The best show in New York isn't on Broadway. And the best time to catch it is on Sunday morning, just when the whole famously sleepless, manic city finally settles down for a tranquil hour or two, and the yellow cabs, suddenly aimless, have the long, empty streets to themselves. That's when you open the door of Zabar's Deli, on the Upper West Side, to the sounds of excited, hungry voices, and the smell of imported cheese and smoked fish, and what you locate is the authentic epicenter of a certain kind of New York.

That's because this is a real working deli, not some faux version flogging a few slices of leathery corned beef, and because it's as much a neighborhood hangout as a food emporium. Grab a basket, fight your way through the crowd, and pile up on the challah, babka and chive cream cheese. Then join the thickest lines circling the real heart of Zabar's and maybe the whole Upper West Side. That's the smoked fish counter, where the maestros of whitefish slice through the velvety sides of nova salmon (their first love) with the grace of a sushi chef and shave off carpaccio-thin, almost translucent sheets that they sometimes hold up to the light, like a designer admiring the drape of a cut.

Now that, my mom would say, is New York, and she would know. Native New Yorkers transplanted to the Midwest, my parents could never forget their home or the smell and sounds of a real deli, and Zabar's was the first place we'd stop when we returned for holidays and long summer stretches. So I suppose that's part of the reason the Upper West Side seems like the true New York to me.

But then I'd tell anyone looking for a genuine sense of Manhattan to head north of Columbus Circle, because it's the one neighborhood that hasn't changed much, since it ascended to a New York version of middle class in the 1960s. And that's rare for New York, where neighborhoods -- like Times Square, whose grit has been erased and the West Village, which has morphed from a real bohemian enclave to a very rich bohemian's playground -- keep shifting shape.

But the Upper West Side is a 'hood that seems ripe with life, and it's too often overlooked by visitors. In fact you can spend a long, happy weekend and experience everything that New York most famously offers -- from the best theater and museums to the most eclectic range of restaurants -- without ever having to leave its borders, usually defined as lying between Columbus Circle to the south and West 110th Street to the north, and between the Hudson River to the west and Central Park to the east.

Design and dinosaurs

Just name your desire. If it's culture -- still New York's abiding draw -- start at the southern edge of the neighborhood. The Museum of Arts and Design recently moved into its new space at 2 Columbus Circle, and the tripled exhibition space means the gallery's world-class collection of ceramics, fiber, glass, metal, paper and wood designs are on more complete display, like an elegant, aesthetic primer of cutting-edge style. How cutting-edge? The 100 quilts from 17 countries don't resemble any kind of genteel quilting bee; the collection includes industrial quilts incorporating found electronic parts that aren't going to show up on any four-poster beds.

A more traditional kind of museum day, and one of Manhattan's real eye-opening attractions, sits a brisk 20-minute walk north, at the American Museum of Natural History. The world's largest natural history museum and sprawling over four city blocks, the behemoth features a Reptiles and Amphibians Hall, a floor of dinosaur fossils, a re-creation of an African rain forest and a throwback Hall of African Mammals filled with dioramas. After a long winter, though, it's the Butterfly Conservatory -- open until May 25 and exploding with more than 500 high-flying butterflies -- that feels like a rebirth.

Affordable, eclectic dining

The bigger West Side rebirth is the neighborhood's dining scene. Once known mostly for its Seinfeldesque diners, the area has seen a renaissance in the past decade, and that means you can sample the full thriving range of New York's other big allure, its food. Even better, the neighborhood is eclectic enough to offer Recession-ready dining. In fact, part of the Upper West Side's lasting charm, especially these days, is the fact that it has always been surprisingly affordable (even the Museum of Natural History, though it quotes a suggested admission price, allows you to pay what you can).

So while it's known more for its high-priced kitchens like Per Se, the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle -- 80-story twin glass towers that many New Yorkers still dismiss as a vertical strip mall -- does offer alternatives. Among them are Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bakery, where the tuna nicoise sandwich tastes like it was shipped from Nice, and the nutter butter sandwich cookies are better than any haute Parisian pastry.

Across from Lincoln Center, Daniel Boulud's new and jammed Bar Boulud focuses on brasserie classics at brasserie (i.e. moderate) prices. At Barney Greengrass, the smoked fish platter and the blintzes qualify as the Upper West Side's signature dishes. Other good cheap eats: the Greek cuisine at Kefi and Fatty Crab's Malaysian dishes.

If you're willing to spend more, the neighborhood turns into a running, global food court. Ouest, which was one of the first Upper West Side restaurants to reclaim the area for foodies, still plates the best luxe comfort food (get the very beefy beef short ribs). Sushi of Gari offers one of the city's most supernal omakase tasting menus, and Picholine does right by Mediterranean cuisine (the new, ambitious, conceptual kind).

A brainier Broadway

What else do you expect from a neighborhood? In New York, you're going to demand some powerhouse performing arts. The Upper West Side comes through again with its own compact, and in some ways superior, answer to Broadway. Eschewing the hyped, overproduced, pastel-colored Disney shows and uber-musicals, Lincoln Center's busy calendar is truer to the city's brainier, homegrown culture.

The Center, a kasbah of theaters, includes, among others, the Metropolitan Opera house, Avery Fisher Hall, and the Vivian Beaumont Theater, and is home to the American Ballet Theatre, the New York Philharmonic, the New York City Opera, and the New York City Ballet. That means while you won't see "Beauty and the Beast" (which doesn't matter; the touring company will haul it everywhere, eventually) you will be seeing, usually at much lower prices than the 42nd Street spectacles, the kind of artistry that still makes New York a cultural mecca.

In the end, though, world-class museums, ethereal food, and high art are what you expect from New York. What you don't expect is any semblance of a sporty nature day, and it's the Upper West Side's leafy, al fresco charm that may be its biggest surprise, especially in spring.

Catch that big whiff of spring at Riverside Park, which runs along the Hudson River all the way from 72nd Street to 159th. The park (Manhattan's other park) comes seamed with waterfront bike lanes, walking paths and community gardens.

The Park's Boat Basin, at 79th Street, lets you walk directly along the river's edge but don't come empty-handed. Circle quickly back to Zabar's, a few blocks east, for a hamper of smoked salmon and crusty bagels, and maybe some shrimp salad, and OK, some coconut macaroons, and some more bagels, watch the boats glide by on the river, and you'll feel, finally, like a real West Side native.

Raphael Kadushin is literary editor at the University of Wisconsin Press in Madison. His work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler and other magazines.