Must-See Chelsea

Heather Liang

Chelsea has seen many transformations in its time. It began as the property of retired British Major Thomas Clarke, who bought 94 acres of land in 1750 and named it after the manor of Chelsea, London. From that point, the land changed hands a number of times and was mostly used as a place of industry, with freight lines, warehouses and passenger shipping dominating the area through the rest of the century. In the 1820s, Chelsea was developed into a residential region—genteel townhouse blocks and the neo-Gothic General Theological Seminary went up during the century, providing a counterpoint to the area's manufacturing nature. The neighborhood became home, post–Cuban Revolution, to a number of Cuban-Chinese immigrants, some of whom opened restaurants in the 1960s and '70s. While the majority of these have closed down, a strong Latino presence remains. Following the police raid on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in 1969, Chelsea also became representative of tolerance and the rebellion against sexual-orientation discrimination. During the 1970s many within the LGBT community fled to Chelsea, and the gay and lesbian presence in this portion of the City has been strong ever since. It was also around this time that nightclubs—followed later by galleries—looking to pay lower rents started gobbling up space in Chelsea, though it was really the 1990s that the neighborhood became known as the City's gay nexus as well as the place for art lovers.

Thus what was once a seemingly forgotten neighborhood, whose primary purpose was industrial in nature—housing defunct railroads and old warehouses that have been developed into the High Line and art spaces, respectively—has become one of the most sought-after places to live in New York City. Buzzing with culture but maintaining a residential feel, it packs a punch in terms of things to do, see and eat. The following slides cover the best of the attractions, including Chelsea Market, Chelsea Piers and the aforementioned High Line, along with where to go for art, food and nightlife.

Where It Is: Chelsea is roughly located west of Broadway over to the Hudson River, from West 14th to West 30th Streets.

How to Get There: Take the A, C, E or L to 14th Street-Eighth Avenue; the C, E to 23rd Street; the 1 to 18th, 23rd or 28th Street; or the F or M to 14th or 23rd Street.

Photo: Tagger Yancey IV

The High Line
This elevated railway, which sat abandoned on the west side of Manhattan for decades after its last freight train barreled through in 1980, has become in recent years one of the City's largest and most successful outdoor restoration and preservation projects—a public park 30 feet above street level. It stretches from Gansevoort Street all the way up to 34th Street (the last of the sections to be built, the Rail Yards, opened in fall 2014) and runs for much of its length just west of Tenth Avenue. Most of its attractions are in Chelsea, including an overhang near the 18th Street entrance that provides one of the City's more distinctive sightseeing views. On sunny days, you'll find crowds of locals and visitors enjoying the vistas and greenery throughout the park. Check out our High Line guide for details.

Photo: Joe Buglewicz

Chelsea Market
Those who live in and around the Chelsea neighborhood have the good fortune of being close to Chelsea Market. This sprawling space houses a food hall, shopping mall, office building and television production facility inside what was once the National Biscuit Company complex (where Saltines and the Oreo cookie were produced). The Food Network is located here, and some of its more famous shows are filmed at a studio inside the building (no public tours or tickets for tapings are currently on offer). The market fills an entire City block, bordered by West 15th Street, West 16th Street, Ninth Avenue and Tenth Avenue. Shoppers get a sense of the former factory's feel from the original floors and winding, exposed-brick walls still in place. Destinations include bakeries like the famous Sarabeth's, Eleni's and Fat Witch; restaurants casual and fancy; places to buy gifts (such as the charming Chelsea Market Baskets); and spots for fresh meats, produce and cheese.

Photo: Alexander Thompson

Chelsea Hotel
The Chelsea Hotel—or Hotel Chelsea, if you like—is bursting with history. It began its life in 1883 as a private apartment cooperative (by some accouts the City's first), and up until 1899 the 12-story structure was the tallest building in the NYC. Following the co-op's bankruptcy in 1905, it became the Hotel Chelsea and began its life as a bohemian stronghold; it has since played host to numerous writers and artists. Bob Dylan lived here when his first baby was born in the 1964, and Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Patti Smith also stayed at various times. It's rumored to be where Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols stabbed girlfriend Nancy Spungen to death, though it's not clear if he's the one responsible. It's where Arthur C. Clarke lived when he wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it was the former home of the late Dee Dee Ramone—who wrote a novel about the fabled building called Chelsea Horror Hotel. The hotel was designated a New York City landmark in 1966, though that didn't stop the doors from closing in 2011. It is currently being renovated and is scheduled to reopen in 2017.

Photo: Alex Lopez

Chelsea Piers
Looking to do something fun and physical? Chelsea Piers no doubt has the activity to fit your requirements. The 28-acre waterfront "sports village" and entertainment complex is situated on the Hudson River between West 17th and West 23rd Streets. It opened in 1995 within four long-neglected piers (59, 60, 61 and the connecting headhouse) that had been used as a major passageway for imports, exports and passenger travel from the early 1900s until the 1960s. Today, Chelsea Piers plays host to sports of all stripes: it contains facilities for baseball, rock climbing, beach volleyball and yoga; has its very own golf club (driving range included); houses a year-round ice-skating rink; has a private gym and fitness club (membership required); and is home to Bowlmor bowling lanes. You'll also find a handful of dining and shopping options.

Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. Photo: Mindy Tucker

Dance, theater and comedy
Chelsea's performing-arts offerings deserve—and frequently receive—a standing ovation. The neighborhood is home to the Joyce Theater, arguably the City's preeminent venue for dance. The 472-seat space was once the Elgin Theater, a movie house that showed cult films and revivals—and, later, adult flicks. It shut down in 1978, and the Joyce Theater Foundation took over the space in 1982. Since then it has been the place to see world-renowned dance troupes performing the likes of flamenco, tango and modern dance—at affordable ticket prices. Another Chelsea institution is the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, or UCB Theatre. Troupe members (including Veep's Matt Walsh and Parks and Recreation's Amy Poehler) founded it as a place for young, developing comics to learn improv, sketch writing and other skills. The center's philosophy and teachings are based on the work of the late Del Close, a renowned writer, teacher and comedian, and each year the theater honors his memory with a three-day marathon of performances. It also offers nightly improv, sketch and stand-up performances—sometimes with well-known faces from film and television—and tickets are almost always $10 or less.

Photo: Jason Schmidt. © 2013 David Zwirner, New York/London

Many consider Chelsea to be the center of New York City's art world. The area has more than 200 small to midsize galleries, many of which are located within converted warehouse spaces. One of the most celebrated is the Gagosian Gallery, which showcases modern art and has held installations by Julian Schnabel and Richard Serra. David Zwirner represents more than 40 artists and estates in contemporary art. Big names like Chris Ofili and Jeff Koons have shown here; two of Zwirner's three Chelsea locations have in-gallery bookshops, and exhibitions cross over an assortment of media and genres. Similar in size and scale is the Gladstone Gallery, a contemporary space hosting artists like Sarah Lucas and Matthew Barney. The Pace Gallery, another venue presenting contemporary works (though on a much bigger scale), has four locations in New York City—three of which fall within the Chelsea limits. They tend to bring in art headliners like Kiki Smith and Chuck Close. Luhring Augustine is the best place in Chelsea for large-scale sculptures, video installations and photography—and it also features paintings and drawings. Artists who have shown here include Briton Rachel Whiteread, Bahamian Janine Antoni and Swiss video star Pipilotti Rist. Chelsea is also home to two museums that aren't your garden-variety types: the Rubin Museum of Art, which is renowned for its collection of Himalayan art, and the Museum at FIT, where the history and future of fashion are often on display via striking exhibitions. The latter also offers a regular slate of free talks and tours.

Los Tacos No. 1. Photo: Annabel Ruddle

Casual Eats
Whether you've just paid a visit to the Rubin Museum, taken in a gallery show or played basketball at Chelsea Piers, you're sure to find yourself hungry at some point. If you're looking for a quick bite or just don't want to break the bank, we've got your cheap eats covered. The City boasts a number of respectable barbecue joints, but Hill Country tops many lists as the most authentic and mouthwatering of the bunch. The Texas-style eatery is famous for its fatty brisket and juicy sausages, and even boasts live country, blues and rock performances (and karaoke nights, with a twangy backing band) at its downstairs bar. Los Tacos No. 1, whose owners hail from Mexico and California, serves Mexican fare. Its small Chelsea Market dining space offers a menu of tacos, tostadas and quesadillas, with most items between $3 and $5. Fans of high-end eatery Bottino will be happy to learn that it offers a less expensive, more relaxed takeout option right next door. And while an $8 sandwich may not be a rock-bottom price, it's generously filled (usually with Italian cold cuts, though some vegetarian options exist)—making it easy to split between two people for a smaller meal or snack. Vietnamese eatery CoBa's menu is filled with inexpensive banh mi sandwiches and an array of snacks inspired by market food stands in Asia. Slightly pricier (though still quite reasonable) are its noodle and clay-pot dishes. And the Meatball Shop serves its product in the form of sandwiches, salads, sliders and no-frills, basic 'balls.

Del Posto. Photo: Stepano Giovannini

Fine Dining
Chelsea's higher-end restaurants serve some outrageously inventive, delicious food. Fans of the Food Network may be familiar with Del Posto, the upscale Italian restaurant from everyone's favorite orange-Crocs-and-shorts-wearing chef, Mario Batali, and his gastronomic partners in crime, Joe and Lidia Bastianich. The striking decor is rivaled only by the food, with a variety of antipastis, pastas, seafood and meats, along with several tasting-menu options. Also of interest to Food Network fans, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto's namesake restaurant (Morimoto) puts a Western spin on some Japanese favorites. Here, diners can watch their food being prepared—often by the man himself—in a 1,500-square-foot open kitchen. Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio has several spots in NYC; one of the newer is Colicchio & Sons, where New American cuisine is seasonally influenced by what the chef gets from the micro-producers and family farms that supply his ingredients. Vegetarians and vegans love the imaginative eats and upscale feel at Blossom, where the food is so delicious that even devoted carnivores may not miss the meat. Though Buddakan's initial attraction may have been its ornate interior of tapestries and Buddha statues, this mainstay has stuck around for nearly a decade thanks to the quality and consistency of its food. Create a filling, shareable meal from a long menu of dim sum, hot and cold appetizers, sizzling plates and other dishes that display a modern take on Chinese cuisine. Of similar vintage is intimate Trestle on Tenth, which serves gourmet New American food with Swiss influences; much more recent is Italian seafood joint Barchetta, the latest entry from Esca's Dave Pasternack. Looking for a neighborhood standby? Don't miss exquisite American food from chef Jimmy Bradley at The Red Cat, a Chelsea institution for more than 15 years.

Courtesy, Highline Ballroom

Chelsea is largely a quiet, residential neighborhood, but it still knows how to have a good time. There's no shortage of bars, lounges, clubs and nighttime entertainment in these parts. One of its bigger draws is the Highline Ballroom, a live-music venue where touring rock, pop, jazz and R&B artists perform. Its transforms into Good Life Saturdays—a booming nightclub—every Saturday night. With the gay scene still alive and well in Chelsea, bars like The Eagle draw big crowds of leather-clad men who like to play pool and enjoy a good summertime rooftop barbecue. Also catering to a gay clientele is Barracuda, a more laid-back lounge-type venue that also hosts drag shows. The relaxed vibe at the Half King makes the place a true neighborhood haunt, where people come to eat, drink and perhaps pen a book or two—taking inspiration from part owner Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm. In the basement of Chelsea Market sits The Tippler, an old-timey bar with brick archways, dark woods and iron fixtures. The drinks menu certainly doesn't disappoint, with a nice selection of craft beers and creative cocktails.

Courtesy, Story

Chelsea is home to some of the City's most charming shops—making it a destination whether you're shopping for yourself or looking for a special gift. The quirky nonprofit Printed Matter stocks artists' books, including hard-to-find titles old and new. The store maintains an inventory of nearly 40,000 publications and serves as a space to support the artists who create the books—hosting exhibitions, talks, performances and book launches. The more traditional bookstore 192 Books places its primary focus on works based in literature and art but also has a collection encompassing such topics as history, film, music and science. The space also boasts a nice collection of children's and young adult titles and holds events and exhibitions to boot. A wonderful place for gifts, particularly when the holidays roll around, is Story, a "permanent" 2,000-square-foot pop-up where the theme and inventory of items for sale rotates every four to eight weeks. Previous themes have included "love" and "color," and have included products like glittery Toms shoes, Modasten sunglasses and a collection of curated beauty picks, just to name a few. You'll never buy the same present twice.