Union Square is one of the most perfect, most quintessential people-watching spots in New York City.
In one condensed location, you’re likely to see competitive games of chess in action, chanting Hare Krishnas eagerly passing out pamphlets, and the crowded, popular farmer’s market selling goods from Upstate New York farms. Or you might see people gathering for a passionate protest, whether it’s related to politics or animal rights (or both).
It’s a fascinating, chaotic crossroads, so just imagine all the interesting gems that are hidden in the many streets that spread out from the area. Like many of the city’s neighborhoods, there’s an endless selection of restaurants, shops, and museums here. To really get a sense of this lively neighborhood, find a seat on the steps and watch Union Square in motion. Then, get up and start exploring. Start with these recommendations, but also wander off the beaten path and see what gems you find on your own.
If you’re a booklover in New York, there’s no reason to shop at large chain bookstores. Instead, seek out the many local shops the city has to offer, especially the much-loved Strand. The Strand was born in 1927 as part of “Book Row,” a stretch of six blocks of book stores, and has evolved into its current structure, which houses the famed “18 miles of books.” Here you’ll find a variety of new, used, and rare books on every topic under the sun. The Strand also hosts an eclectic mix of authors for book reading events; Lil Wayne, Salman Rushdie, and Patti Smith have recently made appearances. This is also your best bet for stocking on up literary souvenirs.
Stained glass, decorative iron, and vintage reclaimed chicken wire are just a few specialty items in this shop that specializes in “altered antiques.” They got their start by rummaging through New York’s dumpsters and turning trash into treasures. Now, local demolition contractors contact Olde Good Things when a building of historical or cultural value is torn down. Salvaged material like wood, metal, glass, and iron goes to the antique store’s factory in Pennsylvania and gets remade into cabinets, shelves, and tables. The store also contains plenty of goods for those who love to hunt for traditional antiques: chandeliers and lamps, metal signs, antique typewriters, and even an entire section devoted to door knobs.
5 East 16th Street
This Korean fusion restaurant boldly faces out onto Union Square, so it’s not exactly a “hidden” gem, but it’s unusual—and a nice change—to find Korean BBQ outside of K-town. Barn Joo recently outgrew its flagship location in the Flatiron District and is now a tastefully decorated, large open space with a full bar. It’s a welcome addition, too, since Republic—the popular Thai restaurant that was next to Barn Joo—recently closed its doors for good. Barn Joo also has the advantage of being open late and if you’re into that scene, a club-like vibe seeps in later in the night.
35 Union Square West
J & S Imports
It wasn’t always the case, but J & S Imports, an importer of African arts and crafts, is actually so hidden that you might not even notice it when passing by. In their heyday, they supplied handcrafted African goods to dealers around the city, but as interest in that type of art declined, the owners had to downsize and move from their ground floor storefront to a smaller space upstairs. Now, when you enter what used to be their shop, you’ll find a sign telling you to ring the bell and wait for the elevator to come. Upstairs, you’ll find an interesting mixture of handcrafted products such as jewelry, carved African statues and masks, incense, and more. Owned by brothers Jaime and Simon Debbah for more than 40 years, J & S Imports is truly an example of a small, family-owned business.
Flying Tiger wants to inspire their customers and also make them smile. That’s why their stock turnaround is relatively quick. They bring in 300 new products each month, which means you can shop here fairly often and find new treasures each time. Everything in this Danish outpost is whimsical, colorful, and extremely cheerful. Come for unique party decorations, kids toys, fun souvenirs, and much more, all super affordable and sure to be unique.
Take an easy walk west of Union Square to get to this Himalayan museum. World-class art and multimedia exhibits, films, and concerts all contribute to their mission, which is to bring an understanding of Himalayan culture to New York City in order to spark discussions, open minds, and form connections between two such different ways of life. A recent exhibit showed the works of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, and featured candid photos of everyday people in mid-century India, as well as images of Mahatma Gandhi on the last day of his life. The museum also offers a weekly meditation session, an eclectic gift shop, and K2 Friday Nights, when the museum’s café turns into a cocktail lounge with a pan-Asian menu and regional music.
150 West 17th Street
Happy wandering and let Top Dog Tours know what new and interesting places you find near Union Square!