Upper West Side Overview
The Upper West Side has the unique distinction of being considered one of New York City's few family-friendly neighborhoods. Its (relative) spaciousness, easy access to parks, and lack of tourists and business people, gives it a more laid back feel than other neighborhoods. But that doesn't mean things can't get a little bit crowded...especially if those strollers start backing up on the sidewalks.
In the the sections below, you'll get a glimpse into life in the Upper West 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 as well as a few good photos.
Upper West Side History
The Upper West Side was once a rural setting made up of rolling hills, river valleys, and bluffs over the Hudson River. In the 17th century, Dutch immigrants began settling there, and set up farms in the area, so that by the beginning of the 18th century it was a significant producer of tobacco.
This swath of land to the north of the city was known as Bloemendaal (Anglicized as "Bloomingdale"), meaning "valley of flowers." To accommodate growing commerce due to agriculture, Bloomingdale Road was created in 1703, stretching diagonally down from current-day 114th Street to 23rd Street. The thoroughfare was later known as the Boulevard, and then became Broadway. But the name Bloomingdale still lurks around the neighborhood, with a branch of the New York Public Library on West 100th Street currently using the name.
Soon the area was dotted with country estates and suburban villages occupied by wealthy merchants-until 1853, when the neighborhood changed significantly due to the construction of Central Park. Squatters and low-income tenants who had been living in the zone that was now designated as Central Park were displaced, and many set up their shacks on the west side. The neighborhood suddenly became mixed-income, and was, little by little, transformed into part of the city.
By the late 19th century, apartment buildings started going up en masse (including the iconic Dakota), commerce went into full swing along the avenues, and Columbia University moved from the east side to Morningside Heights, taking over the former Bloomingdale Lunatic Asylum site. Columbia's close presence gave the Upper West Side its intellectual reputation, which persists today.
The 20th century made the Upper West Side into an extremely diverse neighborhood, with influxes of African Americans, German Jews, Eastern Europeans, Caribbean immigrants, gay men, and artists making their homes in the area. Slums were becoming an issue by the 1950s; major debate surrounded one of the early urban renewal projects that displaced low-income residents to make way for the construction of Lincoln Center in 1959. Rough tenement buildings abounded, and were even used as exterior shots for the movie West Side Story.
Eventually, the neighborhood gentrified, as is evident today. College graduates began moving there as an affordable alternative in the 70s and 80s, and the wealth of the 80s led to increasing rents and drew in more young professionals. Many of the neighborhood's older buildings were renovated, making it a desirable location for the wealthy yet again.
Upper West Side Vibe
The Upper West Side embodies a classic spirit of Manhattan that you can get a feel for by watching back-to-back reruns of Seinfeld. The retro diners, Jewish delis, and native New Yorkers still have a presence, but just as many newcomers and young professionals are in the mix. A safe neighborhood that's sandwiched between Central Park and Riverside Park, it has become especially popular among families with young children.
Besides the parks, the neighborhood is defined by its cultural institutions, most notably Lincoln Center, a complex of world-famous performing arts venues for ballet, opera, film, jazz, and classical music. This hub, along with other destinations such as the American Museum of Natural History, the New York Historical Society, the Beacon Theatre, and Symphony Space, plus nearby Columbia University, has made the Upper West Side a go-to spot for the intellectually curious and seekers of sophisticated culture, as well as a home for many who work in the arts and academic fields.
Because of its intellectual and cultural roots, the Upper West Side is known for its liberal penchant, especially when compared with the Upper East Side, its more conservative counterpart across Central Park.
In terms of housing, the Upper West Side offers a range of brownstones, walk-up apartment buildings, and high-rises with doormen. Buildings closer to Central Park West and Riverside Drive are noticeably fancier and pricier than those in the middle of the neighborhood, since they have a quieter residential ambiance and immediate access to green space. The inner corridor, however, offers greater convenience in terms of proximity to businesses.
Broadway runs through the core of the neighborhood and is bustling with restaurants and shopping, of both the chain and boutique variety. The tourist hotspots around 59th Street (Columbus Circle), 66th Street (Lincoln Center), and 81st Street (the Natural History Museum) naturally attract more chain businesses.
The Upper West Side is notable for its traditional Jewish delis, bagel shops, and food markets, including the legendary Zabar's. Nowadays the culinary scene is almost as diverse as the city itself, and during warmer months the sidewalks thrive with outdoor seating for brunch and dinner. There are a good number of bars catering to young people as well as an older clientele, but overall the neighborhood has a wholesome, family-friendly feel.
Upper West Side Transportation
The Upper West Side, unlike it east-side peer, has a host of transportation options that make it a popular location for commuters from both sides of the City. Although the commute downtown will take a little bit of time, you might not need to transfer lines.
Upper West Side Subway & Walking Times
In addition to the great subway options, the Upper West Side contains the last stop for the M60 bus line, which takes passengers to LaGuardia Airport. Although the ride tends to be a little bit slow, it's also about forty dollars cheaper than a cab.
Upper West Side Guidebook Landmarks
Joan of Arc
Inside Riverside Park at 93rd Street stands a bronze statue of a horse mounted by Joan of Arc, the legendary French woman warrior who was eventually condemned for witchcraft and burned at the stake. Sculpted by American artist Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington, the piece was placed in Riverside Park in 1915 and was quite an anomaly in those days as it was both made by a woman and depicted a female figure.
Natural History Museum
Founded in 1869, the American Museum of Natural History is one of the largest museums around—it has to be to house its 32 billion specimens, 45 permanent exhibition halls, and 27 interconnected buildings, not to mention the planetarium. Classic exhibits like dioramas of African mammals and dinosaur fossil skeletons balance out newer creations like the Rose Center for Earth and Space, which is a six-story-high glass cube containing an 87-foot sphere (the Hayden Planetarium) with a winding Cosmic Pathway beneath it.
Upper West Side Insider LANDMARKS
Overlooking Central Park at the corner of West 72nd Street, the Dakota Apartments are most famous for being the home of John Lennon from 1973 to 1980. On a sadder note, the address was also the site of his murder. The building was originally built in the 1880s for the head of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, Edward Clark, who reportedly had a fondness for the American West. Up above the 72nd Street entrance, a figure of a Dakota Indian can be spotted.
Riverside Drive Horse Fountain
Believe it or not, the ornate white marble fountain at Riverside Drive and 76th Street was originally meant as a trough for horses to drink out of. Back when the city was filled with thousands of horses, public troughs were quite common; this is one of the remaining few, and certainly the fanciest. The fountain is named after donor Robert Ray Hamilton, a businessman and politician who was a great-grandson of Alexander Hamilton.
Upper West Side Parks & Recreation
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.
Riverside Park (330 acres)
Frederick Law Olmsted was a busy guy in the nineteenth century. Two decades after designing Central Park, Olmsted put together the plan to develop the Upper West Side's coast into a beautiful public setting. Riverside Park is best known for how it has captured the geography and scenery of the coastline and seamlessly integrated it into the design of the Park. The Park covers four miles of coastline from 59th to 155th streets. Although the perfect place for a lazy stroll, the Park also offers a handful of recreational activities including a marina, kayak launch, baseball fields, playgrounds, and even a skate park.
Theodore Roosevelt Park (17.5 acres)
When you are sharing your space with the greatest natural history museum in the world, it's a little bit easy to get overlooked. Theodore Roosevelt Park wraps around the American Museum of Natural History, which he helped to found. In addition to providing a picturesque setting for the Museum, the Park also features "Bull Moose Dog Run" (a name that delights history nerds) which is one of the largest dog runs in the NYC Parks system.
Verdi Square (.1 acres)
Verdi Square is a small triangle of greenery dedicated to Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi. The Park's most noticeable feature is its large statue of Verdi dedicated by "resident Italians" in 1906, which harkens back to a time when the park was a gathering place for local Italian musicians. Today, the Park is best enjoyed as a spot to enjoy a cup of coffee, or perhaps more appropriately, an espresso.