When most people imagine summer in New York City, it’s often vignettes of the steaming Manhattan streetscape, complete with gushing fire hydrants. But there’s a wealth of fun to be had outside the city’s heart, and it’s all just a train ride away at the bottom of Brooklyn. Kitsch as it may seem, Coney Island – open from Memorial Day to Labor Day – is a quintessential part of the most sweltering season in New York. Even if carnival rides aren’t your thing, it’s worth the hour-long trip from Manhattan for a seaside sojourn. Here’s how to spend your day.

A colourful ferris wheel on Coney Island stands in front of a brilliant blue sky, with colourful railings and placards flanking the tunnel down to the wheel's entrace
The iconic Wonder Wheel of Coney Island still stands tall © Christian Mueller / Shutterstock

Go big on amusement

Once upon a time, in the early half of the 20th century, Coney Island was considered one of the country’s premier summer escapes. While the carnival aspect of it may have lost much of its glamour, Luna Park still holds all the trappings of a solid day of fun. Ride the thrilling Cyclone roller coaster, try to win tchotchkes galore at the many game stands, or marvel at all things (and people) weird at the various sideshows. Yet more rides await at neighboring Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, including the iconic Ferris wheel that gives the park its name.

A hot dog in a white bread bun sits on a paper plate, with an orange box behind it that reads: "More than just the best hot dog'. Blurred in the background is an American flag, just part of the nostalgia on Coney Island
Hot dogs are just one of many calorific treats tempting visitors to Coney Island © Dan Herrick / Lonely Planet

Up your caloric intake

Don’t bother coming to Coney Island if you’re currently counting calories – unless you’ve got a will of iron, that is. Funnel cakes, cotton candy, ice cream and fried food in all its forms are the name of the game in these parts, so you may as well indulge. Nathan’s Famous (named for Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker who popularized the hot dog in American culture in the early 20th century) is a stalwart, as is Ruby’s Bar & Grill. Totonno’s Pizzeria has withstood fire and Hurricane Sandy to continue its almost century-long run of serving some of Brooklyn’s best slices, while Pete’s Clam Stop purveys excellent fried clams, best enjoyed with a generous spritz of lemon. If you lean toward Mexican, head to Dona Zita and then top it all off with a cold craft beer from Coney Island Brewing Co. or a bagful of sweets from the ever-so-charming Williams Candy.

A mother holds a child who is holding her arm up to a large window; on the other side is an inquistive seal
The New York Aquarium is an air-conditioned escape that always proves a worthwhile foray with young children © Dan Herrick / Lonely Planet

Get acquainted with marine life

When the summer heat gets to be too much – as it inevitably does in New York City – plan an hour or two of respite in the shaded, air-conditioned bliss of the New York Aquarium. This kid-friendly destination is a clever way to keep the younger ones entertained while also stimulating their minds. Resident creatures include sharks, seals, penguins, walruses, sea otters, moray eels, rays, sea turtles, red-bellied piranhas and many others. To avoid the crowds, try not to plan your visit on a weekend or Wednesday afternoon.

A vibrant street art mural on a woman's face covers he side of a brick wall that is coloured aquamarine; in the background is an amusement ride
Street art on display within Coney Island's Luna Park © Mikki Brammer / Lonely Planet

Take in some street art

For a touch of culture, stroll past the Coney Art Walls, an open-air museum comprising 35 vibrant murals curated by Joseph J Sitt and Jeffrey Deitch. The freestanding walls showcase the talents of global street art superstars and local and emerging graffiti artists, alongside live music and food trucks on weekends. Keep in mind that it doesn’t open until noon, so plan your visit accordingly.

Catch a minor league baseball game

A ball game is all the more enjoyable when it’s seasoned by sea air and has a striking sunset as its backdrop. While the skills on show at Brooklyn Cyclones baseball games mightn’t be as sharp as what you’d see at Yankee Stadium or Citi Field, the atmosphere more than compensates for it. The minor league team (which takes its name from the nearby rollercoaster) plays its home games at MCU Park, right next to the Coney Island Boardwalk, from April to September. Better yet, you can usually get tickets for a song.

A wooden-and-iron bench sits on the boardwalk, with the empty sands of Brighton Beach in the background.
The quieter sands of Brighton Beach are worth the 10-minute stroll © Mikki Brammer / Lonely Planet

Get in some beach time

While you can always try to claim a stretch of sand on the beach directly in front of Luna Park, do yourself a favor and stroll 10 minutes down the boardwalk toward Brighton Beach where the vibe is decidedly more relaxed. Lifeguards are on duty from 10am to 6pm daily between Memorial Day and Labor Day (swimming isn’t permitted outside those hours). And if you want to avoid the overpriced, not-so-healthy Coney Island fare, stop by the nearby Gourmanoff market, which is housed in an old theater, for some picnic provisions. Brighton Beach wears the nickname Little Odessa thanks to its resident Russians and Ukrainians, which means you’ll also be able to pick up all manner of Eastern European and Russian treats.

Enjoy a seaside concert

Finish off your day at the seaside with an open-air concert at the Ford Amphitheater, which attracts big-name acts to its roster every summer (recent line-ups have ranged from Wu-Tang Clan and Wiz Khalifa to Bell Biv DeVoe, Bobby Brown and Toby Keith). The 5000-seat venue’s covered roof means that rain won’t spoil the show, but hopefully, you luck out with a dusky summer twilight sweeping the sky instead.

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