Tennis royalty, celebrities who adore them and the fans who love both will soon be flocking to Flushing Meadow Corona Park in Queens for the US Open, by some measures the world’s most-attended annual sporting event. Besides serving up a packed schedule of tennis matches at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, the Open hosts product demonstrations, an upscale food court with a dizzying variety of dining options and plenty of low-cost and free activities for the whole family. Yet there are plenty of off-court treasures to, er, love that are located within no more than a serve’s length of the stadium. Plan to come early or take a break from the action to swing by the many outdoor activities, cultural gems and tasty culinary delights that lie within this vibrant region of Queens, just off the 7 subway line.
The Sporty Set
If your family is antsy to whack a ball in lieu of watching one, head through the center’s East Gate and hit the greens at the 18-hole mini-golf course at Flushing Meadows Golf Center. Free of the cartoon characters and goofy obstacles typically found at minis, this one offers a Zen-like vibe with an emphasis on water elements like streams, bridges and a waterfall. Bonus: a round can be completed in 30 minutes, so you can have your break and get back to tennis in short order. Ready to up your game? Try the golf center’s full pitch-and-putt course, where experienced golfers can fine-tune their short game and new duffers can get a small taste of the sport. Both courses are fully lit after sundown, and a nearby snack stand offers a menu of kid-friendly items like hot dogs, hamburgers, french fries and nachos at a fraction of what you’d pay inside the tennis center.
If you prefer paddling on the water instead of putting next to it, head out to Meadow Lake (exit through the South Gate). There you can rent pedal boats and kayaks at the newly renovated Ederle Terrace, named after Flushing native Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel. The man-made lake is New York City’s largest, and attracts an impressive array of birds, from egrets to red-winged blackbirds. Or skip the water and hop on a bike or multi-passenger Surrey pedal car to explore the park. Depending on the day and time, you could pass by intense amateur soccer and cricket games, a global selection of food trucks, picnicking couples and playgrounds in full swing, including the country’s first fully accessible one for all children.
A World of Art
Flushing Meadows Corona Park was originally created to host the 1939 World’s Fair, and also served as the site for the 1964 iteration. For the latter, the designers created the instantly recognizable Unisphere and commissioned a series of sculptures to celebrate the event. You can see all these impressive artworks right outside the tennis center’s South Gate in just minutes.
The 12-story Unisphere—meant to display the earth’s rotation, complete with three rings depicting the orbital paths of man-made satellites—represents the 1964 theme of “peace through understanding” and, as well, “man’s achievement on a shrinking globe in an expanding universe.” The fountains in the reflecting pool surrounding it soar 20 feet in the air. Look familiar? The image has appeared in movies such as Men in Black, Black Rain and Iron Man 2 and on album covers and in music videos for performers like the B-52s, Galaxie 500, Cyndi Lauper and the Notorious B.I.G.
Not far away you’ll find Donald De Lue’s 43-foot-high Rocket Thrower, which honors celestial exploration. The glittery stars that the bronze giant grasps with his left hand were gilded back to full glory thanks to a recent $100,000 restoration coinciding with the fairs’ 50th and 75th anniversaries this year. The right hand launches a rocket to the heavens. Not all enjoyed this Cold War–era depiction of “man conquering space.” A New York Times critic at the time described it as “the most lamentable monster, making Walt Disney look like Leonardo Da Vinci.”
Close by is Form (also known as Free Form), a rotating stainless-steel crescent on a motorized granite base, which has been compared to the activity of “drawing in space.” The piece was created by abstract expressionist sculptor José de Rivera, whose work also appears in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC.
Continue in the same direction to find the 28-foot-tall bronze Freedom of the Human Spirit, sculpted by realist Marshall M. Fredericks and featuring a nude man and woman with swans flying to the heavens. The artist wanted the statue to convey a sense of liberation, saying, “The thought that we can free ourselves from earth, from the material forces which try to restrain and hamper us, is a happy, encouraging and inspiring one.” The statue originally appeared where the tennis center now sits, before being moved near its thematic cousins.
To learn more about world's fair history, head west (from the Unisphere or tennis center) toward the Queens Museum and check out the world's largest panorama, of New York City, created for the 1964 fair—to keep up with the City, it changes with some regularity. Housed in the original home to the United Nations Assembly before it moved to Manhattan, the museum recently completed a two-year renovation that doubled the space and created a high ceilinged, light-filled atrium. The new open-storage area displays more than 900 world's fair pieces including admission buttons, matchbooks, jewelry and even packets of sugar. There's a permanent display of Tiffany glass (Queens housed the original studio) and a temporary exhibition, Bringing the World into the World, that explores the act of seeing.
Porcupines and Physics
Walk farther west to find more animals and grunts than on the Open's courts. The modest Queens Zoo features a children's farm where you can feed llamas, goats and sheep and meet 26-pound Flemish rabbits. The 11 acres also contain pronghorns, bald eagles and a cold-blooded American alligator, plus recent additions of a baby pudu (a small South American deer) and a porcupine from the Bronx.
The New York Hall of Science is the third jewel in this exhibition crown. Directly west of the tennis center, this interactive science museum keeps kids (big and small) entertained for hours thanks to its 450-odd displays, including a colossal outdoor playground (complete with a fog machine and water play area) and a nine-hole mini-golf course. The Sports Challenge, which uses physics and physiology to test a range of skills from balance and pitching to reaction time, will get Open goers in the mood for the delirium on the court. The newest section, Design Lab, contains five stations where visitors explore with structures, circuits and simple materials. Bonus: the café features a selection of healthy foods.
Jazz and Juniper
Superstars such as John McEnroe, Billy Jean King and Arthur Ashe aren't the only ones who've played in Queens: jazz great Louis Armstrong lived only 20 minutes away from Flushing Meadows, in a modest house in Corona. Learn about his connection to the neighborhood by taking one of the 40-minute guided tours of the Louis Armstrong House Museum that details the musician’s everyday life. The museum holds an impressive archive of memorabilia including 5,000 photographs from Armstrong's own collection and 1,600 personal recordings.
If you want to escape the Open's 50,000-plus daily crowds for nature and solitude (yes, in Queens), take the 7 train one stop to Flushing/Main St. (or just go for an easy walk through the park) and visit the petite Queens Botanical Garden. Its 8am opening time gives you the opportunity to commune with nature on your way to the Open. The 39 acres are packed with variety of landscapes including bee, butterfly, wetland and herb gardens; a fragrance walk; a meadow and an ornamental grass area.
No matter where you turn, excellent food awaits. Corona has a famous tortilla purveyor as well as many other culinary delights located along the 7 subway line. On the other side of the park, Flushing, home to the Botanical Garden, offers up a range of Asian delights within what might be the City's largest Chinatown (it's neck and neck with Brooklyn's Sunset Park).
Local favorite Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan serves authentic Hunan (very spicy and aromatic). For Northern-style Chinese (from the region formerly known as Manchuria), try Fu Run, just a few blocks from the Flushing subway station. You'll find dishes influenced by China’s borders with Korea and Russia, like lamb chops covered in cumin seeds and deep fried, triple delight vegetables including potatoes and deep-fried eggplant with minced pork. If you're looking for something a little lighter, try the fast and tasty Vietnamese restaurant Pho Bang. Order a bowl of bun (cold vermicelli with picked vegetables and lettuce topped with a protein such as pork or shrimp) for a flavorful summer meal.
How about a sweet spot? Try sampling Asian favorites like the chewy (and not overly sugary) waffles from QQ Bee, or dip into cold dessert soups with jelly (think jello consistency) from Hong Kong–style Tasty Sweety. While you're slurping, be sure to take a moment to savor the way you've aced your off-court time in Queens.