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New York’s Upper East Side Is Always in Fashion

Long considered one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in Manhattan, the Upper East Side has retained its reputation for elegance and exclusivity even as other city neighborhoods have turned themselves over to trendy, mixed-use developments

New York’s downtown neighborhoods such as Tribeca and SoHo have been commanding attention in recent years with their ‘starchitect’ developments and lavish revitalization. But any true New Yorker will tell you that to find one of the most refined and elegant neighborhoods in the city, you should travel uptown to the Upper East Side.

Carl Schurz Park
Aerial view of Carl Schurz Park and the Upper East Side toward Central Park. Image: Getty Images. Banner image: View of the Upper East Side from The Carlyle hotel, Shutterstock

Encompassing the area between 59th and 96th streets and across from Central Park to the East River, the Upper East Side is home to a bevy of world-renowned art museums, Michelin-starred restaurants, and chic designer boutiques. These top-quality amenities are some of the reasons why people have been drawn to this neighborhood for decades.

Staying Power
But unlike some of New York’s more recently gentrified neighborhoods, the Upper East Side has retained its elegance over time, never succumbing to trends but rather holding its own, proud of its roots even as other city neighborhoods have surpassed it in median household income.

Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City
The Metropolitan Museum of Art on the Upper East Side's Fifth Avenue is one of the world's foremost cultural institutions. Image: Alamy

Many residents have lived here all their lives, some families for generations. As a result, the neighborhood exudes a bustling, pedestrian-friendly vibe, a place where the city’s elite families such as the Rockefellers, the Roosevelts, and the Kennedys, have long flocked to live within striking distance of and, ideally, with expansive views of, the city’s crown jewel, Central Park.

“I walk through one of the greatest cultural institutions in the city, Central Park, every morning and evening on my way to and from work,” says Xavier F. Salomon, chief curator of the Frick Collection, an internationally recognized museum and research library on the same Fifth Avenue that houses the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. “Rain, snow, or shine, I love seeing it change through the seasons; it’s fantastic.”

Guggenheim Museum NYC
The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum is one of the most recognizable buildings on the Upper East Side. Image: Shutterstock

Everyday Elegance
Flower shops, gourmet markets, and sidewalk cafes keep the well-heeled foot traffic steady throughout the Upper East Side, with an influx of tourists from all over the world making daily pilgrimages to the neighborhood’s renowned art institutions. But in the mix of all that bustle, the Upper East Side has soul—albeit an incredibly sophisticated one—and perhaps nowhere can you catch a glimpse of it better than at the Frick Collection.

Frick Collection Fifth Avenue
The Frick Collection on New York City's Upper East Side holds an impressive collection of Old Masters paintings and fine furniture.

Humble to High Brow
Believe it or not, life wasn’t always upscale on the Upper East Side. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that the once down at heel neighborhood—and in particular the area from 59th to 78th Streets along Fifth Avenue, and up to 3rd Avenue—finally begin to thrive. By the start of the 20th century, mansions, brownstones, and towering townhouses began popping up, giving way to lavish apartment buildings by the middle of the century.

Madison Avenue boutiques
High-end fashion boutiques along Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side, Manhattan, New York City. Image: Alamy

Much smaller in size than its neighbors the Met and the Guggenheim, what the Frick Collection lacks in square footage it more than makes up for in intimacy and quality. One of the few remaining Gilded Age mansions in the city, it was originally built as a home for Pittsburgh coal and steel magnate Henry Clay Frick in 1915.

Related: See a Visitor’s Guide to New York City’s Must-See Places

Today it’s worth a visit as much for its paintings, furnishings, and decorative arts as for the building itself. The mainly European collection from the 13th to 19th centuries includes masterpieces such as Bellini’s Saint Francis. But unlike at other art institutions, at the Frick “you see the art from the perspective of a homeowner, with very few barriers, so you can experience what it was like to live among these exquisite works of art,” Solomon says. Many of the paintings and furnishings are still arranged according to Henry Clay Frick’s original design. “We’re not encyclopedic like the Met, we’re much more of a treasure house,” he says.

The Flora Bar at Met Breuer, an outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Madison Avenue that houses a contemporary art collection. Image: Johnny Miller

All those new residents needed places to shop, dine, and clink champagne flutes, and as a result the Upper East Side has no shortage of social hotspots.

Fashion-conscious shoppers flock to designer stores like Hermès, Derek Lam, and La Perla, just three of the many lavish boutiques you’ll find on an iconic stretch of Madison Avenue. For luxury department stores, Barneys and Bloomingdale’s have long held Upper East Side addresses.

But it’s the neighborhood’s plethora of cultural institutions that lures people from all over the world, not just to visit but also to live. From the Met to the Guggenheim to the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, a Smithsonian institution, the Upper East Side is a gem comprised of more gems.

Carlyle Hotel Upper East Side
Named in homage to Ludwig Bemelmans, the creator of the classic Madeline children’s books, Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle is a perennially popular Upper East Side location for cocktails.

Through Solomon’s artful eye, it’s easy to cherry-pick some of the best places to take in the neighborhood dining scene. Elio’s old-school Italian is one of Solomon’s go-to lunch spots. Whether for morning coffee and pastries, or the weekend brunch, the Flora Bar inside the Met Breuer on Madison Avenue is another favorite. “I love the space as much as the food,” he says. For a touch of old Europe, Austrian chef Kurt Gutenbrunner’s Viennese Café Sabarsky is considered one of the city’s top restaurants. It’s tucked inside the Neue Galerie, which, like the Frick, is also a house museum, this one featuring German and Austrian art from the early 20th century.

JG Melon Upper East Side NYC
JG Melon is an Upper East Side pub with a reputation for good vibes and great burgers. Image: Shutterstock

For after-work cocktails, the opulent Carlyle Hotel never goes out of style. “I love everything about that place, from the drinks to the atmosphere,” Solomon says. Chef Daniel Boulud’s signature restaurant, Café Boulud, is directly across the street, making it easy to keep the evening going with Michelin-star-worthy cuisine. Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s JoJo has been serving farm-to-table fare to locals since 1991, long before food critics deemed it a culinary trend. For casual New York-style bagels Solomon points to Russ & Daughters inside the Jewish Museum—and he’s not alone. Oprah Winfrey recently named this her favorite brunch spot in the city. Buzzy Boqueria attracts a stylish, young crowd for its Spanish tapas and chic decor. And for those nights when you’re out past your bedtime, late-night comfort food awaits at JG Melon, an iconic New York pub.

Bookshop Albertine on Fifth Avenue is devoted to French works in both English and French and offers one of the largest selection of French literature in the US. Image: Timothy Fadek/Corbis via Getty Images

As an art historian, Solomon is always in the market for great books, too. He’s often found perusing the racks at Albertine, a bookstore inside the French Embassy, which happens to be housed inside the former mansion of Payne Whitney, of Whitney Museum of American Art fame.

Refined Real Estate
From opulent brownstones that make perfect family homes to exclusive apartments with views of Central Park, real estate in the Upper East Side has historically held its own. For an air of exclusivity away from the tourist crowds, the neighborhood’s ultra elite prefer a tree-lined, 13-block stretch along East End Avenue right next to the East River referred to as “the East End”. Mixed in with exquisite buildings from the 1920s and 1930s are newer developments.

“Savvy buyers would have their choice of lifestyle in this sought-after neighborhood, says Edward F. Joseph, Real Estate Broker at Christie’s International Real Estate, New York. “Whether it be pre-war apartment, a grand and gracious townhouse, or a new development with sky-high views of the bridges, rivers and parks in and around Manhattan.”

The New York City mayor's official residence Gracie Mansion was built in 1799 and is located in Carl Schurz Park on the Upper East Side. Image: Alamy

Mingle with locals walking their dogs and watch the boats go by on the John Finley Walk along the East River, or take a stroll through Carl Schurz Park, a miniature version of Central Park that also houses Gracie Mansion, the home of the New York City mayor.

Whatever brings you to New York’s Upper East Side, expect elegance at every turn. Residents here wouldn’t have it any other way.