Top 10 things to do in Brooklyn – Is this New York's best borough?

“Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York,” wrote author Betty Smith in her classic novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

She was describing the borough in the early 1900s, but little has changed in that regard.

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True, Brooklyn – thanks to an influx of hirsute hipsters with sleeve tattoos, indie stores, coffee shops, restaurants and street murals – has glossed over its post-industrial decay. But a laid-back outlook on life has always been part of its DNA.

1. Do Dumbo

There are 42 neighbourhoods in the borough so, to get the best experience, you have to be selective. Dumbo should be top of your list. Crammed into a few blocks between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, this waterfront enclave of cobbled streets and old warehouses is a rich seam of one-off boutiques, independent book shops, galleries and restaurants. It is also home to some of New York’s best pizza joints on Pizza Row where you can devour ‘a slice’ like a real Brooklynite. If you fancy stretching your legs, venture a little further for a stroll along the leafy avenues of nearby Brooklyn Heights and gaze longingly at its rows of million-dollar brownstones. dumbo.is; grimaldispizzeria.com; julianaspizza.com

2. Buzz around the Brooklyn Flea

Established over a decade ago, the Brooklyn Flea is the engine room of the borough’s creative scene; an outlet for local designers and artists to showcase their talents in an open-air bazaar. On Sundays, stallholders pitch up under the arch of the Manhattan Bridge in Dumbo, doing a roaring trade amid the clickety-clack of subway trains overhead. Whether you’re looking for one-off pieces of jewellery, furniture or even small nuggets of New York history (think comics, old printing letterpress blocks, baseball cards and subway signs), you’ll find it all here. brooklynflea.com; April to October.

3. Hit the Hoxton

A British hotel brand synonymous with hipster travellers, The Hoxton chose well for the opening of its first venture stateside. Such has been the overnight success of the Williamsburg outpost that it has been swiftly followed by more recent openings in Portland, Chicago and LA. It’s not the only hip hotel in this gentrified former industrial area of course, but few can compete with The Hoxton’s views of Midtown from the floor-to-ceiling windows in Manhattan-facing rooms or from its chic rooftop bar, Summerly. thehoxton.com; rooms from €144 per night.

4. Scoff at Smorgasburg

There are 100-odd languages spoken in Brooklyn, and just as many cuisines – if Smorgasburg, New York’s seminal foodie event, is anything to go by. As America’s largest outdoor food market, the smells wafting from 100 local vendors draw thousands of devotees every Saturday to Williamsburg’s East River State Park. Think fresh oysters shucked as you wait, lobster sticky rice or brisket barbacoa tacos and handmade tofu and vegetable wontons. My favourite was the ramen burger – an Aberdeen Angus patty served between ramen noodle buns with Shoyu sauce, scallions and baby rocket – I wolfed it down looking out at the Empire State Building. smorgasburg.com; April to October.

5. Take an east river cruise

Forget yellow cabs and Ubers. One of the best ways to get from A to B in Brooklyn is the NYC Ferry, all for the price of a subway ticket. Board a northbound ferry to Williamsburg from the pier on Old Fulton Street in Dumbo for the 20-minute sailing up the East River to North 6th Street (a five-minute walk from The Hoxton), ample time to take in the Brooklyn Bridge and the city skyline from Lower Manhattan to Midtown from the water. The light at sunset is particularly magical, with the Statue of Liberty silhouetted against the horizon. ferry.nyc; from $2.75 (€2.51) one-way.

6. Williamsburg Bites

“Our city’s sport is eating and walking at the same time,” says Josh Jacobson. Like all the guides on Like A Local Tours, he is an actor who lives in Williamsburg and knows it better than most, especially when it comes to food. “I always get people on this tour who’ve had a big lunch,” he adds. We soon realise why this is a mistake, as we make our first stop at the Northside Bakery for cottage cheese-filled pierogi. It’s our first brush with Brooklyn’s long association with immigrants. The resulting blend of cultures comes out in the wares at our next stops; from the olive oil ice cream at Odd Fellows to the rye-seeded crust at Best Pizza. likealocaltours.com; $56 (€51) for adults, $46 (€41) for children.

7. DeKalb Market Hall

It’s hard to put DeKalb Market Hall in a box. On the surface, it’s the subterranean home of over 40 food vendors. Dig deeper and you see what an ambassador it is for both Brooklyn’s cultural diversity and local business owners. Vendors range from quintessential New York staples like Katz’s Delicatessen to new, authentic pop-ups like Pierogi Boys and Fulton Landing Seafood Company, all offering mouthwatering dishes to go or sit and enjoy. There’s also an on-site bakery, wine shop and craft beer bar. dekalbmarkethall.com

8. Street art in Bushwick


As its neighbourhoods succumb to gentrification, you need to move further east to find a more authentic Brooklyn. Bushwick, with its heavily graffitied streets and vacant industrial plots, has so far escaped the attention of property developers. It’s this gritty urbanscape that has become a blank canvas for the work of some of the world’s best street artists. Jeff Stirewalt of Brooklyn Unplugged deftly delivers an impassioned walking tour of the neighbourhood’s murals and the wider street art scene in the city. brooklynunpluggedtours.com; costs $32 (€29).

9. Shop at Greenpoint

The frenetic screech of metal hangers scraping along circular rails of letterman jackets, trench coats and corduroy trousers is a hallmark of the shopping experience in Beacon’s Closet in Greenpoint. Navigating colourful islands of vintage clothing, fashion-savvy New Yorkers flock here to dig out the latest throwback trend. Aside from second-hand clothing and far from the glitz of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn is the place to be for designers and shoppers alike. Artists & Fleas, for instance, corrals over 75 creative entrepreneurs under one warehouse roof while boutiques like Catbird and Dirty Hands Jewellery sell hand-crafted trinkets. beaconscloset.com; artistsandfleas.com/williamsburg.

10. Brunch, baby..


As a New York institution, brunching at the weekend is a serious business in Brooklyn and there’s hot competition for the best places to grab a bite. I nabbed a table at Egg Shop on Williamsburg’s North 8th Street where the menu is (you may have already guessed) largely inspired by the humble egg. Foregoing stodgy pancakes, you can’t go wrong with a Hot Chix sandwich – spicy fried chicken, egg sunny side up, pickled jalapeno and alioli – helped down with the divinely-inspired (and tasting) Blessed Be The Fruit cocktail. eggshopnyc.com.

If you like this, try…

Brooklyn’s secret is well and truly out, so if you fancy exploring beyond the frontiers, try Queens. It’s the largest of NYC’s boroughs, a low-rise sprawl sprinkled with brilliantly diverse communities, food, galleries and, of course, Rockaway Beach. nycgo.com/boroughs-neighborhoods

Get there

David travelled as a guest of Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com), which flies daily from Dublin to New York’s JFK and Newark airports. See also nycgo.com for Brooklyn tips.

Be mindful that damage caused by Hurricane Sandy has necessitated much-publicised maintenance to Brooklyn’s L subway line. While services operate as normal midweek, trains at night and on weekends will run less frequently well into 2020.

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