Forget hotels and live like a native in buzzing Brooklyn, suggests Lee Randall
Wandering around Williamsburg, the hipster capital of Brooklyn, brings to mind my late father, who was born in this borough, which was an independent town before its engulfment by New York City in the late 19th century. Dad wouldn’t recognise the place. In fact, even I don’t recognise it. The last time I ventured to this part of my native city was in the 1980s, when we’d joke that you needed to pack heat to get in and out alive. Now – all joking aside – I’d advise you to pack a Mac computer, a trilby, and a refined palate for artisan beer and coffee, else die of shame.
Borough President (think mayor) Marty Markowitz says Brooklyn is the home of everything from indie music to a lively arts and literary scene. Joking that he feels like a dinosaur as the demographics get younger, Markovitz notes Brooklyn boasts the largest lesbian population in the north-eastern United States – ditto Hassidic Jews – and is home to every ethnic group under the sun.
My current travel passion is total immersion. In other words, I want to live like a native. Yes, I’ve spotted the irony, but it’s been a long 14 years, and as I say, this corner of New York’s most populated borough has become a lively haven of coffee shops, chic boutiques, art venues and outdoor street fairs.
The key to living like a local is to rent a private apartment, and for the duration of my late April visit, that meant choosing from the selection at HouseTrip.com The three-bedroom flat we rented was clean, centrally located, and well appointed, and I’d return in a heartbeat. The benefits of flats versus hotels are myriad: the cost is usually cheaper than for the comparable amount of hotel space, especially if you split it with friends; you needn’t worry about the housekeeping schedule (which is great for anarchic families); you can cook for yourselves and save on restaurant bills; and you’re located bang in the middle of a residential area, rather than surrounded by towering hotels and soulless retail outlets full of tourist tat.
Williamsburg sits on the waterfront, so we wandered down to the East River and jumped on a ferry. You can get to Manhattan that way, but we took it south to the part of Brooklyn christened DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), and Brooklyn Bridge Park (brooklynbridgepark.org), an award-winning, 85-acre stretch along 1.3 miles of the East River waterfront.
There’s plenty to explore, including playing fields, sport courts, playgrounds, lawns, running and bicycle paths. There are ornamental, fresh water and salt marsh gardens. On balmy summer nights they screen movies outdoors. There’s also a gorgeous carousel – originally built in Ohio in 1922, and painstakingly restored – housed in a $9 million Jean Nouvel acrylic pavilion that surrounds it like a jewellery box. And let’s not forget the views. You’re right under the belly of the Brooklyn Bridge, and beyond is the incomparable Manhattan skyline.
We stopped at Almondine Bakery (85 Water Street; www.almondinebakery.com), whose motto is “French pastries without the guilt.” Still licking our chops, we crossed the road to Powerhouse Arena (37 Main Street; www.powerhousearena.com), a 5,000-sq ft bookshop cum performance space filled with luscious art books and the like. They had to drag me out.
Another highlight was the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (1000 Washington Avenue; www.bbb.org). A quirk of the weather meant all the cherry blossoms we’d come for were gone, but we were treated to a display of magenta, pale pink, and crimson Japanese peonies. Founded in 1910, and laid out by the firm behind Central Park, it contains more than 1,200 types of plants, including a world-famous rose garden.
Next up, the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway; www.brooklynmuseum.org). What! A! Collection! There’s art from around the world, and glorious period rooms, not to mention a terrific painting collection. Thanks to the Elizabeth A Sackler Center for Feminist Art, it houses the world’s largest selection of work by female artists.
Sunday night it was Brooklyn Bowl (61 Whythe Avenue; www.brooklynbowl.com), which totally redefined my idea of ten-pin bowling. Imagine a live music venue that also happens to have 16 lanes with fully automated scoring. There’s a vast food and drink menu, and it’s all brought to you. We bowled to the sounds of a lively 12-piece salsa band that sang, shimmied and gave dance lessons.
We also ate our way around the city, nearly moving in to Toby’s Estate (125 North 6th Street; www.tobysestate.com). Like every coffee shop in Williamsburg, it’s full of hipsters hunched over their Macs, but push past into coffee heaven. Toby’s runs a brew school, and cupping classes. If you worship the brown bean, do pay them a visit. We also ate our body weight in corn cookies from the famous Momofuku Milk Bar (382 Metropolitan Avenue; http://milkbarstore.com/main/stores/). They’ve captured the taste of a bowl of milky cornflakes in a biscuit.
Dinner one night was at Peter Luger Steakhouse (178 Broadway; www.peterluger.com), world-renowned for its superb dry-aged – and enormous – steaks. A Brooklyn institution since 1887, and deservedly so. We topped up our liquids at the warm and welcoming Cubana Social (70 North 6th Street; www.cubanasocial.com), where 1940s Havana meets Brooklyn. There’s is an extensive and inventive cocktail menu. Also notable was lunch at Al Di La Trattoria (248 Fifth Avenue; www.aldilatrattoria.com), where they offer a local, organic, sustainable take on Italian food, in a sweet little room overlooking a Park Slope corner.
Most memorable by far was Smorgasburg, the Saturday open-air celebration of all things edible (http://www.brooklynflea.com/smorgasburg/ on the waterfront between North 6th and North 7th Street). Roughly 6,000 hungry souls pass through every weekend, and they all leave smiling.
Myriad artisan food producers come to flog everything from chocolate to pickles, to jams and the most delicious beef jerky I’ve ever eaten. Top tip: go in a gang, so you can share nibbles from different stands without filling up or going broke. Look out for www.bonchovie.com/ who bread and fry anchovies to perfection. Don’t skip www.kingscountyjerky.com/ who makes his lean, flavourful jerky from 100 per cent grass-fed, pasture-raised beef, with no antibiotics or hormones. Ex-pat Brits run www.bocatanyc.com – chorizo sandwiches inspired by London’s Borough Market. They also do a chorizo lollipop – grilled then dipped in salted caramel – that is beyond amazing. At www.asiadognyc.com we had hot dogs slathered in kimchi, Korean chilli dipping sauce or sesame slaw. There were other delights, but you get the idea – go on an empty stomach and hoover it up. There’s also a flea market on Sundays, run by the same mob.
They say you can’t go home again, but on the strength of all the wonderful discoveries I made on this trip to New York, I can see myself hopping the Atlantic with greater frequency from here on in.
www.HouseTrip.com has more than 100,000 holiday rentals in 15,000 destinations, including more than 800 in New York City. The three-bedroom flat Lee stayed in starts from £132 a night and sleeps up to six people. To book go to www.housetrip.com/en/new-york-city Lee flew United Airlines non-stop from Edinburgh to Newark, New Jersey. Prices vary, so check their website for special deals, www.unitedairlines.com For general information, visit www.visitbrooklyn.org