Our editor whisks you on a swift tour of New York neighbourhoods and the schools inside them, starting with Manhattan and ending with some of the outer boroughs.
Clockwise from the Upper East Side
Upper East Side
(E59th Street north to E96th Street, Central Park to the west and the East River to the east)
Swish but family-friendly area bordered by Central Park (to the west) and the East River, with a very popular foot and cycling path. Wide choice of accommodation from apartments to town houses, but this is a highly desirable area and comes with a hefty price tag. Plenty of shops, restaurants, parks and playgrounds, including St Catherine’s Park, and even a seasonal outdoor swimming pool at John Jay Park. The world-famous Met Museum and Guggenheim are on your doorstep for regular doses of culture.
Dozens of great nursery schools and public elementary schools as well as a high concentration of private schools including Allen Stevenson, Birch Wathen Lenox, Brearley, Browning, Buckley, Chapin, Convent of the Sacred Heart, Dalton, Episcopal, Hewitt, La Scuola d’Italia, Loyola, Lycée Francais, Marymount, Nightingale Bamford, Regis, Rudolf Steiner, Spence, St Bernard’s, St David’s and Trevor Day School. The GSGI-listed Wetherby-Pembridge is also situated here, a stone’s throw from the park.
(between E42nd and E59th Streets, and between 5th Avenue and the East River).
Busy, touristy area of town within reasonable walking distance of Central Park for most, and with the bonus of the hidden gem of Bryant Park (next to the famous Public Library and Grand Central station), which is transformed into an ice rink and “holiday village” every October. Many international businesses are based here, and most Consulates and Missions to the UN, as the handsome UN building looms large by the East River. Unfortunately, the riverside path disappears here and you have to brave the bike lanes on 1st or 2nd Avenues to cycle north and south respectively. The great amenities and public transport links make it a popular choice for expats wanting the big city experience, and a short commute to downtown if needed.
Murray Hill & Rose Hill
(From E41st St down to E23rd St between Fifth Avenue and the East River)
Not a particularly distinctive area, but the areas around Union Square and Washington Square have shops and restaurants galore, as well as some much-needed open space. The NYC Ferry from E34th Street is brilliant for both commuting (school or work) and sightseeing. There’s a big Trader Joe’s supermarket on 3rd Ave/E32nd Street (best value-for-money in town).
(E23rd St down to E14th St, between Park Ave South to the west and Third Ave to the east)
Moving further south you hit Gramercy, with its famous private park (one of only two in NYC). You can only get a key if you live next to it, and that comes at a high price. It’s generally considered a quiet and safe area with beautiful brownstones.
Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village
(E 23rd to E 14th St, from First Avenue to Avenue C)
Large post-World War II private residential housing development consisting of 110 distinctive red-brick apartment buildings on an 80-acre site, claimed to be the biggest in NYC after Central Park. While the buildings are unattractive and the apartments lack balconies (and have A/C units at many of the small windows), they are deceptively spacious and relatively affordable. Young families flock here for the central location, the green outdoor space and the community vibe. There’s a café and shop, seasonal greenmarket and ice rink, sports leagues and lessons, themed playgrounds, Citibike stations, pickleball courts, and you can even hire a kids’ artificial turf football pitch for a private birthday party.
Schools: BIS-NY and UNIS are a short walk, located between here and Murray Hill (see above)
(between The Bowery and the East River, 14th Street in the north and Houston Street in the south.)
East Village is generally considered better for young singles and couples than families, due to its lack of green spaces (other than Tompkins Square Park) and abundance of bars and sometimes rowdy nightlife; some streets are best avoided at night. However, it’s full of character and quirky charm, despite being increasingly gentrified. Good for fascinating people, beautiful historic buildings, art galleries and independent shops within an easy reach of most of Manhattan. It’s a 10-15 minute walk from the East River Park, though this popular park is under threat from a city plan to demolish it to build flood defences.
Lower East Side
(roughly between the Bowery and the East River from Houston Street in the north to Canal Street in the south)
Originally where the new Irish, German and Italian immigrant population settled in tenements, this is not a beautiful area but has become increasingly popular with young people because of its downtown location and relative affordability. The area has undergone gentrification to a certain extent, but remains a little edgy or even seedy in places. There are a multitude of lively restaurants and bars, and it is not particularly family-friendly.
(sandwiched between the Lower East Side, Financial District, Tribeca and SoHo)
Home to the highest concentration of Chinese people in the western hemisphere, though the building of new luxury apartment blocks has introduced a more diverse mix. The swathe of Chinese and other Asian restaurants attracts crowds of tourists and locals alike, but while it’s lively and bustling at night it can be strangely quiet during the day. On rubbish collection days the streets are particularly smelly and unpleasant, and the restaurants empty all sorts of liquids into the gutters. It’s very central and attracts young professionals, just not great for families, and no schools to mention.
Not an obvious choice perhaps, apart from the short hop to Wall Street for those working in finance, but the families who live here profess to love it. Battery Park is on the doorstep and, in the summer months, easy access by ferry to Governors Island, which one mum calls “our backyard playground”. All the usual chain and designer stores are found at the striking Oculus, next to the incredible 911 Memorial and Museum, and in nearby Brookfield Place, which has its own ice rink in the winter next to the North Cove Yacht Harbor on the Hudson River. The breeze off the water is cooling in summer, but it can be unforgiving in the colder months.
Great public transport links, with the green 4 subway line taking you up to Grand Central in 20 minutes, or southwards it’s just a couple of stops to Brooklyn. If you have a car, this is where the FDR Drive and West Side Highway meet, making it easy to get all round the perimeter of Manhattan.
Schools: Léman Manhattan
(between West Street and Broadway and between Chambers Street in the south and Canal Street to the north).
Quiet, pretty, with large loft-style apartments and a great community feel, TriBeCa (short for Triangle Below Canal Street) is popular with families and couples alike. Washington Market Park has great playgrounds, tennis and basketball courts and a community garden. Hudson River Park is also popular for walking and picnics, and is home to the annual Tribeca Film Festival, founded by Robert De Niro. Newly opened in 2020, Pier 26 offers a boardwalk and recreational green space, including an innovative “tide deck” with elevated walkway. There’s also the Downtown Boathouse with its fabulous free public kayaking programme.
(Short for South of Houston Street. Other borders are Canal Street to the south, Crosby Street to the east, and West Broadway to the west.
Famous for its high-ceilinged open plan loft apartments, elegant buildings, pretty cobbled streets, trendy art galleries and high fashion stores. Not particularly family-orientated but pretty safe and central, though property prices are eye-watering.
Greenwich Village or “The Village”
(from W Houston St in the south to W14th Street in the north and from the Hudson River to Broadway)
A highly desirable, trendy (and expensive) area with a Bohemian vibe, and often described as feeling more European than American, with its low-rise buildings and small streets which break the grid pattern of the rest of the city. Known for its jazz clubs, eclectic shops and wide variety of independent restaurants, it’s home to many artists and celebrities – if only part time – and popular with families too. Encompasses most of the huge New York University, which means that Washington Square park and the streets around it are always heaving with students.
The wonderful High Line, a traffic-free walk along a former train line raised above the streets, helps make this a popular place to live and visit. At the southern end is the eclectic Chelsea Market while at the northern end you’ll find the new Hudson Yards development encompassing The Shed (performing arts centre), The Vessel (climbable sculpture, but sadly now closed after three suicides) and a huge upmarket shopping centre and great food court (with offices and apartments above). There’s also a great walking and cycling path along the Hudson River all the way down to Battery Park. Chelsea Piers has soccer, golf and other sporting and children’s activities, attracting kids from all over Manhattan for their after-school, weekend and holiday programmes.
Schools: Avenues: The World School
(between 34th and 59th Streets, and between 5th and 12th Avenues)
Busy, touristy area around the theatre district but home to many luxury residential apartment buildings, often with a fantastic view of Central Park, which is an easy walk away. Also benefits from the river path along the Hudson and the fabulous Intrepid Air and Space Museum on a converted aircraft carrier. The eastern edge is bordered by the world-famous Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Rockefeller Center, with its winter ice rink and world-famous Christmas tree, and the shops of Fifth Avenue.
Upper West Side – often abbreviated to UWS
(from W59th Street to W110th Street, the Hudson River to the west and Central Park to the east)
Sandwiched between leafy River Park to the west, with playgrounds and tennis courts, and Central Park to the east, this is always a popular location for families. Upper West Siders are fiercely loyal to their patch, and consider it superior to the Upper East Side (UES) in every way, but for an outsider it’s pretty hard to tell the difference. Where the UES has the Met and the Guggenheim, the UWS has the Metropolitan Opera at the Lincoln Center and the incredible American Museum of Natural History, which warrants multiple visits per year. There are a good number of shops and restaurants catering for all tastes.
Schools: Bank Street, BASIS Indpendent Manhattan, Collegiate, Columbia Grammar & Prep School, The Dwight School, Trinity, York Prep. Also Fiorella H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Performing Arts (public selective high school).
(East & West Harlem, Morningside Heights, West Harlem, Hamilton Heights, Washington Heights, Inwood)
More affordable, bigger apartments and a sense of community are some of the reasons families and young professionals are moving northwards to these neighbourhoods. There are also some fast express trains downtown – on the A subway line it’s just one stop (a 12 minute ride) from 125th Street all the way to 59th/Columbus Circle before it continues to Fulton Street in the financial district. However, some areas are definitely nicer and safer than others, and it’s a good idea to visit them at different times of the day and evening, especially as the pandemic has created more homelessness and street crime.
Other New York Boroughs
Home to the New York Yankees, the NY Biological Garden and the neighbouring Bronx Zoo – and a lot of people. Property prices are lower than Manhattan (per square foot) and there are more family homes available, often with a yard. Riverdale is the most desirable neighbourhood, described as a “hidden gem north of Manhattan” and with a suburban, leafy feel but just 15 minutes from the Upper West Side. It has good schools, a low crime rate and several parks. Also check out Bedford Park and Fieldston.
Brooklyn is a huge borough covering nearly 70 square miles, while its population of 2.6m is equivalent to Chicago’s. The areas closest to the East River; Brooklyn Heights, DUMBO and Williamsburg, are naturally the most popular for commuters and, as a consequence, residential property prices can be just as high as on Manhattan. UNIS parents run a private bus service from Brooklyn Heights to school, and many other families commute to schools all over Manhattan on the subway or on the NY Ferry from DUMBO.
A bit further south, Park Slope is “crawling with expats, particularly Brits” according to one British mum. Many families move here for the famous brownstones – handsome large 19th and early 20th century terraced or townhouses clad in sandstone, many with small backyards. There are dozens of streets of these – it’s been designated a historic district - and it’s next to Prospect Park, which has a meadow, a lake and a forest, and is much more natural and less crowded than Central Park.
Queens holds the world record for “most ethnically diverse urban area on the planet” and has a correspondingly diverse restaurant and shopping scene. Densely populated, but with LaGuardia airport in the north and JFK in the south, you’re well placed for jetting out of the country. You can also escape eastwards to the rest of Long Island, including Fire Island, the Hamptons and the North and South Forks, while Manhattanites are still stuck trying to cross the river on a Friday evening.
Long Island City, on the bank of the East River, is more homogenous. Dozens of new glass-and-steel residential buildings have sprung up in recent years, many with fantastic amenities and views of Manhattan, but at a substantially lower cost. There’s a wonderful park by the river, and an ever-increasing range of shops and restaurants. LIC is becoming increasingly popular with UNIS and BISNY families who hop across to East 34th Street on the ferry, from where it’s a quick walk or scoot down the river path to school.
Westchester County, NY
Many young families move out of the city to the southern part of Westchester County around Scarsdale, Bronxville, Pelham or Chappaqua for more space, namely a house with a “yard” and a driveway, since a car becomes necessary for the first time. With train journeys of around 35-40 minutes into Grand Central (on the Metro-North line) or a drive of around 50 minutes (on a good day) the commute is fairly straightforward. There are plenty of parks and open spaces, though local culture and nightlife is somewhat limited, not surprisingly. Public schools are generally good, and most people are happy to send their kids there.
Southern Connecticut is very popular with international families wanting large family homes and high-performing public schools, including some IB ones, with great facilities. Greenwich, Stamford and Darien (getting progressively further north on the Metro-North trainline) are an easy commute from Grand Central (around 65-70 minutes). With many businesspeople now planning on working from home for at least part of the week, demand for these coastal towns is higher than ever, though the extra space and the prospect of beaches and kayaking, golf courses and parks may make the cost seem worthwhile.
City workers also take the train in from the more distant (and therefore slightly more affordable) Westport and New Canaan, though for the latter you have to change at Stamford. There are some great private schools in Connecticut too, including the K-G8 Whitby School in Greenwich (IB up to MYP), Stanwich School (K-12, also Greenwich) and St Luke’s (K-12) in New Canaan.