Twice a year a phenomenon called ‘Manhattanhenge’ happens in Manhattan, a time of the year when the sun perfectly aligns with the grid pattern of the city. Based on the theory of Stonehenge in England without the religious connotations, the sun sets between the buildings of Manhattan in perfect form. This is the third time I have seen this happen and you never get tired of seeing it but it does drain your eyes. It really is pretty amazing and makes me think that maybe two hundred years from now that someone might theorize that Manhattan might have been gridded for that reason when we all know that it is just a natural phenomenon.
Manhattanhenge, sometimes referred to as the Manhattan Solstice, is an event during which the setting sun is aligned with the east-west streets of the main grid of Manhattan. This occurs twice a year on dates evenly spaced around the Summer Solstice. The first Manhattanhenge occurs around May 28th while the second occurs around July 12th.
The term “Manhattanhenge’ was popularized by Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History. It is reference to Stonehenge, a prehistoric monument located in Wiltshire, England, which was constructed so that the rising sun, seen from the center of the monument at the time of the summer solstice, aligns with the outer ‘Heel Stone’.
In accordance with the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, the street grid for most of Manhattan is rotated 20 degrees clockwise from true east-west. Thus, when the azimuth for sunset aligns with the streets on that grid. A more impressive visual spectacle and the one commonly referred to as Manhattanhenge, when a pedestrian looking down the center line of the street westwards towards New Jersey can see the full solar disk slightly above the horizon the time the last of the sum disappears below the horizon. The precise dates of Manhattanhenge depend on the date of the summer solstice, which varies from year to year but remains close to June 21st. (Wikipedia)
We started the program in the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History with an explanation of the event and how it hits the grid pattern. Then how it ties into the summer solstice. Then the staff got us out in time at 8:20pm to see the setting of the sun.
The museum had 79th Street closed off to us and it was nice to see it from the middle of the street on a hill overlooking New Jersey. It happens really fast so you have to be there in time. This was third time I had seen it so I knew what I was looking at but I have to say it is something you have to see once. It is pretty amazing how the sun falls right between the buildings from the street.
It has also grown in popularity as well. When I first went, they could only close off a small portion of 79th Street and we had to keep running in the middle of the street with cars buzzing by and it was just a small handful of people. Now the whole street was packed with people with their obnoxious cell phones taking pictures and shooting films. Someone kept playing the Beatles ‘Here comes the Sun’ while he was filming it.
It was quite the site watching the sun set. Last year the clouds rolled in at the last minute. This year, it was clear and the sun set perfectly between the buildings. Everyone seemed very impressed by it all.
This coupled with my walk of Hamilton Place for the second time up in Harlem made for a nice evening. This is when you discover all the little ‘gems’ of Manhattan that most visitors don’t see. As I was walking down Columbus Avenue, a couple asked me what everyone was doing on the street and I told them we were watching ‘Manhattanhenge’ and then explained it. I said “only crazy New Yorkers come to see this but it is really something to see” and they looked at each other and then said to me “We wished we had known”and the wife said they may have to come back next year.
Everyone you have to see this once. You have to experience it to know what I am talking about. It is one of those things you only see when walking the streets of Manhattan.
Don’t miss this recent video that the museum put out in 2020:
Places to Visit:
The American Museum of Natural History
Central Park West at 79th Street
New York, NY 10024
My review on TripAdvisor:
Check the website each year for Manhattanhenge that takes place in the late Spring or early Summer.