Greetings, Internet Stranger, and welcome to the best things to do on the Lower East Side in New York City. I’ve lived in New York City my entire life, so no one knows better than I do what a crazy, fast-paced city New York can be! Sometimes it feels like a giant glass skyscraper is going up every day? Where can you find the “Old” New York?
Well, that’s where this guide to the best things to do on the Lower East Side comes in. Here we will learn all about the immigrant communities that made this neighborhood so amazing. We will enter the homes of New Yorkers of the past, and we will eat their delicious food. We might even have a horrible mishap with a busted credit card machine. Really anything is possible!
Note: This itinerary includes some LES adjacent neighborhoods like Little Italy and Chinatown because life is more fun that way. If you send me an email pointing out that not every single thing on this list is exactly one of the best things to do on the Lower East Side, I will email you back with a 😛 emoji.
Best Things to Do on the Lower East Side
Where to Stay?
If you’re a tourist in New York City, you’ll probably be staying in a hotel while you explore the best things to do on the Lower East Side. I mean, maybe you have a kind relative who will let you crash in their spare room, but that kind of space is rare in Manhattan.
I recommend staying in the Artezen Hotel in Lower Manhattan. It’s very easy to get to the best things to do on the Lower East Side from here. Seriously, it’s so close that you can easily walk from the hotel to the tour on the beginning of this itinerary. Plus, the rooms are affordable and cozy, and there’s free snacks, coffee, and fancy bath products in your room.
Best Things to Do on the Lower East Side
What to Pack?
- A cell charger so you can take photos of all the best things to do on the Lower East Side
- If you’re looking for a guidebook to NYC, this is my favorite choice.
- My book Get Lost, that I wrote myself with all my best travel tips. This book will show you exactly why travel is better than a man.
- I always travel with travel insurance from World Nomads. You never know when something might go wrong, especially in this day and age, and you don’t want to get stranded during your trip without help. You never know when extreme weather will strike or some other emergency. But with travel insurance, you’re protected even if you’re attacked by a giant evil knish while you’re exploring the best things to do on the Lower East Side. (PS. I really love saying the word knish.)
Best Things to Do on the Lower East Side
Morning: Tenements, Tales and Tastes Tour
One of the most unique things about Manhattan is its many diverse neighborhoods. It’s a cliché to say that New York City is a city of immigrants, but like many clichés, you shouldn’t count them before they are hatched. So we can’t say we’ve seen the best things to do on the Lower East Side without sampling some of its diverse cuisine.
That’s why I recommend the Tenements, Tales, and Tastes tour of the LES and neighboring areas like Chinatown. On the Tenements, Tales, and Tastes tour, you can visit immigrant communities that are still thriving, like Chinatown. But you can also find defunct immigrant neighborhoods, like Klein Deutschland. Of course, each neighborhood comes with its own delicious taste!
You can book this tour for yourself by clicking here. And I’ll give you my best idea of what to expect on the tour with..
Approximately Top 5: Tenements, Tales, and Tastes
1) African Burial Ground
This tour introduces you to the different groups of people who have inhabited this part of New York City. Of course, this starts with the Lenape, who were the indigenous people who lived in this region before Europeans arrived. But the meeting point for the tour is the African Burial Ground, which is the oldest burial ground in North America for both free and enslaved Africans.
The African Burial Ground is run by the National Parks Service, and it was closed when I took this tour. But our guide said that sometimes it’s open during the tour, and then they make a point of going inside. (Entrance is free.) But in any case, you’ll be able to see the exterior of the monument.
Our guide told us that the people who are buried here are placed facing east because of the belief that the dead would rise facing the rising sun. So that’s why the shape of the monument points East as well.
2) Chung Chung
As I hinted earlier, the next wave of immigrants to hit New York came from England. With this wave came a name change: from New Amsterdam to New York. (PS. The most fun thing you can do as a New Yorker is visit York, England. Just roam around and tell people you come from NEW York. Then let the laughs roll in.)
Apparently many of this British immigrants were not tea-drinking toffs named His Most High Excellency, Lord St. John St. Wiggins. Some were crafty criminals who formed gangs like The Bowery Boys. They made the surrounding neighborhood, known as Five Points, one of the most dangerous in the city.
As will surprise no one familiar with British history, they often tended to feud with Irish gangs like The Dead Rabbits. I feel like The Dead Rabbits sounds more like an Irish band than an Irish gang, but maybe this is why Im not a 19th century gang leader.
Of course, the English and Irish gangs have long been gone from this neighborhood, and now the area is more famous for the courthouse, which has frequently been featured on Law and Order. (CHUNG! CHUNG!)
3) Fried Dumpling
One of the next waves of immigrants to New York came from China. Unlike the English, the Chinese came from the West. Many had come to California hoping to strike it rich during the Gold Rush. If that didn’t succeed (and it didn’t for most people), they got jobs erecting the Trans-Continental Railroad and worked their way east.
Unfortunately, many of the more recent immigrants to the country didn’t welcome the Chinese. In fact, there was a quota set strangling the number of Chinese immigrants who could enter the country. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 wasn’t lifted until after World War II, to thank the Chinese for being America’s ally against Japan.
As a New Yorker, it’s strange for me to think of a time when the Chinese weren’t welcome in the city. To me, Chinese-American food is the food of my childhood. I think of cold noodles with sesame sauce the way some people think of Mom’s meatloaf. But during our 24 hours in Manhattan, we got the quicker option of fried dumplings from the imaginatively named place: Fried Dumpling. That’s not a joke.
All restaurants should take this approach to naming! Tonight I dine at my favorite pizza place: Slice of Pizza.
4) Little Italy
Speaking of pizza, it’s time for Little Italy! Did you know that the first New York style pizza place was right here in New York City? (That fact sounds less impressive when you say it out loud.) Nowadays, Little Italy is but a shell of its former self. As Italian immigrants became wealthier, many of them chose to move to the suburbs or areas where they could own their own house with a backyard.
Fortunately some high-quality Italian restaurants and pizza places have moved into the neighborhood in recent years, like Rubirosa and our stop for today, Upside. This pizza has a delicious sourdough crust, and usually the crust is the worst part of the pizza. The special trick here is that it’s served with the cheese on the bottom and the sauce on the top, which is the opposite of how a New York slice usually does it.
It’s almost like a Chicago deep-dish and a New York slice had a baby. Yum!
5) Give Us a Little Knish
Nearest and dearest to my heart is the next wave of immigrants, the Chosen People. (I’m Romanian Jewish on my father’s side. On my mother’s side, I’m a Dead Rabbit.) The Jewish people’s most famous contribution to New York cuisine is that famous combination, Loxley and Bagel. But just as delicious is the humble knish. And you can’t say you’ve seen the best things to do on the Lower East Side without trying a little Jewish food.
The last knishery in Manhattan is Yonah Shimmel’s Knishery. Yonah Schimmel was a Romanian Jewish immigrant with an inability to spell his own name, but a gift for making knishes. These are fluffy balls of mashed potatoes rolled up inside a thin layer of dough.
They are basically the apotheosis of eating carbs. You schmear a little mustard on top and there is no more New York dining experience you can have, except for folding a cheese pizza in half and eating while jaywalking and yelling at strangers.
But this tour is extra fun because you get a sweet knish as well as a savory. The sweet knish tasted almost like the classic Jewish dessert known as blintzes. The main difference is that it’s wrapped in a knish wrapper instead of a pancake like the blintz is. But the delicious fruit-sweet cheese filling remains the same.
6) A German beer garden
The final stop on this tour is at a German beer garden for warm pretzels. Apparently there used to be a German immigrant community in the LES area called Klein Deutschland. (Little Germany in German.) Unfortunately after World Wars I and II, it wasn’t so hot to be seen as German in New York City, and Germans made a stronger push to assimilate.
Fortunately they left some delicious traditions like pretzels and beer behind so all Americans could enjoy them. And that’s why going to a German beer garden is definitely one of the best things to do on the Lower East Side.
You can actually choose to get a pretzel or a bratwurst at this stop, but everyone on the tour picked pretzels because we were so full from the rest of the food tour. (Besides, you can take the pretzels to go, but taking a brat to go is harder.) The pretzels were nice and warm and salty, and I usually think pretzels are too boring to bother eating.
24 Hour Treat: Gluhwine
If you look for the best things to do on the Lower East Side in the Christmas season, don’t miss out on the traditional spiced (but not sweet) German tradition known as gluhwine. I think if Germans want this drink to become more popular, they should change the name. It’s a little sticky, but I would hardly compare it to gluh. And who wants to drink gluh? Spiced wine is vastly superior.
This drink isn’t included with the tour, so you’d have to pay for it on your own, but it’s worth it. And if it’s not Gluhwine Season, go for a lovely beer instead.
Best Things to Do on the Lower East Side
Afternoon: Tour the Tenement Museum
The Tenement Museum is definitely one of New York City’s hidden gems. I am not sure that any other city in the world has a museum quite like it. It will turn up on any list of the best things to do on the Lower East Side. And that’s why we’re going there today!
This museum was founded by two historians who took an abandoned tenement house that had once been inhabited by different families of immigrants to the LES and turned it into a museum dedicated to telling the stories of the many immigrant communities that have made New York City such a special place.
This isn’t like a typical museum because you visit only on themed guided tours. Each tour takes you through a different period of the tenement’s history. I took the Hard Times tour about the 1880s, but you should take any tour that is available when you visit and looks intriguing to you.
You have to book the tours in advance on the website. Then just show up at their gift shop about 15 minutes before your tour starts. The guide will announce your group when it’s ready, and you’ll actually be able to enter the museum.
Though sadly I cannot take you on a tour of the museum myself, I’ll be happy to talk you through…
Three Hard Times Facts
1) So Who Was Having These Hard Times?
There are two families you’ll learn about on this tour: the Gumpertz family and the Schneider family. The Gumpertz family was a German-Jewish family led by a single mother named Natalie. (The father had disappeared under mysterious circumstances and hoo boy, will we be hearing about him later.)
Natalie supported her children by working as a seamstress. She worked on a machine that was donated by a society devoted to helping widows. But she herself was not exactly a widow. (Again, more about this later.)
The Schneiders were a German-Goyishe family, and they owned the saloon downstairs. This might seem not to be as Hard Times as the Gumpertz family, but in their own way, they had Hard Times too.
2) What’s This About a Husband?
Natalie had a husband named Julius who went missing under…mysterious circumstances. Natalie thought he had deserted the family, but how could she be sure? And there was no trace of him anywhere. Eventually she had him declared dead.
But Julius was not dead. He was the next best thing–living in Cincinnati, Ohio. (I kid, Cinci, I heart you and your goetta and your weirdly delicious Skyline Chili.) Apparently the city directory in Cincinnati listed him as a huckster, and I want to know just how shady you have to be for an official Cincinnati directory to list you as a “huckster”.
3) So What Hard Times Did These Saloon People Have?
Their hard times were not as dramatic as Natalie and Julius “Huckster” Gompertz’s were. The Schneiders were German immigrants who owned a saloon. But sometimes doing business was tricky for them. Despite New York’s liberal rep, not everyone was as open about drinking beer every day as the Schneiders were.
So the city passed laws making it illegal to sell alcohol on a Sunday, which made it harder for the saloon to do business on a day when people were not working and happy to come to a saloon. These Blue Laws were still in place when I was a kid; it was impossible to buy alcohol on a Sunday.
Of course, the saloon also caused some hard times for the other families living in the building, since the residents had to share an outdoor toilet with the patrons of the saloon. Ew, so gross! And once again, I am thankful that I don’t live in the 1870s.
Best Things to Do On the Lower East Side
Evening: Dinner at Pig and Khao
Everyone knows that one of the best things to on the Lower East Side is eat! So let’s stop for dinner at Pig and Khao, a restaurant that specializes in Southeast Asian street food. (The chef-owner is Filipino.) This is one of those restaurants where you’re supposed to share the plates, but who cares about that?
I dined alone, and I was totally happy with two plates and a dessert. I do recommend getting one lighter savory course, and one heavier savory course. For my light course, I selected the papaya salad, which had tons of fun flavors like taro and sour green papaya. I loved the moist, slightly charred chicken. Sometimes the chicken that a restaurant puts in salad can feel like a soggy afterthought, but not this chicken.
24 Hour Treat: Sizzling Sisig
For my heavier course, I got this wonder, which is made with pork head, chili, and a fried egg. You need to mix the egg into to the whole dish and watch it cook, which is fun. This dish was so decadently loaded with fat and spice; I would rather get this than a burger and fries when I’m treating myself any day of the week.
But I do recommend getting it with a side of coconut rice because the sweetness of the rice adds a nice balance and it’s fun to mix the rice in to get all the egg and sauce.
Pig and Khao also has a very good cocktail program. I recommend the Rum and Hyde, which has ginger and curry leaf. It’s both savory and a little spicy.
Or you could try the Pigroni. It tastes just like a Negroni, only with a bit of pineapple so it’s got more of a Southeast Asian feel, and it’s a little sweeter.
Finally, for dessert I recommend the Filipino treat halo halo. This beautiful sundae comes with ube ice cream, a special kind of coconut called macapuno, leche flan, a flattened rice called pinipig, and a whole bunch of shaved ice. All the different types of sweetnesses and textures make this is a crazy fun dish to eat. Just don’t eat it too fast or you’ll get a brain freeze.
When he came to take my last ice drippings away, the waiter asked me if it was everything I wanted, and I assure you that it was! The only issue was that the entire credit card system went down just as I was ready to pay the bill, so I had to haul tuckus to an ATM to get some cash. But it was worth it for such a tasty feast, and besides, I’m 99.9 percent sure that won’t happen to you when you go!
Best Things to Do on the Lower East Side
How To Get There
Now, I wish I knew where you lived, Internet Stranger, because I could send you a box of the finest knishes. But sadly, I do not, and so I can’t tell you exactly how to get from your home to New York City so you can find the best things to do on the Lower East Side.
However, if you need to take a plane or car to get to New York City, I recommend Expedia for the best way to find the cheapest flight or car rental, depending on how you want to get around. Just click here to start looking for the best possible deals on your flight or car rental, so you can head out to find the best things to do on the Lower East Side ASAP.
That’s the Best Things to Do on the Lower East Side!
What do you think are the best things to do on the Lower East Side? Have you ever eaten a pork head? And seriously, how did the officials of Cincinnati know to call Julius Gumpertz a professional huckster? Please email me at [email protected] and let me know.
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 Hours with the best things to do on the Lower East Side.
And there’s a million other things to do in New York City. Want to spend Christmas in New York? With the Brooklyn Bridge? What about 24 hours in Manhattan? How about the Bronx? Or the best museums in Manhattan? I’ve got you covered here!