Most of us here at Dandelion Chandelier live in New York City, and every now and then we open up the vault to share our insider’s take on how to make the most of our magical city. After a recent foray to the Lower East Side, we’re sharing our recommendations and favorite spots in this popular neighborhood. Here are our thoughts on the top essential activities, experiences and things to do, including shops, bookstores, restaurants and museums, for a visit to the Lower East Side (LES) of New York City.
food, art, history . . . and more
The Lower East Side has a rich history – and today, it’s a major hub for art, food, shopping and more.
Your foodie friends and family members have undoubtedly already queued up at least once on the LES. That’s because the Lower East Side is home to many hot eateries, including 9 of the Top 100 Restaurants in New York City for 2023 (according to the New York Times). They are: Una Pizza Napoletana; Mam; Kappo Sono; Ernesto’s; Dirt Candy; Scarr’s Pizza; Dhamaka; Wildair; and Shopsin’s General Store. Some are impossible to get into, or involve a long outdoor line – but on a weekday you might be happily surprised at how easy it is to get a bite at one of these standouts.
In the meantime, though, foodie or not, here are the experiences that we’d vote for as essential for any first or second visit to the LES. Bookstores, museums, restaurants and more, here’s how to have a perfect day on the Lower East Side.
top experiences and best places on the lower east side (les) in new york
1. the tenement museum.
You can only visit this history museum on the Lower East Side as part of a scheduled tour, so be sure to plan ahead. The tour guides are wonderful, and each tour centers on one or two families who actually lived in the preserved tenement houses. The families are from many different backgrounds – Jewish, Chinese, Black and more – and the richness of the neighborhood’s history really comes alive when you hear their stories. The museum’s bookstore is a fantastic source for all kinds of books with a New York City theme, including an extensive cookbook collection.
2. the new museum.
The other must-see museum on the Lower East Side is quite different from the Tenement Museum. In fact, the New Museum on the Bowery is reason enough for a visit to the LES for anyone interested in a fresh take on modern and contemporary art. It’s quickly become known as institution actively supporting and celebrating women artists and artists of color. For example, it was the New Museum that gave over all of its galleries for a seminal exhibit on the work of Faith Ringgold. And also where we first saw the work of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Currently, Judy Chicago: Herstory is on.
3. the corner bar at 9 orchard hotel.
The Corner Bar restaurant at the 9 Orchard Hotel is one of our favorite spots on the Lower East Side – especially when there’s a chill in the air. The eatery features charming decor with hand-painted wood trim that’s warm and welcoming. And it has a killer food and cocktail menu from a kitchen helmed by acclaimed chef Ignacio Mattos. It’s deceptively homey – this is not your mom’s home cooking (at least, it’s not our mom’s) – it’s next level comfort food in a rustic-chic space. Open from breakfast through dinner, you can’t make a bad choice. But personally, we highly recommend the lamb if you go for dinner.
By the way, if you’re looking for a place to stay in Manhattan, we highly recommend 9 Orchard. It’s one of the best luxury boutique hotels in the city. A true 5-star experience in a part of town where that’s not been possible before. It’s pricey – and totally worth it.
4. russ & daughters cafe.
Sure, you could visit the original Russ & Daughters shop on East Houston Street. But as Winston Churchill once famously said, why stand when you can sit? This relatively new cafe is the perfect brunch or lunch stop on a day on the Lower East Side. The basics here are better than anything we’ve ever had: lox and a bagel so delicious that it was like a revelation. We tried a vanilla egg cream for the first time, and fell into a conversation with our neighbor at the counter seating, a Brooklyn native who strongly endorsed the whitefish chowder. And definitely eat the little candy that comes at the end of your meal- our neighbor urged us to try it, and he was right. It’s the perfect little sweet note on which to end a lovely experience.
5. p&t knitwear bookstore.
Yes, the name is misleading. But this is one of the best bookstores we’ve ever visited – and that’s saying a LOT. The staff of this Lower East Side bookstore is friendly and knowledgeable, the curated table displays are clearly done by someone who reads a lot, and there’s a cafe in the back so that you can linger over a beer or a snack. Great food and great books? Bliss.
6. whipped – urban dessert lab.
This vest-pocket dessert bar is run by a group of Black women entrepreneurs who set out to demonstrate that plant-based sweets can be delicious. Mission accomplished. They’re known for their oat milk ice cream, but they’re branching out into a full bakery menu. The chocolate chip cookies are incredible (baked fresh shortly before we bought one.) We’ll be back to try one of the new menu items: Brûléesants™. They’re a mashup of a croissant and a serving of crème brûlée. What??? Here’s the full description: “The sweet, crunchy, slightly charred coating of crème brûlée meets a classic croissant. Paired with your choice of a mousse-inspired light crème.” Yes, please!
7. icp bookstore and galleries.
We’ve taken several photography classes at the International Center of Photography (ICP). Even if you’re not looking to go back to school, though, there are many good reasons to stop by the ICP on Essex Street (there’s also an entrance on Ludlow). The shop has an expertly curated selection of photography books (along with a cafe serving La Colombe coffee). There’s also an ongoing series of photography exhibits. For the first half of this year, stop by to see ICP at 50: From the Collection, 1845–2019. It’s an edit of the many works from ICP’s holdings of photography, collected over 50 years since the institution was established in 1974.
8. essex market.
Essex Market has been a fixture on the Lower East Side for generations, and at over 100 years old, the indoor food hall has a fresh look and a selection of food and drink vendors that makes it the perfect stop on an LES crawl. It’s home to two of the New York Times‘ Best Restaurants in New York for 2023: Dhamaka and Shopsin’s General Store. We highly recommend the Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery cupcakes, as well.
9. orchard street.
Take a walk down Orchard Street and stop at any storefront that looks interesting. For example, at number 22 you’ll find the famous Scarr’s Pizza, which some rate as serving the best slices in all of New York City. (Editorial note: we had a regular pepperoni slice and a square of Grandma’s cheese pizza from Scarr’s, and while we don’t have sufficient data to declare it the city-wide winner, this is a damn fine pizza joint. Crust to die for).
You’ll find graffiti and street art everywhere, as well as ornate fire escapes. So don’t forget to look up.
10. dimes market.
Dimes Market is a small grocery on Division Street just across the way from its sister establishment, the restaurant Dimes. Yep, right in the middle of Dimes Square, the microneighborhood that has declared itself independent of the rest of the LES. The market features a tightly-edited selection of fresh produce and pantry staples in a charming storefront. Stop by just to see the incredible variety of condiments they sell.
If you’re in the mood for an easy reservation with reliably good food and service, we’ve got a recommendation. Dudleys is a fun pub-bistro on the corner of Orchard and Broome, serving all day. Think craft beer, natural wines, American food and a warm, friendly vibe.
Personally, we don’t care for pickles. But if you do, don’t leave the LES without trying at least one. For purists, there’s the The Pickle Guys at the corner of Grand and Essex. Just standing outside on the sidewalk and inhaling deeply will be a high for those who actually like pickles. For the more erudite, there’s Sweet Pickle Books on Orchard, where you can browse used volumes and sample the fermented beauties. Or you could hit both, ’cause why not? As far as we know, the Lower East Side is the only place you’ll find a bookstore where books and pickles share the shelves.
top experiences and activities for a visit to the lower east side (les) in new york
Those are our recommendations as Manhattan dwellers for the top essential activities, experiences and things to do, including shops, bookstores, restaurants and museums, for a visit to the Lower East Side (LES) of New York City. Have fun out there, dear reader!