My mother took us to many Lunar New Year celebrations when I was a kid, and what began as a parade full of dancing dragons and ear-splitting firecrackers, ended up being a lesson in the compact diversity of New York. Red-faced, cold, and nearly deaf, we would warm up and fill up at Wo Hop, the legendary basement Chinese food dive, usually frequented by downtown partiers around 4:00am. I vividly remember the waiter at Wo Hop teaching me how to use chopsticks, because they did not provide forks. Piles of noodles, rice, vegetables, and crispy noodles came to the table in the blink of an eye, and I marveled each time at how much better the food was there than at our local take-out place on Long Island.
The area between Broadway and Bowery, hovering around Canal Street, is where Chinatown and Little Italy are abrupt yet amiable neighbors. Two waves of immigrants, both settling in the same small area, which is now a major tourist draw. Lower Manhattan still gets prohibitively crowded sometimes, especially on days like the Feast of San Gennaro. But it’s a wonderful place to walk around, as there is still so much cultural flavor. Within half a mile, you can walk from east to west, eat crickets and cannoli, and admire the constant diversity in the city that’s always changing.
Take the train to Canal and Broadway, and begin walking east. The shops are affordable, if repetitive, places to buy costume jewelry, fun sunglasses, hand fans, parasols, and simple toys. Don’t be afraid to haggle, either; this is expected and widely practiced. I have even accidentally haggled while trying to legitimately walk away from a necklace! But do be prepared for constant offers of counterfeit bags, wallets, and watches, and avoid engaging with them. If you’re on your own, earbuds are a great deterrent, even if there’s no music playing.
If you’re looking for lunch, Wo Hop is below Canal on Mott Street, and you can expect cramped tables and flourescent lighting, as well as lots of delicious food for little money. For a slight upgrade in ambience and an equally well-known name, Joe’s Ginger is around the corner on tiny Pell Street, and it boasts the best soup dumplings in the city. It’s next door to Joe’s Shanghai, which both serve the same food, but you avoid a long line by going to Joe’s Ginger.
Continue walking uptown and explore the various cross streets, like Baxter and Hester, where you’ll see markets full of exotic produce, fish, spices, and medicinal remedies. I’ve even seen a durian stand where the vendor cuts the pungent fruit for you. My favorite bakery in Chinatown is Lung Moon on Mulberry Street, but I recommend saving your dessert for Little Italy.
Little Italy has shrunk over the years, to a barely-four block area, centered on Mulberry Street. There are many restaurants in this area, but the truth is New York does Italian food exceptionally well, and you can eat pasta, pizza, and parm that’s even better in many other neighborhoods. In the warmer months, you’ll see gelato vendors on the sidewalk. Eating a stracciatella gelato cone while walking down Mulberry can briefly transport you to the Boot, but the best dessert experience is at Ferrara’s, at Mulberry and Grand. This is one tourist destination that’s not overrated. You can take out, but I recommend getting a table and having one of their velvety-smooth espressos with dessert. I recommend the incredibly rich cheesecake, or the chocolate raspberry ribbon cake.
On my walk, I was intrigued by Alleva Dairy, a cheese specialist. Among all the gelato stands, they had a cannoli stand, filled with varieties like pistachio and hazelnut. I immediately went for the almond cheesecake cone, which was essentially a cone-shaped Florentine almond cookie, stuffed with a sweet and tangy cheesecake filling. It was easily one of the best desserts I’ve had in the city.
Now that you’ve had lunch and dessert, walk east to the Bowery and head uptown. The Bowery used to be overrun with crime, but it has always been home to restaurant supply stores. The avenue has been gentrified in a jarring manner, considering its history, but the kitchen and lighting supply stores remain. You can get Italian coffee cup sets, professional-grade pots and pans, chopsticks in bulk, even crystal chandeliers. You’ll pass the historical Bowery Mission, the New Museum, and if you’re in the mood for a cocktail, duck into the Bowery Hotel at East 3rd Street. It definitely feels surreal to sip a $14 cocktail at a hotel roof bar in the neighborhood where the Ramones used to rage in clubs, where some streets were unwalkable tent cities, where transvestites vogued and addicts shot up in broad daylight. For a day of dualities, though, it is a fitting end to a walk around Lower Manhattan.