Just a few decades ago, Brooklyn was seen as the poor cousin of glamorous Manhattan – industrial buildings and working-class immigrant communities were the hallmarks of this NYC borough. That all changed when Manhattan real-estate prices skyrocketed and New Yorkers crossed the East River in search of precious space.
Brooklyn has become a hub of creativity for artists, and a byword for anything considered cool, while also retaining the strong community bonds that have thrived here for generations. Who else is better placed to parody the hipsters that descend upon the borough than the witty, wonderful locals? Brooklyn's big and there's a lot to cover so we've distilled the very best here; a handy guide to the artistic and creative hub of NYC.
Where to go for the best music, performing arts and film
The vibe: historic venues, new artists and vibrant creativity
The creative energy that makes Brooklyn pulse is not new – just look at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for proof. With roots that go back to 1861 when it was founded as the home of the Philharmonic Society of Brooklyn, today it’s a major destination with three gorgeous historic performance spaces hosting a dazzling roster of daring or even avant-garde theater and opera companies, musicians and dance troupes from around the planet. There’s also a cinema and bustling café.
With an influx of young artists has come the arrival of many galleries and concert venues. The Music Hall of Williamsburg, Bell House and Brooklyn Bowl are dependable go-to’s for indie bands, from emerging and buzzed-about to noted national acts, DJs and burlesque performances. Chat to other gig goers and follow the crowd to the after-party – you'll have some of the best nights of your life when you go with the flow in Brooklyn and skip from party to party with new friends.
The number of film legends who have called Brooklyn home (see: Spike Lee, Barbra Streisand, Rita Hayworth, Anne Hathaway and Mel Brooks to name just a few) gives a little insight into why it's still a hotbed for movie production and home-grown talent. If you're a film buff in need of a fix, you can't leave Brooklyn without experiencing one of its independent cinemas. Nitehawk, a cinema known for serving restaurant-caliber food, local beer and craft cocktails you can enjoy while the movie’s playing, has locations in Williamsburg and Prospect Park. First-run films, thematic series and showings of 35mm movies are on the calendar. For something a bit quirkier, the Spectacle Theater in Williamsburg screens arthouse films, B-movie classics and more in a former bodega.
Where to eat
The vibe: food trucks and halls, high-end dining, all with global cultural influences
Brooklyn wouldn’t be Brooklyn without its vast assortment of food trucks, progressive restaurants, homesteaders and food-centric startups. Of course, Brooklynites always enjoyed good eats, especially immigrant enclaves, so there are plenty of longstanding institutions to explore, too. Among the many, check out the family-run Italian joint Bamonte’s, the famous slices at Di Fara, the filling borscht at Varenichnaya in Brighton Beach and the pierogis at Karczma, one of the few remaining Polish eateries in Greenpoint.
But the locals’ entrepreneurial spirit is especially evident in the countless creative businesses that have proliferated the city in the 21st century. Steve’s Key Lime Pie, which has been turning out its indulgent namesake dessert since 2002, sits by the water in Red Hook. Ample Hills Creamery, known for its inspired ice cream flavors and organic ingredients, has 15 shops around the country but its factory store in Red Hook is a must for a supreme scoop.
Food halls have become a sensation in a number of American cities, and Brooklyn is certainly no exception. After all, they’re an excellent way for new small businesses to grow. Downtown Brooklyn has DeKalb Market, which features stalls by well-known food purveyors, like Katz’s Deli, interspersed among newer operations. Gotham Market at the Ashland is conveniently located near BAM and the Barclays Center. And the food hall at Industry City, six million square feet of renovated warehouse space, features plenty of options for people who gather at the waterside complex here to shop for local goods, stock up on Japanese groceries from Japan Village, watch free outdoor movies or enjoy a concert.
Only in Brooklyn
The vibe: museums, bars and unique treasures you'll only find in Brooklyn
Brooklyn didn’t become a barometer of cool by following the pack. A large part of its allure is the fact that you find things here that are singular enough to warrant a trip from Manhattan – or from anywhere for that matter. There’s the century-old carousel in Prospect Park, and the stately Victorian-era Weir Greenhouse across from the equally old Green-Wood Cemetery, which is presently being converted into the cemetery’s visitors center. There’s plenty in the nightlife arena likely to turn heads, too, like the Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club, a bar where the geriatric pastime is reborn as a hipster sport du jour, no irony required.
Museums are similarly one in a million here. The Puppet Library, tucked away in a Brooklyn College building, presents over 100 puppets arranged on bleachers in a gymnasium. The City Reliquary, in Williamsburg, is a goldmine of New York City ephemera, memorabilia and vintage treasures of civic life from long ago. Does anyone remember subway tokens?
For a grander, more focused look at New York’s history, check out the New York Transit Museum. Set in a subway station that was decommissioned in 1936, it chronicles the city’s complex public transportation system through artifacts, maps, construction equipment, engineering devices and vintage cars. If there’s anywhere to get a thorough understanding of how NYC is constantly on the move, it’s here. It's a great kid-friendly attraction for vacationing families.
This article was originally published on September 24, 2019.