Cross the majestic Brooklyn Bridge by taxi (or better yet, by foot or bike) and you’ll find yourself in the city’s first suburb, its first landmark district and the fictional home for the Huxtable family on The Cosby Show. Brooklyn Heights’ real-life residents are high-earners who can afford its astronomical real estate prices, including bankers lured by a short commute to Wall Street and celebrities trying to keep a lower profile, like Paul Giamatti, Björk and Lena Dunham.
Unlike the subjects of so many rags-to-riches New York neighborhood gentrification stories, this area has almost always been prosperous. Originally settled by Dutch farmers who purchased the land from the Canarsie Indians in 1636, the Heights really started to boom when Robert Fulton founded his eponymous ferry company in 1814. Moneyed Manhattanites crossed the river to build townhouses, transforming the riverside bluff into a commuter village. After the Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883, the Heights became more accessible to blue-collar immigrants, who moved to cheaper quarters on its fringes. But many of its opulent homes remain, protected by the city’s first historic district (designated in 1965). The leafy blocks contain more than 600 pre-Civil War structures — Federal row houses, Greek Revival brick beauties, Gothic Revival and Italianate brownstones and even a few bona fide mansions, now divided into apartments. You can learn more of the backstory at the Brooklyn Historical Society, an 1881 Queen Anne–style landmark on Pierrepont Street (pronounced PEER-pont).
You can’t go wrong just wandering, but Willow Street (where Truman Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and Remsen Street (so rich in period details that Martin Scorsese used it as a location for The Age of Innocence) are particularly impressive. At the western end of Remsen, you’ll reach the neighborhood’s showstopper: the Promenade. There are few more scenic spots in city than a bench facing the panorama of New York Harbor from the Statue of Liberty to the Chrysler Building. As Abraham Lincoln said (before there even was a skyline) “there may be finer views than this in the world, but I don’t believe it.” And it’s only gotten better in recent years: Look downwards past the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and you’ll see Brooklyn Bridge Park, 85 acres of creatively designed waterfront public space with volleyball courts, playgrounds, a carousel and foodie-friendly concession stands. On the Fourth of July, this is a spectacular location to watch the fireworks.
By day, you’ll see nannies, stay-at-home parents and students from the area’s elite private schools shopping, snacking and gossiping along commercial Montague and Henry Streets. Towards nightfall, things quiet down as residents retire into townhouses and doorman-tended apartment buildings. Natives have long lamented the area’s lack of noteworthy restaurants. Even as nearby Carroll Gardens has become a destination for diners from other boroughs, the Heights lagged behind. Montague Street offers a few friendly chains, low-key takeout staples and coffee shops, but your best options are in the north end of the neighborhood: Veteran game specialist Henry’s End, affordable Italian Noodle Pudding and haute tavern Jack the Horse are local favorites. Hang a left from the north end of Henry Street towards the waterfront and you can join the line outside famed pizza parlor Grimaldi’s. The neighborhood bar scene is sleepy once the public servants from Borough Hall and the local courthouses finish happy hour, but Atlantic Avenue offers some more sociable choices like bocce court bar Flloyd or old-timey sailor dive Monterose.
Brooklyn Heights is bounded by the East River to the west, Old Fulton Street in DUMBO to the north, Cadman Plaza and Court Street to the east and Atlantic Avenue to the south. Several subway lines serve it, but the 2 and 3 station at Clark Street makes a nice starting point. From there, wander north to Orange Street and pass the picturesque Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, a National Historic Landmark and Underground Railroad stop, on your way to the Promenade.