Don’t be put off by the colorful name — Hell’s Kitchen can be a heavenly place to explore. Spanning the blocks west of Eighth Avenue between 34th Street, 59th Street and the Hudson River, it has a friendly neighborhood vibe and feels like a world away from adjacent Times Square. Yes, it was once a center of New York’s criminal underbelly. But these days, it’s home to luxury apartment buildings, fancy office blocks and martini bars. You could say that it’s Manhattan’s true melting pot: A place where lifelong working-class residents mingle with curious visitors and suit-wearing newcomers, and food options range from pricey Wagyu beef tenderloin at trendy Hakkasan to $1 slices of pizza by the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
The neighborhood’s fearful name and reputation dates to a period of rapid industrial development in the mid-19th century. German, Scottish and Irish immigrants settled into tenements and shacks to work the pier-side slaughterhouses, lumberyards, factories, warehouses and the Hudson River Railroad. Poverty and overcrowding led to gang rivalries and rampant crime that would plague the area for more than a century. In the 1940s, an influx of African-American and Puerto Rican newcomers clashed with the established Irish gangs, inspiring the musical West Side Story. Notorious Irish mobsters the Westies were active in the neighborhood well into the 1980s.
Hell’s Kitchen started on the path to gentrification soon after Times Square’s Disney makeover in the 1990s. The trend accelerated and the local skyline and character shifted dramatically after 9/11, when loosened zoning laws let opulent office and residential high-rises replace auto-body shops and strip clubs. Current residents are a mix of young professionals seeking a short commute to Midtown, Broadway hopefuls seeking a short commute to the Theater District, a growing gay community drawn to the neighborhood’s nightlife and old-timers who still play handball in Hell’s Kitchen Park.
While Hell’s Kitchen isn’t as attraction-packed as Midtown, there is much to see and do. The many entertainment venues include Theatre Row, a collection of six historic theaters (42nd Street), legendary jazz club Birdland (44th Street) and the multi-level Terminal 5 concert hall (56th Street). Restaurant Row (46th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues) is a traditional destination for a pre-theater meal, although a more local crowd gravitates to the lineup of ethnic eateries on Ninth Avenue. The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, a complex dominated by a World War II aircraft carrier docked at West 46th Street, holds interactive exhibits and the space shuttle Enterprise. On the piers south of the USS Intrepid, you’ll find bike rentals and departure points for sightseeing cruises, including the Circle Line, World Yacht and New York Water Taxi.
Hell’s Kitchen does retain a few remnants of the gritty New York that was. At Depression-era dive bar Rudy’s on Ninth Avenue and 44th Street, the booths are held together with duct tape, the beer is dirt-cheap and the hot dogs are (disconcertingly enough) free. And peep shows and adult film stores are abundant on Eighth Avenue. While it’s generally safe for walking, exercise common sense and caution — especially at night and near the West Side Highway or Port Authority. Cabs are plentiful, and the A, C, E subway line runs along the neighborhood’s eastern border, with stops at 42nd and 50th Street.