Considered by many to be the place where Manhattan’s Downtown and Midtown neighborhoods collide, Union Square is a quintessential New York City destination for regulars and visitors alike. Taking its name from the fact that several prominent New York streets (Broadway, 4th Avenue, and 14th Street) intersect here, Union Square is home to a popular farmers’ market, plentiful examples of public art, and exists at the heart of a bustling neighborhood full of famous shops and acclaimed restaurants.
Union Square History
Like many other beloved New York City parks, Union Square actually got its start as a burial ground for the poor. In 1815, though, the state legislature decreed that the site be transformed into a public park named Union Place. This was the state of affairs until the 1830s, when Union Place came under the control of a man named Samuel Ruggles. Ruggles, who owned much of the area’s real estate, had recently helped established nearby Gramercy Park, and he possessed a similar vision for Union Place. By the end of the decade, the park’s name had been changed to Union Square, and it was on its way to becoming the attraction we know and love today.
A famous redesign of Union Square occurred in 1872, when the legendary landscape architect duo of Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux overhauled the park’s layout. In the intervening years, Union Square has been the location of many major civic events, including the first-ever Labor Day rally and the original Earth Day celebrations, but through it all the basic spirit of Olmstead’s vision remains the core of the park.
What’s at Union Square
Union Square was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997, and as befits a site of that nature, it’s home to numerous statues honoring historical figures such as Marquis de Lafayette, Abraham Lincoln, and Mahatma Gandhi. Of particular note is the major statue of George Washington on a horse that anchors the southern end of the park. It’s believed to be the oldest piece of sculpture to be found in any New York City park.
You’ll also find a impressive selection of public art situated throughout Union Square. Prominent pieces to keep an eye out for include the Union Square Drinking Fountain, which sits on the park’s west side and dates to 1881; the Independence Flagstaff, a monumental flagpole commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence that anchors the center of the park; and Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel’s Metronome, a sixty-some foot digital clock that tells the time down to hundredths of seconds while also calculating how much time is left in each day.
Whether a formal event or a spontaneous gathering, there’s always something happening at Union Square. A favorite here is the Union Square Greenmarket. This year-round farmers’ market is one of the most popular anywhere in New York City, and usually features anywhere from 100 to 200 unique vendors. You’ll also find a couple playgrounds nearby for the little ones.
Given Union Square’s prominent location, you’ll encounter world-class dining and shopping in every direction around the park. Of particular note, the world-famous Strand Book Store is two blocks southeast of here, and the iconic Flatiron Building is but a few blocks north. But that’s just two of a great many notable attractions in the area.
Tips for Visiting Union Square
- If you want to experience Union Square at its most vibrant, then visiting it when the Union Square Greenmarket is active makes for a good plan. That’s between 8:00am and 6:00pm on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. If you’d like things a bit slower paced, then avoid those times.
- Union Square is also known for the arts-and-crafts vendors that line its sidewalks. You’ll find plenty of action on this front any day of the week, but Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays are considered the prime days for this scene.
- The New York City Parks Department sponsors a number of special events—think everything from fitness classes to live music to movie nights—here during the summer months. If this sort of thing might interest you, be sure to check this calendar of events before you visit.