From movie-like vistas to offbeat design stores, Philip Watson takes a bite out of one of the Big Apple’s most vibrant districts.
1. BROOKLYN BRIDGE
Brooklyn is currently the hippest and most happening neighbourhood in New York City. While the borough is easily accessible from Manhattan by subway or taxi, by far the best way to approach the area is on foot, via the iconic Brooklyn Bridge. The world’s first steel suspension bridge, opened in 1883, boasts a pedestrian walkway that begins just east of City Hall, rising above the car lanes and East River, to afford uninterrupted views of Manhattan’s skyscrapers, Governors Island and the Statue of Liberty. Observation points under the support towers have brass plaques showing the buildings on view (still including the Twin Towers). This classic city walk takes 20 minutes or so; about 150 yards after the wood-plank path ends, take the left fork down to Washington Street.
With a population of 2.6 million, Brooklyn is the fourth largest urban area in the US, and more like a separate city than a single borough. It has a long history of immigration and industry, as well as deprivation and disrepair, yet in recent years it has seen a vibrant revival. One of the first districts to be rejuvenated was Dumbo (an annoying acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), an area of old warehouses and abandoned lofts which proved ideal for young creative types priced out of increasingly gentrified Lower Manhattan. It’s now home to an energetic array of modern art galleries – 111 Front Street has a dozen or more within the same building – and offbeat design stores. (Spring [spring3D.net] at number 126a is perhaps the most original in all of New York.) Dumbo also features two of Brooklyn’s most renowned destination restaurants: Grimaldi’s (19 Old Fulton St, +1 718 858 4300, grimaldis.com), a real local pizza house which many New Yorkers consider the city’s best; and River Café (1 Water St, +1 718 522 5200, rivercafe.com), a restaurant by the water’s edge that serves up fine New American cuisine and has spectacular views of Manhattan, especially at night.
3. BROOKLYN HEIGHTS
While Dumbo’s riverside Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park offers a view of the city – framed perfectly by Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges – that’s so famous it’s starred in countless feature films and wedding videos, the most scenic and panoramic views of Manhattan are to be savoured from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, an elevated riverside pedestrian walkway that runs for ten blocks. Nearby are rows of stately early 19th-century brownstone houses and the Greek Revival-style Borough Hall (209 Joralemon St), where you’ll find the small but informative Brooklyn Tourism and Visitors Centre (+1 718 802 3846, visitbrooklyn.org).
4. CARROLL GARDENS
This is another rapidly regenerating district close by, in which old-fashioned tailors, hair salons, dental offices and laundromats sit side-by-side with chichi gift shops, organic cafés and hip bars. Smith Street is a new “restaurant row”, the highlight being Saul (140 Smith St, +1 718 935 9844, saulrestaurant.com), a good-value modern American eatery which is one of the few US holders of a Michelin star. A few blocks away is a delightfully unreconstructed bar, Brooklyn Social (335 Smith St, +1 718 858 7758), a former Italian men’s social club, with a classic pressed-tin ceiling, faded deco mirrors and a curved oak bar that looks unchanged since the 1950s.
5. PARK SLOPE
This laid-back area of tree-lined streets, historic brownstones, chic clothing boutiques and hip cafés, is the epicentre of the Brooklyn boom. With Manhattan often seeming over-run and increasingly sanitised, bohemian Park Slope offers a New York that is more edgy and authentic – like a Big Apple equivalent of London’s Shoreditch. It’s here that you’ll find stylish stores such as 3R Living (276L Fifth Ave, +1 718 832 0951, 3rliving.com), a cool boutique selling organic and eco-friendly products and gifts, and cutting-edge music venues such as Barbès (376 9th St, +1 718 965 9177, barbesbrooklyn.com), which features anything from jazz and reggae to klezmer. Park Slope is also home to Brooklyn’s first boutique hotel, Hotel Le Bleu (370 Fourth Ave, +1 718 625 1500, hotellebleu.com). Opened in November, the four-star hotel may be located inauspiciously between a busy taxi centre and a bleak office supplies superstore, yet it has 48 bright and cheery bedrooms which have large beds, wifi, 42-inch plasma TVs, and industrial cityscape vistas which take in Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty (request a room above the fifth floor for the best views). The 30-sqm bedrooms start at US$249; stylishly designed rooms of this size are twice that rate in Manhattan. The hotel’s rooftop restaurant and outdoor bar are scheduled for completion in the spring.
6. BROOKLYN MUSEUM AND PROSPECT PARK
Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, +1 718 638 5000, brooklynmuseum.org) is the US’s largest art museum after the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yet it could not be more different to its hectic Manhattan cousin. This is a calm, cultured and welcoming museum housed in a five-floor Beaux Arts building, highlights of which include one of the world’s finest ancient Egyptian collections, 58 Rodin sculptures and Judy Chicago’s intriguing and extraordinary installation The Dinner Party. The museum is on the edge of Prospect Park, a 526-acre recreational area created in 1866 by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux; it’s a public space they considered to be a vast improvement on their other famed, though smaller and more compromised, New York project – Central Park. The park has jogging routes, nature tails, a boating lake and a small zoo. Next door is the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, a 52-acre garden museum featuring more than 12,000 plants, a Japanese garden, and a “celebrity path” which honours famed Brooklyn natives such as Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Mel Brooks and Woody Guthrie.
With its new-style eco-activists, avant-artists and literary outlaws, as well as old-time Poles, Puerto Ricans and Hasidic Jews, Williamsburg (locals prefer “Billyburg” or “Billburg”) is Brooklyn with attitude. While the diverse district can appear a little down-at-heel compared with Park Slope, walk along Bedford Avenue and North Sixth Street and you’ll discover a lively array of cafés, coffee shops, cheap restaurants, design shops, indie record shops and vintage clothing stores. Williamsburg is also home to “the alternative Chelsea” art scene, with galleries such as Pierogi (177 N Ninth St, +1 718 599 2144, pierogi2000.com) and Klaus von Nichtssagend (438 Union Avenue, + 1 718 383 7309, klausgallery.com), showing the work of New York’s most exciting emerging artists. For a taste of how Brooklyn used to be, locals and Manhattanites alike head to Peter Luger (178 Broadway, +1 718 387 7400, peterluger.com, cash only), a Brooklyn institution founded in 1887 which has been voted New York’s number-one steakhouse 23 years in a row. In a series of functional, wood-panelled, vaguely Bavarian-style dining rooms, no-nonsense waiters in red bowties and white aprons serve unbeatable porterhouse steaks cut from prime aged Iowa-farmed corn-fed beef. From Peter Luger, it’s a quick hop in a cab over the Williamsburg Bridge back to Manhattan. Look out though for the sign, erected by Brooklyn president Marty Markowitz, that perfectly encapsulates the borough’s proudly independent streak. It reads: “You are now leaving Brooklyn. Oy vey!”