It’s hard to believe it when looking around the Lower East Side today, but this bustling New York City neighborhood was a mere farm back in the 1630s. It continued to be farmed for the next two centuries. Germans were the first large contingent of immigrants to make the Lower East Side their home, beginning around the 1840s, and many Irish lived here too. Then, in the early 1900s, Jews from Eastern Europe began settling here. Many of these cultural influences can still be seen in the Lower East Side today. If you’re planning to visit the Lower East Side, here are some things to see and do.
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum
If you’d like to get an understanding of the way immigrants lived in the Lower East Side, the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street is the place to go. The museum is experienced through a guided tour, and you can choose to tour several different living quarters to see how immigrants from different countries and decades began their lives in America. You can also take a walking tour of the neighborhood, or learn about shop life or what it was like to live and work as a sweatshop worker.
The Museum at Eldridge Synagogue
Close to Chinatown but still considered in the Lower East Side, the Museum at Eldridge Synagogue showcases America’s first “great house of worship” built by Eastern European Jewish immigrants in 1887. It is also one of the last vestiges of the once-flourishing Jewish community in the Lower East Side. The synagogue is a National Historic Landmark, and worth visiting just for its stained glass alone. The museum contains photographs, interactive exhibits, Jewish ritual objects, and more. It is closed on Saturdays and major Jewish holidays.
The New Museum
While other art museums like the Whitney, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art get much of the attention — and the visitors — the New Museum in the Lower East Side has been showcasing contemporary artists and their art since 1977. Located at 235 Bowery, the New Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, beginning at 11 a.m. As it is contemporary art, expect to see art made using various mediums and featuring many different subjects.
If you’re a vegetarian and looking for someplace to eat in the Lower East Side, you can’t go wrong with Dirt Candy. Considered by many to be one of the best vegetarian restaurants in the city, Dirt Candy (86 Allen Street) is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday starting at 5:30 p.m., and brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Beginning in September 2018, the restaurant will be switching from an à la carte format to a fixed price five- or nine-course menu selection.
Perhaps no restaurant in the Lower East Side is as iconic as Katz’s Deli, which has been around since 1888, and was once the beloved eatery of the stars of the Yiddish theaters in the neighborhood. This quintessential, old-fashioned Jewish deli located at 205 East Houston Street serves quintessential, old-fashioned “Jewish” foods such as huge pastrami or corned beef sandwiches on rye, knishes, pickles and egg creams. The deli, which was popularized in an iconic scene in the movie “When Harry Met Sally,” does attract large crowds, so come hungry but be prepared to wait.
If nothing brings out your inner child like a candy shop, you’ll absolutely drool over Economy Candy, located at 108 Rivington Street. It’s been around since 1937, and still features a complete range of candies (and nuts) filling the store from floor to ceiling. Buy just one, or buy in bulk and rest assured that if you get home and realize you should’ve bought more, Economy Candy has a website you can order from, too.