Best of Brooklyn: Sightseeing & Food

December 18, 2009 by

Food, Drink & Travel, North America

I’m used to being a tourist. I’ve made peace with the fact that, on my constant wanderings around the world, I’m usually just a passing presence, a temporary visitor who is off to the next destination before you’ve even blinked.

Perhaps this was why I decided to play tourist in my own city. Back in July, before leaving New York for a two-month stint, I signed up for Viator’s Best of Brooklyn Sightseeing, Food and Culture Tour. I’ve lived in Brooklyn for the last 10 years yet I wanted to experience my own borough as if I’m seeing it for the very first time.

Prelude: Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery

We met up in the historic West Village of Manhattan, outside Cornelia Street Café. It turned out to be a small group: a couple from Michigan visiting their New York-based daughter; our guide Isaac, a native Brooklynite; and myself.

Yonna Schimmel's Knish Bakery - yum!

The Original Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery – yum!

We hopped into Isaac’s 4×4 and off we were for our adventure. Before crossing the East River to get to the outer borough, we briefly stopped at Yonah Schimmel (137 East Houston Street) on the Lower East Side. Strange, I had walked past a thousand times yet never bothered to enter. Walking into this small storefront, around since 1910, felt like a total time warp. We sampled the original potato knish and soaked up the old-school vibe of this Lower East Side fixture.

The area was once home to a thriving Jewish community, now virtually extinct as an international drove of hipsters moved into its renovated tenements. Yonah Schimmel stands as one of the last vestiges of a departed culture.

Brooklyn food & culture: Gottlieb’s Restaurant

Then we drove across the Williamsburg Bridge into Williamsburg, where our first Brooklyn food stop awaited us: Gottlieb’s Restaurant (352 Roebling Street). At this real-deal Hasidic deli from the 1960s, we had some glatt kosher food, processed under a stricter standard of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), among the lunching Hassidim. I loved it all – the beef goulash and the cabbage with egg noodles and the apple kugel… The strong tastes brought back a nostalgic and very vivid memory of my own Croatian grandmother’s cooking.

Gottlieb's Brooklyn Deli - reminds me of grandma

Gottlieb’s Brooklyn Deli – reminds me of grandma

Since our group was so small and easily manageable, we popped in for an impromptu tasting at the Jewish wine store next door. We tried some admittedly passable merlot and the couple from Michigan bought some Slivovitz, the potent Eastern European plum brandy.

What followed was a stroll around the largely Orthodox section of Williamsburg, guided by Isaac’s informative chatting. We learned the difference between the types of hats the men wear, the traditional way of life and why the women walking around with packs of children always have their wigs on. At the end of our walk, we were treated with a white-chocolate-covered cheese truffle from the local chocolate store – a rich and tasty delicacy.

Brooklyn sightseeing: DUMBO

The continued search for Brooklyn highlights next led us toward DUMBO, the once industrial and now gentrified area of artists. It’s located between two bridges: Brooklyn and Manhattan. Here we stopped by the original factory of Jacques Torres Chocolate to sample their scrumptious chocolates. Out of 30 varieties, I chose the hazelnut and the almondine – and didn’t regret my selection.

We then walked through the waterfront Brooklyn Bridge Park, snapped some photos of Manhattan’s famous skyline across the East River and learned more about the history of DUMBO.

Final stop: Sunset Park

Menu at the International Restaurant

Menu at the Internacional Restaurant

The final portion of our tour took us to the neighborhood of Sunset Park. We drove along Brooklyn’s waterfront, past the industrial harbor area of Red Hook and the Gowanus Canal. Known as a bustling Latino and Chinese enclave, Sunset Park has a great selection of down-home eateries.

We parked the car a couple of blocks from Internacional Restaurant (4408 5 Ave, btw 44 & 45 Streets), a no-frills Dominican-style deli. Isaac picked up to-go Cuban sandwiches from this family-style spot and off we went for a walk to nearby Sunset Park.

It was a warm summer day – perfect for our picnic. As we chowed down on our incredibly delicious cubanos, children were playing on the grass all around us and the view of the city and the skyline of New Jersey City spread below.

A tourist-free tour of Brooklyn

I was looking around and, apart from the Michigan couple, there wasn’t a single tourist in sight. And then I realized that all throughout our tour, we saw no tourists at all!

And there I was, playing one. What I loved about it was seeing my own city with fresh eyes. It felt like having two parallel perceptions happening at the same time. On one hand, I was (or tried to be) an outsider, a first-time visitor. On the other, I was someone who has stomped these very streets for over a decade.

As we were walking to the car, I crossed an avenue despite the red light. Isaac said:
“Look at her, jaywalking – a sign of a real New Yorker.” I guess I am.

Yet a New Yorker still curious about her city and looking to discover more. It could easily take another decade…

Learn about other food and drink tours in Brooklyn

Anja Mutic

Planning a trip? Browse Viator’s New York tours & things to do in New York, from NYC walking tours to New York food tours – including the Brooklyn sightseeing and food tour reviewed above by Anja. You can read reviews of the Brooklyn sightseeing tour – and see more photos of the Brooklyn sightseeing tour – over on the Viator website.

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