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The first few weeks we lived in New York, I was star-struck by the city itself. It seemed like every street and building was famous. Get off the subway at 34th Street – miracles happened there! Stop at 30 Rockefeller Plaza? Tina Fey makes her own miracles there! And then there was the time we walked the length of Broadway and every minute or so I’d start singing – On Broadwaaaaay. One place I didn’t’ expect this to happen was on the J train over into Brooklyn to finally visit Williamsburg, a very of-the-moment kind of neighborhood. The name of the first stop over the bridge – Marcy Ave – rang a bell…alarm bells!
I thought to myself, “Like, the Marcy Projects? Like, Jay Z’s Marcy Projects? This stop is near a place that is bringing about a locally brewed vermouth revolution and home to flea markets and artisan cheeses?”
The truth is, it was still two stops on the J train to Lorimer St where we eventually got off but even still it was hard to believe that this was Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (This was kind of a back way. We could have transferred in Manhattan and taken the L train straight to Bedford Ave – in fact, that’s the easiest way to visit Williamsburg).Slowly but surely, however, the demographic changed from a mid to lower class black and Latino population to a trickle of hipsters sporting facial hair and sunglasses, and girls in strange long grandma skirts and furry jackets. The transition was complete at the Metropolitan Ave station and as we joined the steady flow of people heading over to Bedford Avenue, it suddenly felt like we were the only ones not dressed up for the hipster parade.
Based on this Buzzfeed article, we are seriously not hipsters, and that’s fine (we don’t look that great in skinny jeans, anyway). Witnessing the controversial hipster scene flourish in its true element alone makes visiting Williamsburg worth it.
Once on Bedford Ave, there are no famous films or books set here to make me starstruck, though this may change as Greta Gerwig, star of the film Frances Ha, based in Williamsburg, is up for a Golden Globe. We kept our eyes open for celebrity spottings, but alas…we did not spot any of the famous types drawn to this creative hot spot.
In general, Williamsburg, well ‘modern’ Williamsburg, is entirely new. Until 2008, very few outsiders were interested in what was a working class mix of Poles, Italians, a large Hasidic Jew population and a small community of artists that had been slowly settling here since the late 1970s. Pushed out of Manhattan by skyrocketing rents, artists, musicians and hipsters moved into the warehouses and buildings in the dockyards first, but have since spread far and wide to be the dominant force in much of the neighborhood.
This has caused a huge culture clash, with each group asserting their right to be there.
That creates the kind of brilliant friction that makes Williamsburg electric, at the creative cutting edge and entirely of the moment, much the way that Greenwich Village once was – the epicenter of art, music, eclectic galleries and anything-goes nightlife.
And honestly? We love what they’ve done with the place.
British fashion celebrity and part-time resident Alexa Chung calls London her Husband and Williamsburg her Lover. She’s hit the nail on the head. Williamsburg is a secret to escape to, one you don’t want anyone to know about. Your time there is exciting, of the moment – a moment which is likely fleeting as the cement dries of what will become the culture of Williamsburg.
Nowhere else can this been seen than the street art in the neighborhood. Established street artists like Roa, JR, Invader and even Banksy have made their mark here, along with the very cool sidewalk drizzle art of Paul Richard.
As an outsider, it is hard to believe that it took until just recently for ‘Billyburg’ to become such a scene – if not for the location alone.
Why wouldn’t you consider an apartment that is just one stop on the L train across from Manhattan or an easy 20 minute ride on the East River Ferry to Wall Street. (Don’t be fooled by the tattoo sleeves and weekend fashionistas. Come Monday morning, you’ll also see a steady stream of suits lined up at the N 6 Str / North Williamsburg stop of the East River Ferry heading over to their office jobs in Manhattan.)
And the views. Don’t even get me started on the views. When you are in Manhattan, the only way to take in the beautiful skyline is by getting to the top of a roof somewhere, which will usually cost you an expensive ticket, a room at a pricey hotel or at least an expensive brunch.
In Williamsburg, just stop by the Williamsburg Flea or better yet the Smorgasburg, grab some overpriced but incredibly authentic pupusas or an oversized (artisan, made around the corner that morning) ice cream sandwich and sit down in the East River State Park for the most perfect views of Manhattan.
There is something even better than the less expensive rent, the great views, the street art and the much slower pace here. And I’m not talking about the indie music scene because a. I don’t feel cool enough and b. we just didn’t have a chance to check out much live music in Williamsburg.
Williamsburg for foodies
In fact, in completely unhipster fashion (hey, it was for the article!), we took a Williamsburg foodie tour to get a better overall sense of the scene happening here. Unfortunately we wouldn’t recommend it. Our guide was strange, impersonal and, as I suspect of most recent Williamsburg immigrants, he knew absolutely nothing about the area or its history.
But we did eat incredibly well: we had excellent pizza, stopped at a 24 hour bagel shop, a cheese shop with imported and locally made cheeses, a handmade chocolates company with an on-site factory and ended at a wine shop and bar that sells locally made wines, beers and whiskeys. Williamsburg does everything from upscale, organic, down-scale (but probably still organic) hearty fare. New restaurants and bars pop into and out of the scene here faster than we’ll ever be able to keep track, but one excellent night out we had in Williamsburg was at the Nitehawk theater, which shows first run films and classics while serving up a full menu including alcohol.
Every place creates its own, unique vibe like Hotel Delmano, a retro cocktail bar that transports you back into the 1930s, Radegast Hall & Biergarten which is set in two adjacent industrial chic warehouses that could make Munich residents jealous, Mables Smokehouse straight out of the 1970s, Blue Bottle Coffee with the roasters in the back of the shop and Best Pizza with its wallpaper of paper plates (and seriously good pizza.)
We spent a few afternoons eavesdropping – I mean working – at Partners Coffee, an organic coffee shop on N 6th Street. Dani was the proud owner of the only PC in the place. Otherwise white apples glowed from every table as people talked about things their producers said, what nags their agents were being, which new boutiques had opened and of course, complaints about Williamsburg selling out.
Welcoming Williamsburg’s flock of admirers
There is no way around it. With the million-dollar condos lining the waterfront and the increased interest and attention on the area, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is growing up and like the rest of New York, tourists are starting to flock here. Semi-locals should be glad that the double-decker tour buses haven’t invaded here like they have in other parts of the borough, but visitors are not just fashionistas or incredibly cool girls who happen to be globetrotters…
We had an older couple from Staten Island on our food tour who never come to Brooklyn but had registered the hype and needed the safety and context of the food tour to check it all out, instead of visiting Williamsburg on their own.Hotels and accommodation options in Williamsburg are still scarce and Airbnb is likely the best way to go just yet. The Wythe Hotel near the waterfront is incredibly attractive but room rates rival those across the river, as do rates at the McCarren Hotel – and availability is an even larger challenge.
This is because most of the short-term accommodating done here in the first five years of the Williamsburg renaissance have been for under-the-radar celebrities and musicians, not your everyday independent traveler. Even a hostel popped up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn – the B Hostel – but at one block from that Marcy Av stop, I’d say they’re banking on wider gentrification of the area as a whole as this is still a good walk from Bedford Avenue, the heart of it all.
Side note: Since we wrote this article in 2013, more than half a dozen high-end hotels have opened in Williamsburg, and there are Airbnb’s abound. Check out the best hotels in Williamsburg here, and for a more detailed article on good places to stay in Williamsburg, have a look at my article Where to stay in Brooklyn.
Searching for the next Williamsburg
The more mainstream Williamsburg becomes, the more the hipster transplants are likely to reject it – proof of which already lies in the fact that many have already started relocating to the ‘next Williamsburg’. Where is that you ask?
The New York Times named Greenpoint, a predominantly Polish area the next hotspot in 2012. Based on skyrocketing property prices and gentrification, Crain’s New York just named Bed-Stuy/Clinton Hill neighborhood the next Williamsburg this past November. This was the birthplace of rapper Notorious B.I.G. who called his childhood home a shack (which has since sold for over $700,000). The same publication named Bushwick the new Williamsburg in 2011.Even Brownsville, in East Brooklyn and one of the borough’s most dangerous neighborhoods, has been linked to the gentrification required to be in the running, especially as parts of it lie on the L train, known by property enthusiasts as the ‘train of gold’.
If you ask us, we’d put our money on Red Hook being the next, true Williamsburg. There is almost no quality public transport (except by water taxi, one bus line and the Ikea Ferry) so it won’t attract the office types. There is already a sprinkling of in-the-know celebrity residents and a seriously cool artisan food and alcohol movement and such a small-town pace it’s hard to believe that’s Manhattan you see across the waterfront.
If you want to experience Williamsburg, Brooklyn, while it still has some of the edgy vibes that made it popular with younger folks looking to get out of some of the neater neighborhoods in Manhattan, we recommend you visit Williamsburg soon – before the new high rises on the waterfront completely replace the old warehouses and grittier industrial streets.
What not to miss when you visit Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Our favorite days in Williamsburg are Saturdays and Sundays, when three of our five favorite New York markets take place in Williamsburg. On Saturdays (between April and November), head to the East River State Park for the Smorgasburg food market. On Saturdays, the Williamsburg Flea takes place just around the corner from there (51 N 6th Street). The Artists & Fleas market at 70 North 7th Street is also open on weekends 10am to 7pm (year-round).
If you visit Williamsburg on a weekend, you can also partake in an indulgent Saturday or Sunday brunch, which is something Brooklynites love to do, as you can tell from the length of the lines in front of popular brunch restaurants.
Best place for coffee: Devocion (69 Grand Street), Partners Coffee (125 N 6th Street), Pueblo Querido (34 N 6th Street), Copper Mug Coffee (131 N 4th Street), Hungry Ghost (721 Metropolitan Ave & 231 Bedford Ave)
Best place for diner food: Diner (85 Broadway) inside an old rail car right off the Williamsburg Bridge;
Jimmy’s Diner (577 Union Ave) for southern-style comfort food – closed due to Covid-19
Best pizza: Best Pizza – obviously! at 33 Havemeyer St. Runner-up: L’Industrie (254 S 2nd Street). Both places have awesome slices. If you want an amazing sit-down pizza experience, head to Emmy Squared (364 Grand Street) for their incredible Detroit-style pies.
Best place for drinks: The rooftop at Juliette (135 N 5th Street), Berry Park – a sports bar with a nice rooftop terrace (4 Berry Street), Radegast Hall & Biergarten (113 N 3rd St) is a Bavarian-themed German beer hall, The Gutter (200 N 14th Street) has an old school bowling bar, Surf Bar (139 N 6th Street) has a backyard beach and tropical drinks, Hotel Delmano (82 Berry Street) is a superb retro cocktail bar, Dolly’s Swing & Dive (101 Kent Street) is a Dolly Parton themed dive bar, Randolph Beer (104 S 4th Street) has loads of craft beers and pub fare.
Best place to watch a movie: Nitehawk Cinema on 136 Metropolitan Ave – movie theater where superb food and booze can be ordered right to your seat!
Best place for street art: Everywhere! When you visit Williamsburg, you will definitely stumble upon some street art. Wythe and Berry Street are both filled with street art. On the west side of McCarren Park between N 12th and N 14th Street (on Berry Street) are a few fantastic murals. If you turn left on 14th Street and walk down towards the East River you’ll see more art. Kent Street also has great pieces. You can also join a guided art and culture walk every day at 3pm ($30) to make sure you’ll get to see the best pieces. Roa’s big squirrel piece is on 160 Berry Street, an even bigger Roa piece can be found on 2 Havemeyer Street at North 9 Street. Kobra has two murals in Williamsburg, one of Elvis Presley on Bedford Ave between N 5th and N 4th Street, and on the corner of Bedford Ave and N 9th Street a mural of the artists Warhol and Basquiat. Bedford Ave also has several murals south of Metropolitan Street, you can walk down all the way to the Williamsburg Bridge, where you’ll find the giant “Mona Lisa of Brooklyn” mural.
We’ll end with this hipster joke:
Question: How did the hipster burn his mouth?
Answer: He ate his pizza before it was cool.