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A hotel boom is luring tourists out of Manhattan and across the East River to the Queens neighborhood of Long Island City, where 15 hotels have opened since 2006, from boutiques to chains. Many of them boast not just lower rates than hotels in Manhattan but also great views of the city skyline and easy access by subway, taxi or even ferry.
Just don’t be put off by the area’s factories, warehouses, and parking lots — not to mention the towering red and white smokestacks of the nearby Ravenswood power plant. While Long Island City and the adjacent neighborhood of Astoria offer many attractions, including waterfront parks, museums and good restaurants, industrial heritage remains a vibrant part of the local identity.
There’s also a famous bridge here. No, not the Brooklyn Bridge, but the Ed Koch Queensborough Bridge, named for the city’s late mayor but commonly called the 59th Street Bridge. Simon & Garfunkel fans may recall that the 1960s song “Feelin’ Groovy” was subtitled “The 59th Street Bridge Song.” Many Long Island City hotels offer views of the picturesque bridge with its delicately undulating beige spans connecting Queens to Manhattan across the water.
Nhi Pham, 21, a student from Orlando, Fla., stayed at the Z NYC Hotel in Long Island City recently after finding a $139 rate on Groupon. “The hotel room had one wall that was all windows and it was so nice waking up to that amazing Manhattan skyline and view of the bridge without having to pay a really high price for it,” she said.
Priceline.com prices for two-star hotels in Long Island City for a Saturday in March ranged from $139 to $209, compared to $143 to $349 on Manhattan’s East Side near Grand Central Terminal. The growth in Queens hotels has coincided with a push by NYC & Company, the city’s tourism agency, to bring visitors to the boroughs outside Manhattan.
“I would definitely stay in Long Island City again,” Pham said. “It was a very industrial area, but I thought that was fascinating.”
Many points of interest in Long Island City and neighboring Astoria are related to the area’s industrial heritage. The famous Steinway piano factory opened in Astoria in the 1870s; today, free factory tours fill up months in advance. One of Long Island City’s best-known landmarks is a bright red Pepsi-Cola sign on the waterfront, visible from across the river in Manhattan. The sign once marked a local soda bottling plant; the plant closed but the sign was preserved in Gantry Plaza State Park, which offers boardwalks, piers and skyline views.
Filmmaking is another local industry. The Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria is housed in a building that was part of a 1920s film studio that made silent and early sound films. The studio was revived three decades ago as Kaufman Astoria Studios; modern production credits range from “Sesame Street” to “Men in Black 3.” In Long Island City, a baked goods manufacturer called Silvercup was transformed into Silvercup Studios. Its clients include “30 Rock” and “The Devil Wears Prada.”
The Museum of the Moving Image’s artifacts range from early cameras and projectors to costumes and props from “Star Wars.” Screenings include silent movies with live music, classics and the avant-garde. The museum’s hands-on exhibits are especially fun: Play old arcade games like Pac-Man, dub your voice into a clip of Dorothy from the original “Wizard of Oz” or put rock music into the soundtrack of an old Western movie.
A few blocks away, the Noguchi Museum offers a sublime collection of the late Isamu Noguchi’s spare, modernist stone sculptures, along with a compelling film about the artist’s career and unusual childhood with a Japanese father and American mother. Noguchi created the museum in the building where he lived and worked, on a residential street surrounded by parking lots and warehouses. Nearby, the waterfront Socrates Sculpture Park displays work outdoors by various contemporary artists.
Another major destination for art-lovers is MoMA PS1, part of the Museum of Modern Art, located in a former Long Island City public school. The museum’s mission is to display contemporary art, so if you’re looking for Monet, you’d better take the E train back into Manhattan and head to MoMA’s main museum. Through April 1, MoMA PS1 exhibits include mixed-media objects that explore religious iconography — some made from everyday material like tin foil and glitter — by Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, a gay artist who attended Catholic school. Opening in May is a multimedia exhibition with environmental themes.
PS1’s extraordinary cafeteria M. Wells Dinette is a must for foodies. The menu offers adventurous items like bone marrow tarts along with less edgy fare like borsht, oysters, juniper potato salad and hot toddies. The cafe cancelled plans to serve horsemeat after an outcry.
Speaking of food, ask a New Yorker about Astoria and you may be told, “That’s where you go for Greek food.” Although it’s known as a Greek-American neighborhood, Astoria’s immigrant population and restaurants are quite diverse. For example, Djerdan, a Balkan eatery at 34-04 31st Ave., advertises “Best Burek in Town!” — referring to yummy coiled dough filled with meat, spinach or cheese. Other popular restaurants include The Strand Smokehouse, 25-27 Broadway, for barbecue; the upscale but fun Astor Room at Kaufman Astoria Studios, 34-12 36th St.; Taverna Kyclades, 33-07 Ditmars Blvd., for seafood and Greek standards (expect long waits for tables); and Agnanti, 19-06 Ditmars, named the city’s top Greek restaurant by Greek Reporter USA.
In Long Island City, a trendy, lively bar and eatery at 24-27 Jackson Ave. called Dutch Kills offers artisanal drinks and “bartender’s choice,” where patrons give guidance on what they like but leave it up to the bartender to create interesting cocktails. Head bartender Jan Warren admits that first-time guests are sometimes “a little freaked out” by Dutch Kills’ location on a deserted industrial street with a spooky lit-up “BAR” sign. But inside it is warm and welcoming, and the bartenders put on a great show as they pour, pinch, squeeze, stir and shake ingredients, then present their creations with a flourish and a smile.
“What we do is great food and cocktails, but you actually get to have a good time,” said Warren. “Our regular clientele runs the gamut from Queens garbage collectors to cocktail nerds who come over from Europe.”
Other Long Island City attractions include two places to climb: a five-story outdoor wall at NYC Outward Bound headquarters, and a cavernous new gym called The Cliffs, opening in May. At Astoria Park, you’ll find a skateboard park, jogging track and waterfront paths, along with the city’s largest outdoor swimming pool.
Pham, the Z hotel guest, said travel to Manhattan was easy, between subways, cabs and Z’s free hourly shuttle bus. The hotel even has free bikes for guests. And a ferry ride from Long Island City takes five minutes to reach Manhattan. But with so much to do on the Queens side of the river, you might not want to leave.
If You Go…
Long Island City Cultural Alliance: Excellent map of Long Island City and Astoria neighborhoods in New York City borough of Queens, plus attraction listings.
MOMA PS1: 22-25 Jackson Ave. at 46th Ave. Thursday-Monday, noon-6 p.m. Adults, $10; children 16 and under, free.
Museum of the Moving Image: 36-01 35th Ave. Wednesday-Thursday, 10:30 a.m.- 5 p.m.; Friday, 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 11:30 a.m.- 7 p.m. Adults, $12; children 3-12, $6.
Noguchi Museum: 9-01 33rd Road. Wednesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Adults, $10. Children under 12, free.
Socrates Sculpture Park: 32-01 Vernon Blvd. Free.
Steinway Piano Factory: Tours Tuesdays 9:30 a.m., September-June, reservations fill up months in advance, 718-721-2600.
Gantry Plaza State Park: On Queens side of East River, 4-09 47th Road. Pepsi-Cola sign, boardwalks, piers.
Astoria Park: At 19th Street between Astoria Park South and Ditmars Boulevard.
Z NYC Hotel: 11-01 43rd Ave., Long Island City, or 212-319-7000. Rates vary by date and room; $175-$325.
NYC Outward Bound Climbing Wall: 46 Northern Blvd., Tuesday-Thursday, 5:30 p.m.-9 p.m., April 16-Oct. 31, $25 online, $28 at the door. Minimum age 12; under 18 with adult only.
The Cliffs: Climbing gym, opening in Long Island City in May.
East River Ferry: Hunters Point/Long Island City terminal at 54th Avenue and Second Street, $4 five-minute ride to 34th Street, Manhattan.
Subway: From Manhattan, subway routes to Long Island City and Astoria include E or 7 to Court Square and Q or N to stops from Queensborough Plaza to Astoria/Ditmars. (No Q service weekends.)
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