Look Out for the Return of New York's Manhattanhenge


Destination Reports

New York City's grid system is a gem that keeps on giving

Every year, and on each side of the Summer solstice, the glitz and the glamour of New York City gives away to a stunning display of natural beauty.

The iconic Manhattanhenge in its full glory,  photo from iidany

The iconic Manhattanhenge in its full glory, photo from iidany

Following our article on the iconic grid system of New York City, it is perhaps an opportune time to look at the phenomenon known as Manhattanhenge, especially since it's slated to make an appearance in the coming days.

But what is Manhattanhenge exactly? While you might have heard about Manhattanhenge, what is it exactly? Well, it’s a captivating event that occurs in New York City's Manhattan where the setting sun lines up perfectly with the bourough's infamous street grid. This only occurs a few times a year around the summer solstice when the setting sun lines up perfectly with Manhattan’s street grid. 

This (as you can see), creates a stunning landscape moment as the sun seems momentarily trapped within the grand buildings of Manhattan. And at the peak of this phenomenon, one can see the setting sun sitting perched above the horizon of the grid system like a gleaming gold medal at the end of a race.

The American Museum of Natural History has announced that Manhattanhenge will makes its appearance on 30 May at 2012 hrs. If you’re unable to catch it, a half-sun will make itself known a day earlier on 29 May at 2013 hrs. If you’re not going to be in the city until much later, Manhattanhenge is slated to reappear once again on 12 and 13 July as Manhattanhenge occurs on both sides of the Summer solstice. The exact times for these will be at 2020 hrs for the former and 2021 for the latter (half-sun). 

Planning to catch the event? Make sure that you’re equipped with sunglasses and a proper camera (tripods are great but may be obtrusive to others). The best spots to view Manhattanhenge will be along the city’s widest streets (14th, 23rd, 34th, 42nd, and 57th St). However, it’s also possible to see the setting sun wedged between buildings on all of the borough’s uniform East-West streets though those views will be a sub-par experience.

Manhattanhenge is a perennial favourite for tourists,  photo from TheVerge

Manhattanhenge is a perennial favourite for tourists, photo from TheVerge

We owe the discovery of Manhattanhenge to the famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. In an article for the Museum for National History, he waxes lyrical about the coincidental alignment of the sun’s path with Manhattan’s gridiron and how it accentuates the gleam of the oft-romanticised city. 

That being said, other grid cities around the world also have their own version of the Henge. However, those variants of the henge aren't world-renowned for one reason. As the 'island' of Manhattan is bounded by the East River and the Hudson, the grid system is able to give New Yorkers a clear line of sight between the two rivers. Other cities have to contend with natural formations or buildings that deviate from the grid. Hence, as there is nothing to 'block' the sun until the reaches of New Jersey or the buildings of downtown Brooklyn, the henge is able to mesmerise visitors in its full glory. In any case, if you’re unable to reach the Big Apple, similar phenomena in Baltimore, Toronto and Montreal also occur but are decidedly less beautiful.

Manhattanhenge is also uniquely primed for the occasion since its ‘henge moment’ coincides on either side of the summer solstice when the skies are usually clear, and the weather ideal for viewing the setting sun.

By the time of the winter solstice, Manhattanhenge yet again returns, allowing New Yorkers to view the rising sun. However, this is decidedly less impressive as the dense high-rise buildings of downtown Brooklyn will mar the view. This version of the henge also occurs during winter when chummy New Yorkers have to contend with freezing temperatures and the occasional blizzard. 

The reason as to why Manhattanhenge does not appear on the day of the solstices is also interesting. This is because Manhattan's grid plan was set according to the angle of the island (29 degrees). This means that on the solstices itself, the Sun would be covered by the concrete jungle of the grid and would not align itself 'properly'. It is hence only on those specific days on each side of the solstices that we see Manhattanhenge - as a sneak peek before the solstice and as a striking denouement at its end. 

Manhattanhenge is also however, not outdone by its part-namesake. Many consider the neolithic monument of Stonehenge to be a mystery as at the time of its construction, the technology available to humanity was minimal. Yet, its stones are placed every so precisely that on the day of the Summer solstice, the Sun rises directly above the structure’s Heel Stone. And while this is indeed something to ponder over, Stonehenge's Summer marvel is considered by some to be less impressive compared to the vistas afforded by Manhattan’s grid. 

And so, perhaps for Manhattanhenge, New Yorkers would be gracious enough to excuse the hordes of tourists that throng their city’s streets as everyone is celebrating a phenomenon of natural and human alignment. Nevertheless, if you're looking to catch the phenomenon, get in position early (at least 30mins before) to snag a good spot before the crowd swarms in. 

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