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Bronx tourism: Fancy hotels, Art Deco landmarks, mansions and more

The Bronx has become a tourist destination.

Where once even New Yorkers feared to tread, now even the mayor of San Juan is booking accommodations at the luxurious Bronx Opera House Hotel -- in the South Bronx, no less.

To prove that this is not an anomaly, the Bronx has finally got its own guidebook, published this month, titled "The Bronx: The Ultimate Guide To New York City's Beautiful Borough." Written by the borough's official historian, Lloyd Ultan, and former university professor Shelley Olson, it is quite possibly the first of its kind.

"There has never been a guidebook devoted solely to the Bronx," said Ultan, 77.

The timing is perfect, he said. "The Bronx is beginning to recover from the outmoded image of the Bronx as full of rubble and feral people," he added.

He emphasized recent statistics showing a 14% increase in tourism in 2013 over the previous year, according to the city's official tourism agency.

Olga Tirado, the executive director of the Bronx Tourism Council, said the Bronx has been getting attention internationally. It was featured on the front page of the Toronto Star's travel section, and highlighted in blogs and travel guides in Europe. "I have hosted tour operators and journalists from South America and Europe and they are all amazed at what is here," she wrote in an email.

Of course, there are still rough patches to the Bronx's rise as a destination: the same mayor of San Juan said she was refused cab rides from Manhattan to her hotel last week.

Here are a few highlights from the new guidebooks -- surprising places or things to see that native New Yorkers probably don't even know about.

Historic hotels

The Bronx isn't exactly the first place you'd
Photo Credit: Emilio Guerra

The Bronx isn't exactly the first place you'd look to find historic hotels, but there are at least two spots that can claim some notable lineage. The first is the now-famous Bronx Opera House Hotel on 436 E. 149th St., which was once a venue that hosted the Marx Brothers, Harry Houdini and many others. The hotel decor reflects its past, even as it offers modern amenities like wi-fi. The other place worth mentioning is the Andrew Freedman House at 1125 Grand Concourse, which offers 10 rooms for rent in the landmark building.

Highlights: Before it was a hotel, the Opera House was on the "Subway Circuit," a ring of theaters around the city linked by subway and trolley.

Famous dead people

It's worth a trip to the Bronx just
Photo Credit: Emilio Guerra

It's worth a trip to the Bronx just to visit the famous dead people who are residing at 400-acre Woodlawn Cemetery. Among the luminaries buried there are Celia Cruz, Duke Ellington, Herman Melville, Countee Cullen and Fiorello LaGuardia. The cemetery itself has a lake, streams, and "gently curved pathways."

Highlights: Victims of the Titanic disaster are buried at Woodlawn, the number second only to the cemetery in Novia Scotia, Canada. There's even a memorial to the disaster at Woodlawn.

Poe Park

Edgar Allen Poe spent the last three years
Photo Credit: Emilio Guerra

Edgar Allen Poe spent the last three years of his life, from 1846 to 1849, living and working out of a small wooden farmhouse, in the Fordham section. Among the works he wrote here were the classics "Annabel Lee" and "The Bells." Today it sits at the center of Poe Park, restored to its original appearance.

Highlights: The creators of Batman, Bob Kane and Bill Finger, would often meet at Poe Park to discuss the character and the comic book superhero's earliest storylines.

Art Deco landmarks

The Grand Concourse in the Bronx is the
Photo Credit: Emilio Guerra

The Grand Concourse in the Bronx is the borough's champion thoroughfare, built and bred to be on the level of the greatest boulevards in the world. Today, its side streets "boast of having the largest collection of Art Deco style residences in the world," according to authors Ulton and Olson. But there are other Art Deco landmarks scattered throughout the borough, including the Noonan Plaza in the Highbridge neighborhood, seen above.

Highlights: If you follow the authors' walking tour of the Grand Concourse, you'll see a number of Art Deco and neo-Art Deco buildings.

Glorious mansions

People associate the Bronx with a certain kind
Photo Credit: Emilio Guerra

People associate the Bronx with a certain kind of urban housing (think imposing apartment buildings), but in fact it has one of the most impressive collections of mansions in the city. Many of these can be found in the Riverdale neighborhood overlooking the Hudson River in the northwest collection of the Bronx. It is here that wealthy merchants chose to build their estates in the mid-nineteenth century. Their homes remain to this day, lending the community unrivaled splendor.

Highlights: The Kennedy House, at West 252nd St. and Independence Ave., where Joseph P. Kennedy, lived with his family from 1927 to 1929. More importantly, it's where John F. Kennedy, the future president, grew up, and even recalled on the campaign trail.

Unexpected Museums

Photo Credit: Emilio Guerra

"How many people know that there is a museum of greek roman and etruscan art int he bronx and also a museum of maritime industry?" wondered Ultan. Not only does it have both the Fordham Museum of Greek, Etruscan and Roman Art and the Maritime Industry Museum it also has a museum in a Jewish retirement home devoted to Judaica.

Highlights: The Maritime Industry Museum is located at Fort Schuyler, which was built to protect New York City when it was completed in 1845. It supposedly contains "one of the largest maritime history collections in the nation."

New England charm in the Bronx

Looking for a New England experience but don't
Photo Credit: Emilio Guerra

Looking for a New England experience but don't want to leave NYC? Head to City Island, only 12 miles from Times Square, to a community the authors describe as being like "a charming New England village with a spectacular array of fine seafood restaurants."

Highlights: Lots of nautical backdrops at places like the Pelham Cemetery on King Avenue between Ditmar and Tiers streets; Belden Point, with views of the Devil's Stepping Stones.

Fun fact: The tallest building is a five-story apartment building at 284 City Island Ave. Built in 1898, it caused "outrage" when it was erected because of its height, the authors say.

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