The Lower East Side (“LES” for short) is one of Manhattan’s most culturally rich neighborhoods. In the mid-19th century it was settled by an influx of immigrants from Germany and Ireland, followed by Italians and, more prominently, Eastern European Jews. That immigrant history lives on in some of its museums and food purveyors. But there’s a mix of old and new, with inventive restaurants, cultural institutions and fashionable bars. You could spend days exploring the Lower East Side; in the interest of time, start with this itinerary that takes you from day to night.
Bagels, Lox, History and Art
Smoked fish has long reigned at breakfast on the Lower East Side, thanks in part to stalwart Russ & Daughters—around since 1914. The Houston Street shop offers a selection of smoked, cured and pickled fish, but is best known for its Nova salmon, whose presence on a bagel with cream cheese brings it to another level. Consider swapping in the salty belly lox, another favorite. There are a variety of nuts, dried fruits and Jewish pastries to choose from, too—take a few to go, and snack on them throughout the day.
Start a more scholarly look at the neighborhood’s history with a visit to the Tenement Museum, which takes you back some 150 years. Tour restored tenement apartments—most in the style of the latter 1800s—to see what life was like for immigrants who lived in these cramped buildings.
See contemporary works at the nearby New Museum. The stacked-box structure of the museum makes it as interesting to photograph from the outside as it is to explore within. Other LES art standbys include galleries Thierry Goldberg and Perrotin.
Lunch and a Movie or Some Shopping
Depending on how packed your morning is (and how much lox you’ve had), you may want to kick back and watch a film at Metrograph. This two-theater venue specializes in Hollywood classics and indie films, and hosts frequent Q&A sessions with directors and filmmakers. If you’re hungry, you’ll be thankful for its in-house restaurant and cocktail lounge. Regardless, don’t skip the cacio e pepe popcorn.
If your mood calls for shopping, you’re in luck. The Lower East Side is home to many unusual shops, including writing-utensil specialist CW Pencil Enterprise; Bluestockings Bookstore, which offers titles on topics such as feminism, education and political theory; and the must-visit Economy Candy, a family-run business whose shelves are stocked with hard-to-find products like Mallo Cups and Black Jack gum.
For a wide selection of buzzy labels for men and women, drop by Assembly NY. If streetwear is more your thing, don’t miss a visit to concept shop Alife or the flagship of local brand Only NY. For women’s clothing, Frankie Shop carries upscale on-trend pieces that blend New York and Parisian style—and there’s always the popular sustainable women’s line Reformation. When you’re ready for a snack, a knish from more-than-a-century-old Yonah Schimmel or pizza at new kid on the block Scarr’s makes for a delicious option.
Dinner and a Nightcap…or Two
It’s not all culture and history down on the Lower East Side. The neighborhood also has music venues, dance clubs, trendy restaurants and bars on just about every block south of Houston Street. Begin your evening with dinner (or breakfast) at Golden Diner, which puts its own spin on greasy-spoon classics (and serves egg and cheese sandwiches all day); there’s also the tried-and-true Katz’s Delicatessen, and its eminent pastrami and corned beef sandwiches.
For a more upscale meal, visit Michelin-starred Contra or its sister restaurant, Wildair, where the artfully presented dishes are the main attraction. For a fancy nightcap and sweeping skyline views, try Mr. Purple, located on the 15th floor of the Hotel Indigo, or Attaboy, a no-reservations lounge specializing in custom-made, handcrafted cocktails.
If you seek live music, you can catch newcomers and indie artists at intimate venues Mercury Lounge, Rockwood Music Hall and Pianos. These stages have showcased future stars when they were little known; The Strokes, for example, were regulars at Mercury Lounge before they sold millions of albums and graduated to arenas. Nearby Bowery Ballroom, meanwhile, is the neighborhood’s biggest music venue, and has welcomed prominent acts like Lana Del Rey, Lenny Kravitz and Patti Smith.