Brooklyn, New York

BrooklynThere are few things I enjoy more than travel. So when I had a couple of vacation days to use last month, I wanted to go somewhere that was dynamic and exciting, yet a little off the beaten path. My destination of choice was Brooklyn.

No other place in the world can match the creative energy, vibrancy and diversity of New York City. This is the stuff movies are made of – classic landmarks, skylines, neon lights and facades that set the scenes for some of the most famous movies ever made. New York City is composed of five boroughs: The Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island. I would be exploring New York City’s hippest borough, Brooklyn. Home to countless musicians, athletes and celebrities, Brooklyn continues to rise in popularity as the “it” place to see and be seen.

The first thing you need to know about Brooklyn is that it is huge. Brooklyn is New York’s most populated borough and home to nearly a third of its citizens. If Brooklyn were a standalone city, it would be the country’s fourth-largest city. The second thing you need to know about Brooklyn is that it has a wonderful small town charm. Defined by the rooftop, the brownstone stoop, the corner bodega or quaint bistros, Brooklyn has an endearing neighborhood-esque quality.

When I think of Brooklyn, the first thing that comes to mind is the famous opening sequence of ‘Saturday Night Fever’ where John Travolta is walking down the street underneath the elevated train in perfect sync with the Bee Gees tune and buys two slices of pizza. The scene was filmed on 86th Street near Bay 23rd Street in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and the pizza place, Lenny’s Pizza, is still there. In fact, there is an excellent tour called ‘A Slice of Brooklyn Pizza Tour’ that will take you past this piece of celluloid history.

During this 4 ½ hour foodie favorite, you will not only visit some of Brooklyn’s most iconic neighborhoods like Coney Island and Bay Ridge, but also two of Brooklyn’s most famous pizzerias, each specializing in a different style of pizza: the award winning Grimaldi’s for brick oven Neapolitan-style pizza and the legendary L&B Spumoni Gardens in Bensonhurst for Sicilian-style pizza. Each pizza stop includes two full slices of pizza and a beverage. I indulged in an old-fashioned cream soda. The best part is that there are no lines. As our group strolled into Grimaldi’s, the line to get in was out the door and stretched down the sidewalk. We felt like celebrities as we bypassed an actor from HBO’s ‘Dexter’ waiting in the line to get in. Find out for yourself what locals, pizza aficionados, food critics, the Food Network, the Travel Channel and the Zagat Survey already know about the best pizzerias in New York. For the few who say the best pizza is found is Manhattan, as our guide, Paula, would say “Manhattan? Fuhgettaboudit!” http://www.asliceofbrooklyn.com

Brooklyn2Another great tour is ‘The Brooklyn TV & Movie Sites Tour’ by On Location Tours. Guided by local actors and actresses, the tour will take you to over 40 sites from various movies and television shows while giving you industry facts and behind-the-scenes tidbits. Some of the movie highlights include the brownstone and bakery from ‘Moonstruck,’ the hotel from ‘The Godfather,’ the French café in ‘Julie and Julia,’ the bank from ‘Catch Me If You Can,’ and the Brooklyn Bridge from ‘French Connection’ and ‘The Siege.’ Some highlights from television shows include scenes from ‘ Boardwalk Empire,’ ‘Sopranos,’ ‘Gossip Girl,’ ‘Sex and the City’ and more! What I loved about this tour is that the guide would show us the actual footage of the scene just before driving by the scene’s location. In several instances, we were able to get off the bus and go into the location. My favorite part of this tour is the stop at the iconic Junior’s, which was not only where Big and Carrie’s wedding reception was held in ‘Sex and the City, the Movie,’ but also home of the world’s best cheesecake, as well. Before you ask, yes, we did get a full slice of this famous cheesecake. http://onlocationtours.com/

There is much more to Brooklyn than television and films. In my opinion, nothing beats a Brooklyn rooftop. You can try to convince me otherwise but I have yet to see the same level of skyline splendor from anywhere else besides Brooklyn. The Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges have a regal beauty when lit at night and the backdrop of the Financial District is absolutely gorgeous at sunset. The best way to experience a Brooklyn rooftop is a stay at the new Fairfield Inn and Suites by Marriott, which is nestled in the vibrant heart of Brooklyn just a couple of blocks from New York’s top rated neighborhood Park Slope. This contemporary hotel features spacious rooms, a business center, a complimentary hot breakfast with Jimmy Dean Breakfast Sandwiches, waffles, cereal and fresh fruit and yes, fabulous two-level rooftop garden. http://www.brooklynfairfieldinn.com/

Jennifer Purtill, who represents Brooklyn Tourism, tells inquiring travelers that … “Brooklyn is like a mini-Europe. The Borough is made up of over 50 neighborhoods with dozens of ethnicities and backgrounds. You can walk from one cobblestone street to the next exploring goods, cuisine, and entertainment and experience the intrinsic culture significant to each community similar to traveling from country to country in Europe.” I wholeheartedly agree with Jennifer, no visit to Brooklyn would be complete without exploring the neighborhoods. While I only had a couple of days to explore, some of my favorites include DUMBO, Brooklyn Heights, Crown Heights and Historic Flatbush.

DUMBO (aka Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) is an artsy enclave tucked beneath the Manhattan Bridge that has become Brooklyn’s biggest concentration of art galleries. In addition to art, the area plays an important role in Brooklyn’s history and still retains a very old-time feel with cobblestone streets, old trolley tracks and warehouses from the late 1800’s that have been transformed into current day art and performance venues, residences and storefronts.

A mere 500 yards across the East River from Manhattan is Brooklyn Heights. Take a stroll along the promenade, which offers the best views of the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline, and you won’t be questioning why Brooklyn Heights makes the list. Simply put, the Brooklyn Heights Promenade will take your breath away. It is one of the most romantic spots in New York City, and has been the destination for thousands of first dates, wedding proposals and anniversary celebrations. For history buffs, Brooklyn Heights encapsulates the history of the country. It was from here on August 29, 1776 that George Washington watched the Battle of Brooklyn unfold into a terrible defeat for his Colonial Army. Under the cover of darkness, Washington’s army crossed the East River from Fulton Ferry, below where the Brooklyn Bridge rises today, leaving Brooklyn to the British.

Brooklyn3Crown Heights is famous for being the world headquarters of a branch of Chassidic Judaism known as the Lubavitch movement. I had grown skeptical of ever finding a truly entrenched community in New York that hadn’t either been gentrified or overrun by outsiders who can’t help but trespass on ethnically hallowed ground. But as I stepped aside and observed, I saw stores and buses with Hebrew lettering, and then sidewalks full of, yes, people dressed in Orthodox garb. This is the real thing, so much so that I instantly felt a little out-of-place. A hidden gem of Crown Heights is the “Chassidic Discovery Center Tour.” This three hour walking tour is a unique opportunity to learn and discover the mystery of Chassidic Life, not from outsiders, but by the Chassidic Jews themselves. On our tour, which was led by Rabbi Beryl Epstein, we were able to visit sites that are normally not accessible to the public including the Main Synagogue, the Rabbinical Study Hall, Rebbe’s Library and a Chassidic art gallery. We were also able to view a scribe writing a Torah scroll. We were able to engage in discussions with the Rabbi about Jewish traditions, culture and daily lifestyle. He happily answered any questions our group had, nothing was off the table. The tour ended with a traditional Kosher lunch in a deli across the street from the Synagogue. www.jewishtours.com

Flatbush is an interesting neighborhood that has a completely different vibe than the rest of Brooklyn. Here, you will find quiet streets lined with Sycamore trees, neighborhood cafes and lavish Victorian architecture. If it weren’t for the subway stop on the corner, you would think you had been transported to the country. If you are a bed and breakfast enthusiast, Rugby Gardens Bed & Breakfast is not to be missed. This beautiful and eclectic Victorian home is only two blocks from a short subway ride into Manhattan, yet is a world away from the bustling city life. You will take a step back in time as you lounge on the front porch swing or relax by the back yard garden sipping a cup of tea. The best part is that for around $150 a night, you will not only get comfortable accommodations with all of the comforts of home, but a delicious French style breakfast as well. Try to find deal that in Manhattan – Fuhgettaboudit!

http://sites.google.com/site/rugbygardens

All too soon, it was time to leave. If only I could start all over again, I would explore some of the other 50 neighborhoods, each with its own unique flavor. Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz says “I always say Brooklyn is Proud Home to Everyone from Everywhere, but we’ve truly taken on a new role – Proud Host to Everyone From Everywhere.” I agree that Brooklyn is a great host. I see another trip to Brooklyn in my future. For more information, visit www.visitbrooklyn.org.

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