Turn a corner in Washington Heights and you could find yourself suddenly looking down on a massive engineering marvel rising straight up from the Hudson River. It's the George Washington Bridge—one of the many striking visuals that make this skinny stretch of northern Manhattan a photographer's dream. Boulders jut out of the lush greenery surrounding The Cloisters Museum and Gardens, The Metropolitan Museum of Art's uptown outpost for its Medieval European collection. The United Palace Theatre, a big-ticket music venue with small-town appeal, holds another kind of visual charm—whimsically disordered architectural details cover the walls, inside and out. (For years the sign out front has read, “Come on in or smile as you pass.”) That's not even to mention the allure generated by the artists who play its stage, including luminaries like Bob Dylan and Beck.
By day, Dominican locals sway their hips to bachata on the neighborhood's sidewalks. By night, their kids, now fashionable twentysomethings creating a hipper version of the Washington Heights their parents grew up in, join non-Spanish-speaking newcomers at bars that make up the burgeoning nightlife scene. Washington Heights is certainly a neighborhood in motion. Out-of-towners will delight in attractions like The Cloisters and sweeping views of the Hudson from waterfront restaurant La Marina; downtowners will find $5 beers, beautiful green spaces and talented DJs equally refreshing. For more on what to see and do, read on.
Washington Heights History
Named for George Washington, who led troops into an unsuccessful battle here against the British in 1776, Washington Heights waves a flag of contemporary American diversity from atop Manhattan's highest ground. At its heart is a story of immigration, which began in the 1900s following a century of idyllic living by a few wealthy owners of sprawling villas, among them John James Audubon. Irish immigrants arrived in the early 20th century, followed by Jewish Europeans escaping Nazism. The neighborhood was referred to as the “Astoria of Manhattan” in the '50s and '60s, when large populations of Greek immigrants arrived. The 1970s onward brought Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and, most recently, Ecuadoran populations. Somewhat ironically, The Hispanic Society of America was founded in the Heights in 1904—long before Spanish-speaking immigrants moved here en masse.
Dominican culture is so prevalent in the neighborhood, it has been memorialized by MTV in the reality show Washington Heights. But the sounds of Dominican beats from local delis fade as you head east on 162nd Street toward the Morris-Jumel Mansion, where General Washington bunked during the Revolutionary War. Stately brownstones line a serene path to this aristocratic white house that was built in 1765. Many claim that the ghost of Eliza Jumel, who allegedly murdered her husband here to take up with Aaron Burr, haunts the mansion. Burr's spirit currently lives on at Morris-Jumel in the exhibition The Loves of Aaron Burr: Portraits in Corsetry and Binding.
Fort Tryon Park
It's not uncommon to take a walk in Fort Tryon Park and see newlyweds having their photos taken on its grounds. A gift to the City in 1935 from John D. Rockefeller, the 67-acre green space is a geological wonder. Located atop a fault, the park is dotted with jagged boulders, providing dramatic views for picnickers and an exciting urban adventure for rock climbers. (Merely exiting the A train at 190th Street elicits awe from even the most seasoned New Yorkers.) Fort Tryon, which houses The Cloisters Museum and Gardens, is perched high above the Hudson River. After a trip to The Cloisters, visitors can enjoy dinner and drinks at New Leaf Restaurant & Bar, tucked inside the park near the south entrance, or at La Marina at the far north end.
348 Dyckman Street, 212-567-6300
Visitors going out for the first time in Washington Heights should start their evening at La Marina. It's worth the trek for its views of the George Washington Bridge and Hudson River alone. Beyond the views, another draw is the restaurant's size; it's enormous, almost three venues in one. It has two outdoor patios—one with a raw bar—and a glass-enclosed indoor space. Next to the restaurant is the main bar, which faces another patio, this one a lively party spot. And a stone's throw from there is a dance club, where the crowd tends toward trendy and electronic beats are loud enough to be heard throughout the venue. With its distinct atmospheres, activities and bars, La Marina has a playground-like quality to it. In addition, servers are sweet and efficient. Dinner isn't five-star, but it's tasty, with standouts like yucca fries and tres leches dessert on the must-order list.
The Inwood Plaza Scene
Inwood Plaza is a diminutive, triangle-shaped green space on the northern end of Fort Tryon Park, just near the Dyckman Street stop on the A line. Across the street from the plaza is an area that could be called Washington Heights' restaurant row. It's outdoor-seating central here, where seats from adjacent venues would get mixed up if not for the waist-high barriers marking off properties. Mamajuana Cafe (catty-corner from Inwood Plaza) is the most popular—due likely in part to its reverence for all things Dominican, as seen on the walls covered with colorful blown-up images of la patria. Directly across the street from Inwood Plaza are a handful of food-and-drink spots: Mamasushi, Mamajuana's Japanese sister venue, is the hottest newcomer; Il Sole, an Italian restaurant, might be the fanciest of the bunch; Corcho Wine Room takes the prize for the most in-the-know servers and charming ambience (the tiny space appears to be carved out of wood); and Papasito Mexican Grill & Agave Bar is by far the loudest—a compliment no doubt to the wild crew both at and behind the bar.
Since they're just inland of La Marina, the Inwood Plaza bars and restaurants are ideal for a nightcap after dinner at La Marina. Mamajuana Cafe has a back patio, where guests can relax with a $5 beer, pitcher of sangria or—and this one's a must—a Mamajuana mojito or margarita. Mamajuana, a combination of roots and herbs once used to cure ailments by the Dominican Republic's native Taino Indians, is commonly known as an aphrodisiac.
Nightlife: Apt 78 and More
If Apt 78 were located downtown, it would have a line down the block to get in. As its homey name suggests, the ambience inside the modest space is like a house party. Although there's no dance floor, there's a distinct feeling that guests could all get up from their chairs at any moment and start dancing—and sometimes they do. The Roots' Questlove will occasionally guest DJ here. But all the turntablists play thematically relevant requests and inspired sets of new and old hits. Chill '90s hip-hop from groups like A Tribe Called Quest is often in the queue.
There's a clubbier scene a few blocks up at Arka Lounge, a see-and-be-seen dance club where guests encounter fish tanks, tight clothing and intimidating dance moves. Across the street is Locksmith Wine & Burger Bar, which is in many ways the opposite of Arka. A little quirky, Locksmith's track list hops from Danzig to Pitbull in a matter of seconds. The music is fun here, as is the oversized portrait of Ghostbuster II's evil Vigo in the bathroom.
Shopping Around Cabrini Boulevard
Searching for exclusive food and wine is a sport among Washington Heights residents—much like cycling on the neighborhood's hills, as evidenced by the popularity of Manny's Bicycle Shop. A handful of shoppers will wait patiently outside of the small but mighty Moscow on the Hudson, a 17-year-old Russian market whose selection of imported beers, cherry spreads and pumpernickel could compete with food markets in Brighton Beach. Cabrini Wines, meanwhile, is an oenophile's wonderland. Cases seven shelves high are packed throughout the multilevel, dark-wood interior, and the staff speaks knowledgeably about its products. A bit further north, the smaller and sunnier Vines on Pine also offers an impressive selection of wine. A long day of walking the hills around Cabrini Boulevard demands a cold beer at cheerful Le Chéile, either at the bar with artsy neighborhood newcomers or seated near the window for a view of the bridge.
If food were a mascot, mofongo would represent Washington Heights. Introduced to the Caribbean by Africans brought to the New World by the slave trade, this dish of fried, mashed plantains is now a Puerto Rican and Dominican staple and a great example of Caribbean comfort food. It's available with a choice of meat or veggies at the popular La Casa Del Mofongo or at Broadway joint El Floridita.
Across the street from El Floridita are a couple of restaurants whose presence poses the eternal question: chicken or beef? If it's the former, visit El Malecon, where spit-roasted poultry lure passersby from the restaurant's windows facing Broadway. If it's beef, cross 175th Street and order the churrasco at the bustling El Conde Steakhouse. And just up the street, there's a tiny restaurant that differs from the norm in the Heights: Cachapas y Más, a Venezuelan greasy spoon that could teach even seasoned Spanish speakers an entirely new foodie vocabulary. The eatery's namesake—celebrated with adorable dancing-corn cartoons on its sign—refers to baby corn cakes. “Más” refers to other caloric indulgences, including slightly sweet sandwiches of patacones (Venezuelan tostones, or fried plantains, essentially) and Venezuelan burritos, or tacuchos.
South Washington Heights: Carrot Top Pastries and More
Carrot Top Pastries is running out of room on the walls for all its awards and favorable press. This friendly spot—patrons frequently walk in and shout, “Hola, mi niña!” to a friend working the counter—is a feast for the eyes. Under the glass case up front, shoppers fawn over meticulously decorated half orbs of fluffy coconut cake, cheesecake topped with what are perhaps Manhattan's perkiest strawberries, velvety chocolate layer cake and, of course, carrot cake (a triple-layer cake runs $41.50). And don't forget the cannoli! Goodies like a pistachio cream version of the latter are on display, too. Plus, at 95 cents for a small cup, coffee comes cheap.
But if it's espresso you're after, head across the street to X Caffe, located in what was formerly the Audubon Ballroom. (The location is where Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965; the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Center is also located inside.)
Dyckman and Dyckman
There are two Dyckman Street subway stops in Washington Heights—one on the A line at Inwood Plaza and another farther east on the 1 line. Both sides represent the neighborhood's predominantly Dominican heritage, but in different ways. The area west of the A train is often called “up and coming” and buzzes with hip bars and the pulse of electronic music. The sounds change, however, as you approach the 1 train, where chimichurri (Dominican burger) and frío-frío (snow cone) vendors blare bachata and reggaeton beats—which they might have picked up at popular Quisqueya Record, a shop named after a slang term for Hispaniola. When it's hot outside, parents and grandparents relax in beach chairs on the sidewalk while the little ones have a ball in water gushing from fire hydrants. Locals might pick up a slice at Pizza Palace or a café con leche and Dominican sweet treat at Kenny Bakery. It's not an affluent area—don't expect fancy shops and restaurants—but its spirit is the foundation the new Washington Heights was built upon.