On a map Manhattan looks so unassuming – this little slip of land is less than 23 miles square. Yet it has produced political, artistic and even financial transformations that have reverberated around the world. The great part is that visitors to the city can march right up to the doors of buildings where legends were born (or are still being made).
Some of these spots around the city are larger than life, the kind of landmarks you can barely fit in the frame of a photo, while others are human-scale incubators of talent and dreams. And it’s this mix of off-the-charts grand with the scrappy and raw that gives Manhattan its incomparable energy.
Statue of Liberty
The torch-bearing, toga-clad, 151-foot-tall lady off the southern tip of Manhattan has been welcoming visitors to New York City since 1886. After more than a decade of erratic access, the Statue of Liberty is open again to visitors – though of course the message she conveys of freedom for all who arrive in America has been burning steadily for more than a century.
Opened in 1934, the Apollo Theater has from the start been a showcase for African-American talent from the surrounding Harlem neighborhood and beyond. It is historically considered one of the premier stages for black musicians, from blues and jazz to soul, funk and R&B. Ella Fitzgerald made her debut here at the age of 17, and James Brown’s Live at the Apollo recording is an American masterpiece. The schedule here is not as lively as it once was, but the building is beautifully restored and its famous Amateur Night still runs most Wednesdays.
Manhattan has always been driven by money, even back when Wall Street was a literal boundary wall of the Dutch trading settlement called New Amsterdam. Since then, the street has become as synonymous with finance as Hollywood is with movies, thanks largely to the New York Stock Exchange (11 Wall St), the world’s largest. Visitors are not allowed in to the NYSE, but they can pose with the giant ‘Charging Bull’ statue at Broadway and Morris streets, and get an eyeful of gold on a tour of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, a few blocks north at 33 Liberty Street.
Nuyorican Poets Café
Established in 1973, the Nuyorican Poets Café gave voice to a heavily Latino literary and social movement, in the form of spoken-word poetry, music and more. It has been a cultural anchor in heavily Puerto Rican Alphabet City, even as the neighborhood has gentrified. Its commitment to spoken performance made it a logical location for years of The Moth’s storytelling slams (though, due to popularity, they have moved to larger venues). Stop by – you might see the next big thing.
One night in 1969, a police raid on the Stonewall Inn turned into a scuffle, and then an outright riot. The violent protests against the police grew into a larger, nationwide campaign against American oppression of gays and lesbians. The bar, still open today, is on the parade route for city’s annual Pride March, and it has been a meeting point at historic turning points for gay rights, such as when New York State legalized gay marriage. Over a beer, savor legal and cultural change in little more than a generation.
Yes, tortured Welsh writer Dylan Thomas drank himself to death here, and Sid Vicious knifed his girlfriend here as well – but the grand redbrick Hotel Chelsea, trimmed in ornate black wrought-iron balconies, is more than morbid history. The Chelsea has been a refuge for a diverse list of artists and writers from Madonna to Arthur C. Clarke for decades. A change in ownership is suspected to be much less friendly to its artsy long-term residents – but it’s expected to open again to overnight visitors in 2016.
Empire State Building
Still New York’s most iconic skyscraper, the Empire State Building represents the city’s vast ambitions – even if (or especially if) a little wrangling is required to fulfill them. (It stole the record for city’s tallest tower in 1931, surpassing the Chrysler Building by less than 200 feet.) Its fame was cemented in the film King Kong, and it currently acts as a sort of city barometer, as its lights change colors according to holidays and other events.
The world headquarters of the United Nations, which was established after World War II, stand on the east edge of Manhattan. The complex, with its sleek 39-story tower, is a mash-up of designs by two quintessential midcentury architects – Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier. It opened in 1952 and has been a hive of international diplomacy ever since. In practical terms, most New Yorkers judge the UN’s influence based on the traffic snarls caused by visiting dignitaries; the American president’s address to the General Assembly, every fall, is considered the worst.
While picking through organic kale at the Union Square Greenmarket, spare a moment to admire the Decker Building, at 33 Union Square West. This was the second – and most creatively fertile – site of The Factory, Andy Warhol’s living, work and party space. Here he made most of his films, perfected his silkscreen technique and pressed his friends (‘art-workers’) into the production process. And the Factory’s house band, The Velvet Underground, is often considered, pound-for-pound, the most influential in rock history.
Greenwich Village’s Swingingest Coffee House, as it billed itself in the sixties, Café Wha? is where the folk scene blossomed – a bit of a low-fi country in the city, on so-called ‘hootenanny nights.’ It also hosted comedy – so both Bob Dylan and Richard Pryor can credit the place for giving them a boost. Although the ownership has changed, the place still hosts live music seven nights a week.