Williamsburg is a neighborhood full of contrasts. In this area north of Brooklyn, hipsters and orthodox Jews coexist. In just a few streets, the atmosphere changes radically: from the most striking street art and old factories turned into restaurants to the austerity of the Jewish quarter.
One of the first tips I would give to a traveler visiting New York is to be aware that New York is much more than just Manhattan, just as Brooklyn is much more than the DUMBO area. If you want to experience an authentic trip to New York I recommend you to explore each and every area you can, spending as little time as possible in the most commercial or tourist spots.
Brooklyn is a 'must' in any trip to the city of skyscrapers (Learn more in my guide on what to see and do in Brooklyn) and within Brooklyn, for me, Williamsburg is one of those areas so authentic and full of contrasts that you just can't miss.
1. Stroll through Domino Park
New York is the city that has best upcycled its former industrial spaces and this park is a good example of that. What was once a sugar refinery is now a park and promenade that stretches along the river. The brick building with the huge chimney guarding the park gives an authentic touch to this area and its lounger area is perfect for a rest if the weather is nice.
2. Admire the urban art of Eduardo Kobra
Williamsburg is a hipster neighborhood with a very personal and alternative character. Despite the proliferation of fast-food chains and luxurious residences (especially for Wall Street workers) over the last few years, its genuine works of art still decorate the walls, and walking through the neighborhood you will see many of them.
And speaking of Street Art, we can't fail to mention Eduardo Kobra, a Brazilian artist who signs the most spectacular murals you're going to see in the neighborhood. Besides, he has a very personal style, so I'm sure that after having seen a couple of his works, you'll recognize him as soon as you come across another of his murals.
Specifically, "Fight for Street art" is probably his most recognizable work (it's a tribute to Andy Warhol and Basquiat). I'm sure you've seen it in a thousand photos. You'll find it at 147 Bedford Avenue.
3. Have an authentic Colombian coffee at "Devoción"
On my last trip to New York, I fell in love with this coffee shop with Colombian soul and one of the best coffees I've tasted in New York to date. The place is super diaphanous, with lots of light and green details - try to grab the table next to the iconic Chester sofas to rest from your walk around the neighborhood!
4. Don't miss the huge mural The Chronicles of New York
By now you've probably realized that Street Art is more than just a hobby in this area. Along its streets, you will find murals, graffiti, and authentic works of art that you will want to keep in your retina.
Specifically, this spectacular mural is by the French artist JR. You will find it near Domino Park and you will be amazed by the combination of photographs of more than 1,000 New Yorkers and how he combines them with some of the most emblematic buildings of the city in black and white. You'll want to take a thousand photos, and the challenge will be to get all of this work (the size is more than considerable) into your lens!
5. Pick yourself up at Café Beit
If there's one thing that stands out in Williamsburg, it's the authenticity of its meeting places. A stroll through its streets will be enough to spot cafes and restaurants where you would want to have a nice cup of coffee or take out your laptop and work in a relaxed atmosphere every day.
Café Beit: if in addition to a good shot of caffeine you feel like eating something (toasts or a good brunch) head to 158 Bedford Avenue and enjoy! Whatever you choose from the menu at Café Beit, have it at the little tables in the inner courtyard.
6. Visit the Jewish quarter, one of its main attractions
Surely, one of the most intriguing main areas of the neighborhood is the Jewish Quarter. Within the Williamsburg neighborhood, the Orthodox Jewish community lives mainly in the South Williamsburg area, which you can reach by crossing under the Williamsburg Bridge. The community's life is concentrated on Lee Avenue, the neighborhood's main thoroughfare. This is where most of its temples and businesses are located.
I invite you to stroll through its streets and browse or buy local products in its stores, but if you want to read more about this particular area, I have written an article on How to visit the Jewish Quarter to help you get around the most interesting streets of the neighborhood.
7. Take a Contrasts Tour
Yes, the very famous New York Contrasts Tour has a stop in Williamsburg (how could it be otherwise) and it is a good way to get to know the historical and cultural context of the neighborhood. Although it does not stay for too long in this part of the city, I assure you that it will be a good introduction to the area and will give you the necessary introduction for you to enjoy it on your own afterward.
If you are thinking of going on the Contrasts Tour, you can find more information about the tour in my article on New York Contrasts Tour.
8. Treat yourself to a designer souvenir from Home Coming
I told you that you would find the coolest and most genuine places here, didn't I? Well, in Home Coming you will find not only a chilled place to have a good coffee (beware, the coffee menu is huge and you will find yourself not knowing which one to choose) but also a place to buy flowers or even decorative items and design.
Instead of taking home the typical keychain or something like that, I am sure that here you will find more than one original and authentic souvenir. Besides, the place is beautiful, so it doesn't cost anything to come in and take a look, right?
9. Go vintage hunting at the best stores in Williamsburg
Another thing you can do in Williamsburg is to go shopping. I'm sure that touring the neighborhood you will find more than one stall on the street, or even see how some clothing or antique stores take part of their windows to the street (literally) to attract the attention of passersby.
But if you want to visit the go-to place for shopping in Williamsburg, visit Artists & Fleas, where you will find fashion and vintage art from emerging and reputable designers, second-hand items, decoration pieces... Definitely a good place to get an authentic souvenir of your trip to New York.
10. Don't miss Williamsburg Bridge
Less known than its brother the Brooklyn Bridge, this bridge that connects Williamsburg with Manhattan is worthy of a stroll in its surroundings (and surely, a picture or two). Also, you should know that when it was built in 1903, it became the longest suspension bridge in the world.
The best of all is that today, you can cross it walking or by bicycle, so there is no excuse for not venturing through it.
11. Taste authentic craft beer Made in Brooklyn
In North Williamsburg, you can try delicious craft beer at Brooklyn Brewery. I recommend you to listen to their experts and try the different types of beer they propose. Moreover, the place could not be more authentic, so for me, it was the perfect spot to take a break from the tourist life and feel like a New Yorker for an afternoon.
12. The music lover's paradise, Rough Trade
If you love music, no further explanation is necessary. You have to go to Rough Trade, the music paradise where you will find thousands of CDs, vinyls, books and posters of the most iconic artists in history, but also of alternative bands and groups that you will love to discover. Be warned that you can lose track of time in there, but I assure you it will be worth it. You will find it at 64 N 9th Street.
How to get organized for your visit
Spending an afternoon (or even a whole day, if you have enough time) in Williamsburg, will give you a very complete view of New York. You can stroll through the most touristy part of the neighborhood, to the north, but you can also immerse yourself in its Jewish Quarter, further south.
What to see in Williamsburg
In this area, you will find alternative places to enjoy a good brunch or a really authentic coffee. You can also book a table for lunch or dinner at one of its hipster restaurants or stroll through one of its streets, completely different from those of Manhattan, where industrial buildings of exposed brick and luxury and design hotels and houses prevail.
Last but not least, you can get to know closely the Jewish Quarter where one of the largest Orthodox Jewish communities in the United States lives. Walking through its streets you can get an idea of how they live or what their customs are, in addition to trying typical delicious Jewish products.
Is Williamsburg safe?
Maybe you're wondering if Williamsburg is a safe area. Right off the bat, let me tell you that yes it is. As the industrial area that it was, it should be noted that it has seen worse days, especially around the 1960s, where crime was much more common in the area. But when you get there you will see that, in general, it is a neighborhood full of life, with many New Yorkers going from one place to another (perhaps with less haste than in Manhattan) and full of cafes and quaint stores that give a unique personality to the area.