Often Overlooked! Things to Do on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, NYC

upper east side manhattan skyline from central park

The Upper East Side of Manhattan was once known as the Silk Stocking district because it has long been known as the neighborhood with the largest amount of wealth in New York City. Located between the borders of Central Park to the west, the East River to the East, 96th Street to the north, and down to 59th Street to the south, this area is also the bottom of Central Park and the intersection where the famous Plaza Hotel is located. In 1981 the Upper East Side Historic District was designated by the city and in 1984 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

This district is full of residential structures built after the American Civil War and runs from 59th Street to 78th Street along 5th Avenue and includes some portions over to 3rd Avenue. This neighborhood is known more for old mansion homes, high-end stores, museums, hotels, and some cafes. Unlike other locations in NYC (such as Lower Manhattan or even Brooklyn), the Upper East Side (also known as UES) is not known as a “bustling” area.

It is known to be quieter than its surrounding neighborhood, though there are pockets of action on places like 2nd Avenue. The neighborhoods that make the UES are Yorkville, Lennox Hill, and Carnegie Hill. Still, there are many things to do on the Upper East Side especially if you are interested in New York high-society and fans of various TV shows and films that take place around the area.

How to Get To the Upper East Side

Part of what has kept the UES from becoming an area full of nightlife and bright lights was the difficulty many New Yorkers had in getting there. While areas such as Greenwich Village and Midtown have many trains that service them, making it easily accessible from almost any borough, that wasn’t the case with the UES. Up until recently, the UES was one of the harder areas to get to Manhattan via public transportation with only the green (4, 5, 6) line going up through the neighborhood and to Harlem along Lexington Avenue which is still 5 long blocks from the East River.

In 2017, the long-awaited 2nd Avenue Subway line opened which extended stops for N, Q, R lines all the way up to 96th Street and 2nd Avenue, previously the line stopped at 59th with the trains heading east over the river to Queens. Now that this area of Manhattan has become more accessible, there is a noticeable change in the amount of foot traffic, as well as cafes and restaurants popping up around the area.

Things to See & Do in the Upper East Side on Foot

There are several sights to see by foot in this area of Manhattan, including a number of notable locations within Central Park near the 5th Avenue side of the UES such as the Central Park Zoo, and at 74th Street in the park is the famous Alice in Wonderland statue.  In 1959 George Delacorte commissioned Jose de Creeft to build a statue of bronze that children would be able to climb on, and touch, while exploring the wonderful characters and world that Lewis Carroll had created in his classic story.

The statue stands 11 feet tall and features Alice along with her famous friends; the Mad Hatter, Dormouse, her cat Dinah, and the White Rabbit. Near this statue is a reflecting pool where you can rent motorized boats to steer along the water, plus a public restroom and small snack bar with much-welcomed refreshments and seating on a hot summer’s day.

On the opposite side of the Upper East Side, bordering the East River is John Jay Park. The park includes a bathhouse that houses a recreation room auditorium, gym, and changing facilities. There are great grassy areas, river views, a large playground, basketball courts, and handball courts. Carl Shurz Park is another great waterfront park for picnicking and walking along the promenade enjoying the views of the river and Roosevelt Island.

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Don’t Miss Visiting the Gracie Mansion

The Gracie Mansion is a must-see for anyone exploring the Upper East Side. This mansion has not only been home to the sitting mayor of NYC since 1942, but it is also one of the oldest surviving wooden structures in Manhattan. The home was built in 1799 by Archibald Gracie in a location that was then located 5 miles north of New York City after the home and its 11 acres of land passed hands a couple of times; the estate came to be owned by the City of New York in 1896 due to a non-payment of taxes.

Public tours of the Mansion and its grounds are available, and you can book them online, note that these tours are only given during one 2.5-hour timeslot each week so booking online ahead of time is imperative to ensure you get a spot.

Famous Upper East Side Scenes from Film and TV

The Upper East Side is a must-visit for any Gossip Girl fan visiting New York City. There are plenty of tours to choose from that traverse these filming locations in the Upper East Side from walking, to bus, to pedicab tours – there is bound to be a tour for everyone! Along with various types of tours, you can also find tours of varying lengths from 1 to 3 hours, which makes it easy to fit into whatever else you have planned for your day. See sights such as the Met Steps, Palace Hotel, Laduree, Empire Hotel, Bethesda Terrace, Harry Winston, and many more important locations to the series – don’t forget your camera!

While we’re talking about filming locations, you can take a photo of yourself in front of the Valmont Mansion, from the film Cruel Intentions, located on 79th Street and is home to the Ukrainian Institute. The Ukrainian Institute hosts art exhibits, concerts, poetry readings, film screenings, and much more, all open to the public. Check out their website prior to your visit and see what you can see during your visit. This building is also a registered National Historic Landmark.

The Carlyle hotel upper east side manhattan nyc historic hotel

Another popular filming location is from Bill Murray’s holiday classic, “A Very Murray Christmas”. For those familiar with this film, you will know that it almost entirely takes place within a hotel and the hotel bar. That hotel, which is also home to permanent resident apartments, is the famous “Carlyle Hotel” (or formally named these days as, The Carlyle, A Rosewood Hotel). This luxury apartment hotel, located on the corner of 76th and Madison in the Upper East Side, was opened in 1930, designed in full Art Deco style, and named for the Scottish essayist named Thomas Carlyle who incidentally had nothing to do with the commissioning, building, or designing of the hotel.

The reason why the hotel ended up being named after this famous essayist was that the builder, Moses Ginsberg, left the naming of the hotel up to his daughter, Diana. This hotel had the very unfortunate timing of being finished and ready to open shortly after the big stock market crash of 1929. This had a great effect on the apartment hotel and the original owner had to sell roughly a year after opening, but luckily the new owners kept up with the old management, and together they were able to breathe life into the building – even if it was a little different than the life they had originally intended for it. By 1948 the building had a new owner, Robert Whittle Dowling, a New York City businessman, who was able to continue the “glow up” and make the location one of the hottest destinations for high-end clientele from Europe and the US political circles.

The Café Carlyle has played host to a number of famous jazz musicians throughout its time, and you can find many murals completed by famous artists throughout the building. Most notably, murals depicting Madeline in Central Park were created by Ludwig Bemelmans, the bar get its name from Bemelmans, as it is called “Bemelmans Bar”, and this is the only location where a Bemelmans mural is on display to the public. You can see this mural in all its finery displayed in “A Very Murray Christmas” as many well-known celebrities gather for some food, drink, and a good old-fashioned and wacky holiday sing-a-long. Having a dirty martini at the bar here is like drinking with the spirits of New York City’s well-storied past, and you can be comforted knowing that Mick Jagger owns an apartment upstairs.

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Explore the Museum Mile

There is another well-known strip of road here in the Upper West Side, commonly referred to as “Museum Mile”. This stretch of 5th Avenue is home to many museums and galleries and is perfect for a day of learning through the arts. Starting at the North end between 104 and 105 streets on 5th Avenue is the Museo del Barrio. While this space is technically in “West Harlem” most of the mile is located within the UES, so we say, it counts as a thing to do in the UES.

museum mile 5th ave street sign upper east side manhattan nyc

Museo del Barrio is the oldest museum in the country that is dedicated to Latin Artwork and is truly a work of the community of East Harlem coming together to bring more cultural/historical knowledge to their neighborhood and those visiting. Their permanent collection is ever-expanding, and the Museo is always hosting new events, be sure to check the website when planning your visit so you can ensure you get the most out of your experience.

Just south of El Museo Del Barrio you can find The Museum of the City of New York, which provides visitors with a vast array of city history from its original inhabitants to urban planning and much more. As you continue to venture south down 5th Avenue you will encounter; The Jewish Museum, Neue Gallerie, Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum, National Academy Museum, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim.

The Guggenheim (as it is often referred to) made a splash after its 15-year creation/construction process. The museum was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and it known for is its unusual helical shape, on the outside as well as the entrance atrium area. Along with its permanent collection, be sure to check out the website as there is a string of new and exciting exhibits that come through each year.

The MET entrance and steps on upper east side manhattan NYC

Rounding off the south end of this mile, spanning the distances between 80th and 84th streets is the famous Metropolitan Museum of Art, home each May to the Met Gala. This museum is easily the largest in the city and its collection does not disappoint. This is easily a museum to get lost in for hours on end, there are special tours you can take, and some that just include highlights if you want to get a quick rundown of everything you can but just walking in and seeing where the paths lead you is also a fun way to explore this museum. The Costume Institute exhibits typically show from the first Monday in May to the fall, when they begin preparation for the upcoming year, and be on the lookout for any other temporary exhibits as well. Be sure to check the website for more information.

Luxury Shopping & Dining on the Upper East Side

If you are only going to shop in one place while in New York City (that isn’t to go and see Santa at the famous Macy’s in Herald Square) a visit to Bloomingdales on 59th street is a must not miss. This well-known department store got its start in New York City and continues to blossom here.

Bergdorf goodman upper east side luxury shopping manhattan nyc

Along with all of the great designer finds, this store is also home to; a Magnolia Bakery (the bakery made famous when Carrie and Miranda from Sex and the City ate cupcakes outside of the West Village location), Daikanyama, an elegant Japanese-style dining experience, Forty Carrots for quick bits and smoothies, Flip for those craving burgers, and Studio 59 a one of a kind photo and video studio connected to a bar and restaurant within the store.

Enjoy your meal and a cocktail while witnessing the behind-the-scenes excitement of a Bloomingdales video shoot!

Nightlife on the Upper East Side

While there isn’t a lot of nightlife in this part of town, if you are a fan of Jerry Seinfeld then I have just the place for you. The Comic Strip Live is located on 2nd Avenue between 81st and 82nd streets. The Comic Strip Live was opened in 1976 and originally featured a variety of acts but eventually became a stand-up comedy-only location. Jerry Seinfeld graced this stage back in his days starting out, and Chris Rock and Colin Quinn used to work here in exchange for some much-coveted stage time as well. In 2008, from June 3 to 5 the club entered the Guinness Book of World Records for the Longest Continuous Stand-Up Comedy Show, finishing just beyond the 50-hour mark. With so many well-known comic faces stopping by to grace this stage, you never know who may turn up.

Don’t Overlook the Upper East Side When Planning Your Trip to NYC

For the rare New York City visitor, the Upper East Side probably isn’t going to pop up on the radar. But the fun thing about the Upper East Side is that all the fun is hidden below the surface. Most of the history of this part of the city isn’t as well known as areas like Downtown, the East Village, the West Village, and Times Square. There aren’t as many flashy bars and restaurants, the neighborhoods look quieter, the buildings have older construction with not as many windows, and the signs are not huge and neon. But if you do your research while planning you trip to NYC, you will find that there is a lot to see and explore in this small part of New York City.

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