A visit to Brooklyn's Coney Island during the off-season makes for a bracing experience. It's eerie and dramatic: the open sky, the ocean, and the backdrop of the famous Cyclone roller coaster and Parachute Jump. Coney Island in the wintertime is beautiful in an isolated, industrial-urban-landscape kind of way. It's the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan or the riverfront neighborhoods of Brooklyn.
Coney Island's amusement park and beach are closed September through May, but there's plenty to do, eat, and dream about as you wander the area off-season. Just be sure to bundle up and come prepared for brisk ocean breezes.
Grab a Craft Beer at Coney Island Brewing Company
Brooklyn is a hot spot for craft breweries, with most of them concentrated around the hip neighborhoods that are closest to Manhattan. Coney Island Brewing Company may be harder to get to, but this local favorite is well-worth the journey. Coney Island beers are popular enough that they're served at bars all over New York City, especially their classic Mermaid Pilsner, Merman IPA, and Dreamland Session Sour, but visitors to the brewery can taste a menu of exclusive beers only offered on-site.
The kitchen serves up all types of top-quality bar foods to keep you satisfied, from loaded fries to Kobe beef hot dogs, but you can also bring your own food in. If the weather allows it, the outdoor Beer Garden is the most scenic place to enjoy your drinks, but indoor seating is also available for exceptionally cold days. If you're interested in the process of beer making, complement your day of drinking with one of the free brewery tours, offered daily.
Stroll the Atlantic Ocean Boardwalk
New York’s most famous boardwalk offers views of Coney Island’s rides and amusement park on one side and the rolling Atlantic Ocean on the other. For tourists and first-time visitors, a good itinerary is to start off by the amusement park and then walk toward Brighton Beach. The rides aren't open in the off-season and the boardwalk may feel like a ghost town compared to the lively summer days, but the eerie tranquility of winter is exactly what draws people to visit.
Once you make it to Brighton Beach, the best way to warm up is to stop in one of the local Russian restaurants for a hot bowl of borscht. Brighton Beach is referred to as "Little Odessa," named for the Ukrainian city because of the huge wave of immigrants who came from what was then the Soviet Union. Hearty meals are provided year-round at authentic gems like Varenichnaya on Brighton Second Street or Skovorodka on Brighton Beach Avenue.
Eat a Nathan's Hot Dog at the Original Hot Dog Stand
Founded in 1916, Nathan's is hardly a mom-and-pop stand anymore. As there are now about 8,000 Nathan’s Famous hot dog stands in the world, it's become a global franchise. But this indoor stand at Coney Island is the original. Some people swear the dogs here taste better than anywhere else and scarfing down a foot-long near the pungent sea air is a quintessential Brooklyn experience.
Nathan's also offers hamburgers and chicken sandwiches if you prefer a hot dog alternative. As a side dish, the crinkle-cut fries with cheese, bacon, or both are well worth the cholesterol increase, or a grab a serving of piping hot onion rings. For something to drink, the freshly made lemonade is the perfect sweet and tart refreshment to go along with the meal.
New York City's world-class aquarium has amazing exhibits and fish-feeding shows, making it a perfect outing for good family fun or a romantic date afternoon. The Aquarium is open year-round with both indoor and outdoor exhibits, so when the weather is particularly cold or stormy, you can always take refuge at the indoor reef filled with sharks, rays, and sea turtles, or pop into the 4D interactive movie experience. Interactive "touch tanks" are especially fun and educational for kids, who can dip their hands in the water and feel the sea life.
For a bite to eat, the Oceanside Grill offers a sustainable seafood menu with dishes like fish tacos and fish and chips, along with items that don't come from the ocean as well. With a focus on ecology, the eatery only offers reusable cutlery and packaging, so no plastic straws, cups, or bags.
Feast on Classic Brooklyn Pizza at Totonno's Pizzeria Napolitano
Even in as serious a pizza-eating place as Brooklyn, Totonno's pizza stands out among the hundreds of local pizzerias in the borough. The thin crust, fresh sauce, and everything else on the menu are made each day on the premises. Locals swear by the pizzas that are baked in a brick oven and you'll find the restaurant buzzing from the time it opens.
Totonno's has justifiably earned a slew of Zagat raves since it opened in 1921, and the restaurant is still owned by the family today as it was when it opened a century ago. As for decor, it's as minimal as the pizza crust is thin, favoring the elegant simplicity of less-is-more.
Explore Coney's Past at the Coney Island Museum
This idiosyncratic little museum is dedicated to preserving Coney Island’s unique history. What you'll find upon walking in is a monument to the unsanitized and zany freak show side of Coney Island's past. The museum has old photos, antiques, memorabilia, and relics of Coney Island. In addition, you might catch a special exhibit like a collection of vintage funhouse mirrors, lectures, and live performances.
If watching isn't freaky enough for you—why not join in? For a tuition fee, Professor Adam Realmanteach and the staff at Coney Island USA's Sideshow School will reveal the tricks the trade. Graduates walk away knowing how to eat fire, swallow swords, walk on glass, charm snakes, sleep on a bed of nails, and more. Only students 18 and older are permitted to matriculate.
Watch (or Join) the Coney Island Polar Bears
Starting a new year with an icy dip is a great Brooklyn tradition. Founded in 1903, the Coney Island Polar Bear Club claims to be the nation’s oldest winter bathing organization. Hundreds of New York "polar bears"—the name for people who decide to take the plunge and submerge themselves—gather in Coney Island every New Year's Day for a 1 p.m. dip in the Atlantic Ocean, whatever the weather. The water may be frigid, but it's a party once you dive in. As a bonus, there’s no fee for swimmers or observers.
While the Club meets every Sunday from November to April for a swim in the Atlantic Ocean, the January 1 dip attracts the biggest crowd of the year, by far. To participate, bring along swim attire (and a change of clothing) and show up at the beach near Stillwell Avenue between 10 a.m. and noon to register for the event and sign the waiver.