Yes, there are many things to do in Coney Island and they are fun.
When you hear the name Coney Island, if it means anything to you at all, you might think of some old-time seaside resort located somewhere near New York City. Or, the annual 4th of July Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest comes to mind.
Both are accurate but are a small part of the whole story, which we learned during a recent visit to this amusement area with 50 or more separate rides and attractions, loads of concessions and a beach.
Coney Island Location and Overview
Coney Island is located Brooklyn, on the Atlantic Coast. It’s easy to get there via the D, F, N or Q trains depending on where you are in New York City. Indeed, it’s the last stop. From Midtown Manhattan, the ride takes just over an hour each way.
The Coney Island Subway station, on the corner of Stillwell and Surf Avenue, is just two blocks from the boardwalk. The boardwalk is a wide strip of pedestrianized concrete with a wide beach on one side and a bunch of fast food stands and the Luna Park amusement park on the other. It’s the central focus of the touristy part of Coney Island today.
Wander more than a couple of blocks inland from here, the tourist façade of Coney Island rapidly recedes and gives way to a busy residential area by the sea. Therefore, most keep their Coney Island visits focused on the strip between Surf Avenue and the beach.
Note that, just as in the old days, the tourist attractions of Coney Island remain primarily seasonal. They’re open on weekends from roughly Easter to Halloween but also open during weekdays from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Even then, I discovered several things closed there on Monday and Tuesdays, during peak summer season. The boardwalk, aquarium and Nathan’s hot dogs are open year round. Because of the odd hours, it does make sense to call before you go.
The amusement park and beach part of Coney Island was much cleaner (but also smaller) than I expected. Most of what I saw there seemed to be pretty new. It turns out that Hurricane Sandy in 2012 did significant damage to the area which required much of what we saw to be rebuilt.
Things to Do in Coney Island
There are enough things to do in Coney Island that amusement park lovers and beachgoers could spend an entire day there though a half-day can suffice as well.
Coney Island Beach
Bring a bathing suit to enjoy the free public beach. Jetties made of big boulders sticking into the ocean from the beach create a calm surf-line presumably so that beachgoers may comfortably enjoy a dip in the ocean.
During our visit on a hot summer weekday, there were a surprisingly large number of people in the ocean, but it was far from crowded. (That being said, there was a lot of garbage floating in the water.)
The white sand beach is broad and was also not crowded during our visit. It even has a small play area for kids.
Luna Park offers locker rentals for valuables should you not want to take them to the beach or elsewhere with you. Bathrooms and changing rooms are also available.
Coney Island Boardwalk
The sizable concrete boardwalk is considerably larger than many I am familiar with in southern California (with a lot fewer “wild” people watching opportunities there than along boardwalks in California, in my experience anyway).
The primary appeal of the boardwalk appears to be the various fast food (fried clams!), ice cream, and beer stands. The original Nathan’s Hot Dogs is located in Coney Island, but a block off the beach very near the Subway station. But they have another location conveniently on the boardwalk itself, which was the most popular spot when I was there.
Luna Park Amusement Park
Also adjacent to the boardwalk on the street side, running for several blocks is the Luna Park amusement park. It has the typical assortment of thrill rides, a few roller coasters, and various midway-style games.
Luna Park is free to enter, and there are several entrances dotted along the boardwalk and on the side streets. It couldn’t be easier to walk in. While it is free to enter, you either pay-per-ride using their Luna Card, or you can buy a daily pass. The only thing free once inside Luna Park is walking around.
The most famous attraction here is the Coney Island Cyclone, a wooden roller coaster that first opened in 1927. Buy a separate ticket to ride the Cyclone at a ticket booth just outside the ride’s entrance for $10 per person, payable in cash or by credit card, without having to buy a Luna Park Pass or get a Luna Card.
We rode the Cyclone and there is definitely a height restriction for a reason. It’s a lot more thrilling (and fun) than it looks on YouTube, that is for sure.
Note: Costs for the rides at Luna Park add up, so it does make sense, if planning to see other New York City attractions, to buy a bundled attractions pass. Several offer Luna Park discounts including:
Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park
At the heart of Den’s is the Wonder Wheel Ferris wheel, which opened in 1920. Riders can even choose a still or swinging car. This Coney Island amusement park also has rides for all ages, games and even a Coney Island history exhibition. Deno’s Wonder Wheel costs typically $9 but is free with the New York Pass.
The Original Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs
Many visitors to Coney island may find it mandatory to have at least a bite of a Nathan’s Famous hot dog from their original location here. It’s located at 1310 Surf Avenue, on the corner of Surf and Stilwell, conveniently adjacent to the Subway station. It was opened over 100 years ago in 1916, by Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker.
If you get a hot dog here, I personally also recommend ordering some french fries. The fries themselves weren’t particularly great, in my personal opinion anyway. But they have novelty value. Nathan’s serves their fries with these little red plastic cocktail forks, so you can eat them the old-school way without using your fingers.
Coney Island Museum
Also located just a couple blocks from the Subway station/Nathan’s Hot Dogs on the corner of Surf Avenue and Stillwell, is a small but excellent Coney Island Museum.
Note that it is only open seasonally in the summer, and even then not every day. The website enumerates its opening days and times on the front page. Admission is $5.
Here, I learned that the first attractions/amusement parks were opened in Coney Island at the end of the 1800s after it had been previously developed as a Victorian Era beach resort. The extension of railroad lines there spurred this development, and, in 1915, by the extension of the Subway there.
Coney Island declined in popularity after WWII, however. But during that roughly 50 year period, Coney Island was the largest amusement park area in the United States. At its height, Coney Island was the site of three separately owned, competitive amusement parks: Luna Park, Dreamland, and Steeplechase Park. I had no idea.
These various amusement parks, some featuring elaborate water slides and parachute jumps and the like, had an unfortunate, accident-prone history. However, I discovered. Several experienced financial problems after being opened just a few years and then burned down. One of the larger parks, Dreamland, burned to the ground long ago and is now the site of the popular, well-regarded New York Aquarium. As a side note, Donald Trump’s father, Fred Trump, spearheaded redevelopment in Coney Island in the mid-1960s.
Despite being just a few rooms, the museum has an impressive collection of original artifacts that bear witness to this colorful but also surprisingly tragic history, including vintage cars from some of the original amusement park rides, original bathing suits that were rented to visitors before most people owned their own, original funhouse mirrors, and much more.
Coney Island Side Show
Adjacent to the Coney Island Museum gift shop on the ground floor is the entrance to a live side show. The admission cost is $10 per person (a little cheaper if you simultaneously buy a museum ticket).
The show lived up to its billing as family-friendly and began every hour on the hour for a 40-minute run time. The tiny theater is a charming throwback to the Coney Island of old. Guests sit in a set of stands that seem like they came from a local high school gym.
When I was there, I was among maybe 20 people in the audience. It featured many of the “classics” including a sword swallower, a fire-eater, and a man who nailed a long nail into his nose. The emcee explained that the difference between a magic show and a sideshow is that in a sideshow, what you see is real. The remainder of the show featured a couple of other performers with self-professed genetic abnormalities. The performers were wonderfully articulate about their conditions while also welcoming the audience to enjoy their performance guilt-free without mocking them.
New York Aquarium
The New York Aquarium has its own subway stop, just before the Coney Island station at the end of the line. See an interactive, live show in their Aquatheater, and get a snorkeler’s eye view of Glover’s Reef, and see their penguins and sea otters, and of course, their sharks.
Tickets may be purchased online from the Aquarium website. Adult tickets are currently $14.95, and child tickets (3-12) are $11.95. Discounted admission is available via the New York Sightseeing Pass.
A Few Other Options
I’ve highlighted above what I consider to be the highlights of a visit to Coney Island. But there are, of course, some other things to see, do and eat here as well.
I had wanted to get a slice of pizza at Totonnos. It’s a pizza place that’s been in the same location since 1924 and is reputed to make some of the best pizza in New York. Unfortunately, its minimal opening hours thwarted me. It’s not open on Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays, even during the summer high season. And when it is open Thursdays through Sundays, it is only open from noon to 8:00 p.m. They also don’t take credit cards. And it is located on Neptune Avenue, which is a couple of blocks inland from the central tourist area today between Surf Avenue and the boardwalk/beach.
According to online reviews, it’s service is also reputed to be poor and unfriendly, even by New York standards. But you may check out the same online reviews yourself; their pizza is nonetheless very well regarded.
Known for its coal brick oven pizza which is also reputed to be some of the best in New York, which can be traced back to 1905. Grimaldi’s has a handful of locations in New York City, the most famous of which is under the Brooklyn Bridge in Brooklyn, adjacent to their original restaurant.
They also have a location on Surf Avenue in Coney Island just a couple of blocks from the Subway Station and across Surf Avenue from the Coney Island Museum.
Adjacent to Coney Island is Brighton Beach with its beaches and boardwalk. But in recent decades it has become known for its high-concentration of Russian-speaking immigrants. So, many visitors go for the Russian and Eastern European candies, foods and restaurants.
The concierge at my hotel recommended the seaside Tatiana Grill. (I never made it to Brighton Beach.) There’s a lot of Russian-themed shopping there as well. You may also visit a Russian bathhouse, or take in a show at a Russian dinner theater. Lastly, you may want to see a concert at the Oceana Theatre, which has been open since 1934.
L&B Spumoni Garden
It’s not located in Coney Island but on 86th Street in Brooklyn. I mention it here because I stopped at L&B on my way back from Coney Island by getting off the subway back to Manhattan at the Avenue U station and walking about 15 minutes (with kids). L&B is home to excellent square, Sicilian-style pizza (and Italian ices for the kids), that guests enjoy al fresco on their expansive front patio. It’s been open in the same location since 1939.
Riding The Subway
As I mentioned several times above, I took the Subway to Coney Island from Manhattan. You may take a single line (D) from Rockefeller Center, without needing to transfer to any other line, as I did. The end of that line is the Coney Island station so you literally can’t miss it.
The station itself is located at the corner of Stillwell and Surf Avenue, sharing an intersection with the original Nathan’s Famous hot dogs and just a couple of blocks from the boardwalk, the beach, and everything else touristy in Coney Island. It literally couldn’t be easier.
Unsurprisingly, the further the line travels outside Manhattan, the less crowded the trains get. So while the ride from Manhattan was a little over an hour each way, we were able to sit for almost the entire way, round trip.
What are your favorite things to do in Coney Island?