Eco-Friendly Things to do in NYC

When a sustainable fashion blogger put out a call  for things to do during her visit to NYC, I started writing up an extensive email. Where to eat, what neighborhoods to explore, what do do, and where to shop. And then I realized, why isn’t this up on EcoCult? That would make my life easier. (One of the duties of living in NYC is giving advice to people who visit NYC almost weekly.) So now it is.

My aim is to help you uncover the hidden, authentic, lovely, delicious, guilt-free gems that jive with your values and quench your thirst for adventure and novelty. Let me be your cool bestie in NYC. The girl with the down-low, the secret passwords and the unmatched advice. The friend who knows that you’re looking for something more interesting than the Empire State Building. If you want to spend your New Year’s Even in Times Square, this post isn’t for you. But if you want to experience my New York, then stick around a snag some obsessively compiled tips and favorites. (Apologies in advance to the toddler-toting set–I’ve never had a child, so I don’t know what kid-friendly things there are in the city.)

Here’s my list of everything sustainable, ec0-friendly, ethical, and worth doing during your week in (what I consider) the best city on earth.

Getting Around

You’ve seen the yellow cabs glamorized on television, but let me tell you the truth: they are stinky boxes driven by men with anger issues. They will make you carsick, and leave you $20 poorer. Sometimes they are necessary, like when you are wearing heels, in Brooklyn, at 3 in the morning. But most of the time, there are so many alternatives! After you get waving a taxi down out of your system, do these things instead:

  • The Subway: It goes almost everywhere, and is air conditioned in the summer. Google Maps has a public transportation option that works wonderfully (just add 5-10 minutes to the travel time it tells you). If you get lost on a platform, a New Yorker will proudly show off their knowledge and point you in the right direction. If Google maps tells you to take a bus, don’t balk–they actually aren’t bad here.
  • CitiBikes: CitiBikes are cheap and great for when you are connecting two dots not easily connected by the subway, or it’s a beautiful day outside. These babies take a bit more confidence to ride around the city, though. If you haven’t gotten on a bike in 15 years, I would suggest taking a practice run in the park that runs down the West Side of Manhattan. Outside Penn Station is no place to be testing your balancing skills. Also, please, please study the traffic rules before you take your bike for a spin. However, if you cycle at least once every few months, dip your credit card in one of the stations and take one out. The CitiBike app will even tell you where other stations are located and how many bikes they have.
  • GoGreen Ride: When you want to arrive somewhere in style and can plan ahead a bit, GoGreen Ride will come pick you up in a luxury hybrid car, for not much more than a taxi. Download the app and schedule your pickup. Bam.
  • Walking: Guess what? We are no longer in suburbia, where you must get in your SUV in order to drive four blocks. Wear comfortable shoes and any walk under 25 minutes is fair game. (Again, Google maps is helpful for time estimation.) Longer, if you want to go for a scenic stroll through a neighborhood or over the Brooklyn Bridge.

Events

The first thing you need to do is check out my Things To Do in NYC category. Updated every other Friday morning, it tells you what festivals, events, classes and sample sales are going on that weekend and the following week.

Neighborhoods

  • Midtown/Times Square: It sucks. I know you booked your hotel here for convenience, but no one hangs out here if they can help it. It’s crowded with non-New Yorkers, and filled with the kind of crappy chain restaurants you can find in every other city in America. Why would you come to NYC to eat at Applebee’s? At night, the creepers come out. Leave the neighborhood immediately. (Though there are a few exceptions here: the Pod 39 Rooftop is excellent in terms of views and drinks. And the Ace Hotel has a cool factor of 11.)
  • Hell’s Kitchen: To the west of Times Square, this neighborhood is a bit better, with some good restaurants and lots of gay bars. Yay! (Print is a great farm-to-table restaurant in the hood if you want to drop a little more cash.)
  • Chelsea: Right below Hell’s Kitchen, this is a very residential neighborhood catering to successful gay men. Chelsea Market is worth wandering through if you’re in the area. It’s like mini mall, but with more flavor, including baked goods, a sustainable restaurant called The Green Table, and other yummy nibbles. Gallow Green is a few blocks north; it’s one of the best rooftop bars in the city. There’s also a lot of art galleries right next to the High Line, so put on your “I could totally afford this” face and check them out.
  • Meatpacking: You’ll find this interesting if you like buying designer clothing or want to experience bottle service at a club filled with Long Island and New Jersey bros. The rooftop club Le Bain is its only redeeming feature.
  • TriBeCa: Here you’ll find pretty people wandering around amongst the converted lofts. (If you want to the ultimate pampering, get a mani/pedi at Sweet Lily Day Spa or a haircut at Hale Organic Salon.)
  • SoHo: Shopping, and mostly chain designer and mid-range stores like Bebe and Abercrombie. BUT, you can still find some interesting boutiques if you head away from Broadway to another Avenue either to the east or west. Only Hearts sustainable lingerie is here.
  • NoHo: Standing for North of Houston, this little ‘hood has some good restaurants (Saxon & Parole is one) and includes the excellent vintage store Screaming Mimi’s.)
  • West Village: You will eat well here, my friend. Its maze of streets are jammed with moderately to expensively priced farm-to-table restaurants, plus pubs and taverns and beautiful apartment buildings. In the fall it smells like wood-burning fireplaces.
  • Financial District: I know you think Wall Street is the most exciting neighborhood ever … but it’s not. It’s just a bunch of bankers grumpily getting lunch between big skyscrapers. Go to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, then consider the Financial District done. I wouldn’t even have lunch there. (But if you must, Hudson Eats has some healthy options.)
  • South Street Seaport: This neighbor has been revitalized from a tourist trap to an actually pretty hip spot. Grab lunch in the sunshine and check out some of the shops featuring locally made, fashionable goods.
  • Lower East Side (a.k.a. LES): This is where you come for some real New York Flavor. It’s got shopping, art, restaurants and bars. While it can get a bit hairy on the weekends (a lot of drunk 20-somethings stumbling around), it’s one of the few neighborhoods that make me feel like I’m in the NYC of the 90s or 80s. If you want to find something unique to New York, just wander up and down its Avenues and dip into some shops.
  • East Village: A slightly more gentrified version of the LES, as described above, with excellent bars and restaurants.
  • Gramercy: Fancy! Here’s where you’ll find a lot of upscale restaurants snuggled into pretty, very expensive apartment buildings.
  • Flat Iron: It’s got that iconic building, a park with a Shake Shack, and some OK restaurants and bars. The mega-upscale grocery store/food court/rooftop restaurant Eataly is here.
  • Union Square: In the center of the East Village, Gramercy, Chelsea and Flat Iron, it’s a hub for many subway lines, and the site of the best farmers market in the city, which operates on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. It’s surrounded by yoga studios, healthy fast food and smoothie joints, farm-to-table restaurants, and the ABC Home and Kitchen empire.
  • Murry Hill: Where recent graduates move, packed with forgettable sports bars and forgettable restaurants. Nothing to see here. (Except if you like Indian food–its nickname is Curry Hill.)
  • Upper East Side: Museums and rich people. It’s a bit stuffy up here, and hard to find a good restaurant to visit after you’re done getting your art and culture in at a museum. But the rooftop of the Met is supposed to be exquisite for sunset drinks.
  • Upper West Side: Quiet, literary, a lovely place to live, while not necessarily worth a visit by tourists.
  • Harlem: It’s definitely got flavor, and some restaurants with soul food that will blow you away if you want to make the journey.
  • The Bronx: Not for tourists, with the exception of New York Botanical Garden, and the depressing Zoo.
  • Williamsburg, Brooklyn: What the world thinks of when they think of the Brooklyn brand. It’s where the “hipster” resides. It’s being gentrified at a breakneck speed, and as soon as you step off the L train at Bedford, you’ll find yourself surrounded by young, hip people ducking into fair trade coffee shops, vintage stores, farm-to-table restaurants, boutiques carrying local designers, mixologist bars, breweries, artisanal chocolate shops, bazaars and fleas and festivals, and brand-new clubs pumping out underground techno. It’s personally one of my favorite neighborhoods, and a must-visit for anyone, whether they are young, old, hip or just curious to see where American culture is currently minted.
  • Greenpoint, Brooklyn: North of Williamsburg, it is also very hip, cool, tasty and interesting. It’s just harder to get to on the train. (Read a Greenpoint girl’s favorite place to eat, drink, and shop in the area. And another guide from another fashionable Greenpoint girl.)
  • Bushwick, Brooklyn: Just east of Williamsburg, this is a little more hardcore. Find street art, more farm-to-table restaurants, artists and their studios, and dive bars. Unlike Williamsburg, you can’t just wander around to find cool shit. But there is plenty to see, if you know where to find it, like street art. Roberta’s pizza is here, but get there about two hours before you start getting hungry. The wait is atrocious.
  • Park Slope, Brooklyn: Gentrified, stately, the closest to a small-town downtown vibe you’ll get. Lots of good restaurants and shopping for the “I have a baby but I’m still hip” set. So you can bring your baby in a bar here and no one will raise an eyebrow! Lot’s of cute kids shops, too.
  • DUMBO, Brooklyn: Land of startups and good restaurants. It means “Down Under the Manhattan and Brooklyn Overpasses”.
  • Cobble Hill/Carroll Gardens/Gowanus, Brooklyn: A little harder to get to in the southern part of Brooklyn, but harboring some amazing restaurants, cheese mongers, and bars.
  • Red Hook: Quiet, free of tourists, and surprisingly populated by wineries, lobster and crab restaurants, and good shopping. Take the IKEA ferry from the Financial District to get there there on the weekend. (I included Red Hook in my “Chill Guide to NYC“)
  • Coney Island, Brooklyn: If you want to indulge in Americana, ride some coasters, eat some junk food, this is the place to do it.
  • Long Island City, Queens: This neighborhood has been on the cusp of being a destination for so many years now, and hasn’t quite made it. While MoMa PS1 is worth a trip, you might find yourself quickly lost if you don’t have a specific destination in mind.
  • Astoria, Queens: If you want to go on a foodie adventure for cheap, this ethnic mixing pot will provide you with every global cuisine you could think of. It’s not the prettiest neighborhood, but it certainly is tasty.

This is just an overview! Download my guide to NYC for all my favorite restaurants, cafés, and stores. It’s sorted by type and by neighborhood. 

NYC Sustainable City Guide by EcoCult and The Note Passer

  • This curated list of sustainable, ethical, and conscious businesses is sorted by type (restaurant, shopping) and by neighborhood. Get a copy for your visit to NYC, or even if you live here!

Where to Eat

Okay, so there are about 350 amazing places to eat, so giving you a recommendation is hard. But, you can start with my list of the 24 best sustainable restaurants in NYC. If that’s not enough, I keep a list on Yelp of all the restaurants I like and want to try in NYC. (Tip: Bookmark your favorites, then use the app on your phone to find places you want to go nearby on the fly.) They all have some sustainable and/or delicious aspect about them. Also reference the Clean Plates app for healthy options wherever you are.

The Vegan Lyfe

I often get requests from visiting vegans for recommendations on where to eat. Well, don’t take it from me (I’m a conscious carnivore, myself) take it from the famous vegan designer Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart of Vaute Couture. Here’s her list of fave vegan places in NYC. Here’s my longer list of vegan restaurants in NYC.

Shopping

For pure, unadulterated sustainable shopping, my favorites are Kaight and Bhoomki, both in Brooklyn. You should also hit up Reformation, which has two locations in downtown Manhattan, one in SoHo and one on the Lower East Side. Swords-Smith in Williamsburg and International Playground in SoHo both carry small designers, many of them sustainable. Love Adorned on the LES and Catbird in Williamsburg carry loads of locally-made jewelry and pretty little decorative items. But you can’t forget the vintage shopping! 10 Ft Single by Stella Dallas in Williamsburg for sheer size and selection of cool duds, Beacon’s Closet with various locations around the city, What Goes Around Comes Around in SoHo for designer duds, Shareen for super-duper upscale, and Metropolis in the East Village for tees and jeans should be on your to-visit list. (There’s a complete list in my shopping guide! See above.)

Things to Do

  • The High Line: This revamped elevated train track in Chelsea/Meatpacking has become the best place in NYC for an afternoon stroll. Smell the native flowers, look at the art installations and surrounding architecture, stop for a popsicle, ice cream cone or beer from a vendor, and relax and people watch at one of the scenic stopping points along the walk.
  • Museums: The Met can be overwhelming in size, so go with a couple of exhibitions in mind. I have a soft spot for the Frick, an big old mansion stocked with period oil paintings–get the audio guide, it’s absolutely charming and educational. I love MoMA PS1 in Long Island City for fascinating conceptual art–they usually have at least one or two things there that make your head explode. The Brooklyn Museum of Art is amazing and definitely worth a visit. And the brand new Whitney, right next to the High Line, is amazing.
  • Parks: Ok, you have to do Central Park! But warning: It is large. Like the Met, you should go with a plan or else you risk being disappointed. My suggestion: grab the single-serving-size boxes of wine or cans of champagne (so you don’t get caught drinking in public) from a wine store, stop at Citarella’s on 75th Street and 3rd Avenue for food, then enter the park at 79th Street and head to the center to set up your picnic at Belvedere’s Castle. Afterward, walk south to find the romantic and iconic Bow Bridge area. Brooklyn Botanic Garden inside Prospect Park is also a wonderful place to stroll around, and Brooklyn Bridge Park has a great view of the city.
  • Rent a Bike: CitiBikes are commuter bikes, and have a short time limit. But there are Bike n’ Rolls in strategic spots around the city for a longer rentals. I suggest you have lunch at the Boat Basin on the Hudson on the Upper West Side, rent a bike, leisurely make your way down the West Side in the park, drop your bikes off at Battery Park and have a drink or dinner at The Frying Pan, another bar/restaurant on a pier on the Hudson. Or take a bike across the Brooklyn Bridge and into Brooklyn Bridge Park, and have a stroll and a bite around DUMBO afterward.
  • Walkabouts: If you just want to walk around and see an interesting neighborhood, there are a few places where you can’t take a wrong turn. Take the L to the Bedford stop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, walk south all the way to Grand Street, then back north up into Greenpoint. Take any train to Atlantic Avenue or the R to Union street and walk south on 5th Avenue, in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Explore the streets boxed in between 2nd Avenue, Avenue A, 10th Street and Houston, in the East Village. Explore the Avenues right below Houston, between Center and Essex, on the Lower East Side. Or get completely lost in the West Village.
  • Theater: If you have kids with you, then by all means, take them to see Lion King–it’s awesome. And we all love a good Broadway show or two. But if you want something a little more cultured, then the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) will hook you up with cutting edge new productions and fresh interpretations of the classics.

Nightlife

Rooftop bars: I’ve heard a rumor that the French want to move to NYC just for the rooftop parties. That may or may not be true, but nothing says, “I’m living the life” like sipping a cocktail with a view of the sunset behind Manhattan’s skyline. You can visit these bars anytime starting in the afternoon. (In fact, I recommend it, before it gets crowded.) Here are the nine best rooftop bars in NYC.

Cocktails: If you want to just have a nice cocktail, I suggest you make a reservation at PDT, a speakeasy located behind a phone booth that serves amazing cocktails. Call at 3 pm exactly the day of until you get through to get a reservation. It’s worth it! Apothéke in Chinatown has the best cocktails in the city, but you’ll pay the price, both in dollars and frustration for waiting time. On the weekends, a DJ spins totally danceable tunes, and things get rowdy. Other bars for sophisticated cocktails in order of preference: The Wayland in the East Village, Death & Co. in the East Village, Employees Only in the West Village, Pouring Ribbons in the East Village, The Dead Rabbit in the Financial District, and Clover Club in Cobble Hill, Dutch Kills in Long Island City, are other spots to grab a delicious cocktail.

Dancing: My go-to spot for bringing out of town friends is Le Bain at the Standard Hotel in Meatpacking. The view is great, the music appeals to a wide range of people (think: not top 40, yet super fun and danceable), there’s a roof, a pool, and a crepe shack. It’s very impressive. Just get dressed up for the door. I’ve also had a good time at the iconic Piano’s on the Lower East Side (front for margaritas, back for live music, upstairs for the DJ). If you want your music like they have it in Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris and Ibiza, then your destination is Output, which has seen just about every international and local DJ worth knowing pass through their doors. While it charges cover, you are not required to slut yourself up for entry, or even wear heels. It’s all about the music.

I will continue to update this post so that it stays fresh and relevant. If you have any suggestions, please let me know in the comments!