I love biking in New York City. There’s nothing like going through the five boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx and Staten Island), each with at least fifty distinct neighborhoods. This post explores a swath of Brooklyn for a three-hour bike ride (not counting stopping). Brooklyn was mostly known as a working-class borough until a few decades ago. Then, to the surprise of many, its image changed to the cool place which hipsters flocked to. Part of the attraction of Brooklyn is the music scene. While concerts are usually at night, this post’s bicycling itinerary points out some excellent venues you should check out on another day.
Brooklyn is the second largest borough at 71 sq mi / 183 sq km (about three times the area of Manhattan).
It’s the largest in population around 2.6 million and is the second most densely populated borough (next to Manhattan). Despite sections with million-dollar brownstones, gourmet coffee shops and high-tech firms, it’s the second poorest with an average family income of around $45,000 (the Bronx is the poorest). About a third of the population is non-Hispanic White, another third African American, and the rest Hispanic, Asian and others. There are many who have roots in the Caribbean and annually there’s a huge Caribbean Day parade. When I spent a week in Grenada, literally everyone I met had relatives in Brooklyn. There’s also a large orthodox and ultra-orthodox (Hasidic) Jewish population. As NYC is a melting pot, at least on some streets and in the subway, the different groups intermingle while going on with their daily lives.
Strategy of Biking in Brooklyn
It would take four or five full-day bike rides to see all the neighborhoods in Brooklyn. The best way is to pick a destination and go to a maps app and devise a bicycle route. Then check out the interesting places going and returning from your furthest stop.
Whenever possible, be sure to use bike lanes, especially on busy streets. I was reminded of this when I saw this shrine in Williamsburg for Aurilla Lawrence, a 25-year-old bicycle messenger, who was fatally struck by a truck driver in February 2019.
The driver fled the scene. Her fellow messengers erected this ghost bike near the site of the accident as a memorial. I mention this not to discourage biking in Brooklyn, but just to be always alert and careful.
While it’s very unlikely for a biker to be mugged in any of the boroughs, there’s always a chance of it in a big city where you go through areas you are unfamiliar with, especially if you are riding on an expensive bike and have a pricey camera. To minimize the already low probability of this happening, I highly recommend biking with a friend or two and only during the day. Also friends can help you if you have an accident or your bike breaks down. Here are my frequent biking partners, Joe and Nick, when we took a break for lunch at a Russian restaurant called the Vanka Cafe in Sheepshead Bay.
There are some places where it’s better to take the subway, than ride to and park your bike outside for several hours, including the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and Green-Wood Cemetery.
Be sure to engage with the local people who are from diverse backgrounds. Most of the time, they will be happy to tell you about the neighborhood and their story.
Biking is a good exercise during Covid-19, since you’re in open air and riding far enough from others. However, as long as this pandemic lasts, be sure to wear a mask and practice social distancing when you are off the bike. Note, some of the photos in this post have people without masks, as they were taken before Covid-19.
Recommended Bike Route in the Bronx
This is the first half of the ride, a 15-mile stretch from the Brooklyn Bridge to Coney Island, which has many great views of the lower Manhattan skyline.
The route starts at the Brooklyn Bridge with the first stop at the Congregational Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights. The founding pastor, Henry Ward Beecher, was a prominent opponent of slavery. Abraham Lincoln attended a service and sat in pew 89. At the time, the church introduced the concept of pews arranged in an arc before the pulpit, resembling an auditorium. This open design was adopted later by many evangelical Protestant churches in the U.S. The church garden has a statue of Beecher and a bas-relief of Lincoln.
Brooklyn Heights Promenade
The next stop provides jaw-dropping views of Manhattan. I took this picture when I first started learning about night photography.
Columbia Street Waterfront District
Continue south, either taking the bike lanes on the map or any peaceful residential street. On the way, you will see beautiful streets lined with impressive brownstones.
When you cross Atlantic Avenue, you are in Cobble Hill. Take Congress Street over the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to the Columbia Street Waterfront District. The district is one of Brooklyn’s smallest neighborhoods with bakeries, restaurants (Krok Restaurant featuring Northern Thai street food is a favorite of mine) and interesting shops. It’s a family-friendly area, where it’s common to see kids playing in the street or the many parks.
Continuing south in the bike lane, you go through the industrial-looking Red Hook.
It’s a long walk from the subway, so the area has not gentrified quickly. Many of the residents who have moved in the last two decades are artists who like the relatively low rent and large, open buildings. The neighborhood juts into the New York Harbor and has killer views, especially of the State of Liberty, over attached and floating piers.
When leaving Red Hook and continuing south, you ride on the busy road under the elevated Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Much of it can be done on the sidewalk, which is safer. The first thing you encounter is the Gowanus Canal. Back in the day, the 1.8 mi / 2.9km waterway was active in transporting cargo. As this marine traffic decreased, all that was left was pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency declared it a Superfund site and spent over $1 billion cleaning it. While not pristine, canoers now feel comfortable paddling on it.
Nick and I met Lenny who sported cool sunglasses, a Davy Crocket-like hat and an aluminum baseball bat. He has lived in the area his whole life and vividly remembers that the Gowanus Canal was a repository for dead bodies. He further elaborated that the place started improving when the nearby neighborhoods began gentrifying.
Continuing further, you pass many warehouses and industrial buildings which mostly prohibit access to the shore. Eventually, you make it to Industry City between 32nd St and 39th St. Here there are enormous warehouses which house big box stores and several startup businesses.
Between 44th St and 50th St on the shore is the Bush Terminal Park, which opened in 2014. It has sport fields, a forested area and a place to fish with dramatic views of the New York Harbor.
I met 60-year old Lee there, who migrated from Hong Kong in 1987. He retired after running a Chinese Restaurant in adjacent Sunset Park. His son is an eye surgeon in Maryland, another example that the American Dream is working.
John Paul Jones Park
Leaving the shore, take 5th Ave then 6th Ave through Bay Ridge to John Paul Jones Park, which is named after “the father of the Navy”. He was an important commander in the American Revolution and is known for the quote “I have not begun to fight.”
Brooklyn was a critical location in the Revolutionary War. The Battle of Brooklyn resulted in the British capture of New York City and Long Island from the Continental Army. A few blocks away is Fort Hamilton, the only active-duty military installation in New York City.
Next you go down the hill on a nearby path with steps (you need to carry the bike a little bit) to the path on the shore next to the Belt Parkway. Here you see the double decker, 2.6 mi / 4.2 km suspension bridge to Staten Island.
Follow the path for about 30 minutes to cover the five miles to the famous Coney Island, home to a wide beach, a long boardwalk, amusement parks, and the sideshow featuring sword swallowers, bearded ladies, and other performers.
In non-pandemic times, Coney Island is mobbed with mostly local people enjoying the ocean and the attractions. If you’re into this vibe, you can spend several hours here without knowing it.
Decision Point – How Tired Are You?
For some, this is enough biking for a day. You can return to Manhattan by taking a subway (go to the end of the last car with your bike) or taking a ferry from Bay Ridge or the soon-to-be-completed Coney Island terminal.
Return Route to Manhattan
Here’s a map of the 14-mile ride to the Williamsburg Bridge, which goes to Manhattan.
It starts at Brighton Beach, which is a 5-minute bike ride from Coney Island.
Brighton Beach is a neighborhood which used to be dominated by signs in Yiddish, but now Cyrillic letters are present, reflecting the large population from the former Soviet Union, including Central Asia where this woman presumably is from.
The commercial area is under the elevated subway line. It’s a terrific place for lunch with several Eastern European, Turkish and Central Asian restaurants.
Childhood Home of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
She was a Supreme Court justice who became the idol of many, largely because of her ground- breaking advocacy of gender equality. She was also associated with Brooklyn and became known as the Notorious RBG (a name-play on the rapper Notorious BIG, also from Brooklyn). She was born in a modest house in Midwood.
To get there take Ocean Parkway, the beautiful route with bike paths and many benches to 1584 E 9th St.
Grand Army Plaza
Return to Ocean Parkway and go north to Prospect Park, an oasis in Brooklyn, about two-third the size of Central Park. It has a loop road which you can take to Grand Army Plaza with its imposing Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch.
The Arch commemorates Union soldiers in the U.S. Civil War. It’s notable because it portrays African-American soldiers, unusual when it was built in the 1890s.
Also, it has a rare depiction of Abraham Lincoln on a horse.
Brooklyn Academy of Music
BAM is a major cultural center in Brooklyn and NYC. The main part is the Peter Jay Sharp Building with huge arches and terra-cotta flourishes. It presents musical and theater performances with avant-garde, social commentary and international subject matter. It also has a cinema and a few cafes. I’ve been here many times, but a performance that stood out was by the famous Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour. I marvel at his voice, even as he sings in Wolof and French.
Make your way to Ashland Place, which turns into Navy Street. You get an overview of Fort Greene, which has a great collection of brownstones. Soon you arrive just to the north of the Manhattan Bridge in Dumbo, an acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. This is a chic neighborhood with cobblestone streets and trendy cafes. Go to Plymouth Street for the amazing view of the Brooklyn Bridge framed by the Manhattan Bridge.
Brooklyn Naval Yards
Next, take Flushing Avenue to 6th St to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. This is an employment hub with a number of high-tech manufacturing businesses and some restaurants and stores. It’s also a look at a past era, when this was a naval shipbuilding facility for over a century and a half. Here’s a view of the huge cranes from the terrace of the Transmitter Brewing. The Brewery’s name references WWII radio towers once used by the Navy, atop a nearby 1940s building.
Continue on the bike path north past the massive Steiner Studios, which is part of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and a facility for visual and audio productions. The bike path is part of the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway, which other sections of this bike route are part of.
Our route takes us towards the Williamsburg Bridge through South Williamsburg. Williamsburg is known as the center of gravity of the hipster neighborhoods in NYC. However, this refers mostly to North Williamsburg. South Williamsburg is inhabited mostly by working-class families, largely Latino and Hasidic. During the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah, I rode through here and met this young man, with his shtreimel fur hat (worn by married men during important occasions).
He was holding two large books of Hebrew prayers and was on his way to the East River to read from them. I spoke briefly with him, as he first asked if I was Jewish. I informed I wasn’t and he had limited interest in continuing, as he was focused on his religious rituals.
On the other side of the Williamsburg Bridge is Domino Park. The City has fashioned a park in front of the remains of the landmark sugar refinery.
There’s a grassy stretch with sandy volleyball-courts in front of the refinery. Throughout, there are artifacts of the industrial past such as bollards, conveyors and hoists. Many of these can be seen from the elevated catwalk that extends five blocks. The view of Manhattan is truly impressive.
If you made it this far, you have seen more in Brooklyn than many New Yorkers. You are probably also exhausted. You can take the Williamsburg Bridge to Manhattan or a ferry from the terminal in the park.
Other Brooklyn Destinations
There are many other destinations, you can bike to. Here are three to consider:
In a surprisingly fast time, this part of Williamsburg has transformed from a working-class neighborhood, of small, attached, clapboard and brick houses, to one dominated by sleek apartment buildings with floor-to-ceiling windows. Instead of going to the local diner for some kielbasa and pierogi, you now can go to bistros and fancy cafes. However, what I love about this area are the music venues, including the Music Hall of Williamsburg, Rough Trade, and Brooklyn Steel. My favorite is the Brooklyn Bowl, with actual bowling alleys next to the performance space with a capacity capped at 800. I’ve seen so many excellent musicians here, including John Butler, Vernon Reid, Dick Dale, Jayhawks, Budos Band, Tinariwen, and a hastily arranged concert for Robert Plant. Here’s one where I saw Khruangbin (Thai for airplane), a mostly instrumental band from Texas, which weaves psychedelia and international genres.
In the 80s and 90s, Bushwick was not a tourist destination but a very poor neighborhood populated mostly with Hispanic laborers and their families. In the 2000s, as real estate prices increased in Williamsburg and elsewhere in Brooklyn, hipsters, artists and others started moving here and, since then, it has become fashionable in an industrial way.There are many amazing street murals that are ever-changing. Many are from artists of the Bushwick Collective. Here’s one I really like of a young woman with long, streaky hair and bangs, situated between a no-parking sign and an air conditioner.
Floyd Bennett Field
Floyd Bennett Field is an out-of-service airfield at the end of Flatbush Avenue and next to Jamaica Bay. From here, Charles Lindberg flew nonstop to Paris in 1927. It has a number of old hangers and sports fields. On the weekend, remote-controlled model airplanes are flown on a designated airstrip and I was surprised by how big they were.
The international reputation of Brooklyn is cool and hip and it’s not hard to see why.
Even more, it has a dazzling diversity of neighborhoods and a fascinating history. This bike route gives a taste of it, but it’s worth spending several days (or weeks or months or years) to get to know it.
Make sure to check out my other bicycling posts, such as Bicycling in the Bronx.