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.
Now that the NY Waterway, a ferry service normally connected with the Hudson, has leapfrogged Manhattan and is taking on routes connecting nine stops along the East River, we thought we'd offer a mini-planner of how to explore the best of those stops.
The heart of Queens' art scene, Long Island City is a long rising neighborhood of galleries, restaurants and condos. The boat stops off of 2nd St (between 51st Ave & 54th Ave), and there's much that can be done in a couple hours by foot in Long Island City.
- Park: A block north is Gantry Plaza State Park, a recently spruced up (and condo-backed) park overlooking the UN. Its claim-to-fame is a 1936 'Pepsi-Cola' sign in glorious cursive – moved here from a closed Pepsi factory.
- Kayaking: A couple more blocks north, the Long Island City Boathouse is a New York steal, with free kayak programs on Sunday; 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: Vernon Blvd is one of Queens' most popular dining strips. Communitea (47-02 Vernon, at 47th Ave) is best if you just want a sandwich, coffee and croissant to take to the waterside park. Manetta's (1076 Jackson Avenue) is an old-school Italian spot, with some of the borough's best pizzas.
- Improv: On Sunday evenings, catch the free improv 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 greatest 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, wander up Franklin St – perhaps all the way to Williamsburg to get back on the ferry there.
- Beer: Lots of beer places, passed by indie rockers in black jeans and hoisting guitar cases. 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.
- Brunch: A block south on Franklin from the dock, Brooklyn Label is a coffeehouse with a booming breakfast menu, but the hood's best (and certainly hippest) is halfway to Williamsburg, a 10- or so- minute walk south: Five Leaves, with sidewalk seats galore, spinning vinyl, and big-time meals that draw lines early.
- Polish food: People get into shoving matches over with of Greenpoint's many Polish eateries is best. I'm a softie. I like the totally trad-decked, kid-friendly Karczma, with a faux wishing well, wooden artifacts and staff in old-country attire. Food's good too, as is the Zywiec beer on tap.
If you like bars, shops and indie rock, you probably already know Williamsburg – which has long since taken over the reins of America's greatest hipster haven from the Lower East Side. 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 a plain enough spot, but on a sunny day is a wonderful spot to take in the Manhattan skyline. Plus it's a rare Williamsburg spot with a bit of green.
- Bowling: Two places are putting the B-for-bowling back into Billyburg. The best is Brooklyn Bowl (61 Wyeth, at N 11th St), a recent make-over of a 19th-century ironworks. It hosts live shows, bowling programs and beer spills.
- Shopping: The main crawl of cafes and shops is along Bedford Ave, a few blocks in from the water.
- Beer: Bars are too numerous to know where to begin; check FreeWilliamsburg.com for an exhaustive overview (I like Barcade, 388 Union Ave, for the vintage arcade games).
- 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 State Park (currently under renovation), where Phil Collins staged his little 'Take Me Home Tonight' video back in the glorious '80s. It's also one of New York's greatest views.
- Chocolate: It's a DUMBO institution, with reason. At 66 Water St, Jacques Torres' spiced cup of hot chocolate is a great take-away rejuvenator for sips on the Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park.
- 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.
- Events: A Williamsburg immigrant, Galapagos Art Space in DUMBO hosts many interesting events; St Ann's Warehhouse is an off-off-off Broadway space that explores experimental theater (Lou Reed's recorded a live album here too); and BargeMusic, right next to the ferry pier, stages classical music shows on a floating venue.
There's more to explore – East River Ferry Map.
Before finishing up, consider taking a walking tour of DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights (free PDF guide here), or a walk across the Manhattan Bridge with less crowds (and more traffic rattle) than the famed Brooklyn Bridge; see our video celebrating its 100th birthday a year ago.
[This article was produced independent of Lonely Planet's partnership with NY Waterway.]