Modern Manhattan becomes magnificently medieval at the Cloisters, an outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art tucked away in the Fort Tryon Park at the far northern tip of the island. Five cloisters from southern France have been reassembled on a bluff high above the Hudson River, and they are surrounded by atmospheric galleries filled with 5,000 pieces of European art and architecture from the Middle Ages. Each vaulted room and stone-walled corridor reveals another treasure: as you meander you’ll come upon seven wall hangings of the Unicorn Tapestry, a 12th-century monastery chapter house, a Romanesque chapel, the sumptuously illustrated book of hours of the Duc de Berry, ivory crosses, carved portals, and a deck of 15th-century playing cards.
The greatest pleasure is seeking out a corner of one of the cloisters and quietly contemplating the surroundings. An especially peaceful spot is the 13th-century Bonnefont Cloister, from a Cistercian abbey and surrounded by simple columns that were left undecorated in case they should distract the monks from prayer. Beds are shaded by quince trees and planted with more than 400 herbs that surround a beautiful marble well, and the surroundings are not only serene but aromatic.
When industrialist and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller donated the Cloisters to the city in the 1930s, he threw hundreds of parkland acres across the Hudson River in the New Jersey Palisades into the deal. You will appreciate his foresight when you step out onto the West Terrace and take in the generous sweep of river and greenery, so unspoiled that the medieval surroundings seem remarkably in place.
Fort Tryon Park
The Cloisters is nestled within densely wooded Fort Tryon Park, on high ground that once harbored Weckquaesgeek Indians, Dutch colonialists, and the Continental Army, who established a series of outposts on bluffs they collectively called Fort Washington. More than 8 miles of paths traverse the woods and come to terraces overlooking the Hudson River. As you explore this beautiful and uncrowded park, stop in at the New Leaf Restaurant and Bar (L and D Tue–Sun, tel: 212-568-5323) in a stone building at the park entrance, with a lovely patio.