Must-See West Village

Christina Parrella

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Much of the West Village’s charm rests in its 19th-century townhouses and cobblestone streets, which look much the same as they did when the neighborhood was at the center of some of history's most influential social and countercultural movements. Just over the past half century or so, those have included the breakthrough of experimental theater and Beat literature in the 1950s; the fight for housing preservation in the '60s; and, in 1969, the Stonewall Riots that spurred the national gay liberation movement. Those moments still characterize the West Village today, as the neighborhood proudly displays its diversity and dedication to tolerance and inclusion. “What happened in 1969 is visible and palpable now—the history of New York City is still here and people come here for it,” says Glennda Testone, executive director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center.

 

That legacy is evident in the area’s abundant gay bars and friendly locals as well as at the organization where Testone works. The neighborhood just saw the debut of a new park in front of the former St. Vincent’s Hospital, the centerpiece of which will be the NYC AIDS Memorial, set to open next spring. 

 

The West Village is also home to a formidable dining scene—the lengthy wait times at Tartine, Buvette and the Spotted Pig are a testament to that. For a comprehensive look at Village restaurant offerings, check out this roundup of our favorites.

 

For more on the West Village and what to see and do there, read on.

 

How to get there

Take the 1 train to Christopher Street, or the A, C, E, B, D or F to West 4th Street. Don’t get confused when you see, say, West 4th and West 10th streets intersect; it just means you’ve arrived in a neighborhood where the rules of the grid are suspended.

 

To explore more and stay longer, book an NYC hotel.

Stonewall Inn. Photo: Christopher Postlewaite

LGBTQ
Christopher Street, one of the West Village's main thoroughfares, is home to many LGBTQ bars—including the Stonewall Inn, site of the 1969 riots that marked the unofficial beginning of the modern gay rights movement. “This is where it all began,” Stonewall co-owner Stacy Lentz says. “So much changed for the community since then.”

The following year a proto–Pride parade took place—known as the Christopher Street Liberation Day March—gaining steam as it headed up to Central Park; this somewhat impromptu celebration led to the annual Pride March, which begins in Midtown and finishes in the West Village.

 

In the wake of the riots, the neighborhood served as the locus for the formation of the Gay Liberation Front and other activist organizations, as well as for the publication of LGBTQ newspapers.

 

The Stonewall Inn's historical significance is on display in photos throughout and in stories recounted by bartender Tree, who was there on the night of the rebellion and has been slinging drinks at the bar for years. The landmark spot offers entertainment every night of the week, including bingo, cabaret and drag shows. Julius', which says it's New York City's oldest gay bar (Tree once worked there too), is also filled with vintage photographs and has a chill vibe.

 

A few blocks away, Cubby Hole is a tiny, welcoming dive with a jukebox and kitschy decorations. Along with Henrietta Hudson, it's a fixture in the lesbian bar scene. 

 

Other LGBTQ neighborhood haunts for drinking and entertainment include piano bar Marie’s Crisis Café, nightclub The Monster and bi-level cabaret The Duplex. The last of those dates back to the 1950s and offers nightly events like stand-up comedy, open mics and, naturally, cabaret. Back in the day, the likes of Joan Rivers and Barbra Streisand were regulars there. 

 

One of the most vital resources for the gay community is the LGBT Center. Artists, performers and musicians are welcome to showcase work or put on events here; visitors can soak up the culture of the community in its bookstore or café and do research using the center's trove of archival materials.

Three Lives & Company. Photo: Malcolm Brown

Literary History 
Besides its role in gay history, the West Village is largely defined by its literary legacy. Beat writer Jack Kerouac (along with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Hunter S. Thompson and Doors singer Jim Morrison) frequented watering holes like Kettle of Fish, Minetta Tavern and the White Horse Tavern, where he went so much that someone purportedly scribbled “Kerouac, go home!” on the bathroom wall. Another frequent patron, poet Dylan Thomas, downed (according to his count) 18 shots of whiskey at the tavern just a few days before slipping into a coma at the Chelsea Hotel and going gently into his good night.

 

The area's literary character endures in its many bookstores. The primary focus of Left Bank Books is first editions, plus rare or collectible copies of fiction, classics and poetry. Those can cost a pretty penny, but there are plenty of affordable finds among the used books; the space also hosts regular Sunday night poetry readings.

 

The cozy Three Lives & Company features fiction, poetry and nonfiction from emerging writers alongside a carefully sorted selection of art monographs, travel tomes and cookbooks. Bookbook Bookstore and Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books maintain an inventory of biographies and books on poetry, travel, art and politics at reasonable prices. Newer establishments include the travel-oriented Little Bookroom and Bookmarc, of the Marc Jacobs empire. The latter specializes in coffee table books but also carries DVDs, art objects and Marc Jacobs accessories and hosts New York City–based authors, photographers and celebrities for readings and signings. Check the schedule here

C.O. Bigelow Chemist. Photo: Willie Davis

Shopping
If you’re looking for slightly under-the-radar brands and just a bit trendy wares, you should check out the West Village.

 

Aedes de Venustas (Latin for “temple of beauty”) peddles exotic, luxurious scents. The lushly decorated shop sells its house fragrance alongside high-end perfumes, lotions, incense and candles from the likes of MEMO and Cire Trudon. Similarly, the first stateside location of the French perfumery Annick Goutal vends rare scents created with ingredients like Sicilian lemons and Damascus rose. The bottles, handcrafted in France, are quite the collectible items themselves. 

 

Shoppers catch a whiff of nostalgia at C.O. Bigelow Chemist, the nation's oldest apothecary. The venerable store carries exclusive homeopathic remedies, skin care products and fragrances from its house brand and international lines that can be hard to find. Australian skin care brand Aesop sells natural, organic products in its futuristic Bleecker Street location, while Sockerbit specializes in imported Scandinavian candies. 

 

The quaint Greenwich Letterpress  is a go-to for artistic stationery, letterpress cards, postcards and gifts. The selection, heavy on products from independent artists, is playful and sometimes NYC themed.

 

Montreal minimalist brand Want Les Essentiels, famous for its coveted leather handbags and luggage, is located inside a gorgeous townhouse—complete with a tea room—that once belonged to the Marc Jacobs women's accessories store. You'll find tailored women's and men's items, handcrafted totes and accessories and apparel from international brands like Tomorrowland and Michel Vivien. 

 

Tea & Sympathy, part restaurant and part grocery store, sells quirky English knickknacks, chocolate, canned goods, pudding and, of course, teas and teapots. The Union Jack also flies at Myers of Keswick, where you can shop for gifts, imported food products, bath items and meat pies. 

 

Elsewhere in the area are Brooks Brothers offshoot label Black Fleece; the Monocle Shop; Murray's Cheese; and one of the neighborhood's last record stores, Rebel Rebel.

Anine Bing. Photo: Anna Maria Zunino Noellert

Even More Shopping
We're not done; the neighborhood shopping scene also features high-end fashion, as a saunter down Bleecker Street reveals. Options include Alexis Bittar, Cynthia Rowley and a few Marc Jacobs stores.

 

Give yourself plenty of time on this street; it's where you'll find French perfumer Diptyque, high-end cashmere and suit maker Brunello Cucinelli, LA fashion retailer Anine Bing and RRL & Co., Ralph Lauren's rugged work-wear brand.

 

For boutique shopping, try Otte, which carries a range of international brands, or Odin for experimental and vanguard fashion. Craft Atlantic stocks traditional and functional menswear pieces, while Personnel of New York showcases independent and emerging designers in a modern setting. 

 

Fans of cult Parisian label A.P.C. will love A.P.C. Surplus, an offshoot that sells items from previous seasons along with reissued pieces and special collections. If you're in the market for a discount—and are willing to do some digging—try Housing Works Thrift Shop, which sells pre-owned clothing, shoes, household goods and books. 

 

The neighborhood also houses the kind of luxury brands you might find on Madison Avenue: Maison Martin Margiela's first stateside boutique is here, as is its spin-off line MM6, which sells more affordable women's clothing. Christian Louboutin, Pierre Hardy and Rag & Bone round out the plentiful shopping options. 

Cherry Lane Theatre. Photo: Tagger Yancey IV

Entertainment
The West Village and its surrounding streets were a hotbed for bohemian culture in the early 20th century. Intellectuals and artistic types were attracted to the area for inexpensive rent and the seclusion of its buildings, which made practicing art forms like theater and music an easier task.

 

By the start of American involvement in World War I there was a growing number of experimental theater companies in the neighborhood. One of the early playhouses was Cherry Lane Theatre, on quaint Commerce Street. Opened in 1924, Cherry Lane holds the title of New York's oldest continuously running Off-Broadway venue; it hosts both new and classic productions, as well as reading series and programs for women and African-American playwrights. 

 

A similar story follows at Lucille Lortel Theatre, named after the woman who the New York Times says “put Off-Broadway on the map.” The venue has been active in innovative theater performances since 1955. 

 

A mainstay in the neighborhood since 1935, the Village Vanguard is a popular jazz club that's been the site for many live album recordings—the room's triangular shape gives it great acoustics. Jazz greats such as John Coltrane, Bill Evans and Charles Mingus performed here, and established artists (not to mention up-and-coming musicians) continue to grace the stage almost every night.  

 

Fans of open mics, live readings and improv should visit Cornelia St. Café. The Radio Theatre, which operates out of the sanctuary at St. John's Lutheran Church, is another space for avant-garde theater. Also at St. John's is Christopher Street Coffeehouse, an open public space where musicians, poets, writers and comedians can share their work. 

 

Cinephiles should drop by the IFC Center, which screens indie films and hosts Q&A sessions with filmmakers. The Film Forum is another option for indie and classic film screenings.   

Rusty Knot. Photo: Willie Davis

Bars
The West Village of the popular imagination came to life at the White Horse Tavern. At its peak it served famous Beats Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Frank O'Hara and was the site of Dylan Thomas' last drink(s). With such a heavy history, the tavern is a must-visit—plus its selection of beer and hard liquor is as old-fashioned as they come. The same could be said for another onetime Beat hot spot, Kettle of Fish (which has relocated from its original home on MacDougal Street), where the crowd is a mixture of recent grads, darts fanatics and Green Bay Packers supporters.  

 

A cross section of tourists and locals joins the old-school crowd at the unpretentious Corner Bistro, which is even more famous for its venerated Bistro Burger than for its cheap beer. Still, for $3 you'll get a sizeable quaff of McSorley's Ale

 

Cocktail bar Employees Only is known for its innovative concoctions like its signature Mata Hari, made with cognac, chai-infused vermouth and pomegranate juice. The faux speakeasy is located behind an entrance to a fake psychic: we see a long night in your future.

 

The scene is a little more exclusive at another self-styled speakeasy, Little Branch, a basement bar marked only by a small, discreet sign. It serves classic and original cocktails and hosts live jazz—but if it's packed, you'll only get in once other people leave.

 

On the more lavish side is The Ballroom at the Jane Hotel. The bi-level space, decorated with Persian rugs and ornate chandeliers, hosts a number of events including DJ-spun parties with long lines to get in.

 

The nautical-themed Rusty Knot serves up reasonably priced frozen tiki drinks and assorted bar food items in a comfortable atmosphere. A few blocks east is Art Bar, where there's plenty of seating in the front and back and generous happy hour specials.

 

For those who prefer a more sober evening, visit the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop for delicious soft-serve mixtures with evocative flavor names: say, the Bea Arthur or Salty Pimp. Then take a stroll through Christopher Park, home to the sculptures of George Segal's Gay Liberation Monument, the first public art to honor LGBTQ rights. 


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