4th of July in NYC: Non-touristy Things to Do

24 May 2018

Forget the touristy guides to a 4th of July in New York. This is the local's guide to having a good time.

Coney Island & Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest

Competitive Eating is a thing. When I first heard of it I thought, “finally! something I can excel at!” eating is my pastime numero uno. But no, this is nothing like it. This is an activity in which contestants try to eat as much of a certain food as possible in as little time. In Coney Island this something is hot dogs.

The whole thing is insane. The contest has been going on since 1972 and it attracts thousands of people (the majority being locals to the US!). The whole industry is as intriguing as it is sad. I learnt so much about it through research for a documentary Chris wanted to film around it.

Contestants train their bodies for these contests in different ways. For instance, they expand their stomachs until they can hold an enormous amount of food. They do this by eating an incremental amount of food over time. They also have techniques to make food slide down their digestive systems faster. On top of this, the process includes fasting and vomiting.

Not only is competitive eating a huge trauma for contestants' bodies, it is very wasteful. Over $165B in food goes wasted in America every year. Eating contests make a contribution to that.

So no, I don't encourage you to go to the actual food eating contest.

Instead, this morning we leave our Brooklyn Airbnb in search of a different kind of experience.

Coney Island is in itself a super interesting place to visit. Yes, it might be past its heyday but that's exactly what makes it intriguing. Forget what it was and look at what it is. Look past the old park rides and roller-coasters. Explore the neighborhood, watch the people. Sit and observe. Smell the smells, walk the streets and soak up the sounds.

Brighton Beach and Little Odessa

We walk East along the boardwalk to an area dubbed Little Odessa, a town with a high concentration of Russian-speaking immigrants.

We wander into one of the many Russian delis on Neptune Avenue to pick up bits we can take back to the seaside to lunch on. Finding what we want is a bit of a struggle: we can't read most of the labels on the products.

The place is bustling with people, and because it's so small, it's impossible to navigate it and browse. The other customers are kind and let us pass through. No one speaks a word of English. At the counter, a woman is cutting cheese up for a man as they chat animatedly.

Anna speaks a little Russian. She uses it to ask the counter lady for a few things, including a beetroot salad and some pickles.

We head back towards Brighton Beach and pick a bench on the boardwalk. We can see a couple of older ladies sitting on a bench chatting under their huge hats, locals walking their dogs. Everyone is sunburnt and look like they have been most of their lives. Men wear tiny tight swimmers, their round bellies proudly protruding.

When we've had our fill of sunshine and people-watching, we head back to our flat to rest and get ready for the evening.

Barbecue in Brooklyn

As we're walking up to the Airbnb rental, there’s a certain buzz on the street. Our neighbours sit outside listening to music, chilling and chatting to each other. The kids play near the fire hydrants. Our neighbours spot us and wave. They want to let us know they're having a BBQ with music, drinks, games & fun and we're invited. We thank them profusely but we've got plans so we have to turn this rather awesome opportunity down.

If you have friends in New York, a barbecue is a great way to spend time away from the tourist crowds. If you don't, you can always head to a designated BBQ area in one of the many amazing parks in Brooklyn, try Prospect Park. Whatever you do, remember to take your rubbish with you and to BBQ responsibly away from trees, tree roots or building.

Local Beers in a Brewery or Fun in a Dive Bar

In the evening we head to Manhattan where we walk around to find a spot to have a few drinks. We’re after a spot that’s relaxed and fun. We find it not far from Times Square – of all places. It’s an Irish Pub with an incredibly friendly barman. We sit at the bar and the drinks flow freely all night. A piece of advice – open a tab and tip your server when you get your drinks. Our bartender keeps topping our G&Ts and Margaritas all night and best of all, our bill at the end was reasonable.

A good alternative is to find local Breweries and sample some artisan beers. There are several Breweries scattered mostly away from Manhattan. Brooklyn Brewery, Bronx Brewery and Chelsea Craft Brewing Co are but a few. In Manhattan, there’s Birreria (a rooftop above Eataly with pop-up food), and Heartland Brewery.

Watch the Fireworks by the Hudson

We leave the bar and walk West to the Hudson river - the best place to spot the Macy’s fireworks - but they've already started. We end up in the middle of the street, in the midst of a light crowd. The chatter has died down as we all stare up in awe at these marvellous displays of bursting light.

End the Night with Drinks at a Rooftop

We head back home before midnight and take a few bottles of beers to the rooftop where we're staying. We get a good view of Manhattan from up here. And as New Yorkers shoot their fireworks into the sky, we sit and talk about life, travels and friendship into the early hours.

What are your favourite things to do in New York on the 4th of July?

This post was originally published July 2012 and has since been updated.

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