I remember the first time I went to Morningside Heights. It was for an interview at one of the schools up there, in the aptly named “academic acropolis.” I hopped on the 2 train at Times Square, and, instead of switching to the 1 at 96th Street, I mistakenly took it all the way to 116th Street. In Harlem. I was 17 years old and all alone at the time. My “I-live-near-New-York-so-I-know-where-to-go” hubris had gotten the best of me. It was the middle of the day, and a kind cab driver (likely the only one ever) pulled aside, picked me up and brought me over to Broadway and 116th, my intended destination.
Of course, the heart and soul of Morningside Heights is Columbia University and its undergraduate and graduate schools, as well as its affiliates, such as Union Theological Seminary and Jewish Theological Seminary of America. The Manhattan School of Music has its home just north of Columbia, and I even lived in one of its dorms (randomly) during one of my years as an undergraduate.
When I took the above picture, everyone was gathered around “alma mater,” which is actually a bronze sculpture of the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena, not a visual representation of the school’s song. They all seemed to regard this sculpture as the focal point of the campus, but I imagine few realized who she was or the fact that she has a small owl tucked within her robe. Columbia is unique because, unlike NYU, Hunter and Baruch (for a few examples of colleges/universities in the city), it is truly a campus, bound by Broadway and Amsterdam and unfettered by the interruptions of city life. Situated on one of the highest points in Manhattan, Columbia boasts some of the grandest buildings in all the land, including Butler Library and Low Memorial Library (which is actually an administrative building, not a library) that sit opposite one another on the gorgeous campus.
But Columbia is not the only attraction in Morningside Heights. Located near 122nd Street and Riverside Drive, Grant’s Tomb is the final resting place of President Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia, and is a gorgeous site to see. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine sits on 112th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, and is a favorite stopping point on many tour buses. The smart tourists skip across the street to Hungarian Pastry Shop ($), arguably one of the best bakeries and purveyors of coffee in the city, for some delectable treats. The cathedral’s imposing Gothic Revival style adds a certain distinction to the neighborhood. You can take a tour of the humbling interior during the day (7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.) and make sure you check out the grounds surrounding the cathedral, as they have peacocks (two albinos and one standard) walking about.
Since you’ll likely spend several hours to a half-day exploring the area, I have a few recommendations (and warnings) regarding where to eat. For the uninitiated, Tom’s Restaurant ($$) a.k.a. Monk’s: the Seinfeld Diner may seem like an enticing spot to grab a bite, but you can definitely do better (and cheaper). The best thing about Tom’s is their milkshakes, and the one to get isn’t even on the menu (it’s called the Broadway shake, featuring coffee ice cream and chocolate syrup—delish!). For improved diner-esque food, try Deluxe ($$) just a block north of Tom’s. The dwindling Chinese food chain Ollie’s ($) has an outpost up on 116th Street, and their fare is decent at best. Community Food and Juice ($$) has a seasonal, organic, local (whatever) menu, but, diet soda drinkers beware, they only have “natural” offerings on the menu; food is pretty good, but probably overpriced. Now, what you must try are roti rolls, which are a form of Indian street food, from Bombay Frankie ($) (over on 110th and Amsterdam); they are fantastic and cheap! Although Morningside Heights technically begins at 110th Street, I’ll clue you into one of the best Mexican spots, on 108th Street and Amsterdam: Taqueria Y Fonda La Mexicana ($). Expect giant burritos filled with incredible meat, cheese and more, as well as cheap beers and fabulous chips and salsa to begin your meal. It’s a small place, so you may want to take your food to go and eat it in the small park with the insane/intriguing sculpture near St. John the Divine. (You’ll know what I’m referring to when you get there.) If you’re looking for burgers, try Mel’s Burger Bar ($$), which also has boozy shakes for the adults. And, if you want something different, go to Koronet ($) for a giant slice of pizza.
If you’re just passing through the neighborhood, try Tea Magic ($) for some of the best bubble tea in the city. They’ve also got sweet and savory food options. And don’t forget about Hungarian Pastry Shop—their coffee is top notch and my favorite cookie (pink and green leaf cookies) make an appearance in their wide, inclusive pastry case. You’ll want to take something home with you, for certain.
I recommend trekking up to Morningside Heights in the late morning or early afternoon, eating your way downtown and then walking off the meals by navigating into the Upper West Side. Rather than going down Broadway, you could take the scenic route through bucolic Riverside Park, but make sure the sun is still out.