Green City Guide: New York City
I went to New York City in the height of summer, deep in August when it is notoriously hot, humid, dirty, and uncomfortable. Deep underground, in the subway stations below the subway stations, hundreds of thousands of us stood on blackened concrete in roasting, stagnant air. Manic, torrential storms blew through the city before opening up to sunny, rainbow-laden skies. My clothes and I were sweatier in those seven days than I think I have ever been in my entire life. It was all incredible.
After several visits to New York, I can finally say that I get it. I don’t know the city inside and out, and I haven’t even come close to discovering all its hidden gems. But I got a glimpse of its magic. I connected with strangers, and shared jokes on a crammed crosstown train. I disappeared beautifully into the constantly moving mass of humanity. I witnessed kindnesses and absurdities of the best sort. I immersed myself in gorgeous green spaces, at times almost forgetting that I was still in New York.
NYC is as huge and crazy as you let it be. It can also be small and intimate and uniquely suited to your individual tastes. It has everything you want, and everything you don’t want, everything you can’t understand, everything that will challenge you, and everything you’ve always loved.
The tips I’ve included below reflect one person’s experience had during one week in the lifespan of a dizzyingly large metropolitan area. That said, there is so, so much more to uncover than what I’ve squeezed into this guide. If you’re planning a trip to NYC, I’d recommend aiming high: try your best to make it to everything on your list. But also, don’t despair when you inevitably can’t do it all. The best way to enjoy New York is to just let it happen to you. And at some point during the trip, you may look up and realized you’ve fallen in love with a city.
Public Green Spaces
Something kept happening to me when I was in New York. I’d look at the map and think, ok these two spots look pretty close together, I can definitely walk. And then in real life, I’d realize the actual distance was so much bigger. Case in point: Central Park. Possibly bigger than some national forests you’ve explored, this park is enormous. I entered at Columbus Circle and wanted to get to the giant Reservoir, but I just couldn’t make it! Central Park’s more than 800 acres are all astounding in their beauty, and in their capacity for holding and entertaining millions of people at once. On a warm summer afternoon, the park bulged at the seams with visitors — the Bethesda fountain was especially busy with couples holding hands and tourists holding their selfie sticks. But wander a little farther into the park and you’ll find The Ramble, a wild area that might trick you into thinking you’ve teleported to a section of the Appalachian Trail.
The High Line, an elevated city park built on a decommissioned train track, snakes along the west side of the city from Chelsea to Hell’s Kitchen. The park features a beautiful variety of native plantings, many of which grew wild on the tracks before the actual landscape design began. Between the swaying grasses and native flowers, you can sneak views toward Midtown to the east and the Hudson River to the west. Walk some of the trail, grab a bench seat in the shade, and people-watch your heart out.
The first time I went to Prospect Park, I felt dwarfed by the sheer size of the park and the amazing number of other people who were there enjoying it. Long Meadow, a sprawling green hidden behind the park entrance at Grand Army Plaza, is an impressive vista to encounter when you first come into the park, but there are so many other beautifully planned and lovingly maintained topographies to discover throughout the space’s almost 600 acres. The idyllic Brooklyn Botanic Garden is also nestled at the northeastern corner of the park, and offers free admission on Tuesdays.
Getting up to Washington Heights is a trek if you’re coming from most other parts of the city, but getting off the train at 190 St delivers a swift breath of fresh air. You’ll be surrounded by green on all sides and if you wander to the little stone wall to the west, you’ll see an unobstructed view of the Hudson River. Walk through Fort Tryon Park’s incredible Heather Garden for an ethereal introduction, and then lose yourself in the galleries and walled gardens of the Met’s Cloisters, the largest collection of medieval art in the country. Museum entrance is a suggested donation, which means an afternoon spent in this astoundingly beautiful place can cost you little more than the price of the subway ride.
I love a park where you get as much of a feeling of immersion in nature as you do excellent city views. Brooklyn Bridge Park consists of a necklace chain of green spaces that hug the Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO neighborhoods. There are multiple areas in the park, each with different uses and attractions, including festivals, workouts, guided tours, and outdoor movie screenings. We took off from Pier 6 for a daytrip to Governors Island and spied runners, families, bikers, and loungers all enjoying the green and the breeze off the East River. Exploring this park alone could fill an entire week!
The large acreage parks in New York get most of the attention. But often it’s the small, neighbor-built and community-maintained green spaces that are the most welcoming and have the most heart. This garden was started in the 1980s as a means to combat the drugs and crime that were rampant in the area at the time. Today, the garden is a city block long and is lovingly tended by about fifty local residents. It’s a charming, calming oasis in the middle of the Lower East Side. A place you’ll definitely want to linger in. Open hours are on Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays.
Where to Shop
A robust farmers market selling just about everything you could want that’s been grown or raised locally. I was in awe of their variety of plant vendors, and was especially in awe of their relatively low prices! NY may have some very high priced real estate, but rest assured that you can certainly outfit your home in cheap, beautiful plants.
The queen bee of boutique plant stores, and the sister store to the Sprout location in Chicago. Gorgeous, healthy plants, a wide range of planters at multiple price points, crystals, textiles, fresh flowers, and exquisite scented candles. I didn’t want to leave!
An amazing collection of handmade and small batch ceramics, art objects, and delicate fine jewelry. The products range from rough and hand-hewn to refined and high end. The store is light, bright, and west coast inspired.
Breezy, blousy shapes sewn from lovely Indian cotton in just about every color and pattern. This tiny jewel box of a store also sells Indian towels, scarves, and textiles in every color you can imagine, plus the most beautiful new and vintage jewelry collection I’ve ever seen. I wanted to buy everything.
This volunteer-run feminist/anarchist/activist bookstore was the stuff of bookstore dreams. Entire sections were devoted to genres you rarely see in mainstream stores, including ‘Radical Education’, ‘Israel and Palestine’, ‘Black Lives Matter’, and ‘Environment and Food Systems’. The place in the Lower East Side to stock up on all your conscious literature.
Oh, the spices! Every spice, tea, and herb you have ever heard of or wanted. An excellent resource for all the spice blends or special chilis or terra cotta tagines you’ve needed to outfit your kitchen. Also, a great place to get gifts for the aspiring Nigella Lawsons in your life.
One more plant shop for the road. This beautifully styled matchbox of a store is packed to the brim with plants, many of whom are spilling out the front door and onto the adjacent sidewalk. The back of the store holds vintage menswear, rugged denim, and well-worn leather bags. The owner is a master of display, and every corner of the store begs to be seen, considered, and instagrammed.
Imagine being invited into the most well-appointed townhouse, outfitted with gorgeous rugs, lush indoor plants, and bold contemporary art. Imagine being offered wine, beer, tea, whatever you want. And then imagine trying on an array of handmade Turkish shoes made in just about every color. The Sabah dealer travels the country selling his shoes at various popups, so if you can’t make it to New York there’s still hope. But shopping at the Sabah House is a singular experience and highly recommended.
I love how music stores, especially record stores, reflect so perfectly their owners and buyers. This little shop, right around the corner from 5th Avenue, is clearly run by a classical music aficionado. Their soul and jazz sections though, aren’t to be overlooked. A great selection, and very knowledgable staff. Just make sure to assert yourself with the other browsers — old music heads don’t share space particularly well.
Where to Eat
YUM. Easily one of the best vegetarian restaurants I’ve ever been to. This place specializes in vegetable-focused cuisine from the global south, i.e. everywhere the weather is warm and the food is delicious. Excellent service, amazing food, and a simple, cozy space. Plan ahead, get reservations. And order the cauliflower!
Imagine perfectly cooked eggs sitting atop grilled haloumi and roasted tomatoes, with za’atar pita, briney little olives, spicy harissa dipping sauce, and a fresh side salad. The breakfast of my dreams is real, and you can get it in Williamsburg! Also, factor in the gorgeous greenhouse dining room dripping with plants and sunlight. I love this restaurant.
An excellent spot for seeing how much kimchi you can consume in a single sitting. Our meal started with banchan, a smattering of tasty little pickle dishes, before careening into rich, delicious, savory territory with mushroom gyoza and kimchi fried rice. They also serve Korean BBQ burritos and tacos with mushroom and tofu options. I’ve heard their bibimbap is the stuff of dreams in autumn and winter. The tiny space is warm and cozy, exactly the type of place you want to linger with a delicious meal.
The best falafel I have ever had. And believe me, I eat a lot of falafel. The guys at this place take quality seriously, making all the food early every morning and sourcing the best fresh and local ingredients. The falafels were perfectly crisp outside and steamy inside, bright green with fresh herbs and full of flavor. The pita was unbelievably soft and wonderful. The tahini topping was creamy and well-seasoned, and they topped off the sandwich with salty and spicy pickles. This spot is small, the staff is kind, and the food is perfectly delicious. Highly, highly recommended.
I’d been hearing good things about this pizza for a long time, and now I get the hype! Excellent, thin-crust pizzas with interesting topping combos and a great wine and beer list. Their outdoor patio is full of plants and people laughing, drinking, and eating pizza (translation: everyone’s in a great mood). The staff is very accommodating to vegetarians, plus they’re funny and fun to joke around with.
A beautiful restaurant with a fascinating menu that takes inspiration from American, European, and a variety of Latin American cuisines. Get the Ranchero Benedict! The Huancaina sauce they pour over the eggs is unreal. And definitely finish up your meal with an espresso. They know how to make a delicious cortado. We went for a brunch on the day we flew back to Chicago, and found it very hard to leave.
Highly vegetarian-friendly Balinese cuisine. The menu offers coconut, fresh basil, chilis, and lime as far as they eye can see. AKA, all the best and most delicious things! Lots of vegetable dishes, curries, and tempeh noodle bowls. If you go, let me know how what you think!
What started out as one cheerfully painted truck is now a veritable ice cream empire. They’ve got multiple brick and mortar locations, scattered all around Manhattan and Brooklyn, plus an expanded fleet of trucks slinging the good, creamy stuff to the masses. Earl grey is my favorite flavor, though their vegan peanut butter chocolate chip was a standout. When it’s August in New York and you find yourself hobbling sweatily down the sizzling sidewalk, this ice cream will be your beacon.
Where to Drink
A light and bright Brazilian cafe with fresh veggie dishes plus excellent espresso and pão de queijo! I spent some time here when I needed to catch up on some emails, and though I was working, the welcoming staff and the relaxing vibe of the other patrons put me at ease.
Hand-pulled white coffee made in the classic Malaysian style. What is that? Delicious, sweet, frothy, and mixed on the spot with sweetened condensed milk. Like the best latte you’ve ever had. This tiny little cafe in the middle of Chinatown also serves a variety of Malaysian sweets and simple breakfast dishes.
This dude Melvin used to sell his juice concoctions at a nearby SoHo restaurant, and then broke out on his own to build the Juicebox, a chrome and vinyl throwback spot outfitted in Jamaican colors with vintage ska on repeat. They make the juice and smoothies fresh on order, or if you’re in a hurry you can grab a bottle of the juice pressed earlier that morning. A short walk from St. Luke in the Fields Garden, a gorgeous walled green space that’s a great place to sit and enjoy your highly refreshing juice.
A coffee company deeply devoted to fresh, fair-trade coffee. They buy direct from Colombian farms, mill the beans there in South American, then ship them to be brewed at their two cafe locations, one in Bogotá and the other here in Brooklyn. They serve a full espresso menu, plus french press and cold brew coffees, as well as smoothies and fresh fruit aromaticas. Their space is cavernous, lined in exposed brick with a giant skylight and lush vertical garden. A beautiful space with delicious drinks.
I fell in love with Troost when it was a cafe open during the day. It’s a tiny little sliver of a space that opens up to a gorgeous outdoor garden that feels like a wonderful secret uncovered. They’re no longer open during the day, now they specialize in mixed drinks for the late night crowd. But the garden is still there, and after a glass or two of rosé, it’s even more beautiful.
Walking downstairs to this basement bar feels a little like stepping back in time to when you were a trappist monk in sixteenth century France. Fittingly, they serve a wide range of sour and funky beers and ciders. Keep an eye on their events listings: they participate in sour ale festivals and hold beer and spirit tastings throughout the year.
We came here just for their happy hour, which is fantastic and makes trying multiple glasses of wine much easier on your wallet. There are lots of popular restaurants on this strip — avoid the crowds and just come here. They’ve got tons of space both indoors and outside on the patio. They also serve great middle eastern food, so if you’re hungry you’ll have lots of options!
If you thought it was impossible to get a good mixed drink in New York for $4, you haven’t been to The Johnson’s. Another happy hour found us here, throwing back multiple frozen pineapple-y Painkillers. This bar is kind of a strangely designed space, it feels a little sparse and awkwardly arranged. But I doubt you go to bars based on their architectural flow. All said, it’s a great place to hang out with friends and enjoy some tasty beverages.
A cute restaurant with a Caribbean vibe and tons of rum drinks. Rum is my best friend, lover, and mortal enemy, all wrapped up in one, so clearly I love this place. They serve a Dark n Slushie (a frozen version of the Dark and Stormy) as well as rum flights for those hoping to learn more about the spirit. If you’re in the mood to nibble, they also offer jerk seitan and veggie sides.
Where to See a Show
Upper East Side
We saw an excellent Diane Arbus exhibition here, as well as a beautiful immersive light installation by Tatsuo Miyajima. I really enjoyed this museum: its relatively small size means you can see all or most of what’s on display without getting fatigued or overwhelmed. Plus, it’s another member of the Met museum family that accepts suggested donation admission. Art viewing on your terms!
An experimental music venue, cafe, cocktail bar, woodworking shop, yoga studio, and community center. They’ve got multiple spaces that feature electronic, rock, and jazz musicians booked by an inclusive group of house curators. It’s open and industrial, the kind of place that feels like it’s been plucked out of the Marfa high desert, but also feels right at home in the middle of New York.
A great place to see comedy from new/newly established performers, as well as touring musicians, film and tv screenings, and readings. 2 Dope Queens, Issa Rae, and the Moth Storyslam are three that have come through here and may come again! Keep your eyes on the calendar for listings and ticket information.
Upper West Side
I came here on my very first trip to New York back in 2004. I remember wandering the halls of this incredible institution, staring in awe at the wildlife dioramas. I was joking with my friend and enjoying myself immensely when I got a call from my mom asking where I was. I told her “At the Natural History Museum! It’s great!” to which she asked why I wasn’t at the airport because my plane was leaving in a half hour. That’s right, I loved this place so much, I missed my flight back home for it. Luckily, the airline got me on another flight that evening and everything ended up being fine. But if a museum can be so engaging as to make me completely forget about everything outside its doors, it’s gotta be good.
A restaurant, music venue, and bowling alley all in one. Come for Bowl Train, Questlove’s weekly DJ set, or grab a drink from the bar and lace up for some bowling with your pals. Put into your planner than happy hour is weekdays from 6-8pm.
A sparkling underground venue for jazz. Smalls is special because of the acts they book, and because they don’t require a drink minimum, meaning the music is at the forefront of the experience. Depending on who’s working the door, you may be able to get in for free and see some incredible acts. Or check out the calendar to see if your favorites will be playing while you’re in town. Either way, tickets are relatively inexpensive and down in that room, you’ll feel like you’re right in the thick of it.
Another multi-disciplinary art and music space out on the edges of Brooklyn. Stop by for a contemporary art exhibition, a DJ set, or just find an unpopulated corner at the bar and enjoy a cocktail and some nachos. The space itself is pretty big and the programming is widely varied, so you can certainly create your own adventure here.
Where to Sleep
A bright and open apartment with access to a lovely first floor garden. The apartment has been updated tastefully and feels pretty much just like the Brooklyn apartment of your dreams.
Another clean and well-appointed apartment that looks sunny and comfortable. This booking has gotten great reviews, and is a close walk to Saraghina, a pizza place that New Yorkers go crazy for.
A cool (and affordable) Manhattan hotel whose rooms are inspired by classic vintage train berths. The accommodations range in size and price, but for being located just south of the High Line, the prices are pretty incredible.