While Manhattan remains the go-to place for visitors to the Big Apple, Brooklyn has emerged as a hot destination for New York City travelers wanting something a little different — evident in the borough's unique culture, rich history and incredible food. Just a quick subway ride from Manhattan, it also offers a more affordable home base for a visit to NYC.
The problem for many first-timers is knowing where to begin. Brooklyn is huge, nearly 100 square miles, with a population of more than 2.5 million spread across nearly 70 neighborhoods. I've lived here for 25 years and haven't yet come close to seeing the whole of the place.
For a good introduction, I'd suggest focusing on the area just over the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges — a cluster of small neighborhoods (DUMBO, Brooklyn Heights and Downtown Brooklyn) that orbit around Brooklyn's civic center known as Borough Hall. Sequestered in a triangle between vibrant avenues, Atlantic and Flatbush, visitors here are within walking distance of many of Brooklyn's best cultural attractions, natural beauty, restaurants, shops and nightlife.
We'll call it our “Borough Hall Zone."
And note that you're only one or two subway stops (or a healthy walk over the aforementioned bridges) from Manhattan via the nine train lines available at two subway stations servicing Borough Hall: Jay Street/Metro Tech and Borough Hall, which are about 100 yards away from each other.
The things to do, eat, drink and admire I've described below are all within our modest zone (with a few recommendations just steps outside the perimeter). So pick and choose, mix and match, walk and eat, based on taste and interest. If you have trouble with mobility, cabs or car service rides are easy to come by and inexpensive for these short distances.
What to do
Walk. The best way to see this area is on foot. Within our unofficial zone, you'll find the landmarked streets of Brooklyn Heights, which lead to the majestic promenade overlooking New York Harbor, the Manhattan skyline and the bridges that span the East River. There are also spectacular views from the picturesque and tranquil walkway along the waterfront of the recently refurbished Brooklyn Bridge Park.
The tony neighborhood of DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) is, as implied, under the Manhattan Bridge. A former warehouse district, it's full of swank shops and eateries and worth a wander for its cobbled-waterfront aesthetic and access to the banks of the East River.
Learn. The 400-plus-year history of Brooklyn can be discovered at the Brooklyn Historical Society, located in a magnificent Queen Anne-style building on Pierreponte Street in Brooklyn Heights ($10 entry for adults; $6 for seniors). The New York Transit Museum portrays the story of NYC's mass transportation history in an actual subway station — wheelchair accessible — on the corner of Schermerhorn and Court streets ($10 entry for adults and $5 for seniors; free on Wednesdays).
A pitching wedge out of the tip of our triangle is the historic area of Fort Greene, where the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) is easily found on Hanson Place. It offers free admission and exhibits on the experiences and cultural contributions of African Americans. Nearby is the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), with theater, dance, music, film and literary events in three vicinity outposts. (Check the schedule for events and prices.)
Relax. And a healthy (one mile) walk or — why not? — cab ride past the Barclays Center up historic Flatbush Avenue leads to Grand Army Plaza and entry into Prospect Park, with its 500-plus acres of natural splendor, where you can bring a picnic or just enjoy the view.
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Where to eat
There’s definitely an overlap between “what to do” and “where to eat” in Brooklyn — eating is one of my favorite activities here.
A great way to save on food is to check out some of the growing number of food halls and markets that are taking over derelict warehouse spaces as well as outdoor public expanses. They offer nearly every imaginable cuisine at prices reflective of shared operating costs and no storefronts.
These include the originator of this practice, Smorgasburg, with more than 100 carefully selected vendors operating outdoors on weekends from spring through fall in nearby Williamsburg and Prospect Park. Both locations are easy subway rides from the Borough Hall stations; you could even a walk to the latter.
Dekalb Market Hall is open every day year-round and features more than 40 vendors, with a nod toward the ethnic diversity indigenous to Brooklyn. It’s located in the heart of our triangle, tucked within Fulton Mall, the discount shopping and department store mecca.
A walk along Atlantic Avenue will present myriad Arabic markets for Middle Eastern delicacies, most famously offered by Sahadi’s and the Damascus Bakery, both on the block between Court and Clinton streets.
Farther down Atlantic, toward the waterfront and just a half block in on Henry Street and into the Cobble Hill section, is an authentic, affordable and absurdly casual Roman eatery called Lillo Cucina Italiana that’s tucked into a cozy space and considered one of Brooklyn’s best kept secrets. (Shhhh!)
One of the legends of Brooklyn pizza, Patsy Grimaldi, came out of retirement in 2012 to partner in Juliana’s in DUMBO for signature thin-crust wonders with fresh toppings that shine amid the galaxy of exceptional borough pizzerias.
And for the classic Brooklyn experience, Junior’s Restaurant and Bakery on Flatbush Avenue has been serving up world-class cheesecake and overstuffed sandwiches since 1950.
For a nouveau sandwich experience, there’s Mile End for Jewish deli staples just across Atlantic on Hoyt Street in Boerum Hill.
Where to stay
There’s really no way around paying what may seem like a lot for safe, comfortable and convenient accommodations in New York City, even in Brooklyn. That said, there are many reasonable (not cheap, but reasonable) and attractive options in the Borough Hall area, including boutique hotels that average between $300 and $400 nightly on weekends in high season, in super-modern accommodations complete with a hipster vibe that is so new Brooklyn. Some suggestions include the Nu Hotel, the Even Hotel and the just-opened Ace Brooklyn. More traditional yet still upscale is the Sheraton in Downtown Brooklyn, which often offers bargain rates.
Even lower rates can be found at budget chains, including La Quinta by Wyndham, Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn, all in Downtown Brooklyn, as well as a Holiday Inn Express and a Fairfield Inn & Suites, just outside our Borough Hall triangle, in a neighborhood known as Gowanus.
You might also check out home-sharing sites such as Airbnb, where you can find studios or one-bedrooms in the area for less than $200 a night.
Day trips to Brooklyn
Fine, you insist on staying in that other borough across the river, but you’re still curious about Brooklyn. Besides the aforementioned walks and sites, consider the following easy, interesting day trips from Manhattan.
Visit Green-Wood Cemetery. The R train from Manhattan leaves you a block away from a Gothic archway that serves as a free portal to nearly 500 acres of rolling hills and glacial ponds, monuments and mausoleums spread along the borough’s highest elevation, also the site of the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Brooklyn. Among the beauty and tranquility are the final resting places of New York luminaries including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Boss Tweed and Leonard Bernstein. Themed tours, such as “NY Bootleggers,” are available via trolley.
Explore Coney Island. Take the F train all the way to the last stop, at Stillwell Avenue, for a trip back in time to the boardwalk splendor of Coney Island. Many old, kitschy attractions remain, as does the amusement park, which features the iconic Wonder Wheel and Cyclone roller coaster among more modern rides. Have a Nathan’s hot dog on Surf Avenue, at the place where the hot dog was invented, and visit the Coney Island Museum ($5), which honors the quirky New York gem known as the People’s Playground.
Walk the Brooklyn Bridge. Across from the R train at City Hall is the entrance to the (mostly) wood-planked expanse, just over a mile long, high above the waters where the East River meets New York Harbor. The neo-Gothic masterpiece of suspension cables and stone towers, which dates to 1883, is a sight to behold, as are the views of lower Manhattan, the Brooklyn waterfront, New York Harbor and the other bridges upriver (the Manhattan and Williamsburg, respectively) that connect the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn. The good news is that there’s finally a separate bike lane, so there’s no need to dodge speeding messengers and tourists on wheels. Bring your camera! The F train at York Street, just on the other side, will take you home to Manhattan if a walk back on the bridge is not of interest.
Andrew Cotto is a writer and longtime Brooklyn resident.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on May 3, 2019. It's been updated to reflect new information.