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Don’t Fughedabout Brooklyn’s Best

While we acknowledge right up front that most out-of-towners headed to New York City probably wouldn’t even consider bypassing the Manhattan canyon to sightsee in another borough, we’re going to let you in on a little secret: Brooklyn is no longer the bridesmaid — if it ever was. Fact is, if Brooklyn were a city unto itself (instead of being one of the five boroughs that make up New York City), it would rank as the fourth largest city in the U.S.

As a former resident near the ever-shifting border of Red Hook, and now a Park Sloper who commutes to “the City” (as Brooklynites refer to Manhattan), I am hard-pressed to think of a place to live that is as diverse and has as many small and great wonders as Brooklyn.

Most of Brooklyn is a pretty neighborly place. While some New Yorkers may be wearing Time Out New York T-shirts that say “Welcome to New York, Now Get Out,” Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz had signs installed along major routes that say “Welcome: Brooklyn’s in the House,” and “Leaving Brooklyn? Fuhgedaboudit.” Markowitz is the same figurehead who by turns led his people in a “Lighten Up Brooklyn” mass weight-loss initiative, and later — and not much lighter — presided over a “How Sweet It Is” sweet potato pie contest. There’s an element of grassroots goofiness here that simply doesn’t exist in Manhattan.

Granted, Brooklyn doesn’t have Manhattan’s dazzling iconic skyline, and it’s not quite “Sex and the City” chic. But it is as urban, in its own way as fabled, and every bit as diverse as Manhattan. Fast if you like it that way. Slow in ways that Manhattan could never be. More affordable on a few counts (though fewer of those as it becomes increasingly fashionable).

So if you’ve dashed through Manhattan’s high points any number of times, aren’t up for the intensity or just want to broaden your New York City literacy, consider spending time in the Borough of Kings. Here we offer some landmarks and great neighborhoods worth exploring. Most of these areas are about half an hour or 40 minutes from mid-town Manhattan (on a very good day), and all are accessible by subway.

Recommended Brooklyn Tours

If you’re looking to get a quick peek at (and taste of) some of Brooklyn’s major neighborhoods and attractions, try a half-day pizza tour from Manhattan with A Slice of Brooklyn. Another option we love is the family-run Levys’ Unique New York Tours, whose many Brooklyn offerings include a fascinating 2.5-hour look at the borough’s graffiti and street art, as well as four- and six-hour tasting tours of Brooklyn’s ethnic eats. For an in-depth look at what makes individual neighborhoods tick, check out Made in Brooklyn Tours, which offers guided walking tours showcasing artisans and entrepreneurs from Williamsburg, DUMBO and more.

Brooklyn Bridge

John and Washington Roebling’s 1883 bridge — then the longest suspension bridge in the world — earned its iconic status despite disastrous beginnings. The elder Roebling died before the project began, and the younger, suffering from the condition we now know as “the bends,” directed much of the project from his bed, observing the progress via telescope. Dozens of workers died during the bridge’s 14-year construction, and people were trampled on its opening day. But the Brooklyn Bridge seems to have largely lived down its jaded past — and is one of the greatest architectural icons in the world.

Must Do: Walk across! The bridge is a link between Brooklyn (more notably Brooklyn Heights) and Manhattan’s downtown/Wall Street districts. Hint: From Brooklyn Heights or downtown Brooklyn, just walk toward the bridge and follow the signs to the pedestrian path. It’s about a mile across, ending up in Manhattan at City Hall. From there you can jump on the subway back to Brooklyn, grab a taxi back, or just turn around and walk back over.

Why: The Manhattan skyline viewed through the cross-hatching of the bridge’s steel cables is a classic sightseeing experience in New York. And it’s free!

What’s More: A walk across the bridge feels like a “Go, Dog. Go!” scene, with all stripes of cyclists, stroller pushers, joggers and camera-toting tourists moving across its span as so many cars (140,000 a day) rumble through below — with the boats below them, and the subway trains underground beneath the boats. The Brooklyn Bridge is said to be the only bridge in the world where this kind of mobility hero sandwich can occur.

Pre-Trip Tip: Rent “Kate and Leopold,” a movie starring Meg Ryan, Hugh Jackman and the Brooklyn Bridge.

Getting There: Combine a Brooklyn Bridge walk with a visit to Brooklyn Heights, DUMBO or downtown Brooklyn. These neighborhoods are about a half-hour to/from Midtown Manhattan. Suggested subway stops (for Brooklyn Heights): 2-3 to Clark Street, A-C to High Street, or 2-3-4-5 to Borough Hall (not “Jay Street/Borough Hall,” which is a different station).

Brooklyn Heights

Brooklyn Heights is a charming historic neighborhood located just south of the Brooklyn Bridge. Its waterfront promenade offers magnificent views of Manhattan’s downtown, and the neighborhood’s tree-lined streets are known for their prime 19th-century homes and churches.

Bit of History: Brooklyn Heights emerged in the early 1800’s as Manhattan’s first suburb. But its historical significance dates even earlier: It was from Brooklyn Heights that George Washington decided to retreat across the East River in the Battle of Brooklyn, in 1776.

Fun Fact: While “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” may be a quintessential Manhattan story, Truman Capote wrote it in his Brooklyn Heights apartment (on Willow Street).

Added Attraction: The subterranean New York Transit Museum at Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street — itself a 1930’s subway station — has vintage token machines and turnstiles, full-scale buses for kids to “drive” and displays that trace the mammoth undertaking to construct New York’s subway tunnels. Dash in and out of the vintage subway cars (check out the period ads) for a fun transportation time warp.

Shop Op: Montague Street is Brooklyn Heights’ main commercial strand. At the outpost of Fishs Eddy — the Manhattan emporium for dishes — you’ll find a selection of vintage hotel and restaurant patterns as well as contemporary designs like the New York skyline dishes or the Brooklynese coffee service (“Shuguh,” “Cawfee,” “Creamuh”). And the “Heros of the Torah” mugs might be perfect for that special someone on your gift list.

Eat At: The upscale River Cafe, perched on the water, offers the Promenade view — and is one of New York’s longtime favorites. Or get the same view — way lighter on the wallet if not on the calories — with a cone from the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory next door. In the heart of Brooklyn Heights is a marvelous array of ethnic eateries from Cuban to Turkish, Italian to French. We love the romantic Henry’s End, which serves nouvelle American cuisine.

Getting There: About a half-hour from Midtown Manhattan. Subway: 2-3 to Clark Street, A-C to High Street, 2-3-4-5 to Borough Hall (not “Jay Street/Borough Hall,” which is a different station).

DUMBO

Like Manhattan’s SoHo or NoLiTa, Brooklyn has its “cool acronym” neighborhood: DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). For years DUMBO, in the shadow of the bridges and warehouses, was an industrial, concrete jungle. But as these things go, the warehouses attracted artists, and then the next layers of arrivistes, and so on — and now DUMBO has joined the growing list of Brooklyn’s hot neighborhoods.

Go To: Brooklyn Bridge Park/Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park, at the edge of the East River. Why? These adjoining parks offer an amazing vista. Kids can ride the newly restored Jane’s Carousel while the Q Train rumbles over the Manhattan Bridge to the right, the glorious Brooklyn Bridge is on the left, and the East River and Manhattan skyline is straight ahead. Perhaps no playground can boast such fantastic real estate — and such incredible views.

Eat At: Across from the park is Bubby’s, a sibling to the Manhattan restaurant of the same name. The din here nearly matches the volume of the trains on the Manhattan Bridge, but don’t let that dissuade you. It’s a fun place that feels much older than its 20 or so years. Enormous brunches, lively chatter — and homemade pie.

Getting There: About a half-hour or more to/from Midtown Manhattan. Subway: F to York Street, the first stop in Brooklyn.

Downtown Brooklyn

While much of downtown Brooklyn is relatively uninteresting and unfashionable — the shopping streets lean toward 99-cent housewares, $9.99 clothing or $299 divorces — there are a few things worth seeing and doing here.

Go To: Atlantic Avenue. It actually extends from water’s edge in Brooklyn all the way through the borough, but the downtown section, roughly between Court Street and Flatbush Avenue, is a prime example of Brooklyn’s seemingly unlikely but surprisingly harmonious commercial melange. Here antique stores mix it up with the Avenue’s large number of Middle Eastern shops and latest crop of trendy design boutiques — with an unlikely assortment of other establishments, including a curious herb shop that advertises “A cure for everything except death.”

Shop Op: Sahadi’s, a landmark establishment on Atlantic Avenue, has been selling olives, spices, dried fruits and nuts, and international foods since 1948. Even if you don’t buy anything, it’s a visual feast.

Eat At: Junior’s has been victorious in cheesecake wars for more than 60 years. And if even the greatest cheesecake doesn’t curry much favor with you, Junior’s is still worth a visit for the enormous breakfasts, extensive diner menu and friendly service.

Culture Stop: The Brooklyn Academy of Music (commonly known as BAM) is a landmark institution for concerts, plays, musicals, film screenings, ballet performances and other cultural offerings. It’s Brooklyn’s answer to the Lincoln Center.

Getting There: About a half-hour to/from Midtown Manhattan. There are many subway options with stops in and around downtown Brooklyn.

Carroll Gardens/Cobble Hill

Brooklyn Heights gives way to Cobble Hill and Cobble Hill gives way to Carroll Gardens (and Carroll Gardens gives way to Red Hook, though the boundaries seem to be continually shifting as Red Hook becomes more hip). This is the Brooklyn of “Moonstruck” (alas, the bakery featured in the movie has now closed), and though much is changing, there is still plenty of evidence of the Italian community here amid the quiet residential streets. Both Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens are less gentrified than the Heights, but the Manhattan migration across the river is clearly making its mark here too. Carroll Gardens’ Smith Street has become Brooklyn’s “restaurant row” (and you might want to venture to the parallel street of Court as well) as fashionable bars and eateries have replaced the neighborhood’s worn bodegas, botanicas, and mom-and-pop bakeries — you can decide whether that’s for better or for worse.

Eat At: There are lots of good options along Smith Street. For a trendy French bistro vibe, try Bar Tabac. Or head over to Court Street to sate your sugar craving at Sweet Melissa, the finest patisserie in Brooklyn if not in all the boroughs.

Shop Op: Stick around Smith Street and don’t miss Refinery for chic, handmade purses and pillows — and dash into other hip boutiques that catch your eye.

Getting There: Maybe half an hour to/from Midtown Manhattan. Subway stops: F to Bergen Street or Carroll Street.

Coney Island
Think faded nostalgia. Even with recent efforts to buff it up a bit, Coney Island is still a bit tawdry, but its nostalgic pull puts it in the must-do category, if only to say you’ve been there.

Go To: Ride the Wonder Wheel at Deno’s or the famous Cyclone (well over 80 years old, it still holds its own against today’s high-tech G-force machines) — and if those don’t leave you slightly queasy, the fried Boardwalk fare might (although these days there are a number of interesting new cafes and restaurants offering much more than the pedestrian hot dogs and fries).

Don’t Miss: The daily shark feeding at the New York Aquarium, as well as “Alien Stingers,” where spotting a lone tentacled blob undulate in a blue-glowing tank is both bizarre and beautiful. Who knew jellyfish could be so lovely?

Fast Pitch: Dem bums the Dodgers are long gone, but the Brooklyn Cyclones hold new promise for the borough’s baseball lovers. The minor league team, part of the New York Mets’ organization, plays at MCU Park just off the Boardwalk in Coney Island.

Getting There: The D-F and N-Q subway lines all end at Coney Island.

Williamsburg

Hipsters and Hasidic Jews mingle in Williamsburg, which has become Brooklyn’s hottest neighborhood over the last few years. Rents are skyrocketing, and boutiques, cafes and art galleries have moved into former warehouses and industrial buildings (pushing some bohemian artists on a budget to other cheaper parts of the borough).

Go To: Check out the work of emerging artists at the Pierogi gallery on North 9th Street or at Art 101 on Grand Street. Take a tasting tour of the Brooklyn Brewery, located in a building that dates back to the Civil War (in former incarnations, it was a steel warehouse and a matzo factory).

Eat At: Zagat recently voted Peter Luger Steak House, located on Broadway, the best steakhouse in New York City for the 28th year in a row. It’s been open for more than a century. If you’d rather nosh on veggies than meat (and pay a little less), try Wild Ginger on Bedford Avenue, an Asian/vegetarian place offering organic salads and steamed vegetable dumplings.

Shop Op: You could spend hours browsing the vintage and second-hand clothes, shoes and accessories at Beacon’s Closet on North 11st Street. Book Thug Nation offers used books — with a particularly strong collection of literary fiction, film and philosophy — on North 3rd Street.

Getting There: Williamsburg’s Bedford Avenue station is just one stop on the L train from the East Village in Manhattan.

Red Hook

The rough-hewn, isolated port neighborhood of Red Hook, cut off by the Brooklyn Queens Expressway and far from a subway line, is in many ways an unlikely candidate for any hot list. But lately that’s changing, perhaps all the more so with the vibrant and curious crowds the recently added cruise ship port has added to the mix. As the crow flies, Red Hook is pretty darn close to Manhattan, but it couldn’t be further in sense or sensibility.

Like so many neighborhoods in Brooklyn right now, Red Hook is on its way up. Trendy bars and galleries are popping up like daffodils on vacant lots — though there’s still plenty of dilapidation in between the blooms. There’s also a great deal of political and social tension around Red Hook’s future right now, as salty longtimers and artists who came for the cheap rent and relative isolation respond to the inevitable arrivals of Ikea, a giant Fairway supermarket and luxury condos. Van Brunt Street is about as close as Red Hook gets to a commercial strip.

Sugar and Spice: Along Van Brunt Street is Baked, Brooklyn’s answer to Manhattan’s famous Magnolia Bakery.

Eat At: For a casual lunch try Hope & Anchor on Van Brunt Street. Another good option in the neighborhood is Ferdinando’s Focacceria on Union Street, which has been serving Sicilian fare for more than a century. For a quick takeaway try the Panelle Special, an addictive sandwich of fried chickpeas and ricotta.

Getting There: Red Hook is about a half-hour taxi ride (or longer) from Midtown Manhattan. Nearest subway stop is the F stop at Smith and 9th Street — a bit dicey, and there are some pretty steep stairs, and it’s a very long walk from there to Red Hook, so do yourself a favor and just take a taxi. (Tip: Announce your destination after you’re in the cab. If the driver balks about coming to Brooklyn — and some do — insist. They have to take you.)

Park Slope

Park Slope, the “slope” leading to Prospect Park, has a great feel of the historic brownstones, progressive social scene and families. Begin your Park Slope visit on Seventh Avenue — and then head two blocks up along any of the residential streets (3rd Street is the most grand) to Prospect Park, or stroll two blocks down to trendy Fifth Avenue. In the Slope, stroller-pushers wend their way in and out of the local shops and restaurants, and almost everything here, including bars, is kid-friendly without being childish. Case in point: Tea Lounge on Union Street, where the mix-and-match sofas and chairs are occupied by freelancers and their laptops and couples of all persuasions drinking strong coffee or stronger cocktails. There’s peanut butter and jelly on the menu and a regular sing-along for tots.

Eat At: The Slope has a great mix of restaurants, and while they’re generally priced to reflect the fact that they’re on premium commercial real estate, there are moderate choices too that run the gamut — falafel, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Tex-Mex, Thai. Everything’s family-friendly, but especially the cacophonous Two Boots. This twin to the Manhattan restaurant of the same name serves up Cajun/Italian melange (Louisiana, Italy — both boot-shaped, get it?). Here the pizza guy will toss the little ones a wad of pizza dough to keep them occupied while parents sip Bloody Marys in mason jars with pickled okra garnish. Tip: Got toddlers? Bring quarters. A ride on the mechanical alligator outside is a must.

More Eats: For a real neighborhood experience grab a bagel at La Bagel Delight, featured in scenes from Paul Auster’s “Brooklyn Follies.” The enormous warm bagels will make you understand the difference between the real thing and a bulk pack of Lender’s from Costco — and you may never turn back. Just be prepared to assertively claim your spot in the busy line and bellow out a rapidfire order to the counter staff. A word to the wise: Never order your bagel toasted in a real New York bagel shop (the idea being that fresh bagels simply don’t need it).

Shop Op: Scaredy Kat has an excellent selection of cards and gifts. Bierkraft features international beers, fine chocolates, cheeses and other gourmet food items. The Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company is an amusingly earnest store that’s really a front for a community writing center (see if you can find the secret door). The Superhero Supply Company really does sell realistic and rather nicely designed superhero capes, ray guns, decoding devices, X-ray specs, and all manner of goops and sprays with various powers. But take note: If you want to make a purchase you have to recite (preferably with a straight face) an oath to use your superpowers only for virtuous causes.

Getting There: Park Slope is about a half-hour (or longer) to/from Midtown Manhattan. Subway stops: F to Seventh Avenue, 2-3 to Grand Army Plaza, B-Q to Seventh Avenue (at Flatbush).

Prospect Park

Grass! Space! And not only does a tree grow in Brooklyn, but in Prospect Park there’s a whole forest — the last one left in the borough. This 585-acre park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux after Central Park, and many people (okay, they’re all Brooklynites) claim it’s the better of the two efforts. There’s no real agenda here; just meander and enjoy the people enjoying soccer, baseball, kite flying, and that favorite New York City sport, extreme Sunday Times reading.

Don’t Miss: The Prospect Park Carousel, ca. 1912. It rivals the one in Central Park (which, ahem, was built in Brooklyn).

Also in the Hood: The Brooklyn Botanic Garden is Serenity in the City — cherry trees, rose gardens, lily pool, Japanese pond — and they’ve got a shiny new visitor center. The Brooklyn Museum next door is one of the world’s biggest art museums, boasting extensive collections ranging from Egyptian sarcophagi to traditional African art to contemporary painting and sculpture. Don’t miss the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, home to Judy Chicago’s ground-breaking “Dinner Party” installation.

Eat At: Bring a picnic, grab a hot dog from a vendor cart, or eat at the Botanic Garden’s outdoor cafe (sandwiches, chili, burgers and one of the best veggie burgers we’ve had).

Getting There: Prospect Park is large and there are plenty of entry points from the surrounding neighborhoods. But the best plan is to go to Park Slope and go in from there — at 3rd Street or 9th Street. Park Slope/Prospect Park is about a half-hour (or longer) to/from Midtown Manhattan. Subway stops: F to Seventh Avenue, 2-3 to Grand Army Plaza. For the Brooklyn Museum of Art and Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the 2-3 has a stop directly in front.

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–written by Deborah Bogosian

 

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