By Esme Benjamin
When most tourists think of New York, they picture the distinctive landmarks of Manhattan. However, if you want to experience life the way the cool kids live it, Brooklyn should feature heavily on your trip itinerary. Here are the borough’s best neighborhoods, along with what to see and do in each one.
Park Slope is Brooklyn’s most family-friendly neighborhood — a parent’s picture-perfect dream of stately brownstones, tree-lined pavements, excellent schools and community gardens. Yet, it avoids feeling like a sleepy suburb thanks to the enviable line-up of upscale restaurants, one-off boutiques, wine stores and independent coffee shops.
Itinerary: Load up on vegan treats and organic fruit at the weekend farmers’ market, then head for a picnic in Prospect Park, Brooklyn’s answer to Central Park, complete with a zoo, seasonal skating rink and lake. Afterward, dither over the unusual ice-cream flavors at L’Albero Dei Gelati, and wander down Fifth Avenue to browse for women’s clothes and local art in St.HROUDA, vintage treasure at Beacon’s Closet and vinyl at Fifth Avenue Records. When hunger strikes, you’ll have many choices. Try elegant Italian at Fausto or contemporary Mexican at Fonda, then catch a band or an up-and-coming comedian at Union Hall.
Small businesses, artisan food stores, Italian bakeries and pretty parks give Carroll Gardens a laid-back village vibe. It’s home to a close-knit Italian-American community, and foodies will love the range of restaurants, old-fashioned delis and pizzerias that make it a dream dining area.
Itinerary: Brunch at Buttermilk Channel should not be missed. Fill up on house-cured lox, pecan pie french toast and bloody marys, then walk it off in leafy Carroll Park. If you’re lucky, you might catch a theater performance by Smith Street Stage, which aims to present classic stories such as Shakespeare’s best-loved plays to a new audience. Next, gorge on an ice-cream sundae, loaded with gooey caramel and house-made peanut butter, at Brooklyn Farmacy and Soda Fountain, inside a 1920s apothecary. If you can still move, pay a visit to Bar Great Harry for vintage pinball machines and craft beers.
First settled by Dutch farmers in the 1640s, Cobble Hill retains a quirky, historical feel with its cobblestone streets, picturesque brownstones, ornate churches and neighborhood parks. Young professionals and literary types love its independent art galleries, bookshops, pavement cafes and antique stores.
Itinerary: Stroll Cobble Hill’s leafy side streets and peek into the hidden garden on Warren Place Mews before visiting the Invisible Dog Art Center for three floors of artist studios, performances, workshops and pop-up events. Afterward, tuck into one of New York’s best pizzas at Sam’s, the oldest restaurant in Cobble Hill and a neighborhood institution. Finish the night at Clover Club — a cozy cocktail bar with leather booths, a real fire and live jazz.
Brooklyn’s northernmost neighborhood has two distinct characteristics, which you can see when looking at the adjacent roads of Manhattan Avenue and Franklin Street. The former offers a shabby but delightful arrangement of cheap grocery stores, new-age crystal shops and Polish diners selling pleasingly stodgy pierogies, while the latter is home to converted warehouses featuring indie boutiques, candlelit bars and cafes serving CBD-laced coffees. Greenpoint is both impressively on-trend and charmingly stuck in a time warp, which is what makes this neighborhood so appealing.
Itinerary: Catch the G train to the Nassau Avenue station, right by McCarren Park, before meandering up Manhattan Avenue and stopping at Peter Pan Donut and Pastry Shop — a dessert institution for more than 60 years. Continue to the very top of the street where you’ll find the Glasserie, and order some meze shareable plates and plenty of salty, griddled flatbread. After you’re finished, walk down Franklin Street and shop at boutiques such as Home of the Brave before heading to the water for drinks at the Brooklyn Barge — a seasonal boat-bar with views of the Midtown Manhattan skyline over the lapping East River.
The tree-lined streets of Fort Greene have attracted artists of all ilks over the years. The neighborhood has a palpable creative vibe, with a diverse entertainment scene and cultural institutions that are worth making the trip across the East River to experience.
Itinerary: Take the G train to the Clinton-Washington Avenues station and stop for breakfast and a coffee at Maison May. Wander through Fort Greene’s famous park, pausing to admire the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, and down to BAM (the Brooklyn Academy of Music) to catch a show. Next, make your way towards the navy yard and drink wine at a rooftop vineyard before grabbing dinner at Karasu — a secret Japanese bar and restaurant hidden behind Walter’s (which also serves great food).
Most visitors don’t explore much beyond the famous Grimaldi’s Pizzeria and Juliana’s Pizza after they exit the Brooklyn Bridge. However, if you venture farther south and away from the waterfront park (which is wonderful but increasingly crowded with tourists taking photographs), you’ll find brownstone-lined streets named after fruits, unselfconscious neighborhood establishments and blossom trees streaming pink petals like confetti.
Itinerary: Take the A or C train to High Street and head straight to Clark’s Restaurant — a proper neighborhood diner with fast, friendly service and eggs galore. Walk down Orange Street towards the water to take in the view of downtown Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge from benches along the elegant Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Exit at the opposite end onto Remsen Street and pick up a pizza from nearby Dellarocco’s (as delicious as Grimaldi’s and Juliana’s but without the wait). Take it down to the waterfront park for an impromptu picnic on the grass.
You’ve probably seen that famous shot of Dumbo on Instagram — the one featuring a cobbled street lined with warehouses and the Empire State Building in the distance, peeking between the towers of the Manhattan Bridge. It’s scenes like this that made Dumbo (which stands for “down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass”) a popular spot for visitors and movie-biz location scouts even before its recent waterfront revamp, which now includes a ton of busy restaurants, shops and bars.
Itinerary: Take the F train to the York Street station and head down the hill until you reach Brooklyn Roasting Company — a cavernous coffee shop that roasts its own beans on-site. Explore the park alongside the river, passing under the Manhattan Bridge and past the carousel. Make the loop back along Water Street until you come to Washington Street — the location for “that photo.” Then do some shopping along the side roads, hitting the Brooklyn Flea for market-stall finds, Front General Store for impeccably curated vintage items and Powerhouse Arena for coffee-table books.
True community spirit can be hard to find in ever-transforming New York City, but Bed-Stuy has it in droves. Beautiful Victorian architecture, outdoor movies in the park, block parties and Sunday service at church define this neighborhood — not to mention a culinary and bar scene that’s unpretentious and lots of fun.
Itinerary: Fill your tummy with the best Southern-style fried chicken at Peaches HotHouse or a hearty-healthy dish at colorful retro restaurant Fancy Nancy. Bed-Stuy has a strong contingent of resident musicians, which becomes apparent after dark. Catch a DJ by candlelight at Doris, dance to live reggae at Lovers Rock, or check out the evening’s entertainment at C’mon Everybody.
Williamsburg’s particular brand of cool has evolved in the past decade, settling into a more grown-up and increasingly expensive version of hipster culture. Bedford Avenue and the surrounding streets are full of hyped-up restaurants, fancy cocktail bars and trendy boutiques — each with a thriving Instagram account, naturally.
Itinerary: Take the L to the Bedford Avenue station and wander up and down the street window-shopping. Stop at Shelter for pizzas and empanadas amid rustic Wild West decor, then make your way to the Gutter for bowling. As the sun starts to set, make a beeline for the William Vale’s wraparound rooftop terrace for cityscape views and strong drinks.
The locals in Bushwick are working hard with the community board to stop their neighborhood from going the way of nearby Williamsburg — besieged by swanky restaurants and bars that change the mood of the area. Although it has been undeniably gentrified over the past two decades, Bushwick still has a proliferation of street-art murals and warehouse gallery spaces that speak to its renegade artistic spirit.
Itinerary: Start your day with a street-art tour to visit Bushwick’s famous graffitied walls. Afterward, head to Nowadays for drinks al fresco, DJs and games; there’s an adjacent indoor space if the weather isn’t cooperating. Fill up on dinner at the beloved Roberta’s pizza place, then order a zodiac-themed cocktail at super-hip bar Mood Ring. End the night dancing in costume beneath aerial performers at a House of Yes party — don’t forget to search for the semi-secret hot tub.
There’s almost a fishing-village feel when you’re close to the Red Hook waterfront, and the neighborhood’s relative seclusion (it’s not accessible by subway) gives it a leisurely pace not traditionally associated with New York. You might almost forget you’re in the city, that is, until you look out across the water and notice how close the Statue of Liberty is.
Itinerary: Catch the B61 bus and jump off for brunch at Fort Defiance — a vintage-feel bar operated by a writer-bartender. Next, head to Pioneer Works and peruse whatever exhibits, performances and programs this cultural center currently has on offer. When you’re ready for food again, stroll down to Brooklyn Crab for a lobster roll and a game of cornhole. Finally, head next door to Sunny’s — a ramshackle bar with live music that’s been around since the 1890s.
Once famous for its polluted canal (said to be the Mafia’s go-to area for dumping bodies), the Gowanus of today is better known for its thriving population of artists, who work out of huge converted warehouses. While the neighborhood has undoubtedly gotten fancier — there’s even a Whole Foods — it’s also home to unique activities you won’t find anywhere else in the city.
Itinerary: Kick things off with a steam and a soak at backyard bathhouse cityWell, a short walk from the R train at Union Street. Continue the cozy vibe at Black Mountain Wine House — a vino and cheese spot with a cabin aesthetic and a working fireplace. When you’ve had your fill of refreshments, walk over to the Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club — a kitschy-cool space with full-size shuffleboard courts and cocktails served in Mason jars — or try Kick Axe, where you can throw axes at targets while boozing.
Siobhan Grogan contributed additional reporting to this article.