Oh, you live on the Upper East Side? Isn’t it boring? Isn’t it where all the super-rich people live? These are common questions I get asked when I say I live on the Upper East Site. To New Yorkers, it’s considered a pretty boring place when you take into account all the other exciting neighborhoods in Manhattan. To outsiders, it’s all Gossip Girl and Sex and the City. To me, and over 220,000 other people, the Upper East Side is home.
In this local’s guide to New York’s Upper East Side neighborhood, you’ll find everything you need to know about visiting the UES (as us local’s call it). I have been living on the Upper East Side since I moved to New York a few years ago and I have spent the better part of my free time scouring the neighborhood, looking for hidden-gem restaurants, cool places to visit, and fun things to do.
I’ll cover the best things to do on the Upper East Side, including museums, shopping, parks, entertainment, and everything else you can imagine. I’ll also be sharing my list of the best restaurants on the Upper East Side. Tried and tested by me (sometimes multiple times), this list of over 30 restaurants provides something for every budget and taste. (It’s also the list I give all my friends and family when they visit, so you know it’s good!)
At the end of this post, you’ll find an interactive map with the location of everything mentioned in this post so you won’t have to look hard to find anything.
Without further ado, welcome to the Upper East Side!
Where is the Upper East Side?
The Upper East Side is a neighborhood in Manhattan, NYC bordered by 5th Avenue and Central Park to the West, 59th Street to the South, the East River to the east and 96th Street to the north (although there is some debate as to whether the northern border of the Upper East Side is shifting north and blurring with that of Harlem).
How to get to the Upper East Side: Transit to and within the UES
Historically not as well-connected as other neighborhoods in NYC, the opening of the Q line up to 96th Street has made getting to and around the Upper East Side so much easier for visitors and locals alike. Below are the subway lines and their stations that lie within the boundaries of the Upper East Side. However, unless you need to make a quick jump from 60th Street to 96th Street, I recommend walking as much as possible as that’s the best way to truly see a new neighborhood!
- N, R, W: 5th Ave & 59th St.
- 4, 5, 6, N, R, W: Lexington Ave & 59th St.
- F, Q: Lexington Ave & 63rd St.
- 6: 68th & 77th Sts.
- 4, 5, 6: Lexington Ave & 86th St.
- Q: 2nd Ave & 72nd, 86th, & 96th Sts.
History of the Upper East Side: Some fun facts
While to most people, the Upper East Side seems like it’s always been the place to live for wealthy New Yorkers, that hasn’t always been the case. The area we know as the Upper East side was sparsely populated farmland and no man’s land until the mid-1800s.
It wasn’t until March 4, 1896 that the neighborhood was officially named, taking everything north and east of 5th Avenue and 40th Street. Later, when the Queensboro Bridge was opened in 1909, the southern border of the Upper East Side shifted to 59th Street, where it remains today. Fun fact, the block on which the below house stands was once the site of a farm if you can believe it!
Early history of the Upper East Side
After the Civil War, the Upper East Side developed into a middle-class neighborhood, with residents living in tenements and row houses. The Upper East Side was largely disconnected from the rest of Manhattan until the New York and Harlem Railroad added a stop at 86th Street in 1837, which later became the heart of Yorkville. In addition, the Second and Third Avenue Els opened up in 1838 and 1839, respectively, linking the middle-class workers of the Upper East Side with the rest of the city.
The New Kleinedeutschland (Little Germany)
After the General Slocum riverboat disaster in 1904 where over 1,000 German immigrants perished after the ship caught fire, many German immigrants emigrated to Yorkville (then called Germantown) from the Lower East Side (whose population was once the third largest German population outside Germany). The General Slocum disaster was the greatest loss of civilian life in New York until September 11.
Today, you’ll still find remnants of this German heritage in Yorkville, including the Zion St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on 84th Street, Schaller & Weber grocery on 86th Street, Heidelberg Restaurant between 85th and 86th Streets, and Glaser’s Bake Shop on 1st Avenue and 87th Street.
A new neighborhood for Manhattan’s elite
By the early 1900s, people were starting to take notice of the Upper East Side, noting its diverse population and the fact that there was nothing to do there. In the 1910s, the luxury apartment buildings on 5th and Park Avenues we know today were constructed, converting the Upper East Side into the elite neighborhood it’s known as today. The stretch of 5th Avenue now known as museum mile was once called Millionnaire’s Mile.
The Upper East Side Historic District has a great guide to the landmarks of the Upper East Side, many of which were constructed during this period.
The Upper East Side today
Today, the Upper East Side is featured in film and television for its beautiful streets, wealthy residents and lavish townhomes. You’ll recognize Upper East Side landmarks in Gossip Girl, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Cruel Intentions, Eloise at the Plaza, The Devil Wears Prada, Sex and the City, The Real Housewives of New York City, I Love Lucy, White Collar, and more.
While the Upper East Side still has its fair share of wealthy residents as it’s home to some of the wealthiest zip codes in the country, it’s also home to young families and fresh out of college adults since it’s one of the cheapest areas in Manhattan to rent smaller apartments. Its tree-lined side streets and beautiful townhomes are often free of tourists, and its wealth of restaurants and shops make it the perfect place to live in Manhattan (in my incredibly biased opinion).
Things to do on the Upper East Side
There is no shortage of fun things to do on the Upper East Side. Heck, I spend the majority of my free time somewhere between 59th and 96th Streets, proving that there is always something to do here. While maybe not as hip as Chelsea, which has all those cool art galleries or as ‘cool’ as say Greenwich Village, it has something for everyone and plenty to keep you busy for a long time.
The most popular attractions drawing people to the Upper East Side are museums. Home to some of the best and most famous museums in the world, it’s easy to see why. On 5th Avenue from 82nd to 105th Streets, you’ll find Museum Mile, home to world-class museums, many of which are housed in former mansions.
The Met: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (or “The Met,” as we call it) is the largest museum in the United States and the third most visited museum in the world. It houses over 5,000 years of art with everything from ancient Egyptian to Classical art to Impressionist art to photographs and more. It’s truly hard to spend less than a day here and it’s incredibly easy to get lost wandering around the different rooms. I suggest you look at a map of the museum before going and make a plan of attack for your visit.
*The Met is only “pay what you wish” for residents of New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Admission for everyone else is $25 for adults, $17 for seniors, and $12 for students. Tickets are valid for three days after purchase and will work at the Met, Met Breuer, and the Cloisters.
Met Breuer: If you’re looking to have your conceptions of art challenged, head to the Met Breuer, the Met’s modern and contemporary art wing. While some of the art is a little over my head taste-wise, it is a fun place to visit and, if you plan on visiting the Met, your ticket will be valid there as long as you use it within three days.
The Guggenheim: This is one of the coolest looking museums of all time. It houses Impressionist, post-Impressionist, modern and contemporary art in what looks like a spaceship. Your experience will depend on the current main exhibition that follows the spiral hallway to the top, so I suggest you check their website before committing to visiting. It is closed on Thursday’s and admission for adults is $25 and $18 for students and seniors.
Cooper Hewitt: One of my favorite museums of all time, Cooper Hewitt is the Smithsonian’s Design Museum and the only museum in the United States devoted to historical and contemporary design. It is housed in the Andrew Carnegie Mansion and is one of the most well thought out and interactive museums I’ve been to. If you can’t visit, be sure to check out the exterior and take a break in the courtyard at the front of the building. Cooper Hewitt is open every day of the week and (if you buy online) tickets are $16 for adults, $10 for seniors and $7 for students.
The Frick: The Frick houses the collection of Henry Clay Frick, whose mansion is the site of the museum. It has some of the finest examples of European art and, although small, is well worth a visit if you want to see some master paintings and beautiful furniture. In 2020, the museum will undergo a transformation that will open up part of the second floor living quarters to visitors. While tickets are pricey for such a small collection, there are options to view the museum for less money on their website.
Neue Galerie: If you’ve ever seen the movie The Woman in Gold, this is where you can see the final resting place of Gustav Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer. Having only opened in 2001, it is a relatively new museum that houses German and Austrian art from the early 20th century. While there, you must stop and eat at Café Sabarsky, a delicious (and authentic) Viennese cafe with delicious food, cakes, and coffee.
Asia Society Museum: Housed within the Asia Society’s headquarters, which aims to bring Asia and the west closer together through the arts, education, policy and business outreach, the Asia Society Museum showcases both traditional and contemporary Asian and Asian-American Art.
Jewish Museum of New York: The Jewish Museum is the oldest existing Jewish museum in the world and the first of its kind in the United States. While the collection was established in 1904, the museum itself only opened in 1947. Today, it houses artifacts of Jewish history as well as modern and contemporary art highlighting Jewish history and culture. Admission is free on Saturday’s and select Jewish holidays. While there, you must stop and eat at Russ & Daughters, a New York staple famous for their bagels and lox.
Museum of the City of New York: Technically just outside the official boundaries of the Upper East Side, the Museum of the City of New York showcases the history and culture of New York City and its people, past and present
El Museo del Barrio: Next door to the Museum of the City of New York is El Museo del Bario (el Museo), a museum dedicated to Latino, Caribbean, and Latin American art and cultures. *Note: it is closed until Fall 2018.
If you’ve ever watched any TV show or movie about New York City, chances are there is at least one mention of the shopping on Madison Avenue or a trip to Bloomingdale’s. The Upper East Side is the place to go if you’re looking to spend a day shopping til you drop (or admiring all the pretty things you can’t have…).
At the south end of the Upper East Side, you’ll find Bloomingdale’s. It’s hard to miss: taking up an entire city block, this multi-story black building draped in flags is a New York icon. It first opened in the Lower East Side in 1872 selling European fashions. In 1886, the store moved to its flagship location, where it remains today, selling everything from men’s and women’s fashions to household goods.
Shopping on Madison Avenue
If you want to window shop the latest designer fashions, take a stroll along Madison Avenue starting at 60th Street. You’ll find just about every famous designer store and more. The one thing better than window-shopping these trends (mostly because I feel too un-stylish to even step foot in these fancy stores) is people-watching the people shopping in the designer stores!
Looking for some more affordable stores for actual shopping purposes? Head east to Lexington and 3rd Avenues where you’ll find mainstream shops sprinkled amongst restaurants and apartment buildings.
Carl Schurz Park
Carl Schurz Park’s history dates back to the 1600s and is one of the best kept secrets on the Upper East Side (if not in Manhattan). Located at East End Avenue between 84th and 90th Streets, this park is my favorite park to visit when I want some quiet time. Looking out across the river you’ll see the northern tip of Roosevelt Island and Queens as well as a particularly dangerous part of the East River called Hell Gate (from the Dutch Hellegat), where hundreds of ships have sunk. Carl Schurz park features playgrounds, dog parks, picnickers, sunbathers, runners, and practically zero tourists in this hidden gem of the Upper East Side.
Technically the west border of the Upper East Side, Central Park is really the only other park that Upper East Siders can turn to for green space. I’m still working on my detailed Central Park guide (it’s basically my second home as I spend so much time there), but you need to visit when you’re in NYC, whether you’re exploring the Upper East Side or not!
Entertainment and other attractions
If museums, parks, or shopping don’t interest you, some of the below attractions on the Upper East Side will hopefully draw you in!
92Y: The 92nd Street Y is a cultural and community center located at Lexington Avenue and 92nd Street. It puts on concerts, talks, and book readings featuring celebrities and public figures at relatively affordable prices. I saw Lauren Graham and Mae Whitman there as a birthday present to myself and now I regularly check their schedule for other events I want to attend!
Park Avenue Armory: The Park Avenue Armory is “dedicated to supporting unconventional works in the visual and performing arts that need non-traditional spaces for their full realization.” It’s an imposing red brick fortress-like building that takes up an entire city block. Inside, you’ll see anything from cool art exhibitions to performance pieces and shows there. It also is host to the Antiquarian Book Fair, a must-see annual book fair for every book lover! Fun fact: it is home to the oldest after school activity in the country, founded in 1881: The Knickerbocker Greys, a paramilitary program.
Albertine Bookstore: Albertine is hands down one of the prettiest bookstores in the world. Housed in the Payne-Whitney Mansion, it is a French-American bookstore that sells books in both French and English. Even if you don’t speak or read French, it’s a must-see for its hand-painted ceiling on the second floor (pictured above). It is free to enter, although you will have to walk through a metal detector before entering.
Missions: The Upper East Side is home to several diplomatic missions to both the UN and U.S. While you can’t always enter them, several have open exhibitions, open days, or even street festivals throughout the year.
Tramway to Rosevelt Island: While taking the tram to Roosevelt Island technically takes you off of Manhattan and out of the Upper East Side, it’s a fun, cheap way to get great views of the Manhattan Skyline and spend some time away from the hustle and bustle of Midtown. For just the swipe of a MetroCard ($2.75), you’ll take a quick ride over the East River and onto the tiny strip of land between Manhattan and Queens.
Parades: Most parades in NYC take place on 5th Avenue. While sometimes you’ll head there and be surprised by a parade, you can see if your visit will coincide with one on this website. The parades can be a great way to get a taste of a new culture and some free entertainment. Also, every year on the closest Sunday to Bastille Day, 60th Street between 5th and Lexington Avenues are closed off for NYC’s annual Bastille Day celebration. It’s a must-visit for all things French in NYC!
Where to eat on the Upper East Side: The best Upper East Side restaurants for any budget
Chances are if you name it I’ve eaten there (as long as it’s on the Upper East Side, that is). Below is a list of restaurants I can personally vouch for. Because everyone’s budgets and tastes are different, I’ve sorted them by price, cuisine, and my completely biased personal rating from 3 [a perfectly delicious meal] to 5 [one of the best meals of your life]. You can’t go wrong with any of these restaurants and each restaurant can be found pinned to the map at the end of this post.
- Eat Here Now (the best diner on the Upper East Side): diner/breakfast; 3*
- Viand Coffee: diner/breakfast; 3*
- Alice’s Tea Cup: (The place to go if you’re looking for a great afternoon tea or some scones): tea, American; 5*
- Isle of Capri: Italian; 5*
- JG Melon: burgers (cash only); 5*
- Eastfield’s: American/brunch; 4*
- Treadwell Park: German/American, beer; 4*
- Maison Keyser: French, breakfast/brunch, cafe; 4*
- Le Pain Quotidien: Belgian, breakfast/brunch, cafe; 4*
- Birch Coffee: coffee; 4*
- Patsy’s: Italian/pizza; 3*
- Eats: American/brunch; 3*
- Loco Coco: smoothies/açai bowls; 3*
- Bluestone Lane: brunch/coffee; 3*
- Serafina: Italian; 3*
- EJ’s Luncheonette: diner; 3*
- B Cafe: Belgian, beer; 4*
- Rangoli: Indian; 4*
- Ravagh Persian Grill: Persian; 4*
- Bottega: Italian; 4*
- Ladurée: macarons/pastries; 4*
- Bella Blu: Italian; 4*
- Gina Mexicana: Mexican; 3*
- Sojourn Restaurant: American; 3*
- Tavern 62: American brunch/dinner; 3*
- JoJo: American; 5*
- Vaucluse: French; 5*
- Come Prima: Italian; 5*
- Campagnola: Italian; 4*
- Amaranth: Italian/Mediterranean; 4*
- August: American; 4*
- Loews Regency: brunch/cocktails; 4*
- Lexington Club: steak; 3*
- St. Ambroeus: breakfast/coffee; 3*
Map of the best things to do on the Upper East Side
The below map pins everything discussed in this post, categorized by type of place.
As you can see, there is plenty to do, see and eat on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. The UES is one of the best neighborhoods to spend a day in NYC, as you won’t run out of things to do. It’s also a great way to visit a relatively tourist-free (once you leave 5th Avenue) part of Manhattan.