With skyscrapers towering across the horizon and artificial light spilling into every crevice, the city that never sleeps isn’t exactly a mecca for stargazers. But twice each year, natives and visitors alike flood the sidewalks to gaze upon a celestial phenomenon unique to the Big Apple: Manhattanhenge. On May 29 and 30, and again on July 12 and 13, crowds can be seen standing mesmerized as a radiant sunset centers itself perfectly between the buildings on either side of Manhattan’s easternmost streets. Beams of sunlight glance off glass and dance past bricks, bathing the streets in gold.
A sunset casting the same glow simultaneously between streets may appear heavenly, but the event itself comes down to earth: precisely, the location and angle of the earth as it rotates the sun. Manhattanhenge is similar in nature to what you’ll witness visiting Stonehenge on the summer solstice. At this time, the sun (when viewed from inside the stone circle) appears to hover directly above the Heel stone. The reason such events don’t happen every day is because the sun doesn’t set in precisely the same place two days in a row. Instead of a sunset at exactly due west each evening (which happens only on the spring and autumn equinoxes), the sun’s setting angle shifts from slightly north to south west throughout the year.
Manhattan was designed in a gridiron pattern, with streets and avenues intersecting at 90 degree angles. This pattern extends from north of Houston Street in Lower Manhattan to south of 155th Street in Upper Manhattan. But the grid itself is tilted roughly 29 degrees east of true north, in an attempt to mirror the angle of Manhattan Island. If the city’s grid was in perfect alignment with true north, Manhattanhenge would occur on the equinoxes; however, because of the tilt, the days on which the sunset aligns precisely between Manhattan’s streets are shifted as well.
To experience the full spectrum of Manhattanhenge in all its glory, it’s important to show up on the right streets, at the right time. In both May and July, the sun will dip halfway below the horizon on the event’s first day (May 29 and July 12); this is best viewed at 8:13 p.m. in May, and 8:21 p.m. in July. On the second consecutive day, the sun appears fully, sitting just above the horizon line. Ideal times for catching the second day in May and July are 8:20 p.m. and 8:21 p.m., respectively.
The ideal location for viewing Manhattanhenge is as far east as possible, on a street with a clear view to New Jersey in the west. The best streets are those in which obstructions are minor; these include 14th, 23rd, 34th. 42nd, 57th, as well as a few streets adjacent to each. The Empire State Building on 34th, and the Chrysler Building on 42nd add a unique backdrop to the viewing experience.