Some Tips On Visiting Brooklyn

From a veteran tour guide

Having led walking and vehicle tours in Brooklyn since 2000, I’ve learned that many visitors and newcomers find Brooklyn baffling. Others, relying on friends or movies/TV/books, think they can easily master Brooklyn.

Well, author Thomas Wolfe considered the borough so complex that “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn.” So let me address some misconceptions.

1) We can see “Brooklyn” in a few hours, or a day, right?
Well, some Brooklyn highlights. Remember, Brooklyn’s bigger than Paris, both in population and in area. My “Brooklyn 101” tour touches on four or five neighborhoods, but only pieces of them, in 2.5 hours. (There are many other other tour guides/companies; see Explore Brooklyn.) A vehicle can cover more ground, but the trade-off is time walking the streets. I get annoyed when articles like “24 Hours in Brooklyn” unwisely suggest hopscotching around the borough or “One day in Brooklyn: the perfect itinerary” addresses just two neighborhoods.

By Peter Fitzgerald [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

2) “Brooklyn” is… ethnic nostalgia, classic row-house streets, hipsters, striving immigrants, hip-hop authenticity, or artisanal “makers.”
All of the above. Brooklyn would be the country’s fourth-largest city by population. It “contains multitudes,” as Walt Whitman might say. “Brooklyn” may be media shorthand for some neighborhoods within the larger borough, part of the Brooklyn “brand,” but it’s much more than that.

3) We can’t see “Brooklyn” without a specific tour or guidebook or app. There are many ways to experience Brooklyn; each has trade-offs in cost, time, and insight. You might just wander. You can take a tour bus. Maybe a friend can take you around, or you can join a large-group walking tour. You can test an app, web site, or guidebook. Or you can hire a private guide (like me!) and get personalized attention.

A very nice block in Park Slope. Photo by Norman Oder/NY Like A Native.

4) If it’s a “Brooklyn pizza” or a “Brooklyn bagel,” it must be good.
Not necessarily. Not everything made/bought here is special. Ask around, or do some research. Still, competition should bring up the baseline quality. For example, Greenpoint has a tremendous array of new and old bakeries: Polish, French, Sicilian, Scandinavian, & “new Brooklyn” (plus donuts).

5) Brooklyn has “a Jewish neighborhood,” right?
Brooklyn has many Jewish neighborhoods. Some are Hasidic, some are Modern Orthodox. Most are Ashkenazi, but one is Sephardic. And those are just the majority-Jewish neighborhoods. Others are mixed.

Lee Avenue in Williamsburg. Photo by Norman Oder/NY Like A Native.

6) Brooklyn has some “ethnic neighborhoods,” right?
Brooklyn has many “ethnic neighborhoods” or neighborhoods with multiple ethnic groups. We might just call them “neighborhoods.” For example, the western part of Sunset Park is significantly Spanish-speaking, thanks to the migration (not immigration) of Americans from Puerto Rico, and the subsequent immigration of people from Mexico and Central America. The eastern part of Sunset Park is today significantly Chinese, moving into a neighborhood with Scandinavian roots.

7) We only want to the one neighborhood, where Aunt Bea grew up.
That’s shortsighted. Brooklyn’s big, so to focus on one destination means you have the opportunity to see much more on the way or nearby.

Three languages (plus English) at a Sunset Park church building. Photo by Norman Oder/NY Like A Native.

8) We can see all of “Brooklyn” — classic brownstone streets, hipsters, hip-hop, ethnic variety, new retail — in just one neighborhood.
Not exactly. Often the most settled, classic neighborhoods (say Brooklyn Heights) lack cutting-edge shopping or ethnic variety. Williamsburg has the (now blunted) cutting-edge, but no classic streets (and not so many trees). Some of the best stores/food/restaurants can be found on the margins of neighborhoods (where rents were once cheap).

9) We can see “ethnic Brooklyn” and “hipster Brooklyn” together.
Only by defining “ethnic Brooklyn” narrowly. Greenpoint has a significant Polish community and an influx of newbies. The western part of Williamsburg has a Satmar Hasidic enclave and, north of it, the epicenter of gentrification. Crown Heights has a Lubavitcher Hasidic enclave, a large West Indian community, and younger people (and hipsters) moving in.

The Brooklyn Brewery, in Williamsburg. Photo by Norman Oder/NY Like A Native.

10) If we visit Brooklyn, it’s easy to see Coney Island.
Well, Coney Island’s well worth a visit, especially in summer but it’s a long trip — the end of four subway lines and a long ride from much of Brooklyn. Do factor in travel time, and the opportunity to see other neighborhoods.

11) If we get a hotel/room in Brooklyn, it’s easier to explore Brooklyn.
Maybe. Some hotels are off the beaten track; others are in one corner of Brooklyn. Neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant are huge, so a place there may be far from area attractions. Location matters for transit, safety, and amenities. Check Spotcrime or Google Street View.

The Wonder Wheel in Coney Island. Photo by Norman Oder/NY Like A Native.

12) A hotel’s name is a reliable geographic signifier.
Actually, terms like “Downtown,” “Arena,” and “Prospect Park” can be rather malleable. Always check. ​That doesn’t make these hotels unreasonable values, if you’re comfortable using transit.

13) Brooklyn or a certain neighborhood is “dangerous.”
Brooklyn, especially areas most visitors go, is generally safe, and has gotten steadily safer. Nothing bad has happened on my tours, and I’ve been expanding throughout the borough over the years. Interestingly… perhaps Brooklyn’s hottest, buzziest retail strip is Franklin Avenue in western Crown Heights. A few shootings have not stopped the rising rents.

The Pratt Institute Sculpture Garden in Clinton Hill. Photo by Norman Oder/NY Like A Native.

14) We don’t want to take the subway because it looked scary in a movie or when we last visited.
Most New Yorkers take the subway. It’s usually the fastest, cheapest way to get around, and it’s full of people. The small but not unknown chance of problems — some fraction of people are crazy/angry/smelly — is generally outweighed by expediency. Just avoid confrontations.

15) We can’t use our MetroCard on the bus.
Sure you can. That opens up a whole new universe of travel.


Norman Oder, a journalist and tour guide, has led neighborhood tours of Brooklyn since 2000, expanding to add new tours each year. A version of this was originally published at www.nylikeanative.com.