Must-See Coney Island

by Staff

(Updated 05/20/2015)

Coney Island—New York City's legendary amusement district—is not a theme park. Six Flags Great Adventure and Disneyland are nice places to spend some time, but they are gated, hermetically sealed worlds that cut visitors off from reality. This is something different: a seaside playground that's also a real-life NYC neighborhood. Its appeal comes not from a single source but from the combined force of its many individual attractions. On a bright summer day, no place feels more electric.

It starts with the awesome wooden Cyclone roller coaster (complete with what may be the most terrifying first drop in the universe), which remains the area's centerpiece after more than 85 years. In recent years, the folks behind the revived Luna Park have taken over management of the Cyclone and added such thrill rides as a human slingshot (we're not first in line for that one…but it's there!) and, as a rival to the Cyclone, the reinvented Thunderbolt, a 2014 addition that pays homage to another coaster built in the 1920s. The carnival atmosphere wouldn't be complete without Sideshows by the Seashore, an outrageous cavalcade of curiosities headlined by stars with colorful names like the Black Scorpion. For those with simpler tastes in summer fun, a dip in the ocean might suffice; the beach is right off the boardwalk. Other essential Coney Island attractions include Cyclones baseball at MCU Park, the New York Aquarium and the original Nathan's Famous, home of the world's most renowned eating competition: the Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest. Russian enclave Brighton Beach is just a few wooden planks away, and you can fuel your foot-powered journey there with some clams, funnel cake or other seaside specialties from vendors along the boardwalk.

It's an understatement to say that Coney Island has faced its share of challenges over the years. But the longtime business owners there, many of whom have had a stake in the area for decades, plan on sticking around for a long while. "Coney Island's been around since the late 1800s," says Michael Sarrel, an owner of Ruby's Bar & Grill, "and we want to make sure it stays around until the late 2100s."

Read on for details about our favorite things to see and do.

To explore more, book a Brooklyn hotel so you can stay close to the action.

Photo: Alex Lopez

Luna Park
1000 Surf Ave., 718-373-5862
The modern incarnation of Luna Park, now in its fifth year, boasts such rides as the Tickler, a spinning Wild Mouse–style roller coaster featuring maddeningly tight turns; the speedy Air Race, which subjects riders to forces of four Gs—up to 25% more than a space shuttle launch would; and the Wild River log flume, with its 40-foot splash landing. More extreme thrill seekers may enjoy such rides as the Sling Shot (in which participants are shot into the air at 90 miles per hour). It's classic Coney Island fun at a place that takes its name and aesthetic from one of the "Nickel Empire" parks of yore—the old Luna Park, which operated from 1903 until it was destroyed by fire in 1944. The crescent moon and pinwheel motif will look familiar to anyone who remembers the original. And while the rides cost money, it's free to enter and poke around.

The Cyclone at Coney Island's Luna Park. Photo: Julienne Schaer

The Cyclone
834 Surf Ave., 718-373-5862
Think "Coney Island" and this roller coaster is likely the first image that comes to mind. Heck, think "roller coaster" and the Cyclone might be the first thing that comes to mind. The ride's famous 85-foot first drop and harrowing barrage of 60-mile-per-hour twists and turns have inspired extreme reactions of either fanatical devotion or lifelong terror since 1927. Just ask the ride's biggest enthusiasts—the fear that your car might fly off the track at any time is part of the fun. Riding in the front car affords riders the best view, while sitting in the rear gives the feeling of greater speed. Whether you ride or just watch (and listen to the screams), it's a must-visit summertime destination.

Photo: Julienne Schaer

The Thunderbolt
West 16th Street and the Boardwalk, 718-373-5862
Much of the excitement in Coney Island in the past couple of years has centered on the Thunderbolt, the first custom-built roller coaster to be constructed on the grounds since the Cyclone back in 1927. The ride, which features 2,000 feet of steel track, a vertical lift (and subsequent vertical drop of some 115 feet), a 100-foot loop and a corkscrew, is a modern spin on the classic Coney Island coaster of the same name. It occupies the same patch of turf next to the boardwalk as the first Thunderbolt—the twisty, turny wooden roller coaster immortalized in the film Annie Hall. The original was shut down in 1982, after nearly 60 years of operation, and demolished in 2000.

Photo: Tagger Yancey IV

Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park
3059 Denos D. Vourderis Pl. (formerly W. 12th St.), 718-372-2592
When Constantinos Dionysios Vourderis—otherwise known as Deno—bought the Wonder Wheel in the early 1980s, he fulfilled a longtime promise to his wife: he'd vowed on more than one occasion to purchase the Ferris wheel for her as a wedding present (an oversize ring, if you will) so that everyone could see how much he loved her. And what a gift it was—the Wonder Wheel has actually stood next to the boardwalk even longer than the Cyclone, having been built way back in 1920. Riders have two options: the swinging red and blue cars, which appeal to the more adventurous, and the stationary white ones, for those who just want to enjoy the view. Deno has passed away, but the Vourderis family continues to run the 400,000-pound landmark and its attendant park, which boasts 16 kiddie rides and five (including the Wonder Wheel itself) for adults. Dennis, Deno's son, has worked at the park since he was 9 and is already passing on the family business to his own kids. "My brother and I have our sons working here now," he told us in the shadow of the ride that gives the park its name. "Third generation." As for surprises at his venerable attraction, Deno has one tip that may prove especially valuable for visitors hanging out at the boardwalk, especially if they're staying hydrated on a hot day: it only costs a quarter to use the restroom at the Wonder Wheel.

Photo: Alex Lopez

Coney Island Circus Sideshow
1208 Surf Ave., 718-372-5159
The Coney Island Circus Sideshow, also known as Sideshows by the Seashore, transports visitors to the old-time Coney Island of odd delights and freakish talents. Cast members like sword swallower Betty Bloomerz and your fire-eating, sword-juggling host, Ray Valenz, have a jaw-dropping effect on viewers as they (along with a procession of special guests) perform amazing—and sometimes stomach-churning—feats by the ocean.

Photo: Alexander Thompson

Nathan's Famous
Original: 1310 Surf Ave., 718-333-2202
Boardwalk: 1205 Boardwalk, 718-714-7207

Ah, Nathan's: home to some of the world's favorite hot dogs and host of its most famous eating competition, the Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest, during which superhuman competitors—who train and strategize relentlessly—try to eat as many as possible in 10 short minutes (see our roundup of weird sporting events for more details). Founded in 1916 by Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker, Nathan's Famous is an enduring testament to New York City's multicultural tradition, its culinary prowess and its sense of fun. It's not all about hot dogs, either—the french fries and clams are popular choices as well. You can even buy frog's legs at the Surf Avenue location, if you dare. Whatever you plan to get, save the meal for after you ride the Cyclone or Thunderbolt.

Gargiulo's. Photo: Julienne Schaer

More Coney Island Eats
2911 W. 15th St., 718-266-4891
1215 Surf Ave., 718-676-2630
Ruby's Bar & Grill
1213 Boardwalk, 718-975-7829
Tom's Coney Island
1229 Boardwalk, 718-942-4200
1524 Neptune Ave., 718-372-8606
You won't have any trouble finding a bite to eat in Coney Island, where hot dog, gelato and even empanada vendors are accessible every few planks on the boardwalk. But if you prefer to eat sitting down (on a chair, not on the sand), there are plenty of options. The atmosphere is lively at Ruby's Bar & Grill, a boisterous watering hole and eatery with a view of the sea. "No shirt, no shoes, no service" is decidedly not the rule here, where shirtless men and swimsuit-clad women frequently come straight in from the beach and make a beeline for the bar. Patrons seated at communal tables happily guzzle draft beers from plastic cups and gobble classic Coney fare like corn dogs, hot sausages and pizza. The institution has been around in some form or other since 1934, and its bar and ceiling are made partially out of old wood from the boardwalk; co-owner Michael Sarrel estimates they have 10,000 square feet of the stuff.

Appealing to hard-core pizza fans, Totonno's is a few blocks inland. Since 1924, it's been serving Neapolitan treats (by the pie only), which some New Yorkers call the best in the City. For 90 years, says owner Louise Ciminieri, "the place is the same and the pizza is the same." It's this consistency that led the James Beard Foundation to declare the place one of "America's Classics." Another acclaimed New York City pizzeria, Grimaldi's—best known for its location near the Brooklyn Bridge—boasts a branch on Surf Avenue, not far from the Cyclone. Tom's Restaurant, meanwhile—a Prospect Heights institution and a breakfast favorite for many Brooklynites—operates an outpost on the boardwalk, peddling not only its famous flavored pancakes but also, come summertime, some beach-appropriate seafood.

Finally, on West 15th Street, diners will find Gargiulo's, whose majestic dining room features very high ceilings, fish tanks in the back and a relaxing classical soundtrack. The restaurant serves homemade Italian fare including seafood and pasta, and has been in Coney Island for more than 100 years.

Photo: Jen Davis

Williams Candy
1318 Surf Ave., 718-372-0302
Searching for dessert after a Nathan's hot dog? Williams Candy, located next door, is a popular choice. The second you step into the tiny shop, the smell of sugar practically punches you in the face (get near the popcorn machine and the scent begins to mingle with a more savory fragrance). The main attractions at the store are the chewy, sugary candied Granny Smith apples. Other offerings include fudge, ice cream and some much-ballyhooed caramel marshmallow sticks. Like the rest of Coney Island, this place caters more to your inner child than to any adult need for prudence or responsibility—but Williams Candy's satisfied customers don't seem to be complaining. One man who can't personally say how much he enjoys the candy? Owner Peter Agrapides. "I don't eat any of it," he says. "I'm not a candy eater. But people love my candy."

Photo: Jen Davis

Brooklyn Cyclones
MCU Park, 1904 Surf Ave., 718-449-8497
The Brooklyn Cyclones, the New York Mets' short-season single-A minor league club, play in picturesque MCU Park. The smell of ocean air permeates the stadium, situated right on the boardwalk and just a few blocks from local attractions like Deno's Wonder Wheel and Luna Park. In the distance beyond the left-field wall, fans can see the roller coaster that inspired the team's name slowly rise and suddenly plunge on its first terrifying drop—and during night games, neon-colored fluorescent rings circling the ballpark's stadium lights are a perfect complement to the carnivalesque setting. The on-field competition of scrappy, hardworking ballplayers harks back to the good ol' days of Brooklyn baseball—as does the intimate setting, where the players on the field can hear what fans yell out from the stands and vice versa. In the grand tradition of the minor leagues, the Cyclones are known for their outlandish promotions, like having offered free tickets for life to anyone who would agree to name their child Brooklyn or Cy. Our baseball promotions roundup offers hints of what's in store this year. If you're heading to a game, look out for the statue of Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese near the main gate—it shows Reese with his arm around Robinson, a famous gesture of solidarity that was re-created in the film 42.

Photo: Kate Glicksberg

Mermaid Paradeand Other Special Events
The Mermaid Parade has sent nautically (and often scantily) clad ladies and gents in colorful, over-the-top floats down the boardwalk since 1983 in a joyous celebration of New York City spirit and individualism. Music, antique cars and an abundance of mermaids always make the event a memorable one. And don't forget about the celebrity king and queen—in the past, the roles have been filled by such big names as Harvey Keitel, Mayor de Blasio's kids and, fittingly, Queen Latifah; this year, couple Mat Fraser and Julie Atlas Muz, stars of a rather adult version of Beauty and the Beast, perform the honors on Saturday, June 20.

There are other special events at Coney Island to keep on your radar. Rumor has it the popular Seaside Summer Concert Series may return this season. There are frequent fireworks on the boardwalk, and Mumford & Sons will be playing MCU Park on June 2 and 3. You can also check for more fun by the beach.

Coney Island Museum. Photo: Jen Davis

Coney Island Museum
1208 Surf Ave., 718-372-5159
Coney Island History Project
3059 W. 12th St., 347-702-8553
The Coney Island Museum features a number of displays that celebrate the amusement park and surrounding neighborhood. There’s a 3-D printed scale model of the old Luna Park, work by Brooklyn artist Daniel Blake (aka Africasso) and an assortment of oddities and memorabilia. The museum is also the venue for a Saturday night film series put on by the Coney Island Film Society, featuring B-movies and assorted documentaries. Also helping show off the history and heritage of the place, the Coney Island History Project is a decade-old organization that has an exhibition center located practically underneath the Wonder Wheel. Its free exhibition, Coney Island Stereoviews (which features vintage 3-D images of the area), can be perused on weekend afternoons, and 90-minute neighborhood walking tours ($20), sponsored by the group, are offered on Sundays.

Photo: Julienne Schaer

New York Aquarium
602 Surf Ave., 718-265-3474
This aquarium—the oldest continually operating example in the US—remains a must-see destination on Coney Island's celebrated boardwalk. Visitors will be charmed by all manner of sea life, including seals, walruses, red-bellied piranhas and rays. Long-range planners can look forward to the opening of Ocean Wonders: Sharks!, which will feature blacktip and whitetip reef sharks, sand tiger sharks and wobbegongs, a carpet shark native to the western Pacific and eastern Indian Oceans. Look for it to open spring 2017. More immediate gratification can be had from viewing the daily penguin and otter feedings.

Photo: Julienne Schaer

The Beach
That salt-air smell that permeates all of Coney Island is coming from the ocean. Indeed, there are nearly three miles of beach property in the neighborhood, and you can see clearly to the vast blue expanse of ocean from the boardwalk. Brighton Beach is nearby as well. If you've forgotten any of your beach gear—sandals, a bathing suit, a hat or sunglasses, for example—there are many Coney Island shops that have you covered.

Steeplechase Plaza. Photo: Julienne Schaer

What's New and What's Ahead
While Coney Island has been New York City's amusement district since the late 19th century, it's always changing—and keeping with the times has paid off. The 2014 summer saw a record number of visitors (4.8 million) come to Luna Park (strangely, the most popular attraction was the Whack-a-Mole game). That year was of course when the Thunderbolt roller coaster was unveiled; the previous year saw Steeplechase Plaza, which holds the renovated (though not rideable) Parachute Jump—originally built for the 1939 New York World's Fair and transported to Brooklyn two years later—and the restored B&B Carousel come to the amusement area. The latest revival involves the famed Astroland Park rocket, which was a symbol of the Astroland theme park from its inception in 1962 until its demise in 2008. The rocket initially served as a ride and then just as a beacon before being taken away, but it's now been acquired by the Coney Island History Project and is currently on display in Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park. (And don't sleep on the popular, relatively new location of Italian-ice vendor Rita's Coney Island, either).