Yay, we finally made it back to New York City. It’s been a long three years, but here we are. And to shake things up, we decided to pick a hotel on the Upper West Side, rather than mid-Manhattan, as we did previously. We have been to the Upper West Side before for a quick mooch around, but this time we decided to spend some more time here and give it a closer inspection. After all, there are plenty of things to do on the Upper West Side. And it does have a very different vibe to Lower Manhattan.
Where is the Upper West Side (UWS)?
Before I start telling you about all the things to do on the Upper West Side, how about I tell you where the UWS is actually located? I guess the clue is in the name. If you are a little familiar with New York City, you will know that downtown Manhattan refers to the southern tip of the island, whereas uptown means heading north towards Central Park and beyond. Therefore, the Upper West Side is the North-western part of Manhattan. Spanning from the Hudson River to Central Park and from 59th to 110th Street.
Unlike central Manhattan, the Upper West Side is an area where people live. You will see locals, shops and a lot less tourists. Obviously, the density of sights to see on the Upper West Side is lower than elsewhere in Manhattan. But since we’ve been to New York City numerous times and have seen the usual suspects when it comes to New York sightseeing, this wasn’t a bad thing.
Things to do on the Upper West Side: Walk in Riverside Park
I have already mentioned that the Upper West Side is flanked to the East by Central Park. But that isn’t the only park available. Head to the West and go for a walk in the lovely Riverside Park.
Stretching along the Hudson River from 72nd Street to 125th Street and beyond, Riverside Park is perfect for a morning run or midday stroll away from the hustle and bustle. Approx. 4 miles long and with beautiful views across the Hudson River. There is a bird sanctuary in the Northern part of the park. As well as several memorials and statues dotted along the route: the Eleanor Roosevelt statue at 72nd Street, the Firemen’s Memorial at West 100th Street and the huge Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument at 89th Street (to name just a few).
And if you love walking, you can actually walk all the way to the southern tip of Manhattan. Starting at Riverside Park, you can walk through Riverside Park South, Hudson River Park all the way down to Battery Park.
Explore Columbia University
Technically not on the Upper West Side, but just north of it in Morningside Heights, Columbia University is near enough to definitely make my list of things to do on the Upper West Side.
As the oldest college in New York City (and one of the oldest in the United States), this ivy league university comes with a long list of famous alumni: pilot Amelia Earhart, former US president Barack Obama, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and actress Julia Stiles (amongst plenty others obviously).
Founded in 1754, Columbia University (back then called King’s College) was originally located in Lower Manhattan, adjacent to Trinity Church, but moved to its current location at the end of the 19th century.
If you visit Columbia University on a Wednesday, check their schedule and sign up for a free guided historical tour of the campus.
Unfortunately, we were in town Thursday to Monday, so didn’t get a chance to attend the guided tour. Instead, we had a walk around by ourselves. You won’t be able to go into any of the buildings, but you can see the campus and the building facades. Pick up a free map at the visitor centre or download the walking tour guide from the Columbia University website.
Start along the central College Walk (116th Street) and look at the buildings either side.
Halfway down College Walk, you will see Butler Library to the south and Low Memorial Library to the north.
The Low Memorial Library’s rotunda is the largest all-granite dome in the US. It was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome. Originally used as a reading room, it nowadays hosts an event and exhibition space.
Just outside the library, overlooking the College Walk and South Field sits ‘Alma Mater’, a large bronze statue by the American sculptor Daniel Chester French (you might be more familiar with his Abraham Lincoln statue in Washington).
Cathedral of St. John the Divine
When visiting Columbia University, I would also recommend you also visit the cathedral, since it is just a few steps away at 1047 Amsterdam Avenue.
Occasionally dubbed St. John the Unfinished, the cathedral was built at the end of the 19th century and consecrated in the early 20th century. However, some of the towers as well as the transverse were never actually completed.
Unless you want to visit a church service, you will be charged 10$ admission to see the interior of the cathedral. And I would urge you to check their opening hours. Silly me was there far too early and they weren’t open yet (they open at 9am most days, but thanks for jetlag we were out and about considerably earlier than that). But it is still a pretty sight, even if you only look at the outside.
Things to do on the Upper West Side: You’ve got Mail Filming Locations
If you love the film, I would definitely suggest you check out some of the You’ve got Mail filming locations on the Upper West Side. The movie might be 20+ years old by now, but there are loads of filming locations left to see. Walk in Katherine Kelly’s (aka Meg Ryan’s) shoes from her apartment to the Shop around the Corner, stop for a hot dog at Papaya’s and meet the love of your life at Riverside Park.
See a performance at the Lincoln Center
The Lincoln Center for Performing Arts is home to the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet, the New York Philharmonic and Juilliard School. To name just a few. The buildings might not have the grandeur look of the Opera Garnier in Paris or the Royal Opera in London. But if you are into opera and ballet, I would recommend getting tickets for a performance.
We went a couple of years ago and very much enjoyed it.
Things to do on the Upper West Side: The Dakota
Located on the corner of 72nd and Central Park West, the Dakota is probably best known as the building where John Lennon lived. And in front of which he found his untimely death back in 1980.
This impressive Renaissance Revival building from the late 19th century has been home to plenty of creative people over the years. Not just John Lennon and Yoko Ono. It was also home to Paul Simon, Leonard Bernstein, Boris Karloff and Roberta Flack.
And whilst you are there, head into Central Park and check out the Imagine memorial in Strawberry Fields, dedicated to John Lennon.
Check out the pre-war architecture
As you explore the Upper West Side, check out the typical pre-war brown stone townhouses. Built in the late 19th and early 20th century, these 4 to 5 storey townhouses probably best sum up the look you expect of the Upper West Side.
Although they all look similar at first glance, keep an eye out for their peculiar little ornaments and details.
Get lox bagels at Zabar’s
Founded in 1934, Zabar’s has been a family run delicatessen for almost a century. It is famous for its bagels, fish and cheeses. We visited during our last trip to New York, as it also happened to be one of the You’ve Got Mail filming locations (you remember the scene at the till when Katherine doesn’t have any cash but accidentally queued at the cash only till). It feels like stepping back in time, the shop looks as if it hasn’t had a refurb since at least the 1950s. But I don’t mean that in a bad way. It does have its own vibe. And its own merchandise.
Zabar’s is located on the corner of Broadway and 80th Street.
See a Banksy on the Upper West Side
OK, you know me. I love a good mural. And living in London, I am certainly no stranger to a Banksy here and there. Obviously, I had to go and check out Banksy’s ‘Hammer Boy’ around the corner from Zabar’s on 79th Street.
It was painted in 2013 as part of Banksy’s month-long residency in New York. Nowadays the mural is preserved by Perspex, to prevent damage.
Visit a Farmer’s Market
As I have mentioned, the UWS is a residential area. So, no surprise that farmer’s markets are on my list of things to do on the Upper West Side.
We accidentally stumbled across the farmer’s market at Tucker Square on our way to the subway. It is open Thursdays and Saturdays.
There is also the 79th Street Greenmarket on Sunday, just around from the Grand Bazaar. Check it out if you are heading that way anyway.
Things to do on the Upper West Side: Grand Bazaar Market
If you are in the area on a Sunday, head to the Grand Bazaar flea market on Sunday. Located at the corner West 77th + Columbus Avenue, the market is a mix of outdoor and indoor market with a selection of vintage and used items as well as plenty of food stores. So come hungry. The Grand Bazaar flea market is only open on Sundays from 10 till 5. It is the oldest and biggest market in New York with over 100 stalls every week.
Have lunch at Jacob’s Pickles
If all this exploring makes you hungry, how about lunch at Jacob’s Pickles. We first came across Jacob’s Pickles when we visited the then newly opened Time Out Market in Brooklyn in 2020, where they have a food stall. However, the main location of Jacob’s Pickles is on the Upper West Side. Which we’ve been to twice now, it is just so good. I should probably include it in my list of what to eat in New York, this is how much I like them.
Yes, as the name suggest, they offer a selection of pickles, but that is not all. Their buttermilk fried chicken is absolutely to die for. But I must warn you. As yum as the menu reads, the portions are quite big. So don’t over order (or ask for a doggy bag, they have them ready).
Things to do on the Upper West Side: The Beacon Theatre
The Lincoln Center isn’t the only venue on the Upper West Side. You also have the Beacon Theatre on Broadway between W74th and W75th Street. Adjacent to the Hotel Beacon (where we stayed during our latest trip to New York), the building might not be much of a looker from the outside (although the entrance is quite nice). But its auditorium is supposed to be rather stunning.
I checked what’s on during the time we stayed on the UWS, but the concerts on that weekend weren’t quite my type of music, so I didn’t get a chance to actually see the inside myself. But if you are staying on the Upper West Side, it might be worth checking out what’s on during your trip.
At the southern end of the Upper West Side sits Columbus Circle. It might not be much to look at (it effectively is a very busy manic roundabout most times of the day), but this is New York City’s starting point. Meaning all distances to New York are measured to this point.
It’s name comes from the Christopher Columbus status in its centre.
Shops at Columbus Circle
Whilst you are in the vicinity of Columbus Circle, you might want to have a little wonder into the Deutsche Bank Center (formerly known as Time Warner Center). The ‘Shops at Columbus Circle’ shopping center offers a selection of mid to high-end retail shops, restaurants, and a large Wholefood in the basement (perfect if you want to stock up on snacks on your way to Central Park).
Check out Turnstyle Underground market
We are not quite done with Columbus Circle just yet. Below the surface at Columbus Circle lies a rather busy subway station, with lines 1, A, B C and D all meeting here. But that isn’t all hiding below the surface. As you go down, you will also find the Turnstyle Underground market. With a unique selection of small shops and food stalls, from around the world, you won’t regret the trip. The market is open from early in the morning until late at night.
Visit the American Museum of Natural History
If you are interested in the animals and plants of this world, this large museum complex should definitely be on your list of things to do on the Upper West Side.
Set within the Theodore Roosevelt Park between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue, 77th Street and 81st Street, the Museum occupies a staggering 26 buildings and has 45 exhibition halls as well as a planetarium.
Unfortunately, at 28$ for adults and 16$ for kids, general admission to the American Museum of Natural History isn’t cheap. Unless you are a New York or New Jersey resident. Then the amount you pay is up to you.
Want to save some money? According to the museums website, you can actually enter for free in the last hour of their opening hours. Head to the museum between 4.30 and 5.30pm and you might be able to enter for free (subject to availability I guess, I haven’t actually tried this myself yet).
Ok, there you have it. Plenty of things to do on the Upper West Side. Have I forgotten anything? What is your favourite things on UWS?