The Bronx has many claims to fame, but one of them is purely geographical: It’s the only part of New York City that is mostly on the United States’ mainland.
Named after Jonas Bronck, a European of unclear origin who established the first community in the area, in 1639, the Bronx is one of the most iconic names in the world — for better and for worse. For decades, the borough was associated with New York as its poorest and toughest, obscuring very real assets. Out-of-towners would conjure that scene in “Bonfire of the Vanities” when a Wall Street Master of the Universe gets lost and assaulted in . . . you guessed it. But that was the 1980s, and the Bronx has come a long way. In addition to great enduring icons such as Yankee Stadium and the New York Botanical Garden, the Bronx boasts urban-renewal signposts including a namesake brewery, cafes featuring latte art, and rising real estate prices. Mixing tradition and innovation, the Bronx is thriving.
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Despite its reputation as a highly urban territory, a quarter of the Bronx is made up of open space. This includes the third largest park in New York City, Van Cortlandt Park, whose grounds include the oldest golf course in the U.S. — it opened in 1895. But then there are also unlikely spots such as the sprawling Woodlawn Cemetery , a National Historic Landmark that is the beautiful last home of Irving Berlin, Herman Melville, Duke Ellington and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, among others.
Another National Historic Landmark, the New York Botanical Garden (adult tickets from $23), was founded in 1891 and is the largest such institution in the United States. It offers an overwhelming number of things to see and do, with rotating exhibits and installations — the centerpiece of the summer is “Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawaii.” Make sure to visit the Thain Family Forest, the largest surviving remnant of New York’s original woodland.
A classic that should be on every New Yorker’s bucket list is the conservation-minded Bronx Zoo (adult tickets from $22.95, $14.95 for children 3-12; free on Wednesdays). Spread over 265 acres, the zoo deserves a full day; if you only have a few hours, make sure to see the Himalayan Highlands, Tiger Mountain and World of Reptiles habitats.
WORK UP A SWEAT
Or rather, let others do it: The Bronx is the home to the Yankees, one of the country’s greatest baseball teams (even if Mets fans may disagree). In addition to games, of course, the organization offers various guided tours of Yankee Stadium, ranging from “classic” individual and group tours (starting at $18) all the way to the “inside experience” package (mlb.com/yankees/tickets/inside-experience/regular-season). That last one is not cheap ($675 per person), but it is comprehensive: The tour includes a meeting with an active player, a guided survey of the stadium and a field-level seat for the day’s game.
And now, even baseball haters have a reason to go to Yankee Stadium: It also hosts the home games of the New York City FC soccer team.
BY THE WATER — OR ON IT
Fishing is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Bronx, and yet there is City Island, a quaint Victorian enclave in western Long Island Sound that offers charters and seafood restaurants such as the small-frills-big-portions Johnny’s Reef and Tony’s Pier (1 City Island Ave., 718-885-1424). Make sure to leave room for a cone at Lickety Split Ice Cream (295 City Island Ave., 718-885-9654). A block away is the City Island Nautical Museum, which provides historical background, and runs group and school tours as well.
City Island’s beachfront is private, so visiting swimmers need to head over to nearby Pelham Bay Park’s Orchard Beach.
But the most exotic adventure may be on the Bronx River. So much has been reclaimed from pollution and turned to recreation that the eight miles that are in the Bronx were declared a National Water Trail in 2012. Among its other projects, the Bronx River Alliance runs canoe paddles (starting at $30)
FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD
The Bronx’s population is 50 percent Latino — mostly of Dominican, Puerto Rican, Cuban and Mexican descent — so you will find plenty of options from food trucks to lunch counters like the Anthony Bourdain-endorsed 188 Bakery Cuchifritos (158 E. 188 St., 718-367-4500) and fusion joints such as Travesias on the increasingly popular Throggs Neck peninsula.
The Bronx also boasts the finest Little Italy in New York these days: You’ll find all the classics in the Arthur Avenue neighborhood, also known as Belmont, south of Fordham University. Exploring food is a terrific way to spend a sunny Saturday or Sunday, but if you’re pressed for time, head to the Arthur Avenue Retail Market (2344 Arthur Ave., 718-220-0346), which houses a variety of stores and delis under one roof.
Leafy Riverdale is a prime destination for Russian and Jewish food, like that at the 60-year-old Liebman’s Deli. You don’t go for the decor, which is standard Naugahyde diner, but for the prime pastrami. A good way to explore is to sign up for a food tour run by a reputable company such as Noshwalks.
To wash it all down with some music, the Bronx Brewery, in Port Morris, opens up its large beer garden, nicknamed the Backyard, on weekends.
The Bronx is the birthplace of hip-hop — the dominant form of popular music nowadays — so the borough’s cultural influence is set in stone. There are things to see and do even if you don’t know your Kool Herc from your Grandmaster Flash. One of the Bronx’s most illustrious residents was Edgar Allan Poe, and you can visit the cottage where the writer arrived in 1846 (http://bronxhistoricalsociety.org/poe-cottage/); he died in 1849 during a trip to Baltimore.
In terms of institutions, you can go from grand to intimate. On the larger scale is the Bronx Museum of the Arts (free). Located in the Grand Concourse Historic District, the museum opened in 1971 and focuses on contemporary art. Meanwhile, the delightful Wave Hill is a public garden and cultural center where one minute you can learn how to care for cactuses, the next hear a string trio. And in the afternoon, they serve high tea. What’s not to like?