This tour is great in all seasons, particularly enjoyable on weekends, and offers great insight into one of America's great east-west thoroughfares. The route is reversible, takes about three hours (lunch or dinner included), and is a bit difficult for wheelchair users to navigate around the many pedestrians.
In addition to its role as the major route 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 near the Franklin Street (1 train) and Canal Street (A,C,E trains) subway stations; 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 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, DVDs, CDs, 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. Yes, this stuff really is illegal.
Moving into the Chinatown part of Canal Street, you’ll find fruit and vegetable stands, fresh fish and Asian grocery stores. Stop in to the Hong Kong-style bakeries for some delicious treats. Take a quick stroll down Baxter Street if you seek a nice Vietnamese restaurant. Visit one of the upscale jewelry stores that sell a huge variety of gold and diamond rings, and pause to admire the ornate, landmark Manhattan Bridge entry at Canal Street and Bowery. Stop in at the interesting Mahayana Buddhist Temple (with its bold and bright yellow façade) across the Bowery. Next door you can get the cheap and comfortable Fung Wah bus to Boston. From, here you can head north or south on the Bowery to visit more of Chinatown, or you can eat next door at Grand Sichuan
, one of the best places to get authentic Chongqing-style Hot Pot.
Or just south of Canal Street near Centre Street go for amazing all-you-can-eat hotpot at X.O.
If you 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. Or follow the walkway down under the Manhattan Bridge to Division Street or East Broadway, where you'll find even more restaurants. From there, make a right and head down to the lower Bowery. Then cross the Bowery, go one block north, and continue your Chinatown tour by making a left on Bayard Street. Maybe it's time for a visit to the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory? Need directions? Just ask anyone!