There’s always something new to discover in New York City, and if you’ve always stuck to the landmarks, skyscrapers and overpriced restaurants of midtown, now might be the time to venture south to the wilds of up-and-coming neighborhoods like Chinatown.
Here, the buildings are shorter, the streets are narrower and the Starbucks are less ubiquitous. Chinatown is a gritty neighborhood, with its congested streets, mysterious foreign smells and aggressive fake Rolex vendors. It is also one of the city’s most vibrant ethnic enclaves, with bright fruit stands, bargain foot massage parlors and scores of dingy but delicious eateries.
But the times, they are a-changing. In the past few years, farm-to-table fusion restaurants have started replacing the neighborhood’s traditional Chinese noodle shops. Some trace Chinatown’s renaissance to the opening of Apotheke, a trendy artisanal cocktail bar on Doyers Street. But it was Parisian club Le Baron that sealed the neighborhood’s fate when it selected lower Mulberry Street as the site for its much-hyped New York outpost last year. Real estate developers have descended on the neighborhood, branding the easternmost part of it “Chumbo” – a mash-up of “Chinatown” and “DUMBO,” its trendy Brooklyn counterpart. Costs, in turn, are rising.
However, deals can still be had for the budget traveler. Lower-end hotel chains fill the neighborhood, and cheap eats abound. Plus, Chinatown is a landmark in and of itself – just stepping out the door can yield dozens of classic New York experiences. Catch it while you still can.
Wyndham Garden Chinatown: Opened in late 2012, the Wyndham Garden Chinatown is a bright new addition to Chinatown’s budget hotel scene. The contemporary 106-room property is located right in the heart of the Bowery, one of lower Manhattan’s main thoroughfares. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out on the hubbub of the neighborhood, while double-paned glass keeps the street noise muffled. All in all, it’s a clean and comfortable option. From $116. http://www.wyndham.com/hotels/new-york/new-york/wyndham-garden-chinatown 93 Bowery
Howard Johnson Manhattan SoHo: Forgive us, that’s “HoJo,” according to Howard Johnson’s youthful new branding campaign. The roadside motor inn has spiffed itself up for its brand new downtown Manhattan location, with pop art on the walls and neon purple track lighting in the lobby. Rooms are small but feature amenities like free Wi-Fi and flat-screen TVs. Early reviews are positive, with raves about comfort and value. From $169. http://www.hojo.com/hotels/new-york/new-york/howard-johnson-manhattan-soho 5 Allen Street
The Nolitan: Splurge on a room at the area’s first luxury boutique hotel, located just above the Chinatown border in trendy Nolita. The 55-room hotel opened in early 2012 and offers modern industrial design from Grzywinski+Pons, the same team behind the Lower East Side’s popular Hotel on Rivington. While prices may hover slightly above the typical budget range, guests can save on the affordable mini bar, free access to nearby 24-Hour Fitness and free bike, skateboard, laptop, iPad and video game system rentals. From $285. http://nolitanhotel.com 30 Kenmare Street
Eat and Drink
Nom Wah Tea Parlor: New York’s oldest dim sum teahouse reopened in 2011 under the energetic Wilson Tang, a former banker and nephew of former owner Wally Tang. Wilson redid the restaurant’s interior but kept vintage touches like the original tea booth, 1920s-style leather seating and newspaper clippings celebrating the teahouse’s 93-year history. Prices for small plates are in the $3-$7 range, while traditional teapots are around $1. Don’t miss the shrimp siu mai and house special pan-fried dumplings; they are superb. http://nomwah.com 13 Doyers Street
Nice Green Bo: Tourists regularly queue up for soup dumplings at Joe’s Shanghai, but locals in the know tend to prefer nearby Nice Green Bo. The dingy hole-in-the-wall restaurant offers a full menu of Shanghainese specialties, but its main draw is succulent steamed soup dumplings filled with crab and pork. http://nicegreenbo.com 66 Bayard Street
Epistrophy: Vintage furniture and antiquarian knickknacks fill this charming café and wine bar, which serves a reasonably priced selection of wine, coffee and panini. The place shines in the spring, when the windows are left open to welcome in the neighborhood. http://www.epistrophycafe.com 200 Mott Street
Museum of Chinese in America: This under-the-radar museum excels in its series of quirky and relevant exhibitions. Currently on display are two comic-themed exhibits: “Marvels and Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986” and “Alt.Comics: Asian American Artists Reinvent the Comic.” April will see the unveiling of two fashion-oriented showcases: “Front Row: Chinese American Designers” and “Shanghai Glamour: New Women 1910s-40s.” Admission is regularly $10 but free on Thursdays. http://www.mocanyc.org 215 Centre Street
LES Tenement Museum Neighborhood Walks: What better way to explore the neighborhood than by walking it? Learn the history of lower Manhattan’s immigrant communities through the Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s informative neighborhood walking tours. “Foods of the Lower East Side” is a particularly delicious way to get acquainted. http://www.tenement.org 103 Orchard Street
Pearl River Mart: Bypass the counterfeit handbags of Canal Street and head instead to Pearl River Mart, a massive emporium of cheap, quirky novelty items, like bright kimonos and paper lanterns. It’s the perfect place for souvenir hunting. http://www.pearlriver.com 447 Broadway
Downtown Manhattan is relatively accessible from New York’s major airports. From JFK, you take the J subway line from Jamaica Station-Sutphin Boulevard direct to Chinatown’s Canal Street. Public transport from LaGuardia and Newark can be more arduous, with multiple stops and transfers. Google Maps is the best way to compare your transportation options in the city, whether you’re taking a taxi, riding the subway or using your own two feet.
If you’ve previously relied on traditional forms of transportation to get around, prepare yourself for some sticker shock this year. Subway fares are slated to increase from $2.25 to $2.50 per ride this March, following a 17 percent rate spike for taxi fares that occurred last year.
But there is a budget option: the bicycle. New York is to unveil its new Citi Bike Share this May, with 10,000 bikes distributed among 600 stations across Manhattan (and parts of Brooklyn and Queens). A day pass can be purchased at any kiosk for $9.95, while a seven-day pass will cost you $25. The city has made major improvements to its biking infrastructure over the past few years, and a fantastic new path recently opened on Allan Street that connects Chinatown to upper Manhattan.
Wake up early and go for a stroll through Columbus Park, Chinatown’s largest public park. Historically known as Five Points, this area was once the formidable site of the gang violence depicted in “Gangs of New York.” Today, it’s where Chinatown’s elderly community gathers for early morning tai chi and mah-jongg. Pick up a milk tea and pork bun, grab a bench and pay witness to the last vestiges of a neighborhood in transition.
[Photo credits: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews (top photo) and Andrew Burton/Getty Images]