Much more than most American cities, New York City is broken up into very distinct neighborhoods. That’s actually true of the entire city, where even the boroughs are made up of collections of little villages, each with their own character and demographic make-up. Since most of the Outer Boroughs (as the four boroughs other than Manhattan are often called) don’t really have many attractions interesting to new visitors, we’ll concentrate mostly on the Manhattan neighborhoods in brief below.
From south to north, for the most part, since that also traces the history of the island from oldest to newest:
Battery Park — This area is home to the park that gives the neighborhood, and not much else. The park is mostly made of concrete and it gets crowded during nice weather, as people like to enjoy the breezes off the harbor, but there are no ball fields or things like that. This is where you go to get the Circle Line Ferries that go to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, and the terminal for the free Staten Ferry is also here. There are some expensive apartments, mostly for people working in nearby Wall Street, but not much else of interest.
Wall Street/Financial District — This area is of course home to most of the stock exchanges and other financial institutions in town, but this is also where you’ll find Ground Zero. It’s definitely worth a visit during a weekday, but it’s dead in the evenings and not very interesting on weekends.
TriBeCa — The Triangle Below Canal Street has gone from a lonely industrial neighborhood in the 1980s to a chic area jammed with celebrity loft tenants and glamorous restaurants. There really isn’t much to see by walking the streets here, but you are more likely to see someone famous here than anywhere else in the city.
Chinatown — Sadly, this is probably the most trash-covered part of Manhattan. The streets are lined with Chinese restaurants, of course, but also tons of small shops selling bootleg designer purses, watches, and the like. The people who live here are, in fact, mostly Chinese nationals, so the area is authentic, just not as nice as it should be.
Little Italy — This famous area has become almost completely swallowed up by surrounding Chinatown over the last few decades. Now all that remains is basically a 3-block stretch of nearly-identical restaurants, but it’s still quite nice and worth seeing if you are in the area.
SoHo — As recently as the 1970s Soho, which is short for South of Houston Street (pronounced HOW-stun rather than HYU-stun) has filled with abandoned warehouse buildings. It then became the center of the loft movement, where early movers rented giant sections of dilapidated buildings and fixed them into artist work-live spaces. Housing prices here are now near the top of the market and many celebrities are among the loft dwellers. In the last decade most of the area’s unique shops have given way to large chain stores, but the shopping in the area is more popular than ever as a result.
NoLita — This is a new name that is short of North of Little Italy. There are several streets of new boutiques, bars, and restaurants, but it’s little more than a less-grungy portion of the Lower East Side, which is next door.
Lower East Side — This neighborhood used to be famous as the cheapest neighborhood that housed the newest immigrants loaded in large numbers into tiny apartments, but in the early 1990s the area become trendy almost overnight. Now it’s insanely expensive for renters and it has a high concentration of bars and nightclubs, with noise complaints and older-resident controversies to match.
Greenwich Village — This used to be its own city a couple centuries ago, and now this mostly-residential area has three very distinct neighborhoods:
West Village — One of the city’s most pleasant (and expensive) residential neighborhoods begins at 6th Avenue and goes west to the Hudson River. The area is filled with history and lovely architecture, particularly the blocks off Hudson Street in the west. The fact that very few of the streets support through traffic give the area a calmness that can’t be found elsewhere in Manhattan.
The Village or just Greenwich Village — If a local refers to The Village, they usually mean the central section since the other areas are usually referred to by their specific names. This section, which stretches just from 6th Avenue to 3rd Avenue, was the home to the beat movement in the 1960s and is dominated by New York University, which owns buildings all over the area, but mostly surrounded Washington Square Park in the absolute center.
East Village — East of 3rd Avenue you have the area that was dangerous, edgy, and frequently home to drug deals as recently as 1990 or so, but now the area is one of the most desirable residential neighborhoods, particularly for younger people. The area East of 1st Avenue is comprised of Avenue A, Avenue B, C, and D, and is known as Alphabet City. This area was gentrified more recently, and despite the fact that public transportation to the area is poor, it’s still insanely expensive for renters. It’s also home to the highest density of bars this side of Bourbon Street.
Chelsea — On the west side of Manhattan between 14th Street and 23rd Street is the trendy Chelsea neighborhood. There is almost nothing distinctive about the look of the area — it’s basically a grid of nearly-identical buildings with storefronts at street level and either offices or apartments above — but since the 1990s the area has morphed into the home of New York’s most visible gay scene, particularly along 8th Avenue. The area west of 9th Avenue is where you’ll find old industrial buildings that are now one mega-nightclub after another.
Gramercy Park — This is the equivalent of Chelsea on the east side of the city, but without the fun. It’s mostly an older high-end residential area with some trendy restaurants and not much else for the visitor.
Garment District — This is a vague area mostly between 23rd Street and 34th Street where many of the city’s more prominent fashion houses do their business. Except for the occasional sample sales and the clothing racks being pushed around, there isn’t much to see that relates to fashion. The retail outlets for the labels are elsewhere.
Midtown — This giant area from 34th Street to 59th Street is home to most of the city’s hotels, Times Square, Rockefeller Center, the Broadway theaters, the United Nations, and tons of other notable sights. It’s the least authentic Manhattan neighborhood and particularly around the hotels near Times Square, it’s character-free and most of the restaurants and bars are overpriced since they don’t need repeat visitors to stay busy.
Upper West Side — The area west of Central Park is where you’ll find Lincoln Center in the south and Columbia University (an Ivy League school) in the north, but most of it is residential and very pleasant. This is where Jerry Seinfeld’s TV character lived while they really shot the show in Los Angeles. The “new money” is on this side of the park.
Upper East Side — Here’s where you’ll find the “old money.” The section near 5th Avenue, which is Central Park’s eastern border, is home to most of the famous museums in New York City, as well as ultra high-end shopping and expensive penthouses.
Harlem — This neighborhood north of Central Park is still very much dominated by African Americans, but yuppies priced out of the rest of Manhattan have recently been driving up housing prices here. Even before that started, the area was nicer and less dangerous than most people expected, although late at night it can still feel very intimidating.
North of Harlem you’d find the neighborhoods of Washington Heights and Inwood, which are mostly dominated by immigrants from the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean areas. There isn’t much to see up here, except for the Cloisters park and museum near the northern edge of Manhattan Island.