The Grandlife Guide To Coney Island
Perhaps best known for its historic 150-foot-tall Wonder Wheel Ferris wheel, Cyclone and Thunderbolt roller coasters, New York hot dog trailblazers Nathans, and other amusements, this favorite summertime day-trip destination is finally showing the results of decades-long revitalization plans with plenty of new shops, spots to eat and drink, and boardwalk and beach upgrades.
Easily accessible via the subway’s Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue stop, serviced by the N, Q, D, and F lines (some conveniently run express on weekdays), you’ll notice a slew of brand new, still unfinished condos lining Surf Avenue to the west, especially opposite Maimonides Park, home stadium to minor league baseball team the Brooklyn Cyclones, and while walking to the boardwalk, a maze of murals, Coney Island Art Park. Something of a two-for-one, Coney Island and its beach are adjacent to the heavily Russian/Ukrainian/Central Asia immigrant neighborhood of Brighton Beach (there’s also a subway stop there).
Is it a beach day? An amusement park and attractions day? Or are you just here for the free evening fireworks, which take place Friday nights at around 9.45pm through September 1st? Regardless of the motivation, here’s your insider guide for newcomers and Coney Island stans alike!
How & Where to Beach
Coney Island beach represents a jubilant, diverse, and sometimes raucous strip of sand between July 4th and Labor Day weekend (after which the beach and parks close shop for the season). The most crowded, rowdy zone is located just in front of the amusement-lined Riegelmann Boardwalk between the Steeplechase fishing pier and Aquarium.
For more spacious, calmer environs, head west of the pier, past Maimonides Park and unmistakable 250-foot-tall red parachute jump tower, or head east of the Aquarium towards the Brighton side (plus its sand is a lot cleaner and creamier-colored than Coney Island’s, which can be peppered with discarded refuse from boozy and rowdy guests).
What to wear? It’s wise practice to pack a bathing suit (and sunblock!), but Coney Island and Brighton Beach are among the least pretentious, superficial beaches in the country, so it’s not unusual for people to just go with their undies and other less traditional wardrobe when hitting the water. And if you haven’t been working towards a beach body all spring, this is the right place to be—all shapes and sizes are welcome. If you need a lifeguard, look for the young men and women in orange speedos or coats.
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Attractions & Activities
Luna Park & Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park
There are two distinctly branded amusement parks just off the boardwalk, each requiring an admission or ticket system for rides, games, and attractions. Luna Park offers a 4-hour wristband for unlimited rides with just a couple of specific exceptions ($65, or $43 for those under 48 inches tall), while Deno’s sells packages of 50, 100, or 150 credits to apply towards its rides (10 are required for the Wonder Wheel). If you do experience the Wonder Wheel, be sure to consider in advance if you want a stationary pod or, if a thrill ride seeker, one that swoops and swings!
Coney Island Museum
Celebrating its 40th anniversary this summer, the Museum offers an incredible archive and vintage item-filled delve into the history and many permutations of Coney Island and its past theme parks, some of which would be crazy cool if rebuilt. Open Fridays-Sundays from 12pm to 5pm, the Museum is also home to a fantastic gift shop, a vintage-kitsch “Freak Bar,” and the famed Coney Island Circus Sideshow, which sees a cast of hipster daredevils and cirque performers walk on glass, swallow swords, drill their nostrils, and other cringe-inducing albeit family-friendly acts on an almost daily basis.
1208 Surf Avenue
A bit off the radar for tourists because it’s several blocks inland of the Boardwalk, this complex boasts three Russian steam rooms, a Turkish bath, a jacuzzi dry sauna, two bracing ice water pools and an ice cave, outdoor sunbathing areas, and offers a legit birch bundle “platza” body massage (or lashing depending on how you look at it) plus other treatments. Note that admission for your visit and treatments should be arranged online in advance for a specific date and time (use of facilities lasts 4 hours).
3703 Mermaid Ave.
New York Aquarium
You can’t miss the glittery, spiral exterior of this 14-acre Aquarium, home to 500+ marine wildlife species and exhibits that include “Ocean Wonders: Sharks!” and penguin and sea lion-filled “Sea Change”. The latter reopened in 2022 after 2012’s Superstorm Sandy decimated it. There’s also a 4D theater and close encounters with critters of all ages.
602 Surf Ave.
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Where (& What) To Eat & Drink
Coney Island Brewery
Founded in 2007, this excellent, progressive craft brewery expanded in 2019 from a tiny taproom to a spacious indoor venue with plenty of seating and a sprawling outdoor patio (formerly the Steeplechase Beer Garden). Besides a rotating selection of seasonal drafts, many in tribute to local businesses and organizations—for example, Nathan’s Famous Lager, the Pride 365 IPA made in collaboration with the NYC Gay Craft Beer Lovers club—there are select canned varieties (look out for their Cotton Candy Kolsch, capturing the Coney Island amusement park spirit), plus a bar food menu inclusive of vegan-friendly options and non-alcoholic bevvies.
1904 Surf Avenue
How can we kick this off with anything other than a classic? Home to July 4th’s annual, internationally known Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, Nathan’s was reportedly spawned in Coney Island over a century ago by a 24-year-old Polish immigrant, Nathan Handwerker, whose secret spice mix was key to his success. Besides hot dogs and jumbo crinkle-cut fries, the menu has since expanded to include burgers, chicken sandwiches, and heroes created in collaboration with acclaimed chefs and meat purveyors including Pat LaFrieda (who provides the bespoke burger blend for Shake Shack). Hot tip: there’s a second location on the Coney Island Boardwalk with more seating and prime people watching, but potentially longer lines.
1310 Surf Ave.
Brighton’s main strip of Brighton Beach Avenue is delightfully dense with restaurants, cafes, supermarkets, delis, and even takeaway stalls specializing in former Eastern Bloc and Central Asian cuisines (some halal-friendly) including Russian, Georgian, Turkish, Uzbek, and Uyghur. One of Eater critic Robert Sietsema’s top picks (he’s a reliable source), the 20-year-old Kashkar traffics in the latter with savory specialties including kovurga say (fried lamb ribs with tomato, garlic, pepper, soy sauce and cheese), kebabs, and oversized, toothsome manty (dumplings).
1141 Brighton Beach Ave.
Right on the Brighton Beach boardwalk with unbeatable patio seating, Tatiana offers up a sprawling menu of international and Russian favorites – including several types of borscht and creamy okroshka soup, pelmeni and vareniki dumplings, and legit chicken Kiev—plus loads of seafood, from whole grilled or pan-fried fish to cold herring and house-made lox.
3145 Brighton 4th Street
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Salt & Sizzle
On the Coney Island boardwalk side, Salt & Sizzle received a photogenic, contemporary facelift and new faux lighthouse roof, while the food entails a mix of Mexican and beachy staples like tacos, cheesesteaks, fish & chips, fries (of course), and even some salads, plus tasty frozen and regular cocktails (Aperol Spritz!), Coney Island Brewery beers, and more. Craving seafood? To the east side of Wonder Wheel, longtime standby Paul’s Daughter serves up lobster rolls, raw and fried clams, shrimp, and calamari.
1301 Riegelmann Boardwalk
Featured on the sixth episode of Netflix’s “Somebody Feed Phil” season two (along with Nathan’s) this almost century-old, family-run pizza joint won a 2009 James Beard Award in the American Classics category and endless plaudits from critics and celebrities for wonderful, quintessential NYC-style pies. Just a block or so northwest, another enduring Italian venue, the 106-year-old Gargiulo’s, offers a full menu of classics including antipasti, pasta, seafood, steaks and chops, and desserts (and banquet hall-style interior). Mangia!
1524 Neptune Avenue
While many ice cream and paletas vendors hawk their delights along the beach itself, this is a proper gelato shop with a weekly changing roster of flavors—for example, strawberry cheesecake, mint chocolate chip, and Coney Island custard—in cones or cups.
1023 Boardwalk West
WORDS Lawrence Ferber
FEATURED IMAGE Víctor Alonso