So: you wanna be a part of it. Who doesn’t? Yet it turns out there are many, many parts to New York, New York.
Wherever your vagabond shoes take you in the Big Apple, you’ll find no shortage of opinionated residents eager to chew your ear off about why their part of town is the only part of town that matters. The stakes only rise when they start making the case for their home borough. And we are here for it.
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Zach Laks is a travel writer who lived in New York City for the past 16 years – and loved it. His favorite way to explore the city is by foot, his preferred evening is one spent at the theater and he finds the most rewarding pastime people-watching in Central Park.
King Kong didn’t scale the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower. The sailor and nurse didn’t kiss in Prospect Park. And the song doesn’t tell you to “come and meet those dancing feet” on Flatbush Ave.
No matter the cultural medium, Manhattan has always exerted a magnetic pull upon American popular culture. An island formed atop quartz and crystal bedrock over the course of a billion years, its force field can be palpable. You feel it in the buzz of SoHo, the hustle of Wall St, the flickering of lights in Times Square and the style of Harlem.
Picture-perfect neighborhoods like the West Village have made Manhattan an iconic part of American (and international) popular culture for decades © photoiva / Shutterstock
While Brooklyn is more than three times larger in size, Manhattan is almost twice as dense, with some 1.6 million people packed into 23 square miles. The island has dozens of distinct neighborhoods to explore, all bringing together cultures from all around the world. In the mood for some excellent Burmese food? Head to Little Myanmar in the East Village. How about Senegalese cuisine? You’ll find that at Pikine, uptown. The borough fosters a culture where only the best prevail, leaving little room for a slice of pizza that is less than superb. (And you’re not going to find New York’s best slice of pizza in Brooklyn, ever. Because it’s at Scarr’s in Manhattan. End of story.)
Regardless of what you’ve heard, the city’s expansive 24/7 subway and bus system is robust, dependable, far-reaching – and not scary at all. If your budget puts you at a hotel some ways from the action, a $2.75 subway ride will bring you anywhere in Manhattan – fast. Leaning into the fact that just about any hotel room in New York will trend small, consider the trendy and budget-friendly Pod hotels (with three locations in central Midtown).
The best way to see Manhattan is by walking. In Brooklyn, you’ll have to spend time plotting your way between far-flung neighborhoods, often with suboptimal mass-transit options (beware the infamous G Train). In Manhattan, you’ll feel more motivated to keep exploring as you move from area to area, taking in the old-world charms of Greenwich Village, the shiny new architecture at Hudson Yards and the liveliness of Chinatown.
As for Manhattan-only food musts, you won’t find a better matzo-ball soup than at Second Avenue Deli. The classic diner gets an only–in–New York twist at Thai Diner. And you’ll taste a near-perfect banh mi at Saigon Shack in the Village (who needs Hanoi?).
Plunge into the crowds and explore Manhattan neighborhoods like Chinatown on foot © Kamira / Shutterstock
Start your trip by getting oriented on one of those ubiquitous hop-on-hop-off buses. From there, head up to get a visual lay of the land at one of city’s newest, snazziest observatories, Summit One Vanderbilt. (You won’t find 360-degree views like this across the East River.) They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway – and they are, on the one in Manhattan, not the Brooklyn counterpart stretching from Williamsburg into Bedford-Stuyvesant. An afternoon spent exploring the green acres of Central Park is second to none. As for a world-spanning presentation of art history and culture – no disrespect to the excellent Brooklyn Museum – the Metropolitan Museum of Art is in a (world) class of its own.
When Harry met Sally, he didn’t take her to a dive bar in Brooklyn: he brought her out for the best pastrami sandwich of her life at Katz’s, still going strong on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Don’t miss your moment to have what she had.
Brooklyn or bust
David Farley is a food and travel writer who has lived all over the world. He loves scouring Brooklyn – from Greenpoint to Gravesend and everywhere in between – for the best, most unique things to eat and do.
You can tell a lot about a place by the first few questions locals usually ask. In New York City, one of those immediate questions is: which neighborhood do you live in? Saying you reside in, say, Jersey City is inviting your interlocutor to walk away mid-sentence. On the other hand, until about 15 years ago, saying you lived in the leafy, celebrity-studded West Village in Manhattan would instantly win anyone’s approval.
One of New York City’s most delightful neighborhoods, Coney Island is a Brooklyn highlight © Getty Images
Today, a response other than “Brooklyn” is enough to make a New Yorker choke on their bagel. If this borough of 2.6 million were an independent city, it would be the fourth largest in the United States, in between Chicago and Houston. Brooklyn has long had a reputation for its rough-around-the-edges ethnic enclaves: the Italian-Americans of Bensonhurst, the Russians and Ukrainians of Brighton Beach, the Poles of Greenpoint. Now, it’s a new tribe that’s colonized the borough: hipsters, who have made Brooklyn their own – and have made their own Brooklyn in turn. The one that’s become a global stand-in for cool, with bars, cafes, restaurants and boutiques around the world evoking the name to signify hipness.
A checklist of must-visit sights isn’t really the reason to head to Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Museum is excellent, but certainly no substitute for Manhattan’s Met. The Brooklyn Academy of Music (aka BAM) offers world-class programming and live venues in Williamsburg and elsewhere draw marquee acts – though this adds up to a fraction of the vastness and variety of entertainment happening across the East River each night.
Yet Brooklyn has something right now that has long vanished in increasingly soulless Manhattan: a sense of place. When you get off the subway in Brooklyn, you’ll almost always feel a sense of calm compared to the bustle of Manhattan. And then you’ll notice the lack of familiar chain pharmacies, the usual restaurants and corporate coffee joints. Brooklyn is where the cool kids went to take a risk and open an indie bookshop, record store or third-wave coffee spot. It’s where chefs have come in search of (relatively) more affordable rent to open that restaurant they’ve always dreamed of. It’s where artists and musicians started flocking decades ago because of cheaper studio and living space.
Brooklyn has that most undefinable yet palpable of qualities: a sense of place © Tetra images RF / Getty Images
All this has added up to something that is impossible to measure but easy to feel, no matter your interests. If you’re a club kid, the outer fringe of industrial Bushwick is where you should point yourself. If you’re a foodie, countless worthy restaurants beckon, from Michelin-starred fare to salt-of-the-earth, off-the-radar regional cuisines – and everything in between. If you’re into art, you’ll see what’s coming next at the avant-garde galleries of Bushwick and Dumbo.
And if anyone had doubts about Brooklyn being a destination in and of itself, a number of hip hotels have switched on their lights in the borough in the last five years. The Hoxton made the leap from London to Williamsburg, while Coda recently opened nearby, its club-like restaurant Bohemia attracting stylish locals. In central Downtown Brooklyn, an outpost of the Ace Hotel opened last year.
Brooklyn is where less-pretentious New Yorkers have fled to feel at home. They might not even ask what neighborhood you live in.