Let's face it, the saying "Only in New York" just doesn't mean what it used to. Chain stores line Broadway and Starbucks is more ubiquitous than the Anthora coffee cup ever was. And despite the always present fear that the mallification of Manhattan will take over Brooklyn as well, it hasn't happened quite yet. Brooklyn might get mocked for the fact that everything is artisanal, but the truth is, that's part of what makes Brooklyn special. There are experiences you can have here that you just can't have anywhere else. So while Manhattan might still get the bulk of the tourist population looking to scrounge up good deals at the Herald Square H&M, here are the top 10 things that any visitor—or resident—of Brooklyn can do here that they can't do anywhere else.
Canoeing a Superfund Site
Where else but in Brooklyn can you take a canoe trip down a toxic canal? As crazy as it may sound, the Gowanus Canal is actually quite beautiful to explore by boat, where you'll have an up close look at the mix of industrial sites and natural beauty that make this area of Brooklyn so unique. The Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club will take you on a tour where you might see wildlife including "ducks, seagulls, herons, geese, egrets, horseshoe crabs, blue crabs, fiddler crabs, baby flounder, shrimp, mussels, killifish, jellyfish and a raccoon that has established residency near [the] launch site." This is also an activity designed to impress other people, who will no doubt say, "You went boating where? Weren't you afraid of falling in and becoming radioactive?" And you can just feel all smug about it and talk about the three-eyed fish you think you saw, but didn't get a chance to snap a picture of.
The Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club; gowanuscanal.org
The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago
The Brooklyn Museum is a legitimate tourist draw for a variety of reasons, but one of the best reasons to go there is for the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. In the Sackler Center, you'll find Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party, which has been part of the Museum's permanent collection since 2007, and works both as a thought- and conversation-provoking work of art, but also as a history lesson. And, really, isn't travel and tourism about education? Yes, it is. And most people haven't had enough of an education when it comes to feminist icons. So go check out The Dinner party and expand your mind while you look at plates that each bear a pretty strong resemblance to the all-powerful vagina.
Brooklyn Museum; 200 Eastern Parkway, Prospect Heights
The 16th Oldest Roller Coaster In the World
There's only one 16th oldest roller coaster in the world, and that bad boy is right here in Brooklyn. That's right, I'm talking about the Cyclone in Coney Island. And while "16th oldest" might not sound like much of a superlative, keep in mind that the Cyclone has been around since 1927, which means that when you go on it, you are basically putting your fate in the hands of something that, if it were human, would statistically, probably be dead. Plus, while the Wonder Wheel is technically older, it doesn't feel on the verge of collapse the way the Cyclone does. Riding this particular wooden coaster is definitely something that you can only do in Brooklyn.
The Cyclone; 834 Surf Avenue, Coney Island
Visit the Past in a Century-Old Subway Car
Definitely one of the coolest museums in the entire city, the New York Transit Museum is located in downtown Brooklyn and offers visitors an opportunity to see what subways were like back when a ride cost a nickel. This lesser known museum is just a flat-out cool experience, from the minute you realize its entrance is a faux-subway station, you realize you're in for something special. It's the largest museum devoted to urban public transportation history in the country, and it's no surprise that it's in New York, because if there's one thing we do well here, it's public transportation. Decades old subway cars sit idle, waiting for you to marvel at the woven wicker seat cushions and Mad Men-era advertisements. Just think of it, a time before Dr. Zizmor! It boggles the mind, it really does.
New York Transit Museum; corner of Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street
The Oldest Building in New York City
Just in case you weren't impressed by the idea of the 16th oldest roller coaster in the world, here's a superlative that anyone can get behind. As it turns out, Brooklyn is home to the oldest building in all of New York City. That's right, the Wyckoff Farmhouse was built in 1637 by Pieter Claesen (who later changed his name to
"Wyckoff") and it still stands today and functions as a museum. The Wyckoff family actually used the dwelling for eight successive generations until the home was sold to developers in 1901. New York City's Dutch history is one of the things that set it apart from the rest of colonial America, and a visit to the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum can illuminate the Dutch influence even further.
The Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum; 5816 Clarendon Road, Canarsie
You Can't Spell "City Reliquary" Without "Quirky" (Almost)
This is definitely an "only in Brooklyn" institution—something this off-the-wall just couldn't keep up with Manhattan rents anymore. Frankly, it's amazing that it can still exist in its current Williamsburg location. It's kind of amazing that anything that's not backed by a private equity firm can still exist in Williamsburg anymore. So check it out while you can! Contained within its walls are everything from a revealing history of burlesque (oy, sorry about that pun) to a subway turnstile from the 1950s. It's the perfect place to indulge in all the ephemera that makes New York what it is—unique, strange, and full of surprises.
The City Reliquary; 370 Metropolitan Avenue, Williamsburg
Learn Something that Might Come In Handy During Bar Trivia One Day
As you have probably been able to tell by now, one of the things that I think makes Brooklyn so special is the nods to history that are so specific to having been one of the oldest settled parts in all America. One of the richest areas of Brooklyn history is that which relates to the Revolutionary War. In fact, if you want to do a whole tour of Revolutionary War landmarks, you easily could. But if I had to pick one thing to single out, it would be the Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument in Fort Greene Park. The memorial commemorates the more than 11,000 Americans who died onboard British prison ships during the Revolution. These prisoners mostly died from disease or malnutrition and were unceremoniously thrown overboard to a watery grave. And to put the number of prison martyrs in perspective, the number of American combat casualties during the war was approximately 8,000 men. So more Americans died aboard those ships than in combat during the entire war. And that right there, besides being incredibly disturbing, is also pretty solid trivia.
Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument, Fort Greene Park, Fort Greene
Feel Like You're In Ancient Greece
So not everything is oddball museums in Brooklyn! Obviously. There are also bars and restaurants. But when I was trying to think of a bar or a restaurant that was unique to Brooklyn, I kept coming across the same problem. Sure, there are places that might once have felt like they could only exist in Brooklyn, but now those types of places have sprung up all over the country. Basically, the branding of Brooklyn has been incredibly successful. So instead, I recommend you take advantage of a crazy little quirk in the naming of two of my favorite Brooklyn places to feel sort of, maybe like you're in ancient Greece. Stop off first at Achilles Heel, this waterfront Greenpoint bar is open from 8am, so you can get there early and spend the better part of the day lingering over a Hemingway daiquiri or two. Then stop off at the River Styx (where one of the owner's names is Homer—Homer!) and indulge in fava beans and braised pork, just like the ancient Greeks did or something. Feel free to end your night with a ride on the East River Ferry. Charon won't be there to collect your fare, so don't worry about having a pocket full of gold coins. Just bring $4, because Metrocards weren't around during the Trojan War. I mean, neither were Hemingway daiquiris, but who really cares about authenticity anyway?
Achilles Heel; 180 West Street, Greenpoint
River Styx; 21 Greenpoint Avenue, Greenpoint
Brooklyn Lit Superstars Crawl
Los Angeles has its "Hollywood Stars" tours and I'm sure plenty of people skulk around the West Village hoping to catch a glimpse of Hugh Jackman or someone and I'd even wager a guess that there are a few weirdos who hang out around DUMBO fervently hoping for an Anne Hathaway sighting. To which I say, plebes! All of them. You're better than that, aren't you? You don't want to stalk any old movie star, do you? No, you're in Brooklyn and so you want to see the people who are putting Brooklyn on the map right now. People like Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Safran Foer, Martin Amis, Emma Straub, et al. But where do these literary luminaries lurk? The obvious places, really. Coffee shops and bookstores. Now, I don't know what sort of caffeine addicts these people are, so you're on your own there, but I can advise that you check out local bookstores like PowerHouse, BookCourt, and Word to see when people are giving readings. That's your best bet for seeing one of your lit heroes in real life AND supporting local Brooklyn businesses. It's a win/win.
PowerHouse; 37 Main Street, DUMBO
BookCourt; 163 Court Street, Cobble Hill
Word; 126 Franklin Street, Greenpoint
I'm not going to give you home addresses! Don't be creepy.
Watch the Best Damned Sunset of Your Life
Look, there's only one neighborhood that in New York City named Sunset Park, and that neighborhood? Is in Brooklyn. If there's one thing in Brooklyn that you really ought to do that you can't do anywhere else, it's to go check out the sunset from the top of the highest point in Sunset Park. You'll see all of New York harbor stretching majestically before you, and marvel as the sun slips down in fiery glory behind the Statue of Liberty, leaving all who view it in awe of such beauty. Then, once darkness starts to settle, go grab a taco at one of the many places dotting the neighborhood and feel satisfied in the way that only Brooklyn can leave you.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen