Where to Find Old New York City

New York City’s history is rich and varied—from the glitter of the Gilded Age to the struggles of the immigrants who sought a better life in America, the city’s past shapes its present. There are still many opportunities to experience a different era here, before skyscrapers, smart phones and consumer culture took over. Take a quiet moment and step back in time.....

89 E 42nd St, New York, NY 10017, USA
The Grand Central Oyster Bar celebrates its 100th anniversary this year as a New York institution. Located in the lower concourse of Grand Central, it serves over 25 varieties of oysters daily. There is a huge menu of American seafood—chowder, fried clams, lobster rolls, clams casino—whatever you are looking for, they will have it. The Oyster Bar is also famous for its architecture—the beautiful arched tile ceilings are the hallmark of famed Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino, who left his unique stamp across NYC. Take your pick from three different seating areas: a series of old-fashioned, U-shaped counters which seem to be popular with tourists and locals; the oyster bar, which would be perfect for singles or those dining in pairs; and the saloon-type restaurant in the back, popular with the business crowd. Wherever you are sitting, it will be bustling with activity. While there are several other oyster bars in the city, the Grand Central Oyster Bar offers a piece of New York history. It’s like stepping back in time, a retro celebration of old Americana that generations of locals, tourists and travelers have visited over the years. My suggestion is to stop in for fresh oysters and cold beer at the bar.
225 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10016, USA
The JP Morgan Library’s grand, old-world elegance immediately transports you to turn-of-the-century New York. And at that time, there was almost no one more powerful than financier JP Morgan. He launched U.S. Steel and even served as the unofficial central bank of the U.S. for a time. Though some considered him a national hero, his tight control of banks, corporations and railroads led others to label him one of the original “robber barons.” Morgan was an avid collector of art and books with holdings so vast they were housed at multiple locations in New York and England. Eventually, he decided to consolidate his holdings in a huge library next to his mansion in NYC. Designed by renowned architect Charles McKim and completed in 1906, the Italian Renaissance palazzo-style library holds a staggering collection of illuminated books, historical manuscripts, and old master drawings. The library is rightfully considered McKim’s masterpiece—a majestic, soaring space which is both intimate and warm. It features 30-foot ceilings, three tiers of bronze and walnut bookcases, stained glass, a huge marble fireplace and grand tapestries. Also visit Mr. Morgan’s study, with its red silk damask walls and antique wooden ceiling brought over from Florence. The library is off the typical tourist’s radar. Imagine yourself as Morgan in your private quarters, reveling in the power and wealth at your command.
2 E 55th St, New York, NY 10022, USA
The King Cole Bar is about as legendary as any bar in New York. Located in the St. Regis Hotel at Fifth Avenue and 55th Street, it has been the place to go for a cocktail since it opened in 1932—Salvador Dalí, John Lennon, and Marilyn Monroe are just a few from a long list of famous names who have dropped in for a drink. The bar sits off the St. Regis New York’s lobby and is presided over by the famous King Cole mural painted by Maxfield Parrish, with John Jacob Astor IV playing the part of the king, jesters to each side of him. Today it is still the ultimate setting to start a celebratory evening, or end one with a nightcap; it cemented its place on most lists of New York’s top bars with an extensive renovation in 2013. While the bartenders can prepare anything you might be in the mood for, you may want to order a Bloody Mary. The King Cole Bar boasts that it was the first spot where the drink (then known as a Red Snapper) was served in the United States (a claim, it should be noted, that is disputed by some other bars).
476 5th Ave, New York, NY 10018, USA
The main branch of the New York Public Library is one of the country’s grandest Beaux Arts buildings, a temple to learning on Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd streets. At the end of the 19th century, John Bigelow, who oversaw the Tilden Trust, decided that as New York was becoming a global financial capital, it required a grand public library. When the Astor and Lenox libraries faced financial difficulties, he convinced them to merge and, with the Tilden Trust, underwrite the library that now stands next to Bryant Park. The firm of Carrère and Hastings was entrusted with the design, and construction began in 1902 on the building that would be the largest marble structure built up to that time in the United States. The elegant main reading room with its soaring carved-wood ceilings is the highlight of its interiors. The library hosts temporary exhibitions related to literary and cultural topics that draw on its extensive collection of books and other printed materials. The two beloved lions in Tennessee marble—Patience and Fortitude—have stood at the entrance to the library since it opened in 1911 and were created by sculptor Edward Clark Potter.
56 Beaver Street
Delmonico’s, which sits on a distinctive triangle-shaped corner near Wall Street, opened in 1837 as the first fine dining restaurant in the U.S. It was the first establishment to have a printed menu, separate tables, and tablecloths, and it was the first restaurant that allowed women to congregate as a group. It has invented famous classics such as Delmonico Steak, Eggs Benedict, Baked Alaska and Lobster Newburg. Entering from the streets of the financial district, you step into a different era. This is serious old-school dining in a landmark steakhouse. Mahogany coffered walls, fancy chandeliers and roaring 20’s-era murals seem to scream for a cold martini and a rare steak. Morgan, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller - they all passed through here in their time. It’s pricey, so save this for a special occasion and find a quiet time to visit. 56 Beaver Street www.delmonicosny.com
54 Pearl Street
Want to eat where a historic event of the American Revolution took place? Try Fraunces Tavern in downtown New York City. After defeating the British, it was here that George Washington gathered his officers for a farewell speech before heading back to his family home, Mount Vernon. Built by a French merchant family in 1719, Samuel Fraunces bought the building in 1762 and opened a tavern. The museum today includes four 19th century buildings, in addition to the original 18th century house. Fraunces Tavern is now a restaurant and museum devoted to pre-Revolution and American Revolution history. It is also an official NYC Landmark. Go to experience a unique piece of history, then enjoy a hearty meal or a single malt in the tavern or one of the newer buildings (above). www.frauncestavern.com 54 Pearl Street
99 Margaret Corbin Dr, New York, NY 10040, USA
The Cloisters, a museum devoted to medieval art and architecture, is a delightful respite from the hustle and bustle of NYC. This tranquil treasure is definitely worth a half day (or more) trip on your next visit. A branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters opened in 1938 and is located in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan. Perched on a towering cliff, the museum offers commanding views over the Hudson River to New Jersey and the George Washington Bridge. The buildings include elements from medieval sites from Europe (primarily France) and renowned artwork includes the Unicorn Tapestries and the Annunciation Triptych, but the heart of the museum is the cloistered garden. This lush space consists of an interior courtyard surrounded by covered walkways. The flowering garden within invites contemplation and appreciation of a different time. The Cloisters includes a broad terrace with expansive views across the Hudson. The view is so prized that in 1901, J.P. Morgan purchased 12 miles of the New Jersey coastline to protect it from excessive quarrying and in 1933 John D. Rockefeller, Jr. donated 700 additional acres of NJ to preserve The Cloisters’ view. Be sure to include time in your visit to explore beautiful Fort Tryon Park.
47 E 60th St, New York, NY 10022, USA
Early this spring, I had an hour to kill in Manhattan, so I ducked into the Grolier Club, America’s oldest bibliophilic society, where I saw a fascinating exhibit devoted to Wunderkammer, the cabinets of curiosities that originated in 16th-century Europe. I am a big fan of visiting cities’ lesser-known museums and cultural institutions. This appeared in the August/September 2013 issue.
59 W 44th St, New York, NY 10036, USA
I suppose the Algonquin is an obvious pilgrimage for anyone with a fascination for the 1920s, but it certainly didn’t disappoint. The ambience conjured everything I imagined of a legendary literary bolthole and more importantly my White Russian was delicious, accompanied by superb bar snacks and delivered to me by a most solicitous and engaging pair of waiters. The place managed to make me feel like it was me who was the famous guest - the kind of sensation that will have me going back for more.
405 Lexington Ave, New York, NY 10174, USA
A quintessential example of art deco architecture, the Chrysler Building is by far my favorite skyscraper—and that was before I realized how gorgeous the interior is! The auto-inspired design mixes chrome lighting, heavy wood elevators and intricate mosaic-murals. We popped in quickly (for free) and marveled at the lobby celling before catching our train. It’s a perfect pit-stop for any traveler!
89 E 42nd St, New York, NY 10017, USA
Stepping into the enormous main concourse of this landmarked architectural jewel—with its sweeping granite staircases, hulking columns and 38-meter (125-foot) ceilings painted with night-sky constellations—can be a jaw-dropping experience. What’s even more incredible, though, is the sheer number of people who use it as a commuter hub day in and day out (more than 750,000 train and subway passengers every weekday). Wander around the shops, head down to the basement food court for a bite and to marvel at the crowds hurrying by—and if you get jostled, don’t take it personally.
New York, NY, USA
The Statue of Liberty may be the most iconic sight that comes to mind when one thinks of the history of immigrants in New York, but not far from it in the harbor is another important landmark—Ellis Island. Until the Supreme Court ruled in 1875 that authority to regulate immigration belonged to the federal government alone, various states had implemented their own policies. After the federal government took over the processing of immigrants from New York State in 1890, some 12 million immigrants would pass through Ellis Island until it closed in 1954 (for 30 years, however, beginning in 1924, it was used only as a temporary detention center for immigrants who had issues with their paperwork). By one estimate, some 40 percent of Americans have at least one ancestor who entered the United States through Ellis Island. The historic site is today operated by the National Park Service, and ferries depart to the island from Battery Park (as well as from Liberty State Park in New Jersey). Visits include the Main Arrivals Hall with its displays recounting the immigration experience; temporary exhibitions are located on the second and third floors of the building. Statue Cruises is the only operator authorized to visit Liberty Island and Ellis Island—their cruises include stops at both, though entry to the statue and the immigration museum require separate tickets purchased on each island.
768 5th Ave, New York, NY 10019, USA
Chances are that if you’re not a Hollywood power-type or a member of the glitterati, ( and you’d know if you were), you won’t be attending the Oscars unless you are a “ seat-filler” that slips into place when the star has to go to the loo or out for a ( gasp) smoke. Don’t worry,you can party like a star at several venerable hotels that have figured prominently in Oscar worthy films, or just check-in put your feet up and turn on the T.V. and watch the Academy Awards with a splash of bubbly in one hand and some nibbles in the other. No need for a sealed envelope here, the clear winner-the grand dame who always plays herself is ... The Plaza in NYC. The Plaza also contributed to a motion picture “ first.” Director Alfred Hitchcock went on site with his star Cary Grant to New York’s The Plaza, to film key parts of the 1959 classic North by Northwest – the first time a crew, director and cast assembled on site to make a picture. Prior to this, movies were shot Hollywood soundstages and rarely on location. The Plaza has ”starred” in many motion pictures including Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961); Barefoot In The Park (1967); Funny Girl (1968); The Great Gatsby (1971); Plaza Suite (1971); They Way We Were (1973); Home Alone 2 (1992); Scent Of A Woman (1992); Sleepless in Seattle (1993); Almost Famous (2000); and The Great Gatsby (2013).
103 Orchard St, New York, NY 10002, USA
These days, wandering the Lower East Side (the area between the Bowery and the East River, with Houston Street marking its northern border and Canal Street its southern one), it can feel impossible to recall that this neighborhood was once among the city’s most overcrowded, teeming with immigrants. Its streets were filled with Germans, Greeks, Hungarians, Poles, Slovaks, and other Europeans newly arrived in the United States, including a significant Jewish population. Today, boutiques and bars cater to gentrifiers, much of the population is Puerto Rican or Dominican, and the few traces of that earlier era are hard to find—the facades of Yiddish theaters and synagogues that have long since closed. The Tenement Museum on Orchard Street is dedicated to assuring that period of the city’s past is not lost forever. On each floor of the restored tenement building, the lives of some of its former occupants are brought to life, from the German saloon owners on the first floor to the Jewish immigrants who occupied the top one. Docents in character and costume help to make the stories of those immigrants personal. The museum also organizes walking tours of the Lower East Side and offers talks on the district’s history.
1 W 67th St, New York, NY 10023, USA
The Leopard at des Artistes is more than a restaurant. It’s an Upper West Side landmark, a Manhattan treasure and genuine New York classic. It was once Cafe des Artistes, a restaurant where luminaries from the worlds of art, politics and publishing dined in secluded elegance, surrounded by naked nymphs - each one painted in 1937 by Howard Chandler Christy in the glowing murals that line the dining room to this day. A lot has changed in 97 years behind the doorway at One West 67th Street that now welcomes you into The Leopard. In 1917 the restaurant catered exclusively to artists who lived in the building above - Norman Rockwell, Rudolf Valentino and Isadora Ducan were among its original clientele. But after a renovation in 1975, Cafe des Artistes became a dining destination for the Who’s Who of media - Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Peter Jennings and more dined in the soft-lit, intimate restaurant on a regular basis. With the arrival in 2011 of new owners, Gianfranco and Paula Bolla-Sorrentino and Chef Vito Gnazzo, a new dining experience was introduced to One West 67th Street. Celebrity is no longer a must for a table in this illustrious space (although you will see many here). What you discover on the other side of a door framed by velvet drapes is a classic, elegant setting where the center of attention is you and Southern Italian cuisine prepared with joy and genius. Bossa Nova and jazz set the mood. This is a restaurant that whispers, “Welcome to the real New York.”
205 E Houston St, New York, NY 10002, USA
Despite multiple trips over countless years going to New York City, it wasn’t until a year ago today that I encountered this sandwich — the one that left me drooling until I could enjoy it again. Katz’s quickly went from a one-stop place for me to a traditional stop, regardless of my city plans. Katz’s Delicatessen is located in NYC’s Lower East Side and has been a proud resident since 1888. That fact alone should be enough to persuade you to pay it a visit. While there may be many options for food, the only thing I ever ordered is the pastrami on rye. It’s thick-cut, perfectly seasoned, stack of meat with mustard on rye. Did I mention I don’t even like mustard? This is the only sandwich where I will eat it. Served with a side of pickles, you really can’t go wrong. I convinced a visiting group from California to try it as I was enjoying mine when they claimed seats nearby — and they agreed with my impression of this NYC staple (4 of their 6 party members had ordered this sandwich) Be warned: I have yet to visit the deli when it isn’t packed full of people, so don’t plan on this being a quick stop. The lines may be out the door, and it may feel like chaos inside (think sardines in human form), but once you start eating you will forget any of the “trouble” had while waiting. The best way to order is to fall in line, don’t be shy, and talk to those behind the counters. They’ll share their stories and give a free taste while you wait. Don’t forget to tip them!
New York, NY 10004, USA
One of New York’s most iconic landmarks is also one of America’s: the Statue of Liberty, standing in the middle of New York Harbor as it has since 1885. The statue was famously a gift from France, built to a design by sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and with structural engineering overseen by Gustave Eiffel. The statue was one of the first large-scale curtain wall structures—that is, one where weight is supported by an internal frame and not by the exterior walls. As one of New York’s most visited sights, some tickets sell out far in advance. There are two different levels of tickets: pedestal and crown. Tickets to the pedestal and especially those to the crown are often gone months in advance, so plan accordingly.
60 E 54th St, New York, NY 10022, USA
It’s easy to imagine this sophisticated watering hole for Madison Avenue swells as a background for a scene from Mad Men. See if you can spot F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald on Ed Sorel’s impressive “who’s who” mural that wraps the room above the red-wine leather banquettes. Though its history means a pricey meal, the carbonara is hearty. Wash it down with a Sloe & Low or Pimm’s Rangoon. In an era where casual restaurants are celebrated, it’s nice to revisit a restaurant-bar where white linen, uniformed wait staff, and polished service still reign.
Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY, USA
Coney Island’s history dates back to the 1800’s, when it was envisioned as a working man’s paradise. For pocket change, you could enjoy rides and hot dogs. While you’ll need a little more than pocket change now, this venture outside Manhattan has a true charm, and can connect with most anyone’s inner child. Over the summer you’ll find packed beaches, Friday night fireworks, and the famous Nathan’s hot dog eating contest on July 4. But if you’re coming from Midtown or the Upper East/West Sides, be sure to take an express train or you’ll be in for a ride not quite as amusing as the Cyclone.
1000 5th Ave, New York, NY 10028, USA
The Metropolitan Museum of Art—or, commonly, the Met—is one of the world’s great museums, alongside the Louvre, the British Museum, and a handful of others. It would be easy to devote an entire week’s visit to the museum alone, and realistically you probably won’t get far beyond a few exhibitions and galleries at one shot. The Costume Institute’s temporary shows are always popular, while others will (like the museum itself) focus on a range of regions and periods—at any one time there may be temporary exhibitions on an Italian Renaissance painter, miniatures from Mughal India, and Polynesian carvings. The Temple of Dendur, a roughly 43' x 21' x 16' temple that dates to around 15 B.C.E. and was given by the government of Egypt to the United States in 1967, is one of the museum’s most photographed (and Instagrammed) works. The 34 period rooms, including a 12th-century cloister, English parlor and a Shaker “retiring” room, are among the museum’s other highlights. On summer evenings, site-specific installations make the rooftop terrace is a favorite place for drinks. The general admission of $25 for adults, $12 for students, and $17 for seniors is a suggested one for New York residents, as well as students from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Whatever you pay also includes same-day entry to The Met Cloisters.
New York, NY, USA
Manhattan can, famously, feel like endless rows of apartment blocks and office towers for most of its length. At least above 14th Street, a regular grid of streets and avenues, bisected only by Broadway, has transformed the city into a dream for real estate developers. The green spaces interrupting the pattern—Union Square, Gramercy Park, Madison Square Park—are few and far between, with one enormous exception: Central Park. Running from 59th Street to 110th Street, and between Central Park West (Eighth Avenue) and Fifth Avenue, it is one of the world’s largest urban parks, measuring some 843 acres. It is the masterpiece of the 19th-century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted working in collaboration with Calvert Vaux. Inside its borders are stately allées and naturalistic scenes, ice-skating rinks (in the winter), an enormous reservoir, and a faux castle. The park is hugely popular, and so to call it an escape from the bustle of the city is often not accurate, especially on mild summer days and the first warm ones in the spring when thousands of residents head to its playing fields, bike and run along the road that loops the park, and enjoy picnics on the Sheep Meadow or one of its other lawns.
More From AFAR