The Bronx has long been New York’s left-behind borough. As Brooklyn and then Queens underwent gentrification, The Bronx remained — at least in the public imagination — gritty and, well, skippable for everyone but baseball fans. To say that the northernmost of the five New York boroughs is undergoing a renaissance would be perhaps a step too far, but with under-the-radar arts institutions and botanical gardens, cultural enclaves and a burgeoning craft spirits scene, it offers more reasons to visit than ever.
Bronx Documentary Center: This passion project of Michael Kamber, a former conflict and war photographer for The New York Times, opened five years ago in a landmark building and quickly became a cultural hub, not only for the borough, but for the entire city. Free art and photography exhibits, movie screenings, and lectures and events are what’s on offer, all featuring world-class talent showcasing the power of documentary work in all its forms.
Bronx Museum of the Arts: Founded in 1971, the borough’s key arts institution outgrew its various spaces several times and finally moved into a larger facility a decade ago. Since then, it’s also grown its collection, the strength of which is modern multimedia work by African, Asian, and Latin American artists, including Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera. In 2011, it introduced a free entry policy, making it stand out from museums like Manhattan’s Met and MoMA, where tickets are $25 (£19) a pop.
Edgar Allan Poe Cottage: Visitors whose images of The Bronx are informed largely by Hollywood may be surprised by the borough’s literary history — epitomised by the tiny Edgar Allan Poe Cottage. Its location on the Grand Concourse, where it sits in the middle of Poe Park (not its original home), amid tall apartment buildings, looks a bit out of place today, but when it was built in the late 18th century, it was wholly congruous: the entire borough was a rural outpost.
Yankee Stadium: The original ‘House that Ruth Built’ closed in 2008, replaced in 2009 by a $2.3bn (£1.7bn) stadium — allegedly the most expensive ever built. Even if your visit doesn’t coincide with baseball season, you can visit the onsite New York Yankees Museum or buy tickets for a guided tour.
Wave Hill: The New York Botanical Garden may be better known and bigger but Wave Hill — 28 acres of public gardens in The Bronx’s ritzy Riverdale neighbourhood — is equally spectacular. Overlooking the Hudson River, it boasts stellar views of the Palisades, towering basalt cliffs. Stroll in the gardens, pop into Wave Hill House to take in an art exhibit, performance or lecture, or browse the onsite shop for a unique souvenir.
Bronx Zoo & New York Botanical Garden: Each NYC borough has at least one zoo and botanical garden, but this particular pair — across the street from each other — are the most famous and beloved. The installations and collections at both are peerless — just gaze up at the Guastavino tiles in the Elephant House or the grand LuEsther T Mertz Library at the NYBG (host of many art exhibits and the largest botanical library in the Americas) to get a real sense of the architectural grandeur of New York City in the late 19th century.
Arthur Avenue Retail Market: Skip Manhattan’s Little Italy and head to Arthur Avenue instead, where you’ll find a few-dozen Italian restaurants, bakeries and cafes. If your time is limited, give preference to this no-frills market, where you can buy an espresso and a freshly-made sandwich sagging under the weight of thin-sliced capicola or salami, or watch as a cigar is hand-rolled right in front of you.
Port Morris Distillery: Located in the once-dodgy neighbourhood of Port Morris, this distillery produces a Puerto Rican moonshine called pitorro. Visit for an impromptu tour of the facility, then stick around for a sample or order a cocktail (you’ll likely need to elbow up to the bar on Friday or Saturday, when it’s open until midnight).
Read more of the New York cover story in the October 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)