Upper East Side Overview
There are people who live in New York and there are New Yorkers. For some folks, that might conjure up visions of angry glares and thick-accents, but venture into the Upper East Side and you will find a totally different type of New Yorker: the lifer. The Upper East side certainly skews older. Many UES residents have lived there for decades, while others move North for a quieter retirement or to raise a family after living in other parts of the City. Quiet streets (except for the current 2nd Avenue Subway construction) and close access to the Park makes the UES one of the best NYC neighborhoods for families and folks who want to live in the city without having to battle the crowds.
In the the sections below, you'll get a glimpse into life in the Upper East Side. But before you go anywhere, make sure you scroll through the photos in the gallery below. Nothing can tell the story of a neighborhood like a few good photos.
Upper East Side History
On the east side of Manhattan, European settlers turned what was once forests, streams, bluffs, and the site of Lenape fishing camps into farmland and market gardens. Soon a section of the Boston Post Road, a system of mail routes that connected New York to Boston, ran through the current-day Upper East Side neighborhood.
But New York City was still fairly far away from this rural section of land until the arrival of the New York and Harlem Railroad in 1837, when commercial activity began around its 86th Street station. Development increased rapidly, and the neighborhood eventually became known as Yorkville, a middle class German American suburb.
As the area continued to develop during the mid-19th century, much of the remaining farmland was subdivided into residential lots. By the end of the century, the last of the rural lands had turned into blocks of row houses for middle and working class families from all over Europe.
Starting in the mid-1890s, the wealthy began to see the area east of Central Park as desirable real estate, and started building mansions further and further up Fifth Avenue. Among the neighborhood's new, extremely rich residents were Andrew Carnegie and his business partner Henry Clay Frick. Carnegie's mansion, at 91st Street and Fifth Avenue, is now home to the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and the micro-neighborhood surrounding it is still known as Carnegie Hill. Meanwhile, Frick's mansion, at 71st Street and Fifth Avenue, is now the Frick Collection art museum.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the area around Park Avenue, which had for decades remained undesirable because of its smoky railroad trench, saw a transformation when the train tracks were covered and electrified. The wide boulevard suddenly became attractive to the wealthy, and fancy residences (and their accompanying institutions: prestigious schools, fashionable stores, and museums) took hold and established the well-heeled vibe that permeates to this day. Having been home to the likes of the Roosevelts, the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, the Kennedys, and the Whitneys over the decades, much of the Upper East Side retains its reputation as an exclusive neighborhood.
Meanwhile, Second and Third Avenues remained hubs for middle class and working class New Yorkers for some time, with their convenient elevated IRT train lines. The Second and Third Avenue Els, as they were known, ran from about 1880 to the 1940s and 50s; after they were demolished, taller apartment buildings started going up in the area.
Upper East Side Vibe
The Upper East Side is bounded by 59th Street in the south, 96th Street in the north, Fifth Avenue to the west, and the East River to the east. In terms of cost per square foot, the UES is one of the most expensive New York City neighborhoods and definitely still has a reputation for being home to "old money" and "ladies who lunch." However, things are slowly beginning to shift, especially in the areas closest to the East River. Apartments lining the neighborhood's easternmost streets (namely York Avenue, 1st Avenue, and 2nd Avenue) are now one of the cheaper options for young New Yorkers. In fact, these apartments can be less expensive than those found in some up and coming neighborhoods of Brooklyn. And when the 2nd Avenue subway line is finally completed (the first phase from 96th to 63rd Street is scheduled to open in late 2016), this area will have much improved commuting options. In terms of style of buildings, the architecture is similar to that of the Upper West Side with a mix of brownstones, doorman buildings, and walk-ups.
One of the reasons the eastern reaches of the neighborhood have remained less expensive is due in part to the 15+ minute walk required to reach the Lexington Avenue subway line. Despite a long trek to the 4-5-6 train, UES residents have a multitude of restaurants, bars, and stores right in their own backyard. Fifth, Madison, and Park Avenue are primarily residential, but by the time you reach Lexington, you'll have no problem finding what you need. The area near 86th Street and Lexington is particularly full of commercial options.
The UES is also defined by the many cultural institutes it houses, many of which are located on a part of Fifth Avenue aptly named "Museum Mile". Here you'll find El Museo del Barrio at 104th Street, Museum of the City of New York at 103rd Street, the Jewish Museum at 92nd Street, Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design at 91st Street, National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts at 89th Street, the Guggenheim at 88th Street, the Met from 82nd to 86th Streets, and the Goethe House German Cultural Center at 82nd Street.
It should also be noted that the Upper East Side is one of the only areas of Manhattan where Republicans constitute more than 20% of the electorate; this is especially true in the Southernmost portion of the UES where Republican voters equal Democrats.
Upper East Side Transportation
With Central Park on one side and the East River on the other, there isn't too much room for public transportation.. With just one subway line, your direct options will be limited to moving north-and-south, but for most UES residents that's all they need. If you are working on the west side of town, be prepared to make at least one transfer or become familiar with cross-town buses.
Upper East Side Subway & Walking Times
Upper East Side Guidebook Landmarks
One of the most famous art museums in the world, the Guggenheim was designed by one of the most famous architects in the world, Frank Lloyd Wright. The cylindrical design makes for an interesting art browsing experience: the galleries wind down in a continuous spiral, with an open atrium and skylight in the center. Open since 1959, the museum shows Modern, contemporary, and Impressionist art from around the world.
The largest art museum in the United States, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is almost a quarter-mile long (taking up a good portion of Museum Mile) with more than 2 million square feet of floor space and over 2 million pieces in its permanent collections. The place is like a huge lesson in art history, showcasing works from Ancient Egypt to the Renaissance to modern American design between its 17 different curatorial departments. The oldest artifacts at the Met are a set of flints dating from the Lower Paleolithic period, meaning somewhere between 300,000 and 75,000 BCE.
Upper East Side Insider LANDMARKS
A society dedicated to bookmaking and book collecting, the Grolier Club was founded in 1884, but has been housed at 47 East 60th Street since 1917. Although it's mainly a private club, exhibitions are free and open to the public, so you can get a glimpse of rare old books and learn about printing presses and graphic designs of antiquity; and if you're a true bibliophile, you may be able to get into the library to conduct research.
Since it opened in 1907, the Plaza Hotel has been synonymous with luxury. Its French Renaissance-inspired exterior strikes an imposing countenance, even amid its skycraping neighbors. The ornate exterior also hints at what lies within—a labyrinth of intricately designed ballrooms, bars, meeting rooms, and guest rooms. The hotel is so striking that it is one of the most filmed locations in New York City, serving as the backdrop in films like North by Northwest, Home Alone 2 (Lost in New York), and Funny Girl. If you are interested in staying in the hotel's Royal Plaza Suite (and who isn't), just make sure you bring your Amex Black card, since one night will set you back $30,000.
Upper East Side Parks & Recreation
Carl Schurz Park (15 acres)
Carl Schurz Park may not have the same name recognition as other NYC parks, but what it lacks in familiarity it more than makes up for in quality. The Park is named after one of the City's most prominent German immigrants, who in addition to serving as an aide to Abraham Lincoln, was a Senator and newspaper editor. Carl Schurz Park also serves as the home to New York City's mayors, with Gracie Mansion being the residence of the acting NYC mayor since 1942. Today, the Park is a dog-lover's dream with two dog runs and great walking paths that feature views of "Hell Gate" the infamous stretch of the East River that has sunk dozens of ships.
Central Park (840 acres)
Considered by many to be the crown jewel of New York City and one of the finest public parks in the world, Central Park doesn't need too much of an introduction. The Park was founded in 1853, primarily as an effort to bring New York City on par with other wealthy European cities that featured large green spaces. There weren't too many living in that area of Manhattan, but the City did use eminent domain to move about 2,000 New Yorkers to install the Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed Park. Over the years, the Park accumulated many of the attractions its best know for today: the Zoo, boathouses, playing fields on the Great Lawn, playgrounds and the dozens of monuments ranging from Alice in Wonderland to Balto the sled-dog to a 3,000 year-old Egyptian Obelisk. Whether you like to run, bike, admire the monuments, or simply picnic in the grass, Central Park has something for just above everyone.
John Jay Park (3.3 acres)
Today's pool is yesterday's bath house, literally. After being condemned in 1902, the City claimed the land that is currently John Jay Park and constructed a public bathhouse. In 1940, a huge swimming complex was built as part of FDR's New Deal construction efforts, which remains the center piece of the Park. The Pool is buttressed by basketball courts, playgrounds, and large recreational spaces.