Lower East Side Tenement Museum | Things to do in Chinatown NYC
A trip to New York City is not complete without a visit to the vibrant neighborhood of Chinatown. Our recent day trip there left me thinking – why don’t we come here more often? There are so many things to do in Chinatown NYC.
The itinerary started in the morning with a 10:00 a.m. tour of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a museum I’ve wanted to visit for a long time now. It’s dedicated to the history of New York’s immigration and the stories of the people who came to make new lives for themselves in this iconic part of Manhattan. Yes, it’s technically the Lower East Side, but being on the cusp of Chinatown, it’s a great place to start. Everyone should see this museum.
Our itinerary then brought us to Chinatown, where we walked around, ate, people-watched, went to the park, ate some more, checked out the food markets and stalls, and of course, ate some more! So come hungry! There’s a lot of delicious food to be had in Chinatown.
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Tour of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum
The story behind the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and how it was started is fascinating. In the late 1980’s historian and social activist, Ruth Abram, wanted to create a museum dedicated to, and in honor of, America’s immigrants. She started looking at New York’s tenement buildings – multi-family buildings where thousands of immigrants first came to live in the 19th century. But the search for the museum’s home proved to be very difficult, and long-lasting.
About to give up, she and co-founder Anita Jacobsen came across 97 Orchard Street, where there was a storefront for rent. They examined the storefront and soon discovered sheet-metal ceilings, turn of the century toilets and an old wooden stair banister. As it turned out, the entire building had been out of use for 50 years, with remnants of peoples’ lives still in tact. A “time capsule” is how they referred to the building, and it was just what they were looking for; thus, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum was born. It took several years to conduct research and restore some of the apartments, and in 1992 the Museum opened its first restored apartment.
Today the museum consists of the 97 Orchard building and 103 Orchard Street, where over 15,000 immigrants from over 20 nations lived. Some of the apartments have been recreated in order to tell the stories of the very people who lived there, along with their families and businesses. The Tenement Museum works on a tour-only basis, and there are three ways to visit the museum: Tour the buildings, Meet the Residents, and Walk the Neighborhood. Note you cannot see any of the apartments on your own. For the tours of the buildings, there are variety of different ones such as Under One Roof, Shop Life, Sweatshop Workers, Hard Times, and Irish Outsiders.
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We chose the Sweatshop Workers tour (1 hour) and it was fabulous. We took our kids, ages 10 and 8, and they found it interesting as well. Actually, many of the tours start at ages 8 +, which is why we decided to wait and see the Tenement Museum when we did. Our tour guide was phenomenal and took us around to a few apartments where families lived and worked in the garment industry. We learned such things as:
30% of family income was derived from child labor; The infant mortality rate was 50%.; “Tubercular windows” referred to the fact that all apartment rooms had to have windows, even if not facing the street, so that fresh air could flow in and fight tuberculosis; Some of the apartments have 20 layers of wallpaper and 40 layers of paint, giving us an idea of how old they are; 2700 people lived in 1 city block; Toilets flushed once a month; Families could decide between observing Sabbath or working.
The tour was a real eye opener for my girls, and us adults as well! The apartments are wonderfully recreated, and indeed it is like stepping into a time capsule. Our tour guide was engaging, passionate about the subject, and knew just how to reel our girls into the conversation by telling them stories of kids who used to live in these same apartments. For any history buffs out there, the museum is a must-visit. But I would say it’s a must-visit for anyone, especially in light of recent times and understanding just how important our immigrant history is, and how much it’s had an impact on New York, and our nation.
Note: Book tickets to the museum ahead of time online because tours sell out quickly.
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Exploring Chinatown NYC
After our tour it was time to hit Chinatown, just west of the Lower East Side, and within walking distance. This lively, dense neighborhood is sensory overload like no other, and we loved it. Some may think it’s too crowded to take the kids, but mine, at the ages of 10 and 8, loved it. And somehow so did I, which is saying a lot, as I hate crowds (part of the reason I live in the suburbs now!). But Chinatown is an experience like no other and one that must be had when visiting New York.
Sure, Chinatown is touristy. But wherever there’s character, there are tourists. And character it has. From the dim sum restaurants to the food markets to the left-over New Year’s lights gracing the streets to the zillions of people racing around, Chinatown has a life to it perhaps not felt anywhere else in the city. In fact the neighborhood is home to the highest concentration of Chinese people in the Western hemisphere with an estimated population of 90,000 to 100,000.
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We mainly spent our time in Chinatown bumbling around, looking at the markets, grabbing little snacks to go (there are great bakeries in Chinatown) and watching the hustle and bustle. Here are some of the best things to do in Chinatown:
Things to do in Chinatown NYC
Eat Dim Sum
We went to the well-known Nom Wah Tea Parlor, at the suggestion of a friend. The dim sum is amazing. It’s touristy and always with a wait, but for a reason. It’s that good. This place is super old-school, with simple décor that makes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time, and mouth-watering food. We put our name on the list, walked around for an hour, and then ate. The wait was worth every minute. We ordered a variety of dumplings, rice rolls, shrimp friend rice and the freshest of greens. The service was good, and overall a fantastic dim sum experience. Two other places that come highly recommended are Jing Fong and Golden Unicorn.
Go to Canal Street
No visit to Chinatown is complete without a walk along Canal Street. This is one of the most important streets in the city when it comes to fashion. You can find anything and everything here. Known for its wide selection of knock-offs, this is the place to go for that Louis Vuitton bag, accessories, things for the home and beauty products. You can often haggle with the vendors and always find things on the cheap…there is no other shopping experience like that of Canal Street!
Check out the markets, bakeries and food shops
Dim sum is not the only thing to eat – Chinatown is brewing with fresh fruit and fish markets and bakeries of all types. We snacked on breads, ate a “Chinese hot dog”, a mini hot dog in a big puff bun, drank bubble tea and found specialty candies. There are food vendors and markets everywhere you walk, so take your pick. We especially loved the bakeries. People rave about the store Aji Ichiban, an unassuming storefront full of exotic sweets and candies, dried foods, and all those hard to find Chinese snacks.
Hang out in Columbus Park
Work off your meal with a stroll through Columbus Park, located in the heart of Chinatown. Here you will find residents playing card games and mah-jongg, and people from all walks converging. There is an astroturf field for sports and a playground for kids. We burned off some steam in this park, and it surprisingly wasn’t crowded, perhaps because it was a bit chilly that day.
Have a scoop at The Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory
A family-run business, The Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory has been serving ice cream for 30 years. Their “regular” flavors consist of things like Black Sesame, Lychee, Almond Cookie, Green Tea, Coconut Fudge, Ginger, Zen Butter and Thai Iced tea. While their “exotic” flavors are Strawberry, Oreo Cookie, Vanilla and Rocky Road, to name a few. This beloved ice cream shop is the perfect way to end an action-packed day in Chinatown.
Spending the day at the Tenement Museum followed by Chinatown is a great way to experience New York and the many different types of people, traditions, foods and customs that make up this great city. It’s fun, educational, and not to mention you will leave fully satiated!
Looking for another fun 1 day itinerary in NYC? Check out the Perfect Summer 1 Day Itinerary in NYC
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