Once a suburb that Manhattanites wouldn’t even consider part of “the city,” Brooklyn has come into its own, building a brand name synonymous with cool and used to sell everything from T-shirts to beer. Visitors who might have overlooked the borough 20 years ago now cross the river on packed tour buses. But how did Brooklyn get to be so hip? From its early days as a 19th-century commuter town to its contemporary identity as a haven for artists, young professionals and families, Brooklyn has long lured New Yorkers with the promise of more space and a quieter, slightly more economical, life. Just don’t mistake its laid-back attitude for a lack of activities — no matter what type of New York experience you seek, Brooklyn’s got you covered.
Things to Do: Some natives hate to admit it, but one of Brooklyn’s best assets is its prime view of the Manhattan skyline — whether you’re crossing the 1883 landmark Brooklyn Bridge, relaxing in Brooklyn Bridge Park, strolling along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade or sipping a Brooklyn lager at a rooftop bar in Williamsburg. Brooklyn’s inland green spaces, such as Prospect Park, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and historic Green-Wood Cemetery, also offer stunning photo ops. For indoor entertainment, there’s the fantastic art collection at the Brooklyn Museum and big-ticket concerts and NBA basketball games at the Barclay’s Center. In season, visitors to Coney Island can ride the Cyclone, a landmark wooden roller coaster, visit penguins at the New York Aquarium (reopening in summer 2013) and root for the Cyclones, a minor-league baseball team.
Restaurants: Brooklyn inspires foodie pilgrimages with both budget ethnic eateries and fine-dining contenders. From dim sum in Borough Park to Mexican in Sunset Park to Italian in Bay Ridge, the borough’s rich restaurant scene is shaped by its immigrant heritage. Neighborhoods like Carroll Gardens and Williamsburg have also spawned more upscale establishments, distinguished from their Manhattan counterparts by younger chefs, casual settings and a devotion to locally sourced ingredients. If you’re short on cash, turn to good old Brooklyn pizza — Grimaldi’s and L&B Spumoni Gardens are longstanding local legends.
Shopping: Brooklyn’s stores cater to all tastes and budgets, and its independent retailers offer a host of unique souvenirs. High-end boutiques are clustered in affluent areas like Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill. You’ll also find everything from consignment shops in Park Slope to antiques dealers in Boerum Hill to vintage outfitters and home design studios in Williamsburg. For a quintessential borough buying experience, check out the Brooklyn Flea, a weekend crafts bazaar that changes location with the seasons. When planning your credit card workouts, remember that many places won’t open until 11am on Saturdays and Sundays.
Hotels: While still not at Manhattan levels, Brooklyn’s lodging options have increased dramatically in recent years. When the Marriott opened near the Brooklyn Bridge in 1998, it became the borough’s first full-service hotel. Numerous familiar brands have since set up shop in Downtown Brooklyn and on Third and Fourth Avenues in Park Slope. A bumper crop of trendy boutique hotels in Williamsburg offer stylish accommodations, luxury amenities and destination bars. Much like its rents, Brooklyn’s room rates are catching up to Manhattan’s (ordinarily budget hotel chains can run you $250 a night in the summer), but still offer a relative value.
Theater and Nightlife: Once the realm of low-key neighborhood hangouts, Brooklyn caters to all imbibing inclinations, with everything from character-filled dive bars and beer gardens to fancy wine cellars and mixology dens. Many of its watering holes even offer activities, including bowling, arcade games and movie screenings. Brooklyn’s music and comedy scene is also vibrant, especially in Williamsburg, Greenpoint and industrial Gowanus. And while the Barclay’s Center hosts the biggest names, the stately Brooklyn Academy of Music, which turned 150 in 2013, remains the borough’s preeminent performing arts institution for theater, film, opera and dance.
Neighborhoods: First-time visitors to Brooklyn flock to its waterfront neighborhoods, like brownstone-filled Brooklyn Heights, newly developed Dumbo and love-it-or-love-to-hate-it Williamsburg with its standout restaurants, nightlife and hipster cache. Head a little further into the borough, and you’ll be rewarded by the dining options, cultural attractions and green spaces of Park Slope, Fort Greene and Prospect Heights. The subway ride to Coney Island from Manhattan may take more than an hour, but eating a Nathan’s Famous hot dog on the seaside boardwalk and taking a spin on the Wonder Wheel is an unrivalled Brooklyn experience.