There’s more to the Big Apple than Manhattan - and Brooklyn has the lion’s share of what the rest of New York City has to offer
If Manhattan forms the core of the Big Apple, its zesty bite is surely Brooklyn. This huge and vibrant New York borough is famous as the former stomping ground of Woody Allen, Sarah Jessica Parker, Neil Diamond and all their immigrant forbears. But it’s also the current home of edgier stars like Maggie Gyllenhaal, and is where Gossip Girl’s fictional pin-ups, Dan and his gorgeous rock-star dad Rufus, lay their heads.
Today, there’s culture galore on offer, as well as shopping, dining and gazing at one of the world’s most iconic bridges. The Brooklyn Academy of Music, America’s oldest performing arts centre, was founded in 1861 and now gets many premieres that bypass Broadway. The Brooklyn Museum has a spectacular art collection, and there are galleries galore.
Although the borough does have a bustling centre, as with Manhattan the real joy of Brooklyn is its collection of eclectic, rather far-flung neighbourhoods, which require time and a subway ticket to explore in depth. Brooklyn Heights is a good place to start. The leafy streets of this architectural jewel of a neighbourhood, which Arthur Miller and Norman Mailer once called home, are lined with fabulous brownstone mansions and elegant little shops. There is a beautiful wide promenade overlooking the Manhattan skyline which is not to be missed.
A five-minute stroll leads to Dumbo, the quintessential tourist tip of Brooklyn (it stands for Down Under the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridge). Here's where you'll find New York’s acclaimed - and pricey - River Cafe restaurant on the water (001 718-522-5200, www.rivercafe.com), the far more affordable Brooklyn Ice Cream Company, art galleries and a riverboat offering an easy hop across to Manhattan.
However, it’s worth spending more than a day in Brooklyn, especially now a pukka boutique hotel has finally opened in the borough. It’s not in Brooklyn Heights, where planners have kept out hotels, or even Dumbo, but further-in Park Slope, a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood with a similar vibe to London’s Portobello Road. The Fourth Avenue site of Hotel Le Bleu may not look pretty (it is to Park Slope as Westway is to Portobello), but the hotel is chic, comfortable and friendly. It’s also only a one-block stroll from the lively Fifith Avenue dining and shopping strip. Here, the legendary Aunt Suzie’s (001 718-788-3377, www.auntsuzie.com) is a convivial and stunningly good value bistro serving excellent old-fashioned Italian fare, including a stuffed artichoke to die for.
Hotel Le Bleu’s manager, Robert Gaeta, is a hive of local information, and recommends a delightful 20-minute stroll through the adjacent old Italian neighbourhood of Carroll Gardens. Here you’ll find amazing old mansions set in big flower-filled front gardens unimaginable for a big city. Crossing Carroll is Smith Street, which has to be Brooklyn’s best boutique shopping thoroughfare. Particularly notable are Refinery, for spectacular designer fabric handbags, and The Flight Store, for wonderful in-suitcase organisers.
Another route, through Park Slope’s incredibly leafy streets of beautiful old houses, leads to Prospect Park. This is a spectacular oasis by the same designers who created Central Park and has much more than grass and flowers to offer. Nearby is the aforementioned Brooklyn Museum, home of one of the world’s most extensive art collections. It’s particularly strong in the American, African and Asian works so under-represented in Britain.
Further down Eastern Parkway is the Jewish Children’s Museum, largest of its kind in the US, offering an intriguing set of biblical “experiences”, from fishing baby Moses out of the bulrushes to bringing down the walls of Jericho with a shofar. Walking tours (www.jewishtours.com) offering a peep into the mysterious world of the ultra-religious Chasidic Jews of Crown Heights (who believe the Messiah has already come) are the newest attraction in this neighbourhood. Intriguingly, this major thoroughfare is only Jewish on one side, proud and black on the other, offering the casual visitor an intriguing mix of ethnic cuisines.
For sheer nostalgia, ride the subway all the way down to the far tip of the borough, Coney Island. Here is the famous funfair, with its Nathans hot-dog stand. Next door sits Brighton Beach, now a Russian-speaking ghetto, worth a look for its boardwalk beside the sea. At the opposite end of the borough, closest to Manhattan, Williamsburg is gaining rapid ground with foodies and fashionistas. Hit the junction of Bedford Avenue and 7th as a starting point. Even charity shops are hip in this vintage fashion stomping-ground - check out Beacon’s Closet on 11th Street, or Buffalo Exchange on Driggs Avenue for rather more upmarket "previously worn" finds.
Brooklyn general information: www.visitbrooklyn.org