Brilliant Brooklyn beckons

No longer a bridge too far, Brooklyn is on the tourist map and worth a detour.


The Brooklyn Bridge, one of New York’s iconic sights

The Brooklyn Bridge, one of New York’s iconic sights

Sitting in a mikveh house with a rabbi discussing the finer points of Orthodox matrimonial law may not be an obvious thing to do on a shopping trip to New York, but as of this year, it is an interesting option.

The Lubavitch - who else - have eagerly embraced the establishment of a Jewish heritage trail in the city. Their own contribution is a guided tour of the Chasidic community of Brooklyn's Crown Heights, location for their own world headquarters and home to many other strictly Orthodox groups.

And very fascinating it is to sit down and talk religious philosophy with charismatic rabbis Yisroel ben Kaplan and Berel Epstein, two rather cool dudes who find no aspect of their culture taboo. They include mikveh rituals as a must-see, show-and-tell along with a peek into a slightly chaotic neighbourhood synagogue; the house of the late lamented Rebbe (whom they believe was the Messiah), a visit to the workshop of highly-skilled Torah scribes who repair faded letters on ancient scrolls as well as creating new ones, and a nice kosher shwarma or pastrami lunch to finish off.

Whether or not half a day getting a rare glimpse into what in Britain is a closed community appeals, it's good to see Brooklyn on a heritage map.

This huge and vibrant New York borough is famous not only as the former stomping ground of Woody Allen, Sarah Jessica Parker, Neil Diamond, Adam Sandler and countless other Jews - including the European immigrants who moved out from the Lower East Side tenements a century ago as soon as they had made a bit of money - but also for its many cultural offerings.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music, founded in 1861 and America's oldest performing arts centre - now so cutting edge it's favoured for many premieres over Broadway - is the pride of Downtown.

But although the borough has a bustling centre, the real joy of Brooklyn, as with Manhattan, is its collection of eclectic, rather far-flung neighbourhoods which require time and a Subway ticket to explore in real depth.
Crown Heights - Jewish, intriguingly, on only one side of the main drag, Eastern Parkway, and black and proud on the other - is a fair way in from Manhattan, but it has the virtue of being on a direct subway line to Brooklyn Heights.

The leafy streets of this architectural jewel of a neighbourhood (which Arthur Miller and Norman Mailer once called home), are lined with fabulous brownstone mansions and elegant little shops, and there is a beautiful, wide promenade overlooking the Manhattan skyline. Definitely not a spot to be missed.

A five-minute stroll leads to Dumbo (it stands for Down Under the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridge), the quintessential tourist tip of Brooklyn. Here, you will find New York's acclaimed - and pricey - River Café, the far more affordable Brooklyn Ice Cream Company, plus art galleries and a riverboat offering, all just an easy hop across to Manhattan.

However, it's worth spending more than a day in Brooklyn, especially now that a pukka boutique hotel, the Hotel Le Bleu, has opened there. It is not in Brooklyn Heights, where planners have kept out hotels, nor even Dumbo, but nearby Park Slope, a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood with a similar vibe to London's Portobello Road.

The Fourth Avenue site of Hotel Le Bleu may not look pretty (it is to Park Slope what Westway is to Portobello), but the hotel is chic, comfortable and friendly, and only a one-block stroll from the lively Fifth Avenue dining and shopping strip.

Here the legendary Aunt Suzie's proved to be a convivial and good value bistro serving old-fashioned Italian fare, including stuffed artichoke to die for.

Le Bleu's manager Robert Gaeta is a hive of local information, and recommends a delightful 20-minute stroll through the adjacent old Italian neighbourhood of Carroll Gardens, at the heart of which are amazing mansions set in big, flower-filled front gardens so rare for town-centre homes.

Crossing Carroll is Smith Street, which has to be Brooklyn's best boutique shopping thoroughfare. Particularly notable are Refinery for spectacular fabric handbags, and The Flight Store for wonderful in-suitcase organisers.

Another route, through Park Slope's leafy streets of beautiful old houses, leads to Prospect Park, a spectacular oasis by the same design and landscaping team that created Central Park, and with much more than grass and flowers to offer.

Nearby is the world-class Brooklyn Museum, home to one of the world's most extensive art collections and particularly strong in the American, African and Asian works.

Further down Eastern Parkway is the Jewish Children's Museum, offering an intriguing set of biblical "experiences" from fishing baby Moses out of the bulrushes to building a model Tabernacle from a Torah blueprint, to bringing down the walls of Jericho with a shofar.

For sheer nostalgia, ride the subway all the way down to the tip of the borough at Coney Island, with the famous funfair and its Nathans kosher hot-dog stand. Next door is Brighton Beach. Once the heimishe 'hood of elderly Jews, and now a Russian-speaking ghetto, it is still worth a look for its boardwalk beside the sea.

At the opposite end of the borough, closest to Manhattan, Williamsburg is another changed area. As the neighbourhood has yuppified in recent years, frummers now share the streets with foodies and fashionistas.

Since the shops and bright lights of Manhattan will eventually beckon, it's worth spending a couple of economic nights in the city with Edgware-born actress Lizzie Whiting. Her Murray Hill b&b is as centrally-located as any midtown hotel yet offers room and bath for half the price, leaving you more to spend on shopping - especially useful now that the pound is not looking quite so healthy against the dollar.

From here, a bus ride up 3rd Avenue leads to Bloomingdales, where foreign visitors get discounts on almost everything apart from cosmetics, and the 34th Street bus leads to Macy's, with similar discounts for visitors. Alternatively, the Park Avenue bus wends its way uptown to Madison Avenue, home to a slew of boutiques, and Barneys, which has replaced Bloomie's in the affections of many hipper New Yorkers.

Notable Manhattan sites on the Jewish Heritage Trail map include Temple Emanu-El, the world's largest synagogue; the beautiful little Eldridge Street shul and many other lovely little temples which dot the Lower East Side.

This is also home to one of New York's finest attractions, the Tenement Museum, which shows how early Jewish immigrants lived and worked. But only guided tours are offered, and they sell out, so advance booking is a must.

Not on the map are Manhattan's many kosher fine-dining restaurants, which include the Prime Grille near the Rockefeller Centre and Mike's near the Lincoln Centre. The Lower East Side itself is the province of Katz, home of grumpy waiters and deli sandwiches and famous for Meg Ryan's display of fake passion in When Harry Met Sally.

Sites in the remaining outer boroughs are of somewhat less visitor interest, even if the Bronx was once home to Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, and Queens to Simon and Garfunkel and Jerry Seinfeld. But the way New York is going, it won't be long before all these areas, currently dismissed as the province of the "bridge and tunnel crowd", and rarely trodden by non-residents, will follow in Brooklyn's footsteps in enticing visitors with boutique hotels, destinations restaurants, boutiques and cafés.

Travel facts

Virgin Atlantic( 0870 380 2007, www.virgin-atlantic.com) serves New York from £318 return including taxes. Hotel le Bleu( (001 866 427-073, www.hotellebleu.com) has double rooms from around £170. Lizzie Whiting's b&b, (001 212 7377049; www.citylightsbedandbreakfast.com) from about £75. More information on the Jewish heritage trail: www.jhhnymap.org; Brooklyn: www.visitbrooklyn.org. Chasidic tour information: www.jewishtours.com.

    Last updated: 12:26pm, July 20 2009