Apr 25, 2013

25 Things to Do Near the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sitting on the steps in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of those iconic things to do in New York City. On a sunny day, the wide steps can become crowded with the young and old, the tourist and the resident. It's tempting to stay awhile and soak in the sun and the sights. Everyone has reasons for lingering there, with one being the shared pleasure of people watching along this expansive stretch of Fifth Avenue, a painting come to life. Certainly, just getting off one's feet for a moment is welcome, especially if the previous hours involved walking through the entirety of art history from prehistoric to the contemporary.

The entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue

The Metropolitan Museum of Art should be a singular pilgrimage, uninterrupted by feeble attempts to take in more exhibitions along Museum Mile. Pity the poor visitor who tries "to do" multiple museum exhibitions in one day, albeit ambitious, noble, and uplifting. Like the city itself, a place of too many possibilities that can often paralyze decision-making (i.e. "Where do you want to go to dinner?" "I don't know" "Let's eat leftovers") , a satisfactory stroll through the Met necessitates editing out certain galleries and saving them for another day. On a recent Sunday, for example, I visited the Met to see Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity (through May 27, 2013), and just this one exhibit so overwhelmed me - all this flâneur stuff, you know, what with Paris Street; Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte and La Loge by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, together in the last gallery!  - well, I just had to walk outside and sit on the front steps for a long time.

While a time-demanding pleasure palace, the Met is still within easy walking distance of many other spots, some of which involve great coffee, nature, books, sumptuous architecture, and world-class cocktails.

On this recent visit, I began my museum outing in the early afternoon with Viennese coffee and strudel at the Café Fledermaus inside the Neue Galerie. After the museum, I walked through the historic district, bought a book at Crawford Doyle Booksellers on Madison, and ended the afternoon with a drink at the handsome Bar Pleiades on E. 76th, just a little shy west of Madison.

So, when you find yourself sitting on the steps at the Met, recognize that many opportunities await nearby. Behind you to the west are treasures within the great leafy expanse of Central Park - the Ramble and the Shakespeare Garden, among them. In your line of sight, stare ahead at East 82nd Street and think about getting up to look at the mansion on the corner. Know, too, that within a block or so from here, formally-dressed bartenders are polishing their counters and ready to take your order.

Please don't attempt all 25 of the following things in one outing. Choose maybe three or four of them in combination with the museum. Curate thyself. Or, as they say where I grew up - be particular.

1009 Fifth Ave and 82nd St. 1899-1901


25 Things to Do Near the Metropolitan Museum of Art

1. Metropolitan Museum Historic District. East side of 5th Avenue from E. 78th to E. 86th St. through Fifth and Madison Avenues (approx.) Fans of Beaux-Arts architecture, with its neoclassical riffs on Gothic, Renaissance, Romanesque, and other varieties, will enjoy looking at the many bas-reliefs, classical ornaments, and balustrades throughout the district.

2. Central Park: Pat Hoffman Friedman Playground, with Paul Manship's sculpture Group of Bears (1932, cast in 1963). The charming small playground just to the south of the museum makes a good spot to rest or to plan the afternoon.

View of the museum from the park
3. Central Park: The Ramble. A 38-acre site of wild woods, outcroppings of rock, man-made rustic features, and confusing trails, all set to the tune of birds, sits roughly between 78th St. on the north and 73rd St. on the south. More on this website.

4. Central Park: The Obelisk. The oldest man-made object in the park, and better known as Cleopatra's Needle, this granite monument indeed dates from the days of the pharaoh, circa 1450 BC. After it was carted over to the city, in February 1881 a large crowd watched in wonder as workers pulled the Obelisk into its full and upright position.


5. Central Park: Belvedere Castle, Delacorte Theatre, Shakespeare Garden. A trifecta of Central Park icons, grouped together. The Delacorte is home to The Public Theatre's Shakespeare in the Park. The garden next door features seasonal plantings accompanied by quotations from the Bard. Belvedere Castle, an architectural folly created by park co-designer Calvert Vaux, offers an excellent high view of the Park below.

6. Central Park: South Gate, Central Park Reservoir. The reservoir, named after Jackie Kennedy Onassis, was originally built as a water supply for New York. Decommissioned for that purpose, the Reservoir is a lovely thing to behold, especially as a home to many waterfowl.

Neue Galerie
Café Sabarsky
7. Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue at 86th St. As described in a previous post, the collection encompasses the worlds of Vienna at the turn of the century and the art movements associated with the Weimar Republic. The galleries are housed in an elegant 1914 building designed by Carrère and Hastings. Website

8. Café Sabarsky, 1048 Fifth Avenue at 86th St. If you're not visiting the Neue Galerie (above), at least step inside the museum and get in line for the best Viennese coffee and pastry in the city. If the line is long, head downstairs to the more informal Café Fledermaus. Same menu, same coffee, same apple strudel.

9. Ukrainian Institute of America, 2 E. 79th St. The institute hosts exhibitions and events, open to the public, in the Harry F. Sinclair House (the former Isaac D. Fletcher House). The French Gothic building by C. P. H. Gilbert, 1897–1899, is a wee bit excessive, but so was much of the Gilded Age in America. Website

10. The New York Society Library, 53 E 79th St. Ambling east on 79th, you will encounter the library. Despite the snooty sound of the name, this noble institution was born of civic-minded types who wanted books to be made available to the public. After earlier locations in the southern parts of Manhattan, in 1937 the library settled comfortably into this Italianate house. More at the official website.

Carlyle Galleries Building (left)
The Carlyle, a hotel, on the right
11. Gagosian Gallery, 980 Madison Ave. One of several locations in the Gagosian art world, this gallery inhabits a space within the landmark Carlyle Galleries Building. A few years ago, the 5-story building served as the focal point of an intense preservationist battle between the Upper East Siders and developers wishing to construct a tower design by Norman Foster on its base. Gagosian maintains a fun art bookstore here, Books & Co.. Website

12. Bemelmans Bar, inside The Carlyle, 35 E. 76th St. The bar is named after the beloved children's writer Ludwig Bemelmans, the author of the Madeline books and the creator of the bar's charming wrap-around mural. He lived in the hotel, too. After a day at the Met, order a favorite cocktail and drink in the mood of the sophisticated city. Website

13. Bar Pleiades/Café Boulud, 20 E. 76th St., off the lobby of the Surrey Hotel. On the other hand, if you want something special to perk yourself up after a long day at the Met, walk into the Bar Pleiades and inquire after the Hanky Panky. This Jazz-Age concoction of gin, vermouth, and Fernet-Branca will have you dreaming of Paris in the twenties. Website

At Café Boulud 
Let's Talk: I will interrupt this listage for a moment to state what's becoming obvious. Yes, we are going very "uptown" for this swing through this Upper East Side neighborhood. When in Rome, do as the Romans, etc. etc.. Though I am personally not fond of the luxury aesthetic in a general way, we will just have to pull ourselves together and wear smart clothes. Pull a $20 bill out of the wallet to cover the coffee and the strudel at the Cafe Fledermaus or wherever, and then another $20 (maybe a little more) for a drink in one of these smart hotel bars, and let's be done with it. We can always go home (or the hotel) and change into jeans and find cheap beer in the Village for later. We should also remember to join the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a member, so we don't have to agonize over the "suggested" price of admission or be sad about not getting the member discounts at the museum's formidable gift shop. All this walking around business is free. I'm glad we had this talk.

14. The Mark Bar/The Mark Hotel, Madison Avenue at 77th Street. The well-designed bar associated with The Mark Restaurant by Jean-Georges also features its own signature cocktails. At press time, these include a cucumber martini and a lychee raspberry bellini. Website

15. Ristorante Sant Ambroeus, 1000 Madison Avenue. One of three locations now - along with the West Village and Southhampton - this restaurant in the Milanese tradition offers a memorable risotto, among other fare, in addition to its worthy espresso and gelato. Website

16. Caffe Grazie, 26 E. 84th St. Likable Italian food in a townhouse atmosphere. Their Italian version of a Bento Box is some kind of genius. Website

17. La Maison Du Chocolat, 1018 Madison Ave. Expert chocolates from France. Website

18. Lexington Candy Shop, 1226 Lexington Ave. Luncheonette, circa 1925. The very wonderful word - "luncheonette." We need not say more. Website

19. William Greenberg Jr. Desserts, 1100 Madison Ave. A take-home bakery with delicious goodies, especially holiday cookies. Website 

20. E.A.T., 1064 Madison Ave. Sandwiches, salads, sweets. Grab a proper ham-and-cheese baguette to go, and eat in the park. Website

21. Candle 79, 154 E. 79th at Lexington. A literal outlier on this list, the worthy vegan restaurant may provide a good choice for beginning or ending a museum outing on the Upper East Side. Website

22. Crawford Doyle Booksellers, 1082 Madison Avenue. A well-curated selection in an exceptional bookstore. After a staff member quickly took me to the section on travel literature and pulled out the book I was looking for, I quickly deduced that they stocked only good books.

23. Park Avenue Christian Church, 1010 Park Ave. at 85th Street. We're going to church. Twice. Our first stop is a French Gothic-inspired church with buttresses and Tiffany windows. The structure has served as home for the South Dutch Reformed Church, the Park Avenue Presbyterian Church, and now the Disciples of Christ. The latter shares space with the Reform Temple of Universal Judaism. A welcoming place in the interfaith spirit.

Park Avenue
24. Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, 980 Park Avenue. Built in 1898 by the Jesuit-controlled Roman Catholic parish, the stately classical facade is a real head-turner on Park Avenue.

25. Park Avenue. While burdensome to walk at times, this stretch of Park Avenue is nicely landscaped, especially throughout the medians. Before heading to the 6 train on Lexington at either the 86th or 77th St. stops, take a final long look up and down the wide boulevard before heading home.

Final thought: Remember to stay creative and improvisational at all times. Cherish favorite places in the city, but never forget to experience new things. Like a museum, living in New York always presents familiar galleries, but the discovery of unfamiliar paintings in the next room is what really opens up the doors.


View Near the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a larger map

Images by Walking Of the Big Apple.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with view to the north from the steps


Mobile: You have a phone, yes? While sitting on the steps of the Met, locate "Walking Off the Big Apple" on your phone's browser and find the streamlined mobile version of this website, complete with interactive maps. You are good to go.

See related post:
25 Things to Do Near the Museum of Modern Art

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