A Cultural Guide to SoHo: How to Visit Without Really Shopping

(revised and updated) New York's fashionable SoHo is so famously packed with shoppers, especially on the weekend, that it's a wonder there's anything to do there except shop. Groups of shoppers stand on street corners to plot their next strategic move, carefully weighing the virtues of the next store based on variables of proximity, price, and trends. People line up outside the Apple Store on Greene and Prince, often long before the doors open, ready to snap up the new gadget. Along the fashion-intensive blocks of Broadway and at intersections of cross streets, especially at Prince and Spring Streets, so many shoppers clog the sidewalks that it's often difficult to pass through. Many locals put off errands until Monday.

Believe it or not, there's more to SoHo than frenzied shopping. First of all, there's the idea of slow shopping. This activity, best reserved for a weekday, allows the pleasure of visiting favorite stores while enjoying the historic district's beautiful cast iron buildings and the Belgian paving blocks - don't call them cobblestones - that line the streets. And though SoHo has lost much of its star art power to Chelsea, arts-minded visitors should take in the public art such as Richard Haas's 1975 Facade Mural at 112 Prince Street or Francoise Schein's 1986 Subway Map - Floating on a New York Sidewalk, underfoot at 110 Greene Street (below), in addition to stops at Artists Space, the Swiss Institute, the Drawing Center, and Ron Feldman Gallery. See that 5-story cast-iron building under wraps at Spring and Mercer? That's the residence and studio of artist Donald Judd (1928-1994), maintained by the Judd Foundation and now undergoing a major restoration.*

SoHo is home to extraordinary commercial buildings that constitute the largest concentration of cast-iron facades in the world. Their interiors often provide equally stunning designs. Step into the Prada SoHo store at Broadway and Prince. Behind its fanciful Corinthian cast-iron exterior, architect Rem Koolhaas has mimicked the movement of the street on the inside with wonderful waves of steps. The Alessi store, at 130 Greene, sits behind a similar cast-iron design, but opens up to a shimmering white modernistic interior. While not a cast-iron, the old Post Office at 103 Prince Street is currently under renovation and expansion for Apple's SoHo store.

Unlike residential areas where a nice leafy park with benches may be easily found within strolling distance, SoHo has nearly zero exterior places to sit down. Some people will take to the stoops of the cast-irons, although furtively. The best bet is to find a place for coffee or snacks. Try the Nespresso boutique at 92 Prince Street, a place that sells a sleek line of high tech espresso machines with color-coded coffee capsules. Sitting down for a leisurely $4 hit of a favorite brew can inspire a new wave of explorations.

A long-standing local favorite among locals is Housing Works Bookstore Cafe at 126 Crosby, with its high ceilings, mahogany balconies and shelves of books. Relaxing with a coffee and a new book is the definition of unhurried. For lunch or after work, Fanelli's Cafe at the corner Price and Mercer, is a classic choice for a relaxed vibe. They've been practicing their act since 1922.

SoHo's many shops of well-designed clothes and furniture are exquisite, of course, and the merchandise is often thrilling to hold and to buy and to take home. But on regular days, the look of SoHo seems enough, a wonder to behold, especially in the late morning light when the stores and cafes have just started opening.

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Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from June 14, 2011.


Terry B, Blue Kitchen said...

Wonderful post, Teri. I know I say that all the time, but this really resonated with me. I love SoHo, both for the shopping and for everything else. I was sad when art galleries started moving from there to Chelsea--it took me a while to warm up to Chelsea, in fact. Glad to know about the Donald Judd space. Will it be open to the public after renovation?

Among our favorite shopping in SoHo is the Harney & Sons tea shop on Broome Street. We've been buying their tea online for some time, so to visit the actual shop was a real treat.

Teri Tynes said...

Thanks. I really must visit your favorite tea shop. Good recommendation.