Image: New York's Lower East Side
Kathy Willens  /  AP file
A young man shops for clothing at John Varvatos' boutique, located inside the now-defunct CBGB rock club on the Bowery in New York.
updated 10/30/2008 1:40:50 PM ET 2008-10-30T17:40:50

For waves of immigrants to America, the LowerEastSide was a place of first settlement. Today it's one of the city's trendiest neighborhoods. But it's easy to find history amid the hipsters.

Some shops sell pickles and knishes; some sell tapas and tattoos. A grand building with arches and columns at 175 E. Broadway, which once housed the Yiddish Forward newspaper, is now home to $3 million condos. And a museum that tells the story of immigrants is a few blocks from a museum of contemporary art.

"This is the quintessential old neighborhood, where tradition meets the cutting edge," said Holly Kaye, founding executive director of the LowerEastSide Conservancy.

Kaye's organization was part of a coalition that persuaded the National Trust for Historic Preservation in May to declare the LowerEastSide an "endangered historic place," citing new hotels and condo towers "looming large over the original tenement streetscape." The city Landmarks Preservation Commission has designated 25 historic landmarks on the LowerEastSide and is reviewing another 2,334 buildings to see if any more might qualify for protection from development.

For anyone interested in history and architecture, or even just food and shopping, the neighborhood makes a fascinating destination. Big Onion Walking Tours of the area include "The Multi-Ethnic Eating Tour" ($20), "The Jewish LowerEastSide" ($15) and "Immigrant New York" ($15), or 212-439-1090. The LowerEastSide Conservancyalso offers monthly tours, $18.

Or create your own adventure. Take the F train to Second Avenue, then wander south from East Houston Street. But don't wait too long. The old places may not last forever.

Food: Perhaps the best way to experience the LowerEastSide is by noshing, the Yiddish term for snacking. It's easy to eat here on a budget — just don't try doing it on a diet. Start with an empty stomach and bring a friend to share. (Note that many of these purveyors also offer Web ordering.)

Get a filling knish (potato, mushroom, spinach, veggie and more) for $3.50 at Yonah Schimmel's Knishes, established 1910, 137 E. Houston St. Old Yonah's photo hangs in the window.

Russ & Daughters, established 1914, 179 E. Houston St., offers the perfect LowerEastSide breakfast: bagel with cream cheese and lox (smoked salmon), starting at $8.45.

Image: New York's Lower East Side
Kathy Willens  /  AP file
Rhonda (Roni-Sue) Kaye plucks a chocolate truffle from the shelf in her chocolate shop located in the Essex Street Market in New York.
For lunch, get a pastrami on rye to go, extra mustard, at Katz's Deli, established 1888, 205 E. Houston St. It's $14.95, stuffed with enough meat to cater a bar mitzvah, and comes with several pickles.

For a bigger selection of pickles, visit the Pickle Guys, 49 Essex St. Nearby Kossar's Bialys, 367 Grand St., makes handrolled bialys (onion rolls) and bagels. (The pickle and bialy shops close Friday afternoons and Saturdays for the Jewish Sabbath.)

The Essex Street Market at Delancey Street is an indoor market where you can buy everything from fresh produce to gourmet products (closed Sundays). "Mayor LaGuardia created the market in 1939 to get the pushcarts off the street," said Jeffrey Ruhalter, a fifth-generation butcher who says he is the market's last original tenant. "It was New York City's first supermarket."

More recent market tenants include Saxelby Cheesemongers, which specializes in regional cheeses, and Roni-Sue's Chocolates. Owner Rhonda Kave made chocolates as a hobby for years before opening the shop a year ago. Specialties include a cocktail collection of chocolates named for mojitos, mimosas and Manhattans; chocolate-covered bacon; and tea-and-honey lollipops.

Any culinary tour must acknowledge the expansion of Chinatown into the LowerEastSide. One favorite among New York foodies is Vanessa's Dumpling House, 118A Eldridge St. No table service, but it's worth standing on line for eight spectacular dumplings, a mere $4.

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The LowerEastSide has numerous upscale sitdown restaurants. Zagat's top picks include Stanton Social, 99 Stanton St.; Falai, 68 Clinton St.; and the Clinton St. Baking Co., 4 Clinton St., a charming cafe with outstanding cherry pie.

Museums: The LowerEastSideTenement Museum, 97 Orchard St., is a must-see (open daily 11 a.m.-5 p.m. and until 7:15 p.m. Thursdays; adults, $17, students, $13).

The building dates to 1863, but its apartments were sealed in 1935 because the landlord could not comply with new housing laws. When the museum acquired the building in 1996, it was a time capsule.

Apartment tours reveal stories of real people who lived there. One family crammed 11 people in their 325-square-foot unit; another apartment housed a sweatshop in addition to a family of five. Residents hailed from Ireland, Germany, Italy and Eastern Europe. One tour offers audio recordings of an Italian-American woman who lived there as a child and came back to share her memories.

Josephine Joelson, a visitor from Cleveland who lived in Manhattan in the 1930s, said the museum "just thrilled me. It took me back to my childhood."

A more recent attraction, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, opened Dec. 1, 2007, at 235 Bowery, (open Wednesday and weekends, noon-6 p.m., Thursday-Friday, noon-10 p.m.; adults, $12, students $10).

The museum showcases living artists from around the world. "Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton" features 104 of Peyton's portraits of celebrities from Napoleon to Kurt Cobain, through Jan. 11. "Mary Heilmann: To Be Someone" includes Heilmann's abstract and colorful paintings, sculptures and furniture, through Jan. 26. Lisa Sigal's "Line-up" uses the neighborhood as a canvas for a wide green stripe that starts on a museum wall and continues on building exteriors that can be seen blocks away.

A third museum is both very old and very new. The Eldridge Street Synagogue, 12 Eldridge St., was founded in 1887 as the first great house of worship built by Eastern European Jews in the U.S. In December 2007, it completed a 20-year, $17 million restoration, and opened a museum about the synagogue and the neighborhood's Jewish history (open Sunday-Thursday, 10 a.m.- 4 p.m.; adults, $10; children 5-18, $6; free Mondays, 10 a.m.-noon).

Visitors may be surprised that today the synagogue is surrounded by Chinatown. "A hundred years ago, all the signs you see on Eldridge Street in Chinese were Yiddish," explained Amy Milford, the museum's deputy director.

Shopping: Economy Candy, 108 Rivington St., is one of the happiest places in New York. "We've got everything from candy buttons to gourmet chocolate," said Jerry Cohen, whose family has run the store since 1937.

"When people can't buy luxury items, they can still afford candy," added his wife Ilene.

Image: New York's Lower East Side
Kathy Willens  /  AP file
The Empire State Building is visible through the filigree of a wrought iron railing on a patio of a room at the Blue Moon Hotel on Orchard Street in the Lower East Side in New York.
Economy Candy is also a great source of souvenirs, from Statue of Liberty chocolate to Yankees bubble gum. Marianne Skoglund was buying bags of jelly beans to bring home to Orebro, Sweden. "No jelly beans in Sweden," she explained. "I have to hand out some for good friends."

The Orchard Corset Center, at 157 Orchard St. since the 1930s, is famous for telling shoppers they're wearing the wrong bra. Just don't be surprised if the kindly saleswoman asks the man behind the counter to publicly guess your proper size. No private fitting rooms; shoppers try bras on in a small common space behind a curtain.

Mom-and-pop stores still sell clothes on racks on the street, but chic and pricey boutiques are on the rise. The John Varvatos boutique opened in April north of Houston at 315 Bowery, where the famed music club CBGBs was located. In addition to displays of vintage boots, audio equipment and records from the 1970s (Deep Purple, anyone?), Varvatos' designs include $225 pullovers and $1,895 suede and leather jackets.

Gargyle is a new showroom for designers with a country club aesthetic at 16A Orchard St., between Canal and Hester. Even if button-down shirts and striped dresses in the $100-$300 range are not your style, it's worth a visit to see the old building's exterior: The stonework is decorated with six-pointed Jewish stars of David.

Hotels: Three boutique hotels offer nightly rates in the $300-$400 range and up: Hotel East Houston, 151 E. Houston St., Hotel on Rivington, 107 Rivington St., and the Blue Moon Hotel, 100 Orchard St.

The Blue Moon is located across from the Tenement Museum. Like the museum, it's housed in a building that was sealed for decades. Restoration included salvaging woodwork, tiles and prints. The rooms are themed on old-time celebrities, like Molly Picon, who got her start in 1920s Yiddish theater. Views from the hotel windows mix new condo towers (love 'em or hate 'em) with old-fashioned wooden water towers and fire escapes — like so much about the neighborhood, a contrast of old and new.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Take a Bite Out of The Big Apple

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  2. Commuters move through the grand hall of Grand Central Terminal in New York City on Jan. 25, 2013. Since its grand beginnings in 1913, when it was dubbed the greatest railway terminal in the world with an $80 million price tag, Grand Central has been an integral part of New York City. (Brendan Mcdermid / REUTERS) Back to slideshow navigation
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  4. One World Trade Center overlooks the wedge-shaped pavilion entrance of the National September 11 Museum, lower right, and the square outlines of the memorial waterfalls in New York. (Mark Lennihan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  6. Central Park was the first public park built in America. Its 843 acres include woodlands, lawns and water. Central Park was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965 and a New York City Landmark in 1974. More than 25 million visitors enjoy Central Park each year. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  13. Coney Island features entertainment parks, rides, an aquarium, a public beach, a boardwalk, fishing and Nathan's restaurant. (John Minchillo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. New York City Subway dancer Marcus Walden aka "Mr Wiggles" performs acrobatic tricks on the subway while passengers watch Nov. 23, 2010. More than 4.3 million people ride the New York subway system every day. (Timothy A. Clary / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  16. The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York has been around since 1924 and includes large balloons, floats and performances. (Gary Hershorn / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Visitors view the Manhattan skyline from Rockefeller Center's "Top of the Rock" observation deck. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Pedestrians walk along a path on the High Line park on June 7, 2011, in New York City. The High Line was formerly an elevated railway 30 feet above the city's West Side that was built in 1934 for freight trains. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. The moon rises at sunset behind New York's Empire State building, which opened in 1931. At 102 stories high, the Empire State Building is the fourth tallest skyscraper in America. (Gary Hershorn / REUTERS) Back to slideshow navigation
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