Brooklyn has long been considered second hand for hipster cool, attracting an indie crowd that ventured over the East River to escape Manhattan’s sky-high and high-rise living and enjoy the borough’s unique cultural and foodie scene. Not long ago, New York visitors wouldn’t really consider Brooklyn as a destination in itself, despite areas like Williamsburg and Dumbo (the gateway to Brooklyn Bridge Park) being easily accessible from Manhattan – even by foot. Times, however, are a changing.
Brooklyn, a checkerboard of diverse neighborhoods, has become a destination in its own right, and while many will choose Manhattan hotels as the place to rest their head, Brooklyn will see a number of highly acclaimed hotel openings over the next year that will put it firmly on the tourist map. As well as checking out Manhattan’s latest hotel openings, we decided this latest recce was the moment to find out more about the Brooklyn boom. Paying a visit to the Wythe Hotel, opened back in 2012 by a Brooklyn pioneer, seemed like a good place to start. A sugar factory, turned munitions factory, turned hotel, the 60-room boutique has awesome waterfront views over low-rise Williamsburg. Industrial chic rooms, a rotating pop-up shop and the locals’ favorite restaurant Reynard’s, combined with hotel staff that hook guests up with dining hot-spots and fun experiences, make for an authentic Brooklyn stay. Rooms can back onto the Brooklyn Bowl (rockin’ bands and bowling), the Brooklyn Brewery (creative microbrewery tastings and tours) or offer the prime unobstructed views of the Manhattan cityscape just across the river. Guests are not here to use it as a ‘cheaper’ way to explore Manhattan’s tourist attractions; Brooklyn is the destination.
Which explains why new hotels are popping up on the same ‘block’, within the next year, Hoxton Williamsburg opens on the site of the former Rosenwach Factory; the ultra-modern The Williamsburg Hotel opens across from the Wythe and, hot on the heels of its successful Manhattan opening, 1 Hotels is looking to conquer Brooklyn too with a new opening further out on the new riverfront park. We also scoped out a magnificent brownstone home owned by some artists (fantastically stylish), as well as hip lofts in the heart of Williamsburg and Greenpoint (home to NBC series Girls) for guests interested in living like a local. The homes come equipped with ipads and iphones loaded with recommendations from the owners, whose homes are transformed for guests’ with hotel-standard linens, amenities and a 24-hour concierge line.
However, I was staying just across the bridge in Manhattan’s East Village at the highly-recommended hotel New York EDITION so I headed over the bridge to spend the day exploring Brooklyn by bike. There’s no better way to experience a neighborhood than with a local, so I arranged to meet up with Felipe, a charismatic Brooklynite and owner of Get Up & Ride who thrives off sharing the neighborhood’s best-kept secrets. Exploring Brooklyn is best done by bike due to its size; if it was an independent municipality it would be the 4th largest city in the USA. The most talked about Brooklyn areas – Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Dumbo and Bushwick – are all explored on Felipe’s bike tours that are designed to feel like a local friend is showing you around. Get Up & Ride has a neat little bike shop stocked full of Pioneer bikes (brand-new, high-tech, comfortable cruisers) and offers head-set walkie-talkie technology that allows your guide to fill you in on culture and interesting history, while safely directing you through the city streets. The experience is ideal for couples and teen families (13yrs +, bike-savvy) as an introduction to Brooklyn, so make it a day trip as an introduction to the borough or the first activity on a Brooklyn stay to get your bearings. Felipe and I set off on the Brooklyn Vibe 3.5 hour tour, biking along and chatting like old friends, it was a perfect way to get acquainted with the best of Brooklyn.
We cycled down Bedford Avenue, passing a number of boutiques I noted I must return to, stopping off at an authentic Italian bakery Café Pasticceria. We headed down to the wharf for skyline views, we tucked into heavenly peanut butter cookies from the Ovenly Bakery’s warehouse and went to some legendary Pierogie shops in Greenpoint. But in my opinion, no trip to Brooklyn would be complete without a slice of pie, so we stopped to lunch at aptly named Best Pizza (toppings from a local organic roof-top farm no less), followed by popping into Heatonist, an entrepreneurial hot-sauce tasting room run by guys with a passion for unusual small-production hot sauces (gift for husband sorted). None of the places could I have found alone, or even with the help of a guidebook. While it sounds like my tour focused on food (and it was highlight) it was just as much about the history and culture which really brought the neighborhood to life; from commentary dating back to 17th century Dutch settlement, merchant history and Brooklyn’s immigration, through to mob culture and race riots, to pointing out sites to return to like the McCarren lido that’s a hot tip for the summer (its free!) or the ridiculously hip Museum of Food & Drink. If the weather had been above the minus numbers on the mercury, a longer tour would have been on the cards to explore Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO, complete with visits to organic roof top farms and artisan coffee roasters. On summer evenings, Felipe also offers tours involving beer sampling at the brewery and a quirky roof-top winery. Offering a fun, all round introduction to New York’s second borough, it’s a great ride for active families, friends or couples looking to experience a different side of New York. Maybe you’ll enjoy it enough to rest your head at a Brooklyn hotel on your next visit to New York. Make mine a loft at the Wythe!
Other recommended Brooklyn sites:
The Brooklyn Bridge: Built in response to the bitter winter of 1867 when the East River froze over severing the connection with Manhattan, it opened in 1883 as the world’s longest bridge. Today the wood-planked promenade is best used to take in views and photograph the Statue of Liberty, New York Harbour, the sky-line of Manhattan – and to get to Brooklyn of course.
Museum Botanic Gardens: A fifty-two acre oasis of greenery in Prospect Heights, start at the visitors center which has an eco-roof where over 45,000 plants are displayed and explore the Shakespeare Garden planted with greenery inspired by the Bards works. Visit in spring when the annual Cherry Blossom Festival takes place.
Brooklyn Brewery: Honouring Brooklyn’s past as a brewing hub, the brewery serves its own creations and offers tours of the facilities. On weekends, tours covering the history and brewing process are free and there’s no need to book. They don’t include beer – but you just buy tokens to while away an afternoon.
Brooklyn Museum: The city’s third-largest museum, the permanent collections include African art, European paintings, period rooms and the impressive third-floor Egyptian gallery is home to over 170 artifacts and a mummy chamber – always a hit with kids big and small! The fifth floor is dedicated to impressive American works of art, including works from lavish American West landscape painter Albert Bierstadt. Visit on the first Saturday of the month for free – and then book a table at Michelin-starred Saul based at the institution.