WHY GO: There are three reasons most people come to Queens, NY – the least glamorous of the five New York City boroughs. One for the jets – that fly in and out of LaGuardia and JFK Airports, two, for the Mets – who play at Citi Field, and three for the nets – as in the nets on The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center courts (where the US Open takes place). But there are other reasons to spend a couple of days in the world’s most diverse borough, where 200 languages are spoken within its 172 square miles – and leave it to the Getaway Mavens to let you in on the best, most insidery ways to explore it. Queens happens to be New York City’s largest borough, so this Getaway takes you to just one corner of it, Flushing NY and Corona, with some of the best authentic Chinese cuisine on the planet, a recognizable 140 ft. high steel globe, a surprising jazz-great connection, and one new boutique hotel. If you yearn to visit China, but don’t have the time or the bucks, this getaway is the next best thing.
Things to Do In Flushing NY and Corona NY
TOUR: Louis Armstrong House Museum, Corona. Yes, the famous gravel-voiced trumpet-master most identified with Louisiana, swing, scat, “Hello Dolly,” and jazz in general, actually lived for the last 28 years of his life in Queens, NY. Though born in 1901 to a New Orleans prostitute, Armstrong (whose nickname, Sachmo is a contraction of “Satchel Mouth”) rose from poverty to become one of the most famous musicians of our age -appearing in 30 movies and on almost every television show of the time.
Never one to flaunt his wealth, Louis and his fourth wife, Lucile Wilson moved into this humble home in 1943. Known for their generosity – he was “Uncle Sachmo” and she was “Aunt Lucile” – they’d invite the kids in the neighborhood into their living room to watch that new invention, the television. In fact, Louis wrote his iconic song, “It’s A Wonderful World,” about his little slice of heaven on this working class block.
Your tour begins in the small visitor’s center housed in the former garage (although, stay tuned… $20 million has been raised to build a Louis Armstrong Education Center across the street) stocked with memorabilia, including a gold plated trumpet; a gift from King George V. Inside the house, everything is exactly as Lucile left it after her death in 1983 (Louis died in ’71). You’ll hear clips of Sachmo’s unmistakable voice – Lucile correcting him in the background- while taking in a small but exquisite living room. Their lavish mirrored bathrooms were featured in Time Magazine, and the burnished aqua cabinets, in a state-of-the- art futuristic kitchen, cost more than the whole house.
Upstairs (serviced by a lift-chair that Louie required after two heart attacks) the couple’s bedroom is a fantasia of off whites, silver wallpaper, gold bathroom fixtures and hidden speakers (behind wallpaper). The tinselly walk-in closet is as show biz as it gets. Louis was most at home in the library/study he called his “den.” His Marantz receiver and Tandberg reel to reel take up much of the shelf space behind his desk. A portrait of Armstrong signed by “Beniditto” was one of Louis’s favorites, and while appearing on a talk show, he revealed that the artist was actually his good friend, Tony Bennett.
Once again, you’ll hear his voice, thrilling to the fact that for the first time in his life he had his own room to retreat to. Louis Armstrong claimed to have been born on July 4th, 1900 but his actual birth date was August 4, 1901, and so both dates are celebrated at his home every year, with birthday cake served in the garden. $10 adults, $7 children, Tues-Fri 10-5, Sat Sun 12-5pm.
VISIT: Queens Museum, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens. From 1946-1950 as the temporary home of the United Nations General Assembly (while the Le Corbusier slab was being built on the East River) this building was witness to the establishment of Israel, when the world voted in its approval in 1948. Adjacent to the 1964/65 World’s Fair Unisphere, the space became the Queens Museum in the 1970’s and fell into a stuffy, dark, not quite engaging place before being thoroughly renovated and reopened in November 2013.
Enter the front doors to a vast windowed main floor and a spectacular view of the steel globe that towers outside. The museum’s signature exhibit – the New York City Panorama – has been preserved, saints be praised, and remains THE reason visitors make the trek here. Built thirty years ago of balsa wood and acrylic, half inch to one hundred foot scale, it’s a must-see for anyone who wants a pilot’s eye orientation of all five boroughs of New York City. Originally constructed as a “ride” for the New York World’s Fair (moving cars circled it continuously), it became part of the museum in the 1970’s.
In addition to the Panorama and rotating avant garde installations throughout most of the museum, there are several permanent exhibits. One highlights both World’s Fairs held on this site in 1934 and 1964/65. It’s quite amazing to think that back then dimes blasted with radiation were acceptable and sought-after souvenirs.
The other is a candy-colored skip through Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass land. In 1893, Louis Comfort, son of Jewelry maker Charles, opened his infused glass factory right here in Corona, Queens, where artisans created curved, natural organic lamps (the first using light bulbs rather than oil) and mosaics for forty years before the geometric Art Deco craze put them out of business. To get here, snake around the roads through Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, past the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and park. For free. $8 adults, $4 kids. Open Wed-Sun 12-6, Tours Sunday 2,3,4pm free with admission.
DO: Skate Beneath the World’s Fair Unisphere. With the exception of the Olympic Oval in Lake Placid, this is probably one of the most iconic spots in the country to glide in winter. As this is an unsanctioned, makeshift “rink,” BYOS (Bring Your Own Skates). One note – the former indoor skating rink is now the lobby/atrium of the Queens Museum.
STROLL: Queens Botanical Garden: It’s a small but pretty respite in the bustling center of Asia-town Flushing. Meander around and you may witness a solitary practitioner of Tai Chi, an elderly couple strolling hand in hand or parents pushing strollers on paved paths. The new contemporary Visitor’s Center often hosts art exhibits. $4 adults, April 1- Oct 31, Open Tues-Sun, 8am-6pm (visitors center closed Sunday). . Free from Nov 1-March 31, Tues-Sun, 8am-4:30.
VISIT: Kingsland Homestead and Queens Historical Society, Flushing. Once upon a time, Queens was farmland, and two buildings remain from that period. This one- a landmark 18th-century bright yellow Dutch-Colonial farmhouse, which now serves as the Queens Historical Society and the Voelker Orth House profiled next. What makes the Kingsland home so worthy an attraction is the lengths taken to save it from the wrecking ball. Built in 1785, it was moved twice – the first time in 1923, to make way for the developing subway system and the second in the 1960’s for a shopping center. Now in this tree shaded pocket park, it seems out of place next to a lively children’s playground and multi-level apartments. This park was the site of one of New York’s first animate objects to receive “Living Historical Landmark Status” in 1966– a Weeping Beach Tree planted in 1847 that lived 150 years before dying in 1998. $5, adults 2:30pm – 4:30pm, Tuesday, Saturday & Sunday.
VISIT: Voelker Orth Museum, Bird Sanctuary and Victorian Garden. Conrad Voelcker, a publisher of German newspapers, purchased this Edwardian style home, one of a few in a farmland development, in 1899 shortly after the Long Island Railroad was built. In 1930, he left the home to his daughter, Theresa, and her husband, Rudolph Orth a police surgeon, whose “courting letter” to Teresa Voelker is on display in the main parlor. When the last of the family died in 1997, the house was rundown and in great disrepair. Thankfully, preservationists rescued this representation of Queens past, and restored it to its early 1900’s appearance. Year round programming revolves around its amazing Victorian garden. $2 admission, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Where to Eat in Flushing NY
There are so many hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Flushing, each with its own set of die-hard fans. You can spend months trying them all out, parsing the best dim sum, hot pot, dumpling, noodle, Szechwan, etc. spot. Or start with these, and let us know your own favorites….
SNACK: Taipan Bakery and Taipan Snacks. Owned by the same family a couple of blocks from each other, the Bakery is known for the creamy “Egg Tarts” –a French treat appropriated by Chinese pastry chefs. Taipan Snack, run by young congenial Chris Ng, excels in making the Hong Kong street food craze, Jidanzai, a crispy-sweet hot-off-the-griddle waffle. Belgian Waffles watch out! – you have intense competition here!
EAT: The Shops at Queens Crossing offer everything from delicious dim sum and bubble tea to high-end contemporary Asian fare, which inexplicably includes an Asian fascination with upscale French pastry. Paris Baguette is generally swamped at all times.
EAT: Little Lamb. Do you like lamb? Do you enjoy hot-pot cuisine? Then, you’ll love this spot next to Applebee’s in the Skyview Mall – one of just two Little Lambs in the USA (the other is in Boston) but with more Little Lambs than Mary ever had, all over China (600 to be exact). Not to be confused with “Little Sheep” – that already has a presence all over America, Little Lamb sets itself apart with an innovative “Sauce Station,” from which you can mix and create your own custom condiments. Order raw ingredients (veggies, meats, noodles) and stick them in the boiling broth of your choice placed on an induction stove in front of you. It’s the ultimate in fresh fast food and incredibly flavorsome.
EAT. Spicy & Tasty. The name gives you a heads up about the intensity of seasonings here. Haul out your inner Adam Richman to taste authentic dishes – Pig Blood Cake, Bitter Mellon, Pork Intestine, Frog, Duck Tongue(?) spiked with ma la—the uniquely spicy, numbing flavor that comes in part from Szechuan peppercorns.
EAT: Asian Jewels Seafood Restaurant for Dim Sum. Carts laden with steamed pork buns, fried shrimp, wilted bok choy and dozens of other dishes come around every minute. Crammed with locals on a Monday afternoon, chances are, if you are an English-speaking Caucasian, you might be the only one within sight.
EAT: Xi’an Famous Foods and Tianjin Dumpling House in the Golden Door Mall. Duck down into what looks like a grungy delivery hallway to find a warren of fast food noodle and dumpling shops. Locals are apparently fanatical about the choices down here. Xi’an is famous for its hand-pulled ribbon-shaped noodles in simmering lamb soup. And Tianjin Dumpling lovers are prone to using superlatives to describe these handmade treasures. Expect to sit for a just few minutes in these cramped quarters before letting someone else eat.
Where to Stay in Flushing, NY
STAY: Parc Hotel, Flushing. This brand new 96-room boutique hotel, located on a strip occupied by car part shops and the Big Box Skyview Mall, places you squarely in Asia. Overlooking LaGuardia Airport, planes fly so low, you can see their underbellies from the floor to ceiling windows in your streamlined, and yes, Zen-designed room. In wood and eggshell white, with an extremely comfy bed, flat screen TV, and pristine subway tile bathroom (with Bigalow Apothecary toiletries), guestrooms are a serene oasis from the frantic hustle and bustle of life just outside on Roosevelt and Main Streets, where street signs are both in English and Chinese. Some not even in English. The Parc draws a mostly Asian clientele, but will no doubt bring in airport personnel and travelers, especially when the rooftop lounge opens in Summer 2014. Feeling the roar of mighty jet planes just yards overhead as they prepare to land is a thrill you won’t get on any other rooftop bar in New York, and it may just bring scads of Manhattanites to this little slip of China-in-America. Room rates $90-$160 per night include complimentary continental breakfast and wi-fi.