Why you need to escape Manhattan to truly see New York
The Boroughs of New York
It’s well worth stepping away from the madness of Manhattan to explore the beautiful boroughs that surround it. Brooklyn and Queens, along with the Bronx and Staten Island were absorbed into New York City in 1898, yet each of them still have their own unique atmosphere. Even if you just add two of these boroughs to your itinerary when you plan a trip to New York, it not only opens up a world of options for sightseeing but also a greater appreciation for the scale and variety of one of the world’s most exciting cities. Our trip to New York, lucky for us, was for two whole weeks so we were able to spend 9 nights in Manhattan, 1 night up in Tarrytown and 4 nights in Long Island City in Queens. Not everyone gets the chance to spend so long in New York but even if you only have a few days, it’s still easy to get around the boroughs by subway and they absolutely deserve attention.
Sleeping in Long Island City, Queens
Neil cleverly picked the perfect place to stay in Long Island City that was just one stop on the subway from our hotel in Manhattan, so we wouldn’t have to drag our bags too far. The snow was thick on the ground the morning we checked out of our Manhattan hotel but we got such a lovely welcome at The Local NYC and, with our creamy flat whites from the onsite café/bar, we were warmed back up in no time. You can read a more detailed review and see lovely images of this cool hostel on our first New York blog post.
Gantry State Plaza Park, Long Island City
The Local NYC hostel is ideally located around the corner from the subway station and within minutes walk of some excellent restaurants, bars and breweries. Our usual plan of just wandering with no strict agenda worked out great for us in Queens. Seeking out a view of Manhattan, we headed for Gantry State Plaza, a riverfront park with a promenade that passes right underneath the iconic Pepsi Cola and Long Island City signs.
Only a handful of people besides ourselves were out braving the icy wind like the families who couldn’t resist the opportunity to go out and build a snowman. The crisp white snow contrasted beautifully with the silver skyline across the water and made the massive black towers of the old Rail Road facility loom like iron giants over us. The machinery used in these gantries used to lift whole train carriages loaded with freight for transfer across the East River. The transfer bridges once helped to move 800 tons of cargo in fifteen minutes. They were a vital part of New York’s freight network before the highways and airports were constructed. It must have been a sight to see back in its heyday!
Big Alice Brewery, Long Island City
Wandering back along the riverfront, our thirst got the better of us and Big Alice Brewery provided a respite from the cold. It’s a cozy local brewery that gets creative with small-batches and their on-site tap room gives you a chance to try the whole selection. Our platter of beers included Beetroot Pils, Lemongrass Kolsch, Sweet Potato Beer, Coffee Stout and NY Pils. I enjoyed the stout as I’m a Guinness drinker but Neil’s favourite was the NY Pils. The Beetroot Pils definitely would take some getting used to! The freezing temperatures outside kept us from leaving too soon and we spent a couple of hours tasting and chatting to the locals and the owners of the brewery. It was surprising how busy it was, given it’s such an unassuming entrance on an industrial side street. It certainly is one of Long Island City’s hidden gems.
BBQ heaven in Long Island City
Our bellies rumbled and told us it was time to find dinner. Our itinerary wasn’t strict except when it came to our meals! The minute the decision was made to visit New York for the first time, we made a list of foods we just had to make a priority on our trip. Manhattan had provided our fix for classic New York slices and street-side hot dogs so what would the boroughs introduce us to? In Long Island City, right around the corner from our accommodation we found BBQ heaven in John Brown’s Smokehouse. Knowing how popular it is, we followed local advice and arrived early. Opening the door sent a blast of heady, smokey, meaty, aromas into our faces, triggering our taste buds into a mouth-watering state of anticipation. Quick off the mark, we made sure to be clear and loud, giving our order at the counter, eye-balling the busy cooks behind slicing through trays of blackened brisket. It wasn’t a long wait for the food and we ended up standing at the bar to eat but it didn’t matter whatsoever.
Our selection of smokey ribs, aforementioned brisket, juicy pulled pork, burnt-end beans and tangy slaw didn’t last long enough for us to miss a chair! Up to that point in our lives, any and all BBQ food we tried, completely paled in comparison to this experience. No description could do it justice! There was only room for a couple of beers in a cool local bar called Dominie’s Hoek, before heading to bed to digest it all!
The Brooklyn Bridge
There was a very tentative plan to get up for the sunrise while in New York. Still, even though the walk across the Brooklyn Bridge is legendarily gorgeous at that time of day, neither of our lazy as*es fully committed to the idea!
The day we picked for the walk, though, was a stunner, albeit, absolutely freezing cold. After Neil bought breakfast to cook in our hostel kitchen (scrambled eggs cooked in Kerrygold butter, all the way from Ireland!) and our very own cups of Irish tea (yes we brought teabags to New York!), two subway rides took us to the start of the Brooklyn Bridge walk. It was still relatively early in the day so thankfully, it wasn’t completely jammed with people.
This ended up being one of our favourite attractions in New York. It’s the best way to appreciate the incredible feat of engineering and sheer scale of the Brooklyn Bridge, the first of its kind in the world when it was built back in 1869. The cold wind sweeping down the East River, and the epic views, took our breath away. It took us almost 2 hours to get across, we were so distracted by photo opportunities. Although it was a shame to miss the sunrise, it still didn’t disappoint.
The advice to start the walk from the Brooklyn side is worth abiding by because you get the best views of the Manhattan skyline along the entire walk, which are some of the best to be found in the city.
Back to Manhattan
Although this is dipping back into Manhattan, it was only a short hop from the end of the Brooklyn Bridge, to the One World Trade Centre. In our previous post about seeing New York’s attractions with CityPASS, there was a choice between the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum and the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. It was on the advice of a couple of seasoned visitors that we chose not to visit the 9/11 Museum as the Memorial itself is free and there was a lot more variety to the Intrepid Museum. The Memorial is, without a doubt, very moving. Named by the artist as Reflecting Absence, each missing tower is marked by a dark granite crater, with waterfalls draining into reflective pools set inside. The craters are engraved with the names of almost 3,000 victims from that day and each of the victim’s birthdays are remembered with a single yellow rose, placed by their name.
One World Trade Centre & The Oculus
It’s hard to miss this giant representation of a dove in flight, with its bright white lines stretching up towards the One World Trade Centre skyscraper.
It’s the world’s most expensive train station, costing $4 billion dollars to build. It replaced the station that was destroyed on 9/11 and also houses a vast, gleaming shopping mall. Neil thoroughly enjoyed flexing his architectural photography skills here, while I happily helped people with their selfies inside the mall, delighted with the excuse to stay out of the cold.
Sunset at DUMBO
With just over an hour to go before sunset, it was time to get back across to Brooklyn and explore DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). Neil’s location scouting skills were put to the test, looking for an iconic composition of one of New York’s famous bridges, bathed in the beautiful light of sunset. Both of us thought we were looking for a particular angle of the Brooklyn Bridge and just couldn’t find it. Then came our “aha” moment.
As Neil detailed in his post on Photographing New York City, we just needed to follow the flowing dresses and fedora hats of the hipster trail to this iconic Instagram spot. Check out his post for how he managed to beat the crowds there. As the golden hour turns the buildings red and orange, the riverfront parks at DUMBO are perfect for a sunset stroll.
The views of the Brooklyn Bridge and the city skyline beyond are best enjoyed at Pebble Beach and Jane’s Carousel and in winter there’s hardly anyone around.
Neil continued along to Pier 1 for the blue hour to capture one of his favourite views of New York City while I sheltered from the cold inside a local Italian for a quiet drink. Head over to Neil’s photography post to read about how he got on.
Southern Comfort Food in Long Island City
After over an hour, the cold got the better of Neil down at the water so we headed back to Queens to have another brand new food experience. Sweet Chick had been on our radar since the early planning stages of the trip because: Fried Chicken and Waffles! This is not something found anywhere in Ireland and we have to admit, it sounded completely weird to us. Standing outside Sweet Chick, our hesitation almost got the better of us but our curiosity won out in the end. Our lovely waitress, once she knew it was our first time trying this quintessential American comfort food, explained everything we needed to know with kindness and patience. Grateful for her advice to share a main and try a variety of sides, we puzzled over how fried chicken and waffles could possibly be a tasty combination.
Everything arrived together, which we love, and along with enormous pieces of crispy fried chicken and golden waffles, we just had to include Corn Bread, Mac & Cheese, Pork Belly Nuggets and Braised Collard Greens. It’s safe to say our first southern food experience was well-rounded! The Pork Belly Nuggets were the star of the show with Kimchi, Blueberry Balsamic Glaze and Pickled Watermelon. Although the buttermilk chicken was the perfect combination of crispy goodness and moist, tender chicken, our brains just couldn’t marry the savoury with the sweetness of the waffles and sweet, fruity butters. That’s not to say our plates weren’t empty at all, we polished off everything! A foodie road trip through the southern United States, we reckon, is the only way to be completely sure about this particular cuisine!
Train 7 to Flushing
Slowly waking from a food coma the next morning, we looked out to see a bright sunny day but with plenty of snow on the ground. So, what were we to do? Flushing Meadows Park came up on Neil’s radar when he saw a photo of the Unisphere, a huge stainless steel globe commissioned for the New York World’s Fair in 1964.
Flushing itself was mentioned in a few blogs we read as the best neighbourhood to try Chinese soup dumplings. Our hostel was only around the corner from the Train 7 stop on its way to Flushing, so it was an easy decision to take a little excursion for the day. What we didn’t know was the train would actually be overground and elevated above the roads for the entire journey, giving us smashing views of the Manhattan skyline and the myriad of snow-covered trains and tracks below us.
Flushing Meadows Park
The stop for Flushing Meadows Park is actually right at the New York Mets Stadium which was a nice surprise for us. Not that we’re into Baseball, but we’ve heard mention of the New York Mets enough to know that this place is a big deal for New Yorkers. Probably due to the fact it was a very cold February day, there was hardly a soul around as we walked down to the park.
Of course, we again completely underestimated the size of the place! The Unisphere gradually grew in size as we approached it, and as usual, it was bigger than we expected. The snow from the previous night still clung to the top of the globe like the ice of the Arctic Circle which was particularly cool looking!
Quickly realising there was no way we’d be able to cover the ground of the entire park, our focus remained on photographing the Unisphere and the bronze sculpture called ‘Freedom of the Human Spirit’.
It would have been extra photogenic if the huge fountains and pools were in full flow. It must be a beautiful respite from the blazing heat during the summer, although it is hard to imagine being roasting hot when you’re surrounded by deep snow.
The real Chinatown
After another 10 minute ride back on Train 7, we climbed the steps of Flushing’s subway station up onto street level and both of us immediately thought we’d been transported to a suburb in Beijing. Manhattan’s Chinatown, has nothing on Flushing! It turns out it’s one of the world’s largest and fastest growing Chinatowns, and New York’s largest.
The bustling streets, busy with local shoppers and workers are filled with Asian specialty stores, bakeries with funny signs explaining how happy their bread will make you and hawkers selling Chinese newspapers, fresh fish, and colourful fruit and veg. Overhead, planes fly unnervingly close to the top of the buildings on their way in and out of LaGuardia Airport, just across Flushing Bay. Strolling the streets, with wide eyes and mouths agape, we felt like we were backpacking again!
Dumplings to die for in Chinatown
It was here, that we both had our very first experience of soup dumplings. It’s safe to say that these are the most authentic and delicious soup dumplings we will ever have without actually going to China. The hard working cooks of Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao, who you can actually witness expertly making dumplings by hand at the kitchen entrance, fed us one of our most memorable meals of the entire trip.
It still hasn’t been settled if it belongs on the top of our list of New York meals or second from the top (John Brown’s Smokehouse is the competition). Suffice it to say we made fools of ourselves spraying steamy, pork soup all over the place as we bit down on the soft, yielding dumplings, desperately trying to keep them steady between chopsticks. To be honest, we really didn’t care as, besides the fact that everyone else was too busy lapping up their own platefuls to notice, the taste, the aroma and the joy of eating these fluffy parcels was way more important! We couldn’t resist sampling the rest of the menu and ordered scallion and beef pancakes and pork gyoza. With a never ending refill of green tea from the busy but incredibly friendly waitress it was perfect fuel for a winter’s day.
A Walk around Williamsburg
Our plan to go walking around Williamsburg turned out to be more of a waddle after all that glorious Chinese food so we took the afternoon easy. Although the temperatures were plummeting by the hour, the sun was still shining and Williamsburg looked mighty pretty with colourful street art contrasted against the brownstone houses and cute, quirky cafes on every block. Brooklyn Brewery is here but unfortunately it was closed so no tastings for us. However, we did find, without looking for it, the mecca for hot sauce lovers, HEATONIST.
After sampling a few of an unbelievable collection of hot sauces, our purchases were limited to the extremely mild options. Our taste buds didn’t know what hit them. Ireland simply doesn’t do hot sauce! Our answer to the fiery pain? Why, beer of course! I kept the seats warm in Soft Spot (read more about it here) while Neil headed for East River State Park, a couple of blocks away to capture another stunning view of the Manhattan skyline. The park is also a bird sanctuary and must be lovely on a summer’s day. In -6 degrees Celsius, with a vicious wind off the East river, not so much!
Our lovely warm bed back at the hostel beckoned us home but not before we found yet another awesome food experience, this time off a taco food truck on Vernon Boulevard, Los Tacos City Habanero taco truck. Admittedly, the few beers on us may have enhanced the experience but they were seriously tasty tacos. We’re still debating if they beat Blockheads which we review in our last post.
Knowing our last full day was upon us, we wiped away our tears and packed our bags so we wouldn’t have to face it that night when we got back to the hostel. By the time we finished packing we were desperate for sugar and caffeine so picked out two places in Brooklyn, quite close to each other that would satisfy both needs. A nice and easy bus journey, south through Williamsburg and on into Brooklyn, gave us a great sightseeing tour without having to use our feet. The traffic was of no consequence as we didn’t have a strict itinerary for the day, wanting our last 24 hours to be as chilled as possible. Kitten Espresso Bar on Franklin Avenue is a lovely little specialty roaster and cafe with classical music and a little education on coffee from the friendly local barista.
Our needs were well and truly met here and we enjoyed chatting away about coffee, New York and life in general. Literally 1 minute away, we gorged on the freshest donuts we’ve ever had in Dough. You can see the donuts being crafted and cooked with care in the back of the shop and there’s a huge range of glazes and fillings to choose from. Beyond yum!
Brooklyn Botanic Gardens
The past two weeks of walking told us our feet needed a break so we jumped back on the local bus to make our way to Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. The plan was to visit the Botanic Gardens and the Brooklyn Museum before dinner but we ended up enjoying the Botanic Gardens so much it took up the whole afternoon.
Although the gardens outside were covered in snow and nothing was in bloom in winter, the glasshouses alone were reason enough to visit. Covering everything from deserts to rainforests and bonsai rooms to steamy jungles it is a wonderful collection of beautiful flora, brilliantly presented and incredibly educational. Put it on your itinerary!
Romantic last meal in Barbocino Pizza
Brooklyn Botanic Gardens followed by a long, leisurely dinner in Barboncino Pizza felt like our New York first date! I know some people might say, it’s just another pizza, but I’m inclined to put Barboncino Pizza near the top of our best New York meals because of the whole experience from start to finish.
It was early enough when we walked through the door so it was virtually empty and it meant we could really take our time over our last New York feast. Our waitress was lovely, making us feel at home and expertly choosing a sumptuous selection of wines for us to go with each course.
Jazz gently oozed around the dimly lit tables as we tucked into creamy buffalo mozzarella, sweet vine-ripened tomatoes, marinated in balsamic and extra garlicky wood-fired bread. Then, our pizzas. Wow! Sopressata Piccante with a swirl of the local favourite, Mike's Hot Honey and Neapolitan Meatballs had us making almost sorrowful faces at each other as we tried our best to slow down and savour each bite. As if that wasn’t enough to win us over, the real-deal Italian gelato completed the evening.
It was the perfectly romantic end to a perfect day of a perfect trip to New York! We’ll be living off it for years to come and vow to return for more.