Many of the millions of tourists who come to New York City every year only leave Manhattan to go to or from the airport.
But for travelers who want to get a sense of the city the locals live in, exploring New York’s other four boroughs is a way to see more of the metropolis – with the added benefit of much smaller crowds.
Brews and botanicals in the Bronx
The Bronx often gets a reputation for being gritty. But locals know that the Bronx is home to two of the most beautiful natural spaces in the entire city.
The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), which is reachable by the D subway train or the Metro-North railroad from Grand Central, is a stunning 250-acre expanse of orchids, roses, ferns and more. During the cooler months, visit the NYBG’s glass houses and library, which have permanent displays.
The garden also works with visual artists. This year, renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly has large-scale works displayed throughout the grounds, and you can visit at night to see them illuminated.
The other outdoor jewel in the Bronx is Wave Hill, an outdoor garden and cultural space overlooking the Hudson River. Formerly an estate for wealthy New Yorkers like Teddy Roosevelt to rent in the summer, the space was donated to the city of New York and now hosts everything from community picnics to nature tours and jazz concerts.
When it comes to food and drink, there’s plenty of both in the Bronx. Foodies should head to City Island, a small island just off of the Bronx, for some of the East Coast’s best seafood. Take the bus all the way to the end of the island, begin with slushy pina coladas and fried shrimp at Johnny’s Famous Reef Restaurant, then work your way back toward the mainland, stopping at crab shacks along the way.
The island has a rich maritime history – boats were made there for the Navy during World War II – so stop in at the island’s nautical museum to learn more about City Island’s past.
Dumplings and dance parties in Queens
Queens is not only New York’s largest borough, it also has the most number of languages spoken of any place on earth.
As a result, the borough considers multiculturalism a way of life, and its dynamic food scene is perfect evidence of that.
Each neighborhood is known for its regional specialties, from Indian and Pakistani in Jackson Heights to Filipino in Sunnyside. To get the most bang for your buck, head to Flushing, the Chinatown of Queens that dwarfs its Manhattan cousin in both size and scope.
It’s easy to fill a whole day trying every kind of dumpling on offer – you can’t go wrong with crab-and-pork soup ones from Joe’s Shanghai, sweet red bean dessert ones from Maxin Bakery and choose-three-ingredients custom ones (they can include anything from sea bass to pickles to eggs) at Tianjin Dumpling House.
Also in Flushing is Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the largest in the borough.
It’s home to the Unisphere, a huge silver globe commemorating the 1964 World’s Fair, and is walking distance from both Citi Field, home of the Mets, and the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, which hosts the U.S. Open every summer.
But that’s not the only way to spend time outdoors in Queens.
It’s sometimes hard to see this on a subway map, but Queens loops around and down over Brooklyn, meaning that Rockaway Beach – yes, the one the Ramones sang about – is technically in Queens.
Although Rockaway experienced major damage from Superstorm Sandy in 2012, the area has rebounded nicely.
Rockaway’s sand is now lined with pop-up boutiques and trendy food options like surfside taqueria Tacoway Beach.
If you still have energy left over after a beach or park day, take the subway back toward Manhattan and stop at Long Island City, the neighborhood just across the river from Midtown East.
The neighborhood is home to several top-notch art destinations, including the Isamu Noguchi Museum and the Socrates Sculpture Garden, but don’t miss PS1, an outpost of Manhattan’s MoMA known for edgy works by out-there artists and a huge outdoor neighborhood dance party every weekend in summer months.
Selfies and serenity in Staten Island
Even the most die-hard lifelong New Yorkers will sometimes admit they’ve never been to Staten Island.
Not only is the borough the most underrated one in the city, getting there is half the fun.
The Staten Island ferry departs regularly from Lower Manhattan every day and is totally free to ride – which also makes it the least expensive way to see and get selfies with the Statue of Liberty.
When heading to Staten Island, stand on the top level on the right for the best views of Lady Liberty, but also look out for the Verrazano Bridge – which connects Brooklyn and Staten Island – as well as Ellis Island along the way. On the way back to Manhattan, reverse that and stand on the top left.
Don’t just turn around and head back the minute you get to Staten Island, though. Walk or take the S40 bus over to Snug Harbor, which began as the country’s only retirement home for sailors and is now a breathtaking garden and historic site.
The centerpiece is the Chinese Scholar’s Garden, the first traditional Chinese garden to open in the United States.
Walking through the tree-shaded pathway into the white-walled garden, you’ll feel relaxed, meditative – and a million miles away from Manhattan’s hustle and bustle.
On the way back to the ferry terminal, make a stop at the Staten Island September 11th Memorial.
This outdoor sculpture is painted bright white and resembles a pair of wings.
If you look at the sculpture head-on, it acts as a frame for the slice of downtown Manhattan that the Twin Towers once occupied; along the sides you’ll see engravings of names of Staten Islanders who lost their lives on that day.
Parks and pizzas in Brooklyn
One of the easiest ways to get from Manhattan to Brooklyn also happens to be the most beautiful – a walk along the Brooklyn Bridge.
While some use the bridge to commute to and from work – trains aren’t permitted, but bikes are – the bridge is a pop culture icon, having made appearances in everything from “Sex and the City” to “Annie Hall,” so don’t be surprised if you see people recreating their favorite movie scene.
In fact, you’re likely to witness a marriage proposal or two on the bridge.
Once in Brooklyn, you’ll find yourself in the neighborhood known as Dumbo (aka “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass”). This riverside community is home to one of the fiercest rivalries in New York City, over a topic everyone in town has opinions about – pizza.
Grimaldi’s is arguably the best known Brooklyn pizzeria, with lines snaking down the block and Frank Sinatra on constant loop.
But scandal struck when Patsy Grimaldi, who originally founded the pizzeria and then sold it, came out of retirement to open a nearby spot called Juliana’s to instant raves.
No matter which one you choose – we suggest both, with a vote at the end – you’re in for a truly great New York slice.
And the bridge isn’t the only iconic landmark in Brooklyn. Coney Island, which has inspired everyone from the poet Federico Garcia Lorca to the TV show “Mr. Robot,” is a perennial hit with tourists and locals alike.
Make a full afternoon at Coney with rides on the Wonder Wheel and roller coaster The Cyclone, then pick up hot dogs from Nathan’s Famous and walk along the boardwalk.
There’s also a newly vibrant Coney nightlife scene – you can often get same-day tickets to see the minor-league Brooklyn Cyclones, whose stadium is here, and do a beer flight at Coney Island Brewing Company next door.
Many of the brewery’s offerings are inspired by classic soda pops and beach day snacks, so try the surprisingly-not-saccharine Kettle Corn Cream Ale and Cotton Candy Kolsch.
Finally, you won’t want to miss Prospect Park, Brooklyn’s answer to Central Park. The park’s bandshell plays host to summer music performances and film screenings, while adventurers will enjoy the miles of bike trail that loop throughout the green space.
If you enter the park near Grand Army Plaza, keep an eye out for the farmer’s market there, as well as the Brooklyn Museum (which is free to visit on Friday evenings) and the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. Come for the the architecture, stay for the slice of lemon chess pie from Brooklyn’s beloved Four and Twenty Blackbirds, which you can take with you into the park for a picnic.
Exploring the archipelago
One thing that is easy to overlook is that New York City isn’t just one island – it’s an archipelago.
While not all of the islands have hotels on them, many are easy to visit and explore.
Governor’s Island, which is accessible by ferry from both Manhattan and Brooklyn, is a great place to spend an afternoon biking, lounging in a hammock or attending a major outdoor event like the Jazz Age Lawn Parties that get New Yorkers dressing up in their finest Roaring Twenties costumes and challenging each other to games of croquet.
The relatively sleepy Roosevelt Island is reachable via a tram that goes over the East River – providing gorgeous, Instagram-ready views of the city.
Ellis Island, known for its connection to America’s immigrants, has a museum where people can trace their family’s genealogy.
And Lady Liberty, of course, has her very own island.
As a truly committed traveler, your trip to New York City can have you hopping as many islands as you would in Greece – in significantly less time.