Queens is king of Big Apple’s diversity
Not hungry enough for a sit-down breakfast, I munched on Tibetan dumplings purchased from a snack truck decorated with a sign that touted “Himalayan Fresh Food.” Lunch was a hurried affair at a five-table eatery where the menu special is yak meat washed down by salty yak milk tea.
For dinner, I chose a small restaurant that gives new meaning to the word “eclectic.” The Ecuadorean-born chef transformed basic South American fare with hints of Spanish, Chinese and other cuisines from around the world.
This dining experience provided a perfect introduction to a virtual global tour without boarding an airplane or ship. I was visiting New York City’s borough of Queens.
Granted, Queens didn’t use to be high on many people’s “bucket list,” but now it’s earning praise from respected sources. The Microsoft Money website named it one of the “hottest” cities in America.
Lonely Planet travel guides crowned Queens the “Number one U.S. travel destination for 2015.” It praised the often-overlooked borough for its “global food culture,” exciting museum and art scene, and seaside attractions.
A cultural melting pot
For many visitors, the greatest appeal is that Queens is the most ethnically diverse county in the United States. More than half of its residents were born outside the U.S., immigrating from over 120 counties, and speaking some 135 languages. The Tower of Babel had nothing on this enclave.
A good introduction to this cultural conglomeration comes during walks through some of the 50-plus neighborhoods that are adjacent in geography yet worlds apart in ambience and atmosphere.
A stretch of Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights would be at home in Central and South America. The feeling and food are very different in Flushing, the site of a Chinese community that is bigger than Chinatown in Manhattan.
Astoria provides an introduction to authentic Greek culture, including tavernas that serve up traditional meze appetizers and magnificent Greek Orthodox churches. Astoria also is dotted by mini-neighborhoods occupied by immigrants from India, Korea, Romania, the Dominican Republic and other far-flung countries.
Given the name, it’s no surprise that the Jamaica area has strong roots in the Caribbean. Then there are sections known as Little Egypt, Little India, Little Guyana, Little Colombia and Little Manila.
In places, the cultural blend becomes apparent in the span of a single block. I spotted Cuban, Chinese and Italian restaurants that are next door neighbors, and one block where diners have a choice of Cypriot, Philippine, Czech and Peruvian cuisine.
Baseball and beaches
The selection of things to see and do in Queens is as varied as the restaurant scene. For example, fans of baseball and tennis have a rare opportunity for a behind-the-scenes look at landmarks of those games.
Guided tours of the New York Mets’ Citi Field include the dugout, playing field and Mets Hall of Fame and Museum, which offers exhibits, videos and interactive kiosks.
The Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, home of the US Open, provides an even more interactive experience. In addition to tours of its facilities, people may reserve time to play on the 12 indoor and 23 outdoor courts.
After several spirited games of tennis, what could be more inviting than a dip in the Atlantic Ocean? One of Queens’ biggest surprises is that several miles of inviting beaches line its coast.
Rockaway Beach has a seven-mile boardwalk that includes eateries, entertainment venues and more. Jacob Riis Beach offers shorter stretches of landscaped walkways.
While swimming is officially prohibited at the isolated Breezy Point Tip of Rockaway Beach, broad stretches of sand, dunes and marshes provide an inviting setting.
Those who prefer indoor pursuits have a welcome choice of more than 30 museums. The Queens Museum is the logical place to begin. The building was erected to house the New York City Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair, and its permanent collection includes memorabilia from both that and the 1964 exposition.
The most dramatic exhibit is the Panorama of New York City — a 9,335-square-foot model that encompasses some 900,000 tiny structures built in intricate detail to exact scale. In this mini-metropolis, the Statue of Liberty is less than two inches high.
Visitors to the Museum of the Moving Image are immersed in the history, technology and art of movies, television and video games. Set designs, costumes and other exhibits are enhanced by unique experiences like recording voice-over dialogue for a film, and choosing sound effects for sequences from well-known movies and TV shows.
If you’re still not convinced that Queens warrants a visit, or at least a day trip from Manhattan, add in a Resorts World Casino, a pre-Revolutionary house and working farm, one of the major bird-watching sanctuaries in the Northeast, and a 24-square-block arts district.
A sightseeing itinerary also can include homes in which a virtual alphabet of celebrities once lived. Among them were Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, the Marx Brothers, Mae West, Jackie Robinson and Malcolm X. I left Queens convinced that if it was good enough for them, it’s great for me.
For more information about all that Queens has to offer visitors, visit http://itsinqueens.com or call (718) 263-0546.