26 Best Things to Do on the Upper East Side: A Local’s Guide
As a local, the UES is one of my favorite neighborhoods in NYC. While you're visiting, check out this list of the best things to do on the Upper East Side.
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I’ve always been a bit of an uptown girl.
I spent every year of my life in the city (save one) living on either the Upper East Side or the Upper West Side.
I loved living uptown because of its proximity to Central Park and its many arts venues and dining options.
There would be entire weekends where I wouldn’t go downtown because there was just too much to do and see uptown.
If you want some ideas for your next trip uptown, check out this list of the best things to do in Upper Manhattan.
For the sake of definition, I mainly will focus on things above 59th street—except for mentioning Broadway, because I believe seeing a show on Broadway is always a good idea!
The Shops at Columbus Circle used to be my favorite lunch break shopping stop.
They’ve got all the basic stores like Sephora, H&M, Lululemon, and J.Crew. Plus a giant Whole Foods in the basement—it’s my go-to stop when I need Central Park picnic supplies.
The shops also have some great dining options like Per Se, Masa, and Momofuku.
Local’s Tip: They also host Jazz at Lincoln Center here. So check their event schedule to see if anyone is playing.
This legendary venue is a must-stop if you’re into music or general history.
The Apollo has been around for 85 years and is a world-renowned landmarked theater.
Plenty of legends have gotten their starts here, including Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, and Sammy Davis Jr.
Central Park will always be one of my all-time favorite places in NYC.
I would spend almost every weekend strolling around the conservatory garden, or picnicking near Belvedere Castle.
The park is beautiful any time of year, though summer offers a ton of world class events like free Shakespeare in the Park, a summer concert series, and free movie nights.
As you probably know by now, I’m a major theatre fan. So obviously catching a Broadway show is the first thing I think of doing when near upper Manhattan.
Sure, if you want to get technical, Broadway is located more in midtown than uptown. But since it’s just a few blocks outside the zone, I say go for it and catch a show on the legendary Great White Way.
As always, I’m always thrilled to talk theater, so shoot me an email if you need show recommendations.
The Frick Collection is truly astounding, right down to the Gilded Age mansion that houses it.
It boasts works by Goya, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Bellini. You can easily spend the entire afternoon wandering around admiring all the artwork and interiors of the mansion.
Keep an eye on their upcoming schedule, as they also host lectures, special exhibitions, and an acclaimed concert series.
Riverside Park is one of only eight officially designated scenic landmarks in the city.
It’s a quiet neighborhood park on the Upper West Side. I like to grab a coffee and head there in the morning to watch people and get in some quality reading time.
Keep an eye out for the local goats the park brings in each summer to help control the weeds.
It took me years to finally get to the Cloisters, and I cannot recommend them enough.
It’s a Medieval museum in Fort Tryon Park that makes you genuinely feel you’re stepping back in time.
Spend the afternoon wandering around the museum and their beautiful gardens that have some stunning views of the Hudson.
Local’s Tip: Save your ticket from The Met, as the ticket allows entry to both museums.
If you’re looking for a romantic night out, consider grabbing a ticket to catch a ballet performance at Lincoln Center.
It’s something I always treat myself to at least once a year. I’ve never seen a poor performance here.
Arrive early to enjoy a drink prior to the performance. There’s lots of small exhibits and occasionally art work displayed all around the building.
Local’s Tip: If you’re in town during the holiday season, The Nutcracker ballet is a festive must see.
The views from Fort Tryon Park make it worth the trek uptown to Inwood. Public transportation involves a lot of transfers, so if you can drive or take a taxi. It’s well worth the extra cash to save on travel time.
This 67-acre park offers stunning views of the Hudson River and beautiful gardens. Plus is the home of The Cloisters, which houses a bunch of the MET’s medieval art.
Bring a picnic to enjoy or wear your walking shoes and wander around the many paths and trails in the park.
Local’s Tip: If you buy a ticket to see The Cloisters, you can save it and use it to gain entry to the MET.
This is one of the most unique places that I’ve been to in NYC. It’s a must-see for anyone who is into art or design.
They have a Maurice Sendak exhibit coming up later this year that I’m already looking forward to hopefully catching the next time I’m in town.
The Society of Illustrators has been promoting the art of illustration since 1901. A lot of their artwork dates back to the early 1900s and the staff are knowledgeable on all of it.
Stop by their headquarters to view annual exhibitions and check out special events.
Local’s Tip: If you can’t make it in person, you can also view a bunch of online exhibits on their website.
Vintage shopping is easily one of my favorite things to do in the city. Because New York has such an iconic fashion scene, you never know what gems you’ll uncover in the most unlikely of vintage stores.
These are some of my favorite uptown vintage shopping destinations:
Zabar’s was my go-to grocery store when I was living on the Upper West Side.
In case you haven’t heard of this iconic place, it’s been the spot to get some of the best bagels, quality cuts of meat, and pastries in the city.
It’s a family run place that’s been open for over 80 years and is basically a New York institution.
Swing by and grab a bagel with schmear and a coffee, then head a few blocks west to Riverside Park to enjoy them.
Local’s Tip: They also serve up a delicious frozen yogurt that’s highly satisfying during the summer.
No doubt you’ve heard of Alexander Hamilton recently with the rise of mega theatrical sensation Hamilton.
If you haven’t heard of it, do yourself a favor and splurge on tickets to catch the Broadway smash hit that made the Founding Fathers cool again.
Hamilton Grange in Harlem is the relocated and preserved home of Alexander Hamilton. It’s where he lived out the last part of his life with his wife Eliza.
You’ve got two options for visiting. You can arrive early and go on a tour with the guide. Or you can go on a self-guided tour of the house.
I prefer going with the guide because they have lots of information about the estate that isn’t obvious if you’re wandering around solo.
While you’re touring famous places of our nation’s top political influencers, stop by the tomb of President Ulysses S. Grant.
Prior to becoming the 18th President of the United States, he was a soldier and politician.
This is one of the biggest mausoleums in North America. It’s the last resting place of President Ulysses S. Grant and his wife.
Tours of the mausoleum are available. The visitors center also offers a gift shop and library.
The MET is one of my favorite museums in New York City.
It’s also one of the largest museums in the world! It’s Egyptian wing has the largest collection of Egyptian art outside of Cairo.
I love visiting their special rooftop exhibits every summer, along with the special exhibits based on the MET Gala’s most recent theme.
I’d suggest planning on spending at least three to four hours here to take in most of the museum.
Local’s Tip: Your ticket will get you free entry into The Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park. This is where the MET houses most of its medieval artwork.
Besides hosting world-class ballet, opera, and music, Lincoln Center also provides a place to see some of the best cinema around.
This is one of my favorite places to see films, especially because they also hold talkbacks and interviews frequently with top artists. I saw a fascinating interview with Jessica Chastain here a few years ago.
Film at Lincoln Center is a neighborhood gem. Their theaters are intimate, clean, and showcase both major films and under the radar hits.
Arrive early to enjoy a glass of wine before the film at their adorable cafe called Indie.
Stepping into Dylan’s Candy Bar feels like entering Willy Wonka’s land of sweets. Everywhere you look there’s candy, including the floors!
They serve up a selection of candies from all over the world, plus have an epic candy-inspired menu at their cafe upstairs.
Head downstairs to find a bunch of fun souvenirs and a wall of candy chosen and signed by celebrities who have stopped by the store over the years.
Even if you aren’t planning on attending the opera, you still should take a peek inside.
The Metropolitan Opera’s lobby features some stunning artwork by Marc Chagall.
If you are planning on catching an opera—which I recommend doing, then keep an eye out in the theater for the venue’s iconic chandeliers.
Also plan on arriving early to enjoy a wander around the venue with a glass of champagne.
Bloomingdales is one of my favorite department stores to shop, especially in New York.
This store’s shoe selection would make Carrie Bradshaw feel like she’s gone to heaven.
This flagship store has the perfect mix of designer and affordable high street brands.
Plus, they have an in-house frozen yogurt that is my favorite to eat while browsing the many floors of fashionable items and decor. Just head to Forty Carrots on the 7th floor to pick up this sweet treat.
Also known as Jeffrey’s Hook Light, this is one of the few remaining lighthouses in New York City.
The Little Red Lighthouse is well-known thanks to the popularity of the children’s book The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge.
Though adults likely will recognize this as a low-key popular Instagram spot under the George Washington Bridge.
Local’s Tip: Each September there’s an annual festival. It includes a celebrity reading of the famous children’s book.
Morningside Park in Central Harlem is a hidden gem. It’s got great walking paths, an adorable turtle pond, and a wonderful farmer’s market.
If you’re planning on checking out the farmer’s market, it typically happens on Saturday mornings. You can find the most up-to-date scheduling on their website.
I like to rent a Citibike and ride around the park before picking up goodies at the market.
Made up of multiple personal collections, The Guggenheim is one of the more eclectic museums in the city.
It’s also well-known for its iconic architectural design by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Spend the afternoon getting lost in all the cool art, and maybe even taking an IG photo of the epic spiderweb design on the glass ceiling.
The National Jazz Museum is the perfect stop to learn about jazz and its history in Harlem.
It’s not that big, but they do have Duke Ellington’s piano on display. Plus a bunch of original music and old films that you can watch.
The best part is that admission is free, though donations are greatly encouraged.
This gothic revival style building is a cultural institution.
The Armory hosts plays, exhibits, interactive artwork, recitals, and concerts.
I love all the plays that they bring in, especially the ones from London’s West End. I always see at least one to two shows here a year.
The coolest part is that it’s in a historic National Guard Armory from the 1880s.
In Washington Heights you’ll find one of the grandest old vaudeville theaters in the city.
United Palace is an architectural marvel with tons of gold detailing and high ceilings.
Keep an eye on their website for upcoming concerts, shows and tours of the venue. This is one gorgeous theater you’ll want to catch a show in.
The Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market is the spot to shop for original African gifts, jewelry, and home decor pieces.
There are tons of vendors and plenty of affordable finds here. They also have a bunch of delicious food stands and global music.
The best part is that they’re open daily, so you can shop anytime of the week.
Anyone who considers themselves a graffiti aficionado, or just wants a really cool Instagram background needs to check this place out.
The Graffiti Hall of Fame is basically a bunch of walls in East Harlem with where some of the top street artists have left their mark.
This is the spot to go to see some epic artwork for free.
Fair warning though, part of it is in a schoolyard that’s not always accessible.
If you have never been to the symphony before, this is the place to experience it for the first time.
The first time I went, I assumed, like most people, it was going to be a total bore. Boy, was I wrong!
Catching a NY Philharmonic performance is now something I try to do at least once a year.
You’ll hear some of the best musicians in the country perform here, so settle into your seats and let the music take over your imagination.
Movie fanatics likely will remember Serendipity 3 from the well-known rom-com Serendipity.
Foodies will recognize their famous frozen hot chocolate from Oprah’s favorites list.
Even though it’s totally touristy these days, Serendipity is a blast to swing by at least once to sample their gigantic ice cream sundaes and frozen hot chocolate.
How many people have heard the name Langston Hughes, but have no idea why he’s famous?
Here’s the deal. He’s a famous African-American poet, novelist, playwright, and activist. He’s one of the biggest icons of the Harlem Renaissance.
To get to know more about him on a personal level, head to 20 East 127th Street in Harlem.
There you’ll find his top-floor apartment where he lived out the last two decades of his life creating masterpieces like “I Wonder as I Wander.”
Thanks to Citibike, it’s now easier than ever to explore the city on a bicycle.
They have stations in pretty much every neighborhood. Just download the app to find the closest station to you.
I love riding my bike around Central Park and over along the Hudson River. If you go to Riverside Park, there’s a nice riding path.
Fair warning, keep an eye out for traffic and other cyclists who act like they’re the next Lance Armstrong. Sometimes it’s best to just pull over and let those aggressive cyclists pass you up, especially on the road.
Okay, full disclosure, I had never even heard of this museum until last year until a friend mentioned going.
Gossip Girl fans will instantly recognize the outside from the exterior shots of private school the lead characters attend.
The Museum of the City of New York is a spot everyone should visit at least once. As a New Yorker, I couldn’t believe this place wasn’t more well known amongst locals.
It showcases the history of the city from its very beginning when the Dutch settled in the area. It’s got artifacts, exhibits, paintings, photography, and tons of historical facts that will leave you wanting to learn more.
The museum isn’t massive, which makes it a pleasure to spend two or three hours exploring.
When in doubt, sometimes the best way to see a neighborhood is by taking a walking tour.
The guides always point out the need to know places, plus are great at giving out local suggestions on places to go after the tour.
Check out Free Tours By Foot to book a walking tour in any neighborhood in the city. It’s pay what you wish, so it’s affordable for everyone.
If you’re looking to see the next major star before they make it big, check out a show at world renowned Juilliard.
They offer public performances by their acting, dance, and music students. Just check the website for their latest lineup.
Juilliard is one of the top art schools in the world, so you’re almost guaranteed to see a spectacular performance.
New York City has a pretty hilarious comedy scene.
You’ll catch a lot of up-and-coming comedians. If you’re lucky, you may end up at a set with a comedy legend (or two) on the performance roster.
These are some of my go-to uptown comedy joints:
One of my favorite things to do at night, or on a hot summer’s day, is to find the perfect rooftop bar to chill out at.
NYC must have easily over 100 rooftop bars throughout the city. As someone who’s likely visited them all over the last 13 years, I’m great at recommending spots.
These are some of the best uptown rooftops to grab a drink at:
Cooper-Hewitt is the nation’s only museum dedicated to historic and contemporary design.
With a collection of over 210,000 works, this is one museum that you’ll want to spend an entire afternoon exploring.
They also host several exhibits and events throughout the year, so keep an eye on their calendar.
This American history museum and library is another spot that both locals and tourists need to check out at least once.
I really enjoyed their exhibit on Tiffany lamps. I remember hearing my grandmother talk about them when I was younger, so it was cool to learn the history and see some of them.
They also had a cool exhibit a while ago on Harry Potter and another on Madeline. Both were outstanding!
NY Historical Society’s museum is pretty small, but if you see a special exhibit that interests you, it’s worth the price of admission.
Down the block from NY Historical Society, you’ll find one of the world’s most distinguished scientific institutions.
The American Museum of Natural History is a must-see for everyone visiting the city. You’ll see the famous Great Blue Whale, the Hayden Planetarium, lots of fossils, and a ton of taxidermy.
This is one museum you’ll want to plan on spending the entire morning or afternoon exploring.
There are few things I love more than stopping to enjoy a sweet treat, especially while traveling. I like the places where you can get dessert to walk around enjoying.
These are some spots you’ll want to stop for a sugary treat to-go at:
The Beacon Theater on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is a spot you’ll want to keep an eye on when booking tickets to concerts and comedy shows.
The venue is stunning and intimate, meaning there’s not really a bad seat in the house. The acoustics are also outstanding here.
In the last few years, icons like Bob Dylan and Jerry Seinfeld have played shows here. So don’t sleep on regularly checking their website for the latest shows.
While you’re wandering around the UWS, walk by the historic Dakota on West 72nd.
This is the gothic co-op building that John Lennon got shot in front of in 1980. Oko Ono still lives here, so keep any eye out for her in the neighborhood.
It’s also been home to some other famous people including the Steinway family, Lauren Bacall, Bono, and Rosemary Clooney.
The Jewish Museum is dedicated to the preservation of the artistic and cultural heritage of Jewish people.
It’s artwork and cultural artifacts on display span 4,000 years.
I went for the first time a few years ago and was seriously impressed away by the amount of artwork and history inside.
They also had a cool Leonard Cohen exhibit going on that I found impressive.
Local’s Tip: Admission is free on Saturdays!
The vendors at the Grand Bazaar on the UWS have almost anything that you’ll want.
They have tons of vintage finds, antiques, sculptures, paintings, furniture and a few food stalls.
Grab a coffee and stroll around the market to see what special souvenirs you’ll discover.
They’re only open on Sundays, so plan accordingly.
Who doesn’t love experiencing a new neighborhood via its bar scene?
It’s the best because you get to meet locals and get recommendations from the bartenders on the best places to hit up in the area.
These are some of my go-to bars for when I want to chill uptown:
Near the northern end of Museum Mile, you’ll find El Museo del Barrio. They’re a museum bringing Latinx, Caribbean, and Hispanic art into the mainstream.
They’ve got artifacts, traditional art, drawings, paintings, sculptures, and installations. I really enjoyed the photography and documentary videos playing.
Even though the museum is a bit small, their collection packs a cultural punch that everyone should experience.
Symphony Space is a multi-disciplinary performing arts organization that puts on some pretty wonderful performances.
If you’re looking to see something unique, this is a magnificent spot to consider.
Their programming includes film, theater, music, literature, and dance.
I love how intimate the venues are. Even in the worst seat, you’ll feel like a part of the performance.
If you’re into folk art, the American Folk Art Museum should be at the top of your to-do list.
Even if you aren’t a massive folk art fan, swing by anyway. The museum is pretty small, so you’ll get through it in no time. Plus, it’s free to visit.
They display things like quilts, drawings, sculptures, and photography. You’re basically guaranteed to see some beautifully unique works of art here.
Don’t forget to swing by their gift shop, which has a ton of funky artwork and unusual souvenirs.
And not much has changed since they opened. Stepping into this luncheonette is like stepping into a 1920s time warp.
They still make everything the old-fashioned way. They even serve homemade soda by mixing caramel syrup with seltzer water.
The Neue Gallery’s German and Austrian art collection is stunning, but that’s not why I stop here so often.
The desserts at the Neue Galerie’s Café Sabarsky are what keep luring me back to this museum.
Of course, I encourage you to stroll through the gallery because it is pretty epic (just not as epic as the desserts).
Oh, and while you’re there, keep an eye out for the world-famous “The Lady in Gold” painting.
Carl Schurz Park will always hold a special place in my heart, no matter where I’m living.
I spent a lot of the last decade picnicking and running in this beautiful park. I get homesick just thinking about all the wonderful afternoons and evenings I’ve spent enjoying the grassy knolls.
Stop by the park to enjoy stunning sun rises along the East River, relaxing picnics, free movie nights, concerts, and community events like a Halloween dog show that’s epic.
You can also see Gracie Mansion, the 18th-century mansion that’s the official residence of New York’s Mayor.
Thanks to the classic rom-com You’ve Got Mail, Cafe Lalo might be one of the most famous cafes in all of New York.
I admit it’s a tad touristy, but it’s also pretty charming. They also have a pretty delicious selection of desserts and shakes.
I really like going later in the evening when it’s less crowded. Fair warning though, they only take cash.
Local fashionista’s skip shopping amongst the tourists downtown on 5th Avenue and favor shopping on the Upper East Side’s Madison Avenue.
It’s got all the classics, like Chanel, Celine, and Louboutin, mixed with spots like Theory, Intermix, and even J. Crew.
I can’t count the number of unique and well-acted shows I’ve caught here over the years.
This cool small non-profit theater brings some of the best American and international Off-Broadway productions to New York.
If you want to see something unique, I highly suggest booking yourself a ticket to one of 59E59’s shows.
92Y is one cultural community center that you’ll want to attend an event at thanks to it’s many high-profile performances and interviews.
Check out YouTube to see examples of the inspiring talks, interviews and performances that 92Y hosts.
You’ll want to book well ahead of time, as the events here always sell fast out.
Head to Harlem to check out the Studio Museum. It’s totally focused on showcasing African and African American artists.
The installations and artwork are beautiful and thought-provoking. You can either book a tour or wander through the museum solo.
Don’t forget to check out their gift shop. I love all the books it has available.
I’ve got to admit that while writing this, I’ve added so many things to my must-do list for when I arrive back in NYC.
There are so many things that I haven’t done for years and would love to revisit, plus a few new spots I’m dying to check out.
Mainly, though, I can’t wait to be back in the city with its bustling energy.
No matter if you’re downtown or uptown, that energy is consistent. There’s truly nothing like it in the world.
Let me know in the comments below which spot you’re most looking forward to checking out.
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