Updated May 19, 2019
We always get excited when visitors start to spend time in New York City’s neighborhoods, because that’s when they discover how wonderfully schizophrenic the city is. There are so many pockets with distinct personalities, and we don’t just mean across ethnic lines like in Chinatown and Koreatown. The Upper West Side and the Upper East Side have distinctly different vibes, and friendships have fractured over the East Village vs. West Village debate. But trekking into the other boroughs is still a daunting task for many. With trendy spots like Williamsburg, Brooklyn gets all the love. But we believe Queens’ criminally underrated, westernmost residential and commercial neighborhood, Long Island City, is the perfect starter neighborhood to explore New York City’s largest borough.
From the heart of New York City, you can hop on the 7 train at Times Square and arrive in Long Island City in under 10 minutes. (MTA train delays not included, of course.) And in a short few hours, you can explore enough of this neighborhood to whet your appetite for many return visits. Here’s how to spend a leisurely day in Long Island City.
Hunters Point South Park and Gantry Plaza State Park
Start your day at Hunters Point South Park where you’ll find bike paths, playground areas, picnic terraces and a 30-foot-high cantilevered platform offering beautiful views of Manhattan’s skyline and the East River. Stroll along the riverfront to Gantry Plaza State Park, where you’ll find the restored gantries the park is named for. The bridgelike overhead structures were once used to load and unload rail car floats and barges, and now they frame the bustling high rises behind them. And don’t forget to take a selfie with the Pepsi Cola sign, which is an official New York City landmark. The sign graced the Pepsi bottling plant on the East River from 1940 until it shuttered in 1999, and was then relocated to the waterfront spot where it sits now.
Brunch at Bellwether
Bellwether is the kind of place that toes the line between refined and accessible, metropolitan and local. It has a classy, minimalist vibe, but somehow avoids crossing over into cold and detached territory–sort of a victory when considering the heavy black-and-white aesthetic. There are all sorts of descriptions about what type of food they serve. You’ll see “farm-to-table”. The buzzy “carefully-sourced ingredients” will also make an appearance. And, of course, you’ll read something about “Mediterranean influences”. So, yeah, one of the owners lived on a farm. And, yeah, I’m sure there are some influences, Mediterranean or otherwise.
But ignore all this. Bellwether serves subtly inventive American cuisine, using a lot of tasty, in-season local ingredients–simple as that. We both enjoyed our dishes: a solid rendition of shrimp and grits and a surprisingly tasty Breakfast Taco Salad. We both eyed the Bread Pudding French Toast long and hard. The salted caramel and peanut butter donut (closer to a beignet) on its own earned a repeat visit.
MoMA PS1 is like the rebellious, buzzy, younger sibling to the stylish, poised Museum of Modern Art. While you’ll find an impressive roster of legendary artists in MoMA’s permanent collection, you never know what you’ll find at MoMA PS1. There are epic parties with up-and-coming artists and DJs (Warm Up) and large-scale projects from architectural school graduates and junior faculty (Young Architects Program). There’s a firm commitment to pushing the boundaries here, so you’ll discover emerging artists or enjoy experimental work from established artists. It’s always somewhat of a surprise, which is part of the charm. If you ever start to feel like the art world is staid and boring, MoMA PS1 will jolt you out of that space.
[Runner-up: Sculpture Center]
If you’re a fan of experimental art and have a penchant for sculptures in particular, then you could also pop into SculptureCenter, an exhibition space dedicated to sculptures and “positioning artists’ work in larger cultural, historical, and aesthetic contexts”.
Arts Org NYC Top to Bottom Mural Project
It’s no secret we’re street art fanatics, and Long Island City certainly feeds the beast. You can find stickers in little nooks and murals on rolling steel gates. But there’s a particular destination every street art fan should make a point to visit: the Top to Bottom Mural Project. Arts Org NYC prides itself on facilitating artistic collaborations, and their partnership with the owners at 43-01 birthed a three story, half-a-city-square-block canvas. Artists are given free reign with all four surfaces of the structure, allowing them to collaborate with peers or advance a narrative on their own. The contributing artists have come from as close as Queens to as far as Argentina.
Sweetleaf Coffee Roasters
We’ve visited both Sweetleaf Coffee Roasters locations in Long Island City–Jackson Avenue and Center Boulevard–and though the Center Boulevard location is in close proximity to Gantry Plaza State Park, we are drawn more to the Jackson Avenue location. At first glance, this location reminds you of that strewn together, hybrid bar/coffee shop you frequented back in college…because it had a bottomless cup of coffee and they didn’t throw you out after you fell asleep at a table while cramming. But that immediate impression belies both Sweetleaf Coffee Roasters sophistication and its many charms.
Foremost, a great deal of care goes into the production of their coffee, from roasting to extraction. Additionally, there is an open kitchen on location in which they bake a large portion of their excellent cakes, pastries, and breads, including gluten-free and vegan options. And finally, we would be remiss not to mention the great vibe at the Jackson Avenue location. The interior aesthetic–from the original tin ceilings to the chairs and couches better suited for a French lounge than a coffee shop–was the perfect escape from the throngs of visitors at the nearby parks and museums. Even better, you’ll find the Record Room in the back–a tiny space negligibly larger than would qualify as a nook–with walls adorned with vintage band posters and album covers, and a collection of vinyl to thumb through whilst you enjoy your coffee and a bite to eat.
[Runner up: Cannelle LIC]
If you’re looking for some excellent breads or pastries, Cannelle LIC has you covered. The LIC outpost of their flagship Elmhurst, NY location, Cannelle is a reliably good French patisserie and an excellent choice to pick up anything from a classic baguette to something a little more decadent.
Dinner at Casa Enrique
When people talk about Casa Enrique, they generally speak in extreme superlatives. They’ll mention that it’s the only Mexican restaurant in New York City with a Michelin star. They’ll make statements like, “I had ______. It was the best ______ I ever tasted.” And you’ll hear about their guacamole. No, seriously, they’ll mention it. A lot. Occasionally, though, you’ll hear from detractors. Things like, “They’re overpriced” or “Their portions are small” or “They’re not authentic”.
The truth about Casa Enrique is simple: there is an intense, expert care in the preparation of every single thing that is plated and brought to your table. You can see it, and you can taste it, and it doesn’t take a genius to understand how that elevates a cuisine–any cuisine. The food at Casa Enrique is delicious. The Michelin star is deserved. Yes, the servings are not gigantic, and the price isn’t cheap by Mexican food standards, but would this really be a discussion point if they were serving Japanese or French? Want something simple and cheap? That’s cool. Go to your neighborhood mom and pop joint. Want something taken to that next level? Go here. Oh, and the guacamole those people mentioned? They weren’t lying, it’s incredible.
Depending on the hour of your reservations at Casa Enrique (strongly recommended, by the way), consider closing out your fun-filled day in Long Island City by returning (before or after dinner, respectively) to Gantry Plaza for some incredible sunset views. Or, if you’re thinking “The night is still young and so am I!”, make your next stop one of the many incredible local breweries Long Island City is known for, like Big aLICe, Rockaway, or Fifth Hammer–all super close by–for some refreshing post-meal libations.
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