Manhattan’s Lower East Side has a long, rich history. It was where many immigrants came to reside after their initial arrival in the United States, and at one point in time was home to a notable Jewish community. The neighborhood today has become a popular nightlife destination, and is the site of some of the city’s best rock clubs, trendiest restaurants, and hippest bars. Several well-regarded museums are also located within the traditional geographic boundaries of the Lower East Side.
The Lower East Side Neighborhood History
A significant number of the immigrants who moved to the United States from Europe and settled in New York City between roughly the years 1840 and 1920 ended up living for at least a time in the general vicinity of the Lower East Side. These immigrants included large populations of people from Germany, Italy, Slovakia, and Ukraine, as well as a great many Jewish people from Eastern Europe, all of whom brought their diverse beliefs, backgrounds, and experiences to the Lower East Side. Life here in the early twentieth century was quite difficult, as the Lower East Side was densely populated and living conditions were often rather harsh and unpleasant. In fact, these challenging living conditions were frequently documented and criticized by social reformers like Jacob Riis.
However, like so many other New York City neighborhoods, in time the character of the Lower East Side would begin to change, as many longtime residents moved out and gentrification crept in. Today, the Lower East Side is an evolving place where old-world construction often comes face to face with contemporary trends.
Exploring the Lower East Side
One of New York City’s finest collections of contemporary art is housed at the New Museum, which has occupied its acclaimed, state-of-the-art building at 235 Bowery for over 15 years now. The New Museum has an outstanding permanent collection numbering several thousand pieces, but its greatest contributions to contemporary art are the remarkable temporary exhibitions it organizes throughout the year.
The Lower East Side’s Tenement Museum is a unique attraction that’s both moving and insightful. The Tenement Museum consists of two tenement buildings that are now National Historic Landmarks, and visitors may move through the historic structures while learning about the stories of the working-class people (often immigrants) who called this place home from roughly 1850 onwards. Life wasn’t easy in these types of buildings, but the people who emerged from the tenements did much to shape the world we inhabit today.
Also located on the Lower East Side is the International Center of Photography. Since its founding nearly 50 years ago, the ICP has been dedicated to what it terms “concerned photography”—that is, works of visual culture that make us stop and think twice about the world around us. The assumption-challenging exhibits on display at the ICP are wide-ranging and ever-changing.
The Lower East Side is located along the East River directly south of the East Village. To its west are NoLita, Little Italy, and Chinatown.
Lower East Side Dining
Another big draw of the contemporary Lower East Side is its vibrant night life scene. The Lower East Side is full of great places to snag a delightful meal, with distinguished Haitian, Puerto Rican, South Indian, Greek, and Italian restaurants all near one another in a few-block radius. If you’re seeking a drinks-centric vibe, well there are tons of bars at a variety of price points to choose from here, too.
Two of the Lower East Side’s dining institutions are the world-famous Katz’s Delicatessen, which has been in business at its present location for nearly 100 years, during which time it has become a pop-culture phenomenon; and Russ & Daughters, a gourmet Jewish grocery whose Lower East Side shop (at 179 East Houston Street) opened in 1920.
Food and drink are such a big part of the Lower East Side experience—then and now—that there are multiple guided walking tours of the neighborhood that focus specifically on local cuisines and specialties of the area. There’s even a bagel-centric tour of the Lower East Side you can take!
Lower East Side Shopping
Many would argue that the Lower East Side’s shopping scene is dominated today by a three-block stretch of Orchard Street located immediately south of Broome Street. This lively area is packed with fashionable boutiques like LAAMS and Daniella Kallmeyer’s eponymous store, as well as gift design shop Coming Soon, home décor operation November 19 Shop, and many, many cutting-edge brands.
Beyond these fashionable destinations, the Lower East Side also features a strong selection of art galleries, tailoring studios, vintage clothing stores, antique textile shops, and bookstores. For the culinary-inclined shopper, Essex Market is a historic market selling specialty foods, cheese, produce, fish, meat, and more.
Explore the Lower East Side Like a Local
- The Manhattan entrance (for bicyclists and pedestrians) to the Williamsburg Bridge can be found on the Lower East Side at the intersection of Clinton and Delancey Streets. Walking or biking across the Williamsburg Bridge can be a lovely experience, as it provides spectacular views of New York City in multiple directions.
- Some of the best rock clubs in all of New York City are located on the Lower East Side. Venues like the Bowery Ballroom, Mercury Lounge, Rockwood Music Hall, and the Bowery Electric routinely host must-see acts, so be sure to check out their official websites for a list of upcoming shows before you visit in order to learn more about who might be playing live in the area when you’re scheduled to be in town.