Since at least the mid-1800s, Coney Island has been a popular summertime destination for visitors from all over New York City, and the world, eager for a day of sun and sea air, recreation and relaxation, thrills and amusements, wild characters and people watching, and plenty of food and drink.
These days Coney Island — at least the roughly half-mile stretch between the New York Aquarium and Maimonides Park, home of baseball's Brooklyn Cyclones — is going through a development boom, but there are still plenty of beloved classics to behold. In fact, several of the boardwalk's most popular attractions, including the Wonder Wheel, the Cyclone, and Nathan's Famous, have all been around for close to 100 years or more.
So here's a quick overview of all the best things to see, eat, and do this summer.
Luna Park and the Cyclone
The landmark Coney Island Cyclone is now up and running for its 96th year on the corner of Surfwell Avenue and West 10th Street, and the old wooden roller coaster is as rickety-sounding and shriek-worthy as ever. A bucket list ride if there ever was one!
And Luna Park, which operates the Cyclone, has been on expansion tear of late, with three new rides opening this season. There's Tony's Express, a family-friendly (but still designated as "high thrill") ride that pays homage to America's first roller coaster, the Switchback Railway.
Leti's Treasure is a long, winding log flume ride that reaches speeds up to 30 mph and guarantees that you'll get soaked on that final plunge. And coming soon, a crazy-looking ropes course called Sky Chaser, on which you'll be forced to navigate while dangling 50 feet above the boardwalk.
There are about 20 other rides at Luna Park too, for thrill seekers of all ages and degrees of courage. You can stay for hours with an unlimited-ride timed wristband, or just go for the pay-per-ride option. And if you don't like waiting on line, now is the time to go.
Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park
The 150-foot ferris wheel that gives this park its name was built in 1920, and, once you get up top, still offers magnificent views of the beach, the boardwalk, and all the way back to the Manhattan skyline. Another NYC bucket list experience for sure.
This season Deno's unveils its newest attraction, the Phoenix, a leg-dangler roller coaster that zips you around below the Wonder Wheel. And don't miss the ridiculous-but-fun Spook-A-Rama haunted house. Deno's offers both a discounted ticket book and a pay-per-ride option.
Classic Coney Beach Eats and Drinks
You can't spend the day (or night) at Coney without at least considering wolfing down a couple Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs, which have been a presence out here since 1916. These are especially good and snappy when the line isn't too long, so they've had time to get at least a little charred back there. And though mustard and sauerkraut remains the ideal toppings combo, the chili-cheese dog hits the spot as well.
There are at least two Nathan's open during the summer, a newer one right on the boardwalk, and the original on the corner of Stillwell and Surf Avenues. The menu these days is probably much longer than it needs to be, with burgers, chicken tenders, and "seafood specialties," but stick with the dogs (with maybe a side of crinkle cut fries), and you should be happy.
Totonno's is the other most famous restaurant out here, a family-owned spot on Neptune Avenue, a few blocks inland from the beach, that's probably been on every "best pizza" list since it first opened in 1921. Opening hours and seating has been erratic during the pandemic—there was talk at one point that the place had closed for good—but for now the beloved coal-oven pies seem to be available for takeout on weekends.
Another old-school option just off the boardwalk, albeit one with white tablecloths and a dress code, is Gargiulo's, a fancy-ish red sauce Italian restaurant that's been serving pastas, parmigianas, and seafood dishes on West 15th Street since 1907. Weddings and events seem to drive much of the business here these days, but step into the dining room for a look at what Coney Island must have felt like in (one of its many) heydays.
The hidden gem here, however, is Doña Zita, an 18-year-old taco stand tucked in the alley behind the rides among those independently operated sucker games and drink stands that will remind people of a certain age of Coney's not-so-golden era. Thing is though, this place is fantastic, with a full menu of tacos, quesadillas, flautas, and cemitas, monster sandwiches stuffed with your choice of chorizo, carne enchilada, or breaded chicken filets. Everything's fresh, so get it piled high with all the extras, including some excellent oaxaca cheese. There's seating too.
The most absolute iconic spot to enjoy a drink on the boardwalk while basking in the sun (or inside hiding from the sun), is at the family owned and operated Ruby's Bar & Grill, which has been slaking the thirst of beachgoers since 1972 (and before it became Ruby's, as the Hebrew National Deli and Bar, which opened in 1934). This is the best beach dive bar in town.
Not quite as historic, age-wise, but maybe equally iconic (and definitely more punk rock) is the legendary Freak Bar, situated next to the grand Sideshow by the Seashore burlesque and oddity palace and serving beer and wine in a room exploding with gloriously kitschy chaos. The Freak Bar was basically destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and we are grateful that Dick Zigun, the self-proclaimed "Permanently Unelected Mayor of Coney Island," brought it back to life.
For something more mainstream, the newish Coney Island Brewing Co. flagship over by Maimonides Park has a huge outdoor patio, at least a dozen locally-made beers on tap (which you can check out in flights of four), plus a menu of bar-food favorites like burgers, wings, and nachos.
The Brooklyn Cyclones at Maimonides Park
Minor league baseball is wild, with non-stop fan appreciation stunts and entertainment, great seats all around, music blasting, and all the usual ballpark comforts like beer and hot dogs.
The Cyclones, who are affiliated with the New York Mets, just started their season, so there's plenty of time to grab tickets for one of the Everyone Runs the Bases nights, or '70s night, or Pride night, or Star Wars night, or, most popular, Seinfeld night, featuring an Elaine Benes dance contest between innings. Nice view, too.
The New York Aquarium
You forget how expansive and cool the New York Aquarium is until you go again after a long tim. And yeah, this place is huge! And fun! There are more than 500 species of marine wildlife here, spread out over 14 acres, and the crowd-pleasing Sharks! exhibition stars nearly 20 different types of sharks and rays. Plus there's the whole sea lion show in the Aquatheater and the trippy Spineless room with all the moon jellies and zombie worms.
Every day is a bit of spectacle at Coney Island, but a couple of summertime events deserve special consideration: the raucous, glorious Mermaid Parade, held this year on Saturday, June 17th, and certain to once again attract thousands of people dressed as creatures of the sea, and many tens of thousands more cheering them on from the sidelines.
Less whimsical is the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4th, which, if you can get close enough to see the eaters, is impressively disgusting.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
All the fun is so easy to get to with the MTA. Four subway lines (the F, D, N, and Q trains) which run through Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx, all wind up at the Coney Island - Stillwell Avenue station, letting you off just steps from the boardwalk and the beach.
5 minute walk to most attractions at Coney Island