Brooklyn, like Baltimore, often plays second fiddle to its larger, more powerful, neighboring metropolis. Yet with 2.5 million residents, Brooklyn is actually a bigger burg than Manhattan, and would be the fourth-largest city in America if it stood apart from New York City’s other four boroughs.
Also like Baltimore, Brooklyn has undergone a renaissance in recent years. From Williamsburg to Carroll Gardens to Park Slope, even all the way down to the municipality’s southern hinterlands in Coney Island, the ripples of revival have spread throughout the borough’s formerly working-class precincts. And as both hipsters and Manhattan-commuting yupsters move in, so do the cafés, bars, movie houses, shops and excellent restaurants.
While most tourists’ idea of visiting New York City is fighting the crowds in Manhattan, you can find pretty much everything you’re looking for in Brooklyn— excellent restaurants, world-class museums, gorgeous open spaces— but without the attitude or the long waits. As a five-year resident of the “Better Borough”— Hey, what’s it to ya?— here’s how I’d recommend spending a long weekend in town.
Start with a stroll through Prospect Park. Opened in 1868, the park was designed by Central Park architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who called Prospect Park their crowning achievement. Along with endless pathways, its 526 acres feature an ancient wooden carousel, horseback riding, a lake with paddleboats, outdoor ice skating in the winter and a zoo that’s the perfect size for smaller children during the warmer months.
In the park’s northwest corner sits Brooklyn’s answer to Paris’ Arc de Triomphe. Grant’s Tomb designer John Duncan constructed the 80-foot-tall, Roman-style Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch, which was unveiled by former President Grover Cleveland in 1892. In warmer months, art exhibits are featured inside the structure, which is covered with sculptures honoring Union soldiers. You can climb to the top and look over the park in one direction and view Manhattan’s distant skyline in the other. The second-largest open-air farmers’ market in New York City also takes place every Saturday in the plaza here.
Steps away is the sumptuous 39-acre Brooklyn Botanic Garden, where something always seems to be in bloom. Stroll through its traditional Japanese garden or along the stones of the Celebrity Path, which mark many of the borough’s most famous residents. Walk all over Walt Whitman, Barbra Streisand, Mary Tyler Moore, Barry Manilow, Jackie Gleason and many others.
After you’ve worked up an appetite exploring the pleasures of Prospect Park, grab lunch a few avenues west in Park Slope, a neighborhood of stately brownstones straight out of Edith Wharton’s “Age of Innocence.” Less than five years ago, Fifth Avenue was considered borderline sketchy, but gentrification has boomed along the avenue. It’s now lined with antique shops, high-end gift stores and tons of good restaurants.
Try Blue Ribbon (280 Fifth Ave., 718-840-0404), a big, open space filled with ladies who lunch, a few suits and ties and smart-looking couples with well-behaved kids in tow. Its menu is eclectic: double-breasted fried chicken with sautéed collards and creamy mashed potatoes, hangar steak with mushrooms and onions and an excellent raw bar. Blue Ribbon Sushi (278 Fifth Ave., 718-840-0408) next door has more of a mysterious feel, with quiet candles complementing the brighter sushi-chef area. I’ve never had better sushi. Last time I was there, I ordered another roll for dessert. It’s that good.
After lunch, head to the sprawling Brooklyn Museum of Art, adjacent to the Botanic Garden, headed up by Arnold Lehman, former honcho at the Baltimore Museum of Art. This BMA is one of the largest art museums in the world and has an excellent permanent collection, ranging from Egyptian artifacts to contemporary installations. However, it’s still best known outside of town for the fact that former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani tried to halt museum funding due to a controversial painting by Chris Ofili that featured both the Virgin Mary and dried elephant feces.
If you’ve got kids in tow (or elephant feces aren’t your thing), visit the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, the oldest one of its kind in the nation and full of hands-on exhibits that touch on science, music, animals and the city itself.
For dinner, my favorite restaurant in Park Slope is cozy Northern Italian trattoria al di la (248 Fifth Ave., 718-783-4565). There’s a familial feel to the intimate, crowded space— we’ve even felt comfortable enough to bring our baby— and a chatty Italian owner who wanders from table to table making excellent suggestions on wine. Our favorite meals include braised rabbit with black olives and polenta as well as casunziei (Venetian ravioli stuffed with beets and ricotta). The restaurant takes no reservations, but if you get there before 7:30, the wait shouldn’t be too long. And if it is, well, Fifth Avenue has a plentiful smorgasbord of other restaurants to choose from.
For the best bagel in Brooklyn, start the day off at Terrace Bagels (224 Prospect Park West, 718-768-3943) in Windsor Terrace (just south of Park Slope). One step above a hole-in-the-wall, Terrace Bagels’ big-armed, heavily accented employees will give you a feel for the Brooklyn working class. You can sit down and check out the cops and work-a-day Joes. The atmosphere here is so authentically Brooklyn, they filmed scenes from “As Good as It Gets” and “Dog Day Afternoon” right down the block.
Follow up breakfast with one of my favorite things about Brooklyn— and something you won’t find in Manhattan— its beaches. Yes, Brooklyn has beaches— at Coney Island, of course. They’re wide, surprisingly decent and have a few public volleyball nets scattered around, as well as playgrounds built into the sand. Coney Island’s boardwalk has seen better days, but some might say its frowsy appearance only adds to its charm. The boardwalk still has a freak show and barkers trying to rope you into games of chance. But the real must-do is a ride on the old wooden Cyclone roller coaster, which, frankly, feels like it’s going to fall apart every time I ride it. Also, check out the creaky yet romantic Wonder Wheel, where many an engagement has commenced.
Just off the boardwalk is the 4-year-old home of the New York Mets’ minor-league squad, the Brooklyn Cyclones, the first pro team to play in the borough since the Dodgers headed west in 1957. An occasional home-run ball makes its way up onto the boardwalk or even out onto the beach. Nearby is Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs (1310 Surf Ave., 718-946-2202), which has been based on Coney Island since 1916. If you happen to come by Independence Day weekend, you can witness the International Hot Dog Eating Contest in which participants see how many dogs (and buns) they can consume in 12 minutes (53 1/2 is the record).
The next beach/neighborhood up is Brighton Beach, which is home to New York City’s largest Russian community. It’s a fascinating place to stroll; everyone speaks Russian and wears fur-lined hats in winter. Check out Mrs. Stahl’s Knishes on the corner of Coney Island and Brighton Beach avenues (718-648-0210). This place has been serving ‘em up for more than 70 years— since the earliest Russian immigrants arrived. Stick around for a full Russian dinner complete with balalaika music and vodka toasts at Tatiana (3152 Brighton 6th St., 718-891-5151).
Or if you’re looking for a slightly hipper restaurant experience, drive on over to Smith Street in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood. Ten years ago, Carroll Gardens was filled with old-time Italian families that sat on the stoops of their brownstones. Then came the culinary revolution. Now the streets are filled with 30-something professionals in well-thought-out casual attire. Some of the borough’s old-school character is gone, but there are great restaurants on nearly every corner.
Try The Grocery (288 Smith St., 718-596-3335), ranked as one of the top 10 restaurants in New York by New York magazine. Its menu changes monthly depending on what’s fresh at the local farmers’ markets. Run by two talented chefs and longtime couple, Sharon Pachter and Charles Kiely, the 30-seat storefront space is intimate and boasts some of the most attentive (take that Manhattan!) service you’ll ever experience.
Before you head back to Baltimore, head down to the DUMBO neighborhood; that’s Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass to you. This is another neighborhood that’s found itself in the last few years. It’s filled with funky artist studios that are well worth exploring, and isn’t far from two appealing museums in nearby Brooklyn Heights (one of the borough’s oldest neighborhoods and home to mostly well-to-do folks who don’t want to stray too far from Manhattan). The Brooklyn Historical Society (128 Pierrepont St.,718-222-4111) is located in a landmark 1881 building— the first in New York City to use locally produced terra cotta in its masonry. It’ll give you a comprehensive and extensive history of the borough. The other, the New York Transit Museum (Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street, 718-694-1600) is located in a 1936 subway station. Walk down the stairway to its ticket booth and check out the fascinating history of New York’s 100-year-old subway system as well as the evolution of its tokens, cars and technologies.
DUMBO boasts two of Brooklyn’s best eating experiences: the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory and the River Café. Both are tucked under the Brooklyn Bridge and provide incredible views of New York Harbor and the lower Manhattan skyline, but they are vastly different.
The River Café is all about high-class dining. It’s churned out some of the nation’s best chefs— Rick Stefan, Larry Forgione, Charles Palmer and plenty more— and some of the city’s best food. French culinary guide GaultMillau calls it one of the best five restaurants in New York and Zagat’s not only rates it as one of the best in the city but also gives it top honors for “Best Décor” for its nautical theme and gorgeous, fresh flower arrangements. Make your reservations way ahead of time because it’s the kind of joint where celebs and heads of state chow down.
The Ice Cream Factory, on the other hand, is extremely laid-back. Its sauces and toppings are all made by River Café pastry chef Ellen Sternau. The ice cream is extremely basic— would you prefer vanilla or chocolate?— but the view of the skyline is the draw. On weekends, a constant flow of wedding parties pose for pictures by the water.
After your meal, take a stroll across the 122-year-old Brooklyn Bridge— long a symbol of the ingenuity of New Yorkers, as it seemed impossible to build when it was conceived in 1855 — and look over the harbor and the reconstruction at Ground Zero. If you really want, step down and touch Manhattan soil before heading back to Brooklyn. But really, there’s no reason to; like Baltimoreans, Brooklynites never leave their hometown. 9
Brooklyn is located approximately 3 1/2 hours from Baltimore. Take I-95 North through Maryland and Delaware. Cross the Delaware Memorial Bridge into New Jersey and continue on I-95/New Jersey Turnpike to Exit 13/Goethals Bridge. Cross the Goethals Bridge onto Staten Island. Follow the Staten Island Expressway to the Verazzanno Bridge, which leads into Brooklyn. Brooklyn Tourism and Visitors Center: 718-802-3846, http://www.brooklyntourism.org.
The Marriott New York City Brooklyn Bridge has a subway stop directly behind it that will get you anywhere you want to go in Brooklyn (333 Adams St., 718-246-7000).
The child- and pet-friendly Bed & Breakfast Marisa isn’t far from the Botanic Garden and Prospect Park (288 Park Place, 718-399-9535).
Bed and Breakfast on the Park, located right on Prospect Park in historic Park Slope, has eight guest rooms, one with views of the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty (113 Prospect Park West, 718-499-6115).
Angelique Bed and Breakfast is child-friendly and has six guest rooms in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood (405 Union St., 718-852-8406).
Free-lancer Mark J. Miller lives in Brooklyn and writes for Details, Men’s Journal, Teen People and Budget Living.