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Okay, the news has been out for quite some time: New York City is one of the most exciting cities in the world. In 2005 alone, there were 42.6 million visitors (international and domestic) to New York.
There’s no question that whether you’re a first time visitor or a seasoned veteran, there are certain sights that you simply have to take in… the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Macy’s, etc. But after a few days of traversing the city that never sleeps, the non-stop pace can be taxing, not to mention hard on your wallet.
Here’s what most New Yorkers can tell you: the city is not just about the 22-square-mile island of Manhattan. In fact, due to sky-high rents, many locals choose to live in the outer boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island. As a result, these areas are rich with culture, history, and life.
Check out some of the following highlights in the outer boroughs and the best ways to get there by public transportation, and you’ll feel like a native New Yorker in no time.
Fuhgeddabout it. As the most populated of the five boroughs, Brooklyn is a thriving social and cultural hotspot.
Depending on the neighborhood, you can find areas that are almost entirely dedicated to specific ethnic groups that make up the region’s rich cultural tapestry. Here, you can take the G train to Greenpoint for an authentic Polish meal, observe the culture of Hasidic Jews in Borough Park, and have a drink with the artsy hipsters in East Williamsburg.
If the crowded streets and pushy vendors in Manhattan’s Chinatown are too much for you, you can take the N train to 8th street where the emerging Brooklyn Chinatown is located between 42nd and 62nd street. Home to the third-largest Chinese community in New York, this is where you can find Dim Sum or take home a fresh fish (just don’t try to bring it on the airplane).
This waterfront region of Brooklyn has had a difficult time establishing itself as a destination point, but these days it seems to be coming together. As of April 2006, the Queen Mary 2 docked in the new Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, which brings in spectators each day.
The area is also home to a close-knit art community — many artists rent studio space here — and the Brooklyn Waterfront Artist Coalition holds the annual Pier Show every May and June (www.bwac.org). Every Sunday in June is CircuSunday aboard the Waterfront Museum & Showboat Barge, with live circus acts at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., and in July, visitors can hear live jazz every Saturday at sunset. There’s no subway service to Red Hook, but you can hop a ride on the New York Water Taxi.
Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Located next to the Brooklyn Museum, this is one of the most tranquil and beautiful areas in New York, with more than 52 acres of about 13,000 types of plants and flowers. The garden is especially popular in the summertime with outdoor concerts, art exhibits, picnics, and parties. Take the B or Q train to Prospect Park station, or the 2 or 3 train to Eastern Parkway. 1000 Washington Avenue, Brooklyn. 718-623-7200.
Brooklyn Academy of Music
Talk about off Broadway (way off). Actually, it’s more akin to Lincoln Center, as this performing arts and cultural center hosts traditional and avante garde theater, dance and art. With events like the Rhythm & Blues Festival, the Next Wave Festival of music, exhibits at BAMart, music jams at Bamcafe Live, and movies at the BAM Rose cinema, you can get a lifetime of culture in one complex—often free of charge or for a fraction of the price you might pay on Broadway. Take the 2, 3, 4, 5; N, R; Q, B, D to Pacific St-Atlantic Avenue. 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn. 718-636-4100.
Brooklyn Bridge/Brooklyn Heights Promenade
Still can’t get enough of Manhattan? Without a doubt, Brooklyn is where you’ll get some of the best views of the city. You can cross the East River over the Brooklyn Bridge in about 30 minutes (it’s about 1,600 feet long). Try going at sunset for a breathtaking view of the sun sinking over the city. South of the bridge is the Brooklyn Promenade, a public park that offers a gorgeous view of lower Manhattan. You can get to the Manhattan side of the bridge by taking the 6 train to Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall, or the Brooklyn side by taking the A or C train to High Street.
The largest of the five boroughs, Queens is also home to what is thought to be one of the most ethnically diverse counties in the country. In fact, the 7 train has been called The International Express, as you can travel from “Little India” to the “Irish Riviera” in just a few stops.
Around the area of 74th Street from Roosevelt to 37th Avenue you’ll find the heart of New York’s South Asian community, where more Indians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis live than any other region in New York. This where you can experience a real Bollywood film, taste authentic Indian food, and pick up some jewelry and a sari for your next cultural event. To get here, take 7 subway to 82nd Street-Jackson Heights, or the E, F, G, R, or V trains to Roosevelt Avenue.
Explore this area more deeply with America’s Gypsy: Discovering South Asia in New York’s Jackson Heights.
Don’t be misled by the name — though the building used to house a greasy spoon, this local landmark is famous for its North Indian cuisine. From vegetable pakoras to lamb vindaloo to sweet mango lassi, this is the spot for cheap and tasty Indian fare. Just remember, it’s cash only. 37-47 74th Street, Jackson Heights. 718-672-1232.
If you a hankering for some syrupy gulab jamun or milky ras malai, this is another neighborhood staple where locals South Asians stop by for their sweets. 7209 Broadway, Jackson Heights. 718-639-4791.
Now that Bollywood is becoming visible in mainstream America, you can get the real deal at this big-screen movie theater. The singing-dancing extravaganzas are a real experience in Indian culture, and you’ll most likely be surrounded by locals cheering along when the hero gets the girl. 73-7 37th Road, Jackson Heights.
PS 1 Contemporary Art Center
Celebrating its 30th anniversary this month, this cultural center is affiliated with the Museum of Modern Art, with a cutting-edge approach to art. On Saturday afternoons in the summer, visitors can lounge about in hammocks in the courtyard, or head in for visual art exhibitions, performances and films. Take the E or V train to 23rd Street/Ely, the 7 train to 45th Road/Courthouse Square, or the G train to 21st Street/Van Alst. 22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City. 718-784-2084.
New York isn’t all about urban hustle and bustle. The Rockaways is a peninsula of Long Island that welcomes beach bound travelers every summer. It’s not as exclusive or pricey as the Hamptons, but has been a popular summer resort with a boardwalk and well-kept beaches. You can get here by car, or take the A train to Broad Channel and then take the Rockaway Park shuttle.
Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden
Skip the trendy, overpriced bars and noisy clubs. This is the last remaining Beer Garden in all New York City where once there were hundreds. Bohemian Hall is run and managed by the Bohemian Citizens Benevolent Society, a fraternal organization dedicated to preserving this precious piece of history. And if you’re looking for activities for the kids… well, they offer free Czech language lessons through reading, singing, dancing, and games. Take the N train to Astoria Boulevard. 29-19 24th Avenue, Astoria. 718-274-4925.
This is the only borough that’s actually attached the rest of the mainland, and is probably best known as the home of the Bronx Zoo and Yankee Stadium. While those two attractions tend to draw in plenty of visitors, the Bronx can still be an unfamiliar, intimidating place for out-of-towners. However, locals know that this borough is the site of some fascinating architecture and history. Take a look…
The Cloisters, Bronx
This uptown branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is located in Fort Tryon Park at the very tip of Manhattan. The museum is comprised of five medieval cloisters that were imported from France, which are overflowing with thousands of works of art, tapestries, statues, and stained glass, dating back from 800 A.D. and into the 15th century. An extensive garden and live concerts keep bringing guests back for more. 212-570-3951.
Bronx Weekend Trolley
The Bronx Trolley is a great way for travelers to navigate the area while catching all the major sights. The trolley leaves at 9:30 a.m. from the Visitors Information Center at 7th Avenue and 53rd Street in Manhattan. You can get on and off throughout the day to visit the Bronx Zoo, the New York Botanical Garden and Arthur Avenue, while tour operators give you factoids and history of each area. And best of all? It’s free. 718-590-3518.
New York Botanical Garden
This garden covers 250 acres of the Bronx and boasts one of the best collections of plants in the world. The area includes the largest Victorian glasshouse in the country, a rock garden, a river, a waterfall, and 50 acres of the forest that used to cover New York City. Take Metro North on the Harlem Local Line from Grand Central Terminal to the Botanical Garden Station. 718-817-8700, Bronx River Parkway and Fordham Road, Bronx.
Hall of Fame of Great Americans
The first “Hall of Fame” in America, this landmark is a 630-foot open-air building that honors those who have impacted the nation’s history. The honorees, including Eli Whitney and Alexander Graham Bell, have been elected since 1900 and are commemorated by sculptures, busts and plaques. Here, you can also get a view of the Harlem River and the famed Cloisters in northern Manhattan. Take the 4 train to Burnside Avenue station. Bronx Community College of the City University of New York, University Avenue and West 181 Street, Bronx. 718-289-5161.
Once known as the site of the Fresh Kills Landfill which held garbage from all five boroughs (it was shut down in 2001), Staten Island is sometimes known as “the forgotten borough.” It’s got a more suburban feel than the other boroughs, but if you know where to go, you can find some real hidden gems.
Staten Island Ferry
Forget about waiting in stifling lines just to huff and puff up 300-plus steps to the top of the Statue of Liberty. A 25-minute ride on the Staten Island Ferry offers a spectacular view of the Statue of Liberty and the city skyline. The ferry, which is free, sails between St. George on Staten Island and Whitehall Street in lower Manhattan, which is accessible by the 1, 9, 4, 5, N, R trains. www.siferry.com
Chinese Scholar’s Garden
As part of the 83-acre Staten Island Botanical Garden, this portion was the first Chinese Scholar’s Garden in the country, a replica of a typical scholar’s garden in the Ming Dynasty. It’s set in a Chinese landscape of trees, flowers, bamboo and rock formations imported from Shanghai, while housing a collection of 18th and 19th century furniture. 1000 Richmond Terrace, Staten Island. 718-273-8200, www.sibg.org/cg.html
Historic Richmond Town is a living history village and museum complex located on 25 acres of property Staten Island. Families can walk through the town to see old-world demonstrations such blacksmithing, check out a hands-on toy museum, and visit exhibits that illustrate historical Staten Island. 441 Clarke Avenue, Staten Island. (718) 351-1611, www.historicrichmondtown.org
If you’re visiting Staten Island, why not spend a few nights there as well? A shortage of hotel rooms in Manhattan are resulting in sky-high rates, so more and more travelers are looking to stay off-the-beaten path. Victorian Villa is located just 10 minutes from the St. George ferry terminal and offers free parking. This Victorian home is unexpectedly charming with eight separate apartments with self-service kitchens that are child and pet-friendly. Prices vary based on the apartment and length of stay, but there is a minimum three nights with a base price of $500, and about $700 for a week. 206 Daniel Low Terrace, Staten Island, 718-390-9848.
Click here if you’re looking for more obscure spots in New York.
By Managing Editor Sarika Chawla for PeterGreenberg.com