If you've seen a leafy, residential Manhattan neighborhood depicted on TV or in the movies, there's a decent chance it was the Upper West Side. It's where Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks lived in You've Got Mail, where Jerry made his home on Seinfeld (and in real life) and where Liz Lemon lived on 30 Rock. Chuck Bass owned a hotel there on Gossip Girl. Gary Greengrass—who runs appetizing emporium Barney Greengrass, a neighborhood mainstay for more than a century—feels You've Got Mail summed up what he loves about the neighborhood's vibe.
"It tried to highlight some of the neighborhood businesses. Some of them are still around, and some of them aren't—that was a good illustration of what the neighborhood truly is, and how it was back in the day." Greengrass laments the closings of some longstanding businesses—an unavoidable reality—but still loves the local flavor and the fact the area attracts people from around the world and across all generations.
The Upper West Side—bracketed by Central Park and Riverside Park, and distinguished by regal, two-towered apartment buildings along Central Park West—is a place where you can frequently see families pushing strollers, walking dogs and, on weekends, settling in for brunch at mainstays like Sarabeth's.
Of course, it's not all residential. There's culture, in the form of the American Museum of Natural History, the Beacon Theatre and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. And plenty of shopping, eating and nightlife as well. Read on for details about what to see and do.
Where It Is: The Upper West Side extends from Central Park West to the Hudson River, and from 59th to 110th Streets (though most of the sights are below 96th Street).
How to Get There: Take the 1, 2 or 3 trains to various stops along Broadway, or the A, B, C or D trains to various stops along Central Park West.
Architecture buffs will want to take their time exploring the neighborhood. The Upper West Side/Central Park West Historic District (one of several landmarked stretches in the area) is distinguished by four luxury co-ops built during the 1930s—the Eldorado, San Remo, Majestic and Century apartments—each of which has two towers on its interior. The design is a quirk of a 1929 building regulation that limited the height of street-facing residential constructions. Other prominent (and historic) apartment complexes in the area include the Dakota, the Ansonia, the Apthorp and the Beresford. There are more architectural riches as well: elegant row houses, especially in the West 70s and 80s near Riverside Drive; the neoclassical Shearith Israel Synagogue, beaux-arts First Church of Christ, Scientist, and art nouveau New York Society for Ethical Culture; the majestic Beacon Theatre; the former Central Savings Bank (now an Apple Bank cum luxury condo building); and countless others—even museums like the American Museum of Natural History and the New-York Historical Society are notable for their architecture alone. If you'd like to study the neighborhood's historic architecture before you go, we recommended visiting the Landmarks Preservation Commission website or checking out books like The Landmarks of New York and Guide to New York City Landmarks.
If downtown is defined by rock 'n' roll and Midtown is all about Broadway’s glitz and glamour, the Upper West Side is where highbrow entertainment hits its highest notes. Exhibit A: Lincoln Center, a 16.3-acre complex that's home to 11 performing arts organizations—among them the New York Philharmonic, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Ballet. Before a show or after the curtain falls, relax by the fountain on the campus' sprawling plaza, or come early enough to take a behind-the-scenes tour of the campus and its venues. North along Broadway stands the Beacon Theatre, an art deco music hall that opened its doors in 1929. The landmark space has hosted such stars as Michael Jackson, the Rolling Stones and the Allman Brothers, who played their final shows there in fall 2014; it was also the site of the 2011 and 2012 Tony Awards. One stop uptown on the 2 or 3 train gets you to Symphony Space, where two theaters showcase music, dance, comedy, drama, readings and screenings; the on-site café-bar hosts jazz sessions, cabaret and the occasional literary salon.
As we mentioned before, the Upper West Side has a homey, residential feel, so it's no wonder that the area excels at that most comforting of meals: brunch. Come very hungry to Columbus Avenue's always-packed Good Enough to Eat, which offers generous portions of food with a side of cow memorabilia festooning the walls. Dishes like waffles stuffed with bacon, cinnamon-swirl French toast and omelets with Granny Smith apples and sharp cheddar won't do much for your diet, but they may lift your spirits. You'll forget you're in Manhattan at Sarabeth's, whose atmosphere evokes Montauk, Long Island, more than the big city. This upscale, green-awning classic specializes in fun twists on old standbys: dishes include a crisp potato waffle paired with chicken apple sausage and short-rib hash with eggs and jalapeño; a bloody mary can be ramped up with poached shrimp. Caffè Storico, nestled inside the New-York Historical Society, offers diners a glass-windowed view of the institution as they dine on cured meats and cheeses, polenta and eggs with mushroom ragout and other Italian-inspired dishes. And, of course, Zabar's and Barney Greengrass are both fantastic places to pick up bagels and lox—the quintessential NYC morning meal (more on that in slide 6).
Man cannot live on brunch alone (though Upper West Siders might try). Fortunately, there's a long menu of area places to sit down for a swank dinner. Among them: Asian-fusion dim sum favorite RedFarm; new-kid-on-the-block Mediterranean eatery Tessa, whose desserts like dulce de leche pot de creme and lemon-thyme and ginger panna cotta have generated as much buzz as the main courses; The Leopard at des Artistes, which picks up where the beloved Café des Artistes left off (and preserves the Howard Chandler Christy paintings from its predecessor); and Bar Boulud, which, thanks to its eponymous chef, Daniel Boulud, needs no introduction. Bar Boulud's location makes it a popular place to stop for a meal and a few glasses of wine before or after a performance at nearby Lincoln Center.
Jean-Georges, one of the world's top-rated French restaurants (it has received three Michelin stars), is a place to have a fine-dining experience—the staff attends to every detail in the food and service. At Tom Valenti's Ouest, diners settle into red leather booths, sip martinis with orange zest and onion-stuffed olives and dine on farm-fresh dishes like local scallops with potato puree and pea tendrils or hanger steak with polenta and red wine sauce. Pairings are the name of the game at Michael Psilakis' Mediterranean seafood spot, Fish Tag, where wine, beer and cocktails are matched with savory dishes like grilled prawn bruschetta, smoked octopus, tilefish ceviche and grilled oyster mushrooms. Finally, inside the Time Warner Center's gleaming glass towers are acclaimed restaurants like A Voce, Landmarc and Thomas Keller's Per Se.
In a city that takes bagels and lox seriously, Barney Greengrass rises to the occasion—and also serves plenty of other fish, soups and sides. The dine-in portion of Zabar's (also a popular supermarket) and Barney Greengrass are places where you see generations of visitors and Upper West Side locals dining together—old-timers who could have ordered a bagel with a schmear 60 years ago next to kids who first stepped in there after the advent of gluten-free rugelach. Barney Greengrass opened its doors in 1908 (its current location dates to 1929), and Zabar's in 1934; unless you look out the window, you'll feel like you stepped into a time machine. Says Gary Greengrass himself (Barney's grandson, who's been in the family business for more than three decades), "People who move to the suburbs, to California or the Midwest or Washington—they come back 10 years later and everything is the same; it's comforting to them."
Tangled Vine is a new(er) kid in town—but what this wine-focused restaurant lacks in years, it makes up for in flavor. With more than 40 wines offered by the glass, plus an additional 225 by the bottle, you'll find the perfect pairing for dishes like ravioli Bolognese, pork belly sliders and mushroom-and-cheese rice balls. Vegans and their friends will want to check out PeaceFood Café, a place for satisfying bites like chickpea fries and a pan-seared French horn mushroom panini.
The Upper West Side has a serious sweet tooth. Momofuku Milk Bar consistently makes a habit of sabotaging diets via Instagram, and the local branch's treats consistently live up to their photogenic qualities. The menu is imaginative in a Willy Wonka way: cereal milk soft-serve ice cream, candy bar pie and birthday-cake truffles complete with sprinkles are just a few options. Ask anyone in the neighborhood were you can get a good chocolate chip cookie, and odds are they'll point you to Levain Bakery. You'll also find oatmeal-raisin and chocolate-with-peanut-butter-chip varieties, muffins and baguettes stuffed with butter and jam. The line here may seem daunting, but it moves quickly and is worth the wait. Also in the area, Italian dessert spot Bomboloni has upped the doughnut ante. It serves fried pastries stuffed with fruit and cream, in such flavors as blood orange, Meyer lemon, amaretto and toasted chocolate marshmallow.
The night's not over once you've finished dinner and dessert—there are plenty of places to hit the town late in the evening. Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola at Lincoln Center—named for a jazz legend and a soda sponsor—serves up live jazz every night, along with soul food and drinks. Cleopatra's Needle—located uptown along Broadway, at 92nd Street—is another good place to hear jazz and have a bite; here, the menu's Middle Eastern. The Dead Poet names cocktails after authors, and the liquid literary tributes pack a serious punch. In addition to the Edgar Allan Poe and the Robert Frost, there's the Dead Poet cocktail, a secret recipe of seven liquors plus some sour mix. New Yorkers are famous for utilizing every inch of space, and the Boat Basin Café—an open-air bar under a traffic circle—is the nightlife equivalent of an apartment making great use of a Murphy bed. Located on the Hudson River at West 79th Street, the café is open (weather permitting) from late March to the end of October. On warm afternoons and nights, groups of friends crowd in on plastic chairs pulled up to checkered tablecloths to quaff beer, wine and cocktails and chow on burgers.
Broadway, Amsterdam Avenue and Columbus Avenue are all busy commercial strips. Zabar's, on Broadway, opened in 1934 as a single market counter selling smoked fish. Today it's an Upper West Side institution where folks stop by to stock up on coffee, bagels, homemade soups, knishes and, of course, the fish that started it all. Bookworms should head across the street to Westsider Rare and Used Books, a reader's paradise with two levels of floor-to-ceiling titles, including some rare selections. The place is so packed with great finds that the staircase from the first to the second floor is lined with VHS tapes and books on each step (and the entire establishment has that comforting old-book smell). Upstairs, there's an extensive selection of old Mad magazine issues. Crafty types can let loose at yarn shop Knitty City. Owner Pearl Chin is almost always on hand to help customers choose the perfect tools for their project, and the selection beats that of any standard craft store. Beginner knitters can sign up for a class to get acquainted with the medium. On Sundays, the schoolyard (and school) between 76th and 77th Streets at Columbus Avenue transforms into GreenFlea, an indoor-outdoor market selling rugs, jewelry, clothing, furniture, collectibles and food. The market is open year-round, rain or shine. The 79th Street Greenmarket, across from the American Museum of Natural History, is where locals stock up on fresh produce. Meanwhile, the Time Warner Center offers the Shops at Columbus Circle, which has name brands like Coach, J. Crew and Williams-Sonoma.
Culture and History
The whole Upper West Side is teeming with culture and history, but a few institutions take their subjects far beyond the neighborhood's boundaries. The halls of the American Museum of Natural History provide a trip through the past. The dinosaur wing and the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life are two of the museum's best-known exhibitions, but they're just the beginning: the Hall of African Mammals, the seasonal Butterfly Conservatory and the wide-ranging temporary exhibitions attract large crowds as well. Teddy Roosevelt Park surrounds the museum, and the building itself is inscribed with tributes to the former president (one statue of him stands outside near the entrance and another sits on a bench in a rotunda inside). Across 77th Street, a statue of another president—Lincoln—greets you at the New-York Historical Society, where visitors can explore 400 years of history through exhibitions about the people and events that helped shape the City. Changing topics might include board games or local beer; Hudson River School paintings, Audubon's watercolors and Tiffany lamps (very few of which are on display while the museum's Luce Center is being renovated) highlight the permanent collection. The society also houses the DiMenna Children's History Museum, where little ones can engage with interactive exhibitions and check out games and a library. Close to Lincoln Center, the (free) American Folk Art Museum serves as a celebration of nonmainstream American art from the 18th century to today. The museum is also a place to see no-cost entertainment, with live music during "guitar afternoons" every Wednesday and in the evening on "Free Music Fridays."
The strollers rolling down Central Park West don't lie: the Upper West Side is a decidedly family-friendly neighborhood. Central Park's Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre—complete with kid-size furniture—stages a rotating roster of shows packed with dance, music and enchanting storylines. The Children's Museum of Manhattan puts kids at the center of the action with interactive exhibitions on the likes of ancient Greece, jazz in Harlem and Nickelodeon character Dora (from Dora the Explorer), plus workshops and special events. When hunger strikes, duck into whimsical eatery Alice's Tea Cup, which includes a few Alice in Wonderland–themed items among its breakfast, brunch, lunch, snack and tea selections. Order "The Mad Hatter," for example, and you'll get tea with two scones, preserves and cream, plus two sandwiches and a variety of cookies—just one of many offerings that will fill your family and keep the magic of Lewis Carroll alive. Fairy wings for kids to wear while they dine don't hurt, either.
Sandwiched between two of the City's best-known green spaces, the Upper West Side is quite literally surrounded by stunning waterfront views and miles of flora. Riverside Park, which runs from 59th Street to 155th Street (this includes the newer Riverside Park South, between 59th and 72nd Streets, which sprinkles in some green and public plazas alongside the Trump-built condos that loom overhead), is part of an extended network of parks and paths that follows the Hudson River all the way downtown. The scenic stretch holds running and biking paths; cafès; public art; playgrounds; basketball, tennis, volleyball and handball courts; and soccer and baseball fields. In the warmer months, Manhattan Community Boathouse offers free kayaking from the park's 72nd Street pier. The City's most famous green space, Central Park, runs alongside the neighborhood's eastern boundary. Among the park's draws: the 55-acre Great Lawn, Strawberry Fields, the Shakespeare Garden, the Lake, the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre and the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, which is surrounded by a footpath and offers views of the Upper West and Upper East Sides that make for fantastic snapshots. For much more on Central Park, read our complete guide.