A hundred years back, the Lower East Side in Manhattan (the area between Houston St, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Bowery and the East River) was the largest Jewish quarter in the world. Since then waves of different nationalities have washed over it and left their mark, from bagel stores to Puerto Rican restaurants.

Fast forward to today and the Lower East Side is the coolest district in New York, as hipsters and in the know tourists dive down its shaded network of streets, discovering brunches that are more like after-midnight dance parties, contemporary photo galleries and prohibition-style cocktail bars. A world away from the brownstones and penthouses of the Upper East Side, on the Lower East Side steam rises from manhole covers in scenes straight out of a movie, the buildings are crisscrossed with steel stairways and possibilities hang in the thick city air.

Drink

Let’s be clear, there are no shortage of places to grab a beer or sip a cocktail in this neighborhood – the hard part is choosing which ones to hit up first.

For cocktails, sultry Dirty French (dirtyfrench.com) once had the corner on unusual vintage-inspired drinks but it has quite a few rivals nowadays. This is probably a good thing as it requires a big bank account to be a barfly here. Pop in for one and move on if you are on a budget. Just down the road is the Hotel Chantelle (hotelchantelle.com), which has recreated a mini Paris on its rooftop, complete with French street lamps, traditional park benches and a retractable roof.

Some of New York’s most well known mixologists have recently flocked to the area, opening up a raft of cocktail dens (invariably hidden behind velvet curtains) with each attracting their own cocktail cheerleaders. There’s Nitecap (nitecapnyc.com), which may look pretentious at the outset but has a great after hours crowd, and Attaboy, for an Art Deco ’30s evening. The Suffolk Arms (suffolkarms.com) however, takes its cue from the humble British pub and has a love letter menu to the spirit of the ’90s, vodka.

For something a little less pretentious, locals love Pianos (pianosnyc.com). A good time bar that’s open til 3am, it’s a kind of a ‘one last drink’ place (often followed up by a $1 a slice pizza from around the corner).

Cake Shop is pretty easy to walk past but it’s one of the cool-but-kind kids in the area. It’s also a record store and music venue – propping up the small bar serving craft beers is a quick way to feel like a local.

CakeShop is a mix of record store and bar Cake Shop is a quirky mix of record store and bar ©Seth Werkheiser/CC BY SA 2.0

Eat


Once upon a time Meg Ryan faked an orgasm in Katz Delicatessen(When Harry Met Sally) on the corner of Ludlow St, and back then it was probably the only late night place she could have gone for food. Now it really only attracts tourists keen to see where the famous scene took place.

Today the Lower East Side is awash with tiny spots to sample the fashionable dishes du jour (chicken and waffles at Sweet Chick (sweetchicknyc.com), meatballs at The Meatball Shop) and every part of the world feels represented, redefined and remade. Try Thai meets Aussie fusion at the Lucky Bee (luckybeenyc.com) or veggie-French fare at Le Turtle (leturtle.fr). For a taste of the original Lower East Side, Russ & Daughters’ bagel shop is the real deal – smoked salmon bagels have been bought from here for over a hundred years. There’s a cafe now too for matzo ball soup, hot on the spot.

For something a little more fun, the brunch over at dimly lit Sons of Essex (sonsofessexnyc.com) is a Saturday lunchtime party, with stacks of pancakes so big they should be illegal, carafes of mimosas and blissfully big bowls of hangover busting tater tots.

A classic lox and cream cheese bagel from Russ and Daughters, a century old tradition in the LESA classic lox and cream cheese bagel from Russ and Daughters, a century-old tradition in the LES ©T.Tseng/CC BY 2.0

Dance

There’s no doubt about it, late night Lower East Side is a whole lot of fun. And that’s the name of the game at No Fun (nofun-nyc.com), a let it all hang out bar-club based in townhouse shop. There’s a refreshing lack of pretension and a youngish crowd who shake it out to a mix of pop hits and ’80s classics.

Things get a little more indie and musically serious over at the Mercury Lounge. The small music venue has been showcasing up and coming talent since the ’90s. Most gigs are cheap, the beer’s decent and it’s low key enough to be just the right side of grimy. Sticky floors and rock can also be found at Arlene’s Grocery (arlenesgrocery.net), although be prepared to sweat it out in the downstairs live venue. For glitz and glitter over grunge, the Slipper Room puts on cabaret, burlesque and cutting edge performance art – it often has one of the most out there lineups in the city.

Mercury Lounge on Houston StreetMercury Lounge on Houston Street ©The All-Nite Images/CC BY SA 2.0

Do

A healthy collection of the next big thing style designer boutiques, community art spaces and on trend photo galleries ensure the Lower East Side isn’t a vampire borough, only coming alive after dark. Anastasia Photo’s exhibitions cover everything from Olympian photography to America’s drone wars and can be found on Ludlow Street. Further up the street is Assembly, selling super hip unisex clothing. While the area’s not short of places to down a cocktail, Dressing Room Bar & Boutique combines a vintage store with a selection of local designers (Tuck, Oyster, Out of Print) all backed by an in-house bar (which can only help with making those purchases, right?)

Stay

Ludlow St is the heart of this new hipster Lower East Side. Hotel Ludlow (ludlowhotel.com) has something to do with that, think exposed brickwork and Chesterfield sofas. It’s a favorite among A-listers trying to keep a low profile. Over the road is recently opened Hotel Indigo, a boutique number that has a graffitied lobby and a rooftop bar.

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