New York City Walking Tour: SoHo
Downtown’s retail and restaurant mecca maintains a distinct charm thanks to cobblestone streets and cast-iron architecture.
Once called Hell’s Hundred Acres, the seedy expanse between Houston and Canal Streets, the SoHo of today is a far different place. Starting in the 1960’s, that wasteland began its legendary metamorphosis as emerging artists moved in, bought up spacious studio lofts, and turned the neighborhood into the city’s primary gallery district. Nowadays, SoHo is a retail epicenter—rivaled only by Madison Avenue—and the neighborhood is packed with designer flagships, high-end (and high, high-end) boutiques, in addition to hot restaurants and luxury hotels. SoHo’s transformation into a retail hub may be the city’s greatest commercial success story. Still, the district, with its grand cast-iron clad buildings, retains a distinct charm.
It's not the ambiance that brings crowds to this art-house cinema in the West Village—the seats are rock-hard and undersized and the facility years past a refresh. With its three small theaters often jam-packed, there's little question as to what provides the draw. From a 3D version of Kiss Me Kate to a Stanley Kubrick film festival, Film Forum's uncommon lineup is a Manhattan cinephile's dream. First-run indie and foreign films are shown nightly alongside popular restored classics and film retrospectives. Arrive early for the European coffee-bar style concession, which offers cake, freshly baked Hitchcock cookies and popcorn cooked in peanut oil (there's a secret stash of lemon and lime wedges beneath the counter to give your popped snack a Spanish flavor).
Pearl River Mart
SoHo's—and perhaps the city's—best bargains are found in this sprawling two-story Chinese emporium, which stocks everything from soaps and spices to silk jackets and spangled slippers. The place can get crowded with budget-conscious New Yorkers buying peony-print camp stools and bamboo benches to upgrade their apartments; porcelain bowls inexpensive enough to use once during cocktail gatherings; and gifts in bulk for dinner party hosts. For those who need to step away from the shopping madness, an in-store tea shop serves more than 40 types of the brew, from oolong to jasmine. The pocket-friendly prices start at 85 cents for Crystal Ginger Candy and top out at $350 for a vintage Chinese bridal outfit.
Twenty-first-century design connoisseurs can't get enough of this SoHo destination that's part store, part museum. You'll find subversive Cindy Sherman-designed Limoges teacups and saucers (they're decorated with images of the artist costumed as Madame de Pompadour), neon-bright stuffed nylon Mio Bears, and smooth-as-an-eggshell Spoon bathtubs. And you'll be left alone for as long as you like to appreciate the furniture, housewares, and objets displayed in glass vitrines or on raised platforms, all with placards explaining the provenance of each item.
This narrow, gallerylike women's clothing store (think long expanses of white walls installed with reverently displayed handbags) is run by Beth Buccini and Sarah Easley, two former sorority sisters with impeccable taste. They handpick outfits from serious designers like Derek Lam, Peter Som, and Thakoon, along with all the other necessaries that fill the bold boutique: jewelry, shoes, bathing suits, and candy. An instant fashion industry favorite when it first opened in 1999, it has remained a must-shop spot, with a cheery and mod vibe, red-painted stair railings, and a helpful staff.
Tip: Bored boyfriends and husbands can use computers with free Internet access, while baby gifts and pet toys will amuse boisterous children and restless miniature poodles.
Citizens of the style world decorate their dining rooms with finds from this tiny shop full of artfully stacked minimalist china, jewel-like tea sets, and cheery place settings. Everything is casually elegant and classic but of-the-moment and, in most cases, surprisingly affordable. The goods are selected by owner Nathalie Smith, a former stylist, so it's not surprising that the well-edited selection of merchandise is arrayed as if ready for its Elle Décor close-up. Pick from among the Moroccan tagines, starfish-shaped bone china candles made in the Philippines, and Thomas Paul melamine plates from Vietnam.
Tip: Small, good things—candles for porcelain candlesticks, cards to top presents—are hidden in the tiny back room of the shop, behind the owner's desk; step around for a peek.
Step beneath Balthazar's red awnings and into the high-ceiling dining room to be welcomed by striking pillars, black on the bottom and textured yellow on the top, with illuminated stained-glass panels in the middle. Owned by Keith McNally, this French bistro was named one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2004 by Restaurant Magazine and rightly so, with a menu featuring fresh oysters, caramelized onion tarts and cote de boeuf roti (for two). If you need a second dinner after visiting SoHo's bars, try Balthazar's limited After Hours Menu until 1:00 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.
Tony, candlelit, and elevated one story above traffic, this refined SoHo lounge feels like the sort of place where two lovers conducting an illicit affair might rendezvous. Named after an actual British officers’ club in Rangoon, it has an appropriate interior—all dark woods, velvet seats, and Asian accents. The Eastern-influenced snack menu by Gavin Citron changes seasonally and according to the owners’ inspiration, though the namesake cocktail—a tangy mix of London dry gin, orange curaçao, bitters, and lime juice—is always a safe option, as is the heavily alcoholic, aromatic Fitty-Fitty (gin, vermouth, bitters, lemon) or the delicious Old Cuban (rum, champagne, bitters, muddled mint). On each table, there’s a carousel of pipettes filled with bitters, sugar water, and other cocktail “seasonings” so that drinkers can customize their pro bartender's mix to their own preferred tastes. Expect to pay around $15 a drink.
This striking, 46-story property is within walking distance of Lower Manhattan neighborhoods such as Greenwich Village and SoHo. Public spaces are dramatically designed: the two-story lobby has Venetian-plaster columns and discreet leather seating. The 391 rooms and suites include automated temperature and light controls along with rich touches like dark, buttoned backboards and heavy curtains framing floor-to-ceiling windows. The hotel has a library stocked with Taschen art books, an 11,000-square-foot spa, and a seasonal pool deck. Plus, the 24-hour Trump Attaché room service keeps detailed accounts of guest preferences to provide ideal help for all requests—from dry cleaning to printing personalized stationary.
Forget the clothes: the real lure is the Rem Koolhaas-designed store itself. Manhattan’s Prada flagship replaced the downtown branch of the Guggenheim Museum in 2001—and since then, architecture freaks (and, yes, fashionistas) have been flocking to the futuristic 23,000-square-foot store.