Coney Island, the "people's playground," has for generations been where to go to make fond memories and get your heart racing, whether on a ride, in the waves or with a date.
Both in spite of and because of its gritty vibe, it continues to offer a unique experience for those who visit its amusement park and iconic boardwalk. But Coney Island is much more than its rides (although that's a major part of it). There are characters, businesses and iconic architecture responsible for making the neighborhood a beloved destination, from its oldest candy store and long-established restaurants to newer arrivals along the boardwalk.
With those in mind, we've put together an agenda of things you should do when you visit Coney Island.
Start with some beach time
Why put off what you really want -- a day at the beach. Hit up the sand early so you can get a good spot to soak in the salt and sun before it gets really hot around noon. It's a wide, expansive beach, so there should be plenty of room if you get there early. Coney Island beach is one of New Yorkers' favorite spots because it has amenities and a boardwalk full of shops, restaurants and fun.
Grab some comfort food for lunch
If you're not fixed on getting a Nathan's hot dog on Surf Avenue, you don't need to go far to grab a bite to eat, especially if you're in your swimsuit. Check out Paul's Daughter (1001 Riegelmann Boardwalk), which has been around since the 1950s. It has basically anything you might be craving from fried calamari, clams, lobster rolls, hot dogs, pizza, Italian sausages, even knish. Grab a local draft beer or try the "watermelon diablo" margarita. You can probably figure out why it's called the "diablo."
Michael Georgoulakos, the manager and nephew of the original owner of Paul's Daughter, said that he's been working the counter since he was a boy.
"Whatever Coney Island provides, we have," he said. "We're the diner on the boardwalk."
Pick out some Coney Island swag
There are so many gift shops at Coney Island that you could potentially put together an entire outfit emblazoned with the neighborhood's name, from baseball caps to pants and flip-flops, you name it. One gift shop stands out, however. The Lola Star Boardwalk Boutique has these things, but it also has fanciful objects, from Unicorn-themed items to mermaid-themed hats and T-shirts. Lola Star, a Coney Island resident who also runs the Dreamland Roller Disco in Prospect Park, designs the apparel, mugs, magnets and jewelry in her shop, so we think it's pretty special.
Check out the Art Walls
Street art can be found all over Coney Island, especially near Luna Park and the boardwalk, so pay close attention. But for some really impressive designs, head to the Coney Island Art Walls (3050 Stillwell Ave., off Surf Avenue). The work of dozens of street artists, including Aiko, Chris Stain, Crash + Tats Cru, D*Face and Icy & Sot, color the walls, which can be seen daily from noon to 8 p.m. through September. In the summer, the murals will be accompanied by "Magic Carousel Sundays," weekly live DJ sets and more.
Indulge your sweet tooth
If you get anything, get the candy apple at Williams Candy (1318 Surf Ave.). The family-owned candy shop has been making treats for more than 75 years and is known for its candy apple recipe. If you're not into candy apples, the caramel and chocolate covered apples (pictured) might do the trick. Otherwise, the shop has anything you could imagine, including cotton candy, homemade fudge, lollipops, ice cream, marshmallow treats and regular candy and gummies you can buy by the bagful.
Shark! Just kidding, it's an aquarium exhibit
If you really want to get the whole ocean experience, the New York Aquarium, which is down by the boardwalk (602 Surf Ave.), is a good place to do that. From a California Sea Lion to black-footed penguins, rays and sea otters, there is plenty to see. The Donald Zucker and Barbara Hrbek Zucker Ocean Wonders: Sharks! exhibit is opening this summer (June 30) with nine galleries, which will take you eye-to-eye with sharks, rays and other ocean wildlife. There's a new coral reef tunnel and a recreation of the Hudson Canyon's edge with shark species that live off the coast of New York.
Stop at Coney's Cones
So you might've bought a candy apple, but if you leave Coney Island without an ice cream cone, you've missed out. Coney's Cones (across from Paul's Daughter on the boardwalk) is a true treat. Choose from 21 flavors of gelato and sorbet (we chose Nutella crunch with chocolate gelato) or frozen yogurt, granitas, hot chocolate, coffee and more. This is a good time to take your dessert on the go and walk the iconic boardwalk and people watch.
Of course, get a thrill in at the amusement parks
From its humble beginnings in 1884 with the very first roller coaster -- the Gravity Switchback Railway -- Coney Island has been where you go thrill-seeking. Luna Park arrived in 1903, but it burned down in the 1940s, according to the Coney Island History Project. Today's Luna Park, which reopened in 2010, has some classic coasters (Coney Island Cyclone and a new Steeplechase), but also features the B&B Carousel, the Soarin' Eagle, the Endeavor, the Luna 360, the Wild River water ride (pictured) and more. Deno's, a second amusement park that is known for the Wonder Wheel, has its own rides such as the Spook-A-Rama, bumper cars, the Thunderbolt and the new Stop the Zombies VR game, not to mention a lot of rides for kids.
Watch a sideshow
Calling back to the sideshows of yesteryear, Coney Island USA, a nonprofit theater, is dedicated to keeping the thrill of strange and shocking acts around. From Jelly Boy the Clown to Wendy Blades, Serpentina, Sarah Birdgirl and Zoob the Snake Boy, there's some weird stuff to see for just $10. The Circus Sideshow runs daily through Sept. 3 inside the Coney Island Museum (1208 Surf Ave.), which is also a fun place to learn about the neighborhood's history.
Leave the park to find Totonno's ... and quick
We suggest you skip the hot dogs and have pizza for dinner instead. While it's off the beaten path at 1524 Neptune Ave., Totonno's is worth the walk. For more than 90 years, the pizzeria has been making Neapolitan pies way before it was cool. Its founder, Anthony (Totonno) Pero opened it in 1924 after training at Lombardi's, believed to be the city's first pizzeria. Having survived a changing neighborhood, a fire and the deluge of superstorm Sandy, Totonno's is still making pies that are super-thin yet manage to hold up under their own weight, with a crust that puffs up around the edges. Unfortunately, Totonno's makes it a little difficult to enjoy a slice -- be sure to get there for an early dinner because the last seating is at 7:30 p.m., unless they've run out of supplies, which can happen. And don't go on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday when it's closed. If you're out of luck, check out another favorite, Grimaldi's, back at 1215 Surf Ave.
or grab a bite of history at Feltman's
Historians haven't even been able to agree on whether the hot dog was invented at Coney Island, but Feltman's (1000 Surf Ave.) says that it was its founder Charles Feltman who came up with the original frankfurter in 1867. He was a baker at Coney Island before opening his seaside Ocean Pavilion restaurant. It was sometime between owning the bakery and the restaurant that he may have come up with the idea of wrapping a frankfurter in a bun rather than using plates and forks. The dogs still taste like they did then since they are natural and nitrate-free, no fillers or unnatural ingredients used, and are still seasoned with its original spice blend. It was recently named the seventh best hot dog (out of 75) in the U.S., according to thedailymeal.com.
Sit for a baseball game
MCU Park (1904 Surf Ave.) offers a fun night of baseball. It's the home of the Brooklyn Cyclones, a minor league team affiliated with the Mets, and hosts a number of events through the year. During baseball season, there's a game almost every night. You may want to go when they play against the Staten Island Yankees -- their rivals. When it's not being used for baseball, it's home to the New York Cosmos soccer team and also hosts concerts. Wilco, Phish, Daft Punk and more have played there.
Toast to Coney Island
End your night at the Coney Island Brewery, which shares property with MCU Park, with its house-brewed Mermaid pilsner, Merman IPA, Coney Island Lager or Watermelon Wheat (or a craft cocktail if you're not a beer person). There are eight beers on tap that are rotated regularly so there's always something new to try. Plus, you can ask to take a tour to see where the magic happens at 2, 4 and 6 p.m. daily, although tours might be canceled due to events and other circumstances. You can also join in on yoga & beer nights, a "beer freak show" and more.
"Foreigners and tourists are captivated by Coney Island, which is home to freaks and misfits," said Phil Eggers, a staff member at Coney Island Brewery. "We celebrate that here, where people's outlook on life are slightly askew. You forget you're in New York City. It is unlike anywhere else."