What to Do in the Bronx: 3 Itineraries for NYC's Boogie Down Borough
Each May, a tongue-in-cheek organization called the Great and Glorious Grand Army of The Bronx stages a mock-annexation of Manhattan’s northernmost neighborhood, Marble Hill. Wearing tricorn hats and 18th-century military coats, the group plants a Bronx flag on the contested territory and decrees the following (reprinted on the Grand Army’s Facebook page):
“We bring you affordable-ish rents, humanely priced coffee, good music, great food, real bars, the most park land of any borough in New York City and direct access to the mainland of the United States.”
Though Manhattan has yet to relinquish Marble Hill, the Bronx partisans make a strong and truthful case for New York City’s borough of salsa, hip-hop, vast green spaces, and unpretentious culture. For visitors who’d like to see these “great and glorious” sights for themselves, we’ve put together three Bronx itineraries—each of which can be covered in a day or less—that hit the highlights, introduce some surprises, and still leave you plenty of time during your vacation to explore other parts of the city (just don’t tell the Grand Army about that last part).
Good for: families, foodies, fresh-air seekers
Time needed: a full day
Pasta and pastoral scenes are the major motifs of our first foray into the Bronx. The day's agenda covers two of the borough’s most visited attractions—the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden (pictured)—as well as a Little Italy that’s a far cry from the touristy district that goes by that name in Lower Manhattan. (In the Bronx version, for starters, you might encounter Italian-Americans who actually live in the neighborhood.)
Our day begins, however, at a tiny 19th-century farmhouse that stands incongruously along the Grand Concourse just west of Fordham University. The five-room home is a rare holdover from the days when Fordham was a rural village outside of New York City. To learn why this structure was spared, go tapping, gently rapping, rapping at the wooden door.
To get here from Midtown Manhattan: Take a Bronx-bound D subway train to Kingsbridge Road. Poe Park, where the cottage stands, is just outside the station.
Poet and spooky short-story writer Edgar Allan Poe moved here with his wife, Virginia, and her mother, Maria Clemm, in 1846. The hope was that the country air would do the sickly Virginia some good. It didn’t; she died of tuberculosis in the downstairs bedroom (pictured) in 1847. Walking through the cramped and spare interior today lets you see how the poor lived in the 19th century—under low ceilings (smaller rooms are easier to heat) and with few furnishings. Virginia’s deathbed, a rocking chair, and a cloudy mirror on display at the house all belonged to the Poe family. This was still the author’s address in 1849, when he died under mysterious circumstances in Baltimore.
Despite the troubles Poe endured at the cottage, a short video that plays in a loop in one of the upstairs rooms asserts that he liked the Bronx quite a bit, especially the ominously tolling bells at St. John’s College (now Fordham University) and the leafy banks of the Bronx River. You can’t call this area rustic nowadays, but our next two stops will give you some idea of the green expanses that Poe admired.
To get here from the previous stop: Take a 20-minute walk east along E. 194th St. and through Fordham University, or cover the same distance via a 5-minute taxi, Uber, or Lyft ride.
Think of it as the Metropolitan Museum of Plants. This 250-acre horticultural extravaganza contains an enormous variety of growing things divided among 50 themed gardens, a forest, and a muggy Victorian glasshouse. What’s more, the place packs its calendar with classes and seasonal events (including the ones showcasing orchids in spring and, during the holidays, toy trains and miniaturized New York landmarks) as well as intriguing special programs that consider history, art, and science from a plant-based perspective. Among the garden’s permanent must-sees and must-smells: the neatly ordered, kaleidoscopically colorful Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden (pictured), with its nearly 700 different varieties; the Thain Family Forest, which preserves a slice of the woods that used to cover the entire city; and the grand Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, where 11 glass pavilions supply a survey of the world’s biodiversity, from tropical palms to spiky cactus.
To get here from the previous stop: Walk south, crossing E. Fordham Road.
The diversity of the animal kingdom, meanwhile, is shown off at the botanical garden’s next-door neighbor, the Bronx Zoo. Enough animals to fill Noah’s Ark—comical puffins, regal snow leopards, cuddly red pandas, prehistoric-looking rhinos, and about 6,000 more creatures across 700 species—dwell in naturalistic habitats, many of which are outdoors. To make the most of your time, focus on a couple of your favorite species (sorry, rodents) and then hit these surefire attractions: the Congo Gorilla Forest, the (seasonal) Butterfly Garden, and the Bug Carousel, where kids ride oversize insects instead of the usual horses. (If you do plan to see those three areas, we recommend springing for the zoo’s Total Experience tickets rather than general admission because with the latter you'll have to pay separately for each experience and wind up spending way more than necessary.)
To get here from the previous stop: From the zoo’s exit on Southern Blvd., take a 10-minute walk west on E. 183rd St. for about 7 blocks.
The Italian immigrant heritage of this thoroughfare in the Belmont neighborhood stretches back to the late 19th century, when vendors began hawking groceries from pushcarts up and down the street. In 1940, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia moved the merchants indoors to the Arthur Avenue Retail Market (pictured; 2344 Arthur Ave.), where many of the stalls have stayed in the same families over generations. They sell fresh mozzarella, deli meats, cigars, and, at Mike’s Deli, an eggplant parm that could make even the WASPiest of WASPs belt out a chorus of “O sole mio” in appreciation.
After sampling a local craft brew at the market’s Bronx Beer Hall, head back onto the avenue to fill up on cannoli from Madonia Brothers Bakery (2348 Arthur Ave.) or fresh oysters at Cosenza’s Fish Market (2354 Arthur Ave.). For sit-down service, try the homemade pasta at a traditional red-sauce joint like Dominick’s (2335 Arthur Ave.), where you sit at long communal tables and, in lieu of reading a menu, listen to a gruff waiter rattle off your options. The culinary legacy of the neighborhood’s more recently arrived immigrants is upheld at restaurants such as Çka Ka Qëllu (2321 Hughes Ave., behind the retail market), a spot for cream-rich Albanian cuisine served amid old-timey farm tools and musical instruments.
Good for: music fans, art lovers, culture vultures
Time needed: at least half a day
For many tourists, the primary draw in the South Bronx is Yankee Stadium. But music appreciation is just as good a reason to cross the Harlem River and enter the “Boogie Down Bronx.” Demographic changes in the area during the middle of the 20th century resulted in a predominantly Latino and African American population that led, in turn, to the flourishing of one musical culture—salsa—and the creation of a whole new one—hip-hop. Both forms have deep roots in the South Bronx, from the clubs that nurtured Afro-Caribbean sounds to the street parties at which DJs and MCs set in motion a seismic shift in the arts of getting down. The sightseeing set list that follows leads you to some locations where this music history was made.
Where Hush Hip Hop Tours (mentioned below) start: Midtown Manhattan (exact address provided after purchase)
It’s nigh-on impossible to say exactly when and where a musical genre was born—unless, of course, you’re a historian of hip-hop, in which case you can point to August 11, 1973, and 1520 Sedgwick Avenue. The community room of that high-rise apartment building in Morris Heights was the setting for a momentous party where DJ Kool Herc invented a new aural art form. Out front, a section of Sedgwick was officially designated Hip Hop Boulevard by the city in 2016. The building is a notable pilgrimage site on the flagship offering from the Bronx-based Hush Hip Hop Tours. Visitors can’t go inside the community room today because the apartments are still in use, but you can snap photos of the street sign and an exterior wall mural depicting Kool Herc at his turntable.
Where Hush Hip Hop Tours end: Manhattan’s Upper East Side (exact address provided after purchase)
Hush Hip Hop Tours also takes participants to the sites of former nightclubs (now changed into other businesses), makes stops to admire further examples of street art honoring hip-hop pioneers, and pauses along the Grand Concourse, where placards denote inductees in the Bronx Walk of Fame. But Hush’s best asset by far is its roster of guides. Led by early hip-hop artists such as Grandmaster Caz (pictured in the mural above), Kurtis Blow, and others, tours benefit from the guides’ wealth of firsthand experience and insider info—all delivered to the accompaniment of a period-perfect soundtrack. On Grandmaster Caz’s tours, for instance, the Bronx native recounts tales of learning to breakdance when he was a kid living on Phelan Place, expresses his lingering disdain for disco, and, later, points out his own spot on the Bronx Walk of Fame. He got in alongside Dr. Ruth.
To get here from Midtown Manhattan: Take a Bronx-bound 2 subway train north to Prospect Ave. Casa Amadeo is across the street from the station.
The oldest Latin music store in New York City opened in 1941. But the place has belonged to Mike Amadeo, who renamed the store after himself, since 1969. He’s still behind the counter most days, and it doesn’t take much prodding to get this human encyclopedia of salsa talking about his own career—which has included the composition of hundreds of songs when he’s not minding the store—and his run-ins with famous musicians. (During a recent visit, he seemed to imply that Celia Cruz had the hots for him.) Amid CDs, cassettes, and vinyl records organized under handwritten labels, the highly browsable shop sells memorabilia such as posters of Fania All-Stars as well as musical instruments, many of them emblazoned with the Puerto Rican flag.
To get here from the previous stop: Public transit options are limited in this industrial area. Your best bet is a 10-minute taxi, Uber, or Lyft ride.
Another spot to celebrate the borough’s Puerto Rican residents is Port Morris Distillery (780 E. 133rd St.), which brings a touch of Old San Juan to a neighborhood filled with former factories and warehouses. Inside the bar, candy-colored walls, doorways, and balconies call to mind the Puerto Rican capital’s historic district. The spirit that’s distilled on the premises is pitorro, a kind of tropical moonshine made from the owners’ family recipe involving apples, honey, and brown sugar. Sweet without being cloying, the stuff is surprisingly smooth going down—dangerously so, given that it’s a stronger than average 92-proof spirit. You can take a tour of the distillery, but if you’re not into looking at barrels and copper pots, you’re better off staying out front, where there’s often live music and pitorro-fueled dancing.
Good for: history buffs, tree huggers, pub crawlers
Time needed: half a day
Our final Bronx adventure takes you to the northern end of the borough. Woodlawn may feel far from the action, but it has arguably the city’s highest concentration of famous permanent residents, thanks to Woodlawn Cemetery. Since its establishment in 1863, this parklike 400-acre National Historic Landmark has been the preferred resting place for a who’s who of important U.S. business moguls, politicians, activists, musicians, writers, and national heroes such as Pepperidge Farm founder Margaret Rudkin, who helped bring Milano cookies to North America yet somehow never got a Nobel Prize. Today, a largely Irish-American community is wedged between the cemetery and the 1,100-acre Van Cortlandt Park. What better place to toast the departed than at an Irish pub?
To get here from Midtown Manhattan: Take a Bronx-bound 4 subway train to the Woodlawn stop. The cemetery is just across Jerome Ave. from the station.
Woodlawn's most visited gravesites, according to staffers, belong to salsa queen Celia Cruz, Moby-Dick author Herman Melville, and the music greats (Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, et al.) buried in Jazz Corner. But for all the stargazing you can do here, the cemetery has a democratic, we’re-all-in-this-together spirit that feels very New York. Woodlawn is unaffiliated with any particular religious tradition, was never segregated, and has always reserved space for the less well-to-do. Encompassing neoclassical mausoleums for millionaires as well as simple stones for German, Italian, and Irish immigrants, it’s a city of the dead where forgotten socialites, hard-working middle-class folks, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and J.C. Penney all share space.
And the space they share is tailor-made for contemplation. Winding paths weave through a heavily wooded, lake-dotted landscape that harmonizes with columned tombs, stone angels, Celtic crosses, statues of lions and sphinxes standing guard, and domed chapels with Tiffany stained-glass windows. Combine Woodlawn's natural, architectural, and historical significance, and you get a cemetery that ranks up there with Père Lachaise in Paris and La Recoleta in Buenos Aires.
Take a self-guided tour of Woodlawn with the help of a map from the visitor office, or register for a guided trolley excursion. Concerts, nature walks, a nighttime illuminated tour, and events organized around historical themes with a Woodlawn connection (the Titanic, Black History Month, Irish heritage) take place on the grounds as well.
To get here from the previous stop: From Woodlawn Cemetery’s northeastern entrance, take a 5-minute walk west along E. 233rd St. a few blocks until you hit Katonah Ave.
Freshly reminded of human mortality, let’s forget about it and have a drink. Katonah Avenue is a fine route for a bar crawl; the street strings together several hospitable Irish pubs and shops. Their facades are decorated with shamrocks, Irish flags, and generous splashes of green. The Rambling House pub (pictured during an Irish heritage celebration; 4292 Katonah Ave.) has a spacious interior filled with dark wood and friendly Woodlawners—don't be surprised if you hear a lilting brogue or two. More than two dozen beers are on tap, including locally made brews as well as the inevitable Guinness, which you can pair with Emerald Isle standbys like shepherd’s pie and corned beef with cabbage. For fish-and-chips and other quick bites, pop into the Kitchen (4330 Katonah Ave.), or stock up on blood sausages, rashers, soda bread, and imported sweets at Prime Cuts Irish Butchers (4338 Katonah Ave.).
To return to Manhattan, retrace your steps to E. 233rd St. and the northeast corner of Woodlawn Cemetery, where you’ll find a Metro-North station with trains heading toward Grand Central Terminal. During the commute, you can think about the Bronx sights you'd like to see during your next trip to New York. At the top of the list should be Cape Cod–esque City Island and the Wave Hill gardens overlooking the Hudson River. Sounds like you've got some good reasons to come back.