Brooklyn's just over the bridge but worlds apart from Manhattan, writes Stephanie Holmes.
There was pizza, there was bowling, there was beer. Brooklyn Bridge, Coney Island, and Williamsburg. Old-school gangsters and hot young hipsters. It couldn't be more American if it tried and yet, with all the classic sights and sounds on offer, a day in Brooklyn also provided a fresh take on this famous borough.
We were there for 12 hours only — a taster trip on a packed itinerary designed to make the most of our short time in New York City. So what can you do, see and learn about Brooklyn in half a day? Well, you'd be surprised.
11am Over the bridge and far away . . .
"I want to show you things tourists can't find," says Paula, our guide on A Slice of Brooklyn's classic pizza tour. This 20-something Italian-American Brooklynite is everything you want from a tour guide: funny, informative and razor-sharp. And if you're worried about any awkward silences, don't be. Paula talks a mile a minute; perhaps even a mile a second. Clad in skinny jeans, black leather biker jacket and Ray-Bans, she's the epitome of understated Brooklyn cool, with enough goofiness to not be intimidating. And when she says she knows Brooklyn like the back of her hand, she's not kidding.
Brooklyn was a city in its own right until 1898, when the five boroughs consolidated to become the NYC we know today. But there's still a feeling that it's worlds away from Manhattan, not least because you have to travel across the East River on one of four bridges to get between the two.
Our tour starts at Union Square, and as we travel over Manhattan Bridge by luxury coach a sign reads "Welcome to Brooklyn: Where New York Begins". You can almost feel Paula breathe a sigh of relief to be back on the "right side" of the river.
Although the tour is ostensibly about pizza, it's actually about so much more: famous movie locations from
Saturday Night Fever
and Annie Hall; the Brooklyn Bridge; Coney Island's famous boardwalk; and Brooklynites both famous and everyday.
In recent years, the borough has become synonymous with New York's hipster movement.
Lena Dunham's watershed TV show Girls was filmed here, and there are countless coffee shops, craft breweries and vegan restaurants popping up on every corner. Williamsburg, the heart of hipster Brooklyn, used to be the heart of the shipping industry, Paula tells us.
"Now it's all man-buns and artisanal blueberry juices."
Homes in the Bay Ridge neighbourhood can now fetch between US$6 million and $9m; poky apartments in Dumbo that rattle when trains run overhead can set you back $4000 a month. But even with the gentrification, people love it — it's a breath of fresh air after the steel and glass corridors of skyscrapers across the river.
If you want the best views of Manhattan, Brooklyn is also the place to go. Paula takes us to Brooklyn Bridge Park, a long stretch of piers and promenade that look back to Manhattan and make for perfect photo opportunities. We don't linger long; the icy wind gets right into our bones and we've got hot, freshly-made pizza waiting for us just around the corner.
Grimaldi's is the place where legends are made. Founder Patsy Grimaldi started making pizza in the 1940s, learning from his uncle at his coal-fired oven restaurant in Harlem.
When he decided to go into business for himself in 1990, he chose Brooklyn over Manhattan as coal ovens were legal in the former and not in the latter.
The business gained an excellent reputation but towards the end of the decade, Patsy retired, selling the name and franchise to restaurateur Frank Ciolli. The Grimaldi's success continued in Frank's hands until 2011 when the building owner didn't renew the restaurant's lease. Frank wasn't deterred; he renovated an old bank building next door and carried on churning out pizza pies to hungry visitors.
A year later, perhaps jealous of Frank's success, Patsy came out of retirement, re-leased the original Grimaldi's building and opened Juliana's Pizza. There's little more than 10 steps separating the two and no love lost.
But it's Grimaldi's where you'll find queues out the door; it's been named the best pizzeria in New York by the Zagat guide, and is often featured in food TV shows and city guides.
With Paula, we don't need to worry about queues. Her cousin Tony — who started A Slice of Brooklyn tours in 2005 — knows Frank, so tour guests get the VIP treatment.
Within minutes we're tucking into the best pizza I've ever tasted. Its excellence comes in its simplicity: just three ingredients — fresh San Marzano tomatoes, basil and buffalo mozzarella — on a thin, coal-fired base.
I could walk away happy after my two slices of Grimaldi's best, but Paula is just getting started. The tour also takes us to L&B Spumoni Gardens, another renowned pizzeria she says will change our lives. This is a thicker, doughy pizza with a twice-risen base. The cheese is layered on first and the tomato sauce on top of that, followed by a sprinkle of pecorino cheese. It's rich and dense and very different to Grimaldi's. I'm more of a fan of the thin pizza but L&Bs is an experience — not least for its understated location and restaurant crowded with the kind of people who'd fit right in as extras in a Scorsese gangster film.
We drive to Coney Island and Nathan's Famous Inc, a hot dog stand that has been on the same site in constant operation (bar a break for Hurricane Sandy), since 1912. It's also the home of the international hot dog eating competition, which began in the 1970s. Paula tells us about current champion Joey Chestnut, who ate 72 hot dogs in 10 minutes. After four giant slices of pizza, I think perhaps I could be a contender next year.
5pm Beers for everyone
What better way to help dilute all those carbs than with a tour and tasting at Williamsburg's Brooklyn Brewery? This place is an absolute must-visit and if you don't drink beer, don't worry.
"There's always that person who is dragged along, they're not a beer person," says Tim, who's running today's public tour. "We're here to show them the one true way."
And he's right; you will likely find a beer here that suits you — whether it's the standard Brooklyn Lager, Pilsner or IPA, or the more unusual Bel Air Sour or Black Chocolate Stout, or the quarterly experiment beers, such as Kiwi's Playhouse, a sour ale aged on kiwifruit in red wine barrels.
The brewery was started in 1988 by two amateur home brewers — a banker and a former Middle East war correspondent. Brewmaster Garrett Oliver came on board in 1994, and the brewery has been on this Williamsburg site since 1996. It's now a local institution and more than 3000 people come through its doors every weekend alone.
Innovation and fun is the MO here: the young, cool, hipster-type staff clock off for the day, wander into the public Tasting Room and pour themselves a glass of something cold before heading home.
For visitors, public hours are Monday-Thursday, 6-9.30pm; Fridays 6-11pm, Saturdays 12-8pm and Sundays 12-6pm. Drop in and hang around in the Tasting Room for a while, take a free tour (book in advance, places are limited), listen to some live music and have a bite to eat from one of the food trucks. And you'll be guaranteed to find at least one beer you like — it's the one, true way.
7pm Time flies . . .
A little bit giddy, we venture around the corner to another local institution, Brooklyn Bowl. This is a live music venue, bowling alley, bar and restaurant all rolled into one, and it's a whole lot of fun. We've booked two lanes for our group of eight and though the competition might be fierce, the bowling certainly isn't. I blame all that beer and pizza.
Things get progressively raucous as the lights go down, the live music starts and the pins glow neon in the dark. It's almost a sensory overload — the Original Wailers are on stage, the lanes are full of bright, young locals, and the atmosphere is outstanding. Three hours flies by, but it feels like the night is just getting started for the eager bowlers queuing up outside.
10pm View from the top
There's just time for a nightcap before we make our way over the East River back to our hotel. The perfect end to a perfect day comes at the sleek Ides Bar on the top floor of the very stylish Wythe Hotel. The rain is bucketing down, but the view from the floor to ceiling windows is bright — the city skyline lit up in all its night-time glory. Paula might be biased but I'm starting to agree with something she said earlier in the day: "Manhattan just looks better from over here."
helloworld has return Economy Class fares to New York from $1759.
According to expedia.co.nz, the average daily rate to stay in Brooklyn is NZ$339. Brooklyn is roughly $50 cheaper per night than Manhattan with an average daily rate of $385.