Walking the Length of Manhattan From The Harlem River to Battery Park Along 5th Avenue & Broadway

Sign for 5th Avenue at the Harlem river
Only one way to go, and fortunately it’s south

While walking across Manhattan along 42nd Street offers many interesting sights to see, it’s not exactly a walking challenge. For that I decided to walk the length of Manhattan along 5th Avenue. and Broadway (the dividing lines between east and west).

I decided to begin my walk in Harlem and walk south to Battery Park. The reasoning was two-fold: one, I wasn’t sure what Harlem would be like and I’ve found that it’s far better to go through dodgy neighbourhoods early in the day than in the afternoon or evening. Second – as I’ve stated elsewhere on this blog – going south feels like you’re going downhill.

When I got off the number 3 subway at 135th Street, I concluded I’d probably made the right choice in starting rather than finishing here. According to this handy tool from the New Yorker, household wealth drops off quite quickly the further north you go from here. Now this isn’t to say that less affluent areas are guaranteed to be high crime, but I figure it’s better to somewhat safe than sorry.

The Harlem River, official starting point for the walk
The Harlem River, official starting point for the walk

From here I made my way north to the Harlem River so I could begin the walk south. I was very conscious that a stocky, white guy in shorts (it was only about 10C out) taking photos of things like street signs, probably stood out just a little bit. However, I was not alone, as another obvious tourist with a much more conspicuous camera than mine had also decided to come to the northern limit of 5th Avenue.

Given that I had over 10 miles to walk, I didn’t bother to stick around and chat. The first 20 blocks weren’t really that interesting, just social housing and other medium to low-rise apartment buildings with occasional glimpses of the Empire State Building offering just enough inspiration to keep going.

The Empire State Building in the distance
The Empire State Building in the distance

Marcus Garvey Park was somewhat of a surprising obstacle, since I’d not spent a great deal of time looking at a map before setting off. The quickest and most obvious route would have been to just walk straight through the park, but seeing a group of a about a dozen guys drinking beer from paper bags at 10am made me second-guess this decision and instead I just walked around it.

I passed more social housing projects, which I find somewhat surprising given how close I was to Central Park. My original image of New York was that anyone living within a few blocks of Central Park was likely to be at worst upper middle class. So it’s interesting to see that this isn’t always the case.

Martin Luther King Jr. social housing project
Sign for one of the many social housing projects I see along the first section of my walk.

Central Park transforms the nature of the walk as I no longer had any buildings immediately to the west of me and wouldn’t again for the next 50 blocks! This was the most open the walk would feel until the end.

I was somewhat tempted to walk through the Park instead of along the increasingly busy and traffic-clogged 5th Avenue, but I have found in the past that parks don’t really offer very interesting insights into a city. Plus, my wife and I had already visited it the day before.

Walking along the edge of Central Park
Walking along the edge of Central Park

This turned out to be a good decision as I was able to at least see the outside of many museums along Museum Mile. The area also became noticeably wealthier. Gone are the social housing projects, replaced with buildings with one (or often more) doormen.

The Guggenheim is arguably the most interesting of the museum buildings along Museum Mile
The Guggenheim is arguably the most interesting of the buildings along Museum Mile

While I didn’t really have time to visit any of the museums during my walk I figure I can at least pop in and use one their facilities. I decided that MoMa would make as good a choice as any other. However, I can’t even get into the building without a security screening and then I am told that all restrooms are after the ticket barrier (an adult ticket costs $25).

This is a marked contrast to the museums in London where you never have to pass through security checkpoints and often don’t have to pay for entry. Given there was nothing I could really do, I continued my walk south past the Central Park Zoo and to the southern end of Central Park.

Amish buggy handsom cab sign New York
I know this sign is supposed to be for handsom cabs, but looks more like an Amish buggy

I had now walked over 80 blocks, which sounds a bit more impressive than the actual distance of 4.5 miles. Once again the scenery changed completely going from being at least partially open to a concrete and steel valley of skyscrapers rising up either side of me. I was now on the world famous 5th Avenue – miles, both literally and figuratively, from the 5th Avenue in Harlem.

The world famous section of 5th Avenue8
The world famous section of 5th Avenue

Not being one for shopping or crowds, I knew this section of 5th Avenue was likely to be my least favourite and it did not disappoint. I was constantly dodging groups of shoppers as I attempted to continue heading south. Of course, I can’t really complain too much as I was constantly stopping to take photos of things along the way.

Alas as seen on 30 rock intro
As a 30 Rock fan this guy looked familiar…

Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom on the British Empire Building
Also the Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom on the oddly named British Empire Building

There is a certain relief of being a tourist surrounded by other tourists. While I’m sure I got in someone’s way at some point along this section of the walk, at least I don’t stand out and can take my photos in relative anonymity. I reached 42nd Street which was the intersection with my much shorter east-west walk and meant that I’d now walked 100 blocks!

The Empire State Building which had looked so far away back in Harlem was now just a few blocks south. However, as I approached it, I found it nearly impossible to get a good photo. It’s simply too tall relative the surrounding streets.

In case you can't tell, this is the best photo I could get of the Empire State Building
In case you can’t tell, this is the best photo I could get of the Empire State Building

I’d also agreed with my wife to meet here and we could continue the rest of the walk together. As I’d arrived a bit earlier than I’d predicted I decided to see if I could get any better pictures of the building by going down some side streets and getting a little further off 5th Avenue. While, I failed at getting a decent photo I did stumble upon some more colourful businesses than I was expecting in the area.

This place looked anything but upscale.
This place looked anything but upscale.

I finally gave up trying to get a better picture of the Empire State Building, and met up with my wife. We grabbed a quick bite to eat and then we’re on our way together. Time certainly seems to pass much faster when we’re walking together and before I know it we’re at the Flatiron Building

Flat Iron building New York
Pretty. Toronto has one of these too!

While the plan is to eventually finish the walk along Broadway, we didn’t follow it at this point and instead continued down 5th Avenue to Washington Square Park, admiring the relatively low-key but undeniable wealth of Greenwich Village.

Looking back up 5th Avenue at Washington Square Park
Looking back up 5th Avenue at Washington Square Park

At the end of 5th Avenue, after 140 blocks and 7.5 miles of walking it felt as though I should be nearly done. I mean, I’d walked all the way south from 142nd Street to the point where 5th Avenue ends and the streets are no longer numbered but actually have names. Reality proved slightly different as there was still another 3 miles of walking to come.

Looking south down Broadway
Looking south down Broadway

We shift the walk a few blocks east and continue down Broadway. It reminds us both of Yonge Street in Toronto, full of chain stores and restaurants – the sort of place you go when you don’t know where else to go.

Those words don't sound like they should go together...
Those words don’t sound like they should go together…

The monotony was eventually broken by the impressive Manhattan Municipal Building and the less impressive City Hall. Yet, they were just an added bonus as I had not gone out of my way to see them. Instead, I’d picked this route because I knew it would bring me past the 9/11 Memorial and the base of the ridiculously nicknamed Freedom Tower.

Freedom Tower silly name, but very impressive building
Silly name, but very impressive building

Unlike virtually any other memorial site in the world, you can’t just turn up and go in to the 9/11 memorial. Instead you can either book online or turn up and hope you can get passes to get in. On top of that there are a huge number of rules and regulations you must follow. Given that the goal was to walk Manhattan not spend all day in a queue, we only had a very quick look before continuing on.

New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), centre of global capitalism
New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), centre of global capitalism?

Our last stop before finishing was to have a quick look at Wall Street. While this may be the global centre of capitalism – unless you work in The City – it was all a bit underwhelming. The NYSE building is indeed impressive but less so than many others I’d seen that day. Perhaps I was just ready to be done.

A quick walk down the surprisingly empty and quiet Broad Street and over to Battery Park and it was. At 10.5 miles (4.5 of which accompanied by my lovely wife), it was shorter than any of my Tube walks except the Waterloo & City line. Yet, I feel like I’ve seen far more than I do on a typical Tube walk.

New York Harbor, the symbolic end to my walk.

I think this is likely due to the fact that this is the first time I’ve visited New York as an adult. Thus, the impact of seeing many of the sights of New York was much greater than in London, where I’ve seen the sights dozens of times prior to passing them on a Tube walk.

Beyond that it’s difficult to compare the two cities too much as they are so different. London is a much older, lower rise, sprawling city, whereas Manhattan is much newer, denser and more self-contained (being an island helps of course).

Besides that, there are only two other observations that come to mind. First, New York’s neighbourhoods feel more homogeneous than those in London. For example, Harlem felt pretty universally poor and Greenwich Village felt universally rich. Conversely, in London, you’ll often get council estates next to some of the most expensive real estate in the world.

Second, New York feels like it has fewer hidden secrets than London does; everything just feels a little bit more out in the open. In London, I’m frequently surprised by what I find on my walks, whereas in New York both walks yielded fewer genuine surprises than I would have expected. Both walks were the perfect way to see Manhattan, but it helped reinforce that London is my home.

What do you think about how I’ve portrayed Manhattan? Fair? Way off base? Let me know in the comments section below:

11 thoughts on “Walking the Length of Manhattan From The Harlem River to Battery Park Along 5th Avenue & Broadway”

  1. You won’t find many surprises walking along the busiest and most photographed/seen streets in Manhattan. The smaller side streets are where you’ll find fewer chains and more of the peculiar highlights.

    While MoMA is rather expensive, the Metropolitan has donation based admission (meaning you pay as you wish, even if it’s just a nickel) as well as many other museums around the city.

    The reason you have to go through security and book admission ahead of time for the 9/11 Memorial is because it’s surrounded by construction sites so the flow of people must be regulated for safety. Some time in the next few years, once the towers are built, the memorial will be an open plaza for people to come and go as they wish.

    I also highly recommend you branch out to the other boroughs – Brooklyn Bridge Park (off the York stop on the F train) is a beautiful place with a fantastic view of Manhattan (especially at night) that is a must see!

    1. Thanks for clearing up the security restrictions around the 9/11 Memorial, makes more sense (if still slightly ironic). Yeah many people have pointed out that the Met is donation only, really good tip and one I don’t remember reading elsewhere before visiting.

      Branching out to other boroughs is also obviously a good idea, but wasn’t the point of this particular exercise. In terms of hidden sights it was only a relative comment (and not surprisingly the most controversial) and probably shouldn’t have been included in the final version. At the end of the day for me it boils down to history. London’s just been around for a lot longer so there’s more layers of history. New York has lots too, just I’ve found London has more.

  2. Good article, Ian! Thanks for sharing.
    I do have one comment, and that’s about your comments on the Freedom Tower.
    As you know, I’m not an American, but I was an hour away from NYC on 9/11. You had to be there, to see impact of the attacks on the American psyche, to understand how this act of terrorism absolutely gobsmacked the Americans. Other countries, having suffered such an atrocity, would probably withdraw into their shells and never construct another building over two floors high. It’s the Freedom Tower to let the world know that although the terrorists did strike at the heart of America, such actions would not cause them to cower in fear. America, good or bad, is about Freedom.
    Yes, the security procedures seem over-the-top to outsiders, but I’d ask you to try to view 9/11 from their perspective.
    “”The Freedom Tower is not simply another piece of real estate and not just a name for marketing purposes,” Pataki said.
    “In design and name, it is symbolic of our commitment to rise above the attacks of Sept. 11. Where 1 and 2 World Trade Center once stood, there will be a memorial with two voids to honor the heroes we lost — and, in my view, those addresses should never be used again.”

  3. Just to point out you shouldn’t expect many surprises taking the two largest avenues in the Manhattan. Explore other neighborhoods and get a little off the main thoroughfares and you may find some things you weren’t expecting.

    I hope to visit London sometime and I’m sure I’ll find more surprises there than in NYC. It must due to the sheer history of the city, which is quite a few centuries older than New York.

  4. Life long New Yorker here. You really have to get out of Manhattan to experience more of New York. Hope over to Queens to Astoria or Flushing, Brooklyn to Prospect Heights to Fort Greene. The Bronx, Riverdale to South Bronx..Don’t go to Staten Island, nothing there. Most of Manhattan is just a playground for the rich. Time and time again many people get the assumption New York is just Manhattan.

  5. “New York feels like it has fewer hidden secrets than London does; everything just feels a little bit more out in the open.”

    Well of course it does, you walks took you on two of the biggest, busiest streets in the city. You’re not going to find the secrets there.

  6. Just FYI, the Met does not have an admission fee, but merely a suggested donation.

    You can give them $25, a penny, or nothing at all, and they will let you in.

  7. I had to re-read this twice before I was able to figure out that the “length of manhattan” really means from 135th to battery park. Everything north of 135th is probably poor and therefore isn’t real.

  8. Hi Ian,We were there last April and your comments are spot on for the most part,we did the tourist spots,ground zero was moving,Empire State was all we expected,Grand Central beautiful building,Central Park you need a bike to get around it,will be doing that next month,Tiffanys for our daughter nice shop,can make you feel seriously poor.Times Square at night for our granddaughter one of her highlights,she found the Forever 21 shop all 6 floors of it!Surreal place glad to leave it if i’m honest.
    We went to a Yankees game versus the Mets that was nice as we got off the island up to 161st street in the Bronx totally different to manhattan.
    We did a bit of Soho and a bit of Greenwich Village,but we only scratched the surface in truth probably need a month to give it a real go.Anyway we are fortunate to all be going back next month to do the bits we didn,t have time for last year.


  9. My guy, why are you SO focused on wealth and afraid of people?

    No secrets or NYC surprises while he’s walking down 5th ave scoping out tourist spots? Acting like Harlem is dangerous shit. Yo didn’t even take a look at the Bronx, although I doubt you’d have the courage to take the metro, let alone the D up past 160th Street to see some real culture.

    That’s why you never saw real New York: you never left the primary tourist spots.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *