The road of the sails.
This was how new yorkers, fascinated by the long stretch of brigantine sails along the pier, used to call South Street Seaport at the end of the 19th century.
New York’s old port is one of Manhattan’s oldest inhabited area, back since the end of 1600, thanks to its strategic position, a tucked in meander of the East River that permitted ships coming from Europe and South America to dock safely away from winds and ocean currents.
It has always been a place of exchanges and trades, sailors and travelers, depots, taverns, pubs and low cost guesthouses.
The port has also witnessed the birth and development of one of the most ambitious works of engineering of the 19th century, the building of the Brooklyn Bridge.
It’s a special place, a sort of time portal that gives you an idea of how New York looked like in 1800. It has managed to maintain all its charm and peculiarities, (despite being surrounded by the imposing buildings of the Financial District looking south and Ground Zero’s new skyscraper on the west) thanks to a great renovation work started at the beginning of the 80s.
Today the South Street Seaport is famous for the stunning views on East River, on Brooklyn Bridge and Brooklyn Heights, for its bustling cultural life and for the shops and picturesque restaurants on Pier 17.
Moreover (and this happens often in New York), at a closer look, it offers much more: a maze of historical buildings, unique museums, ethnical food, markets, observations decks, leisure for adults and children and there is always a hint for something different.
Here’s a short walking itinerary, with various features and with no difficulty.
A couple of hours will be enough (three at the most, if you want to visit some museums), and a good sunny day.
In case of bad weather, don’t worry: winter fogs on East River may cover the view into Brooklyn Heights but it will make the cobbled streets of the district even more fascinating and suggestive.
Get to Fulton St. station (red line 2/3), take Gold Street on the left until you come to Dover Street, the road that passes under the beginning of the Brooklyn Bridge. Then continue towards East River until you get to the junction with Water Street.
Stop for a moment and look at the unique view of the bridge that you get from this point, right after the old building in red wood on the corner: it’s one of the city’s oldest pubs, the Bridge Cafè.
Dating back to 1794, this pub is the oldest bar selling alcohol in the city. During the year is has changed into a Hungarian restaurant, a fish tavern, another pub, a packaging shop, a speakeasy and a brothel. Today, being closed due to consequences of Hurricane Sandy, it is one the city’s most “infested” places.
Continue along Water Street (now and again have a look at the sides streets, you may have the impression of going back in time), until you reach the South Street Seaport Museum.
It’s an exhibition that develops around 11 blocks and in the main 3-floor building there are more that 10.000 items and documents of the port’s history, of the boats and of the city of New York.
Consider that with the entrance ticket you can also get on one of the old boats still docked to the pier, next to Pier 17: Decker the Tugboat, Pecking the brigantine (the second biggest ship in the world) and Ambrose and Pioneer the sailing ship. From May to October, you can sail on it (a two-hour sail), around Manhattan (click here for booking).
Right in front of the museum entrance, you can visit the Titanic Memorial Park, with the white lighthouse which remembers (and commemorates) the unlucky story of the famous liner and of its passengers, who should have got off the boat just on South Street Seaport’s pier.
Turn left along old Fulton Street and open your eyes: on your right you will see a series of small red brick buildings, known as Schermerhorn Row: these are above all the oldest brick buildings in New York. They were old depots, now it’s a lively shopping centre with luxurious shops and restaurant not that affordable.
Please bear in mind, buy something to eat at the ethnical food trucks that are parked along Fulton St. (Mondays to Fridays, from 11 to 5pm, sometimes on a Saturday) and go towards Pier 15.
Go onto the East River Waterfront Esplanade, choose a seat with a view and enjoy (together with the Financial District employees who spend their lunchbreak here in sunny days) your snack and the beautiful view over the river and over Brooklyn from one of Manhattan’s most stunning observation points.
If you have children, after you have eaten you can move along to the nearby Immagination Playground, a modern and stimulating playground where adults can enter only together with their kids (security is never too much).
Continue along John Street to reach Fulton Street station (brown line J/Z). However, before heading back, stop by at Old John Street Church, the oldest Methodist church of the city. In the side street, you can see a “postcard” of how the area used to be in 1700 (you can see it from the gate), a fresco of the old Methodist village, the first housing unit along East River in 1761.
Advice for sleeping in this area
If you have fallen in love with the picturesque South Street Seaport (something that often happens, I must confess) and you wish to stay nearby to get the most of the sights and atmosphere of the district, I advise you to try an book at the Best Western Seaport Inn (extremely in advance, considering the high requests and the number of tourists).
It’s an old building in Peck Street, behind Water Street, restored by Best Western to a little boutique hotel.
The rooms are simple but extremely clean, breakfast is plentiful and Wi-Fi is always included (it’s a real saving for a city like New York), and the staff is really kind and helpful. Prices are average rate but, if you book in advance, you may also be able to find some offers.