There’s an element of wonder to New York City. The natives feel it—it’s probably what keeps them trekking across macadam streets and marching down concrete sidewalks day after month after year, even in the darkest depths of winter. And the tourists surely feel it—after all, it’s the wonder that attracts them in flocks, with rhythmic certainty like gravity pushing us downward.
Union Square adds a bit of wonder to the cityscape. From the lush Union Square Greenmarket to the diversity of the dog park, the neighborhood has a grand feel to it. Sure, there are homeless people in the park and Hare Krishnas chanting from sun up to sun down, but there’s something about the wide expanse of flattened cobble that is liberating. Once Broadway and Park Avenue South hit 17th Street, the whole grid you’ve come to rely on begins to disintegrate, with streets narrowing, bending and stretching down into the West Village. Union Square is the liminal prelude to the navigation pandemonium that ensues further downtown.
These days, the square is flanked by big-box stores, such as Best Buy, DSW, Barnes & Noble and Whole Foods (unanimously the most irritating one in the city—don’t go there). But, if you dig a bit deeper, you’ll find some gems. The Strand is the best bookstore in the city, and don’t let anyone tell you different. You’ll find every book you’d ever want (or need), and the prices are on par with Amazon. Staff are attentive and extremely knowledgeable, and they won’t judge you for buying an E.L. James book. (Well, maybe just a little.) Around the corner from The Strand is an excellent Nordstrom Rack, where brand-name clothes are on offer (though they may be from last season) and down the street the worst-ever Trade Joe’s is found. You’ll want to shop at the one on Sixth Avenue between 21st and 22nd streets instead.
If you have the opportunity to see a live act at Irving Plaza, take it. The venue’s main ballroom is spacious with a neat little bar in the rear. Decent bands end up there, too, so it’s no slouch as far as music spaces go.
For a bite, check out Clarke’s Standard for easily the best turkey burger I’ve ever had or the Pret a Manger just across the way; it’s among the better Prets in this concrete jungle of ours. Around the corner from Pret, there’s a frozen fruit (think frozen yogurt but made with only fresh fruit, water and “a touch of” cane sugar) hole-in-the-wall called Chloe’s, and I’d advise you to pass on the fare. City Bakery is a few blocks away and they have the good stuff, like giant chocolate chip cookies and outrageously thick hot chocolate in winter months. A few doors down from Chloe’s there’s Lily’s Victorian Establishment, typically packed with locals tipping back bourbons at a clip in a lively, throw-way-back setting. Another bar that seems to get overlooked but consistently delights is Pop Pub, which has an impressive collection of drafts on tap. Nice occasions call for the likes of Blue Water Grill, a seafood restaurant where they even deshell your lobster for you (now, that’s classy!), or Rosa Mexicano, an upscale Mexican place with a unique menu. The Five Napkin Burger on east 14th Street features clean, white subway tile on the walls and some of the best burgers in the city. Grey Dog serves up delectable brunch, but best of luck trying to get a table. And if you’ve only got about $5 for lunch, go to Vanessa’s Dumplings for a sesame pancake and the eponymous steamed dumplings; it’s not the best one (the LES one is far better), but it’ll do in a pinch.
Don’t miss the quaint holiday shops that appear in the square in late November either. I’ve bought many a Christmas present there, and I think you’ll find something (hand-made puppets, candles, nice jewelry and other notables) that you’d like to bring home.
So, hop on the yellow or green subway lines to Union Square and experience its wonder.