Why Brooklyn is the ideal base to explore all of New York’s boroughs: what to see and where to go
Beastie Boys sang 'no sleep till Brooklyn' but the bustling borough is the ideal place to lay your head when you're taking in the sights of the Big Apple
"Brooklyn's not happening anymore," says a slightly tired bartender, stirring an expertly executed dirty martini, in the swanky downtown hotel bar at the Beekman hotel. That's as may be for residents of New York City, inured to the thrills of the metropolis, constantly on the hunt for the new. But if you're dropping into town for a holiday, it makes the ideal base: centrally located with easy, cheap subway access to the old school glamour of Manhattan, the vibrant food scene of Queens, the fairground delights of Coney Island, and JFK airport (which needs no descriptor: you go there to catch planes, people).
Not to mention (for those of us not jaded by the thrum of the city) it makes for a safe, fun, lively area to explore: terrific nightlife, beer halls, bodegas, dive bars, delicious eateries, vintage and high end stores a plenty, and less of the "I'm walking here!" aggression associated with a Manhattan stay. There's entertainment aplenty, but significantly fewer of the bankers and tourists who stomp the streets across the Bridge.
Brooklyn was initially settled by the Canarsee indigenous people, who were displaced by Dutch migrants hailing from the town of Breuckelen. Neighbourhood names in the area are often transmutations from the original Dutch - Breuckelen became Brooklyn, while Vlacht bosch is now Flatbush, and Boswijck is known as Bushwick. For millennials, those place names may ring a bell due to the TV show Girls, which charted the comic misfortunes of four (very white, very entitled) twenty-something woman who lived in Brooklyn. The association runs to how people perceive it now: middle-class, white entitled, hipster-riddled. It's much more diverse and indeed interesting than that.
Where to stay
Downtown Brooklyn, Williamsburg, or Green Point are all excellent locales to find accommodation. Air BnBs, as you'd expect, are wildly variable in quality in the area, so do go to the trouble of finding a Superhost if that's your chosen route. Hotel-wise, I stayed most recently at the excellent mid-range Ace Hotel, (252 Schermerhorn St), where the atrium buzzes pleasantly with stylish locals tapping on their Macbooks during the day, the Lobby bar hums at night, and the hotel rooms are blessedly still and capacious.
Try an off-kilter museum
This is not a strict city guide - anything of the sort for New York would require multiple leather-bound volumes and be instantaneously out of date. But I do want to direct you to some particular highlights. New York is famed for its museums, and you don't need further instruction to hit the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, the Frick, or the Guggenheim - even art neophytes know of those institutions, while the Natural History Museum is rightly the stuff of legend (you could easily spend a week gawping at dinosaur bones and animals in there).
But I would put an argument forward for hunting out some of the smaller, more curious museums. The City Reliquary in Williamsburg is so tiny it's essentially a personal collection. Showcasing arcane ephemera from the city's past - programmes for World Fairs, Statue of Liberty models, and antique seltzer bottles, it makes a lovely drop-by if you enjoy curios.
Alternatively, the Museum of the Moving Image (36-01 35th Ave, Queens) is a must for film-lovers. The permanent collection will take you behind the scenes of movie-making - you can practice additional dialogue recording, create your own animations, make a flip-book movie and record the sound effects over a film - all great fun (even if film isn't a passion). They also have a permanent Jim Henson Exhibition, detailing the work of the creator's various projects, from the Muppet Show through to Labyrinth. There are forty muppets on show, including Kermit, Piggie and Rowlf. Delightful.
And don't think the New York Transit Museum (Corner of Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201) is for transport enthusiasts alone - it's fascinating. Located in a decommissioned subway station, it's the ideal spot to learn about the storied history of the subway system and how it was built. Sit in gorgeous vintage trains and feel a child-like enthusiasm for choo-choos return immediately.
Head north for a foodie mecca
Is it expensive to eat well in New York? Of course it can be - the city's reputation as one of America's finest dining destinations is richly deserved and if money is burning a hole in your pocket New York cuisine will relieve you of it. But you don't have to be minted to dine well. In Brooklyn itself the DeKalb Market houses vendors serving affordable street food from Ecuador, Israel, the Caribbean, Japan, Poland, Hawaii, South America, Italy - even the city's own Katz Deli has a showing. Delicious and sustaining (I dined on charred rotisserie chicken, black fried rice and sweet plantains from Fat Fowl and touched the face of god).
The subway is not as immediately intuitive as some other underground trains world wide, but straightforward once you get the hang of it.
You can use a contactless credit card or iPhone to pay at every turnstile - or if you're old school, purchase a MetroCard, which can be refilled and used to get up to four people onto a train. Signage is a little different.
Per the MTA: "In Manhattan, "Downtown" means south and "Uptown" means north, so you will often see signs like "Uptown & The Bronx" or "Downtown & Brooklyn." The train itself will not say these things. Instead, when the train arrives, its destination will be indicated by signage along the side of the train."
But it proved simply a warm-up for the experience of Corona Plaza, where I implore you to head for a food fantasia. From Brooklyn, take the seventh train north, and below the 103rd Street-Corona Plaza station is a hub of Latin American food stalls. At any time up to 46 vendors hawk home-style food from their nations (trust me, this is not easily procured in restaurants) - the smell alone is enough to send an electric charge through your body. That's the smoky crispness of fresh-fried poblanos, masa, diced coriander, rough hewn garlic. I dined on suckling pig: fat crisp crackling spread across shaved lechon, its juices dribbling deliciously onto warm potatoes below. Accompanied by a can of Modelo and with change from a twenty in my pocket. Tripa mishqui from Ecudaor, guisado from Guatemala, esquites, tortillas, carnitas, flash-fried shrimp: an orgy of comestibles. I can't encourage the pilgrimage enough.
A day out in Manhattan
A walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, though it throngs and teams with hundreds of gawkers doing the same, is obligatory (unless the weather is foul). Built in 1883, the hybrid cable-stayed/suspension bridge is nearly 2 kilometres long (that’s 1.14 miles for you obstinate ), and joins the boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan. It takes around twenty minutes to cross, during which time your head will swivel between the engineering feat of the structure itself, the yawning blue of the Hudson, and the Manhattan city skyline, which retains its majesty be it day or night. (Walk from Brooklyn to Manhattan for the most spectacular vantage point. Even a hardened cynic would marvel).
From the bottom of Manhattan, it's twenty minutes via subway to get to the Theatre District for a matinee, either of a new play or musical (matinee's tend to run cheaper than the evening shows. For most theatres, don't be scared of a seat further back: visibility is good up in the gods. I saw the new production of A Doll's House for $37 and had unobstructed views, even in the near to back row).
A pre-show lunch at Sardi’s is wonderful if you want to soak up a sense of Old Broadway. The walls are lined with the caricatures of stars of stage and screen - try to spot your favourite, if they’re truly legendary they’ll be there. It's prepared for the pre-show rush, so don't fret if it is heaving: you'll eat on time. A burger will run you $26, a reasonable premium for the convenience and history of the place.
New York is a notional place: even if you've never set foot there, you likely have a nebulous, if possibly not very clear, idea of what it is like
After a show make your way back to Brooklyn via some spots in Lower East Side for drinks. Drop in at the Bowery, where you can grab a cocktail at the hotel’s lobby bar (335 The Bowery), a chic, dark, sophisticated locale where the mixology is superb and high powered clientele congenially rub shoulders with ruffians such as sweaty, dishevelled travel journalists. It's just around the corner from Bleecker, where the renowned John's of Bleecker Street serves up some of the best slices in the city - coal-fired pizza. It makes for a perfect, low-key dinner after an afternoon of swankery, before heading back to the Brooklyn borough for a night's sleep.
Brooklyn itself is great fun for burrowing through shops. Each neighbourhood has its own feel and raison d'etre, and the most hipster-ish is Williamsburg, which is still a great spot for independent stores. Spoonbill and Sugartown is a fabulously eccentric bookstore - you could lose hours to their eclectic selection and signed first edition. Clothing stores in the neighbourhood are fabulous, with prices ranging from pennies to re-mortgage-your-home, great for idle perusing.
Park Slope is a more residential spot, but it houses Union Hall, (702 Union St, Brooklyn) a terrific bar/haunt/comedy venue. Happy hour runs 4-7 Monday till Friday, the margaritas are delicious, and you can knock out a game of bocce at one of their two indoor-lanes. Shows in the venue's basement can attract names big and small - I got lucky and saw soon-to-be superstar Jerrod Carmichael from two feet away on a Thursday afternoon for $19. It's worth checking the website regularly when in town - you might see a comic genius on the rise.
In downtown Brooklyn, nosh lunch at Junior’s Restaurant on Flatbush Avenue, a traditional New York diner famed for cheesecakes so fluffy they could make cirrus clouds weep. The portions are generous, the cheese bright yellow and American plastic, the waitresses all call you ‘honey’, and you can be in and out in fifteen minutes.
Similarly well beloved is Long Island Bar (110 Atlantic Avenue Brooklyn, NY 11201) - a restaurant that has been open for 55 years but latterly is co-run by Toby Cecchini, the man who invented the Cosmopolitan in the 80s (a drink inextricably linked with New York thanks to being consumed in vast quantities on Sex and the City). It is fitting, then, that their current roster of cocktails is sumptuous - I plumped for the delectable Dolores Del Rio, a tequila-based concoction with a kick. If your stomach is rumbling the burgers there are delicious, too.
Head south to Coney Island
It's about forty minutes from Downtown Brooklyn to Coney Island, at the subway terminus. The beachside resort is ideal to soak up a form of old school Americana - funfairs, a boardwalk, hot dog stands. Head to Luna Park, NYC's largest amusement park. The Cyclone rollercoaster - built in 1927 - is still operating, and something of an institution, though its click-clacks up the track may leave your spine in ruins. Smoother by far - albeit terrifying in its own right - is the Soarin' Eagle, which is ridden in an upright position, twirling around hairpin turns and leaving you feeling like a soft toy in a washing machine spin cycle. You can happily lose a day at Coney Island - do make a beeline for a Nathan's Famous Hotdog while you're there (pro tip: dine after the rides, not before).
Is New York still a destination worth visiting?
New York is a notional place: even if you've never set foot there, you likely have a nebulous, if possibly not very clear, idea of what it is like, thanks to movies, TV, books, songs... it's a cultural nexus, dreamed of by artists in detail both minute and vast. Steel edifices, romantic parks, obnoxious characters, dreamers, staggering wealth and glamour, dilapidation and decay. And it is all of those things. It's, to quote Succession, a 2nd world city ("nothing happens in New York that doesn’t happen everywhere") and also unlike anywhere else on earth. If you've not gone and are contemplating it: do it. I defy you to not become addicted to the place.