Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City.

Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City. Photo © Julie Doherty Meade.

New York is famous for its vibrant culture, world-class museums, award-winning theaters, and fantastic restaurants, but during the summer, I find myself craving the simple pleasures of fresh air, flip-flops, and sunscreen. New York City may not be the first place you associate with the great outdoors, but the balmy summers can be surprisingly lush and beautiful here. Plus, the city is blessed with one particularly lovely natural feature: its harbor.

Though largely ignored (and terribly polluted) until recently, the island-studded, oyster-filled waters surrounding New York City are cleaner now than at any time in the past 100 years, and a spate of new outdoor spaces have made it much easier to appreciate the city’s surprisingly abundant shoreline. During Michael Bloomberg’s three terms as mayor, the city inaugurated and expanded numerous parks along the water, from the New Stapleton Waterfront on Staten Island to the public park on Governors Island.

With its cooling winds and summery atmosphere, the water’s edge can be a great place to relax in the summer, as well as a good jumping-off point for sightseeing. If you’ve got a long weekend and a wide-brimmed hat, take to the water to experience a unique side of NYC—you might even get a tan.

Friday: Hop along the Hudson

On day one, make Hudson River Park the base for your exploration of Manhattan’s blossoming west side. A slender ribbon of green that extends all the way from the Battery to 59th Street, this waterfront park is dotted with dog runs, public art projects, and children’s play areas. There are also more unique diversions, like the miniature golf course at Pier 25 in Tribeca and the trapeze at Pier 40. Spend the morning exploring the park’s 550 acres on foot, via the wide bike path along the West Side Highway, or, if you dare, by kayak. (Paddlers will find kayak rentals at Pier 40 at West Houston Street or at Pier 66 in Chelsea.)

When you’re ready for a bite, head east to The High Line (Gansevoort Street and Tenth Avenue), a unique public park built atop a historic elevated railway in the once-industrial Meatpacking District, just one block from the Hudson. Atop the park, you’ll find surprisingly panoramic views of Midtown and the river, as well as ample benches, outdoor artwork, and refreshments along beautifully landscaped promenades. Snap pictures while snacking on a plate of tacos from The Taco Truck or a brisket sandwich from the Delaney Barbecue’s Smokeline. If you want to linger, order a glass of white at Terroir at the Porch, a branch of the city’s popular Terroir wine bars. If you see the cart, don’t miss the chance to try refreshing, all-natural Mexican-style paletas (ice pops) in seasonal flavors from La Newyorkina; it’s the taste of summer on a stick.

If you walk The High Line a few blocks north, you’ll find yourself in the heart of the Chelsea Gallery District, which is located between Tenth Avenue and Eleventh Avenue and runs roughly from 23rd Street to 29th Street. Here, the streets are jam-packed with contemporary spaces, many showing museum-worthy works by famous artists. Pick a few notable shows or well-known galleries to get started (Pace Gallery, Matthew Marks, David Zwirner, and Gladstone Gallery are among the most famous names) and wander into other spots that catch your eye. If you’ve come with the kids, a better choice is the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum, located on an aircraft carrier floating on the Hudson at Pier 86 at 46th Street. In addition to the opportunity to see the inside of this impressive vessel, the Intrepid recently opened a new pavilion housing the Enterprise, a retired NASA space shuttle.

After all that walking (or biking, or rowing), you’re probably ready for happy hour. Keep up the seafaring theme at the Frying Pan, a bar built on the deck of a historic lighthouse boat docked in the Hudson. If you’d prefer to sip on solid ground, grab some refreshments at the Maritime Hotel in Chelsea, a chic boutique hotel with a stylish ship-inspired decor. As night falls, you’ll be within striking distance of the many bars, restaurants, and nightclubs in the Meatpacking District, Chelsea, and the West Village.

Saturday: Historic Island Hopping

Skip the typical tourist trip to Liberty Island and instead enjoy some of the best views in the city from the historic shores of Governors Island. Just a half-mile off the tip of Lower Manhattan, this former Army post and Coast Guard base has recently been transformed into one of the city’s most popular public parks, in addition to serving as the permanent home of the New York Harbor School and a number of artist studios run by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.

Inaugurated by Mayor Bloomberg in 2012, Governors Island’s public spaces now include big lawns for picnicking, historic forts, and over 100 hammocks, as well as gorgeous views of the Statue of Liberty and downtown. Spend the morning biking around the island (on-site rentals are available) or checking out one of the many art and cultural events planned for this summer. Ferries run from Pier 11 on Wall Street to Governors Island every day (Monday–Friday, 10am to 6pm, $2; Saturday–Sunday, 10am to 6pm, free).

Sail back to Manhattan at midday and walk north a few blocks toward the Stone Street Historic District, one of the oldest streets in the city. This cobbled alley is lined with beautifully restored 19th-century neo-Dutch buildings, now housing a collection of lively pubs and restaurants. During the summer, the cobbled street is filled with picnic tables for dining and drinking alfresco. Order a snack and enjoy an unlikely respite amid the skyscraper canyons of the financial district.

One of the most important events in New York’s history took place on September 11, 2001, and many visitors to the city will want to remember that day at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. A short walk (and even shorter cab ride) north from Stone Street, the fountains and memorial site at the former World Trade Center buildings were recently augmented by a new museum, opened in the spring of 2014. This somber, moving space tells the story of the terrorist attacks and their impact on the city and world through exhibits and artifacts.

There’s no reason to leave lower Manhattan after night falls, and you can stay ocean-centric with a meal of local seafood at one of the many great eateries serving local catch. For an ultra-fresh selection, try Aquagrill in Soho or Pearl Oyster Bar in the West Village, which are both ranked among the city’s best and most popular seafood spots.

Sunday: Brooklyn Rising

New York's trendy Dumbo neighborhood: Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.

New York’s trendy Dumbo neighborhood: Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. Photo © Julie Doherty Meade.

In recent years, Brooklyn has built a solid reputation as one of the best places to eat, live, and shop in New York City. To check out the new locus of everything artisanal, local, and cool, take the East River Ferry from Wall Street/Pier 11 to Brooklyn. From the dock, stroll north through the cobbled streets of Dumbo, a historic waterfront neighborhood filled with independent booksellers and cute cafés. Next, head south to check out the fantastic, family-oriented Brooklyn Bridge Park, which attracts a large local crowd (and plenty of tourists). It offers a long riverfront promenade, old-fashioned carousel, numerous playing fields, artificial sand beach, and water-centric playgrounds, all set against the softly crashing waves of the East River and a spectacular view of downtown Manhattan’s skyscrapers.

Bring sunscreen (there aren’t many shaded areas) and an appetite. On Sundays, Pier 5 is home to a mouthwatering array of bites during the weekly event Smorgasburg, a massive and carefully curated congregation of food trucks and pop-up eateries. It’s hard to decide where to start (or stop)! You’ll find fresh-made lobster rolls, pochetta sandwiches, maracons, bubble tea, Burmese noodles, artisanal doughnuts, fresh oysters, kale salad, paranthas, coffee, cheesecakes, and fresh grilled cheese sandwiches, among many other options.

With a full tummy, lounge on the grassy fields overlooking the East River, then add a bit of culture to your evening with a show at Bargemusic, a chamber music venue located on a boat in the East River. This unique space presents concerts up to five nights a week during the summer, with Sunday performances held at 4pm.

After the show, hop the East River Ferry north to trendy Williamsburg, a waterfront neighborhood with many of the city’s most famous bars and restaurants. You won’t lack options in this bustling, youthful, ultra-creative neighborhood, but you will find one of the nicest views at the Ides, the sixth-floor bar at the Wythe Hotel. When the last rays of light have left the sky, cross the street to wrap up your weekend at Brooklyn Bowl, the independent concert venue and hipster-loving bowling alley.