New York has to be one of my favourite cities in the world – it’s such a diverse and fast-changing place that every time I visit I have a totally different experience. My first couple of trips focused on Manhattan, staying everywhere from a relative’s apartment on the Upper East Side to a hostel room with no window in Times Square. But since then I’ve been branching out and exploring some of the city’s other areas – first Harlem and most recently Brooklyn. As the city’s most populous borough, with a land area three times the size of Manhattan, it would take weeks to see it all. So we picked three different areas which show three completely different sides to the borough, and make for a great taste of Brooklyn for beginners.
Williamsburg is where all those Brooklyn stereotypes come to life. It’s hipster central, packed with rooftop bars, quirky coffee shops, galleries, vegan eateries and flea markets. But that makes it a great place to explore, whether that’s for vintage shopping in the daytime or cocktail bar hopping at night. Williamsburg was one of the first Brooklyn neighbourhoods to be gentrified and not too long ago it was a haven for artists drawn in by its cheap rents. Prices have gone through the roof since then, but it’s not all recent arrivals, the area still has a mixture of different cultures, from Dominican to Italian American to Hasidic Jews.
We started off our wander around Williamsburg with some street art spotting. The area still holds onto it’s arty roots, whether that’s in a high-end gallery or on its street corners. It’s Instagram heaven with giant colourful murals plastered over the sides of buildings wherever you look. We came across a few grouped together on a corner near one of Williamsburg’s best-known drinking spots, the Brooklyn Brewery. The brewery still produce their beers on site, and you can take a free tour on Friday to Sunday, and visit their tasting room, where they have their beers on tap as well as a rotating selection of food trucks.
Brooklyn brews – photo credit Brooklyn Brewery
Another of the best things to do in Williamsburg is the Smorgasburg food market, held in the East River Park from 11am–6pm on Saturday and Sunday (April to November). There are around 100 different food stalls where you can try all the latest weird and wonderful food trends, from spaghetti donuts to dragon fruit juice. Williamsburg’s also a great place for a night out, with new cocktail bars springing up all the time. We dropped in at Kinfolk 94, an appropriately trendy ‘multidisciplinary space’ (aka a cocktail bar slash coffee shop slash design studio) to cool off from the summer sun with Snow Bird (rum, Aperol and lemon).
Get there: take the L train to Bedford Avenue.
Williamsburg street art
From SoHo to TriBeCa, New York does love a good acronym, and Brooklyn has its own in DUMBO – the area ‘Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass’. This part of the city is dominated by the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges which tower over your head – and a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge is one of the essential New York ‘must-dos’. But head underneath the bridge and there are lots of interesting side streets to discover, as well as some of the city’s best views. This was an industrial area until the 1980s, full of warehouses and cargo ships. But now the warehouses have been converted into shops, restaurants, galleries and arts venues, mixed in with pricey new high-rise apartments and tech start-up offices.
Exploring the waterfront
Long before the Brooklyn Bridge was built, this where you would catch the ferry between Manhattan and Brooklyn. The first one launched from Fulton Landing in 1642, and you can still catch a ferry or a water taxi across the East River. But now 1.3 miles and 85 acres of derelict industrial waterfront has been converted into the Brooklyn Bridge Park. The park is made up of a mix of gardens – with open-air film screenings in the summer – old piers that have been turned into sports pitches, and a promenade along the water’s edge. Work’s still going on too, with more of the old piers being converted into recreation spaces.
Million dollar views
But the park’s biggest draw is what’s in front of you – those spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline. Get there just before sunset and watch the sky change colour and the lights come on the skyscrapers – it has to be the best free view in town (and even better with a prosecco from Buzz Bar by the ferry stop). Then call in at Grimaldi’s or Juliana’s for some of New York’s most famous pizza. These two competing, next-door businesses were set up by the same owner. They use coal-fired ovens to cook their pizzas, which was illegal in Manhattan, so they set up below Brooklyn Bridge. Come hungry and expect to queue, but it’s worth it.
Get there: take the A or C trains to High Street or the F train to York Street.
Toasting the sunset
Where London has Brighton, New York has Coney Island. It’s the beachside day trip destination for city-dwellers, where you can dip your toes in the ocean within an hour of leaving Manhattan. Coney Island is right on Brooklyn’s southern tip and despite the name it hasn’t been an island for a while. It started life as a resort in the 1830s and within 50 years had grown into the largest amusement area in the US. New Yorkers would come down from the city and spend their holidays screaming at rollercoasters and freak shows, and eating saltwater taffy on the boardwalk. But by the 1960s its peak had passed – rides closed down, areas fell into disrepair and there were years of fighting as developers tried to get it rezoned as residential.
Freak shows and funnel cakes
Coney Island has seen a bit of a renaissance though, and on a scorching hot summer’s day the beach and boardwalk were streaming with people. It’s a bright and brash neighbourhood, with colourful murals, music blaring from the beachfront diners and smells of candyfloss and hot dogs. But it’s one of those places that’s unashamedly all about having fun. The boardwalk stretches for three miles along the edge of the sand, past sunbathers, volleyball games, skateboarders and families. It’s a real sun trap with not much shade, so with the sun beating down we escaped to try one of Coney Island’s classic experiences – its amusement parks. They’re open every day during the summer, and at weekends from Easter until Memorial Day.
Coney Island boardwalk
Originally there were three parks – Luna Park, Dreamland and Astroland. The original Luna Park burnt down in 1944, but what was Astroland confusingly reopened as Luna Park in 2010, complete with its historic 1927 Cyclone wooden rollercoaster. There’s also the Wonder Wheel in Deno’s Park, which was built in 1918 and stands 150 feet high. You can choose from static cars or ones which slide back and forward as the wheel spins. Then there are modern rides like the Thunderbolt – if you’re a bit braver than me! Or if not there are stalls where you can win yourself a giant teddy bear, souvenir shops and all the fast food you can eat. Don’t miss a hot dog from Nathan’s, home of the original New York version, for a real taste of Coney Island.
Get there: take the D, Q, N or F train to Stillwell Avenue (45 minutes–1 hour from Manhattan).