While celebrity sightings may give the Upper East Side a glitzy veneer, the neighborhood's real appeal comes from its refined character. Home to some of the City's premier museums, restaurants and shops, as well as the stately mansions and townhouses where New York's elite have lived for generations, the Upper East Side exudes elegance on every block. Museum Mile—which runs along Fifth Avenue between East 82nd and East 105th Streets—boasts seven world-class cultural institutions, while Madison Avenue teems with the biggest names in haute couture, both in designer boutiques and at resale shops that sell high-end brands at nearly half-price. When hunger strikes, choose from down-home diners, posh sushi spots and nearly every other conceivable option you might imagine. Have a sweet tooth? There are few things better than enjoying one of the City's best ice cream sundaes after a day surrounded by exotic wildlife at Manhattan's only zoo. Elegant, historic and occasionally cutting edge, the Upper East Side is a neighborhood that offers something for everyone.
Central Park Zoo
Fifth Avenue and East 64th Street, 212-439-6500
Central Park Zoo is a pioneer in re-creating natural habitats in an urban environment. The zoo takes visitors to an Arctic habitat to see penguins and polar bears; to a humid rainforest where tropical birds fly freely; and to an island forest where Japanese snow monkeys scale trees while looking across at endangered red pandas. Be sure to stop by the Allison Maher Stern Snow Leopard Exhibit to peep at the cubs born there last year. If you're bringing along little ones, don't forget to check out the adjacent Tisch Children's Zoo, where kids can feed and pet friendly live animals.
Fifth Avenue (bet. E. 82nd and E. 105th Sts.)
The Upper East Side is an enchanting place for museum goers, and the institutions on Museum Mile display some of the City's finest collections of art, history, design and culture from around the globe. Anchoring the southern end of the “mile” is the world-renowned Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose permanent collection contains 2 million-plus works, spanning more than 5,000 years: the splendors of ancient Egypt, the spectacular American Wing, the beloved Impressionist paintings … the list goes on. On the northern end is El Museo del Barrio, which is devoted to Latino—particularly Puerto Rican—art and culture. Museums in between include the Museum of the City of New York, full of NYC-related art and artifacts; the Jewish Museum, which explores four millennia of Jewish culture and identity through fine arts; and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which houses major exhibitions of contemporary art inside an instantly recognizable Frank Lloyd Wright building.
Art abounds on the Upper East Side beyond Museum Mile. The Met Breuer, opening March 2016, is housed in the former Whitney Museum of American Art space—the Whitney moved to the Meatpacking District in 2015. The Metropolitan Museum’s newest location has taken over Marcel Breuer’s 1960s building to display new collections of 20th- and 21st-century modern and contemporary art. The Frick Collection, a 1914 limestone mansion turned gallery, is home to works by such masters as Monet, Renoir and Vermeer. More focused but no less spectacular are the Neue Galerie, which pays homage to German and Austrian art from the early 20th century, and the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute, where works by contemporary and classic Spanish artists and designers hang side by side.
92nd Street Y
1395 Lexington Ave., 212-415-5500
To call 92nd Street Y an average community center would be like calling Times Square an average intersection. Sure, 92Y serves as a neighborhood hub with affordable gym facilities (including a pool and basketball courts), gracious event spaces and an encyclopedic list of classes. But it sets itself apart with its programming. Lecturers are drawn from a diverse group of luminaries—the likes of Paul Simon, Meryl Streep, Bill Gates, Mos Def and Salman Rushdie. Concert virtuosos like Leon Fleisher, the Tokyo String Quartet and Yo-Yo Ma have performed to rapt audiences, while dance legends Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham and Anna Sokolow have all graced the stage. With an illustrious calendar paired with popular neighborhood events like Jewish singles mixers, the 92nd Street Y is in a class of its own.
From designer flagships to classic department stores, the Upper East Side has long been a shopping mecca. Since the mid-1920s Barneys New York has been an NYC institution; in 1993 it moved its flagship from Chelsea to the Upper East Side, where it offers upscale fashion, jewelry, cosmetics and home furnishings. Some of its younger neighbors warrant just as much attention. The edgy label Alexander McQueen and the luxury design house Valentino both set up shop here, as did the eminently wearable Kate Spade. Many shoppers swear allegiance to Tom Ford, Hermès and Céline, all classic designers still at the forefront of fashion. As for a mass-market fashion powerhouse, Ralph Lauren leads the way, with complete ranges of womens- and menswear. One-of-a-kind shoes and accessories can be found nearby at Stuart Weitzman. And shopping on the Upper East Side wouldn't be complete without a stop at the Christian Louboutin boutique. Unassuming from the outside, inside it's stacked with red-soled shoes that range from magnificently over-the-top to understated and chic.
East End Avenue and East 88th Street, 311 (212-NEW-YORK outside the City)
Before Gracie Mansion became New York City's official mayoral residence in 1942, Archibald Gracie's once-rural Federal-style retreat had served as an ice cream parlor, an adult-education venue and the first location of the Museum of the City of New York. Tours, conducted most Wednesdays, reveal the building's faux finishes, its impressive collection of decorative arts (such as the gargoyle-crowned chandelier dangling above the breakfast table in the Wagner Wing) and the handiwork of Jamie Drake, the celebrity interior designer who oversaw a 2002 renovation. Reservations should be made well in advance (visit nyc.gov for more information). If you can't get in, consider strolling the adjacent grounds of Carl Schurz Park. The rolling, multitier landscape, co-designed by Calvert Vaux, overlooks tumultuous Hell Gate—the intersection of the East River, Harlem River and Long Island Sound.
401 E. 73rd St., 212-249-8583
1143 First Ave., 212-371-0238
Sushi of Gari
402 E. 78th St., 212-517-5340
A sushi renaissance, led in part by Sasabune, Sushi Seki and Sushi of Gari, has secured the Upper East Side's status as a destination for finding authentic Japanese flavors. How authentic? Consider the sign marking the entry of Sasabune: “No Spicy Tuna. No California Roll.” Sushi Seki and Sushi of Gari, on the other hand, are also distinguished by their innovative seasonings, torch searing and other blasphemous-to-purists culinary flourishes. The omakase at all three restaurants (note, that's all Sasabune serves) is consistently excellent, focusing on flavors, textures and, of course, a standout selection of fresh fish.
Apart from sushi, the Upper East Side is known for its rich reserve of destination restaurants. JoJo is set in a lavish townhouse and has enticed epicures for more than two decades with its celebrated French food. Daniel Boulud's namesake restaurant Daniel stuns with both its seasonal French offerings and its opulent main dining room. His Café Boulud serves fine French fare in an elegant setting, while brasserie-style meals can be found at Orsay, which practically transports diners àParis. Tucked inside the landmark Carlyle Hotel is the Carlyle Restaurant, a New York City icon for its old-school atmosphere and its New American take on French cuisine.
225 E. 60th St., 212-838-3531
Dylan’s Candy Bar
1011 Third Ave., 646-735-0078
Lexington Candy Shop
1226 Lexington Ave., 212-288-0057
Willy Wonka himself would be wowed by the confectionary delights at these three neighborhood institutions. The menu at Serendipity 3 is stuffed with toothsome home-style fare (nachos, meatloaf, a famous foot-long hot dog), but that’s just a prelude to the main course: dessert. Try the gooey ice cream sundaes, the chocolate blackout cake or the signature Frrrozen Hot Chocolate, a slushy, chocolaty spectacle served in an enormous goblet.
For sweets that come in a more portable form, visit Dylan’s Candy Bar, which offers over 7,000 confections on three floors, from 1920s-style brittles and chocolate bars to Candy Crush gummies. There’s even a line of sugar-inspired clothes and accessories. Candy-stripe earbuds? Why not.
If you’re in a throwback mood head to the Lexington Candy Shop, which offers a brightly nostalgic soda-fountain experience in a room practically cast in amber since its 1948 renovation. The corner luncheonette is small—there are just a handful of booths along with a counter fronted by spinning stools—but the diner's comfort food looms larger than the space. The brisk service is just as authentic as the sodas, which are handmade with syrup and seltzer—a holdover from the diner’s candy-shop days.
Exceptional cuisine demands an exceptional nightcap, and two of the City's best can be found in the Hotel Carlyle. Bemelmans Bar, a 75-seat establishment that has been wetting whistles since the beginning of the postwar era, is set in a classic NYC interior that features comfortable leather banquettes and a gold-leaf ceiling. Powerhouse jazz musicians set the mood with nightly live performances. After sampling Bemelmans' exceptional cocktails, head across the lobby to Café Carlyle, a favorite of socialites, politicians and finance types. Besides an abridged version of the Carlyle Restaurant's menu and all kinds of classic cocktails, the venue serves up cabaret performers like Nellie McKay and John Pizzarelli for two-week stands.