A borough that manages to have the appeal of the big city and still thrives on a small town mom-and-pop store vibe, my hometown Brooklyn has it all. Believe it or not, Brooklyn is not the ghetto (despite what popular music and television may depict). Yeah, the locals can be a little rough around the edges and tend to “tawk” with a heavy “Noo Yawk” accent, but we love a good time and would share a slice of Junior’s Cheesecake or a ride on the Cyclone with a visitor anytime. Fuhgettaboutit!
The Brooklyn Bridge
A Brooklyn landmark and an iconic symbol of the New York City skyline, the Brooklyn Bridge is the largest suspension bridge in the United States. It spans nearly 6,000 feet across the East River connecting Brooklyn to lower Manhattan. The center lane of the bridge is blocked off for pedestrians and irate messengers on bicycles and the slightly more than a mile walk offers a pathway to Manhattan’s City Hall and the most fantastic view of downtown Brooklyn, lower Manhattan, and the East River. Traditionally, most tend to walk, run, or take their wedding photos across the bridge during the day, but the journey is even more fun at night. It is on a clear night that you can really experience (and photograph) the lights of Manhattan’s skyline.
Featured on an episode of Sex and the City, Sea is one of the trendiest restaurants in the Williamsburg area. The waiting area at this Thai joint, especially on a Friday or Saturday night, is packed and usually resembles a club more than an eatery. You can have some drinks at the bar (the mango margaritas are to die for) or hang out on the unique seats (there is a swing and cube chairs) while jamming with the DJ. The music is loud and the atmosphere is pumping and most importantly, the food is delicious and costs less than the drinks. The great service will bring you Martini Crispy Shrimp, Lettuce Rolls, Pad Thai, and something with curry or chilly basil sauce … yummy. The last time I went to Sea, my friends and I wandered down the block to the Lulu Longue, a basement Karaoke Bar below Tacu Tacu restaurant. The beers are cheap, the crowd is diverse, and even though the singing is usually not so good, the private tables and funny atmosphere make it the perfect place to cap off a great Brooklyn night.
Brooklyn Academy of Music
Brooklynites call it BAM and every show and performance that I have ever seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music has had a “BAM!”-like impact on me. At the Harvey Theater, I experienced the most exhilarating live Shakespearean plays from Edward Hall’s all-male ensemble, A Winter’s Tale and The Taming of the Shrew. Forget bragging about Broadway when you get home; a trip to BAM is a trip to authentic New York, and it earns you serious bragging rights. If Shakespeare’s not in town when you’re visiting, see what’s happening in BAM’s main auditorium—the Howard Gilman Opera House (conveniently located next to several subway stations). With operas, dance performances, and other music arrangements, BAM keeps downtown Brooklyn bustling with culture and art.
It may not be as large as Central Park, but the same landscapers who designed Manhattan’s green retreat also designed Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, located right next to Grand Army Plaza. Spanning across 585-acres, the park is home to Brooklyn’s only forest, containing more than 30,000 trees. As you walk through the paths, it becomes hard to imagine that just a few feet away is the hustle and bustle of New York’s most populous borough. Whether you jog through, have a picnic, or visit the Prospect Park Zoo, keep in mind that the park has activities throughout all seasons. In the winter you can rent some skates and hit the ice at Wollman Rink (something that I have not done since the fourth grade when I fell on the ice—ow, it still brings back bad memories). Or in the summer, you can rent a pedal boat and use your legs to explore the sixty-acre lake. Whatever the weather, you’ll see all of Brooklyn’s most beautiful people here.
The Brooklyn Museum
Although most people (including most Brooklynites) believe that you need to go to 5th Avenue in Manhattan to have a real museum experience, The Brooklyn Museum has a respectable and vast collection of artwork from all over the world. The African, Asian, Islamic, and European collections are extensive and the art of the Americas as well as the contemporary pieces are some of the finest in the world. Make sure to check out the Steinberg Family Sculpture Garden, as well as the replica of the Statue of Liberty on the first floor and an original work of Auguste Rodin, Pierre de Wiessant. Whenever I head to the Brooklyn Museum, I enjoy checking out the traveling exhibits. Current exhibits include “Votes for Women” and “Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life.”
The Brooklyn Botanical Gardens
A frequent spot for my elementary school field trips, the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens holds a special place in my heart. The fifty-two-acre landscape of the garden features more than 11,000 different plant species and is the perfect escape from Brooklyn’s urban jungle. There are dozens of different sections to the gardens and a great (and free) way to see all of them is with the guided tours that are offered every Saturday and Sunday afternoon. My personal favorite is the Celebrity Path, located right next to the Shakespeare Garden and leading visitors through Austrian pines, rhododendrons, and daffodils. This path honors more than one hundred artists, performers, and athletes who were either born or have lived in Brooklyn. It is an eclectic group with everyone from Walt Whitman to Harry Houdini to Barbara Streisand. A paver along the path is dedicated to a select few every June on Brooklyn Day and each stone says: “The Greatness of Brooklyn Is Its People.” (A very true statement if I may say so myself!)
What is there not to do in Coney Island? My favorite pastime is relaxing on an off-the-beaten-path part of the beach. Most people will stay by the main attractions, but I head further west down Surf Avenue, the main strip, to West 33rd Street. This area of the beach is open to the public, but its right next to Seagate, a gated community, so it’s the perfect place to catch some waves and rays away from the crowds. When I’ve caught my fill of rays, I head down the main strip again to visit the New York Aquarium and watch the sea lion show (so funny). I grab a hotdog at Nathan’s Famous (and original) location and then I stroll along the boardwalk for a pina colada and “Shoot the Freak” at the carnival-style game booth. You can’t leave Coney Island without riding the infamous Cyclone, a compact wood twister running since 1927 and a New York City Landmark. A nice way to round off a day in Coney Island is to take in a game at Keyspan Park, a minor league ballpark that is home to the Brooklyn Cyclones, a farm team of the New York Mets.
If you want world famous pizza and spumoni (Italian ice cream) a visit to L&B Spumoni Gardens is a must. Serving Brooklynites since 1939, it is one of the most authentic dining experiences in the borough. I love the casual feel of chowing down on the best Sicilian (square) slices this side of Sicily (and trust me, as an Italian, I know good pizza). For a fancier experience, you can dine inside on pasta, seafood, and other delicious assortments of Italian fare. For dessert, there is only one option at Spumoni Gardens—let me spell it out for you: Spumoni. Not the traditional ice cream that Americans are accustomed to, it has fruit and nuts in it and at L&B comes in vanilla, chocolate, and pistachio flavors. If you discover that you love it (as I do and if you don’t, you are crazy), get one of the to-go quarts and take it on the road with you to your next Brooklyn stop.