The borough's modern history may have begun way back in the 1600s – that's when Swedish seafarer Jonas Bronck sailed into town – but The Bronx, New York's lone bit of mainland, is still finding itself. Home of the New York Yankees and that famous zoo, the rest of it is essentially warehousing for the working man, a worn patchwork of tenement bedroom communities, bland, suburban blocks of single-family homes and mostly un-noteworthy commercial districts. People typically do not choose The Bronx – its relatively affordable housing chooses them.
But as the latest, rather dramatic rise in the cost of New York real estate has proven, all of the rules about who lives where and in which borough were made to be broken. Look at Brooklyn, a place transformed in the space of little more than a decade. Stroll the busy and beautiful waterfront in Long Island City, the butt of jokes until only recently – nobody's laughing now, except those who bought in early on. In an era when anything in Queens could be considered even close to cool, the question nobody ever bothered to ask suddenly makes sense: What about The Bronx?
What about it, indeed. At a time when most desirable areas in more popular boroughs have become the province of the well-to-do, The Bronx is still – for now – New York at its realest, a throwback to an era when the city was often uncomfortably raw, compulsively chaotic. Set aside the issue of curb appeal, or lack thereof – scratch the surface and you'll find this is actually a rather fascinating place, a 24/7 swap meet of cultures and languages. (If you're hungry, its neighborhoods are gold mines of cheap, authentic food from very nearly everywhere in the Americas, not to mention the other side of the Atlantic.) In the mix, too, you'll find all sorts of surprises – important historic sites, wide open spaces and pockets of creativity, as a decades-long campaign to lure artistic types into the borough begins to pick up serious steam. Curious? Want to get ahead of the curve? Here are just a few of the many ways to experience The Bronx at its best.
Explore one of the Northeast's most beautiful private estates
The existence of Wave Hill, a 28-acre estate perched above the Hudson River manages to surprise even some of the most die-hard New Yorkers. Tucked away behind hedges in the more exclusive section of the Riverdale neighborhood, this private retreat that was at one time home to everyone from Mark Twain to famous conductor Arturo Toscanini is now a public park, the doors to its homes and gardens and woodlands wide open to all. From the plant collections under glass in historic greenhouses to art exhibits indoors to live music performances to forest walks and afternoon tea on the terrace (reservations required, Tue-Fri), there's no wrong time or season to come here – there's always something to make it worth the trip.
Eat yourself into a coma in New York's last great Little Italy
One of the last surviving historic public markets in New York City – there used to be a lot of them – is still going strong in the most appealing old Italian commercial district left in the five boroughs. Forget Mulberry Street – Arthur Avenue (and the surrounding Belmont neighborhood) is the real deal. From fresh, warm bocconcini and stellar heros at Casa Della Mozzarella to Sicilian slices (and potent espressos) at the Café al Mercato, much of the very good food here is grab and go, but the neighborhood's sit down spots offer up some of the better examples of Italian-American cooking you'll find on the planet (e.g. Antonio's, Dominick's, Zero Otto Nove, the eggplant parm at Mike's Deli). For goodness' sake, come hungry.
Walk through New York's largest stand of old growth forest
The New York Botanic Garden is a national treasure, a natural Disneyland of landscapes and gardens both indoor and out – you should take at least half a day to see all of its 250 acres. Deep inside, however, past the fancy new entry pavilion, the sprawling, vintage conservatory and many a show-stopping garden, you'll find the city's largest stand of old growth forest, a rare place in one of the world's largest cities that reminds us what things would look like if man had never shown up. Need some peace and quiet? Here's your spot.
Cross the oldest bridge in New York City – which is now a public park
Take that, not-so-High Line – the historic High Bridge viaduct constructed over the Harlem River back in the 1800s to bring much-needed cleaner water into Manhattan is now, after decades of neglect, one of the city's coolest new pieces of parkland, a pedestrian-only walkway connecting the Bronx and Manhattan, with sweeping views of the rather dramatic geography this part of the city is known for.
Kayak the Bronx River – no, really, it's a thing
Burbling its way from Westchester County down into the East River, this little-known waterway is actually a hotspot for canoeing and kayaking, thanks to the ongoing hard work of the Bronx River Alliance, which exists entirely to preserve, protect and promote one of the city's most underappreciated outdoor playgrounds. The upper reaches – the segment running through the Bronx River Forest, for example – are the most idyllic, but there's something special about the cleaned-up stretches meandering through the post-industrial South Bronx, particularly during the free, regularly-scheduled community paddle sessions held at Concrete Plant Park. (Guided trips are available during the summer and fall for a fee, as well.)
Lost your faith in our national pastime? Get over to Heritage Field, now
On the old mound at Yankee Stadium, watch the future of baseball before your very eyes. If you've found your love of the game waning in recent years, you need to be here on a sunny weekend afternoon, when the Yankees are playing next door and the future Yankees are being cheered on by their proud parents and peers out here, where Babe and Joltin' Joe and the rest of them had the world on the edge of their seats, back in the old days. It's one of the most beautiful moments you can have in a place not known for being traditionally beautiful.
Sample craft beer (or stop for Sunday brunch) in the South Bronx
Hey, if the likes of far-flung Bushwick or gritty Red Hook can do it, why can't the South Bronx, long talked up as a good idea for creative refugees and entrepreneurial artisans, become the next big thing? What was once little more than a hypothetical is starting to feel almost real – go ahead and pop into the tasting rooms at the Bronx Brewery and the Port Morris Distillery (where you can sample artisanal pitorro, also known as the moonshine of Puerto Rico) or slow down for the lively weekend brunch scene at Charlie's Bar & Kitchen, just down Bruckner Boulevard. It's all a bit like those parts of Brooklyn back in the old days, back when everyone wondered if these sort of things were going last very long, and suddenly there were twenty brunch places and bars with mixologists and everyone was paying double for the same busted up old real estate. Just you watch.
It's even worth spending the night now
From the character-rich Opera House Hotel, carved out of a historic – you guessed it – opera house on 149th Street to a sleek new Residence Inn by Marriott within walking distance of the popular cafes, pubs and restaurants of Morris Park Avenue, the lodgings situation in The Bronx is slowly but surely improving, making the borough a smart alternative to Manhattan for cost-conscious travelers to New York looking to save money on a hotel room. For the best rates and these and other hotels in The Bronx and New York, go here.
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