Neighborhood Guide: New York's Lower East Side

Gritty and glittery at the same time, this downtown neighborhood is full of unique experiences.

Old marries new in this downtown neighborhood, where the pushcart peddlers, densely packed tenements and vibrant immigrant culture of yesteryear still find their footing in a hot zone of experimental art, trendy boutiques and inventive restaurants. It’s a place that plays with the past and present, as decades-old dining establishments anchor a dream scene for contemporary foodies. Gritty and glittery at the same time, it rewards those who visit with experiences you can’t find anywhere else in the city. Welcome to the Lower East Side.

Taste of History

Katz’s Deli

The LES is rich with historic establishments. Kossar’s (367 Grand St., 212.473.4810), the oldest bialy bakery in America, offers up tons of the savory, yeasty rolls. Under a fog of flour, the bialymakers churn out onion-, garlic- and sesame-filled pastries fresh at all hours in the no-frills bakery. Hungry for more Jewish treats? Try Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery (137 E. Houston St., 212.477.2858), which has been serving up the dough-wrapped potato snacks since 1910. And no trip to NYC would be complete without a Reuben sandwich at Katz’s Delicatessen (205 E. Houston St., 212.254.2246). The iconic deli’s corned beef takes up to a full 30 days to cure and pairs perfectly with a crisp pickle. 

Finer Fare

Wassail

The modern dining scene here is the stuff foodies’ dreams are made of. Stop by Wassail (162 Orchard St., 646.918.6835) for a taste of tart hard cider from around a dozen draft options and even more bottled libations from around the world. It’s a spot for daring diners to try new vegetarian meals, as the menu descriptions of dishes offer an almost cryptically basic reduction of what manifests as beautifully plated and prepared vegetables. The English Pea Cremeux dessert brought out the skeptic in us, but one bite into the multitextured, fenugreek-flavored disc, crowned by a smooth green egg of sugar-snap-pea sorbet, and we were hooked on this delightfully earthy treat. Classic French fare is kicked up with Moroccan and Orleanian spices at the popular Dirty French (180 Ludlow St., 212.254.3000). And traditional bistro Cherche Midi (282 Bowery, 212.226.3055) cooks power lunches of pan-seared salmon, steak frites and prime rib burgers. Save room for ice cream at Morgenstern’s (2 Rivington St., 212.209.7684), a tiny sundae spot that concocts ice cream in experimental flavors like Vietnamese coffee, green tea pistachio, banana curry and licorice.

Tour a Time Capsule

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Turn-of-the-last-century NYC comes alive at the Tenement Museum (97 Orchard St., 212.982.8420), where visitors can tour a building that was home to nearly 7,000 working-class immigrants. Constructed in 1863, the building contains literal layers of history: peeling paint and wallpaper, linoleum and wooden floors, and decaying, watermarked ceilings. The museum can only be explored on a guided tour, like the Irish Outsider’s, which shares the story of an Irish-Catholic immigrant family. Through old photos, news clippings, census records and even Irish drinking songs, visitors gain a deeper understanding of the struggles faced by immigrants. Both heartbreaking and uplifting, the hour-long trip stays with you long after you leave. 

Town Under One Roof

A one-stop shop, Essex Street Market (120 Essex St., 212.312.3603) is the place for local vendors to offer their goods and services. It’s like a small town under one roof, with grocers, butchers, fishmongers and gourmet food purveyors filling the aisles, boundaries seemingly undefined. The foodie destination has come a long way since its launch in 1940 as an effort to make streets less crowded by moving pushcart merchants indoors. Shoppers can now nosh on cheeses, breads, homemade muffins, truffles and more, as they enjoy a sensory excursion through this bustling marketplace. There’s even a barber on-site.

Art Happens Here

The New Museum (235 Bowery, 212.219.1222) exhibits contemporary art from around the world. Used as a launching pad for up-and-coming artists with cutting-edge ideas, and as a display space for established creators, the museum showcases avant-garde and experimental works. Up this summer are Albert Oehlen: Home and Garden (Jun. 10-Sept. 13), Sarah Charlesworth: Doubleworld (Jun. 24-Sept. 20) and Leonor Antunes: I Stand Like a Mirror Before You (Jun. 24-Sept. 6). 

Shopping the LES and Beyond

BucketFeet

Shoppers will have no trouble stocking their closet at LES stores. For a pair of statement-making shades, swing by MOSCOT (108 Orchard St., 212.477.3796). The family-owned eyewear institution, which started as a pushcart in 1915, celebrates its 100th birthday with limited-edition unisex frames that look sharp on just about anyone. Epaulet (144 Orchard St., 212.228.3626) dresses guys in everyday basics, like made-in-America button-ups and distressed-denim shirts and jeans. Fashionistas can find accessories and apparel on trend with the ‘70s fashion revival at vintage boutique Edith Machinist (104 Rivington St., 212.979.9992). Feminist bookstore Bluestockings (172 Allen St., 212.777.6028) carries thousands of titles on gender studies, global capitalism and radical education. Anyone with a sweet tooth can find sanctuary at Economy Candy (108 Rivington St., 212.254.1531), a rainbow wonderland stocked floor to ceiling with old-fashioned and contemporary sweets, from Necco wafers to Zotz fizzers. 

New York neighborhoods tend to have fluid boundaries, and while the block of Elizabeth Street between Prince & E. Houston streets is technically part of NoLIta, it offers fantastic shopping next door to the LES. Shoppers can score perfectly fit men’s T-shirts at Alex Mill (268 Elizabeth St., 212.343.2539), one-of-a-kind jewelry and accessories at Love Adorned (269 Elizabeth St., 212.431.5683), classic slip-on sneakers (and a jolt of caffeine from the in-store café) at the charitable Toms outpost (264 Elizabeth St., 212.219.8304), trendy womenswear at Babel Fair (260 Elizabeth St., 646.360.3685) and comfy printed pajamas at BedHead (252 Elizabeth St., 212.233.4323), among other fun options. Our pick? The new BucketFeet boutique (266 Elizabeth St., 212.226.8102), a creative footwear company that commissions artists from around the world to design funky prints for its sneakers.