In my past few years as an independent, don’t-need-no-man, working woman, I’ve probably spent more time in Midtown East than I’ve spent in the neighborhoods where I actually reside. And in that time I’ve learned that Midtown East has a lot more to it than cold, glass skyscrapers full of self-important, yet disgruntled office workers. Midtown East is actually a pretty rich area, and I’m not just talking about wealth, although it has plenty of that. This is a neighborhood that is rich in history and things to do. Whether you’re a local whose employer is hellbent on forcing you to commute back into the area or you’re a tourist who has wandered over to this part of Midtown after exploring its flashier counterpart, this Midtown East neighborhood guide is for you. Now let’s get into the top things to do in Midtown East!
What to Know Before You Go to Midtown East
Neighborhood boundaries are always a little nebulous, especially in New York, but in this Midtown East neighborhood guide, I’m referring to the area of Manhattan bound by 34th Street to the south, 59th Street to the north, the East River to the east, and Fifth Avenue to the west. Because this is such a large swatch of land, Midtown East isn’t one neighborhood but an amalgamation of neighborhoods, including Murray Hill, Turtle Bay, Sutton Place, and Tudor City. But no matter which part of Midtown East you’re in or what you want to call it, you will still find the same business-meets-boujee vibe.
Speaking of vibes, the bustling yet buttoned up Midtown East we’ve come to know and work in has been this way since the 1920s. With all the subway lines that run through the area, plus the presence of Grand Central Terminal, it was inevitable that this area would become Manhattan’s commercial center. And since all work and no play makes for a dull neighborhood, of course there are several places for overworked office workers to spend their hard-earned salaries.
What to Do in Midtown East
Midtown East Museums
Austrian Cultural Forum
Browse exhibits that reflect contemporary Austrian culture in a futuristic
eyesore building that they inexplicably take great pride in.
Go for the Japanese cultural events, stay for the zen indoor garden and waterfall.
The Morgan Library & Museum
A collection too magnificent to be kept from the public, the Morgan Library allows us plebs to gawk at the rare books and manuscripts John Pierpont Morgan amassed over the course of his life. The books are special, but what will really stun you is the Italian Renaissance-styled rooms that house the collection.
Museum of Modern Art
The first museum of its kind in the world, MoMA is the go-to museum to view art created between the 1860s and the 1970s.
New York Public Library – Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
More commonly referred to as the Main Branch of the New York Public Library, this tourist hotspot mixes beauty and brains with its 2.5 million volumes and nine divisions, all enclosed in a gorgeous Beaux Arts building.
New York City Transit Museum Gallery Annex & Store
Tucked in a corner of Grand Central Terminal, this extension of the Transit Museum hosts small transportation-related exhibits and sells transit-related books and gifts.
Paley Center for Media
A tv junkie’s heaven, the Paley Center has a collection of over 100,000 radio and tv programs from the past 100 years from all over the globe. Plus they regularly host events where people in the media discuss their work and current trends.
One of the livelier country-specific cultural centers in Midtown, Scandinavia House has a Nordic-themed restaurant and a gift shop along with exhibits and a library of books from and about the region.
Midtown East Shopping
Don’t be put off by the mediocre bargain books out front; Argosy’s strength is in its collection of vintage maps, posters, and prints.
In business in NYC since 1861, Bloomingdale’s has had plenty of time to perfect the luxury shopping experience. Not only will you find hundreds of high-end apparel and home decor brands within this 815,000 square-foot store, there are also personal shoppers, baggage and coat check, and three restaurants. Don’t forget to get one of the famous “brown bags”!
I kid you not: this bookstore is fully devoted to Winston Churchill. From books by Churchill to books about Churchill, Chartwell Booksellers has everything a Churchill superfan could imagine. (No shade, but how have they stayed in business for over 40 years catering to a very specific market?)
Fifth Avenue Stores
Fifth Avenue is Fancy Store Avenue. From Bergdorf Goodman to Tiffany & Co. to Louis Vuitton, all the luxury brands you know and lust over can be found along this one avenue. Throw in mass retailers like Zara and Uniqlo and you’ll find something for everyone. Note that the stores become fancier the closer you get to Central Park.
Kinokuniya New York
Each floor of this store is a delight, from the selection of books on the main floor, the manga and the cafe on the second floor, and the stationary and items from Japan in the basement.
Manhattan Art and Antique Center
There are several antique stores in the Midtown East area, but there is nothing quite like the MAAC. The MAAC describes itself as the nation’s largest antique mall with three floors and 100 galleries of furniture, art, and jewelry. Besides it being a visual feast, my favorite thing about the MAAC is how approachable it is. You needn’t be a buyer nor an antique expert to browse through the store.
This being the place that employees from the DC and Marvel headquarters shop gives it more than enough street cred for me.
MoMA Design Store
Visiting this store is almost as fun as visiting MoMA itself. The items on display are so cool and innovative that you’ll want to buy everything, but with those prices, you won’t. But if you are willing to pay top dollar, this is a great place to find a unique gift.
Midtown East Parks
This park has come a long way from its drug den days. Now it’s the go-to place for a family-friendly good time with its outdoor movies and performances in the summer and its Winter Village in the colder months, among other activities hosted here.
Ford Foundation Building Atrium
The award for the best public atrium goes to the Ford Foundation Building! With its 40 species of trees, vines, and shrubs along with a reflecting pool and water fountain, you’ll feel like you’ve entered a rainforest. It’s a beautiful setting to sit and cry about your job.
With its 25-foot high waterfall and walls of ivy masking the sounds of the city, you’ll feel as though you’ve left Midtown and stepped into a tropical oasis.
This park is just like Greenacre Park, but not as lush. Regardless, it is a welcomed retreat from the hectic streets.
Park Avenue Public Plaza
I wouldn’t venture here around lunch time because you won’t be able to get a table, but this public plaza is a nice place to take shelter from the elements. Be sure to grab a latte from the Starbucks booth and visit Chartwell Booksellers while you are there.
Sutton Place Parks
This series of pocket parks along the East River usually have a great view of the river and the Queensboro Bridge, but as of this posting, this is the best place to go if you want to see what a construction boat looks like up close.
Ralph Bunche Park
Named for the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize, peace is the theme of this small park that sits across the street from the United Nations Headquarters. Inscribed on the park’s curved granite wall is a quote from Isaiah 2:4, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares….” It’s no wonder why this spot is a popular location for protests for peace and other international causes.
590 Madison Avenue
Also known as the IBM Plaza, this public atrium has groves of bamboo, food kiosks, and rotating art exhibits.
Other Cool Things to Do in Midtown East
Church of Sweden Cafe
Who would have thought that one of the coziest cafes in Midtown East would be on the ground floor of a church that historically catered to Swedish seamen in New York? Open to both Swedes and non-Swedes, this cafe has cheap but tasty Swedish treats, a library of Swedish books, comfy chairs, and good vibes. Go there if you want an alternative to working at Starbucks.
Step back in time to the 1920s simply by setting foot into the lobby of the Chrysler Building. Anyone is allowed to come in and admire the art deco features of this building’s lobby, but pretend that you’re an office worker who works within the building. If you reveal yourself to be a curious visitor, security may sequester you to one section of the lobby. (Yes, I speak from experience.)
Cinema 123 by Angelika
This three-screen theater shows indie and foreign films.
Daily News Building
Although it’s no longer home to The Daily News, the Daily News Building still houses a massive 12-foot globe in its lobby that has been there for 90 years. If you can tear your eyes away from the giant glowing globe for a moment, check out the bronze etchings on the floor and the panels on the walls.
Grand Central Station
More than a train station, it’s a food court, shopping center, and an architectural marvel. Take in the famed starry ceiling without getting in commuters’ way.
Built during the Great Depression, this commercial complex was a beacon of optimism in its day. Nowadays, it’s a tourist hotspot with its shops, observation deck, restaurants, tv studio, theater, and ice skating rink.
Saint Patrick’s Cathedral
St. Patrick’s Cathedral is more than a pretty church; it’s a symbol of resistance against the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiments that were rampant in the mid-1800s when this Gothic Revival cathedral was built. These days, Catholics and non-Catholics alike are welcome to take a guided audio tour of the church and experience daily Mass, which is given multiple times throughout the day.
Summit One Vanderbilt
One of Manhattan’s newest observation decks, Summit allows you to experience the city from 1000 feet in the air. Some parts of the floor are reflective, so it’s advised that you wear pants. And I would feel guilty if I didn’t tell you that this experience is pricey AF.
The Paris Theater
The former home of Ziegfeld, this theater has a new life screening select Netflix movies you can see from the comfort of your home.
United Nations Headquarters
Don’t forget your passport when you visit this international organization (I’m not kidding, you need to present a government-issued ID card or they will turn you away.) Tours of the UN fill up fast, so make sure to book yours far in advance. But if you can’t score a tour, you can still see the lobby and the gift shop.
601 Lexington Avenue
Also known as the Citigroup Center, this building that seems to stand on concrete stilts could have toppled over and destroyed Midtown back in 1979. This article from Secrets of Manhattan tells the whirlwind tale (You’ll think this line is funny once you know the story).
What to Eat in Midtown East
Because eating out in Midtown East can be pricey, I rarely do it, so I’m not the greatest resource on which restaurants you should go to in the area. I’d read this guide by The Infatuation for specific recommendations, but I can tell you this: the quality of food in Midtown East gets better the closer you get to the United Nations and the more residential areas.
On the occasions that I do want to grab a bite to eat in Midtown East, my go-to places are Ole & Steen, Liberty Bagels, and the restaurant formerly known as NatureWorks (I think it’s currently calling itself Eva x Cinco de Mayo).
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