If you’ve only got time to make one stop in Brooklyn , Coney Island should probably be it. Though no longer the amusement center it once was, there’s something about this windy, run-down place—with its magnificent boardwalk, rusting rides, tawdry snack stands, buoyant Russian community, and hordes of summertime sunbathers—that’s quintessential New York.
From Manhattan , take the D, F, or Q train to Coney Island/Stillwell Avenue. It’s a long subway ride out, and you’ll wind up on the elevated tracks above scrappy Surf Avenue. Go one block west to reach the beach and boardwalk.
Coney Island is often crowded to the bursting point on hot summer days and pleasantly empty the rest of the year. The scene is classic: old Russian women sit gossiping beneath big black umbrellas; young boys run fishing lines off the piers; joggers kick up sand on the wide expanse of beach.
Coney Island has always consisted of a group of privately run amusement parks. The largest, Astroland, closed in 2008. However, the most famous—the Wonder Wheel, with its iconic Ferris wheel and variety of kiddy and adults rides—remains open along with the world famous Cyclone.
The Cyclone (718/265-2100, www.coneyislandcyclone.com , noon–midnight daily in summer, weekends in spring), a classic 1920s roller coaster built on an old wooden frame, shakes and clatters as the cars shoot by. Enthusiasts consider the 60-mile-an-hour Cyclone—declared a city landmark in 1988—to be one of the country’s best roller coasters. Also in the park are about 20 modern rides and plenty of honky-tonk video arcades and game booths.
Wonder Wheel (718/449-8836, www.wonderwheel.com , noon–midnight daily in summer, weekends in spring), remains a regal 1920s Ferris wheel offering fairy-tale views of Manhattan , especially at night.
On the island side of the amusement park, find Nathan’s Famous (Surf and Stillwell Aves., 718/946-2202). Nathan’s was started in 1916 by Nathan Handwerker, a sometime employee of Charles Feltman. Feltman is said to have “invented” the hot dog by his simple act of putting a wiener inside a bun. Handwerker undersold his boss’s fare by a nickel, and so secured his place in entrepreneurial history.
Nowadays, on a busy summer weekend, the stand-up eatery sells as many as 50,000 hot dogs, 20,000 orders of French fries, and 500 gallons of lemonade.
Heading east on the boardwalk from the amusement park, you’ll soon come to the brightly painted storefront of the Coney Island Circus Sideshow (1208 Surf Ave., at W. 12th St., 718/372-5159, www.coneyisland.com , noon–5 p.m. Fri.–Sun. in summer, call for off-season hours, admission $7.50). A fierce-looking tattooed man lounges by the door, while inside is a madcap scene crowded with Snake Ladies, the Fire Eater, Human Blockheads, the Elastic Lady, Escape Artists, and the Torture King.
It’s all a sort of shrine to the way Coney Island used to be, run by a group of actors and performance artists, many from the East Village .
Started in 1985 by Yale Drama School graduate Dick Zigun, the nonprofit Sideshows also presents a whimsical, not-to-be-missed Mermaid Parade every June, a Tattoo Festival in late summer, and alternative rock-and-roll bands on summer nights. Next door to the theater you’ll find a small museum of Coney Island memorabilia and a souvenir shop.
Between the boardwalk and Surf Avenue at West 8th Street is the delightful New York Aquarium (718/265-3474, www.nyaquarium.com , 10 a.m.–4:30 p.m. daily, with extended hours in summer, adults $13, seniors $10, children $9). The beachside aquarium contains close to 4,000 residents, including walruses, beluga whales, sharks, stingrays, sea otters, and electric eels. In summer, sea lion shows are featured daily.
New York Mets’ minor league team, Brooklyn Cyclones (1904 Surf Ave., 718/449-8497; tickets: 718/507-8499, info [at] brooklyncyclones [dot] com), play in a shiny new stadium on the waterfront. This family-friendly entertainment has all the charm of other minor league teams, including goofy events and races during the game and seemingly unending giveaways. This is a very popular and affordable baseball option.