All Articles Explore Coney Island beyond its amusement park

Explore Coney Island beyond its amusement park

People on Coney Island beach with seagulls flying overhead and amusement park rides in the background
Unsplash/Brian Kyed
Laura Begley Bloom
By Laura Begley BloomNov 30, 2020 7 minutes read

“All Coney Islanders have sand in their shoes. Once it gets in, it never gets out.” Locals recognize this quote from a mural that once spanned a wall at the New York Aquarium but was destroyed when Hurricane Sandy tore through the neighborhood in 2012. So when local artist Danielle Mastrion did a new mural project at the aquarium, she made sure to incorporate the quote. “After all,” she says, “Coney Island stays with you for the rest of your life — even if you just visit it once.”

Last month, we took you on a foodie escape to The Bronx. For this weekend’s New York City staycation, we’re heading all the way to America’s Playground — Coney Island — on the southwest tip of Brooklyn. Our guide, Danielle, is a neighborhood insider who has painted murals all over the place and used to have a side hustle doing walking tours in the area. “Besides being an awesome, crazy, wacky place for pretty much everybody from all walks of life, it is literally my home,” she says.

Danielle Mastrion holding can of spray paint
Danielle Mastrion

Most people think of this iconic beachside amusement area as a summer destination, but according to Danielle, the neighborhood is just as magical in winter, if you know where to look. “Coney Island is a beach town and you can really appreciate its beauty and history when it’s not crowded with people,” she says. “It’s nice to see what the boardwalk and all of the landmarks look like on their own — especially if you're a photographer or a visual person.”

This is from The WeekEnder series: local insider guides for new destinations a short drive from New York City, delivered to your inbox twice a month. Sign up here!

Coney Island has many claims to fame, from the country’s first bike path to the world’s first roller-coaster (a precursor to the Cyclone) to the first American hot dog. One other interesting fact: It’s not actually an island, though it started out that way. In the early 20th century, the water between this Outer Barrier isle was filled with land, transforming Coney into a peninsula. Before then, you got there by steamboat; today, the subway makes it much more convenient.

So this week, we invite you to take a trip — either by subway, car, or bus — to your neighbors in south BK.

-Laura Begley Bloom, New York's Senior WeekEnder Writer

Editor’s Note: Your safety is our primary concern. As cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in the region, we encourage you only to travel when it’s safe to do so. While we’ve vetted businesses featured here to ensure they are adhering to the state’s current COVID requirements, the situation is fluid. If you’re not comfortable traveling, save this guide for a later date, as all these activities will be just as amazing in the future as they are today.

For more info on travel within New York, visit the state’s official COVID-19 information page.

Coney Island on film

Still from The Warriors (1979) film with actors standing on the Coney Island boardwalk
The Warriors (1979)

Rich in personality, texture, and art, Coney Island has served as a supporting role in several films. Here are a few movies Danielle recommends watching before you go:

The Warriors (1979)

The epitome of Coney Island in the 1970s about a gang (The Warriors) who are trying to get back home. “When they actually arrive, you see a lot of buildings that aren't there anymore. But the opening shot of the Wonder Wheel and the neon looks exactly the way it does now.”

He Got Game (1998)

A close-up look at the off-the-boardwalk neighborhoods where real Coney Islanders live: “Everybody in the neighborhood always talks about this movie. Spike Lee kept a lot of his equipment in the Coney Island Circus Sideshow while they were filming.”

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

A dark yet rich portrayal of imagination and psyche, Coney Island serves as a landscape for escapism: “That movie could not have been filmed anywhere else. The neighborhood plays such an important role in the movie.”

What to do

Sun shining down on Coney Island’s Boardwalk
Coney Island’s Boardwalk

According to our neighborhood insider, Coney Island has tons to do, even when the Cyclone is shut down for the season.

Best View

“Most people don’t realize that the sun shifts in winter so that it actually sets on the water,” says Danielle. “It’s an even more beautiful sunset than in the summertime. Get off the train and walk straight to the boardwalk, then head to the end of the pier. It’s like you are standing on the edge of the earth.”

For Adrenaline Junkies

Coney Island is famous for its New Year's day Polar Bear Plunge, which is cancelled this year. But you can still get the vibe on weekend mornings, when you'll spot locals (including Danielle) going cold-water swimming year-round.

For Art Lovers

A great way to explore Coney Island is by hunting for murals, including the work that Danielle did for the Alliance for Coney Island’s Mural Project at 1214 Surf Avenue. “We wanted people to feel happy and colorful in this amazing amusement district, even when the businesses are closed,” she says. “Going on a mural hunt is probably the best way to see the whole neighborhood by foot.”

Left: Stingray at New York Aquarium; Danielle standing in front of colorful mural
New York Aquarium (L), Danielle's creation for the Alliance for Coney Island's Mural Project (R)

For Future Oceanographers

Check out the new “Ocean Wonders: Sharks!” exhibit at the New York Aquarium, the oldest continually operating aquarium in the country. “It’s a really interesting structure with metal coverings that mimic fish scales. It changes colors depending on the time of day,” says Danielle. “When you go inside, it feels like you are underwater looking up at the ocean on top of you.”

For People-Watching

Stroll down the boardwalk to the Russian-American enclave of Brighton Beach, which is part of Coney Island. “Along the way, you’ll see fishermen who are fishing year-round, locals playing salsa music, and people singing in Russian,” says Danielle. “It feels like you’ve just traveled to a completely different country by walking twenty minutes.”

For Explorers

On the other side of Coney Island is Kaiser Park, where you can spot a yellow submarine half sunk in Coney Island Creek. “Although you can see it at any time of day, plan your visit at low tide,” says Danielle. And in case you were wondering, it has nothing to do with the Beatles song.

▶️ Want to get a virtual glimpse of that sunken sub? Video: The Yellow Submarine

Where to eat

Exterior and bright sign for Nathan's Famous restaurant at night
Nathan's Famous

In the summer, Coney Island draws people to spots like Totonno’s — one of the oldest pizzerias in New York City — as well as myriad ice cream shops and restaurants that line the boardwalk. Most places are closed in the off-season, but there are still a couple of iconic spots where you can grab a bite.

Where Hot Dog Champions are Born: Nathan’s Famous

Fun fact: The founder of Nathan’s worked for another local hot dogger (Charles Feltman), who invented the American classic. Feltman’s restaurant is long gone, but Nathan’s remains and the menu hasn’t changed since it opened in 1916. “Go to the original location on Stillwell and Surf — it feels like one of the old Coney Island postcards,” says Danielle.

For a Pint: Coney Island Brewery

The brewery serves upscale comfort food and locally inspired brews. “There’s great outdoor dining and it’s almost entirely female-run,” says Danielle. Plus, you can check out Danielle’s work: She did a massive mural inside the space.

Date Night: Gargiulo’s

Family-owned since 1907, Gargiulo’s is a Coney Island institution. The fan favorite is the Penne Pasqualina, a decadent mix of sauteed onions, zucchini, prosciutto, and fresh tomatoes in a light cream sauce that has been on the menu for 40 years. “Really good, old-school, New York Italian food,” says Danielle.

A Taste of Russia: Tatiana

Set right on the boardwalk with outside dining year-round, Tatiana is known for its Russian dishes and its acrobats and trapeze artists. “When I was in high school, all of my Russian friends from Brighton Beach would have their sweet sixteen and birthday parties here,” says Danielle.

Where to stay

The Elephant Hotel
The Elephant Hotel (1888) which inspired the Parisian elephants portrayed in Baz Luhrman’s 2001 motion picture, Moulin Rouge

Back in 1885, a 12-story hotel shaped like a giant elephant was constructed at the corner of Surf and West 12th Street that its designer referred to as “the Eighth Wonder of the World.” Spiral staircases in the legs led to the rooms and its eyes doubled as telescopes. Sadly, the Elephant Hotel burned down more than a century ago and nothing has been built in the area that can quite compare. But if you want to spend the night, here are some quality options.

For Meeting the Locals: Airbnbs in Brighton Beach

Down the boardwalk in Brighton Beach, you’ll find plenty of apartments for rent. “You’ll be on the boardwalk and within walking distance of all the attractions,” Danielle says. Two choices include this sunny one-bedroom apartment hosted by Oleg and this modern studio hosted by Bruno, a Superhost who also rents another rustic studio nearby.

For Glamping: RV Next to Coney Island Lighthouse

Want to get a taste of #VanLife? Check out this RV, a quirky Airbnb rental set on a private beach at the tip of Coney Island by the lighthouse.

Staycation Issues from The WeekEnder

You are reading a special ‘Staycation’ edition of The WeekEnder on Coney Island.

In our first Staycation issue on The Bronx we spoke with two locals who gave us their recommendations for a food-focused escape to NYC’s most northern borough. Read it here>

In our future Staycation issues, we will cover:


Reshma Saujani
Reshma Saujani; Instagram/@reshmasaujani

The Neighborhood: Chelsea

Who we spoke to: Reshma Saujani

What they do: Founder of Girls Who Code and author of Brave, Not Perfect

“New York City is the best place for tech and that’s why I launched Girls Who Code here — it was my movement playground,” says Reshma Saujani.


Hitomi Iwasaki
Hitomi Iwasaki

The Neighborhood: Corona

Who we spoke to: Hitomi Iwasaki

What they do: Director of Exhibitions/Curator, Queens Museum

“Corona is a vital part of the city of New York but is still resisting the wave of gentrification,” says Hitomi Iwasaki.

Staten Island

Puiyan Taglianetti
Puiyan Taglianetti

Neighborhood: The North Shore

Who we spoke to: Puiyan Taglianetti

What they do: Visitor Services and Education Coordinator at Snug Harbor

“There is so much diversity and not just diversity in people, but there’s also diversity in restaurants and diversity in experiences to enjoy,” says Puiyan Taglianetti.

Tip: For more information on curated itineraries in The Bronx and the rest of New York City, visit our friends over at

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Laura Begley Bloom
Laura Begley Bloom is a travel expert and content strategist who writes for a wide range of magazines and websites and appears regularly on television outlets ranging from the Weather Channel to CNN. Journalism is part of Laura's heritage. Her great great grandfather was a Civil War correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. You can learn more about Laura on