Traveling Around the World in Queens, New York

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Queens, New York is the most diverse “melting pot” in the world. Photo by Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce 
Queens, New York is the most diverse “melting pot” in the world. Photo by Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce

Not hungry enough for a sit-down breakfast, I munched on Tibetan dumplings, called momos, which I purchased from a somewhat ramshackle food truck.   Lunch was a hurried affair at a modest five-table eatery where I ordered the menu special of yak meat washed down by salty yak milk tea.

Yak is the menu specialty at this restaurant in Queens, New York. Photo by Victor Block
Yak is the menu specialty at this restaurant in Queens, New York. Photo by Victor Block

For dinner, I chose a small restaurant hidden on a side street which gives new meaning to the word “eclectic.” The Ecuadorean-born owner-chef transformed what could be basic North and South American fare with hints of Spanish, Chinese and other cuisines from around the world.

This global dining experience provided a perfect introduction to a destination that offers a virtual world tour without having to board a plane or set foot on a ship.

In the past, the New York City borough of Queens wasn’t high on many people’s “must see” list. However, that has changed in recent years.

One reason is that Lonely Planet, a leading publisher of travel guidebooks, crowned Queens as the “Number one travel destination” in the United States. It praised the often-overlooked destination for its “truly global food culture,” exciting museum and art scene and even its seaside attractions. Lonely Planet’s editors said “Queens is emerging from the shadows of Manhattan,” a claim that prompted the district’s imaginative tourism promotion folks to come up with the motto: “It’s in Queens.”

Queens, New York is the most Ethnically Diverse Place on Earth

The list of “its” which are in Queens is long, varied and full of welcome surprises. For many, the most appealing attraction is the fact that in ethnic diversity, Queens ranks first among all of the counties in the United States and all urban areas throughout the world. Its residents came from more than 120 counties and speak over 135 languages, and more than half of them were born in other nations. The Tower of Babel had nothing on this enclave.

A good introduction to this cultural conglomeration comes during a stroll along the streets, through some of the 50-plus distinct neighborhoods that are adjacent in terms of geography yet worlds apart in ambience and atmosphere. A stretch of Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights would be at home in Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and other Central and South American countries.

The feeling, food and fun are very different in Flushing. It’s much larger than the famous Chinatown in Manhattan, New York and encompasses one of the largest Chinese enclaves outside of Asia.  Exploring Astoria provides a personal and close-up introduction to authentic Greek culture, including tavernas that serve a seemingly endless parade of traditional meze appetizers and magnificent Greek Orthodox churches.

Food, Fashions and More from Around the World in Queens, New York

Throughout Queens, people of shared backgrounds congregate, socialize, eat in restaurants that serve familiar food from their “old country” and shop in stores devoted to merchandise that fills shelves where they, or their parents or grandparents, were born.

In Astoria, that translates to mini-neighborhoods occupied by immigrants from India, Korea, Romania, the Dominican Republic and other far-flung countries. Given the name, it’s no surprise that the Jamaica area has strong roots in the Caribbean. Then there are sections known as Little Egypt, Little Guyana, Little Colombia and Little Manila.

This store in Queens, New York sells traditional clothes from India. Photo by Victor Block
This store in Queens, New York sells traditional clothes from India. Photo by Victor Block

In some places, the cultural blending becomes apparent in the length of a single block. On one street, I spotted Cuban, Chinese and Italian restaurants that are next door neighbors. Diners seeking sustenance on another block have a choice of Cypriot, Philippine, Czech and Peruvian fare.

As if choosing which cuisine to enjoy from a virtual United Nations of possibilities isn’t challenge enough, the selection of things to see and do in Queens is equally daunting – in a good way.

From Baseball to Beaches and More in Queens, New York

Fans of baseball and tennis may enjoy a rare opportunity for behind-the-scenes looks at landmarks of those games. Even many non-New York Mets fans enjoy watching the team in action during baseball season, or taking a guided tour of the stadium at other times. In addition to the dugout, playing field and other facilities, tours include the New York Mets Hall of Fame and Museum, with exhibits, highlight videos and interactive kiosks.

The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, named for that former world champion, offers an even more interactive experience. In addition to tours of its expansive facilities, people may reserve time to play on its indoor and outdoor courts.

After several spirited games of tennis, what could be more inviting than a dip in the Atlantic Ocean?  Many visitors are surprised to learn that several miles of inviting beaches line the Queens coast.

Rockaway Beach has a seven-mile boardwalk which is longer than the famous one in Atlantic City, and a designated area for surf boarders. Jacob Riis Beach offers shorter stretches of landscaped walkways. While swimming is officially prohibited at the isolated Breezy Point Tip of Rockaway Beach, broad stretches of sand, dunes and marshes are inviting enough.

Inviting Rockaway Beach is one of many pleasant surprises in Queens, New York. Photo by NYC Parks Department
Inviting Rockaway Beach is one of many pleasant surprises in Queens, New York. Photo by NYC Parks Department

Those who prefer indoor pursuits have a welcome choice of more than 30 museums, large and small. Given its name and focus, the Queens Museum is the logical place to begin.

The building was erected to house the New York City Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair, and its permanent collection includes thousands of artifacts and memorabilia from both that and the 1964 expositions. Other exhibits range from artistic, such as an extensive collection of early Tiffany glass, to mundane, a relief map created for the 1939 fair which illustrates the city’s water supply system.

A highlight is the Panorama of New York City, a 9,335-square-foot model which encompasses some 900,000 structures built in intricate detail to exact scale. In this mini-metropolis, the Statue of Liberty stands just below two inches high and the Empire State Building is a towering 15 inches.

Skyscrapers are measured in inches, not feet, on the Panorama at the Queens Museum in New York City. Photo by Max Touhey 
Skyscrapers are measured in inches, not feet, on the Panorama at the Queens Museum in New York City. Photo by Max Touhey    

Visitors to the Museum of the Moving Image are immersed in the history, technology and art of movies, television and even video games. Historic cameras, costumes, set designs and other exhibits are enhanced by inviting opportunities that include recording voice-over dialogue for a film, adding music to movie scenes and choosing sound effects for sequences from well-known movies and TV shows.

If you’re still not convinced that Queens warrants a visit, or at least a day trip from Manhattan, add in a Resorts World Casino, a pre-Revolutionary house and working farm, one of the major sanctuaries in the Northeast for spotting resident and migrating birds and a 24-square-block arts district.

A sightseeing itinerary also can include homes in which a virtual alphabet of American celebrities once lived.  Among them were Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, the Marx Brothers, Mae West, Jackie Robinson and Malcolm X. I came away from spending time in Queens convinced that if it was good enough for them, it’s great for me.

For more information about all that Queens has to offer visitors, log onto itsinqueens.com

Authors: Fyllis Hockman and Victor Block are a husband-wife team of experienced travel journalists who have gallivanted throughout the United States, and to nearly 80 countries around the world, and written about what they have seen, done and learned. Their articles have appeared in newspapers across the country and on websites across the Internet, and they each have won numerous writing awards. They love to explore new destinations and cultures and uncover off-the-beaten-path attractions. Read more of their work at The Rambling Writers