Every time I am asked about what to see in New York besides Manhattan and the usual unforgettable attractions of the so-called “first time”, my thought – and my indications – unavoidably recollect the other charming New Yorker boroughs.
And every time my interlocutor is surprised by the endless and variegate possibilities that these areas are able to give – often they are few subway stops (or ferry) far from the most crowded tourist circuits.
It’s enough really little to realize it.
A subway map, a detailed map, some cues maybe read among the pages of this blog and the desire (maybe the courage) to abandon for some hours the magnetic and captivating Manhattan.
A neighbourhood of Brooklyn (actually even more), a former industrial district successively used by the NYU University students as “dormitory” (when the apartments still used to be rented out cheap and it was enough to cross the Williamsburg Bridge by bicycle to reach Midtown).
Then it turned over time – thanks to the late ones and the endless cultural variety characterizing the whole area – into one of the most fashion, eccentric (cool – someone would say) and original areas of Brooklyn.
A neighborhood from which creative people, hipsters, stylists, artists and newly-graduated students searching for spaces for their start-ups look like to get inspiration and give their own best.
A sort of watershed between the Brooklyn of the past, still really evident among the secondary streets and the old historic brick buildings survived the change, and the more eccentric, colored and fashion one cast into the future.
In the middle there are a series of incredible locations, pubs, restaurants, vintage stores and cafés alternating with short and colored houses, murals, parks, gardens and new, futuristic constructions (with prohibitive prices, by now) overlooking directly one of the most beautiful views in the world: the trembling reflection of the Midtown skyscrapers on the East River.
In Williamsburg it’s possible to taste and enjoy all the magic and the charm of New York without traffic, noises and stress of Manhattan.
By day it’s an oasis of peace and relax – best-loved mostly by families, couples and singles everyone searching for their own happy island – and the reign of music and “discreet” fun of the young New Yorkers, from the sunset until late in the night.
Williamsburg is actually few subway stops far from Manhattan: reaching it can be extremely easy and in some cases suggestive.
The easiest way is certainly to use the subway L line (unfortunately in 2019 it will be interrupted for 18 months due to rebuilding works following the damages suffered after the Sandy Hurricane) that in just 3 stops links the very central Union Square to Bedford Ave, in the beating heart of Williamsburg.
Alternatively you can use the J-M-Z Lines which from Canal Street reach Marcy Ave, on the Broadway, on the side of the Jewish quarter.
Another possibility is to reach Williamsburg by a nice panoramic walk on the East River crossing the Bridge with the same name connecting it to another suggestive neighborhood of Manhattan: the Lower East Side.
Or even go aboard the East River Ferry on the 34th St. in Midtown and get off – after have stopped in Long Island City and Greenpoint – in North or South Williamsburg. Then the Ferry keeps going to Brooklyn and the Pier 11.
How to move through Williamsburg?
Easy. On foot or by bicycle.
“Each neighbourhood of the city appeared to be made of a different substance,
each seemed to have a different air pressure, a different psychic weight”
You can decide tp arrive directly to Bedford Ave and start your walk in the heart of Williamsburg or lengthen of a stop as far as Lorimer St. and keep going on foot for about a hundred meters along Metropolitan Ave (westwards) as far as the street number 370.
Here you can have a tour of a little and original museum preserving the greatest collection of vintage objects tied to the NYC myth and that probably include the essence and the eccentric spirit of the whole area: the City Reliquary Museum.
Keep walking along the Metropolitan Ave towards the East River as far as run into Bedford Ave, then turn on the right and enjoy the walk among pubs, little stores, cafés and colored houses as far as McCarren Park.
If you love beer you can choose to visit the near Brooklyn Brewery, a particular (needless to say, we are in Williamsburg) independent brewery run by locals, with final tasting included.
From here you can “get lost” along Berry Street and Wythe Ave as far as reach Kent Ave and the East River State Park to enjoy totally relaxed the surprising view of Manhattan I mentioned before.
The successive leg is the nice terminal of the East River Ferry of North Williamsburg and its suggestive pier allowing to “walk” on the East River and enjoy the umpteenth, amazing view of Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridge.
Going southwards always along Kent Ave stop and admire the bright colors murals standing the side streets and pay attention to those ones reproducing ads.
They are works by an enterprising advertising company, the Colossal Media: rather than producing posters, it hires street artists to “tell” by impressive color pictures the stories of its customers’ products on the old factories’ walls. You could have the chance to meet some of them at work.
The last leg before coming back towards the inside is the Grand Ferry Park: it’s a small public park on the East River crowded mostly by locals: from it it’s possible to sight the
Freedom Tower and in traits segments of the Manhattan Bridge and sometimes by far the Brooklyn Bridge, too.
Pass under the Williamsburg Bridge and go up along the Broadway: on the right begins the old and densely-populated Jewish quarter which includes the biggest Hasidic Jewish community in the whole USA.
Go up as far as the crossroads with Bedford Ave. Turn and set out into the South 6th St. taking almost under the bridge.
Do you recognize the location?
It’s one of the sets used for “Once upon a time in America”: it was not shot only in Dumbo, like many people believe wrongly. It was the street where several scenes of the Jewish Ghetto were shot: in the specific instance, Deborah (Noodles’ great love) and her brother Fat Moe’s house and store outsides and Max and Noodles’ other sequences as teenagers.
Little over ahead – going back on the Broadway – on the right there’s the best Steak House in New York, Peter Luger’s: if you want to eat here you have to book a table highly in advance since the place is always full and the requests are really many. Keep in mind only cash is allowed, no credit card.
From the Broadway you can choose to go back to Manhattan using the near Marcy Ave subway stop or crossing on foot – 20/30 minutes about – the Williamsburg Bridge.
Teddy’s Bar & Grill – 96 Berry Street N 8th Street
It’s the historic icon of Berry Street characterized by the colored glasses signs of the most typical Irish Pub. It was born in 1887 as alehouse and successively it was turned into the Teddy’s Bar & Grill (in the 1950s about). Recently, the old owner gave the license dictating as term of the contract that some furniture, like the bar, the ancient floor and the glass signs had not to be changed. The dishes, at lunch and at dinner, are the classic ones of the American pubs, burgers, salads and soups.
It’s ideal also for the weekend brunch with eggs cooked by all sorts of ways and pancakes. It offers a wide choice of beers both draught beer and bottled beer and it’s possible to follow some sport events on the TV screens of the bar.
Juliette – 135 North 5th Street
A French restaurant, recalling a Parisian bistro thanks to its furniture. It is opened both for lunch and for dinner and brunch. The menu includes French dishes like onion soup, mussels marinara and duck confit, then more American dishes like the inevitable burgers, steak and salad. It has also a very nice terrace in the good season.
Mable’s – 44 Berry Street with entrance on the 11th St.
Very good BBQ of the south, both dishes and sandwiches, the restaurant offers a relaxed atmosphere with country music on the background.
At the entrance you can look the menu up, order and pay at desk. You are given a place card with the name of a Southern state and then you go at the beers’ and drinks desk (they are paid separately and are self-service). While at the table you are given a tray with the order requested, served on kitchen paper without plate. The half slab ribs is delicious and like all dishes it is served with 2 side dishes by choice, a small portion of coleslaw and some bread.
Its direct competitor is Fette Sau, another BBQ as good as it, but more expensive and always hyper crowded since it is in a smaller place.
Rough Trade – 64 North 9th Street
The biggest and most recent record store of the three Rough Trade (the first two are in London). An incredible selection of vinyl, a bookstore, a café and a stage for live performances. A downright paradise not only for the lovers of the kind but also for the simple onlookers.
Artists & Fleas – N 7th Street
It sells vintage cloths and gift and fancy goods.
Crossroads Trading Co. – always on the N 7th
A great selection of vintage cloths and accessories. At unbeatableprices.
Sideshow – 319 Bedford Ave
Artistic space opened in 1999 to promote the development of the local talented people. Here it’s possible to find many works of budding artists like Thornton Willis, Dan Christensen, Robert C. Morgan and Chris Martin. The Gallery organizes also an exhibition, the Sideshow Nation, exhibiting the works of the best 500 artists of the year.
You can find further information (steadily updated) about activities, stores, seasonal events, exhibition spaces and budding places on the official Free Williamsburg website.
[A particular thanks to my special local guides Laura Ghisalberti and Marco Colli who accompanied me through my latest tour to Williamsburg, giving me cues, stories and precious anecdotes]