling T-shirts, electronics, trinkets, iPad covers, and toys. Pearl River Mart, a 50-year family business and longtime local staple (that had to relocate during the pandmic to a new Soho spot), provides a single (fun) stop to pick up the imported Asian items—ceramics, chopsticks, brocaded garments—that you’ll see, in varying degrees of quality, in little shops all around Chinatown.
After you have stocked up on gifts, head east on Beach Street to Mott to see the pagoda-like Chinese Merchants Association building, one of the most unusual buildings in New York. When you are ready for lunch, Nom Wah Tea Parlor, on the picturesque one-block-long Doyers Street, has been serving delicious dim sum since 1920.
Go for: Books, art, and vestiges of a disappearing vibe
Soho has followed a typical gentrification story. When it was a somewhat desolate area in the 1970s, with its loft spaces used by small manufacturers, Soho was discovered by artists attracted to those high ceilings, big windows, and cheap rents. Today any bohemian edginess has nearly dissipated—the stretch of Broadway that runs through the neighborhood is now home to outposts of Old Navy and J. Crew. Still, some of the neighborhood’s art-world legacy lives on, and the elegant late-19th-century cast-iron buildings, the world’s largest concentration of them, have been preserved.
Start your Soho exploration at one of the area’s several good bookstores. When you purchase a coffee or a gently used volume on New York history at Housing Works Bookstore, Café and Bar, you’ll be helping support programs for people living with AIDS. The store also programs events like author readings, discussions, live music, and Moth story slams, so if you time your bookstore visit right, you may catch some local culture, too. Another neighborhood cultural institution, the Drawing Center is dedicated to drawing, with works on paper by both historical and contemporary artists. For a meal to remember, Balthazar on Spring Street is a venerable favorite with a grand French brasserie interior. If it’s not quite dinner time, the cozy bar at the Crosby Street Hotel is ideal for a cocktail, or grab a beer at Fanelli Cafe, a bar at the corner of Prince and Mercer Streets that dates back to the 1860s and still retains the funky flavor of the old neighborhood.
Go for: Enduring charm, churn, and the thrilling past
While both the East Village and the West Village (aka Greenwich Village) were centers of the city’s counterculture in the 1960s and ’70s, the latter has artistic, literary, and radical political roots that date back to the early 20th century. These days, struggling artists are more commonly found in other boroughs, but historic landmarks and charming streets lined with rowhouses still give the West Village an invitingly intimate scale.
One neighborhood must-see is Washington Square Park, a perennially popular place for protests, students, competitive chess matches, street musicians, and—at the base of Fifth Avenue—an iconic arch dedicated to George Washington. On MacDougal Street, which starts at the southwest corner of the park, you’ll find Café Wha? (where Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and other musical greats performed when starting out) and the Caffe Reggio, open since 1927. Greenwich Village was also long the center of the city’s LGBTQ community with Christopher Park, its symbolic heart.
In June 1969, the Stonewall riots, which began at the Stonewall Inn sitting just north of the park, are considered the start of the modern gay rights movement. The bar (still operating) is a National Historic Landmark. Walk along West 10th, an especially photogenic street, stopping at newly renovated Three Lives & Company, an independent bookstore specializing in biographies. At the Hudson River, stroll along the waterfront to the Meatpacking District, where the Whitney Museum of American Art continues the West Village’s cultural and artistic legacy.
Go for: Malls that double as architectural icons and Wall Street bustle
In recent years, FiDi (for Financial District) has joined Tribeca, Dumbo, and Nolita as a trendy portmanteau for a revitalized neighborhood. While traders have been gathering on Wall Street since the 18th century, the neighborhood used to turn into a ghost town on nights and weekends when the office workers cleared out. The new One World Trade tower and the Oculus are two of many projects that have transformed the neighborhood into one that’s busy around the clock.
Start your visit to FiDi down at the Battery, the park at the tip of Manhattan where the original Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam was founded in 1624. Check out the National Museum of the American Indian in the grand former Customs House (admission is free: a rarity in New York). Walk north along Broadway noting the plaques embedded in the sidewalks that commemorate the events and people who received ticker-tape parades here in years past. Trinity Church, at the point where Wall Street runs into Broadway, is the only colonial-era church in Manhattan and its small cemetery is home to the graves of notable early New Yorkers, including Alexander Hamilton.
Nearby, at the memorial site at the World Trade Center, two sunken fountains occupy the footprints of the original twin towers. Also on the site is the Oculus, a dramatic building that looks like a pair of white wings and which houses dozens of stores and restaurants. Enjoy a drink or meal alongside the locals at Schilling Restaurant and Bar for Austrian-Mediterranean food or at the still-going-strong Fraunces Tavern (George Washington drank here. Really).
Go for: Urban beauty, activist history, and a great view
If you’re ready to venture to some of the other boroughs, Brooklyn Heights is an obvious first stop. Its location—just across the East River from lower Manhattan—is key to its history. Before Brooklyn became part of New York City in 1898, the residents of this neighborhood’s graceful brownstones could easily commute to downtown Manhattan by ferry and the Brooklyn Bridge.
Cross the East River by walking over the Brooklyn Bridge or by taking the subway to the Borough Hall stop. Follow Pierrepoint Street, admiring its mix of mostly Victorian homes, until you reach the Brooklyn Heights Promenade for postcard views of Manhattan. Walk along the promenade, toward the bridge, taking a detour to see the historic Plymouth Church where famed abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher preached, and where escaped slaves were harbored as a waystation on the Underground Railroad.
Then make your way down to Brooklyn Bridge Park, which has turned a neglected waterfront into a playground for city residents, with soccer fields and basketball courts, excellent playgrounds, food kiosks, public art, a man-made beach area on the river, and lots of open lawns and benches for sunbathing and people-watching. Grimaldi’s is a popular choice for lunch if you are in the mood for pizza, but if the line is too long (it often is), you can head into neighboring Dumbo, which has a number of restaurants to choose from.
This article was originally published in 2020. It was updated May 20, 2022, with new information.
>> Next: For a Taste of the Real Harlem, Eat Where the Locals Eat