Is This the Most Transcendent Way to Explore New York City?

A New Yorker rediscovers her city by crossing the bridges that connect it.

Is This the Most Transcendent Way to Explore New York City?

Manhattan Bridge at Dumbo, Washington Street at night

Photo by Luca Campigotto/GALLERYSTOCK

Until my 13th year of living in New York City, I had never crossed one of its bridges on foot. A dedicated subway girl, I charted my paths through the city—and traversed its waterways—on the F, L, G, C, and Q lines, with (occasionally grudging) detours to off-circuit areas where friends lived or intriguing restaurants, bars, museums, or music venues exerted their pull. That was my city.

And then, last year, I started running.

As any urbanite distance runner can tell you, an uninterrupted stretch of sidewalk—no crosswalks, no bus stops, no brunch-crowd dawdlers—is a rare and precious thing. And few ordinary sidewalks can rival the mile-long paths of unobstructed pavement you’ll find on any of New York’s major bridges. So I started mapping running routes that incorporated them.

Training for my first half-marathon, I shuttled dutifully back and forth across the Manhattan Bridge between Brooklyn’s waterfront Dumbo district and Chinatown on the other side. On each return, I’d peer down with envy at the tiny people dotting the green, tufted lawn of Brooklyn Bridge Park. From more than 100 feet up, the scene was like a New York−themed miniature golf course, with lampposts in place of flags and a glass-encased carousel instead of a windmill. Why had I never joined them, with my own plastic cup of wine, to watch the sun drop and the barges and ferries float by, the East River waters swirling gently in their wake? Was I always in that big a hurry?

On weekends and early mornings, I started running across the brutally steep Williamsburg Bridge and learned to distract myself from the uphill agony by reveling in the cross section of humanity I’d pass or be passed by. I saw skateboard commuters, Hasidic families pushing strollers, and runners of every stripe: pregnant, elaborately pierced, elderly, solo, paired up, happy, suffering, happily suffering. Even when hardly anyone was on the bridge, it didn’t feel empty. Evidence of those who’d crossed before me was everywhere, spray-painted onto surfaces. I began to memorize the remnants of stenciled marriage proposals, guerrilla street art projects, and out-of-context messages that read like a Magic 8 Ball of motivational mantras. “STRUGGLE. HUNGER. DESIRE. RESPECT.” “THEY CAN’T CATCH ME!” “CHEESE BUTT.” (Hey, whatever gets you up the incline.)

To me, that democratic, high-low mash-up is what makes exploring New York City’s bridges so special—the fact that you can see both the landmarks and the liminal spaces in a single trip.

I drafted up multibridge loops on lesser roads, circling from my apartment on the northeastern edge of Brooklyn over the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge into Queens and across the odd retractable Borden Avenue Bridge, with its wood-plank sidewalks and 1908 bridge keeper’s hut. From there, it was back to Brooklyn over the Pulaski Bridge, with a clear view of the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings to the west as my home-stretch reward.

The more I ran, the more I looked—and not just for the architectural icons. I peered into industrial zones and gritty city margins, forgotten recreation areas and relics from the city’s past, and all the ordinary and overlooked spaces that fill the gaps between the luxury condos and high-rise hotels that claim new stretches of shoreline every year. Sometimes what I saw was grim (treeless cemeteries, dump stations for work boats), but I also began to notice strange and delightful things, such as the tiny Transmitter Brewery in Queens, hidden in the shadow of the Pulaski Bridge, or the Farm on Kent in Brooklyn, just north of the Williamsburg Bridge. It’s a pocket-size urban farm and public park that has sprouted on the site of the old Domino Sugar factory. The place has long wooden tables for picnics and a stained-glass house by artist Tom Fruin. It’s all at once beautiful, surprising, and rough around the edges.

To me, that democratic, high-low mash-up is what makes exploring New York City’s bridges so special—the fact that you can see both the landmarks and the liminal spaces in a single trip, and that the feeling of transcendence you get staring out from the center of a bridge, 15 or 20 stories in the air, is there for anyone able to walk (or willing to be wheeled) there. It’s a come-one, come-all alternative to the vistas typically associated with multimillion-dollar apartments—or long lines and pricey entry fees.

Of course, there’s the other kind of perspective a bridge gives, too—the sort you get once you’ve put a little space between where you are and wherever you came from, be it the office or Oklahoma City. Whether you’re a tourist or a transplant, a newcomer or a native, isn’t that part of what we all come here—or go anywhere—to find?

Feeling inspired? Here’s how to explore New York’s best bridges.

Classic Bridge, New Itinerary

After you’ve walked across the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan, skip the pizza at Grimaldi’s. (It hasn’t been the same since Patsy sold the place, anyway.) Instead, use your time in Dumbo to hydrate with an Archway juice (apple, pear, pineapple, wheatgrass, and mint) from Foragers Market and roam the 85 waterfront acres of bocce courts, pebbled beaches, and man-made tide pools of Brooklyn Bridge Park. Return via the Manhattan Bridge. You can celebrate your triumphant hour-and-a-half promenade at the brand-new 12-stall Canal Street Market with Nom Wah dumplings and ramen courtesy of Ippudo offshoot Kuro-Obi.

Most Photogenic, Least Instagrammed Bridge

The High Bridge is the city’s oldest standing bridge, a slender 19th-century aqueduct that connects Washington Heights in Manhattan with the Bronx. It was closed to the public from the 1970s until the summer of 2015. After documenting your visit, descend into Manhattan and dig into a proper Dominican meal at Malecon, across from the opulent 1930s United Palace Theater, or hit the street food carts around 182nd Street and St. Nicholas Avenue for authentic Caribbean grub to go. Estimated walking time: 30 minutes.

Finest Bridge for a Walking Date

The Williamsburg Bridge connects the Lower East Side in Manhattan with South Williamsburg in Brooklyn—two prime spots for walking and wooing. Pick up a crispy, Roman-style bread pocket stuffed with beef shoulder, tomato, and berbere spices from newcomer Trapizzino on Orchard Street; take in the sunset—and the people-watching scene—as you cross the bridge into Brooklyn (a 45-minute walk); and end at La Milagrosa, a mezcalería hidden behind a freezer door in the former Havemeyer Laundromat (reservations recommended).

Most Epic Bridge Walk

On a sunny Friday afternoon, escaping the city in a car via the George Washington Bridge takes approximately an eternity. On foot, it’s a clean 30 minutes. Pack a picnic from neighborhood mainstay Frank’s Market (and its sister wine store, Vines on Pine, across the street), then choose a scenic overlook within New Jersey’s 12-mile-long cliff-top Palisades Interstate Park for a bucolic meal break. The views of Manhattan on the way back are well worth crossing state lines.

Best Three-in-One Bridge Tour

Head to the upper deck of any New York City Ferry boat for the best multibridge tour $2.75 can buy. The service relaunched last year with an ongoing rollout of new routes and stops, plus free Wi-Fi and food for purchase. Hop on at Wall Street and cruise north to 34th Street (about a half-hour ride). En route, you’ll get a whole new angle on the Brooklyn Bridge’s imposing granite towers and the soaring arches above, the Manhattan Bridge’s slender blue steel silhouette, and the Williamsburg Bridge’s cagelike frame.

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Valerie Rains is a senior editorial manager at Etsy and a freelance writer. She has over 20 years of experience in journalism and wrote family and lifestyle articles for Real Simple starting in 2005. Her work can be seen in Country Living, Southern Living, and a variety of other publications. Highlights: * Over 20 years of experience in journalism and as a freelance writer * Former staff editor at Real Simple * Former senior editor at Blueprint Magazine * Former launch editor at Yahoo! Shine * Former editor at Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel * Current senior editorial manager at Etsy
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