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New York state of ride: the best bike routes around Manhattan and beyond

This article is part of a new cycling series from FT Globetrotter

The office of the Mayor of New York recently declared in a tweet that in May alone, the Big Apple recorded “2,709,684 rides and over 1 million ebike rides!” with its Citi Bike rental scheme. New Yorkers are also using their own bikes to an increasing degree. Michael Bloomberg, the city’s previous mayor, oversaw a dramatic expansion in New York’s network of protected bike lanes in the past decade — and during lockdown, the cycling trend surged. 

I am a case in point: although I cycled a fair amount before Covid-19, during the pandemic my bike became my main means of transport (and exercise) in Manhattan — and it is likely to stay that way until winter, now that I have discovered how easy it is to get around.

Cycling is currently Tett’s main means of transport around Manhattan © Max Burkhalter

So how do you pick the best routes in Manhattan, given that the borough’s narrow, busy (and potholed) streets don’t seem particularly bike-friendly? A good place to start is to download the NYC Bike Map on your phone. It lists all the cycle paths, using colour-coding to show the different types of lanes: traffic-free lanes that are not on roads; separate lanes on roads protected by concrete barriers; and lanes that run amid traffic but are demarcated by painted lines. Google Maps is another good option, though it does not always distinguish between types of bike lanes. 

Either way, before you set off, bear a few tips in mind:

  • If you are nervous and/or cycling for the first time, start on a traffic-free route such as the Hudson River Greenway (anywhere from West 125th Street to Battery Park), the Central Park loop (see below) or the East River cycle path (from Brooklyn Bridge to East 35th Street)

  • If you are using cycle lanes that are protected by concrete barriers on roads (on part of First Avenue, for example), stay alert at junctions as the cars turning left or right can be careless

  • If you are on a cycle lane that is simply demarcated by painted lines on the road, stay even more alert: those cycle paths are often found in narrow cross streets, and drivers are not always respectful of cyclists

  • Be aware that ebikes can move very fast in New York since they often have deliveries with them; ditto motorised scooters and skateboards

  • Be aware that many delivery bikers don’t wait at stop lights — don’t copy them unwittingly

  • Watch out for potholes, particularly downtown and on the east side 

Here are three of my favourite routes in Manhattan — and one on an island in the East River.

1. The classic: Central Park loop

Cycling around Central Park is like hopping in a yellow cab or eating a bagel: something every visitor (and local) should do at least once. It is very simple and safe: start at any point in Central Park (Columbus Circle is a good bet, or try the 90th Street entrance on Fifth Avenue), and then follow the bike track around anticlockwise. The entire loop is six miles, with a few moderate hills in the middle and a larger one at the north-east corner. But if that is too long, or you feel too jet-lagged for a climb, cut the loop a bit shorter and leave the park at 100th Street, heading west, or lopping off the southern tip at 72nd Street and heading east around the ponds. 

Cycling around Central Park’s six-mile loop is ‘something everyone should do at least once’
The Boathouse restaurant, with its terrace overlooking The Lake © Max Burkhalter (2)

There are plenty of ice-cream kiosks that sell water and snacks along the way. However, the best place to enjoy a proper meal or elegant cocktail is the Boathouse, a delightful restaurant with a wonderful terrace overlooking a boating lake.

Stop by the Jackie Onassis Reservoir for a classic New York photograph
The Guggenheim, on the eastern edge of the park, makes for another great photo opp © Max Burkhalter (2)

Do: 

  • Take plenty of photos, even if you feel like a tourist; the route has lovely views. As you travel south, marvel at the midtown skyline and the crazily high new skyscrapers; as you cycle up the east side, note the Guggenheim, or take a break at 90th and walk up the bank to the Jackie Onassis Reservoir for the classic New York shots you have seen in the movies

  • Be aware that the loop can be crowded with joggers, rollerbladers and others in the middle of the day. If you want to do serious exercise, go early, when committed bikers race around at high speeds in peace

Don’t: 

  • Cycle clockwise, except at the cut-through on 72nd Street, where it is permitted. It won’t get you arrested but you might crash into someone 

  • Expect other cyclists to stop at pedestrian red lights. Most don’t. But be careful about jumping lights, as pedestrians can suddenly step out

2. The fitness challenge: Manhattan loop

If you are feeling adventurous (and fit), cycle around the bottom half of Manhattan. This is pretty safe, as much of the route uses traffic-free or cycle lanes.

A good place to start is where the two rivers collide on the southern tip: in front of South Ferry terminal. Head east (or anticlockwise) following the bike lane that hugs the water, towards the East River. This will take you under the thundering arches of the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, then up a peaceful stretch next to the water for several miles, giving you magnificent views of Brooklyn on the right — and Alphabet City on the left, across the highway.

For several miles, the loop offers stunning views of Brooklyn © Francois Roux/Alamy
Cyclists and joggers on the Hudson River bike path © Glasshouse Images/Alamy

At 34th Street the pathway along the river ends, so cut across to First Avenue and then follow the protected bike path north for a few miles. That stretch is not picturesque, but it gives you a good sense of New York, since it takes you past the United Nations, through Midtown East and some pleasant haunts on the Upper East Side.

At 91st Street, turn left along another demarcated bike path and continue until you hit Fifth Avenue; turn left, cycle a block further (to East Drive), turn right into Central Park and do the loop around the park. When you reach the western side, exit on 91st Street, follow the cycle path west, across the Upper West Side, until you hit Riverside Drive. Here you can drop down to the Hudson River bike path, which you can follow south for several miles, all the way back down to the southern tip.

The last stretch is a beautiful route that takes you past parks, cruise liners, an aircraft carrier-cum-museum and jetties, with stunning views of New Jersey. Try to do it in the mid to late afternoon, when the sun is low across the Hudson River. At the bottom of Manhattan, circumnavigate Battery Park and join up with the Seaport again. 

The route takes you past the Intrepid aircraft carrier, which is now a museum © John Penney/Alamy
The Frying Pan restaurant and bar on Pier 66 © Wendy Connett/Alamy

If this route feels too short, you can extend it by turning right when you hit the Hudson River and cycling north for a couple of miles along the water for splendid views of the George Washington Bridge — and then retrace your steps.

If you want food or drink, there are plenty of cafés along First Avenue, or near 91st Street. The best place to stop, though, is at a barge in the Hudson River, docked at Pier 66, that hosts a restaurant and bar called The Frying Pan. It offers fantastic views, particularly when the sun is low. If you want to start and end your journey here (which is a great idea if you are tempted to enjoy evening cocktails as the sun sets), begin and finish your loop at the nearby Javits Center.

Do:

  • Recognise that you will need to wiggle through the streets to cross Manhattan on the Upper East and West sides to get between the rivers and park; use a map there

  • Either do the loop early in the morning (to see the sun rising over the East River) or late afternoon (to see the sun sinking over the Hudson). Both are beautiful

Don’t: 

  • Be surprised if you have to take the odd detour on the East River due to construction work 

  • Expect public restrooms along the way, since there are almost none (another reason to head to The Frying Pan or a First Avenue café) 

3. The movie set: bridges

Every good Manhattan movie has shots of the iconic bridges that cross the East River. They also offer a wonderfully memorable, short cycle ride that is not quite as easy to navigate as, say, Central Park, but offers equally gorgeous photos.

The route crosses both Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridge © Mykhailo Shcherbyna/Alamy
Manhattan Bridge, as seen from the junction of Water and Washington Street © Maciej Bledowski/Alamy

The Manhattan side of Manhattan Bridge, close to Chinatown, is a good place to start. Cycle up the designated path onto the bridge, next to the subway track line. This is not a peaceful route, since subway cars rattle past — and be aware that getting onto the bridge entails going up a slow, steady hill that may test your fitness. But once you are in the middle of the water, the views are spectacular, and then you have a long downhill cruise to enjoy. 

When you get to the end of the bridge on the Brooklyn side, follow the signs down to Dumbo and take the cycle path through the neighbourhood. Stop on Water Street for another classic photo (but you will need to dodge tourists to do this) or visit the park and carousel on the waterfront. Then head down the river to the Brooklyn Bridge, and cycle onto it and back west towards Manhattan. The views are even more magnificent.

When you hit Manhattan, either navigate the cycle path back to where you started at the base of Manhattan Bridge, or take the East River cycle path. If you want to extend the route, or seek out some more good watering holes, cycle through SoHo and Tribeca on, say, Prince Street. There is a pleasant cycle route there, but it is not a protected one. 

Ride back into Manhattan across Brooklyn Bridge . . .  © Perry van Munster/Alamy
. . . after stopping for a bite to eat in Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) © Nino Marcutti/Alamy

There are lots of good places to stop for food and drink in Dumbo; the River Café is the smartest. Alternatively, SoHo has a multitude of casual street restaurants.

Do:

Don’t:

  • Expect peace and quiet on the bridges; subway cars are noisy 

  • Block the cycle lane on the bridges if you stop to take photos. Lots of people use this as a commuting route and are already blasé about the views — they get seriously irritated if there are large groups milling around taking selfies

4. The little-known option: Randall’s Island

Strictly speaking, this is not in Manhattan and most New Yorkers barely know that this cycling option exists. Randall’s Island in the middle of the East River is best known as a destination for sports-mad kids and adults, since it hosts a vast array of sports fields. But it is an excellent place to find a safe, completely traffic-free bike ride with excellent views of Manhattan. 

The footbridge across to Randall’s Island © John Penney/Alamy
The route takes you around the island © Frances Roberts/Alamy

Start on East End Avenue, at the 88th Street entrance to Carl Schurz Park. Cycle through the park to the river, past Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s residence. (Alternatively, take the ferry up the East River to East 90th St ferry terminal.) Then cycle north along the water, past a (highly controversial) waste-docking centre, until you hit a vast green footbridge that crosses the river. Follow that to Randall’s Island, then turn right and cycle anticlockwise along the southern rim for a couple of miles next to the water — and savour the amazing views of Manhattan. You’ll hit a short hill to climb that leads to a line of arches under a bridge called Hell Gate, and cycle under them until you can go no further.

From here, take a small path to the left that will connect you to the road. Turn right after a few yards, cycle past the New York Fire Department’s training academy, then rejoin the cycle lane under the arches, and head up to the north of the island. If you turn right, you can do a very pleasant detour here along the water and then retrace your steps. Or just turn left and follow the northern rim of the island, travelling around it anticlockwise, and come back down along the west side of the island, on another bike path, past the Icahn Stadium, over some salt marshes with a pretty bridge, and then along another lovely path with woods and flowers, overlooking the water. Eventually you will hit the green footbridge again and can cross that to return to Manhattan and Gracie Mansion.

Do:

  • Take a picnic to eat on the southern rim; it’s a wonderful place for this

  • Consider taking the river ferry to get to Carl Schurz Park — a great way to travel and bikes are allowed

Don’t:

  • Expect food. There is one mediocre café on the southern tip of Randall’s Island (with a toilet), but that is all

  • Worry if you get a bit lost — it’s an island. Just follow the water and go anticlockwise

  • Stare too closely at the encampment of riot police that you might see in the centre of the island. (When the NYPD is worried about social unrest, it parks riot police there, to be discreetly on hand but out of sight.) They won’t bother you, if you don’t bother them

Maps by Liz Faunce

What are your favourite bike routes around Manhattan? Tell us in the comments

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