New York City lets you travel the world without leaving the five boroughs. You can have your breakfast in Chinatown, grab a snack in the Dominican Republic, feast on samosas and momos from the Himalayas for lunch, go to Greece for dinner and finish the night by catching a cabaret performance in Russia or doing karaoke in Korea. While roaming from neighborhood to neighborhood might make for a long day, just think about what you'll save on airfare. Alternatively, you could spend whole days and nights exploring some of the City's most culturally distinctive areas. Our slideshow offers guided itineraries to Astoria's Little Egypt, the Bronx's Little Accra and Little Sri Lanka on Staten Island, among others. But let our recommendations serve primarily as suggestions. True travelers know that sometimes the most authentic experiences are to be found simply by walking around and doing whatever catches your fancy.
The Caribbean (Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn)
Bed-Stuy's Caribbean influence manifests itself most prominently along major thoroughfares, but it's worth exploring the streets around Nostrand Avenue and Fulton Street, if only to work up an appetite and then burn some calories. The neighborhood is justifiably famous for both its hip-hop ancestry (Notorious B.I.G. and Jay Z got their starts around these parts) and its spectacular architectural mix. Brownstones, row houses and apartment buildings—many dating to the 19th century—were built in such styles as Queen Anne, Italianate and Renaissance Revival.
Begin your immersion in Bed-Stuy's Caribbean atmosphere by buying yourself a doubles, a popular street food from Trinidad and Tobago, from A&A Bake and Doubles Shop: two fried slices of squishy bread known as bara stuffed with channa (curried chickpea stew), peas, potatoes, carrots, coconut, tamarind chutney and Scotch bonnet pepper sauce. Customers crowd nearby Trini-Gul for its version of bake and shark, a sandwich made from fried bread (aka “bake”) and bits of shark meat. You can also get your bake with saltfish, okra or pumpkin. Ali's Trinidad Roti Shop makes its doubles with herbed bara, or you can get its roti: unleavened Indian flatbread wrapped around curried goat, conch, shrimp, chicken or vegetables. Royal Bakery & Roti House has roti too, along with a vast selection of Caribbean sweet treats, from hard dough bread to currant rolls and bread pudding. Pilar Cuban Eatery modernizes traditional Cuban food, serving made-from-scratch empanadas and house-smoked chorizo, while Bed-Stuy Fish Fry offers shrimp, fish and fries.
There's nothing inherently Caribbean about Crazy Legs Skate Club. But a spin around its hardwood skate floor on Wednesday nights feels like travel of another sort, taking you out of 21st-century New York City straight back to the 1970s—bell-bottoms and boom boxes optional.
China (Lower Manhattan; Flushing, Queens)
Manhattan's Chinatown, as we know now it, began in the 19th century, when significant numbers of Chinese immigrants started arriving in New York City. Today, it's one of the largest enclaves of Chinese outside of Asia. The blocks along Canal Street brim with energy, with tourists and locals alike shopping for durian and roast duck, handbags and sunglasses, big bags of rice and even bigger rice cookers, and then crowding into one of the area's many restaurants. Among the best loved are Jing Fong and Nom Wah Tea Parlor, both serving dim sum (the latter since 1920). Grab a seat at one of the communal tables at Lam Zhou, order the to-die-for fried dumplings and a big bowl of soup, and listen to the whap-whap-whap of house-made noodles being hand pulled. If it's heat you're after, head to Famous Sichuan for Chongqing chicken, in which the ratio of chilies to chicken is something like 20 to 1. Then cool off with a bubble tea from PaTea or an ice cream from Chinatown Ice Cream Factory—order the don tot (egg custard).
Equally bustling is the Queens neighborhood of Flushing. As in Manhattan's, this Chinatown boasts signage in Chinese and English, although you'll find far fewer tour buses here. You can't beat the food courts at Golden Mall or New World Mall for variety or price. Dumplings, soups and noodles abound. Xi'an Famous Foods, for instance, has been so successful that it has expanded beyond its basement food stall (a self-proclaimed “hole in the wall” opened in 2005) into stand-alone restaurants in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. The spicy and tingly lamb-face salad remains one of its most popular, and tastiest, offerings. Biang!, its more formal sibling, shares an emphasis on food from northwest China. Dishes like stewed pork biang-biang noodles are served family style. Try the chilled rice cake with candied watermelon and lotus seeds for dessert, or wander over to Tai Pan Bakery for a sweet or savory bun. Last but definitely not least, stock up on loose tea, find your perfect pot or take a tea class at Fang Gourmet Tea. Don't hesitate to ask for samples.
Dominican Republic (Washington Heights, Manhattan)
The rhythms of reggaeton and melodies of bachata burst from cars and apartments. Fluffy quinceañera dresses, with layers like scallops of frosting, move in the breeze. Spanish tends to be the lingua franca (so to speak). You're in Washington Heights, named for George Washington. Better known as “the Heights,” this area is the epicenter of Dominican culture in New York City, and home to one of the largest populations of Dominicans and Dominican Americans in the States.
In Fort Washington Park, where Washington unsuccessfully battled the British before retreating into New Jersey and across the Delaware, you can visit Jeffrey's Hook Lighthouse. Fans of children's literature will recognize the red building, the last remaining lighthouse in Manhattan, from the classic The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge. In front of United Palace Theatre—an art deco movie palace built in 1930 that's now used for religious services, as a meeting place and as an entertainment venue—is La Plaza de las Americas. You can stock up on clothes, hats and various sundries at the outdoor market in this square, designed to resemble those found throughout Latin America. If you're lucky, you just might be able to feast on such Dominican snacks as tostones, empanadas and croquetas from one of the vendors. Ready to rest your weary legs? Head to El Malecon Restaurant for plates of rotisserie chicken, black beans and asopao (soupy rice). Margot Restaurant is another neighborhood institution, best known for what The New York Times called “authentic 'Grandma-style' Dominican cooking,” such as stewed beef or rice with peas. Finish your wanderings by stocking up on the sweet stuff sold at Kenney Bakery, including pastelitos, tres leches cake and flan.
Egypt (Astoria, Queens)
In the second half of the 19th century, a good chunk of Astoria was bought up and transformed into a veritable village for those who worked at the Steinway Piano Factory and their families. Beginning in the late 20th century, the area around Steinway Street earned the nickname Little Egypt, thanks to the hookah bars and restaurants lining the blocks from 28th Avenue to Astoria Boulevard.
Mombar is hard to miss. The exterior features mosaics, stained glass and Egyptian symbols, a preview of the artwork that covers just about every inch of the interior. Put a pillow behind your back, order a variety of Egyptian specials, like mombar (sausage) and lamb cheeks, and prepare to be pampered by the extremely friendly owner. If you're feeling adventurous, opt for the prix-fixe tasting menu and let the chef choose for you. Smaller but almost as colorful is Kabab Cafe, run by the brother of Mombar's owner and serving Alexandrian food, which encompasses Egyptian as well as Greek and other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences. Carnivores crow about the chef-owner's way with offal, particularly veal sweetbreads and lamb tongue. (The menu changes nightly.)
Stuffed you might be, but consider popping into Al-Sham Sweets and Pastries for baklava, freshly made and full of nuts, or whatever else looks appealing (hint: that'd be everything in the display case). You might also opt for a caffeinated or smokable—but not alcoholic—nightcap at the Rotana Hookah Place. Flavors include mint, apple and apricot. Close your eyes and pretend you're in Cairo.
Ghana (University Heights/Grand Concourse, the Bronx)
Papaye Restaurant has two main functions: it specializes in West African staples like peanut soup, fried yam and fufu (a dough usually made from cassava), and it serves as the heart of Little Accra (or Little Ghana) in the Bronx. Ghanians and Ghanian Americans come for the company and stay to eat order after order of egusi (pumpkin seed) stew and chicken with jollof rice doused in palm oil. Expect lots of cheering, heavy sighs or passionate exclamations in the Ghanaian language Twi—depending on the score of the soccer game on television.
Unlike Papaye, Ebe Ye Yie doesn't have a set menu. Instead, you belly up to the steam table to see what's available that day and to place your order. Terrific options include the okra stew and the egusi with lamb. Although utensils are available, most diners opt to eat with their hands, using fufu to mop up juicy stews and sauces. (The restaurant thoughtfully provides bottles of hand sanitizer at each table.) Another neighborhood stalwart, Accra, also has a steam table—a huge one, in fact, where you serve yourself. The lively murals in the dining room make up for the cafeteria feel of the buffet.
Combine your visit to one of these restaurants with a trip to The Bronx Museum of the Arts. Founded in 1971, the museum collects and displays works by contemporary artists of Asian, Latin American and African descent, as well as by artists with some connection to the Bronx. It often screens movies, hosts discussions and curates exhibitions related to West Africa.
Greece (Astoria, Queens)
Although the Park at Athens Square is currently under renovation, it's nevertheless an excellent place to begin exploring the Greek aspects of Astoria. (You'll just have to peek through the fence.) The park boasts three Doric columns, a statue of Socrates, a bust of Aristotle and a small amphitheater where concerts are often held. A bronze statue of Athena, goddess of wisdom, watches over all who pass—which, despite the neighborhood's Greek heritage, is also a reference to the time when this part of Queens was called “Sunswick,” from the Algonquian word sunkisq, or “woman chief.”
Heading southeast from the park will take you to Zenon Taverna, home to massive meze meals from Greece and Cyprus. Small plate after small plate will arrive, allowing you to taste many flavors and traditional specialties. From the open-air kitchen of Bahari Estiatorio comes “a taste of Byzantium,” such as dolmathes (stuffed grape leaves) and mousakas (layered lamb, potatoes and eggplant casserole). The galeos saganaki, sautéed baby shark served in a lemony cream sauce with feta cheese and jalapeños, tastes like chicken—no joke. Cavo is a restaurant-cum-nightclub with a lot going on: a fine outdoor space featuring two waterfalls; live belly dancing on Fridays; live flamenco on Sundays; and drink specials almost always. While you're out this way, consider detouring to Welling Court, a massive (and legal) street-art project. In 2009 residents asked Ad Hoc Art for help beautifying their neighborhood; the result is an annual festival that turns drab walls into vibrant canvases. (Artists painted more than 125 murals this year.)
Taverna Kyclades is one of Astoria's most popular restaurants. The outside features a lovely eating area; inside are murals depicting Greek Islands in shades of blue and white. Everything is fresh and good, but the restaurant does fish particularly well. Nearby Artopolis Bakery is a must-visit for its Greek breads and pastries. And the street vendor known as the Souvlaki Lady often hangs around the Steinway Street subway stop (M or R line), for one last meat treat before you head off. Opa!
India and the Himalayas (Jackson Heights, Queens)
Naturally you won't mistake Jackson Heights for the Himalayas; after all, the busy Queens neighborhood has low-rise row houses and early 20th-century apartment buildings in place of the distinctive majestic mountains that separate the Indian subcontinent from the Tibetan Plateau. Nevertheless, there's no better place in New York City to shop for saris, chat over a plate of chaat or gobble momos by the panful. Thanks to mainstays like Jackson Diner, Delhi Heights and Dosa Delight, lovers of Indian food flock to 74th Street for dosas, samosas, stews and other specialties.
In recent years, immigrants from Nepal and Tibet have arrived in the neighborhood, replacing its “Little India” moniker with a new one: “Himalayan Heights.” You can experience the cuisine of Central Asia at Phayul, whose name means “fatherland” in Tibetan. The excellent shoko sil sil ngoe ma (shredded potatoes and green chilies dotted with Sichuan peppercorns) will ramp up your heart rate and dispel any notions about Tibetan food's placidity. Save room for the made-to-order momos, or dumplings, at Lhasa Fast Food. Finding their source is half the fun: you have to go through a cell phone store (locally referred to as Tibetan Mobile) and then past rows of DVDs in Hindi and Tibetan. Should you wish to re-create any of these dishes at home, pop into Patel Brothers and stroll the packed aisles of prepared foods, produce and other miscellanies, or consider a jewel-colored kurta or sari at India Sari Palace, where tailors are on hand to ensure precisely the right fit.
Korea (Midtown, Manhattan)
Neither “Koreatown” nor “K-Town” is an official designation, but “Korea Way” is. In 1995 the City gave 32nd Street between Broadway and Fifth Avenue that designation in light of the block's Korean restaurants and stores, which cram in on every level.
Kang Suh, where Broadway meets West 32nd Street, is the rare restaurant that encourages you to play with fire; however, the Korean barbecue at Kang Suh is a not-to-be-missed chance to cook your short ribs, ox tongue and shiitake mushrooms exactly how you like them. Meals begin with banchan, small plates of salads, pickles and sauces. Banchan at Cho Dang Gol (a bit further north, on West 35th Street) includes freshly made tofu, as silky as jelly. Across Fifth Avenue, Hangawi makes it easy to eat healthy. At this elegant vegetarian restaurant, you'll sit shoeless at a low table, gobbling vegetables like spicy todok root and asparagus on a stick.
You might be surprised to see a café called Paris Baguette, but this South Korean chain is popular enough in the home country to have outposts in the United States. Get a croissant and cafe au lait to go, so you can have a snack while browsing H-Mart, a destination grocery for Korean ingredients and cooking equipment. This neighborhood doesn't lack for nightlife options, but two of our favorite experiences are drinking the watermelon soju (half of a watermelon filled with Sprite, watermelon juice and soju) at Pocha 32 and singing karaoke at 32 Karaoke, which has more than 20,000 songs in English, plus lots in Korean, Spanish, Japanese and other languages, to choose from.
Russia (Brighton Beach, Brooklyn)
Coney Island might get the love (and the crowds), but adjacent Brighton Beach has a similarly nice stretch of sandy coast. And instead of hot dogs and fried dough, you can nosh on pelmeni (similar to dumplings) and borscht. West of Coney Island is Mermaid Spa, a traditional Russian bathhouse known as a “banya.” A post-sauna massage isn't a must, but it sure is nice. Heading a few miles east, you'll land in Brighton Beach, also known as “Little Russia” or “Little Odessa.”
Along Brighton Beach Avenue you'll find stores and street vendors selling fur coats, fur hats and jewelry made from amber, often referred to as Russia's national stone, among other goods. Since some restaurants are BYOV, or bring your own vodka, you'll see lots of liquor for sale too. Saint-Petersburg Trade and Publishing House is a one-stop shop for all kinds of needs—porcelain and DVDs, shawls and matryoshka (nesting) dolls—while Brighton Bazaar caters to epicures, offering an extraordinary selection of Russian foods. The beloved bread counter carries the heavy, dark loaves served at every meal, and the enormous buffet stocks just about everything else: pickled watermelon, potato pancakes, veal tongue and the like.
Speaking of food, Brighton Beach has several eateries, many with a strong nightclub vibe. Tatiana is located on the promenade, so you can people- and surf-watch as you gobble grilled Georgian sausage known as kupaty or a smoked-fish assortment. Make a reservation for the Saturday night cabaret. Reservations are also recommended at National Restaurant. For four decades, the three sibling-owners have entertained and fed customers in an opulent space that wouldn't be out of place in Las Vegas. Unsurprisingly, its shows are bold, featuring singing, dancing and tons of glitz and glamour.
Sri Lanka (Tompkinsville, Staten Island)
The advantage of exploring Staten Island's Little Sri Lanka on a Saturday or Sunday is that Lakruwana features its outstanding all-you-can-eat buffet on those two days. For $11.95, you can try pineapple curry and deviled (stir-fried) seafood, along with 20-something other dishes served in clay pots. A sign reminds diners that Sri Lankan food tastes better when eaten with one's fingers, so consider ditching the utensils and breaking out the Purell. The disadvantage of going on the weekend is that you'll likely be too full to do much besides get back in your car or hop a bus to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal.
Almost everything on the walls at Lakruwana—from the Buddhas to the bamboo to the masks—was shipped straight from Sri Lanka, which makes for authentic, if busy, surroundings. More subdued in terms of decor is San Rasa. Try the restaurant's lamprie, made from a recipe that supposedly dates back 300 years: nuts, vegetables, meat and rice get steamed and served in a banana leaf. New Asha, meanwhile, is a casual spot for sit down or takeaway. Order the string hoppers (steamed rice flour noodles fashioned into nests and filled with a meat or veggie curry). Don't eat everything in sight, though, because you'll want to head across the street to Dosa Garden. Sri Lankan food shares some similarities with South Indian food: both feature roti (flatbread), lassis (yogurt drinks) and fried lentil cakes, which you can sample here. And while you're on Victory Boulevard, Tompkinsville's Sri Lankan artery, pop into Lak Bojun, for “short eats” (the Sri Lankan term for snacks), such as pol roti, or coconut bread, and Lanka Grocery, for supplies. As the area's main Buddhist temple, and a sacred site for many Sri Lankans, the Staten Island Buddhist Vihara, in nearby Port Richmond, offers meditation discussions, classes and retreats; check the calendar for upcoming events.