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The Best of Brooklyn

Spend one perfect day exploring this lively New York City borough

Brooklyn Heights Esplanade

Ian Dagnall/Alamy

Hipster heaven or old-money neighborhood? Gentrified slum or artists quarter? Family zone or singles scene? Ask a Brooklynite to describe the borough, and you’ll probably get as many answers as — well, as there are Brooklynites (just over 2.6 million, in case you were wondering).

Trying to see this large, sprawling borough — from Coney Island to Prospect Park to a plethora of cutting-edge districts — in a day is challenging. So we’ve chosen three iconic Brooklyn neighborhoods, each of which shows a different facet of this lively and eclectic part of New York City, a hotbed of culture and creativity.  

Follow these sequentially for an artsy, hipsterish and literary day that will keep you buzzing — just like Brooklyn itself.

DUMBO: An arts destination with a showstopping view

A magnificent way to arrive in DUMBO (an acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) is an easy one-mile stroll across the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan. The first exit on the Brooklyn side leads to DUMBO’s cobblestone streets and charming revived warehouses that today contain galleries, boutiques and restaurants. Most visitors head straight for the intersection of Washington and Water streets for its familiar view of the ornate steel towers of the 1909 Manhattan Bridge. Go ahead and take a selfie; everyone else does.

Next stop: Empire Stores, a collection of waterfront shops and restaurants in a 19th-century brick storehouse. Have a light breakfast at VHH Foods (kale and leek quiche, breakfast tacos or five-grain porridge with roasted apples), a casual cafe with indoor and outdoor seating overlooking the East River and lower Manhattan. Upstairs is a branch of the Brooklyn Historical Society, dedicated to the fascinating history of the borough’s waterfront.

Two doors down on Water Street, duck into the Klompching Gallery, which exhibits provocative contemporary photography. It’s just one of a dozen art galleries — from abstract to sculpture to all-female art — in this wonderfully walkable neighborhood and artists magnet since the 1970s.

But the jewel of DUMBO is Brooklyn Bridge Park, an 85-acre riverfront garden with playgrounds, sports fields and a roller rink. Don’t miss the fully restored Jane’s Carousel, a 1922 delight housed in a glass rotunda that makes it a year-round attraction.

Brooklyn Heights: Townhouse elegance with a literary twist

On the tree-lined waterfront Brooklyn Heights Promenade (just a 15-minute walk from DUMBO), you’ll find the most famous vista of lower Manhattan, plus views of the Statue of Liberty and the Staten Island ferries carrying passengers across Upper New York Bay.

The leafy Brooklyn Heights neighborhood was the first designated historic district in the city (in 1965), and no wonder. This architectural potpourri of pre-Civil War and late 19th-century buildings highlights such styles as Federal, Greek Revival, Gothic Revival and Anglo-Italianate. It’s fitting that the area is home to the Brooklyn Historical Society, whose 1881 headquarters is itself a National Historic Landmark, rife with terra-cotta ornamentation, stained-glass windows and hand-carved woodwork.

In the 1950s, when it began its resurgence from neglect, Brooklyn Heights became home to successful authors such as Norman Mailer (142 Columbia Heights, where he lived and wrote for 40 years), Truman Capote (the basement apartment of 70 Willow Street, where he penned Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood and famously wrote: “I live in Brooklyn. By choice.”) and playwright Arthur Miller (155 Willow, where he lived with his family until leaving them for Marilyn Monroe), among many others.

The main commercial strip is Montague Street, a convenient place to find a bite for lunch. Try Pinto for locally sourced Thai dishes, Gallito’s Kitchen for “Mexican urban” cuisine or the 24-hour Happy Days Diner for tried-and-true American comfort food (Fonzie burger, anyone?).

Peter Luger Steak House in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in New York

Richard Levine/Alamy

Williamsburg: Brooklyn’s nightlife hot spot

This used to be the Next Big Neighborhood (15 minutes by taxi from Brooklyn Heights), attracting hordes of overly bearded, tattoo-sleeved, ski-cap-wearing hipsters in skinny jeans until it went mainstream. WillyB may be a bit more commercialized these days, but it is welcoming to all ages and still lots of fun when the sun goes down. 

Bedford Avenue is the neighborhood’s retail heart, and as kooky and crowded as ever. At the Mini Mall, you can pick up some offbeat souvenirs like handmade soap that looks like frosted cake at Soap Chérie or a copy of Iggy Pop Life Classat Spoonbill & Sugartown Books Go retro at Rough Trade, on North 9th Street,  a vinyl record store that also sells turntables, needles and record-cleaning products. At Brooklyn Brewery, on North 11th Street, you can take a tour or quaff a pint — try the legendary Black Chocolate Stout, perfect on a winter night.

For dinner, Peter Luger is a venerable (cash-only) steakhouse-cum-German beer hall. It has been a mainstay on the New York restaurant scene since 1887, thanks to its jovial (though bare-bones) atmosphere, gruff waiters and perfectly cooked prime rib, lamb chops and filet of sole.

End the night at Barcade, where beers and cocktails are slung to a high-decibel '80s soundtrack and backed by several dozen vintage arcade games such as Donkey Kong, Ms. Pac-Man, Dig Dug, Tetris and Frogger. You may not be the youngest person in the room, but you have an edge over all of them: You’ve been playing these video games since they first came out.

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