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A city, a bridge and a world away

Special to The Times

IT may be a news flash to many visitors, but New York is more than Manhattan, and we Brooklynites like to think the good part is on our side of the East River.

Of course, Brooklyn doesn’t really market itself to tourists. This is still a place of neighborhoods, and no one wants his neighborhood patrolled by double-decker buses equipped with tour guides pointing out locals like gazelles on the veld.

Still, if you can squint past its sometimes gruff exterior, you’ll find a genuine warmth and friendliness among Brooklyn residents that’s not for sale at any price in the gilded shops of Fifth Avenue.

I should know: After six years in Manhattan, I moved last year to the borough of Brooklyn.

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Brooklyn’s a big place -- with 2.5 million inhabitants, our borough would be the fourth-largest city in the country if it stood alone. If you have a few days to visit, it makes sense to concentrate your energies on a few neighborhoods.

Consider making the New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge your home base (especially because it’s one of the few hotels in Brooklyn). As its name implies, the hotel stands at the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge.

Get up early one morning and find your way along Adams Street to the entrance to the raised pedestrian walkway down the center of the bridge and head toward Manhattan. If you do this early enough you’ll be treated to one of the world’s most spectacular man-made vistas as the rising sun bathes the steel and stone spires of Manhattan’s Financial District in gold.

Once you’re in Manhattan, you’ll find yourself outside City Hall. Admire the graceful proportions of the marble and granite facade alongside the manicured park filled on weekdays with office workers and bureaucrats taking a break from the great paper shuffle.

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Then go from one government seat to the next: Hop on the 4-5 MTA subway line and head back into Brooklyn, exiting at the first stop, Borough Hall. The Greek Revival building, which was Brooklyn’s City Hall until the city’s merger with Manhattan, opened in the mid-19th century, though the statue of justice that crowns Borough Hall’s cupola did not ascend to its perch until 1988. Newly renovated, Borough Hall sparkles during the day and shines at night under the glow of colored lights.

Brooklyn Heights

ACROSS the East River from Manhattan is the most genteel part of Brooklyn and also its most moneyed. A townhouse with Manhattan views on Columbia Street in Brooklyn Heights sold last year for a staggering $8.5 million, the most ever paid for a home in the borough.

It won’t cost you a dime, however, to walk the charming streets of this area and marvel at the well-preserved homes of a neighborhood that was declared one of the country’s first historic districts in 1965.

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Brooklyn Heights feels to me like the Manhattan I’d always seen in the movies -- the Manhattan of the 1950s and early ‘60s, that charmed moment of prosperity and peace between war and riots. The Manhattan of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “Rear Window.”

When you walk down these streets at dusk on a warm evening, a magic descends and blankets everything not with the frenetic buzz of Manhattan isle but with a calm happiness. It’s like being the invited guest at a very special party. People pass one another laughing on the streets.

My fiancee, Rie, captured the essence of the difference between Manhattan and Brooklyn one evening as we walked back through the Heights after dinner. “People stroll here,” she said. “Nobody strolls in Manhattan.”

So take your time -- you won’t get elbowed off the sidewalk if you stop to look at the many historic churches lining the streets.

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Once known as the City of Churches for the clusters of spires that defined its skyline, Brooklyn still has numerous historic churches dotting the borough.

At 75 Hicks St. stands Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, where famed abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, the brother of writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, led the congregation in 1847. Beecher would hold mock slavery “auctions” at the church, where congregation members would contribute to buy the freedom of real slaves.

The 1840s Church of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity at 157 Montague St. contains thousands of square feet of stained glass windows, including 64 windows by William Jay Bolton, considered the oldest American-made stained glass windows produced.

Sadly, time has taken its toll on the church, which was placed on the World Monuments Fund’s Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites in 2002.

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Walking west, you’ll come to the charming riverside Brooklyn Heights Promenade.

Try to ignore the scraggly roar of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway coursing nearby and gaze across the river at that certain special beauty that Manhattan has -- from a distance.

Downtown Brooklyn

WITH its scattering of skyscrapers and hulking government buildings, downtown Brooklyn seems too urban to have scenic value, but look down Court Street and you’ll see the turrets of what has to be the grandest castle-cum-post office in the Western Hemisphere. The General Post Office is housed in a 19th century confection that was built as a federal courthouse.

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Downtown Brooklyn also boasts one of the top-rated Italian restaurants in New York City. Queen, 84 Court St., sits incongruously among fast-food restaurants, dishing up an endless parade of delicious dishes -- chopped sausage and clams, blood orange salad, pasta alla chitarra and the best zabaglione and fresh berries imaginable. After tax and tip, Rie and I wined and dined for less than $85, probably about two-thirds the price of a comparable meal in Manhattan.

Downtown Brooklyn’s not just about great food. You can learn the history of the most magnificent public transportation system in the nation at the New York Transit Museum. The museum has an appropriate design; look for a subway entrance descending from street level at the corner of Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street.

You’ll also find one of New York’s great shopping secrets at the downtown Brooklyn Macy’s, 422 Fulton St. The store has a history stretching back to 1885, when Brooklyn Bridge investor Abraham Abraham (of Abraham & Strauss department store fame) chose the site for his flagship location. Though the six floors of shopping space have seen brighter days, the bones of the store are great.

Walk farther east down decidedly ungentrified stretches of Livingston Street or Fulton Street, and you’ll come to Flatbush Avenue and the 100-plus year-old Brooklyn Academy of Music. You’re not really in downtown Brooklyn at this point -- the neighborhood is called Fort Greene -- but the collection of dance, film, theater and opera offerings are too rich to exclude.

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Sample Austrian fare at the popular restaurant Thomas Beisl, across the street at 25 Lafayette Ave., or eat at BAM’s cafe, where you can often hear live, no-cover music on Friday and Saturday evenings.

If you’re attending a show at BAM in the evening, it’s probably best to take a cab or subway back to your hotel rather than walk through what could be a deserted area. Several subway lines join at the nearby Atlantic Avenue station.

Backtracking into downtown Brooklyn and then heading south, we come to Atlantic Avenue, where you’ll get a flavor of the Middle East. Browse through Sahadi’s spectacular collection of far-flung spices, olives and coffees at 187 Atlantic, then head a block farther, to Waterfalls at 144 Atlantic, for heavenly hummus and falafel pita sandwiches. They are a steal at $3.50.

Wander back down Atlantic to Court Street and then head farther south, perhaps browsing through the staff selections at the fine independent bookstore Book Court, 163 Court St., or checking the wares at one of the funky clothing boutiques before pausing for a delectable raspberry mousse cake at the petite French patisserie Marquet. Continuing down Court, hang a right on Union Street and head toward the East River. You’ll soon come to Schnack, 122 Union St., an incomparable spot where for $20 you can stuff yourself and a friend silly with things like French toast with fruit compote, beer milkshakes, mini burgers and serious hot dogs.

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DUMBO neighborhood

THE final Brooklyn destination on our list derives its name not from the flying elephant, but from the Manhattan Bridge under which it sits. Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass (DUMBO) is one of New York’s most charming neighborhoods. A few places are overrun with tourists who form ridiculous lines at Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory and Grimaldi’s Pizzeria and blow their bankrolls at the River Cafe. (If you want dinner with a similar view at a less insane price, try the roof deck at Alma, 187 Columbia St., a rollicking Mexican restaurant near Schnack.)

Again, the key here is getting off the beaten path. Wander a little farther from the bridge and discover peaceful cobblestoned streets and the glorious riverside Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park at 23 New Dock St.

DUMBO is a major artist neighborhood, and you’ll find galleries scattered here and there, like Smack Mellon at 56 Water Street. If you visit DUMBO from Oct. 14 to 16, you can really dial up the art by visiting the private studios of a couple of hundred artists during the annual Art Under the Bridge Festival.

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As for dining in DUMBO, you have several options. Master chocolatier Jacque Torres sells his wares at 66 Water St. Or get some of the best baguettes outside of France at Almondine, 65 Water St., which prepares all its baked goods on the premises. For dinner, head around the corner to Five Front (it’s the address and its name) to eat outdoors on a heat lamp-equipped bamboo-fringed patio with the surreal bulk of the Brooklyn Bridge practically tableside.

I found myself pitying the people zooming by on the bridge overhead not knowing what they were missing as Rie and I sipped passion fruit martinis and enjoyed three-course $20 fixed-price dinners highlighted by sweet corn chowder and succulent hanger steak.

Thursday through Saturday or for brunch on Sunday, you can head down to the Fulton Ferry Landing after you eat. There you’ll find a restored river barge that used to haul sacks of coffee but has been retrofitted for chamber music concerts. Prices at Bargemusic are reasonable ($35 to $40, less for seniors and students), and the setting is incredibly romantic.

Grab a cab when you’ve had your fill, or if you don’t mind a quiet walk, stroll back downtown through streets filled only with history and your thoughts of all the discoveries you’ve made on these less-traveled streets of New York.

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Little apple

GETTING THERE:

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From LAX, United, American and Delta fly nonstop to JFK; Continental, American and United fly nonstop into Newark. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $318.

WHERE TO STAY:

New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge, 333 Adams St.; (718) 246-7000 or (888) 436-3759, www.brooklynmarriott.com. Centrally located. New rooms scheduled for completion in September will have great views. Ask for a room away from the construction. Doubles from $199.

Holiday Inn Express, (scheduled to open July 16), 625 Union St., (888) 465-4329, www.ichotelsgroup.com. Doubles from $126, including continental breakfast.

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WHERE TO EAT:

Waterfalls, 144 Atlantic Ave.; (718) 488-8886, www.waterfallscafe.com. Great hummus and baba ghanouj. Entrees $11-$17.

Thomas Beisl, 25 Lafayette Ave.; (718) 222-5800. Austrian favorites, such as Wiener schnitzel and sauerbraten, and Linzer torte for dessert. Entrees under $20.

Alma, 187 Columbia St.; (718) 643-5400, www.almarestaurant.com. Delicious authentic Mexican cuisine with a killer view of the Manhattan skyline. Entrees $12-$18.

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Queen, 84 Court St.; (718) 596-5954. Classic Italian cuisine. Entrees around $21-$25.

Five Front, 5 Front St.; (718) 625-5559, www.fivefrontrestaurant.com. Hideaway offering good value on high-class cuisine. Eat in the garden alongside the Brooklyn Bridge. Entrees $16-$19.

TO LEARN MORE:

Brooklyn Tourism and Visitors Center, Brooklyn Borough Hall, 209 Joralemon St., (718) 802-3846, www.brooklyntourism.org.

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-- Aaron Dalton


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