This lively downtown neighborhood has been a center of bohemian lifestyle since the early 1900s. Home to jazz clubs in the 1920s, to 1960s hippy havens and 1980s punk rock clubs, the East Village has always had an edginess that the West Village (a.k.a. Greenwich Village) lacks. During Dutch colonial days, much of the East Village was farmland owned by Dutch colonial Governor Peter Stuyvesant. Its18th century pastoral setting gave way to 19th century wealth followed by 20th century bohemianism and is now a 21st century playland filled to the brim with bars, lounges, cheap restaurants and haute cuisine, boutiques, vintage shops and more. The most special thing about the East Village is free: the authenticity and energy you will feel when you stroll its streets.
We recommend that you start this tour in Astor Place. Astor Place is located on the western boundary of the East Village. Use this Google map link for directions to Astor Place. If you are considering purchasing a hop-on, hop-off bus ticket, most companies offer stops in or just nearby Astor Place. Read our comparison post on New York bus tours.
This short two block street, running east from Broadway to Lafayette Street is named after John Jacob Astor, who was the richest person in America when he died in 1848. He also lived down the block at Colonnade Row, included in this tour. If you ask most New Yorkers who Astor Place is named for, they won’t know. But if you ask them where The Cube at Astor Place is, they will easily direct you to the intersection of Cooper Square, Lafayette St., Fourth Ave and 8th St. At this intersection is a large pedestrian triangle called Alamo Plaza named after artist Tony Rosenthal’s 1967 sculpture named Alamo, a massive eight-foot-square steel cube painted solid black. The Alamo is more fondly known by locals as The Cube and is a popular meeting place. As of 2015, Alamo Plaza and the surrounding area are under a $16 million reconstruction by the city and the Cube has been removed until the project is complete.
Stop B – The Mosaic Trail
Throughout the streets of the East Village, starting at Astor Place and St. Marks Place, you will notice that the street lampposts are decorated with bits of broken china, broken tile, mirror shards, and any other colorful and free found objects that Mosaic Man can get his hands on. These posts make up the Mosaic Trail. (Here’s a map of most of the lampposts). Since the late 1980s, Jim Power, a Vietnam War veteran (nicknamed Mosaic Man by The Village Voice newspaper), has been creating these whimsical mosaics without any financial support other than donations of items to decorate the poles. Many of them commemorate important events in New York history, or people from the neighborhood. At first, he was a target of the city’s Anti-Graffiti Task Force, but now he is allowed to work his magic with official city permission. Two years ago, our guests on our East Village Food tour, had the distinct honor of speaking with Jim, about his mosaics and even got a group photo with him in front of his amazing Mosaic Wall.
He later wrote about meeting us on his blog saying “This was just one of those great East Village moments.” If you see him around the East Village, walk up and say hi, and by all means, feel free to give him a buck. He gives his heart and hard work to beautify this part of the city.
Stop C – Astor Place Theater and Colonnade Row 434 Lafayette St.
Home to the Blue Man Group performance troupe, the Astor Theater is located in what were once the private homes of some of New York City’s wealthiest families, like the Astors and the Vanderbilts back in the 1830s. Originally there were nine Greek Revival mansions known as Colonnade Row. Of the nine buildings only these four remain and were among the first buildings to gain landmark status in 1965 under the city’s newly created Landmark Preservation laws.
Stop D – The Public Theater 425 Lafayette St. at Astor Place
Founded by Joseph Papp in 1954 to showcase performances stemming from his Shakespeare Workshop, The Public now stages a wide variety of top-notch performances by cutting edge playwrights. The Public is also the sponsor of New York’s annual Shakespeare in the Park every summer where hundreds of determined Shakespeare fans line up overnight to get free tickets for same-evening performances. Next door to The Public is Joe’s Pub, an intimate live music and dinner venue. http://www.publictheater.org/
Stop E – The Village Voice 36 Cooper Square
This Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper was launched in 1955 by American author Norman Mailer and 3 other journalists. It has always been known for its groundbreaking investigative journalism and exposes as well as in depth local reporting. Though the Voice’s offices are now in the Financial District, no other newspaper is associated with the East Village the way the Voice is and fittingly their name still adorns the building. Once sold for a dollar, the paper is now free and can be found in newspaper boxes around the city. They also have a great website with listings of local activities, restaurants, bars, theater and gallery listings and more.
Stop F – Merchant’s House Museum 29 E. 4th St. bet Lafayette St. and Cooper Square
This is the only 19th century family home preserved in its entirety, inside and out, in New York City. Built in 1832, this elegant red-brick and white-marble row house was lived in by the same family for almost 100 years. Visiting the museum gives you a glimpse of domestic life in the city in the 19th century. For information on visiting the museum click here.
Stop G – Former site of CBGBs 315 Bowery bet. 1st and 2nd St.
This is the birthplace of punk rock and it all started with The Ramones, a group of long-haired, leather-clad guys from Forest Hills, Queens. Other bands that got their start at CBGBs are Blondie, the Talking Heads, Patti Smith and dozens of other punk/new wave bands. CBGB’s was originally named Hilly’s On The Bowery when it was opened in 1974 by Hilly Kristal as a spin-off to his successful West Village venue where performers like Bette Midler and Jerry Stiller appeared. Kristal wanted a more music-oriented crowd and changed the name to Country Bluegrass Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers which became known by the now famous acronym CBGB and OMFUG. By the 1990s the surrounding neighborhood, particularly the Bowery, had become heavily gentrified with new luxury boutique hotels and restaurants. Rents sky-rocketed and CBGBs wasn’t turning a profit. It was forced to close in 2006. The site is now a John Varvatos menswear boutique. Knowing that the site would be a shrine to CBGBs, the store covered its walls with original memorabilia, posters and albums of the bands that performed at the club. Step inside the shop, they are very welcoming of people who want to say they stood on sacred ground. Just for fun, here’s a video of Blondie performing at CBGBs in 1977.
Stop H – George and Ira Gershwin home 91 2nd Ave bet 5th and 6th Sts.
This was the childhood home of these brothers, two of the great song composers of all time. Their individual and collaborative pieces include the overtures Rhapsody in Blue, Strike up the Band, and musical Porgy and Bess. (image to the right)
Stop I – New Middle Collegiate Church 112 2nd Ave bet. 6th and 7th Sts.
The congregation was founded in 1628, and is one of the oldest continuous Protestant congregations in North America. The church was built in 1891 and known for their Tiffany stained-glass windows.
Stop J – Fillmore East 102 2nd Ave bet. 6th and 7th Sts.
From 1968 to 1971, the ground floor of this building (now a bank) was the Fillmore East, the East Coast counterpart to hippie/music promotor Bill Graham’s Fillmore in San Francisco. Though only opened for four years, dozens of the best musicians and bands of the 1960s and early 1970s appeared on its stage including: Jimi Hendrix, Tina Turner, The Doors, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, Chuck Berry, Miles Davis and so many more musical legends. On the corner is one of Mosaic Man’s lampposts with the names of some of the bands who played here.
Stop K – Ukrainian Museum 222 E. 6th St. bet. Bowery and 2nd Ave
This is the largest museum in the U.S. committed to Ukrainian cultural heritage. It opened in 1976 and offers several annual exhibitions and public programs.
Stop L – McSorley’s Old Ale House 15 E. 7th St. bet. Bowery and 2nd Ave
This is one of the oldest ale houses in New York, opened in 1854, and has served up its home-brewed ale to notables Abraham Lincoln, Babe Ruth, and Theodore Roosevelt. The décor – from sawdust on the floor to the long wooden bar that serves only beer – is like a time capsule. Whether or not you order a pint of beer, step inside to see the hundreds of photos and memorabilia on the wall. Read our post on McSorley’s.
Stop M – Surma 11 E. 7th St. Bowery and 2nd Ave
Opened in 1918 this shop next to McSorley’s is filled with traditional Ukrainian décor items, housewares and toys, clothing. For hours and their catalog, see their website.
Stop N – Cooper Union Cooper Square and Astor Place
This highly prestigious and competitive private college was founded in 1859 by industrialist/philanthropist Peter Cooper, who believed that a good education should be available to everyone regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender or social/economic status. He mandated that the school would always be tuition-free and it was until 2015 when a financial fiasco caused the school to lose its massive endowments and Cooper Union now charges $40,000 a year. The building is most famous for the prominent individuals who have spoken there. In 1860, the then presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln gave his famous “right makes might” anti-slavery speech. More recently, President Barack Obama spoke there in 2010. The university has a visitors page.
Stop O – Hamilton-Holly House 4 St. Marks Place bet. 3rd and 2nd Aves.
Named for Alexander Hamilton’s widow who lived there in the 1830s, this mid-19th century Federal style building is an elegant standout on what was once one of the city’s fashionable upper-class streets.
Stop P – German-American Shooting Society Clubhouse 12 St. Marks Place bet. 3rd and 2nd Aves.
At the time the DeutscheAmerikanische Schützen Gesellschaft clubhouse was built in 1888, the East Village had a huge German immigrant population and the neighborhood was known as KleinDeutschland (Little Germany). This building is one of a handful of reminders that the area was once primarily German-speaking. Look up at the façade of the building to see the engraving that reads “Einigkeit Macht Stark” (“Unity provides strength”).
Stop Q – Ottendorfer Library 2nd Ave bet. St. Marks Place and 9th St
Founded in 1884, Oswald Ottendorfer, editor of a widely read German-American journal helped create one of New York City’s first free libraries. Ottendorfer wanted to help German immigrants assimilate into American society with access to reading materials. Next door is the Die Deutsche Poliklinik (German Dispensary), financed by Oswald’s wife, Anna Ottendorfer, to provide poor German-Americans with free healthcare.
Stop R – Theater 80 80 St. Marks Place bet. 1st and 2nd Aves.
This space housed a ‘speakeasy’ (an illegal bar during the Prohibition era) and local gangsters Al Capone and Lucky Luciano drank here. After Prohibition was repealed in 1930, a jazz club called The Gallery opened and Thelonious Monk performed there. Then the space became a theater, followed by a cinema revival house and is now again a small theater staging plays and musicals. Also housed in the building is the small but very interesting Museum of the American Gangster.
Stop S – Upright Citizens Brigade Theater 153 E. 3rd St. bet. Ave A and Ave B
This 152-seat theatre in is the East Village offshoot of this comedic improve troupe’s first New York Theater in Chelsea. In addition to holding wildly popular improv performances for only $10, the UCBT also has an Improv Training Center that teaches the art of improvisational and written comedy. Click here for performance schedules.
Stop T – Secret Garden on the corner of E. 4th St. and Ave C.
The East Village is known for its community gardening movement that began in the 1970s, when the neighborhood was undesirable to live in. Empty lots between buildings went unattended by owners who were losing money. Residents of the area illegally turned the lots into gardens in an effort to beautify their surroundings. After years of legal battles with land-owners who abandoned their lots, 39 community gardens exist legally around the East Village and are maintained by volunteers from the neighborhood. Another favorite of ours is 6BC Botanical Garden at the corner of E. 6th St. bet. Aves. B and C.
Stop U – Tompkins Square Park Ave A to Ave B and E. 7th St. to E.10th St.
The heart of the East Village, this park is named for Daniel D. Tompkins, once Governor of New York (1807-1817). This piece of land was part of the massive Stuyvesant estate during the 17th century. By the 19th century, Tompkins had purchased the land and it was marked for development as a public square. The Square was the site of two serious New York City protests, in 1857 and again in 1875, over the bad economy and lack of jobs. In 1878, the square was landscaped into a park that was enjoyed by the primarily German residents of KleinDeutschland. By the 1980s the East Village had become a dangerous neighborhood and the park was a safe haven for the homeless who would sleep in the park in a small make-shift community. At the same time, the area was becoming gentrified and the radical, open-minded spirit of the East Village was being replaced by greed and high rents. On July 31, 1988, the police suddenly and unexpectedly enforced the park’s 1 a.m. essentially telling locals, homeless or not, ‘get out of your park now.’ A week later a protest was held against the gentrification of the neighborhood. Clashes between protestors and the police became two days of rioting, with the police being blamed by newspapers, activists and local politicians, for the escalation of violence. Over 100 complaints of police brutality were filed. The Tompkins Square Park Riot has been commemorated in a scene in the musical Rent and a song by famed musician Lou Reed.
The park was shut down entirely in 1991 and renovated. It reopened in 1992 with new playgrounds, a dog run and clean public facilities, but its free-wheeling character that the park had for decades is gone. The old spirit of the park comes out every year at the annual performances hosted by the park hosts annual events such as the outdoor drag festival Wigstock, the Howl Festival commemorating neighborhood resident Allen Ginsberg, and the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival. http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/tompkins-square-park
Stop V – Charlie Parkerhouse 151 Ave B bet. 10th and 9th St.
Legendary jazz saxophonist lived with his family in this landmark brownstone from 1950 to 1954. It was here that he composed some of his most influential works.
Stop W – Russian and Turkish Bath Houses 268 E. 10th St. bet 1st Ave and Ave A
This sauna and bath house has been around since 1892. And it feels like it — as the bathhouse has the atmosphere of another era. One hundred years ago, 50 cents could get you a bath. Today, it is $35. This is not a luxury spa, rather it is an authentic, no-frills banya (Russian for sauna). Come here for the seriously hot saunas and get ready to detox! Rumored patrons over the years include Frank Sinatra, Bill Murray, and John F. Kennedy Jr. Even Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev made a special visit in 1986. It doesn’t get more authentic than that. For many decades the bathhouse was men-only. Now, the baths are co-ed except for Wednesday mornings when they are women-only, and Sunday mornings, when they are reserved for men. For hours and services, see their website.
Stop X – Yiddish Theater Walk of Fame corner of 2nd Ave and 10th St.
In the 1880s to 1920s 2nd avenue between 10th Street and Houston Street was known as the ‘Yiddish Rialto’ because of the in nearly two dozen theaters that put on dramatic plays, operettas and comedies performed in Yiddish (a language that combines German, Hebrew and bits of other languages) that was widely spoken among Jews at that time in history. Yiddish Theater was enormously popular in the East Village and many of the performers went on to have successful careers outside the Yiddish Theater. The Walk of Fame, which are plaques placed in the sidewalk, commemorates some of the most beloved Yiddish Theater stars, including On the corner in the sidewalk are plaques with the names of the great Yiddish theater performers including Fyvush Finkel, known for his role on the TV series Picket Fences and Ida Kaminska, who was nominated for an Academy Award in 1965 for her performance in the Czechoslovakian movie The Shop on Main Street.
Stop Y – St. Mark’s in the Bowery Episcopal Church 131 E. 10th St. bet. 2nd and 3rd Aves.
This is one of the oldest sites of continuous worship in the city, built in 1799 on the Stuyvesant estate. Peter Stuyvesant was the last Dutch colonial governor of New Amsterdam before the British took control of the colony and renamed it City of New York. Stuyvesant is entombed in the church’s graveyard. The church itself shares space with several arts organizations, including Danspace and the Poetry Project known for its Annual New Years’ Day Marathon Reading — 24 hours of poetry readings by such luminaries as Eric Bogosian, John Cage, Yoko Ono, Amiri Baraka, Patti Smith and Philip Glass.
Stop Z – Renwick Triangle 114-128 E. 10th St. bet. 2nd and 3rd Aves.
James Renwick, Jr., architect of the world-renown St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, designed this charming building in 1861. It stands on the triangle at the intersection of 9th Street and Stuyvesant Street.
Stop (a) – Webster Hall 125 E. 11th St. bet 3rd and 4th Aves.
When it was built in 1886, this hall was called the “Jewel of the Village”. It has evolved over time from a party hall for special occasions such as Jewish weddings or balls, to a concert venue (called The Ritz until 1990) for rock/punk/emo/techno bands and over the years has hosted everyone from U2 to Guns N’ Roses. To check out if your favorite band is playing anytime soon, here is the Webster Hall calendar.
Stop (b) – Grace Church 802 Broadway bet. E. 10th and E. 11th Sts.
Also designed by James Renwick, Jr., when he was only 24 years-old, Grace Church is considered to be the earliest example of neo-gothic architecture in the City. http://gracechurchnyc.org/
Stop (c) – The Strand Bookstore 828 Broadway at corner of E.12th St.
Almost as famous as Bloomingdale’s “Little Brown Bag” are the canvas bags from The Strand, open since 1927 and whose slogan is “18 Miles of Books”. This huge, independent bookstore has almost any book you want. They carry new, used and rare books at great prices. The Strand is one of New Yorkers’ favorite shops and a must-visit location for book lovers.