My neighbourhood: A local’s guide to Astoria (Queens), NYC

My neighbourhood: A local’s guide to Astoria (Queens), NYC

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No one knows local life like our guides. That’s why we’ve asked them take us around their favourite ‘hoods and offer their insider tips on seeing the city like a true local. Want to hang out with them for a day and follow their expert lead? We can make it happen.

I’m the fourth generation in my house. I wasn’t born in this house (I was born in a house across the street from Astoria Park), but I grew up with Pasta Sunday dinners in the basement of this two-family home and going back and forth between this house (where my great-aunt and great-grandmother lived) and the one next door where my grandparents lived.

old-style house in Astoria, NYC

My neighbourhood is mostly two-family, semi-attached homes (an apartment on the top floor and on the bottom floor with a shared driveway in between). But that’s changing. We’re getting a lot of bigger apartment buildings now, especially closer Manhattan.

It’s kind of an old-school family compound set-up common for many immigrants who came to NYC. My great-grandparents saved up to buy their house “in the country” (which was Queens back in the 1930s) living in the second-floor apartment. When my great-aunt got married, she moved into the first-floor apartment. When my grandfather got married, they bought the house next door.

As the older generations have been moving out, you see this tradition less and less, but it’s how all the houses were back then. Today, you’ll still find the Greek families living like that (we’ve got more Greeks in Astoria than in Athens).

I moved into that Pasta Sunday basement in college and have been here ever since (now living in the first-floor apartment with my husband). It’s been over 10 years now.

Astoria has changed a lot, especially in the past five years now that everyone who can’t afford Brooklyn is moving here. There are fewer immigrants and more young, wealthy hipsters — which isn’t amazing from my point of view. But the city is always changing; it’s cyclical.

wedding party walking down a street in Astoria, NYC

I did a traditional procession to the church for my wedding, which meant my bridal party actually walked through the neighbourhood. It’s not something people do today, so everyone was clapping and stomping (or just ignoring us as NYers do…). And all of the older Greeks and Italians stopped us to say we reminded them of their villages in the old country.

To me, Astoria is a breath of fresh air from Manhattan. I’ve never had a desire to live in Manhattan (which most visitors to our city find the most exciting) and, even if I could afford it (which I never could), I don’t think I ever would. We have all the amenities Manhattan does (even more in some cases): restaurants, bars, theatres, things-to-do, and a huge park — but we have smaller crowds, more street parking, and fewer tourists (as in, no tourists). It feels more neighbourhood-y and there’s much more of a community here.

Why you should visit Astoria

To get out of Manhattan

Whenever I travel and say I’m from NYC, people ask if I’m from Manhattan. Then I have to explain that I don’t know anyone who actually lives in Manhattan (I can name four friends if I think really hard). It’s too expensive and too crowded, with mediocre food options. You tend to have the people who are only living here short-term live in Manhattan. After that, everyone moves out to the boroughs (Brooklyn mostly, then Queens, then a few in the Bronx and, rarely, Staten Island). Most native New Yorkers live in the ‘outer boroughs.’ We work, do our shopping, and hang out in Manhattan, but don’t live there. So if you want to see how locals live, you’ve got to get out of there. Astoria is a 15-minute ride on the subway from Midtown (Central Park, Rockefeller Center, Times Square) — way closer than you think for a totally different vibe.

To eat

The food in Queens is out of this world. We’re currently the most ethnically diverse county in the US and, arguably, one of the top world-wide. You can quite literally find anything here. On Ditmars Boulevard (the main street near my house), within a mere 3 blocks you can eat Afghani, Greek, Spanish, Mexican, Australian, Thai, Chinese, Czech, Japanese (sushi and ramen as well), Brazilian, Italian, classic American, Egyptian, Tex-Mex — and it’s all amazing.

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My top 10 things to do in Astoria

1. Visit Astoria Park

If it’s a nice day, head out to Astoria Park for a beautiful view of the Triboro Bridge. We have an Olympic-sized public pool, a track, and you can see all of the local families picnicking. There’s also a pre-4th of July fireworks show which is amazing (the main lawn is packed so you have to get there earlier in the day). On weekends you’ll see families relaxing and young kids with ‘cool cars’ hanging out by the water, playing music.

I’m here a few times a week with my dog (off-leash hours are before 9am) and will sometimes ride my bike over in the summer.

people gathered for picnics in the park in Astoria, NYC

Every summer in Astoria Park, we have a special 4th of July party (before the actual 4th). Thousands come to the park right on the water and there’s a full orchestra and fireworks. Everyone picnics throughout the day in order to get a spot.

2. Get breakfast at Brooklyn Bagel (various locations in Astoria)

Ignore the name; the Brooklyn Bagel chain may be Queens-born and Queens-based (with a few other locations in Astoria and one random one in Manhattan), but it was started by two Astoria boys. It’s seriously the best bagel in the city. I’m here almost every Saturday and Sunday, and even though there’s a line in the morning, it’s totally worth it. It’s tough to grab a seat so we usually get ours to go.

The most traditional NYC bagel is cream cheese (of which they famously have tons of options that are always changing) or cream cheese and lox (which is expensive) on a poppy seed or sesame seed bagel. But my favourite is the classic bacon, egg, and cheese (mine without the cheese, please) on a multigrain bagel with seeds. It’s a breakfast item (which is when they’re the most fresh anyway).

It’s important to note that there’s a big debate on whether or not to toast NYC bagels. I’m in the camp of not toasting (unless the bagel is terrible quality, then I toast). The only exception is if you’re getting butter and really want it to melt.

Also important, the bagels here are gigantic, so I’d recommend opting for a ‘mini’ your first time (which is like a normal size).

bagel egg sandwich

My fave bagel (bacon and egg — no cheese — on a mini multigrain “with all the seeds”) at Brooklyn Bagel.

3. Grab a ‘plain slice’ at Alba’s Pizza (36-20 Ditmars Blvd.)

My favourite, classic NYC slice of pizza is at Alba’s (although we call it Sal’s in my family, because the owner goes by Sal). My family has been coming here since my mother was young and Sal’s kids were babies playing in a booth in the back. Now, the babies are the owners (‘little Sal’ runs the place today) and they’ve kept it as a really nice spot. My grandfather loves their main dishes as well, so as a rule we have every birthday, funeral, and family celebration here (we even had my wedding rehearsal dinner here), hosted in the back room. But I tend to skip the mains and stick with a slice of pizza and a local beer (they always have Singlecut on tap — a brewery that’s only a few blocks away). I’m a pizza purist so I always get cheese, or maybe veggie if I’m feeling crazy. Their garlic knots are also pretty stellar.

4. Head to La Guli Pastry Shop for an ‘Italian ice’ (29-15 Ditmars Blvd.)

La Guli is a classic in my family. There are trays and trays of Italian cookies, and if you’ve never been to Sicily, the cannoli are pretty good. But my favourite is the Italian ice. You order right at the front, as soon as you enter the shop, and it comes in a paper cup with no spoon (you have to squeeze it out as you get to the bottom). That’s just the definition of summer to me. I usually get lemon or cherry.

5. Go Greek at Stamatis (29-09 23rd Ave.)

You can’t come to Astoria without having Greek food. There are tons of restaurants and you can’t really go wrong (Greek restaurants in Astoria are the only place where I will eat seafood in this city). Kyclades is the most famous (George Clooney and Bill Murray were photographed having dinner there together last summer, which is pretty random), and there’s a line to get in every single night (bonus: if you come in the summer, they give you a small glass of wine while you wait).

But I love Stamatis. I think the food quality is the same, the price is the same, and there’s no wait to get in. Plus, whenever we go, we’re the only non-Greeks not in a group of 10 or more. It’s a big family place and full of loud talking, laughing, and energy. The service is European (read: slow), so don’t expect a waiter gushing over you, but the food is just so good and it’s a fun night out. They even have a nice outdoor garden area in the summer.

I always get a fish (whatever’s fresh), calamari, a Greek salad, and lemon potatoes. The bread with olive oil that comes when you sit down is to die for.

street in Astoria, NYC

One of the main avenues in Astoria. It’s a mix of trendy spots as well as mom-and-pop shops with outdoor seating when it’s nice weather.

6. Visit the Museum of the Moving Image (36-01 35th Ave.)

This newly renovated museum is at the historic Kaufman Studios, where they still film a lot of TV. It’s a great museum with exhibits that are always changing, and they always have great screenings there. I saw Taxi, Cabaret, Sound of Music, and some Miyazaki movies last year. So cool to see them on the big screen.

Plus there’s Sunswick across the street, which is just a great neighbourhood bar. Really cosy and with an insane tap list. The food is pretty good but I also love the Arepas Cafe a block away on 36th Ave. So cheap and so delicious (definitely get the appetizer of tequeños plus a sangria).

7. Hang out at Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden (2919 24th Ave.)

This is an Astoria classic. It’s over 100 years old and every local has been here. My grandfather had his first kiss across the street, and my mother went to countless birthday parties at Bohemian. It’s not summer in my opinion without a few trips to the beer garden. Beers are fairly inexpensive and it’s a great spot to sit outdoors with a group of friends.

8. Shop at Lockwood (32-15 33rd Street)

Lockwood is your typical hipster gift shop. It’s expensive but has a lot of locally made products (artwork, cookbooks, bitters, jewellery…), as well as great NYC items (tote bags, Queens coloring books, etc.).

9. Grab a drink at Sunswick (35-02 35th Street)

This is my ‘Cheers’ bar. My husband used to live around the corner so we were at Sunswick all the time when we were dating. The tap and wine list is extensive and always changing. All of the bartenders are super knowledgeable about drinks (my husband is into beer and I’m into wine so it’s perfect for us). The food is also excellent for bar food (the portions are huge, though).

10. Treat yourself at Martha’s Bakery (36-21 Ditmars Blvd.)

This is a bakery that’s become so popular they opened another one in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (the original hipster neighbourhood that’s now insanely expensive). You can order something to go or sit in — I’ve never actually sat since I live around the block, but it’s always packed. You can get coffee or tea (they have tons of options of each) with your dessert, and it’s a great place to just relax with friends.

My favourite is the apple crumb pie and the key lime pie, but they have everything from muffins to cookies to pudding to cake pops to baklava and strudel.

How to get to Astoria

Take the N or W train towards Queens. The neighbourhood is pretty big so any of the stops once you come above ground are in Astoria. The stops with the most restaurants, bars, etc are 36th Ave, Broadway, and Ditmars Blvd.

If you want to visit the Latino and Egyptian section of Astoria, you can take the R train towards Queens to Broadway. You can walk North on Steinway Street to see first the Latino section, then the Egyptian section.

About Nikki:

I became a tour guide right after University so that I could show tourists the true vibe of the city and ensure they didn’t fall for any of the tourist traps that cause people to have a bad time (like staying and eating in Times Square and taking cabs everywhere).

I guided for NYC Urban Adventures (giving the Tenements, Tales & Tastes Tour and also the Midtown Sights & Bites Tour, which I created with Alex, another guide) for a few years before I was hired to work for the global Urban Adventures team. I now manage the social media accounts and have helped to develop a guide program with the purpose of rewarding and motivating all of our guides internationally.

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Nikki Padilla

Tour Guide & Social Media guru @ NYC Urban Adventures. Foodie, cultural explorer, red wine lover, and 4th generation New Yorker.

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