For most of my nearly 17 years living in Brooklyn, the old Navy Yard here remained a mystery—that 300-acre hulk of fenced-off land that made a straight shot between Fort Greene, where I lived, and Williamsburg, where I spent my twenties hanging out, impossible. Opened in 1806, the Brooklyn Navy Yard became one of the most important naval shipyards in the country, especially during World War II, but after the government decommissioned it in 1966, it was left largely abandoned, and closed off to the public for decades.
That started to change in recent years, as a number of projects took hold which collectively are turning the Brooklyn Navy Yard into a destination unto itself. The changes haven’t all come without controversy, in particular the demolition of Admiral’s Row, a string of grand naval officers’ homes built in the last half of the 19th century. A supermarket is slated to go up in their place.
But this enormous swath of increasingly prime waterfront real estate continues to reinvent itself even through the occasional controversy, and more attractions are on the way, with a new high-end food court and massive WeWork co-working space preparing to come online. I still can’t beeline through it to Williamsburg, but I’m holding out hope. In the meantime, below you’ll find all of the current draws at the Brooklyn Navy Yard…
This welcome center and museum is the natural starting point for any visit to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It’s also the meeting point for the Navy Yard tours that run on weekends only. The museum is enjoyable and interesting, if occasionally too broadly focused, and covers the history of the museum as well as its present function as a home for many of the city’s independent makers. A sun-drenched Brooklyn Roasting Company cafe opened recently on the first floor, and the outdoor courtyard makes for a pleasant escape from Flushing Avenue. BLDG 92 | 63 Flushing Avenue, Brooklyn | website | FREE, Bus Tours $30
The Gatehouses Bar
Kings County Distillery runs this utterly begotten spot inside the castle-like gatehouse marking the Sands Street entrance to the Navy Yard. They call it their tasting room, but that’s doing it a disservice–the space opens at 8am on weekdays and serves coffee through the afternoon, then whiskey on through the night–and anyway there’s a real tasting room inside the distillery itself. This is a bar, and a great one. Take the table inside the turret if you get the chance. The GATEHOUSES | 299 Sands Street, Brooklyn | website
Kings County Distillery
A true craft whiskey-making operation thrives inside one of the Navy Yard old brick buildings. All of the distilling and some of the aging happens here (the rest happens at a larger warehouse in Bushwick). The copper stills, custom-ordered from Scotland, are gorgeous. Tours run every Tuesday through Sunday for $14 per person, which includes a tasting and admission to the small and quirky “Boozeum.” KINGS COUNTY DISTILLERY | Paymaster Building, Brooklyn Navy Yard, Brooklyn | website
Naval Cemetery Park
Tucked into a space across the street from an on-ramp for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway sits this most untamed of urban parks. The land, which once served as the naval hospital’s cemetery (the remains of those buried here were relocated long ago), sat empty and locked up for decades. Now it’s populated exclusively by native flora. NAVAL CEMETERY PARK | Williamsburg Street West between Kent and Flushing Avenues, Brooklyn | Open 8am-6pm | website
A slew of wines by the glass are on offer at this rooftop vineyard and tasting room, some more satisfactorily aged than others, but fun to taste, all of them. Wander among the grape vines toward the line of hammocks, or take one of the tables set up here and there. Even better, wander the roof with glass in hand, taking in the skylines. ROOFTOP REDS | 63 Flushing Avenue, Building 275, Brooklyn | website
Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm
On Wednesday mornings only, this 65,000 square-foot farm atop a 12-story building offers tours to the public. The views are as fascinating as the farm itself (the smaller of two run by Brooklyn Grange), which supplies local restaurants as well as a Brooklyn CSA. There are even chickens.
BROOKLYN GRANGE ROOFTOP FARM | 63 Flushing Avenue, Building 3, Brooklyn | website | Tours $10
Bonus Attraction: Sands Street
It doesn’t look like much now, flanked as it is on both side by housing projects and serving as an entry point to the Manhattan Bridge and BQE, but in the 1800s Sands Street–which terminates at the Sands Street entrance to the Navy Yard–hosted the shenanigans of sailors docked in the Navy Yard. Dozens of bars entertained them there, and helped them get into plenty of trouble. The layers to this city…