NEW YORK CITY — As a 15-year Brooklynite, I’ve made my way to Manhattan's Upper East Side for the standard museum and park visits, but I’ve never spent extended time there — until the pandemic hit and I was searching for closer-to-home adventure and finally got into the grooves of the shops, eateries, and art spots beyond the standards. (Not that the “Museum Mile” will never get old.) The UES evokes images of designer names along Madison Avenue, tree-lined streets with elegant row homes, and museums bordering New York City’s grandest park, but there’s a lot of life nestled within the well-known boutiques and world-class institutions — like historic neighborhood businesses, pastrami sandwich counters, classic cocktails, old-school sushi joints, and enough architectural details to fill a weekend stay.
What to Do
Famous Museum Mile runs up and down the east side of Central Park. Complementing the grandiose museums of Fifth Avenue (The Met, Cooper-Hewitt, Guggenheim, and The Frick Collection) are jewel box art collections and small museums offering opportunities for immersion and diversion via Latinx art, drawing and figure studies, NYC history, German cultural ephemera, or African exhibitions.
Housed in the former stunning residence of industrialist William Starr Miller, Neue Galerie is a collection focused on Austrian and German art made between 1890 and 1940. You can view Egon Shiele and Gustav Klimt masterpieces alongside other various Expressionist artists before sliding into a booth for a cup of coffee and slice of cake at Café Sabarsky, a charming room fashioned after the Viennese cafes intellectuals liked to hang out in at the turn of the 20th century.
Another townhouse turned art showcase is the newly renovated (and newly relocated — back to its original neighborhood) Salon 94. The gallery has five floors of architectural details and an abundance of natural light to accompany revolving contemporary exhibitions, installations, and performances in the historic space.
Just down from Neue Galerie and The Met sits the Cultural Services of The French Embassy, which normally doesn’t exude must-visit vibes, but this one houses Albertine, a bookstore devoted solely to French and English titles from more than 30 French-speaking countries. The bookstore is an integral part of the Payne Whitney mansion design — with a hand-painted mural of constellations, stars, and planets modeled after the Villa Stuck music room in Munich. An added bonus: The Venetian Room within the mansion’s front entrance has just been revitalized after a historic restoration and is quite the sight for sore eyes.
Wandering through any part of Central Park is a treat, but the formal European-style garden known as the Conservatory Garden feels like a six-acre secret.
Where to Shop
The Corner Bookstore resides on the corner of Madison Avenue within Carnegie Hill, inviting you in off the street with an old-fashioned wooden sign and gold lettering. The shop's offerings are a mix of the newest books for children and young adults (the store’s catered-to clientele) front and center, and popular genres shelved floor to ceiling. At the checkout counter, you’ll find a charming old vintage register.
Creel and Gow's eclectic collection of curiosities — rare, vintage, and exquisite — live inside a beautiful townhouse on East 70th Street (denoted as a historic district by its brown — rather than green — street sign).
Sara Japanese Pottery is tucked between a dry cleaner and a shoe repair shop and is stocked with tiny bud vases, tea kettles, and table linens. It has been open for over 30 years and quietly manages to forge ahead with purpose.
Where to Eat
There has been a persistent trend of Downtown restaurants and cafes opening Uptown outposts — many of which have become staples. But the UES version of coffee shop Bluestone Lane is really special: Adjacent to the Church of the Heavenly Rest, it took over a cozy nook of archways and sandstone features to make for a gorgeous, unique coffee spot on Museum Mile. Around here you'll also find Brooklyn-famous Emmy Squared serving Detroit-style (a.k.a Grandma-slice style) pizza for lunch and dinner.
The Upper East Side does have a history of making space for excellent sushi, and many of these Japanese spots have die-hard followings. See: Sushi of Gari, Sushi Seki, and BYOB affordable omakase spot Tanoshi.
For a classic UES dinner option, head to Jean-Georges Vongerichten's OG spot JoJo for contemporary French fare in a turn-of-the-century manse.
At the other end of the spectrum (but equally delightful), patrons of the Pastrami Queen (1125 Lexington Ave.; +1-212-734-1500) queue for what Anthony Bourdain endorsed as “if not the best, among the very best” giant kosher pastrami sandwich.
Where to Drink
Bemelmans Bar is named for Ludwig Bemelmans, creator of the beloved, classic children’s Madeline series. In exchange for a year and a half of accommodations at The Carlyle, Bemelman transformed the bar’s walls and interior, covering them with his now-iconic illustrations.
For a classic dive, Ethyl’s Food & Alcohol has incense, a disco ball, go-go dancers, and '70s memorabilia crowding the walls.
Where to Stay
The classic move: The Carlyle. Now a Rosewood Hotel, you’ll find yourself with personalized monogrammed pillow shams, Kiehl’s toiletries, an incredible attention to detail and discretion, and Central Park views.
The Mark is design-forward and stylish with lavish suites, a house sailboat, and fine dining by Jean-Georges.
Newly renovated in 2020, The Franklin (originally built in 1930) is a wallet-friendly option with European-style guest rooms and creature-comfort amenities within walking distance of all the neighborhood sites.