Low-Key & Low-Cost: A Burst of Culture In Queens, New York

by  Christine Wei | May 8, 2014
Museum of the Moving Image
Museum of the Moving Image / mizoula/iStock

Queens is having its moment. It might not be New York's hippest borough, but that's precisely what makes it accessible. And it's becoming more and more enriching as a destination, thanks to a new crop of street fairs, artsy attractions, and beautiful public parks. Coupled with a refreshingly low-key vibe, it's a haven for anyone seeking reprieve from Manhattan's high prices and thick crowds.

What's more, Queens is as convenient as it's affordable. Just a 10-minute hop on the subway gets you from Manhattan to the heart of Astoria and Long Island City, two neighborhoods that have been leading the way on visitor-friendly amenities. This guide focuses on the cultural offerings in these areas, but rest assured: We'll be back with a foodie report soon.

LIC Food & Flea
Forget Brooklyn. The season's hottest flea market started in Long Island City last year and has just expanded to Astoria. Like the best street fairs, LIC Food & Flea is a treasure trove of local handmade crafts, be it gemstone jewelry or letterpress stationery or quirky home goods (tiny plants potted in wine corks, anyone?). But the diversity of its food vendors is the real standout here – a nod to the many ethnic enclaves that call the borough home. If you’re feeling adventurous, sample some Afrikaner sausages and Korean bibimbap rice bowls; if you’re looking for a classic, go for a good old lobster roll or a pie in a jar. The market is open on Saturdays and Sundays in Long Island City and on Sundays in Astoria.

Hunter's Point South Park
While this Long Island City playground may not be as expansive as Central Park, it’s still a substantial 10 acres of fun. More importantly, it's newly opened  as of last fall and is much less crowded, lending to a more peaceful appreciation of the city skyline and the East River. Here, take your shoes off on the sandy “beach,” watch the puppies play at the dog run, play some ball, or catch a ferry back to Midtown Manhattan or Brooklyn. The park is also connected to the 12-acre Gantry Plaza State Park, home of the former Pepsi-Cola factory, landscaped lawns galore, and a handful of hammocks for a lazy afternoon nap.

More cool parks: the waterfront Socrates Sculpture Park in Astoria, which we featured in our summer art installation roundup, and the 59-acre Astoria Park, featuring a wading pool, even more city views, tennis courts, and a bandstand for regular neighborhood concerts.

Museum of the Moving Image
Not a fan of oil paintings or modern “art” but love going to the movies? The futuristic-looking Museum of the Moving Image easily delights anyone who has an appreciation for film and design – especially during Friday’s weekly free admission hours from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. You’ll spend most of your time exploring the core Behind the Screen exhibit, spanning a whopping 15,000 square feet over two floors. Get up and personal with artifacts that go back to the 18th century, from Star Trek memorabilia to interactive old-school arcade games to props from Black Swan. For some educational and hands-on fun, there are also videos that explain how TV broadcasting works and stop motion animation stations for making DIY shorts.

Of course, if you do love contemporary art – or a hopping outdoor music festival – MoMA PS1's annual Warm Up series mashes up art, beer, and experimental music into one fun party. While you're there, check out this year's tech-savvy installation, a structure of two towers made of mushroom roots and cornstalks that brings water, shade, and coolness to the museum's courtyard.

Queens Museum
Last fall, the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadows re-opened to much local fanfare after a two-year, $69 million renovation that’s doubled the museum’s size. And it deserves the attention - not only did it once serve as the NYC Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair, it’s also home to some of the coolest local art around. We namely mean the Panorama of NYC, a gigantic 9,333-square-feet model encompassing every single one of the city’s 895,000 buildings, 100 bridges, and all streets and parks constructed prior to 1992. (The model’s received a few updates, like Brooklyn Bridge Park and the High Line, though the original Twin Towers still remain.) There’s also a beautiful collection of 20 glowing Tiffany lamps, whose studios were based in Corona back in the day, and an archive of World’s Fair artifacts, including a plaster cast of Michelangelo’s “Pieta” that came all the way from the Vatican.

Queens County Farm Museum
Yes, it's true – there's a working farm right here in the city. Queens County Farm Museum is best known to New Yorkers as a prime apple- and pumpkin-picking spot during fall, but seasonal berries and vegetables abound throughout the year. Be ready to get your hands dirty and feed the goats, hop on a hayride, meet the farmers, and tour the 47-acre grounds. If you're lucky, you might also be able to catch some beloved weekend events, like the Thunderbird American Indian Pow Wow, featuring more than 40 Indian nations in July, or the Amazing Maize Maze, a three-acre maze with a different theme every October. Entry to the grounds are typically free; admission for special events range from $4-$9.

Yoga Agora
If all of this proves to be too much excitement, or you need a break from the heat in the peak of the summer, take a deep breath at Yoga Agora. The $5 rates for its 75-minute practices are unheard of in NYC. But that’s not all: the studio also offers 60-minute donation-based sessions daily. Unsurprisingly, the classes do fill up; try the early morning and (paid) afternoon classes for a bit more space. Traveling yogis can also rent mats and purchase water bottles for a reasonable $1 each. Classes start between 7am and 9pm on weekdays and between 8am and 7pm or 8:30pm on weekends.

Noguchi Museum
Another place to get your zen on is the Noguchi Museum, entirely designed by renowned Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi. Just blocks away from Socrates Sculpture Park, it emanates exactly the opposite vibe that the impressive but always-overwhelming Metropolitan Museum does. The airy outdoor sculpture garden here serves as the heart of the museum, dressed simply but thoughtfully with leafy trees and pebble paths. Time your visit to the first Friday of the month for pay-as-you-wish entry, typically $10, so you can enjoy the understated beauty without worry about your wallet.

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