Brooklyn Bridge: the great divider - Flickr: Carmelobayarcal
By David Clack
When Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Billy Holiday, Lou Reed and practically every other American musician wrote their respective odes to New York, the place they were really singing about was Manhattan: the Empire State Building, ice-skaters in Central Park, steaming manhole covers and hotdog stands on every corner. For decades, New York City began at FDR Drive and ended at 12th Avenue. Recently, though, it seems the shine of the city’s iconic centre has started to dull and more visitors than ever are shifting their attention eastward to Brooklyn; the most populous of NYC’s five boroughs and a thriving scene of artists, artisans and culinary game-changers. But which borough is best for strolling, eating, drinking, spending, contemplating and poking a massive foam finger in the air? Read on to find out.
While less intimidatingly huge than Manhattan’s Central Park, Prospect Park in Brooklyn is home to just as big a variety of flora and fauna, as well as arguably better views (and far less pedi-cabs and horse-drawn carriages to dodge) around its 3.4 mile bike route. Even so, Manhattan takes round one thanks to the High Line (pictured above); a green space built within in a disused (and until the late ‘90s, condemned) elevated railway running through the city’s Meatpacking District and Chelsea neighbourhoods. The second phase of the project was completed in 2011, meaning visitors can now stroll the 19 blocks between West 30th Street and Gansevoort Street without the worry of being obliterated by articulated lorries and taxis, while a series of art installations, film screenings and other events mean that – during the warmer months, especially – entire days can be lost among the colourful blooms.
After decades of stubborn commitment to Chelsea cafés and Soho bistros, New York’s gastronomes are slowly but surely heading over the water to flex their palates. Two of US foodie mag Bon Appétit’s ‘best new restaurants in America 2012’ were in Brooklyn (none were in Manhattan) and the buzz from the east shows no sign of dying down in 2013. One of the borough’s best is three-Michelin-starred grocery store-slash-fine-dining eatery Brooklyn Fare (pictured above, 200 Schermerhorn St, 718-243-0050), where the 18-seat dining room is booked out months in advance for the opportunity to try the 20-plus-course, £138 (plus tax and 20 percent service, naturally) tasting menu. But Kings County’s foodie uprising isn’t all about tweezered herbs and smeared purées – in Williamsburg you’ll find first-rate beer ‘n’ barbecue at Fette Sau (354 Metropolitan Ave, 718-963-3404), un-fussy but technically superb meat and seafood at St Anselm (355 Metropolitan Ave, 718-384-5054) and hangover-slaying brunches at log cabin-esque Isa (348 Wythe Ave, 347-689-3594). If you can’t stand the queues (be prepared to wait at least an hour at weekends) head north to Greenpoint for gigantic, pun-tastic pizzas at Paulie Gee’s (60 Greenpoint Ave, 347-987-3747), or belly-busting Polish grub (complete with live folk tunes) at Karczma (136 Greenpoint Ave, 718-349-1744). Further south, meanwhile, Talde (369 7th Ave, 347-916-0031) in Park Slope serves up American-influenced Thai dishes (think bacon pad Thai and chicken with waffles and coconut syrup) and Bar Corvo (791 Washington Ave, 718-230-0940) deals in spot-on renditions of Italian classics.
Now that American brews like Brooklyn Lager and Sierra Nevada have been exported to practically every bar and supermarket refrigerator in the Western world, the micro-brewery trend still dominating Brooklyn feels a touch past its pour-by date. Thankfully, Manhattan’s cocktail scene is livelier than ever. Though it’s still difficult to find, Apothéke in Chinatown (pictured above, 9 Doyers St (look for the small ‘pharmacy’ sign above a black door), 212-406-0400) shuns the slightly tired speakeasy vibe in favour of a vintage pharmacy theme, with spirits dispensed from dusty-looking potion bottles and mixtures on the ‘prescription list’ making use of everything from butternut squash, bee pollen and ‘local Chinatown aphrodisiacs’. A short walk away, the Mulberry Project (149 Mulberry St, 646-448-4536) does away with the menu altogether, mixing up bespoke drinks based on your chosen spirits and flavours. Don’t like the result? Voice your disapproval and they’ll try again.
While dedicated spenders could easily stay in Manhattan for a fortnight and not set foot in the same shop twice, the trend for new openings still leans toward high fashion concept stores and super-brand flagships. Meanwhile, Brooklyn’s cheaper rents and its increasingly young, affluent, style-conscious community have made it the launch pad of choice for the city’s fashion start-ups and artisan goods-makers. The best way to see the borough’s most interesting new spots is to spend a morning pounding the streets with Made in Brooklyn Tours – a group run by a born-'n'-bred Brooklynite with a passion for the area’s industrial success stories, both past and present. If you’ve only got an hour to spare, there are three must-see spots, all within a couple of minutes’ walk of each other: Gourmet Guild Williamsburg (110 Broadway, 718-388-7726) for luxury, Brooklyn-sourced groceries; Nightwood (111 Grand St, 718-596-1545) for one-off furniture pieces made from reclaimed materials and Brooklyn Art Library (pictured above, 103a North 3rd St, 718-388-7941), where an intriguing international sketchbook project runs alongside a selection of books and gifts.
Art and culture
As impressive and varied as the exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, 718-638-5000) are, the borough’s sole cultural heavyweight was never going to out-do the likes of MoMA (pictured above), the Met (100 5th Ave, 212-535-7710) and the Guggenheim (1071 5th Ave, 212-423-3500). As well as being home to some of the world’s most famous pieces of art (Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ is currently causing hour-long queues at MoMA), Manhattan also has more historical artefacts than you can shake a dinosaur bone at. Head to the American Museum of Natural History (200 Central Park West, 212-769-5100) for animals, plants and geology, the Museum of the American Indian (Independence Ave. Southwest, 202-633-6644) to learn about the country’s pre-colonial past and South Street Seaport Museum (12 Fulton St, 212-748-8600) for a rundown of New York’s stint at the USA’s busiest, most important port.
Manhattan’s somewhat restrictive geography means there’s little chance it’ll ever be home to a sprawling sports stadium. Madison Square Garden (4 Penn Plaza, 212-465-6741) – where the NBA’s New York Knicks play their home games – is undoubtedly the island’s most illustrious sporting venue, but even die-hard Knicks fans would have to admit that the 45-year-old arena is showing its age. The Brooklyn Nets’ Barclays Center (620 Atlantic Ave, 917-618-6700), on the other hand, is a gleaming, space-age monument to basketball, which opened in September 2012 at a cost of £600 million. The cheap seats for a Nets game cost around £50, but talk to a tout once the first quarter gets underway (a game typically lasts about three hours with time-outs and commercially orientated skits accounted for, so don’t panic about missing anything) and you should be able to bag a ticket for less.
And the winner is…
With the two boroughs deadlocked, where you choose to stay really comes down to what you’re looking for. Want great parks, incredible culture and world-class cocktails? Four-star Hotel Chandler (pictured below, 12 East 31st St, 212-889-6363) on the fringes of Korea town is well connected by subway to the best of Manhattan, and boasts a modern, sophisticated feel having just undergone a £6 million renovation. Double rooms start at £154.
For New York’s best food, indie boutiques and an all-American sporting experience, base yourself in Brooklyn. With fewer hotels to choose from, try HouseTrip.com for a short-term residential letting instead. There are currently four properties listed in Williamsburg alone (starting at £127 a night), with Bedford Avenue subway station nearby should you be tempted to venture across the water.
Virgin Atlantic flies from London Heathrow to Newark Liberty International, with sale fares starting at £409 return (for journeys up until March 31).