Walt Whitman wrote about the joys of taking the ferry more than 160 years ago, but you can still go by boat to see places like Red Hook, Brooklyn Heights, and Bay Ridge.
Want a new way to check out the Brooklyn waterfront? Try a boat. For $2.75, you can visit ports of call that have a lot to offer in terms of culture and food. From Manhattan, you can start island-hopping at the Pier 11-Wall Street landing, where the salty air wakes you up and boats with names like Ferry Godmother, City Fishy, and McShiny pull up to take you away.
NYC Ferry started in 2017 and has been growing since then. Former Mayor Bill de Blasio pushed for the city-funded service, which was run by Hornblower, a private company based in San Francisco. He did this so that neighborhoods without subways could have an easy way to get around. Even tourists can gain. There are snack bars, bathrooms that are mostly clean, and a top deck with great views of the Brooklyn Bridge and the sparkling shorelines.
Six routes run every day between the five boroughs. A spokeswoman for NYC Ferry said that a shuttle to Governors Island will run on weekends until September 11. Vessels can hold between 150 and 350 people, which isn’t very many compared to the Staten Island Ferry, which can hold thousands. On warm days, the longest line is for Rockaway, Queens (tip: go before noon). Greenpoint is temporarily closed for repairs, so only eight of the 25 landings are in Brooklyn. The Dumbo/Fulton Ferry has its perks, such as beautiful views of the Manhattan skyline, waterfront parks, the century-old Jane’s Carousel, and Bargemusic, a moored barge that puts on chamber music concerts. The Brooklyn Navy Yard, North Williamsburg, South Williamsburg, and Brooklyn Army Terminal/Sunset Park are more for people who need to get to work than for people who want to see the sights.
Along the South Brooklyn route, Pier 6 at Brooklyn Bridge Park, Red Hook, and Bay Ridge are all fun places to visit on their own for a day. Remember to bring sunscreen.
Brooklyn Bridge Park Pier 6
On a recent hot day, a path through Brooklyn Bridge Park just off the landing at Pier 6 in Brooklyn Heights, near Cobble Hill, was shady thanks to a canopy of trees. Families and groups of friends can easily spend hours picnicking on lawns that haven’t been treated with pesticides and using sand volleyball courts and playgrounds with two-story slides and water jets to cool off. There’s a lot more to see for people who are always on the go.
Walk around Brooklyn Heights and you’ll be amazed by the beautiful mix of Federal, Greek-Revival, and Italianate buildings. Columbia Place, Joralemon, Pierrepont, Clinton, Pineapple, Orange, Cranberry, and Middagh Streets bring to mind another time, when writers like W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, W.E.B. Du Bois, Arthur Miller, and Walt Whitman walked the leafy sidewalks.
If you can’t afford to buy a place there, you can get a drink at the Long Island Bar (110 Atlantic Avenue), a polished, retro place with a lot of outdoor seating. In the 1980s, co-owner Toby Cecchini started the craze for Cosmopolitans, and here he makes a cheeky frozen version of the drink. It’s not silly that it has a tangy, strong kick. The frozen pia colada is creamier, like soft-serve, and has three different kinds of rum in it. The food is also very good. For $15, you can get smoked trout in a jar with a lid made of trout roe. For $20, you can get a double-patty cheeseburger with pickles and battered fries.
From there, check out Atlantic Avenue, a commercial street with lots of interesting shops. For example, Salter House (119 Atlantic Avenue) sells coffee, tea, and carefully chosen home goods. Sahadi’s (187 Atlantic Avenue), which has been in the neighborhood since 1948, is a Middle Eastern food emporium.
Near the water, there are many places to eat, like the Italian-style Popina (127 Columbia Street). In its large backyard, you can relax with a mezcal negroni (which costs $15) and hot chicken Milanese (which costs $27). Before you get back on the ferry at Pier 6, try to get a seat at the bar on the wooden schooner Pilot, which is docked on the north side of the pier and has been carefully fixed up. You might see a beautiful sunset while sipping a drink and eating a half-dozen expertly shucked oysters for $19 to $24, extending your trip until the last boat leaves at 9:30 p.m. on weekends.
Red Hook, New York
If it wasn’t so hard to get to Red Hook by subway, there might be a rush of people wanting to experience its small-town charm. NYC Ferry seems to be a good solution because it lets people visit these small businesses in Brooklyn and then go back to where they came from (9:21 p.m. is currently the last ferry out on weekends).
Pioneer Works, a modern arts center, is just a few blocks from the landing. While its main building is being fixed up, it is located at 135 Imlay Street. Sunny’s Bar (253 Conover Street) is a popular roadhouse with live music, and Strong Rope Brewery is a huge tap room with outdoor tables that have views of the Statue of Liberty. Both are near the water. Both places don’t have food, so get a thin-crust pizza with fresh, creative ingredients from the nearby Hoek for $18 to $21. (117 Ferris Street).
Record Shop is at 360 Van Brunt Street. They sell vinyl records and used books you’ve always meant to read. Many of the other stores are antique shops, art galleries, clothing stores, wine shops, and restaurants.
St. John Frizell’s Fort Defiance recently reopened on a new corner, which was a welcome change (347 Van Brunt Street). The appealing cocktail and food menu makes it easy to pair things like an absinthe-tinged Sazerac ($15) with a bowl of crisp chickpeas ($3), crunchy-creamy cod and potato croquettes ($8), and a chicory Caesar salad drenched in Grana Padano cheese ($16).
Fort Defiance has nice sidewalk seating for people who like to eat and drink outside when it’s warm or who are afraid of Covids. Another neighborhood favorite, Grindhaus, has a quiet backyard. The mushroom tempura with fish sauce vinaigrette ($19) and purple potato dumplings with coconut ($17) made by chef Kevin Speltz are great. The duck leg confit ($27) was as crisp as any in Paris and was laid out on a waffle that was soaked in sweet chili and brown butter, which was a great combination.
The ferry ride to Bay Ridge is exciting because it cuts through the waves on the East River, goes by Governors Island, and heads for the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, which is big and beautiful. The South Brooklyn route ends here, so everyone must get off. Walk along the pier, where fishermen are patiently casting their lines, and head south to the peaceful Narrows Botanical Gardens, which are full of rosebushes and a variety of birds that are loud enough to drown out the traffic on the Belt Parkway.
In the last 100 years, a lot of Norwegian, Syrian, Italian, Irish, and Greek immigrants moved to this part of southwest Brooklyn. The people and languages on streets like Third Avenue and Fifth Avenue are so different that they feel like multicultural bazaars.
“In addition to the existing Palestinian, Egyptian, and Yemeni populations, Latinx and Fujianese people are moving in,” said Dan Hetteix, who runs the progressive podcast Radio Free Bay Ridge. “Bay Ridge is where a lot of chefs try out their new ideas, which brings a lot of new life to the neighborhood. Some of the best and cheapest food in all of Brooklyn can be found here.”
This is a big claim, but after trying the Mexican food at Yucusiama (484 77th Street), which opened in a small storefront last year, it’s hard to disagree. The $8 quesadilla is filled with grilled chicken, raw onion, and melted Oaxacan cheese. The homemade corn tortillas are almost as light as crepes. Tortas are some of the best sandwiches that don’t get enough attention. They are made with soft buns that are brushed with refried beans and mayonnaise. All of the fillings are $9, but the suadero, which is thinly sliced beef flank layered with avocado, green pads of cactus, jalapeos, and stretchy cheese, is worth going back for.
Also worth a visit are Yemen Café’s slow-roasted, shredded lamb fahsah ($19.50) and soft, blistered discs of flatbread. The restaurant recently moved to a bigger space at 7317 Fifth Avenue, and it also has a location in Cobble Hill. The servings are big enough for a family and come with a salad and a peppery, flavorful broth.
There are still Italian restaurants in Bay Ridge. Piccante (7214 Third Avenue) is one of the best. Even though the kitchen looks small, it makes world-class fresh pasta like beef lasagna for $15 and pappardelle with honey-braised short rib ragù for $18, which you can eat all by yourself if you want to gain five pounds.
Food might be the biggest draw, but Mr. Hetteix said that artists are also moving into the area. Galleries like Underland (457 77th Street, Unit 1) and Stand4 (414 78th Street), which used to be a doctor’s office, have opened up.
If you don’t miss the last ferry at 9 p.m., Bay Ridge is much easier to explore than it was when the explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano sailed here almost 500 years ago.