Travelers to New York are usually a hardy lot, traipsing through Times Square's garish neon glow at all hours of the night, ascending the heights of the Empire State Building, and packing themselves onto boats bound for the Statue of Liberty. Yet when it comes to crossing the East River, they grow timid. It's a shame, because they miss the borough that is at turns more exotic and more American than any other place on earth, one whose name has been applied to Italian chewing gum, Spanish cigarettes, even characters in Japanese movies.
Two neighborhoods offer the best introduction: Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill. To get to the Heights, take the subway or a cab—or walk across the Brooklyn Bridge—to Borough Hall. Its dignified columns and bell tower suggest the city hall it once was (Brooklyn did not become part of New York City until 1898). Several streets lead west from Cadman Plaza to the Brooklyn Heights Esplanade—which locals call the promenade—but the most interesting walk is along the lavish row mansions of Pierrepont Street, reminders of the Heights' role as the cradle of old Brooklyn money.
It's best to visit the promenade in the morning, as the rising sun's rays smack into the mirrored façades of the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan. The orange Staten Island ferry, laden with commuters, plods back and forth, while nimbler smaller craft round Manhattan's tip. Helicopters buzz in and out of the heliport directly across the river. You may even see wet-suited figures on Jet Skis skipping over the water. While the East River is not as polluted as it once was, the Jet Skiers' enthusiasm is, well, questionable.
Walk a few paces down the promenade, away from the bridge, and turn inland at Montague Street, the Heights' commercial strip. In warm weather, restaurant tables spill out onto the sidewalk, giving the street the feel of a blocks-long outdoor café. Several national chains have staked out territory on Montague, but the street hasn't completely surrendered. It's your choice: a cup of joe at a Starbucks like any other (112 Montague St.; 718/243-0455), or one at local favorite Ozzie's (136 Montague St.; 718/ 852-1553). A short distance along, Montague intersects Clinton Street, where the Church of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity stands on the northwest corner. Currently under renovation (it was a structural casualty of the rumbling of the subway that runs beneath it), the church no longer has its neo-Gothic spire, but it does retain an even greater treasure: the first stained-glass windows made in the United States, installed five years after the church was built in 1844.
Turn right onto Clinton Street and walk the six short blocks to Atlantic Avenue. Along the way, at Livingston Street, you'll pass the original home of St. Ann's, whose congregation has merged with Holy Trinity's. The bulky, ornate building is an imposing presence on these narrow streets.
If the churches haven't convinced you that God is in his heaven, then the variety of food available on Atlantic Avenue will. From the intersection of Clinton and Atlantic, you can make a choice. A right turn will take you to La Bouillabaisse (145 Atlantic Ave.; 718/522-8275), a busy French bistro famous for the dish after which it's named. (La Bouillabaisse is BYOB, so first you might want to stop by the wine store a few doors down.) Food this good would cost nearly twice as much on the other side of the bridge. If the line for La Bouillabaisse is long, try Meson Flamenco, a nearby tapas bar with weekend flamenco shows (135 Atlantic Ave.; 718/625-7177).
A left turn on Atlantic will take you past a dozen Middle Eastern food stores and restaurants, all squeezed onto a single block. Sniff around Sahadi Importing Co. (187 Atlantic Ave.; 718/624-4550): you'll find the heady scents of dates, olives, dried apricots, nuts, and coffee, sold by the pound from open canvas sacks. For wonderful baklava—and every other Middle Eastern pastry—step into Damascus Bakery (195 Atlantic Ave.; 718/625-7070), tucked behind an unassuming storefront on the north side of the street.
Continue south on Clinton until you reach Cobble Hill Park. If your appetite has managed to survive Atlantic Avenue, a good choice is Café on Clinton, an attractive hangout with reasonable prices and a wide selection of microbrews (268 Clinton St.; 718/625-5908).
Running along the southern edge of the park is Verandah Place, a narrow lane lined with squat houses and converted stables. Walking through the mews will make you feel as if you've traveled back 150 years to when the houses were built. Thomas Wolfe once lived in the basement of number 40; in You Can't Go Home Again he described barring his windows "to keep the South Brooklyn thugs from breaking in." The thugs, like Wolfe, have long since departed.
At the other end of Verandah Place is Henry Street. Turn left, walk a few steps, and then cross Henry and continue westward down Warren Street. Toward the end of the block you'll find Warren Place, a short pedestrian mews; it, too, can make you feel as if you've slipped back a century. The 111/2-foot-wide cottages—built in 1879 as working-class housing—originally rented for $18 a month. Today, with their ivy-lined walkways and façades of wrought iron and brick, they sell for $375,000.
Go back to Henry Street and continue south. On the right, you'll see houses 412- 420, built in 1888 and bought soon after by toy king F.A.O. Schwarz.