I remember my first visit to New York aged 17 on a school trip – I was hugely underwhelmed by Manhattan. The soulless department stores, the hoards of tourist flocking to 5th Avenue and crammed onto the ferry to the Statue of Liberty, the fact I had to PAY to enter galleries and museums … I suppose it’s the same if a visitor to London just spent their time traipsing aimlessly around Oxford Street, Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus. I had ticked off all the sites and photographed all the iconic landmarks but in doing so, I’d missed all the fun. So in 2014 when I was sent to New York to film a documentary, I decided to ignore Manhattan completely on my day off. Inspired by a travel guide on Design Sponge* I did my homework and made a bee-line for the hipster neighbourhoods of North Brooklyn. I was instantly smitten.
Food markets and strolling in Dumbo
Next on my jam-packed day in Brooklyn I headed to Dumbo, with its gorgeous waterfront location and views across to Manhattan island, it’s the perfect spot for a Sunday afternoon stroll or to hop on a ferry to see Manhattan from afar. If you’re in Brooklyn over a weekend like I was, I heartily recommend skipping breakfast and making your way to Smorgasburg food flea market – a foodie’s paradise showcasing regional food vendors and selling everything from hot mulled cider to sticky ramen burgers (noodle baps encasing rare beef patties). This foodie mecca is located at East River State Park—Kent Ave. and N. 7 St.—on the Williamsburg waterfront and Sundays in Prospect Park at Breeze Hill.
People watch in Brooklyn Heights
Nearby is Brooklyn Heights, with its iconic brownstones and enticing eateries, the area is overrun with young creatives and skinny jean clad white folk. Brooklyn itself has become a destination in recent years. My friends hire an air bnb and tend to avoid Manhattan altogether in favour of ‘living the life’ in the coolest part of town. Forget London’s Shoreditch and Copenhagen’s Meatpacking District, if you’re after a city break that doesn’t involve open top buses and crowded tourist attractions, Brooklyn has it all. If I had more time, this post would be more detailed but I plan to visit Brooklyn again in the not-so-distant future.
Flea market finds in Williamsburg
The jewel in Brooklyn’s crown is the hipster headquarter – Williamsburg. Streets of independent shops, tattoo parlours and quirky bars make the neighbourhood feel like a more upmarket version of London’s Shoreditch. If there were tourists, then they had camouflaged themselves as fellow hipsters. Perhaps like me, they’d heard it was where the cool kids hang out and left their guide book and ‘I heart NYC’ t-shirt at home. By day I swanned around coffee shops and stocked up on unusual presents. The best spot for homemade gifts and vintage one-offs is at Chelsea Market, the permanent home of Artists and Fleas. From handmade leather goods to an antique embellished kimono, this place is a treasure trove of vintage finds and up-cycled homeware.
If arthouse cinema is your thing then pay a visit to the Nitehawk picture house, where you can order drinks and nibbles from the comfort of your cinema seat. The buzzy bar is a good meeting place and you’ll find a plethora of cool restaurants on Berry Street and beyond.
Hit the beach in a surf bar
In the evening, I headed to Brooklyn Surf Bar for a tropical cocktail. This novelty bar-come-restaurant has real sand on the floor and is decked out with surfing paraphernalia. The menu is inspired from Pacific Ocean cuisine (like clam chowder served in a bread bowl) and they serve giant tiki drinks complete with colourful cocktail umbrellas and fruit sticks. But as a Brit, I like to sniff out the closest equivalent of an English pub when I’m abroad and in Williamsburg, I found a comforting watering hole called Allswell, an American pub serving a fantastic selection of my favourite American pale ales.
It was the New York I’d always fantasised about – street food and vintage flea markets, retro shops and bearded baristas, quirky cocktail bars and not a chain restaurant or ‘I heart New York’ t-shirt in sight.