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Whether you’re planning a weekend in New York City or have more time to spend exploring, the challenge is never finding enough things to do to fill your day.
It’s sifting through the never-ending options in the city that never sleeps.
That’s why I’ve narrowed things down to give you a curated list of memorable things to do in Lower Manhattan, all of which are activities that contribute positively to the local community or limit the negative impacts of over-tourism.
If you’re a curious traveler who wants to learn some fascinating history and go beyond all the NYC tourist traps, keep reading for a quick weekend guide to Lower Manhattan.
Disclosure: I was hosted by Arlo SoHo and Kind Traveler for two nights during a recent trip to NYC. While I was there, I decided to book a third night through the Kind Traveler platform. This post is produced in connection with my hosted stay. I only work with brands and destinations I’m passionate about, and I work hard to ensure I bring you the best information and share genuine reflections of my travel experiences.
Things to Do in Lower Manhattan
Eat your way through immigrant history
In Lower Manhattan or any other part of NYC, there’s no shortage of food tours, walking tours, history tours—you name it, there’s probably a tour for it. But if you want to get past the flyer-pushing, big bus sightseeing tours to really explore a neighborhood, dig into history, and learn from a local, you’ll want to check out NYC Urban Adventures.
The Tenements, Tales, and Tastes tour explores what life was like in what is now known as Lower Manhattan for those on the outer reaches of society: enslaved Africans, as well as Irish, Chinese, and Eastern European immigrants.
On this Lower Manhattan walking food tour, you get the chance to taste various cuisines as you learn the history of the neighborhoods and how they’ve morphed over the centuries.
Get inspired at The House on Henry Street public exhibit
In the new public exhibit at the Henry Street Settlement, learn the story of a passionate nurse who moved into a tenement when she saw the squalid conditions and lack of basic services there.
This 125-year-strong organization started in 1893 with one little girl pleading for someone to help her mother who lay dying in a tenement.
The House on Henry Street exhibit takes a deep dive into the history of the Lower East Side—from the struggles immigrants faced at the turn of the century to the people who took action to help them, to the legacy of community development that continues today at the Henry Street Settlement.
Want even more than the exhibit? Take a self-guided walking tour of the neighborhood to learn more about its history and Henry Street’s impact.
Bike along the Hudson River
Exploring on two wheels is the perfect way to get a different perspective of city sights. And as a bonus, this human-powered activity is kinder on the environment (and your health!).
If you’re intimidated by the idea of city biking, the Hudson River Greenway is blissfully car-free, and it’s a great way to spend an hour or two in Lower Manhattan.
Want to go beyond downtown? The waterfront bike path extends all the way to the northern tip of Manhattan, making it a great day-long adventure.
Positive Impact Travel: Where to Stay in Lower Manhattan
Arlo Hotel SoHo makes a great home base for your adventures around Lower Manhattan and the rest of NYC. This micro hotel offers comfortable guest rooms with efficient storage space (a must in New York), top-quality customer service, and lots of additional touches like water bottle filling stations, complimentary bikes, and beautiful gathering spaces. They also have a well-oiled process for baggage drop if you’re arriving in the city before check-in, which is an amenity I can’t do without when I take an early morning bus into New York.
Arlo Hotel SoHo is also connected with the local community in a unique way: they’re part of the first socially conscious give + get hotel booking platform, Kind Traveler. When you book through Kind Traveler and give a $10/night donation to Henry Street Settlement, you get an exclusive Kind Traveler discount on the hotel’s website.
As curious, socially conscious travelers, one of the things we can do to ensure our visits help a destination remain a great place to visit and live is to support local non-profits and social good businesses.
But it’s not the easiest thing to find and vet local organizations ourselves.
And to be honest, there’s already so much involved in planning a vacation or weekend trip that it’s not something most of us think of. That’s where the Kind Traveler platform makes things super simple: they take something you’re already doing (booking a hotel) and allow you to give back to an established, well-respected community organization.
The inspiring story behind Henry Street Settlement
Henry Street Settlement has been impacting the lives of Lower East Side residents for more than 125 years through social services, arts, and health care programs.
The organization was born out of the dire conditions found in tenement housing in the late 1800s. Even in those early days—amidst extreme poverty as well as pressure for newly arrived citizens to assimilate—the trailblazing founder saw value in cultural diversity and chose to celebrate students’ backgrounds through the arts.
Long after those overcrowded tenements were boarded up or demolished, Henry Street Settlement has evolved to meet the ongoing needs of the community.
Today the organization serves more than 50,000 people per year in a variety of areas—from English classes to mental health services to transitional housing, to name just a few.
Why is Henry Street Settlement’s work so vital?
According to Barbara Kancelbaum, VP for Marketing and Communications, the Lower East Side has a poverty rate of 26%, the third highest population density in New York City, and the second highest income disparity. “Income disparity is a critically important indicator, because it means that housing, groceries, and many services in the neighborhood are increasingly geared toward the higher earners,” she told me in an email.
In 2018, the organization helped:
- 4,600+ people acquire job skills
- 3,600+ people obtain health insurance
- 349 homeless people find permanent homes
Here are the inspiring stories of just a few New Yorkers whose lives have been impacted by the work of Henry Street. (I dare you to read them and not cry in the middle of a coffee shop. A totally hypothetical example, of course.)
Images © David Grossman courtesy of Henry Street Settlement, used with permission.
Impact of your donation through Kind Traveler
If you’re anything like me, you might be wondering: what difference does a donation of less than $50 make?
And it’s true that Henry Street Settlement has an annual budget of $43 million, so a small donation may feel like a drop in the bucket. But Ms. Kancelbaum told me that while their budget “may sound like a lot, when you have 50 programs across 18 locations, in addition to after-school and mental health programs within more than 20 schools, we put every cent to work!
“Individual donations fuel important programs that are not entirely funded with grants, such as our homeless aftercare program, our youth citizenship-education program, and our ability to bring our kids from our local community centers to shows at our arts center.”
Resources for the Curious Traveler
Want to dig deeper into the history and culture of Lower Manhattan?
Beyond donating while you book your hotel, the new House on Henry Street permanent exhibit mentioned above is an excellent way to connect with the community on a deeper level.
“Lower East Siders form an incredibly diverse, tight-knit community and are proud of the historical significance of our neighborhood to the beginnings of our country.”— Barbara Kancelbaum
A top resource for learning all things New York City history, The Bowery Boys podcast offers many episodes focused on Lower Manhattan:
- Orchard Street: Life in the Lower East Side
- The Lower East Side: A Culinary History
- The Tombs: Five Points’ Notorious House of Detention
Details + Links for Planning Your NYC Weekend Getaway
Arlo Hotel SoHo: 231 Hudson Street, New York, NY // Check availability here.
The House on Henry Street: 265 Henry Street, New York, NY // Hours: Monday – Friday from 10 AM – 5 PM, Weekends by appointment only // Get details here.
Hudson River Greenway: Check out my greenway biking guide here.
Kind Traveler: Browse the Kind Traveler hotel listings all over the world here.