As the lucky tenant of a high-floor apartment in a low-rise neighborhood, I am arrogantly familiar with New York City geography. Every day for more than 20 years, I’ve awakened to the kind of sparkling NYC skyline views most people only get to see in movie credit sequences. Yet, even with all that, I’m still stunned every time I take an East River ferry and watch Midtown’s skyline shift as the river bends between the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. Suddenly the Empire State Building (my architectural crush, my Machine Age sweetheart) is not where I expect to see it; my familiar living room view of it is upended by a new angle and different array of buildings around it. I feel like I’ve passed through the looking glass.
These ferries aren’t the formidable Staten Island ferry, chugging back and forth between St. George in Staten Island and the tip of Manhattan. These smaller NYC Ferry boats operate on seven routes around the boroughs (an eighth, that will run from Wall Street to Coney Island, starts summer 2022). Several routes run up and down the East River, carrying commuters and sightseers from way up in the Bronx or Queens all the way down to the Financial District. Other routes head due south, scalloping in and out along the Brooklyn waterfront, to the beaches at Far Rockaway. In 2021, a new kind of Staten Island ferry was introduced that runs straight up the Hudson River to Midtown Manhattan. The accessibility and immediacy of the multiple ferry routes have opened a new way to experience the city, all for the same $2.75 fare as subways and buses.
For locals and visitors, ferries offer easy entry into neighborhoods they may be curious about—like Williamsburg, formerly famous for hipsters but now more established and approachable, or the multinational mélange of Astoria, or Far Rockaway, where the city meets the Atlantic Ocean—but reluctant to visit sight unseen. As the ferry approaches and docks, passengers have time to see the lay of the land and get an idea of which direction to walk first, unlike when you emerge from the subway station and stand blinking in the sunlight, checking your Google maps for orientation.
During the pandemic, my husband Thom and I took ferry adventures to new-to-us neighborhoods, bringing our bikes (Citi Bikes are widely available at and near ferry docks) and an ancient AIA Guide to New York City, our advanced planning usually limited to dropping a Google Map pin on local breweries with outdoor seating in our destinations. Here are some of our favorite ferry discoveries:
Far Rockaway, Queens
Great for: Beachgoers (or visitors who’ve had enough pavement for now, thank you)
Getting there: Rockaway (RW) ferry (Note: There’s no Citi Bike out here, but you can bring your own on the ferry for an extra $1.)
On warm, sunny weekends, expect a ridiculously long line of beachgoers standing at Wall Street’s Pier 11 waiting for the boat to the Rockaways. Weekdays and cloudy, cool days are better for ferrying.
The 57-minute ride is considerably faster and far more spectacular than the subway. The ferry cuts down the harbor, zooms under the Verrazano Bridge, passes the delightful visual mayhem of Coney Island’s beach and amusement parks, then docks on the Jamaica Bay–side of the barrier peninsula. A five-minute walk gets you to the boardwalk and a truly pretty ocean-facing beach.
On the boardwalk just past Beach 108th Street, Caracas Arepa Bar, open May–September, serves up arepas, the perfect beach food you may not have considered before.
Watch the surfers from Beach 110th to Beach 111th streets, or walk/bike east for about a mile to get to another popular surf stretch between Beach 91st and Beach 87th. If the waves are good, they come even in winter, wearing wet suits.
Along the length of the Rockaway Beach Boardwalk, you’ll find public playgrounds, skate parks, ping-pong tables, lifeguard stands, and lots of satisfying people-watching. (An elderly neighbor, Rose, who grew up when the neighbors all spoke Yiddish, spent summers here with her family as a child while her father worked in Manhattan. Nod to all the lovely Roses sitting on Rockaway benches. They think you need a sweater.)
In season, down at the Rockaway Beach Surf Club on Beach 87th Street, surfers hang with each other and surfer wannabes. The mostly open-air art and event space also contains a bar and Rippers, a shack that serves seriously good burgers and cheese fries.
The last (crowded) ferry to Manhattan leaves Rockaway pier at 8:15. (Not so terrible worst case scenario: There’s an A train stop at Beach 105th Street.)
Great for: Visitors in the mood for a little art and old New York. Plus beer.
Getting there: Astoria (AST) ferry
The ferry to Astoria zigzags back and forth across the East River—if you board at Wall Street Pier 11, you’ll sail from Manhattan to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, back to Manhattan then over to Queens stopping at piers in Long Island City, Roosevelt Island, and then finally Astoria. So you get to see a long shot of that shifting Midtown skyline, followed by a close-up of the unspeakably elegant U.N. Secretariat Building, and peeks at the Chrysler Building and Empire State Building among the Manhattan high-rise high points.
Before you pull up to the Astoria ferry stop, you’ll notice your first destination on the Queens shoreline—Socrates Sculpture Park, a four-acre former landfill now part of the NYC Parks system, dedicated to outdoor installations. On summer weekends, the park is a hot destination for locals. Dodging toddlers and picnic blankets can distract from serious art-viewing but it’s still a fun and free stop. Extend your cultural moment with a visit to the Noguchi Museum just down the street from the sculpture garden. The museum, opened by the late Japanese American sculptor and furniture designer Isamu Noguchi, offers galleries filled with his work—abstract and graceful sculptures made of stone, wood, or metal—as well as the works of related artists, and a meditative garden. Don’t skip the museum shop—it’s a dream.
Hop a Citi Bike (there’s a dock right outside the Noguchi Museum) and follow the bike lane north along the shoreline. We like to meander along the way to Astoria Park, and the glorious stretch of early 19th-century houses along 12th Street make it my favorite route.
Astoria Park is a knockout public park with WPA bona fides and a wide riverside path perfect for cycling. Two bridges loom overhead: the 1930s erector-set-deco Robert F. Kennedy Bridge (that links Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx and that everyone mostly still calls the Triboro Bridge) and the soaring red Hell Gate Bridge that spans a treacherous section of the East River it was named for and leads to Randalls Island.
Time for some local flavor: A glass of pilsner and a pretzel in the enclosed outdoor garden at Bohemian Hall may taste like Central Europe but it’s also authentic for multi-ethnic Queens, home to Czechs and Slovaks among the many ethnicities that have settled here over the years. (More than 130 languages are spoken in this most diverse borough of NYC.) Linger at the long, shaded tables for a bratwurst, or on your way back to the Astoria ferry landing, swing by Il Bambino for a panini instead.
Great for: Visitors with kids
Getting there: South Brooklyn (SB) or East River (ER) ferries
Step off the ferry onto Pier 1, right in the shadow of the magnificent Brooklyn Bridge and feel immediately caught up in the busy swirl of Brooklyn getting its fun on.
If you arrive hungry, take a left at Water Street and walk under the Brooklyn Bridge to check out Empire Stores, a Civil War–era coffee warehouse retooled as a hip mall. Inside, Time Out Market, a sort of curated food court/event space that features both stalwart stands and seasonal pop-up kitchens, will have something for every palate in your entourage. Jacob’s Pickles has great fried chicken, mac and cheese, and, surprise, pickles, and I’m a fan of Chote Miya’s paneer roti or samosa chat. Enjoy your feast at the picnic tables outside before walking back south toward the ferry landing. At the base of the ferry pier, in the little building with the long line out front, Ample Hills Creamery scoops great ice cream (divine Dark Chocolate for me, thanks, or maybe Pecan Be Heroes), for your dessert course.
Forge on into Brooklyn Bridge Park, which unfolds down the waterfront from Pier 1 to Pier 6 and is easily one of the city’s best and busiest parks. Gardens, woody paths, elevated walkways, state-of-the-art playgrounds, water features, and open picnic lawns roll south on dry land. On the piers jutting into the sparkling East River, you’ll find basketball courts, beach volleyball courts, soccer pitches, and a skating rink, plus thrilling views of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty.
Hunters Point South, Queens
Great for: Travelers seeking to explore someone else’s NYC
Getting there: East River (ER) ferry
This Queens ferry stop drops you at waterfront Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City, a mind-blowing illustration of the borough’s legendary diversity: women in hijabs ordering tacos from a food truck, a circle of impossibly beautiful people practicing capoeira to live drumming, little boys wearing kurtas speeding on scooters past beach volleyball courts, Orthodox Jewish couples courting on park benches. If you can’t bear to leave this multi-culti slice of heaven to explore further, all is forgiven. I love it here.
The park, named for the still-standing gantries or cranes that used to unload cargo here, is especially charming on summer evenings, when a Tuesday free concert series—mambo, soul, big band—takes place against the backdrop of the sun setting behind the Manhattan skyline.
A few blocks inland, the art at PS 1, a satellite of the Museum of Modern Art, often feels a little more experimental than that at the parent institution. See what’s showing and hope that you get your mind blown. Mina’s, the museum restaurant, is stunningly spare with a delicious Greek menu offering options as light or as filling as you’d like.
Fifth Hammer Brewing has a changing menu of beer, a long bar and tables inside, and a roll-up garage door that opens to outside tables. A rotating selection of food trucks park out front, too. Excellent entertainment is supplied by the variety of good dogs lolling beside their owners’ tables.
>>Next: The AFAR Guide to New York City