New York City was built because of the Hudson River, but the East River – a tidal strait connecting the New York Harbor with Long Island Sound – has always been where the action is.
While the East River Ferry is no more, the service now falls under the catchall of NYC Ferry, connecting stops along the East River. Here’s how to explore some of the best of neighborhoods along those stops.
From the Long Island City stop in Queens, admire Manhattan's skyscrapers © Mikki Brammer / Lonely Planet
The heart of Queens' art scene, Long Island City is a long-rising neighborhood of galleries, restaurants and condos. While the ferry usually stops at Hunters Point South, the landing is currently closed and boats are rerouted to the Long Island City stop, a short walk away. Regardless of where you land, there's much that can be done in a couple hours by foot in Long Island City.
- Park: Right at the Long Island City stop is Gantry Plaza State Park, a petite (and condo-backed) park overlooking Roosevelt Island and the UN. Its claim to fame is a 1936 'Pepsi-Cola' sign in glorious cursive – moved here from a closed Pepsi factory. A brief stroll south will take you to Hunter’s Point South, which recently opened the second phase of its revamped parkland.
- Kayaking: A five-minute walk away, the Long Island City Boathouse is a New York steal, with free kayak programs on select weekends – check licboathouse.org for details.
- Art: The area's best attraction is PS1, a more digestible art space than its (adopted) parent MoMA. Its Saturday 'Warm Up' summer parties begin in July.
- Food: Stellar international cuisine is one of Queens’ greatest charms. Get Michelin-starred Mexican at Casa Enrique on 49th Ave, while Mu Ramen on Jackson Ave does particularly creative takes on the Japanese staple.
- Laughs: Catch a comedy show at the Creek and the Cave, a venue big with Saturday Night Live writers three blocks east of the dock.
One of New York's better-kept secrets (to many visitors anyway), Greenpoint can feel like a Polish-American/hipster hybrid 'island' – cut off from Manhattan by bridge, tunnel or direct subway links. That's a good thing. Get off here if you've not been and wander up Franklin St – perhaps all the way to Williamsburg to get back on the ferry there.
- Beer: There’s no shortage of beer places in Greenpoint, led by the cozy Scandinavian–themed Tørst on Manhattan Avenue. At Greenpoint Ave and Franklin St, Pencil Factory is a great bar, with sidewalk seats and open windows. Nearby, Brouwerij Lane is a destination beer-stop, with take-away jugs, a few tables and a beer selection akin to the snobby indie video store library in the early '90s.
- Books: Compact and dreamy, Word is a great bookstore with regular readings in its basement. For something a little more niche, Archestratus on Huron Street purveys books on all things culinary and also has a cafe onsite.
- Brunch: Littleneck Outpost on Franklin serves up great coffee and breakfast staples, but the hood's best (and certainly hippest) is halfway to Williamsburg, a 10-or-so-minute walk south: Five Leaves, with sidewalk seats, spinning vinyl, and big-time meals that draw lines early. If the line is too long for your liking, hop across the street to the underappreciated gem Sauvage, which serves French-accented American cuisine.
- Polish food: People get into shoving matches over which of Greenpoint's many Polish eateries is best. But a solid choice is the kid-friendly Karczma, with a faux wishing well, wooden artifacts and staff in old-country attire. The food's good too, as is the Zywiec beer on tap.
Visit Domino Park by water in Williamsburg © Mikki Brammer / Lonely Planet
If you like bars, shops and indie rock, you probably already know Williamsburg – which has long since taken over the reins from the Lower East Side as America's greatest hipster haven (Bushwick is now also vying for that title). This is one of two Williamsburg ferry stops, and the best to access its glory.
- Park: Two blocks north of the dock, East River State Park is nothing fancy, but on a sunny day is a wonderful spot to take in the Manhattan skyline and to fill your belly on weekends at Smorgasburg during the warmer months. For the ‘Burg’s newest green jewel, head 10 or so minutes down Kent Ave to the recently opened Domino Park in front of the old Domino Sugar Refinery.
- Bowling: Two places have put the B-for-bowling back into Billyburg. The best is Brooklyn Bowl, which hosts live shows, bowling programs and beer spills, but for a more rustic experience with American craft brews, head to Gutter.
- Shopping: The main crawl of cafes and shops is along Bedford Ave, a few blocks in from the water, but you’ll find myriad retail enclaves in the surrounding streets.
- Beer: Bars are too numerous to know where to begin, but you’ll find the best rooftop views to accompany your drink at The Ides at the Wythe Hotel and Westlight at the William Vale Hotel.
- Park: Been to the expanded (and expanding) Brooklyn Bridge Park lately? It's a destination of its own. On the south side of the bridge, green spaces, food stands and dining tables overlook the tip of Manhattan. There are plenty of events here, including free kayaking. To the north, between Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, is the Empire-Fulton Ferry Park, or head down river to the recently opened Pier 3, which combines green space with mind-bending labyrinths.
- Shopping: A once-forgotten warehouse, Empire Stores is now the sleek retail epicenter of DUMBO and houses outposts for Shinola, J.Crew and West Elm among others.
- Pizza: Follow the hordes. Grimaldi's – just a half-block in from the pier, south of Brooklyn Bridge – is a New York classic. Sure it's touristy, but the scene of red-and-white table coverings, Frank photos on the wall and very good pies make it worth the wait. Lines are often long, but they make pies fast so it goes quick.
- Culture: St Ann's Warehouse is an off-Broadway space in an old tobacco warehouse that explores experimental theater (Lou Reed recorded a live album here too), while BargeMusic, right next to the ferry pier, stages classical music shows on a floating venue.
Before you hop on any ferry, download the NYC Ferry app, which not only gives you access to real-time schedules and routes, but also allows you to buy tickets. Free transfers are valid up to 90 minutes after the purchase of your ticket.
This article was originally published in 2011, and updated in 2018 by Mikki Brammer.