Must-See Union Square

Sara Steinfeld

At any given moment, a visitor to Union Square might encounter street vendors selling homemade tchotchkes; protesters rallying behind giant signs painted on bedsheets; busking musicians; Krishna followers chanting songs of devotion; and break-dancers—and that's to say nothing of the visitors and residents milling through the park, unleashing their pooches in the dog run and stocking up on produce at the expansive greenmarket. The park captures much of the City's diversity and has an energy all its own—in some way, this is downtown's Times Square. The National Historic Landmark certainly has a long tradition as a gathering place (as its name might suggest): in 1861, following the fall of Fort Sumter at the hands of the Confederacy during the Civil War, the square hosted what was, at the time, the largest public assembly in the nation's history.

The park remains as vital as ever—and the area that immediately surrounds it, also known as Union Square, is a prime place to grab a quick meal, see your favorite band, find a rare book and take in art for free. Read on for everything you need to know about spending a day here.

Where it is: Union Square Park stretches from 14th Street to 17th Street, and from Union Square East (Fourth Avenue/Park Avenue South) to University Place. The attractions in this article extend into the surrounding neighborhoods, including Gramercy, the Flatiron District, the East Village and Greenwich Village.

How to get there: Take the 4, 5, 6, L, N, Q or R train to the Union Square–14th Street station.

George Washington statue. Photo: Julienne Schaer

Public Art & Galleries
The creative life of Union Square doesn't begin and end with the performers in the park—there's indoor and outdoor art to enjoy throughout the neighborhood. The area's most prominent work of public art is the Metronome and Countdown Clock that looks out over 14th Street. Installed in 1999 by artists Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel, the massive clock—officially named The Passage—can be a bit confusing at first sight, so here’s how to read it. The LED numbers display time in a 24-hour format—the seven leftmost digits tell time from left to right, as hours, minutes, seconds and tenths of a second (in military time). The seven rightmost numbers display the amount of time remaining in a 24-hour day, but are meant to be read from right to left (though not, strictly speaking, backward). Less practical (but no less notable) public art displays in the park include Henry Kirke Brown’s larger-than-life-size sculptures of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln; a statue of Mohandas Gandhi in the southwest corner of the park, created by Indian artist Kantilal Patel and dedicated in 1986, is a favorite meeting spot.

Just off the east side of the park, the Talwar Gallery highlights the work of artists from the Indian subcontinent and the South Asian diaspora, and has exhibited work by dozens of painters, sculptors and others, like Nasreen Mohamedi, Alia Syed and Ranjani Shettar.

Irving Plaza. Photo: Tagger Yancey IV

Union Square is close to two storied music venues. The three-floor Webster Hall hosts regular club nights and every kind of touring rock, pop, dance and rap act imaginable, from smaller independent outfits to big names like Wiz Khalifa and Capital Cities. The 150-year-old-plus building that holds Irving Plaza has served as a union meeting house and a community center for veterans of the Polish Army—but the site achieved its greatest fame after being converted into a rock music venue in 1978. Such acts as the Talking Heads, the Dave Matthews Band and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have played on its stage, and fans love the space's intimate setup.

Find more live entertainment at the Daryl Roth Theatre. The venue is actually three spaces in one: the main Daryl Roth Theatre; the smaller, more intimate DR2 Theatre, which often features local productions; and the D-Lounge, a cabaret located in the basement.

Strand Book Store. Photo: Alexander Thompson

Shops and Markets
In many ways, Union Square is defined by its busy, long-running farmers’ market, aka the Union Square Greenmarket. Taking place Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, it lines the northern and western edges of the park and brings together vendors from all over the state (and states nearby), who sell apples, flowers, fresh fish, wild game, sheep’s milk cheese and microgreens, to name but a few items. As winter approaches, a series of kiosks arcs around the southwestern corner of the square, making up the festive and popular Union Square Holiday Market.

Outside the park, the most distinctive shopping landmark may be the Strand Book Store, which proudly touts its "18 miles of books." That translates to more than 2 million new and used tomes, including rare editions, discounted new copies and—findable if you're willing to dig—dirt-cheap pre-read relics. The area's Barnes & Noble outpost has the honor of being Manhattan's largest bookstore. Its four floors feature a massive children's section, and the bookseller frequently hosts signings with notable authors (literary types like Martin Amis; celebrities like Aerosmith's Joe Perry). Forbidden Planet serves up comics, graphic novels, manga, anime and all manner of related merchandise. New York Costumes, meanwhile, is the place to go if you'd like to dress like a comic book character (or just update your Halloween wardrobe).

Around the corner, sneakerheads should check out Flight Club, which sells rare vintage kicks in impeccable condition. They'll hawk your shoes on consignment, too, giving you an 80% cut. More fashion can be found at Manhattan's only Nordstrom Rack, part of a three-story complex bordering the park. Paragon Sports, a few blocks north of the park, is an NYC stalwart carrying gear for sports that are mainstream (tennis, basketball) and those less so (say, snowshoeing). Finally, Adorama is a must-visit for photography enthusiasts, who can examine 35-millimeter cameras, video equipment and underwater lenses—or just get some shots printed.

Raines Law Room. Photo: Malcolm Brown

Bars and Nightlife
NYU buildings are scattered around Union Square, but the neighborhood's nightlife doesn't revolve entirely around the college set. Beauty Bar, for one, has a martinis-and-manicures happy hour where you can get your nails done and kick back with a drink. For a classy night out (or after-work drinks), try Lillie's, whose velvet chairs, antique paintings and stained-glass windows add an opulent feel to a cocktail-sipping session; Rye House, where mixologists create classic and innovative drinks with a variety of bourbons, ryes, gins and vodkas; or 201 Restaurant and Bar (located in the W New York—Union Square), which pairs a selection of regionally brewed craft beers, globally sourced wines and a seasonal cocktail menu with artisanal pizzas and flatbreads made using greenmarket ingredients. For a drink off the beaten path, hit the not-so-secret speakeasy Raines Law Room. To enter, head down a staircase and ring the bell at the unmarked door. Be patient—sometimes it takes a while for someone to answer. Inside is a bar with tin ceilings, booths equipped with buzzers to summon waiters and drinks Prohibition-era strong.

Dos Toros Taqueria. Photo: Alex Lopez

Quick Bites
Hungry, but short on time (or cash)? Fear not; the Union Square area abounds with quick, affordable meal options. Here are some highlights:

Breads Bakery: Try babka, rugelach, quiche, coffee, croissants and other treats from Israeli baker Uri Scheft.

Dos Toros Taqueria: At this sustainably minded operation, perch on a reclaimed-wood stool or take out delish Mexican made from responsibly sourced ingredients.

La Maison du Croque Monsieur: Headlining the fancy grilled cheese sandwiches here is the titular dish, a French ham and cheese.

Murray's Bagels: Venture toward Greenwich Village for boiled and baked bagels in the true NYC tradition.

Rainbow Falafel and Shawarma: This long-standing cheap-eats fave peddles falafel, shawarma, Turkish coffee and more. A sandwich can be had for under $5.

Vanessa's Dumplings: Vanessa Weng's 14th Street location charges under $2 for an order of four fried dumplings. There's typically a wait, but it's worth it.

The Pavilion. Photo: Julienne Schaer

Sit-Down Dining
For those who have time to settle in, Union Square and its environs offer a number of worthwhile dining experiences. Here's a sampling of our favorites:

Ainsworth Park: Burgers and meaty mains like New York strip steak and lamb chops are standards at this gastropub-cum-sports bar, which has more than 60 TVs showing the day's biggest games.

Aldea: Portuguese and Spanish influences come together in creative dishes that give equal due to land and sea.

BLT Fish Shack: The Shack serves up seafood with a side of laid-back New England vibe.

Blue Water Grill: Located in a space that was once a bank, this well-regarded seafood restaurant has a happening bar.

Coffee Shop: This eatery's neon sign is among the most identifiable Union Square landmarks. The restaurant boasts of being open "23 hours" a day. That's not quite the case all the time (they close at 2am for a few hours on Sundays and Mondays), but they are open late nights—when a chic crowd is known to pour in, order Brazilian fare and sip cocktails.

Dévi: Come for intepretations of Indian classics, like Manchurian cauliflower and tandoori Cornish hen.

The Fourth: Enjoy casual dining at this American interpretation of a classic European brasserie, located within the Hyatt Union Square.

Gotham Bar & Grill: Part of the neighborhood for three decades, this Michelin-starred eatery serves the likes of foie gras and miso-marinated black cod.

The Grey Dog: This cozy neighborhood haunt—named for its owners' beloved pets—is great for a coffee date, offering café fare along with sandwiches and salads. It also does breakfast.

Old Town Bar & Grill: Much of this establishment—its tin ceiling, marble-and-mahogany bar and a certain other fixture—harks back to a simpler time; it was founded in 1892, after all. The burgers are a particular favorite.

Patsy's Pizzeria: It's whole pies only at this classic New York–style joint, so bring an appetite and some friends.

The Pavilion: This outdoor eatery from restaurateur Simon Oren (Pigalle, Five Napkin Burger), located in a majestic open-air structure within the park plaza itself, serves fare with greenmarket finds—it opened in May 2014 after some initial controversy.

Rosa Mexicano: The stylish Mexican eatery pulls out all the stops—seeing the staff make guacamole at your table never gets old.

Tarallucci e Vino: The seasonal Italian menu here incorporates ingredients from the nearby greenmarket.

Union Square Café: Danny Meyer's first restaurant goes all the way back to 1985, when Union Square was a very different place. Zagat has rated the eatery as the most popular NYC restaurant eight times. It'll close in December 2015, so get there while you can.

Vapiano: This Germany-based chain dishes up fast-casual Italian fare and boasts an open kitchen.

Village Taverna: Its cozy confines make a fine setting for devouring tasty Greek food.