This post is my entry into the TBEX Blog Carnival Contest sponsored by Choice Hotels International Services Corporation. UPDATE: On July 18, TBEX tweeted this announcement that I was one of the three winners! Thank you to TBEX and Choice Hotels!
In honor of Independence Day (July 4th) in the United States, I want to celebrate one of the many things that makes this nation great: its people. All of us who have ever lived in this country can trace our histories back–even the Native Americans, who crossed on land over what is now the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia–to that first arrival in America from a different shore. Some came of their own volition while others by force.
For centuries, New York City has been the destination of choice for explorers, traders, immigrants, and tourists. But a visit to New York City today is too often limited to the borough of Manhattan. Even people who live here are hard pressed to explore the vast city they live in! So hop on the subway, bus, or ferry and cross the East River to visit Queens, the most ethnically diverse county in the United States! Below I have tailored a special weekend itinerary in Queens that celebrates New York City’s past and present, and honors the people who have settled here in search of the American dream.
Strap on your walking shoes, prepare your senses, and come on an empty stomach! Queens will enthrall you.
SATURDAY: WESTERN QUEENS
Ride the N or Q train to the first stop and walk to the remaining destinations. Travel time is built into the itinerary.
8:00 am – Breakfast at Artopolis Bakery (Greek)
[23-18 31st Street, Astoria]
As a teenager, all my high school Greek friends hailed from Astoria. Before the Greeks arrived in the mid-20th century, the area had previously been settled by the Dutch, Germans, Irish, and Italians. Since those high school days nearly 20 years ago, people from the Middle East (particularly Egypt), Brazil, Japan, the newly formed Eastern European countries, plus whites escaping escalating rents in Manhattan and Brooklyn all flocked to Astoria, due to its close proximity & easy access to Manhattan. Despite this diversification, Astoria is still synonymous with Greek immigrants. For the 2004 Olympic Summer Games, the Olympic Flame first traveled all over the world before arriving in Athens. As one of four US cities to host the Olympic Torch, it only made sense to commence the NYC relay in Astoria, in Athens Square Park.
Start your day off at what is arguably the best Greek pastry shop in the neighborhood! Your eyes will be bigger than your stomach when you see the seemingly endless displays of cookies, pastries, bread, and delicacies. Remember to order a coffee! The bakery is located in a mall, just follow your nose.
Coffee at Artopolis - Photo Courtesy of Petit Hiboux (Flickr)
9:00 am – Steinway Piano Factory Tour (German)
[1 Steinway Place, Astoria]
Walk through a residential part of Astoria to get to the industrialized northern tip of the neighborhood. The famous piano maker still creates and refurbishes Steinways in its original Queens factory. Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg (later anglicized to “Steinway”), emigrated from Germany with his family in the mid 19th century. Shortly thereafter, Steinway started manufacturing pianos and by the 1880s, the Steinway family built its new factory and village in Astoria. The Steinways were influential in the development of the neighborhood, hence a major thoroughfare is named after them. The three-hour tour highlights the history of the family and the neighborhood, the one-of-a-kind quality of each instrument, and the craftsmanship of the workers past and present reminding you that historically, Western Queens was a major manufacturing area as a result of its close proximity to the East River.
1:00 pm – Lunch at the Bohemian Beer Garden (Czech & Slovak)
[29-19 24th Avenue, Astoria]
Established in 1910, the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden is the oldest beer garden in the City. Munch on grilled kielbasa or bratwurst and wash it down with one of the Czech or Slovak beers on tap. My personal favorite? The Krušovice tmavé (dark) for its roasted, malty flavor. The scene is always packed on weekends and it is not uncommon to see families enjoying themselves while they let their young children run round. Many of the outdoor picnic tables are shaded by old trees, allowing for a relaxing and refreshing afternoon break from the summer heat.
Photo Courtesy of WallyG (Flickr)
3:30 pm – The Noguchi Museum (Japanese/American)
[9-01 33rd Road, Long Island City]
If you are not a lover of sculpture, a visit to the Noguchi Museum may just change your mind. Born to a Japanese father and a white American mother in 1904, Isamu Noguchi lived in Japan as a child and moved to America as a teenager. By the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was in his late 30s living in NYC as a sculptor. He created the Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy in 1942, a group dedicated to raising awareness of Japanese-American patriotism. He also asked to be interned as an act of solidarity with his brethren Japanese-Americans. He spent 7 months in an internment camp and his work during this period clearly reflected his personal turmoil and sadness. The gallery, which includes an outdoor garden, was created by Noguchi. His primary studio was across the street, which he often biked to from his Manhattan residence; he also maintained a studio in Japan. His pieces are strategically placed so that you sometimes feel like they belong in the “natural” landscape. Somehow, serenity manages to envelop you during your visit.
Photo Courtesy of RocketLass (Flickr)
7:00 pm – Gantry State Park at Dusk
[Center Boulevard between 47th Road & 49th Avenue, Long Island City]
View the Manhattan skyline while strolling along the now refurbished waterfront piers of Long Island City, where the landscaped park offers you welcoming chairs to take in the scenery. Watch as the sun sets behind the skyscrapers, feel the last rays of the day hit your face, and listen to the river lapping on the shore. If you’re lucky, sometimes hammocks are there. Snag one, close your eyes, and take in the silence. Burn this memory into your brain: you are swinging in a hammock, by the water, in NEW YORK CITY!
Manhattan Skyline from Gantry State Park
8:30 pm Dinner at Manducatis Rustica (Italian)
[13-27 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City]
On the outside, this squat Flatiron-shaped building looks like a residential house with a non-descript white door. The only possible clue offered is its big bay window with curtains pulled shut and a sign. Blink and you could miss it. Once inside, you still feel like you are entering a residence, since in many ways, you are. Couple Vincenzo and Ida Cerbone, have been feeding artists and working-class folks from the neighborhood for approximately 20 years, well before the arrival of the sleek luxury condos and chic, hip restaurants that now inhabit the area. Let them and their staff welcome you and help you pair the right kind of wine with your Neapolitan meal. Try to resist the urge to plant a kiss on each check when you say good-bye, but if you can’t, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.
If you still have some energy left and want an after-dinner drink, there are a bevy of bars within several blocks of each other, including Domaine Wine Bar, Dominie’s Hoek, Dutch Kills, and LIC Bar. You could even stroll back to Gantry State Park to view the lights of the Manhattan skyline at night.
SUNDAY: CENTRAL QUEENS
The second day, you’ll ride the 7 train and hop on and off in both directions. Again, travel time is built into the itinerary.
8 am – Breakfast at Ihawan (Filipino)
[40-06 70th Street, Woodside]
Filipino food reflects the countries that have heavily influenced the culture, usually China, Malaysia, Spain, and the United States. It comes together clearly in a typical Filipino breakfast, consisting of a cured meat or fish (tapa), garlic-fried rice (sinangag), and eggs over easy (itlog). Combine each underlined portion of the Tagalog words and you come up with its name: tapsilog. Ihawan is run by the Bacani Family, who hail from the province of Pampanga in the Philippines, widely accepted amongst most Filipinos as the home of the best cooks in the country. Fuel up now, because you’ll need it for your next stop.
Photo Courtesy of Kitakitts (Flickr)
9:30 am – Flushing Meadows Corona Park
Once the site of the “valley of ashes” as described by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his novel The Great Gatsby, a rush of urban beautification measures in the early 20th century created this 1,255-acre park, and site of the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs. Today, the park offers many outdoor activities. Walk, or even better, rent a bike to cover more ground. You’ll definitely want to see remnants from the World’s Fair such as the Unisphere and the New York State Pavilion observation towers, more recently made famous in the movie Men in Black as the place the aliens apparently hid their spaceships. Be sure to stop by the Queens Museum of Art where you’ll see the Panorama of the City of New York, a 3D model of the city’s buildings and structures since 1992. See also the memorabilia from both World’s Fairs and the exhibit on Tiffany glass, produced in neighboring Corona. The park is also home to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, host of the US Open and Citi Field, home of Major League Baseball’s New York Mets.
The Unisphere with Observation Towers in the Background
1:30 pm – Flushing (Chinese, Korean, Dutch, English)
[137-16 Northern Boulevard, Flushing]
Wander around the neighborhood that is home to Queens’ Chinatown and Koreatown. If you are feeling peckish from your time at the park, you could get some cheap street food to tide you over to dinner. You’ll find the majority of storefront signs here not in English, and perhaps you’ll start to wonder if you’re in another country. Before your mind starts playing tricks on you, stop by the Flushing Quaker Meeting House, built near the end of the 17th century, and considered to be the oldest house of worship in New York State. Even back when Flushing (then known by its original name, Vlissengen) was a Dutch colony, residents clamored for religious freedom in response to rampant discrimination by the colonial Dutch government. This vocal protest resulted in the signing of the Flushing Remonstrance by local residents in the mid-17th century, a document that inspired the right to freedom of worship as enshrined in the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution.
Signs along Union Street between Northern Boulevard & 37th Avenue
4pm – Louis Armstrong House Museum (African-American)
[34-56 107th Street, Corona]
Catch the last tour of the day at the home of jazz legend Louis Armstrong. He and his wife, Daisy, lived in their modest Corona home for nearly 30 years, from 1943 to his death in 1971. No one has resided in the house since then and the interior decorations have been preserved to show how the Armstrongs lived. Listen to audio clips as you walk through the home and wander through their Japanese inspired garden. See photographs and learn about the man whose career spanned a time in American history when racial discrimination blatantly segregated blacks and whites in society.
5:30 pm – Dinner at Rincon Criollo (Cuban)
[40-09 Junction Boulevard, Corona]
In recent decades, Corona became the home to people from all over Latin America. And while you may have your pick of cuisines from Guatemalan fast food to Mexican chain restaurants, I recommend Rincon Criollo because it has been around for 30 years and the story of the family who owns and runs it exemplifies the American Dream realized. The Acosta Brothers opened the original Rincon Criollo in Cuba in the 1950s as a modest room consisting of four wooden planks for its floor and palm branches as its roof. Years of hard work led to the restaurant’s successful growth and expansion, while becoming a favorite of Cuban celebrities. However, life changed dramatically in Cuba as the brothers had their restaurants seized following the Cuban revolution of 1962. Fourteen years later, the brothers re-opened Rincon Criollo in Corona, Queens. The restaurant walls are lined with photos from the old country, a reminder of their past and their roots. Regular patrons of Rincon Criollo have been coming with their families for years, savoring the tastes of a home that exists today only in their memories or in the stories of their [grand]parents.
The Acosta Brothers and all the people and families who have been highlighted on this tour of Queens are living testaments to what we celebrate most visibly on July 4th: the American spirit of innovation, creativity, hard-work, determination and hope. Regardless of their backgrounds, immigrants have come to America with a dream for a better life for themselves and their families, and millions have started that dream right here in Queens.
23-18 31st Street
Astoria, NY 11105
N, Q train to Ditmars Boulevard
Steinway & Sons Factory
1 Steinway Place
Astoria, NY 11105
N, Q train to Ditmars Boulevard
Call in advance to schedule a tour.
Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden
29-19 24th Avenue
Astoria, NY 11102
N, Q train to Astoria Boulevard
The Noguchi Museum
9-01 33rd Road
Long Island City, NY 11106
Gantry Plaza State Park
Center Boulevard between 47th Road & 49th Avenue
Long Island City, NY 11109
7 Train to Vernon Boulevard-Jackson Avenue or
G Train to 21st Street/Jackson Avenue
13-27 Jackson Avenue
Long Island City, NY 11101
7 train to Hunters Point Avenue or
G train to 21st Street
Domaine Wine Bar
50-04 Vernon Boulevard
Long Island City, NY 11101
48-17 Vernon Boulevard
Long Island City, NY 11101