Think you know New York? Check out fragrant coffee, hip-hop and virgin forests in its vibrant less-known boroughs

Sample diverse cultures in Jackson Heights or watch tennis competitions in Flushing (above), both in Queens.
Sample diverse cultures in Jackson Heights or watch tennis competitions in Flushing (above), both in Queens.PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER POSTLEWAITE, GUS POWELL, HUSH TOURS, JEN DAVIS, JOHN WISDOM, MICHAEL FALCO, NOBLE MARITIME COLLECTION, RELATED OXFORD

Some of the Big Apple's most vibrant experiences and sights can be found in the lesser-known boroughs - Queens, The Bronx, Staten Island and Brooklyn - so make time to check them out

The Art Deco majesty of the Empire State Building and its newly renovated observatory.

The sprawling 280ha Central Park. Lady Liberty, that gleaming icon of freedom.

And the bright lights of Broadway. Not to mention the estimated 24,000 restaurants.

Ask anyone who has been to Manhattan and he or she will tell you one week is barely enough time to scratch the surface of the borough that is the beating heart of the Big Apple.

So you can imagine my trepidation when my editor asks me to explore not just Manhattan, but also New York City's four remaining boroughs - Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx and Staten Island - in just five days.

My mission? Discover if there is anything worthy of a traveller's time.

And there is. However, copious research coupled with recommendations from the savviest of New Yorkers aside, what follows is by no means a definitive list of the best of the Big Apple. Rather, it is a taster of the outer boroughs' unique flavours.

• Rachel Lees is a travel writer and editor based in Australia.


Queens 

Hey there, sports fans. A short hop across the East River, Queens is the place to watch tennis giants compete at the US Open in Flushing or the Mets baseball team knock it out of the park at their home stadium, Citi Field.

Alas, neither is on during my visit. Instead, I sign up for a private tour with Levy's Unique New York (Luny, go to levysuniqueny.com), a family-run company specialising in bespoke guided tours.

"Queens is New York's largest borough and the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world," says Mr Matt Levy, my excitable, handlebar-moustachioed tour guide and co-owner of Luny. "And the best way to experience it is through its food."


Sample diverse cultures in Jackson Heights (above) or watch tennis competitions in Flushing, both in Queens. PHOTO: GUS POWELL, NYC & COMPANY

Our two-hour walking tour begins on the aptly named Diversity Plaza in the Jackson Heights neighbourhood, where we sample pani puri, a chickpea-based Mumbai street snack; and peruse the shelves of an Indian speciality grocery store.

We continue on to nearby Woodside Avenue in Elmhurst. While the street is nicknamed Little Thailand, the neighbourhood is referred to as the "crossroads of the world" - 71 per cent of its residents are foreign-born, according to a recent survey.

After visiting a Thai grocer and wolfing down a satisfying plate of pad prik pao at a restaurant across the street, I catch the subway to Long Island City to round out the day at MoMA PS1 (momaps1.org), one of the US's oldest and largest non-profit contemporary art institutions, which is known for its ever-changing roster of experiential works. 

STAY 

What the Boro Hotel (www. borohotel.com) in Long Island City, Queens, lacks in nearby activities, it more than makes up for with spectacular Manhattan views and cavernous, warehouse-chic rooms.

Do not leave without stopping for a slice at the hotel's funky pizza parlour, Beebe's.

EAT 

Mrs Maria Cano, a judge who moved to the US to escape violence in Colombia, began selling arepas (cornmeal pancakes) from a food cart in Jackson Heights about 30 years ago. Today, her restaurant Arepa Lady (www.facebook.com/areperiaarepalady) is a local legend. Try the queso chicharron, laden with pork belly, and carne desmechada with shredded beef.


The Bronx 


The Bronx (above) is the birthplace of hip-hop music. PHOTO; HUSH TOURS

The city that never sleeps is famous for its music, but its northernmost borough, The Bronx, has more street cred than most - it is the birthplace of salsa, Jennifer Lopez and hip-hop music.

I meet a volunteer from Big Apple Greeter (bigapplegreeter.org), a non-profit organisation that connects visitors with New Yorkers, who will take you for a walk around a neighbourhood for free. "I don't know much about hip-hop," says Mr Dan Abatelli, a retired school teacher, who is otherwise well versed in Bronx history.

But Mr Abatelli knows more than he thinks. As we stand outside the Art Deco Supreme Court on the Grand Concourse, he points out the Bronx Walk of Fame - street signs bearing the names of the borough's famous inhabitants. Alongside politician Colin Powell and film-maker Stanley Kubrick are hip-hop legends Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash and Slick Rick.

We stroll by Yankee Stadium and the Bronx Museum of the Arts. On the corner of East 166th Street, in front of Andrew Freedman Home - a 1920 mansion-turned-art gallery - we check out a wall with graffiti of brightly coloured breakdancers, rappers and a portrait of Kool Herc, one of hip-hop's founding fathers.

That afternoon, I escape the concrete jungle and take a tram tour of the sprawling New York Botanical Garden, which is home to 16ha of virgin forest - the same one that once covered all of NYC. It is so peaceful, you would never know the lively Bronx Zoo is just down the road. 

STAY

In Manhattan. 

EAT

According to locals, the "real" Little Italy is on Arthur Avenue in Belmont. For authentic, Salerno-style Italian food, head to pizzeria and trattoria Zero Otto Nove (www.zeroottonove.com).

Actor Adam Sandler and the Yankees are among the famous faces to have dined in the Instagram-worthy main room, which looks like an Italian laneway.

Order the La Riccardo pizza, topped with smoked mozzarella, pancetta and butternut squash puree.


Staten Island


Besides taking in the views at Staten Island (above), also check out The Noble Maritime Collection, whose displays include an interior of the Noble’s Houseboat Studio. PHOTO: JEN DAVIS, NYC & COMPANY

It is no secret the free Staten Island ferry provides some of the best views of the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan skyline.

However, most travellers return immediately to Manhattan. But storied delights await those willing to venture further afield.

When I disembark at NYC's southernmost borough, I make a beeline for the row of Lime rental e-bikes outside the ferry terminal.

It is an easy 10-to 15-minute cycle along Richmond Terrace - with the bay to the right of the street, and mechanics and bait shops to the left - to Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden (snug-harbor.org).


Besides taking in the views at Staten Island, also check out The Noble Maritime Collection (above), whose displays include an interior of the Noble’s Houseboat Studio. PHOTO: MICHAEL FALCO/ NOBLE MARITIME COLLECTION

The 33ha campus contains 26 historical buildings, wetlands and several beautifully manicured green spaces - among them is the Connie Gretz Secret Garden, a brick-walled enclosure with fairy tale-like turrets and a maze, created by Randy Gretz in memory of his wife, who loved the classic children's tale The Secret Garden.

But the unexpected highlight is The Noble Maritime Collection (www.noblemaritime.org).

This fascinating and well-curated museum is a treat, regardless of whether you have an interest in maritime history.

The three-storey building, a former dormitory for retired sailors, displays lovely paintings and sketches of lighthouses and ships; the story of Katherine Walker, a female lighthouse keeper from the 1800s; an artist's studio inside a ship's cabin; and more. And it is blissfully devoid of the usual hordes of tourists. 

STAY 

In Manhattan.

EAT 

Mr Lakruwana Wijesinghe and his wife Jayantha emigrated to America from Sri Lanka 32 years ago and now run Lakruwana (www.lakruwana.com), one of the half a dozen or so Sri Lankan restaurants on Staten Island.

Book in for its famous weekend buffets and feast on salty black pork curry and spicy, sticky eggplant, surrounded by Buddhist statues and South Asian artefacts.


Brooklyn 

In one of the more quintessential New York moments of my trip, I am about to take a photo of the grand 18-room mansion in Willow Street, Brooklyn Heights, where author Truman Capote penned the novel Breakfast At Tiffany's, when a voice breaks the silence.

"Get off my stoop," it shouts, as I burst into a fit of giggles before returning, sheepishly, to the sidewalk.

For the uninitiated, historic and noteworthy landmarks such as Capote's former home could easily be overlooked in a city positively bursting with them.

Thankfully, I have a secret weapon: Lycra-clad 71-year-old Bob Trenta, a tour director with Unlimited Biking (www.unlimitedbiking.com), whose knowledge of the city is superlative.

On a two-hour cycling tour, taking in Dumbo and Brooklyn Heights, Mr Trenta shares "a little history, architectural knowledge and gossip" as we navigate back streets and the waterfront.

We stop to watch a busker wring out the blues from his saxophone; and jet-skiers as they carve up the East River in front of Jane's Carousel, a 1920s merry-go-round; before dodging hundreds of pedestrians as we cross the Brooklyn Bridge - a New York rite of passage.

In the evening, I hit Brooklyn Bowl (www.brooklynbowl.com), a bowling alley-cum-music venue in Williamsburg. Plates of fried chicken and hamburgers arrive on the table as Indiana band Lotus play their unique brand of instrumental electronica to punters, both in the crowd and those trying to knock down all 10 pins on the lanes. 


At bowling alley-cummusic venue Brooklyn Bowl (above), Indiana band Lotus play their brand of instrumental electronica to punters, both in the crowd and those trying to knock down all 10 pins on the lanes. PHOTO: JOHN WISDOM

STAY 

Built in Williamsburg, on the site of the former Rosenwach factory - which produced the iconic wooden water towers that dot the buildings across NYC's skyline - is The Hoxton (thehoxton.com/new-york/williamsburg/hotels), which opened last year.

While the "Cosy" room category lives up to its compact moniker, it is worth staying at this cool design hotel just for the vibe in the lobby, which looks like an open-plan co-working space and teems with local hipster-types by day and night. 

EAT 

Whether you are hungry for Polish pierogies (dumplings) or a New York-style pizza slice, sample some of Williamsburg's finest fare with Like A Local Tours (www.likealocaltours.com).

Its three-hour Williamsburg Bites: A Brooklyn Foodie Adventure starts at lunchtime and stops everywhere from bakeries and breweries to chocolatiers and ice creameries, so bring your appetite.

If you go on only one foodie tour in New York, make it this one.


Manhattan 

Despite the outer boroughs' charms, the endless evolution of Manhattan continues.

Even its mainstays change with the times. The revamped Museum of Modern Art recently reopened with more than 40,000 sq ft of new gallery spaces. As The Met prepares to celebrate 150 years with exciting new exhibitions and installations, it too has opened new galleries, for British decorative arts and design.

No matter how many times you visit, it is impossible to see and experience all of Manhattan, and just when you think you have a handle on its neighbourhoods, a new one pops up.

On the far west of the borough, north of the High Line, Hudson Yards has risen atop the train lines. Expected to cost US$20 billion (S$27.3 billion) by the time it is completed in 2035, it is the most expensive real estate development in the history of the United States.

The best place to view the new neighbourhood is from its star attraction, The Vessel, a copper-clad, honeycomb-shaped web of 154 interlocking staircases.


The Vessel (above), a copper-clad, honeycomb-shaped web of 154 interlocking staircases, is the star attraction of the Hudson Yards development. PHOTO: RELATED OXFORD

In June, a new section of the High Line opened featuring The Plinth, a space dedicated to a rotating series of new, monumental, contemporary art commissions.

First up is Simone Leigh's Brick House, a 4.8m-tall bronze bust of a black woman, which overlooks 30th Street. There is also The Shed, a multi-disciplinary arts centre with a structure that moves to adapt to different performances and exhibitions.

There are more than 25 eateries, from fast-food icon Shake Shack to Mercado Little Spain, the sprawling Spanish food hall by renowned chefs Ferran and Albert Adria, and Jose Andres. And more than 100 stores, including US favourites Madewell and Banana Republic, international high-street chains and designer labels, and New York's first and only Neiman Marcus.

Want to counter the consumerism with something soulful? On Sundays and Wednesdays, Harlem Spirituals (www.harlemspirituals.com) lead gospel and jazz tours through the African American neighbourhood of Harlem.

After stops at the oldest building in Manhattan, built in 1765; and the Apollo Theatre, where plaques bear the names of iconic performers like Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown, who launched their careers at the venue; you head to church.

  • GETTING THERE 

    Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com) flies three times weekly to New York.

    To ensure that the non-stop flight - the longest in the world, at around 18 hours and 45 minutes - to New York is more comfortable, only Premium Economy and Business Class seats are available on this route.

    And that extra bit of leg room and seat recline, plus a wellness-based in-flight menu, means you arrive feeling fresh and ready to take on the Big Apple.

While I am more spiritual than religious, I was on my feet, toes tapping, hands clapping - throughout the worship service at Greater Highway Deliverance Temple.

If singing the words "I'm trading my sorrows" joyfully, for 10 solid minutes, with a congregation of energetic elderly women wearing their Sunday best does not lift your spirits, nothing will.


STAY 

Imagine waking up to the smell of fragrant coffee and freshly cut flowers. On West 28th Street and 6th Avenue, in the heart of the flower district, the new boutique hotel Moxy Chelsea (moxy-hotels.marriott.com/nyc/chelsea) is the stuff dreams are made of.

Guests enter through a pop-up-style florist - by the people who did Gwyneth Paltrow's wedding to television screenwriter and producer Brad Falchuk last year - and retire to rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows and walk-in rain showers to rival all others. 

EAT 

On the ground floor of Moxy Chelsea, deconstructed vintage aperitif posters, terrazzo floors and leather banquettes abound at Feroce Ristorante (str.sg/J5xe), where Italian charm meets New York sophistication.

Seasonal, local ingredients are used in modern interpretations of classic Italian dishes in this delightful concept from Francesco Panella of Antica Pesa - the legendary restaurant in Rome - and Tao Group Hospitality.

STAY

Boro Hotel: 

To book, go to Agoda, Hotels.com 

The Hoxton: 

To book, go to Hotels.com

Moxy Chelsea: 

To book, go to AgodaHotels.com, Booking.com

TIPS

• Outdoor activities such as cycling, walking tours and visiting gardens are best experienced during spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November) when the weather is most pleasant.

• Save money and time when visiting iconic venues, such as the Empire State Building and American Museum of Natural History, by purchasing an attraction pass. Hit all the big venues and skip most of the ticket lines with a New York Pass (www.newyorkpass.com) which saves 41 per cent off admission prices. Tickets are valid for nine days and prices start at US$131 (S$180) for adults and US$101 for children. Enjoy NYC's top attractions, museums and tours at your own pace, with the flexibility to choose on the day, with a Go New York Explorer Pass (gocity.com/new-york). Tickets are valid for 30 days and prices start at US$94 for adults and US$70 for children.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 01, 2019, with the headline 'More to New York than Manhattan'. Print Edition | Subscribe