Whether you’re a first-time visitor to New York City or a ‘frequent flier’ (or wanna-be local like ourselves), take time to explore all that the city has to offer besides just Midtown, Times Square, and the typical sightseeing attractions. Instead of the “traditional spots”, consider a visit to a less tourist-promoted section of NYC and you might be in for a treat.
We recently spent an afternoon on the Lower East Side using a free self-guided walking tour from Tours by Foot, exploring a portion of town we hadn’t visited in depth before and loved it. Getting between the stops we recommend are easily walkable, with each stop only a block or two from the last. There are lots of snacking opportunities to nibble and try different things along the way and a few public parks and playgrounds to let the little ones burn off some energy. Depending on how long you stop at the various places, and any detours you make, this path below will take anywhere from a few hours to half a day. We spent no more than 2-3 hours on the heart of our tour.
Some of the spots we hit on our Lower East Side tour.
We took the F train downtown from Times Square and got off at 2nd Avenue. It was only a few blocks to our first stop (and for us what became a late breakfast) at Yonah Schimmel’s Knish bakery. Knish’s are what we would describe as a big, potato-doughy ball with specific flavors mixed throughout. We tried both a potato and the potato-spinach knish. Yonah Schimmels has been around since 1910 so it’s always cool to eat somewhere with such a history. I don’t think knishes were totally our family’s thing, but with the spicy brown mustard it amped up the flavor. Glad everyone tried it once. I doubt one of our kids would order it off a menu again if given the choice.
Yonah Shimmel's been around for 100 years so we had to try it. Interesting, but not our thing.
We continued walking along Houston Street, passing Katz’s deli, which is the oldest and most iconic NY deli. The line stretched well down the block for sandwiches filled a mile-high with meat. If you’re really hungry, or have a small group to share a sandwich with, this is the spot.
From Houston we then turned up Essex St and continued until Rivington St, where we found ourselves flanked by two amazing shops: Economy Candy and the Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery.
We first popped into Economy Candy and quickly our jaws began to drop. Candy of all types is sold here in massive quantities. I’m not talking about the mega M&M bags you see at Target or even Costo or Sam’s Club. I’m talking bags several times bigger than the size of our head, pez dispensers the size of a child’s arm, and jars of all sorts of chocolate confections. We knew we had a big day of snacking ahead of us and I didn’t want to carry 5-10 lbs of candy in our backpack, so we went light and bought what we could eat on the way: a chocolate covered graham cracker which was quickly devoured as we headed across the street to the Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery.
Now this was more like it. The store was packed with candy bags from floor to ceiling. I think I hear your dentist calling...
At the Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery we picked a few cupcakes and cookies to share. They were spectacular. I know some of the bigger bakeries in Midtown get all the fame (Magnolia, Sprinkles, Baked by Melissa), but this bakery has it going on! The flavors were alive in their cupcakes (more exotic flavors like pistachio or banana, and other more traditional flavors like white or chocolate) with some of the most delicious frosting I’ve ever had. Great little stop for coffees and (in the summer) some air conditioning at the tables inside the shop.
We love NYC's bakeries and cupcake shop. This gem is now one of our favorites.
We continued up Essex towards Delancy, where there is a nice option: take a detour from the food and head over to the Tenement Museum for a little history and hands-on experience. The Tenement Museum gives a real perspective of life as a new immigrant in New York City (and in America, as their first stop into the country during the mid-1800’s and early 1900’s was at Ellis Island). Guided tours lead by actors in period costumes illustrate an immigrant’s initial struggles from finding housing to finding a job. They portray what daily life was like and how hard it was for an immigrant to assimilate into this new land. Tours need to be booked in advance and last somewhere between 60-90 minutes, but it’s a great stop to really see what life was like for many of our country’s early ancestors.
After the Tenement Museum, head back on Delancy towards Essex, and turn right on Essex, heading up the part of the street you have yet to explore. At the intersection of Essex and Grand are several eateries worth a quick stop (and bite) – the Pickle Guys, the Doughnut Plant, and if you’re very hungry, Kossar’s Bialys and Bagels.
We stopped in The Pickle Guys and had them fill a quart pail with a few of their recommended selections. Here it’s not just pickles, though that’s the main attraction. Big barrels hold pickled items of all varieties (radishes, other vegetables, etc.). We stuck with the giant variations of dill pickles and started eating the moment we left the shop. We didn’t care how much pickle juice we had running down our faces, we just wiped it off and marched just a few doors down to the Doughnut Plant.
The Pcikle Guys do a lot of business and they're expanding next door!
The Doughnut Plant serves up great coffee (we went with their Vietnamese to rekindle the fond coffee memories we had during our visit earlier in the summer through Vietnam) and a few donuts to boot. The Doughnut Plant lives in donut lore for several “firsts”: the first square filled donut (in some pretty cool flavors, like a peanut butter flavored yeast donut with jelly inside) and their signature donut, the crème brulee. The donuts are baked fresh throughout the day and all the jam fillings (and other sweet extras) are homemade. While there are now 3 locations around NYC (including in Grand Central), I like going to the original and including it as a part of this Lower East Side food tour. Plus the origins of the Doughnut Plant is pretty cool and is a good lesson in entrepreneurship. Check it out!
A great stop. Some of the more unique flavored doughnuts I've ever tasted, and there back story is very cool!
If you scheduled ahead, sandwiched between the Pickle Guys and the Doughnut Plant is a pizza cooking school. We didn’t do it (classes didn’t start until later in the day), but peeking through the windows it looked like it would be a ton of fun. After gorging my way through NYC eating slices from various shops I was ready for a class to bring some of the secrets home.
I wish we had planned for a class here (it didn't fit our schedule), but it looks like a really fun group activity.
After the doughnuts and pickles, you have two choices: either end your tour by heading over a block on Grand to the B or D train back uptown (or wherever “home” is during your stay) or, as we would prefer, keep your focus on lower Manhattan by continue up Essex, turn right onto Hester, and head over to the Sara Roosevelt Park where there’s a great playground for the kids to run around and burn off some of that energy and those doughnut calories. After a brief respite in the park, continue on Hester and up Mulberry or Mott through Chinatown, Little Italy, and into Soho and beyond.
Once you've finished on the Lower East Side, it's either a good walk or a short subway ride back to midtown.
The Lower East Side is steeped in history and doesn’t get all the buzz like the Village, Soho, or the Upper East/West sides. But there are gems to be found in this small slice of New York, and hopefully spending a few hours on this foodie tour will give you an incentive to check it out for yourself.