What are the Top 10 (or 20) Things to Do in Brooklyn? How Might They Fit Into Your Visit (and Our Tours)?
What’s right, and wrong, with those “Top Ten” or “Top 20” lists of things to do or visit in Brooklyn?
Quick here’s one from TripAdvisor, another from Time Out New York, another from U.S. News and from two other websites.
Well, for people new to Brooklyn, they can be helpful summaries that clarify what many think are worthwhile activities.
(There are also some oddballs in there. The Royal Palms Shuffleboard Bar & Club is a fine—and unique—place to visit, but I wouldn’t put in a Top 20 list. But I'm no longer young. Similarly, Brooklyn Crab in Red Hook is worth a visit, but it shouldn’t be the only thing on your Red Hook list. Yes, I lead tours there.)
DIY or with a guide?
All these attractions indeed can be visited on your own, without a tour guide. However, a tour can add far more context, historical photos, and fine-grained insight to neighborhoods like DUMBO, Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, and Williamsburg.
A tour guide can help on the Brooklyn Bridge, but it’s so crowded it may not be worth it, so I don't push my services.
Even a place like Coney Island, where the iconic boardwalk is free, with views of (in-season) rollercoasters like the Cyclone and Thunderbolt, plus the Wonder Wheel, deserves a deeper understanding.
Fitting things in
The lists also include locations of vastly different sizes. The Brooklyn Heights Promenade (on my Brooklyn 101/202 tours, as well as Brooklyn Heights & DUMBO), is smaller than Brooklyn Bridge Park, which is far smaller than Prospect Park.
Moreover, any list is not geographically conceived, so people new to Brooklyn don’t know how different attractions related to each other.
I always recommend that people aim to visit neighborhoods that are adjacent or—sometimes more complicated to newbies—within easy connection by subway or bus. If you book me for a tour, I can make recommendations, but here's a start.
Clusters of culture
So if you’re visiting Prospect Park, that’s when to also consider the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Library, all clustered around Grand Army Plaza, which is the park’s northwest gateway.
For those choosing my Brooklyn 101 or Brooklyn 202 tours, which include a stop at the library (if it’s open), we can start or end near the museum, so it’s possible to visit the museum and the garden. (Note: my tours go into the park, but I leave others to lead comprehensive tours of the park.)
The New York Transit Museum, which is not near Prospect Park, is a less-known gem, so I’m glad it’s on some lists. It’s close to Brooklyn Heights, Downtown Brooklyn, and Cobble Hill/Carroll Gardens, so it can be a springboard to my tours.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music is central to another cultural cluster in Fort Greene, including three BAM buildings, a theater, and smaller cultural spaces. We can easily start or end near there.
Food and drink
The Brooklyn Brewery and Kings County Distillery are fine places to visit, but there are so many microbreweries in Brooklyn that it’s a shame to limit yourself. In fact, it would make sense to organize a geographic “crawl,” given clusters of breweries in Gowanus, Red Hook, and Bushwick. (Williamsburg, home to the Brooklyn Brewery, does have another craft brewery, Ebbs, in walking distance.)
Many sources recommend the weekend food fest Smorgasburg, which is indeed worth a visit (in Williamsburg and Prospect Park, in-season) for convenience and creativity, though don’t expect great bargains.
Two indoor food halls, Time Out NY Market (in DUMBO) and DeKalb Market (in Downtown Brooklyn), are also worth visiting and can be incorporated into my tours, either within the tour, or at the end.
Some lists recommend organized food tours. If food and convenience are your priority, fine, but if you want to see more things, it’s typically possible to incorporate food into a more comprehensive neighborhood tour.
Taking the ferry
The East River Ferry indeed is a top attraction, given the views of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, but I’d recommend it most as a connection between DUMBO and Williamsburg, Greenpoint, or (in Queens) Long Island City, all worth significant exploration.
Some recommend the Brooklyn Flea, which is in DUMBO in season and spawned the even-more-popular Smorgasburg. It’s worth visiting—and can be incorporated into a tour—but is hardly the only source for shopping.
Similarly, L Train Vintage in Bushwick is fine, but, honestly, if you want to thrift, it’s probably wiser to walk the East Village.
Industry City, recommended for both shopping and eating, is a worthwhile destination, but is best seen in the larger context of the nearby Sunset Park neighborhood.
Similarly, if you just want to see street art, go to the Bushwick Collective (and/or take someone else's tour), but if you want to see some of the art in the larger neighborhood context, take my Bushwick tour.
Sure, Domino Park in Williamsburg is worth a visit, but again I'd suggest within the larger context of the neighborhood.
I recently got a tour request from a couple of seniors (from a Midwestern state in the USA) who are contemplating their first visit to New York City, bringing their 12-year-old granddaughter. They're thinking about hiring a guide for two to four hours a day over three to four days to introduce them to NYC.
That's not actually in my wheelhouse--blame the name of my company!--but it's fine that they contacted me.
Below is a modified version of my response.
If you look at my website, I actually do not specialize in introductory NYC highlights (Financial District, Times Square, Central Park, etc.) but rather on more focused walks around various neighborhoods, mostly in Brooklyn, and a few in Manhattan and Queens.
In other words, they're generally for people who've already seen those highlights and want to go beyond. I suspect you'd probably want to spend at least two, maybe three (maybe all?) days in Manhattan.
Please keep in mind that NYC is large—you can't see a lot in two hours, even if you're limited to Manhattan.
There are numerous guides who could help you in Manhattan, as well as scheduled group tours.
(I can lead tours in Manhattan—I did a 9-hour tour a few weeks ago that included pieces of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens—but others specialize in Manhattan.)
Some DIY research
I'd encourage you to first buy (or borrow from the library) a guidebook, so you can figure out your priorities. In other words, you generally don't need a guide to take you around a museum.
I'd also encourage you to join the Facebook group What to Do in NY and search for people reporting on what they did with a 12-year-old.
Also think about how much walking you can do, and whether you'd want to cut down on distance by taking public transit (buses or subway) or taxis.
Finding and paying a guide
Think about your budget for a private guide: it will cost you minimum $60-$75/hour, and some guides do charge $100+/hour.
If you can't find a guide recommended in Facebook or other web searches, you can always search on the Guides Association of NYC website. Or post a request for a guide (the more focused the better).
What about Brooklyn?
Finally, if you would like a tour of Brooklyn with me after you do the highlights in Manhattan, we could do an introductory tour: Brooklyn Bridge, DUMBO, Brooklyn Heights, etc. My fees are here (but will go up slightly in 2024),
As noted above, I can lead introductory tours in Manhattan and did combine part of one with a larger tour that included Brooklyn and Queens. That was for a recurring client--a leader who brings 5-6 different people to New York once a year for a full day of touring!
But I don't market myself for those tours because I don't specialize in those highlights. Sure, I can show you Times Square and Rockefeller Center and part of Central Park, and it will be "good enough" for new visitors. But I know some other guides are there all the time and know all the nuances.
I spend a lot of time trying to keep with the complexities of all the neighborhoods (mostly Brooklyn, plus two in Manhattan and three in Queens) where I do lead tours.
That said, if anyone does want a tour that combines boroughs with Manhattan, that could work. I'm happy to lead more long tours!
Touring Brooklyn Blog
Observations and ephemera related to my tours and Brooklyn. Comments and questions are welcome--and moderated.