In addition to its role as the major thoroughfare connecting Brooklyn and New Jersey, Canal Street is an amazing open-air bazaar, where you’ll find a dizzying array of goods from all over the world. Start your tour at the landmark Post Office at the corner of Church Street, one of New York’s several majestic mail facilities built thanks to Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. Nearby indoor jewelry stalls compete with vintage army-navy stores across the street. The architecture is a truly bizarre hodgepodge of styles, from the ramshackle, falling-down turn-of-the-last-century tenement house to renovated warehouses. You’ll find good deals on sunglasses, luggage, postcards, electronics, computers and videotapes here.
As you travel eastwards, look for odds-and-ends, hardware, rubber and industrial plastics stores. Although you might have no need for vinyl flooring or inner tubes or those hard-to-find vintage doorknobs, definitely peek inside the plastics stores, which feature everything from day-glo sheets of plastic adhesive to human-size Statue of Liberty reproductions. After admiring the weird display of vintage fans in one store window on the south side, cross the street and head into Pearl Paint for its six floors of art supplies. No superlatives here; Pearl really does have everything. Between Centre and Lafayette Streets, examine the huge assortment of fake luxury watches, scarves, perfumes and maybe buy a t-shirt or bracelet. If you’re wondering why some of the dealers keep their most prized goods in attaché cases, it’s because of frequent raids by US Customs and the New York City police targeting dealers in counterfeit items.
Moving into the Chinatown part of Canal Street, you’ll find fruit and vegetable stands, fresh fish and Asian grocery stores. Stop in to Maria’s Bakery for some delicious Hong Kong-style baked goods. Visit one of the upscale jewelry stores that sell a huge variety of gold and diamond rings, and stop to admire the ornate, landmark Manhattan Bridge entry at Canal Street and Bowery. Stop in at the interesting Mahayana Buddhist Temple (with a bright yellow façade) across the Bowery, or head north or south to visit more of Chinatown. If you cross the Bowery and continue going east on lower Canal Street (where the roadway is both narrower and infinitely more tranquil), you’ll be rewarded with a fascinating tour of the Lower East Side, where old-style luncheonettes compete with Chinese restaurants and Asian greengrocers. Enjoy the tour!