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One 'Short' Day on the Upper East Side - A Self-Guided Walking Tour

What to do in 8 hours around Manhattan's Museum Mile
by Lauren Hauptman
 
It’s called Museum Mile, and it is daunting. Fifth Avenue runs along the east side of Central Park, and from about 79th Street to 110th Street, it is home to nearly a dozen world-class museums. That’s not even counting those slightly south and east. This swath of Manhattan’s Upper East Side is also home to some of the wealthiest citizens of the world and their requisite beautiful buildings, shops and restaurants. And it is among the loveliest of places to spend a day. Our tour comprises both Fifth and Madison Avenues.

We will list all the museums from which you may choose, but it would take days, weeks even, to visit all of them. So we suggest you choose one or two or three, and carefully check their open days on their websites. (Each museum is generally closed for one or two days each week. Additionally, most offer time each week when admission is free or “pay what you wish.” Consider yourself warned: Museums can get crazy crowded during these times.) We’ll also include stops for eating, shopping, gawking and playing in the park. Take a cab, bus or subway to our first stop.

8:30 am: Breakfast
For breakfast and brunch, both locals and tourists flock to Sarabeth’s (1295 Madison Ave. at 92nd), a New York institution due to its cozy atmosphere, famous jams and baked goods, hot porridge served “three bears style” and lemon & ricotta pancakes (our favorite). It all comes at a price, though: excruciatingly long waits, and they don’t take reservations.

Just across the street is Yura on Madison (1292 Madison Avenue at 92nd), recommended by locals — including 1980s teen queen Phoebe Cates (more on her later) — which offers excellent food in a more cafeteria-esque format. It’s a better choice if you’re in a hurry. Which, of course, we are.
 

CENTRAL PARK

 
10 am: Northern Central Park
Our first post-breakfast tour stop is the northeastern border of magical Central Park (get here by walking up Fifth, not Madison, from breakfast). At the corner of 110th Street and Fifth Avenue (across from the future home of the Museum for African Art), you will find Duke Ellington Circle, which is, surprisingly, New York City’s first monument to an African-American.

Compared with the south part of Central Park, which is filled with sights and sounds and things to do, the northern end is decidedly more laid back and a bit more, well, natural. It is also quieter and less crowded.

After paying respects to the Duke, walk south on Fifth Avenue to 105th Street, where the Vanderbilt Gate opens to the Conservatory Garden, Central Park’s only formal garden. The Conservatory comprises six acres (though it feels much smaller) of Italian, French and English gardens. With myriad fountains and paths, it is incredibly beautiful and peaceful, as it is an officially designated “Quiet Zone.” Who knew? Exit back through the gate.

11 am: Museums
Practically facing you is El Museo Del Barrio (1230 Fifth Ave. at 104th), a museum dedicated to Latin-American and Caribbean art and culture. Originally housed in a series of storefronts and brownstones, El Museo was founded in the late 1960s by artist/educator Raphael Montañez Ortiz as a tribute to the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States.

Our first non-negotiable museum stop is one of our favorite museums in the entire world: Museum of the City of New York (1220 Fifth Ave. at 103rd). This is a wonderful place to learn about the history, development and culture of the greatest city in the world — sort of a tutorial about what makes New York New York. Exhibitions range from baseball to theater to fashion to art to architecture to religion. A visit here is always fascinating.

Noon: Shopping
Walk south along the park to 96th Street, and turn left toward Madison Avenue. Stroll south on Madison on the west side of the street. You will pass lovely shops, including one of our new favorites, Blue Tree (1283 Madison Ave., between 91st and 92nd). Owned by the aforementioned Phoebe Cates, of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and married-to–Kevin Kline fame, this well-curated gift shop offers everything from jewelry to clothing to children’s toys. And Phoebe herself is often behind the register (making this a must-stop for men who came of age during the Me-decade).

Cross at 90th Street and head north back up Madison Avenue. Stop in Eleni’s New York (1266 Madison Ave., between 90 and 91st) for intricately decorated cookies, from incredible likenesses of Oscar winners to beautiful butterflies to some of our favorite souvenir gifts, the New York City gift boxes.
 

UPPER EAST SIDE

 
MUSEUMS

12:30 pm: Museums and lunch
Turn left on 92nd Street and head back toward Fifth Avenue. You may be happy to know you are in the Carnegie Hill Historic District, which dates back to the late 1800s. Be on the lookout for brownstones ranging from Neo-Greco to Romanesque Revival to French Neoclassical and Federal style. Buy yourself a pretzel if you can identify which is which.

New York’s Jewish Museum (1109 Fifth Ave. at 92nd) lives in a French Gothic limestone chateau. Though it was founded in 1904, it moved to the Warburg Mansion in 1947 and is one of the world’s largest institutions devoted to Jewish culture. It has a phenomenal shop and a kosher restaurant called Café Weissman.

Speaking of food, most of the museums have cafés and/or restaurants — the Met alone has more than half a dozen eateries. Offerings range from nondescript cafés to buzz-worthy hotspots and are the perfect place to have lunch on this Museum Mile Day (we’ll mention some of the more notable options as we go).

Continuing south on Fifth Avenue, you’ll encounter the mother lode of museums:

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution (2 E. 91 St.) is the only museum in the United States devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design. The museum is housed in the 64-room, turn-of-the-(19th) century, Georgian-style former home of Andrew Carnegie and has a wonderful private garden.

The National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts (1083 Fifth Ave., between 89th and 90th) was founded in 1825 and houses one of the largest public collections of 19th and 20th century American art in the country. Its annual exhibition is world-renowned.
 

GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM

 
As fabulous outside as inside, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Ave. at 89th) is “among the 20th century’s most important architectural landmarks.” Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the spiral Guggenheim (which makes even the most uncoordinated among us want to skateboard around and around and around) collects art ranging from Impressionism to contemporary, and marked its 50th anniversary in 2010. Part of its yearlong celebration included the opening of its much-hyped, ultramodern restaurant, The Wright.

Neue Galerie New York (1048 Fifth Ave. at 86th, ), in a 1914 Beaux Arts French chateau, is devoted to early 20-century German and Austrian art and design. It is also home to local favorite Café Sabarsky, a traditional Viennese café.
 
3 pm: Shopping, strolling and a snack
Turn left on 86th Street, and head back to Madison Avenue. On the north side of the street, between 86th and 87th Streets, is Park Avenue Synagogue (50 E. 87 St.), one of the largest Conservative synagogues in America. It’s Moorish architecture features a beautiful cast-stone façade, which is especially evident at the main entrance on 87th Street.

Continue walking south on Madison. On the west side of the street, you will find a key stop and fortification for the rest of the day: William Greenberg Desserts (1100 Madison Ave., between 82nd and 83rd), home to the best version of the unofficial official cookie of New York, the Black-and-White. It’s really somewhere between cookie and cake, and New Yorkers have loved them since, well, forever. We prefer the black, but won’t balk at eating both sides.

Turn right on 82nd Street for a great promenade to the behemoth known as The Metropolitan Museum of Art: This block is chock full of breathtaking brownstones, a mix of private residences, offices and galleries. The Met (1000 Fifth Ave., from 80–84 streets) takes up four whole city blocks and holds more than 2 million works of art. We find it overwhelming and prefer a quick stop on the impressive front steps and/or in the gift shop.

While the French Renaissance mansion of the Ukrainian Institute of America (2 E. 79 St.) marks the sort-of-official bottom of Museum Mile, it is by no means the end of the neighborhood museums — or our tour.
 
4 pm: Madison Avenue
Walk back to Madison on the north side of 79th Street, and gaze at the beautiful brownstones and buildings on the south side of street. The rest of our tour stays on Madison Avenue, heading south. This stretch is one of the loveliest strolls in the entire city. It is the epitome of a real (upscale) New York neighborhood, where real (albeit moneyed) people live their lives in the soaring spectacles that line the streets, and store after store welcomes window shoppers from every economic level. Be sure to stop frequently to look up at the amazing architecture. But please, please, do not stop dead in your tracks at any point. There is nothing New Yorkers hate more than having to knock over a clueless tourist (well, truth be told, it can be fun, but we prefer not to). Step to the side, and gaze up to your heart’s content.

Highlights of this late-afternoon stroll include the Whitney Museum of American Art (945 Madison Ave. at 75th), which has been celebrating its signature exhibition — “The Whitney Biennial” — for 75 years (by the way, if you’re not museumed out, The Frick Collection is back on Fifth Avenue at East 70th Street); the fabulously ornate 1897 Rhinelander chateau that is the Ralph Lauren flagship store between 71st and 72nd Streets; the two-tone-brick, Neo-Baroque–ish building that houses Fred Leighton at the northeast corner of 66th Street; and, finally, one of New York’s finest department stores (with the hands-down best window displays), Barney’s at the northwest corner of 61st Street.

5 pm: Grand Army Plaza
Head west back to Fifth Avenue and finish your tour at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue by reveling in the convergence of southeastern Central Park, The Palace Hotel, FAO Schwarz (and the Apple Store) and Bergdorf Goodman at the little island called Grand Army Plaza.

You’ve conquered Museum Mile and Madison Avenue, and you still have time for dinner and a Broadway show. Congratulations. You’re almost a New Yorker.
 
Learn more about the Museum Mile at http://www.museummilefestival.org.
 
 
If you liked this tour, you might also enjoy one of opur other articles.

Lauren Hauptman is a native New Yorker who is temporarily a long-term tourist in San Francisco. She has been a contributing editor and writer for WHERE San Francisco and Pulse Guides, and is an editorial and creative services consultant for numerous other publications and organizations ( www.laurenhauptmanink.com ). She believes New York is the center of the universe. She also wrote “One Short Day in Midtown” for Must See New York.


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