Fun 1 Day NYC Itinerary: A Visit to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum + Exploring Chinatown

Fun 1 Day NYC Itinerary: A Visit to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum + Exploring Chinatown

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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Things to do in Chinatown NYC, walk around the streets

Let’s begin…

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.

A visit to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in NYC

Photo credit: Keiko Niwa/Tenement Museum

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.

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.

A visit to the Tenement Museum in NYC

Photo credit: Keiko Niwa/Tenement Museum

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

Things to do in Chinatown, walk around the streets

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.

Fun things to do in Chinatown, walk around


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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

Shopping on Canal Street in Chinatown NYC

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

Fun things to do in Chinatown NYC includes 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

Chinatown Ice Cream Factory is one of the fun things to do in Chinatown NYC

Photo credit: nogarlicnoonions.com

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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45 Comments

  1. March 28, 2018 / 12:30 pm

    I loved hearing about your Tenement Museum/Chinatown excursion! I had a chance to visit the Lower East Side and the Tenement Museum last fall, which I loved (we did the Hard Times tour), but now I have more reasons to go back, including doing the Sweatshop Tour (sounded very educational), hitting Nom Wah, and exploring Chinatown a bit more. I am definitely bookmarking this post – thanks!

    • April 7, 2018 / 12:57 pm

      Thanks Martha! I’m hoping this comment goes through this time…I replied but must have not gone through. Sometimes that happens when the wifi is not 100%. I don’t remember you being in NYC last year?! Isn’t the Tenement Museum the best? I remember I was going to plan one for my group at MoMA and then it never materialized..can’t believe it’s taken me this long to go, just loved it! Will meet you there next time you’re in the city!

  2. March 29, 2018 / 3:49 am

    I really enjoyed China Town when I was in NYC. Yes, it’s touristy, but it also has quite a different feel. You turn a corner and then it’s like you’re in a totally different world. I like that.
    #FarawayFiles

    • April 7, 2018 / 12:51 pm

      Yes, me too! It’s a completely different part of NYC with so much energy and life. Love it!

  3. March 29, 2018 / 4:13 am

    Wow, what an awesome tour you did. It sounds so fascinating. I’d love to go to NYC it’s on my bucket list. Did you try any of the ice-cream, I recently tried some green tea ice-cream at a Japanese restaurant and it was delicious! #FarawayFiles

    • April 7, 2018 / 12:52 pm

      Green tea is my fave! I also love ginger ice cream. Actually, anything ginger. Their ice creams are delish, as is the bubble tea!

  4. March 29, 2018 / 5:16 am

    My bestie raves about the tenanent museum – I will def visit on my next ny trip #farawayfiles

    • April 7, 2018 / 1:00 pm

      Yes, it is a fabulous, little less well-known gem of NYC!

  5. March 29, 2018 / 5:52 am

    It looks and sounds like an amazing place to visit. I’ve been to the US many time but failed to make it to NY, which is such a shame. Definitely one for the bucket list. #FarawayFiles

    • April 7, 2018 / 1:01 pm

      Well, now you have it for when you some day visit 🙂

  6. March 29, 2018 / 6:03 am

    This part I have not visited yet. There are sooo many neighbourhoods to explore in New York, that I feel I’ll never be done. #farawayfiles

  7. Beth
    March 29, 2018 / 6:33 am

    I have only spent 36 hours in NYC but I knew about the Tenement Museum through my years as a history major in college and it has always been on my list of places to visit when I make it back. Thanks for the description of your tour there and the details. The combo with Chinatown only furthers that immigrant story.

    And I totally agree about the immigrant experience: such an important part of our American identity and most relevant to the immigration issue experienced in all parts of the world today. I have a new appreciation of it myself being an “immigrant” here in the UK. Cheers from London! #farawayfiles

    • April 7, 2018 / 1:03 pm

      Thanks so much for the comment! Yes, I’m sure you feel it all the more being an immigrant in London. If only everyone could see how much immigrants contribute to the importance of our society, in the U.S. at least.

  8. March 29, 2018 / 6:35 am

    What yummy looking food! I would have loved to have eaten in Chinatown when we were in NYC but my eldest would rather starve than eat something with sauce on. Perhaps I’ll make it back there for a girls weekend or something one day. #FarawayFiles

    • April 7, 2018 / 1:05 pm

      Ha – I know all about picky eaters. My older daughter pretty much eats pasta and that’s it. But she did find a bunch of foods she liked, so you never know!

  9. March 29, 2018 / 7:15 am

    Super fun day out Corey – such diversity NYC offers! One fact sticks out on the Tenement Museum – toilets only flushed once a month?!?! Gah. I love the look of the old school Dim Sum place, but might be drawn to the Golden Unicorn! I mean… UNICORN! 😉 Great post – thanks for sharing with #FarawayFiles

    • April 7, 2018 / 1:07 pm

      I’ve heard good things about the Golden Unicorn!! Yes, once a month, oy. What’s funny is I’m sure 50 years from now people are gonna be like – how did they survive that way!!!

  10. March 29, 2018 / 9:39 am

    This really sounds like a perfect day in NYC and makes me want to go back really bad!!! 😀

  11. Clare Thomson
    March 29, 2018 / 10:53 am

    What a great area to visit. I’ve been here briefly on visits to NY but not stayed long enough to explore it properly. I love the idea of touring the Tenement Museum and eating proper dim sum. #FarawayFiles

  12. March 29, 2018 / 11:15 am

    Mmmm love black sesame ice cream! This made me miss the Chinatowns of Vancouver too. #farawayfiles

  13. March 29, 2018 / 11:57 am

    What an interesting read, it’s been a few years since I visited NYC and reading this has really tempted me again.

    The Tenement Museum sounds fascinating, I really enjoy all the historic stories, it makes you appreciate what you have today. As you say a real eye opener. #farawayfiles

  14. March 29, 2018 / 10:27 pm

    The Tenement Museum definitely seems like a really interesting museum. Maybe it’s because my parents were immigrants, but I have always been drawn to learning about the stories of other immigrant families.

  15. March 29, 2018 / 11:29 pm

    I would have to visit Canal Street. If only because of Project Runway! It’s on my list for the next time I get to New York 🙂 #FarawayFiles

  16. Ruth
    March 30, 2018 / 1:31 am

    Last time I visited New York, I spend quite some time in Chinatown. I took a tour and visited with my mom and sister. I am not sure if we ate at Nom Wah Tea Parlor (looks very familiar) but we had an excellent dinner at a restaurant in the area. We had to share the table with others (it was a big round one) and ended up meeting people from all over the world. New York is so fun! #FarawayFiles

  17. March 30, 2018 / 3:02 pm

    The Tenement Museum sounds quite shocking in so many ways – from the numbers of people who lived there to the conditions they lived in and the fact that so much income came from child-labour – such social history is always so eye-opening. Also ChinaTown is a must, just to experience it. I have not had the chance to go to NYC yet, but perhaps will get there one day. #FarawayFiles

  18. March 30, 2018 / 4:05 pm

    Toilets flushed once a month – man you can imagine the smell! Sounds like a fab museum, I’d love to see it – it’ll go on my list for our next visit. Great advice here and recommendations – thanks! #farawayflies

  19. annette @afrenchcollection
    March 30, 2018 / 8:29 pm

    It’s been ages since I ate a Dim Sum – I think I need to rectify that soon! What a cool museum. #FarawayFiles

    • April 7, 2018 / 1:07 pm

      Dim Sum is the best rectify that!

  20. March 31, 2018 / 2:00 am

    I have relatives in New York City, well, Newark in New Jersey – my parents and sister had visited them before many years ago. They made a visit to NY’s Chinatown and found the area quite interesting – they were travelling in the US for some time and were craving for some Chinese food 🙂 I agree that Chinatown neighbourhoods in most countries are touristy but they have character, love it! #FarawayFiles

    • April 7, 2018 / 1:09 pm

      Yes! And there are a few different “Chinatowns” in NYC, but this is the biggest. The energy is amazing, we love it.

  21. March 31, 2018 / 5:52 am

    I had no idea there was so much to see & do around the Chinatown district in NY! We are big fans of Chinese food, so now we know where to go if we visit NY with our kids!

    • April 6, 2018 / 10:52 am

      Chinatown is full of life – definitely check it out next time you’re in NYC!

    • April 7, 2018 / 1:10 pm

      Yes! It’s such a vibrant part of NYC you will love it!

  22. April 2, 2018 / 12:35 am

    What an amazing day out! I’m definitely doing all of this when I’m next in New York, and I sincerely hope that is sooner rather than later… Do you think it would be worth it to visit the tenement museum more than once and do different tours? #farawayfiles

    • April 7, 2018 / 1:13 pm

      Hmmm…I mean in general, if you lived here, yes. But if you’re here for a limited amount of time, I might choose 1 tour. But I don’t know! I think it all depends how long you’re here for…as you know NYC is massive and there’s so much to see. You could do 1 tour and combine it with Chinatown and another tour and combine it with Lower East Side and East Village? And of course, let me know when you come and I’ll join you!

      • April 7, 2018 / 2:09 pm

        Will definitely plan my trip around meeting you!

  23. April 4, 2018 / 3:14 am

    20 layers!?!! As someone who is just about to spend his day stripping wallpaper, it is reassuring to know that generations of people before me simply couldn’t be bothered and papered over the old stuff. :O)

    But seriously, the museum sounds interesting-but-harrowing, and I can definitely feel the vibrant energy of Chinatown through your words and photos. #FarawayFiles

    • April 7, 2018 / 1:15 pm

      Thank you so much! I hope the day of wallpaper stripping went ok – both my girls recently said they want new colors of paint on their walls – uggh, girls!!

  24. Trish @ Mum's Gone To
    April 5, 2018 / 7:25 am

    Every time I read about New York I ask myself why I haven’t been!
    The tour of the tenement museum sound particularly enlightening: we need reminders of how lucky we are. #farawayfiles

    • April 7, 2018 / 1:18 pm

      Yes, I completely agree! I’m sure you’ll make it to NYC some day. I have a love/hate relationship with it..now that I live outside of the city I’m in my “love” mode. It’s a lot of people and commotion and you have to be in the right mood for it, in my opinion!

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