As one of the five boroughs of New York City, Queens is not only the largest and second-most populated—with over two million people—but it can be a world unto itself. While tourists often stick to Manhattan for its shopping, museums, and theater, and maybe dip into hip and trendy Brooklyn, Queens can show them why New York City is such a multi-faceted destination.
Those who call Queens home come from or represent cultures from just about all over the world and are spread out among a cluster of neighborhoods. Also, Queens has major sporting venues, two airports (John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia), beaches, a craft brewing industry, a history of film and TV production, and green spaces that are just as cool to visit as Central Park.
From royalty to rural to regrouped
The first inhabitants of what’s now Queens were Indigenous people including Matinecock, Canarsie, Jameco, and Mespeatches. Today, many of the place names in Queens reflect these early people. For example, the neighborhood of Jamaica took its name from the Jamecos.
Dutch colonizers arrived in the early 1600s, followed by English settlers, who named Queens for the English Queen Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705). She was born in Portugal and married to King Charles II.
Recognized as one of the 12 counties in the British-ruled Province of New York in 1683, Queens was originally divided into separate towns, consisting of farms and forests before and for a while after the American Revolutionary War. In 1898, Queens became a borough and then would be forever changed as part of the consolidation forming the City of Greater New York in 1898.
Today, if Queens was to secede from NYC, it would be the fifth-most populous city in the US.
“The World’s Borough”
Queens is nicknamed “The World’s Borough” as a reflection of its status as the most diverse county in the US. In fact, according to the recent U.S. Census, 47.2% of its population was born outside the US.
With 91 distinct neighborhoods, Queens residents are said to speak 130 languages—Spanish, Russian, Korean, Greek, Urdu, and Tagalog, to start—and represent over 120 countries. The 7 subway line, which runs between Flushing, Queens and Manhattan, is referred to as the “International Express.”
Neighborhoods within Queens reflect these diverse backgrounds with subsections. They can also make for a culinary adventure, where you can find dishes like Tibetan momos, Venezuelan or Colombian arepas, Greek moussaka, Indian chaat, Mexican birria tacos, Trinidadian roti, and many others.
Flushing is known as Queens’ Chinatown, and it’s one of the largest and fastest growing Chinatowns in the world. Visitors can try both Chinese cuisine and foods from other parts of Asia at restaurants and storefronts and from street vendors.
Woodside has “Little Manila,” a stretch of Roosevelt Avenue linked to its Filipino population, while Richmond Hill has “Little Guyana,” and Elmhurst has “Thai Town.” Astoria is most known for its Greek presence but also has a “Little Egypt” along Steinway Street. And, Jackson Heights itself is a league of nations, including residents from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Ecuador, Argentina, and Colombia.
Queens is the only NYC borough that uses hyphenated addresses, with four numbers split between a dash. The two numbers preceding the dash indicate the nearest cross street or avenue, while the two following it signify a building or house number.
Snail mail does not list Queens in the address but the neighborhood—as in Forest Hills or Flushing—to which a postal delivery is heading to.
Speaking of addresses, a street sign at 35th Avenue and 81st Street in Jackson Heights is adorned with Scrabble letters in homage to the game’s inventor and local resident Alfred Mosher Butts.
Bigger than Central Park
Named for the adjacent Flushing and Corona neighborhoods, Flushing Meadows Corona Park is the largest park in Queens (and 55 acres bigger than Manhattan’s Central Park), and one of the most iconic green spaces in New York.
The park was the location for the 1939-40 and 1964-65 New York World’s Fairs, and remnants from both fairs still stand, ranging from the Unisphere to the New York Hall of Science.
Today, the Queens Museum is housed in what was previously the 1939 fair’s New York City Pavilion (and before that, the General Assembly of the United Nations). The museum’s centerpiece is the Panorama of New York City, a 9,335-square-foot architectural model that gives a bird’s-eye-view of the Big Apple. Last updated in 1992, its 895,000 pieces encompass the city’s skyscrapers and famous landmarks but at a smaller scale.
Other park attractions include the Queens Zoo and the adjacent Citi Field, home of the New York Mets. It’s also the location of the Queens Night Market, a buzzy open-air night market with up to 100 independent vendors.
Baby, let’s cruise
The first road made for cars—the Vanderbilt Motor Parkway, also known as the Long Island Motor Parkway—was built in Queens. Built in 1908 as a private racing route which drivers had to pay to access, the parkway ran its course until 1938. It’s now a bicycle path in Fresh Meadows’ Cunningham Park that goes partially into Hollis Hills.
Big nature in the big city
For such a populous borough, Queens has a wealth of other parks and green spaces. In Long Island City, former industrial sites have been turned into waterfront spots Hunter’s Point South Park and Gantry Plaza State Park, which face the Manhattan skyline.
Alley Pond Park has an environmental center and “Alley Pond Giant,” a tulip tree that may be the largest and oldest living organism in the city. Socrates Sculpture Park is on the site of a former landfill along the East River that’s been turned into an open art studio and exhibition space.
There’s also Fort Totten Park on the grounds of a Civil War era military fortress that was part of the Northern defenses, the urban oasis of the flower-filled Queens Botanical Garden, and Rufus King Park. Surrounding the King Manor Museum, the park sits on the former estate of Rufus King, a signer of the US Constitution and a leader in the anti-slavery movement.
On farmland that’s been continuously worked since 1697, the Queens County Farm Museum in Floral Park provides educational programming, has livestock in residence, and runs an on-site farmstand from May through November.
Birdwatchers can spot over 300 species along the salt marshes, ponds, and wooded paths of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.
Black history in Queens
In St. Albans, Addisleigh Park became a prominent Black community in the early 1950s, despite restrictive covenants meant to prevent home ownership among Black people. Its well-known residents included Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, James Brown, Count Basie, and Lena Horne. Their former residences still remain but they are privately owned; in 2011, the district was given landmark status.
Louis Armstrong lived in Corona with his wife, Lucille, from 1943 until his death in 1971. The couple’s home is now the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Inside, visitors can see rooms that have remained unchanged since the Armstrongs’ time there.
Another trailblazer in his own right was Lewis Latimer, an African-American inventor whose home in Flushing is now the Lewis Latimer House Museum. Latimer worked with Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Hiram S. Maxim.
Game, set, match
Since 1978, the US Open Tennis Championship has been held at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows–Corona Park (when major events aren’t happening, casual players can book a court).
Even before then, the tournament has a longtime history with Queens. In Forest Hills, the West Side Tennis Club began hosting some of the matches of what was then called the U.S. National Championships in 1915.
Originally the club conducted matches on its grass courts, then Forest Hills Stadium was built in 1923 to hold some of the tournament’s matches. The tournament officially was renamed the US Open in 1968, and the attending fan base would grow to such a size that it would require a bigger venue. A decade later, the championship was moved to its current location at Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
Forest Hills Stadium became a concert venue in the 1960s, and still puts on a seasonal calendar. The West Side Tennis Club offers tennis lessons and programs for adults and youngsters.
Rock, rock, Rockaway Beach
The Rockaway Peninsula (also called the Rockaways) may have been made famous by the song “Rockaway Beach,” by The Ramones, a group formed in Queens, but its name comes from the Canarsie word, “Reckouwacky.” It’s got a good comeback story, too.
Actually, it has a few. Beachgoers have flocked to the Rockaways since the 1830s. In 1882 and 1883, fires and hurricanes took their toll, but by the early 1900s the area was thriving again and known as "New York's Playground.”
Hurricane Sandy decimated the area in 2012, destroying homes and wiping out 3.5 miles of the 5.5-mile boardwalk. The boardwalk was rebuilt by 2016, and the same year the Rockaways were dubbed by The New York Times as one of NYC’s hot new neighborhoods.
The Rockaways contain the city’s beaches where surfing is legal and with a surfing culture year-round—Rockaway Beach, with a boardwalk, and Jacob Riis Public Beach, with a restored art deco bathhouse. The latter beach is adjacent to Fort Tilden, a beachside former military site. Within its surfing community, there are schools offering surfing lessons and surf shops offering paddleboards, surfboards, apparel, and other sporting goods.
Famous piano manufacturer Steinway & Sons makes their pianos in Queens. While started in Manhattan by German immigrant Henry Engelhard Steinway in 1853, their instruments are still handcrafted from wood selection to final key tuning at their Astoria factory.
In non-Covid times, there are scheduled tours of the working factory.
The Cemetery Belt
It may sound morbid, but Queens has more deceased and buried inhabitants than living ones.
It’s because of what’s called NYC’s Cemetery Belt, a heavy concentration of burial sites alongside the Queens/Brooklyn border. In the 19th century, Manhattan’s population was booming and after a period of cholera outbreaks, available space in burial grounds was running out.
When an 1852 law made Manhattan off-limits to new burials, officials turned to rocky and undeveloped land between Queens and Brooklyn. Queens now has 25 cemeteries, with the first being Calvary Cemetery in Woodside and Long Island City. Harry Houdini is buried in Machpelah Cemetery in Glendale.
Queens on film
Queens has been on both sides of a camera, as the location of two film studios and the backdrop in many tv shows and movies.
Kaufman Astoria Studios is at what was once the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. Founded in 1920, the original studio produced silent and sound films starring the Marx Brothers, Rudolph Valentino, and other screen legends.
Today, Kaufman is the set for Sesame Street and the home of the Museum of the Moving Image, which honors the history of movie and television production through screenings and displays of antique camera equipment and props. It also has a must-see permanent exhibit on Jim Henson.
In Long Island City, Silvercup Studios is housed in a former bakery of the same name, with the TV shows Manifest and When They See Us among its credits.
Eddie Murphy’s Coming To America had him and Arsenio Hall traveling to Queens from the fictitious Zamunda to find Murphy a bride. Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas was shot partly in Queens, with one scene at Neir’s Tavern in Woodhaven. Men In Black had its climax at Flushing Meadows Corona Park, while the Spider-Man film franchises have kept Peter Parker’s comic book connection to the borough.
TV’s Ugly Betty had Betty Suarez and her family from Jackson Heights, and The King of Queens was set in Rego Park, with its opening credits showing the Unisphere and The Lemon Ice King of Corona.