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Brooklyn, baby

Brooklyn (New York City)Arts and CultureArtPark SlopeSculpture

Regular visitors to New York should bypass the tried-and-true of Manhattan for the city streets less traveled. Just a hop, skip and a borough away lies Brooklyn, ripe for its own exploration. (PHOTOS INCLUDED)

Regular visitors to New York should bypass the tried-and-true of Manhattan for the city streets less traveled. Just a hop, skip and a borough away lies Brooklyn, ripe for its own exploration.

Brooklyn, you ask? The borough of Nathan's hot dogs and Coney Island fame? The borough that bids drivers a prickly adieu with its expressway signage: "Leaving Brooklyn ... Fugheddaboudit"?

Grit and attitude and heart -- Brooklyn's got all of it. But there's a whole other side to the borough that the uninitiated may not know. The Brooklyn of vibrant, trendsetting neighborhoods with their unique shops and cafes, of serene landscapes and lush parks, of historic brownstones and community stoop culture.

Walking the bridge

A proper visit to the storied borough should begin with a walk over the Brooklyn Bridge, where regular New York visitors can symbolically leave the familiarity of Manhattan for the adventure of the unknown. Find the pedestrian walkway at Park Row and Centre Street in Lower Manhattan, just across from City Hall Park (by subway, take the 4,5,6 to Brooklyn Bridge - City Hall, or the J,M,Z to Chambers Street).

A trek over the 5,989-foot expanse of steel and wire can take under a half an hour, twice that if you stop often to soak in the stunning views. And you should. They're often proclaimed better than any offered by the tallest of New York skyscrapers.

Gazing from this perch above the East River is to see the literal nuts and bolts of the city and to appreciate the artistry of its architects. Upon its completion in 1883, it stood as the largest suspension bridge in the world, and the first to be made of steel and wire.

Here the city's skyline glistens behind you, with clear views of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings to the left. Trudge further up to see Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty to the right, and farther to get a view of the borough waiting to greet you. Along the way, make sure to linger at the twin, gothic-style arches whose wide platforms are dotted with plaques detailing the bridge's history -- how it was built and what the views looked like at its opening on May 24, 1883.

And as cabs rumble beneath and pedestrians swarm, it's difficult not to recall another of the bridge's historical footnotes: that as a somber exit route from Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001. Gazing across the river, you can't help but replant the twin towers using your mind's eye, imagining them back in their rightful spot, reaching up from the city skyline.

Once the bridge spills you out onto Adams Street, swing around to find 19 Old Fulton St. and stand in line beneath the bridge to get a taste of the fuss over Grimaldi's famous coal oven pizza. Linger to explore the waterfront and picturesque Brooklyn Heights, or hail a cab for greener pastures.

Prospect Park

The best way to enter Prospect Park is by way of Grand Army Plaza, an elaborate arch adorned with bronze sculptures, including a bust of President John F. Kennedy. It's a bit of European flair, Brooklyn-style, right in the heart of a bustling intersection across from the Brooklyn Public Library.

Then, leave behind the blare of traffic, the noise of congregated police cars and busy hot dog carts and let yourself be swallowed by the calm of the park -- another urban gem designed by Calvert Vaux and Hartford's Frederick Law Olmsted.

"It's often said that Olmsted and Vaux tested their ideas out at Central Park, and this is where they perfected them," says Eugene Patron, a spokesman for the 585-acre park, created 10 years after the duo's Manhattan urban oasis. "When you come into the park, you truly lose the city."

And you lose yourself. Meander the well-marked trails and let them take you where they may. Stumble upon dribbling waterfalls, carved bridges, sweeping pond views and rolling, wide-open fields.

This is Brooklyn?

"That's the difference," says Patron. "We're really more people's backyard. People really come here and use the park in a way you don't see in Central Park. We're really a community place.

"We're still Brooklyn."

Make sure to stop by the Audubon Center at the Boathouse -- especially if you're bringing little ones.

The educational facility dedicated to wildlife preservation is the first urban-area Audubon Center in the nation, featuring a host of hands-on environmental exhibits. The Boathouse itself is a sight to see- - a recently refurbished 1905 Beaux Arts structure right on the water. Visit the cafe, peruse the gift shop, take in a scenic peek from the height of the Boathouse's classical balcony.

Once you've had your fill of looping trails and leafy strolls, head to the eastern edge of the park, site of the Prospect Park Zoo and Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. If art's your thing, stop into the neighboring Brooklyn Museum, one of the country's oldest and largest art museums. Here you can peruse the museum's renowned Egyptian masterpieces and contemporary art, housed in a 560,000-square-foot Beaux-Arts building.

Charming Park Slope

Ready for a reluctant return to city life? Find the park's western edge and spill out into aptly named Park Slope -- a crown jewel of Brooklyn neighborhoods. Its tree-lined streets, romantic brownstones and cozy cafes emanate a family-friendly, Sesame Street vibe.

"The city can be quite chaotic. This is a different experience," says Loriann Shaheen, of Bed & Breakfast on the Park. Run by proprietor Liana Paolella, the antique-filled, seven-room B&B on Prospect Park West serves up a breakfast that includes crepes, fresh fruit and baked pear pancakes. In the fall, guests scramble for their top-floor "Lady Liberty" room, which boasts a private garden with a view of the crimson and gold treetops, of the Statue of Liberty and downtown Manhattan.

Sure, folks can trek to Manhattan for their urban getaway. But, Paolella says, "This [neighborhood] really gives you more of a flavor of how people in the city, how people in Brooklyn really live. It's quite lovely."

There's certainly still a bustle as you walk the main stretches of 5th and 7th avenues, packed with mom-and-pop shops of unique baubles and gifts, and restaurants that cover every culinary taste -- Thai, Indian, Italian, French, vegetarian. Emanating from every street corner is an ease and a neighborly feel not always felt across the river in the Big Ripe Apple.

Ending your day in Park Slope, you linger and you walk and talk. You shop and explore. You sit and dine. But you don't dare look to the Brooklyn Bridge as your ticket back to Manhattan.

Your feet are begging for mercy by now.

Information:

Ready for your Brooklyn getaway? Fugheddaboudit. Check out these Web sites to help you ahead.

• Brooklyn Tourism and Visitor's Center, VisitBrooklyn.org. Info on attractions, getting around, dining and event listings.

• Hello Brooklyn, hellobrooklyn.com. Event listings and borough happenings.

• Prospect Park, ProspectPark.org. Info on the park's facilities, maps, history and upcoming events.

• Brooklyn Botanic Garden, bbg.org. Info on group tours, events, and garden calendar.

• Brooklyn Museum, BrooklynMuseum.org. Info on hours, tours and exhibits.

• On Park Slope, OnParkSlope.com. Listings, restaurant reviews and guides to Park Slope.

• Bed and Breakfast on the Park,bbnyc.com. For reservations and information.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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