Check out the best things to do in Coney Island, the richly historic neighborhood and entertainment district that has captivated Americans for a century!
In addition to the famous tours, restaurants and world-famous attractions, see why New Yorkers have been flocking to this seaside entertainment destination since the 19th century.
Coney Island is located in the southwest part of Brooklyn on a peninsula in the Atlantic Ocean. Coney Island’s boundaries are Manhattan Beach, parts of Brighton Beach to its east, Lower New York Bay to the south and west, parts of Sea Gate to the west, and Gravesend to the north.
Coney Island wasn’t always the mecca of entertainment for New Yorkers. Originally, Coney Island was an actual island before the land literally filled in and became a peninsula. Coney Island wasn’t always part of Brooklyn.
In the mid-19th century, Coney Island caught the eye of investors who developed this prime waterfront property into a seaside resort and amusement park.
Coney Island was the perfect location for a seaside resort because of its location in Manhattan and the city of Brooklyn, which gave the feeling of being far away without having to travel a great distance, and it gained popularity among tourists in the 1830s and 1840s.
Coney Island began to see a lot of development in the 1840s and at the time it was a true island not connected to the mainland.
Around 1847, ferry services opened making Coney Island more accessible to the middle class. 20 years later more people were able to come to enjoy Coney Island as railroads served this area making access to different social classes easier than ever.
Since 1869, when the Brooklyn Bridge was built, it has become even easier for those planning a day trip from the city and nearby homes to visit the fun that was to be found at Coney Island and especially the hot summers at the beach.
A corrupt official taking kickbacks was basically the reason behind the big boom in resort development, despite local opinion that the waterfront should remain more preserved.
This wasn’t the only nefarious activity Coney Island would see. There was a lot of gang activity, brothels, pickpockets and generally it was a place where many lost their money. The first amusement park with an entrance was actually Sea Lion Park, which was built to keep out the “undesirables” who were pickpockets and thieves, so by paying a ticket, people felt safe inside the enclosure.
The first activity at Coney Island was a hand-built carousel built in 1876 with the Seaside Aquarium opening soon after. The first roller coaster not only in Coney Island but also in the United States opened here in 1884. The roller coaster was called the Switchback Railway and at the time it cost $0.05 a ride.
The influx of visitors meant great opportunities for restaurants to provide mass quantities of food. The iconic Nathan’s Famous original hot dog wasn’t the first hot dog vendor on the Coney Island boardwalk. Feltman’s started in 1867 by German immigrant Charles Feltman had a hot dog cart and is considered the father or inventor. of hot dogs in a bun! This quick meal was a great way for the masses to eat.
In 1920, the famous Wonder Wheel opened and then in 1923 the Riegelmann Boardwalk with even more roller coasters.
Until and after World War II, Coney Island was the nation’s largest amusement park.
Unfortunately, the 20th century came with more challenges than the Great Depression. Almost all amusement parks were partially or completely destroyed due to fires. Steeplechase Park burned down in 1907 and had to be completely rebuilt, while Dreamland, which burned down in 1911, was never rebuilt. Another massive fire occurred in 1932 leaving at least 1000 people homeless. In that fire the iconic hotel, in the shape of an elephant, Elephantine Colossus was burnt to the ground.
The park has seen dramatic changes over the years. From fires and rebuilding to new parks like AstroLand which was created in 1962. Astroland was closed for good with the exception of the iconic wooden Cyclone roller coaster, which is still in Luna Park to this day. This is actually a new park named Luna Park to honor the original.
Most of the things to do in Coney Island listed in this guide are seasonal. Amusement parks and restaurants along the boardwalk are open every year between Easter and Halloween usually.
However, some of the Coney Island attractions listed are open year-round, such as the New York Aquarium, the original Nathan’s Famous, and the iconic William’s Candy.
Even if you visit off-season, you’ll have a different experience as the boardwalk is quite quiet with fewer visitors and you’ll be able to admire Coney Island’s iconic landmarks like Deno’s Wonder Wheel, the Cyclone Roller coaster and more without actually going inside them.
One of the most iconic things to do in Coney Island is to visit one of the most recognizable structures in all of Coney Island and New York history.
Deno’s Wonder Wheel, in addition to the giant and historic wheel, is also a unique amusement park, named Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park. It has five exciting activities for adults and 16 for children.
However, the main attraction here is the Wonder Wheel, a 150-foot-long (equivalent to ~15 stories) Ferris wheel built in 1920. From the top of the historic landmark, you can get great views of the ocean, the Riegelmann Boardwalk, the rest of Coney Island’s attractions, and even Manhattan!
In the 100 year history of the Wonder Wheel there have been 0 accidents/incidents. Only once did the Wonder Wheel stop with passengers during the Great Blackout of 1977 in New York. Fortunately, thanks to a hand crank provided for these occasions, the operator was able to safely remove the passengers from the wheel!
Another of the best things to see and do in Coney Island is to visit Luna Park! Believe it or not, this amusement park is not the original Luna Park that opened from 1903 to 1944.
This Luna Park opened in 2010 and is named after the historic original Luna Park and contains many of Coney Island’s historic rides and attractions, including the Coney Island Cyclone.
The park is located on the site of the old AstroLand which operated in Coney Island from 1962 to 2008 and Dreamland which operated from 1904 to 1911.
Today there are 28 routes, endless games as well as many food options!
Coney Island Cyclone is a wooden roller coaster that dates back to 1927, was renovated in the 1970s and is still in operation today!
One of the most unbeatable things to do in Coney Island is to eat Coney Island’s famous and original hot dog! No, it’s not Nathan’s Famous surprisingly! Feltman’s is home to the inventor of what we know as the hot dog bun.
Unfortunately, the location of the original Feltman’s no longer exists, but it’s so central to Coney Island’s history and hot dog wars that we’ve included it on this list.
Charles Feltman was a German immigrant who had a cart that sold food to the people coming to Coney Island in 1867. By 1869, Feltman put the sausage in a special hot long bun that was easily eaten on the street. He called this the Coney Island Red Hot, and later it was called a hot dog and was extremely popular selling up to 40,000 a day!
The original Feltman’s closed in 1954, but in 2015 Michael Quinn brought back the original hot dog cart to the historic boardwalk by reviving the brand at a location near where the original was. However, in 2019 Feltman’s lost its position and today you can only buy their hot dogs at their store and make them yourself at home.
One of the most popular things to do at Coney Island is eat one of the world famous Nathan’s Famous hot dogs!
Nathan Handwerker worked for Feltman’s as a salesman before he decided to make his own fortune selling his own hot dogs to feed the crowds that flocked to Coney Island in 1916.
Feltman’s was selling his hot dogs for 10 cents and Nathan undercut him by selling his at half price for only 5 cents each! This resulted in Coney Island’s most successful and iconic hot dog vendor growing into a huge national brand that continues to this day to be one of the most iconic places to eat in Brooklyn.
While there were rumors about the quality of these hot dogs relative to the very low price, such as that they came from a dead whale, those rumors remained rumors likely started by his former employer who was unhappy about his new competitor undercutting him. Another theory is that customers were just suspicious of how cheap these hot dogs were.
That didn’t stop its success, and this Coney Island attraction has over a thousand sales locations, including international locations, Major League Baseball stadiums and supermarkets around the world.
The original Nathan’s Famous hot dog shop was in its original location from opening in 1916 until 2012. Hurricane Sandy caused severe damage in 2012, which required repairs. The original location is at the corner of Surf and Stillwell avenues with a second location on the boardwalk.
Another of Coney Island’s most popular attractions is the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest held every year on July 4th and televised nationwide.
The contest is said to have been held for years before dating back to 1916, but became an “official” event in 1972.
It is said that in 1916, Mortimer Matzm, the Nathan’s advertiser at the time, wanted to settle a dispute between four immigrants over who was the most patriotic, with a hot dog eating contest.
The hot dog eating contest is said to have become an annual event, with the exception of the year 1941 as a protest against the war in Europe and 1971 due to political unrest in the US.
The contest has become one of the most famous things to see in Coney Island every year, even if you’re not there, since you can watch it on TV on ESPN!
The current record holder is still Joey Chestnut for eating 71 hot dogs in 2019.
Another of the most iconic things to do in Coney Island that you should not miss if you visit is the Riegelmann Boardwalk, also known as the Coney Island Boardwalk.
The 2.7-mile long boardwalk on Coney Island’s South Shore connects Coney Island’s amusement parks and attractions to the beach and is a New York City landmark.
The Coney Island Boardwalk also connects to the Steeplechase Pier near the original site of the historic Steeplechase Park and is the only remaining pier on Coney Island Beach. The pier dates back to 1904 and is where you can enjoy the best panoramic view of Coney Island.
Another one of the best things to do in Coney Island is enjoy the magical beach. It’s hard to imagine beaches in New York City, but one of the most popular of all Brooklyn beaches to visit because of all the Coney Island activities is right here in Coney Island.
Coney Island Beach is 3 miles of sandy shoreline, perfect for sunbathing, swimming, beach volleyball and other fun activities, all just steps away from all the fun on the boardwalk and amusement parks.
The beach and boardwalk are open to the public all year round from 6am to 9pm. Lifeguards are on duty during the summer season from Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend.
The Coney Island Museum is the only accredited institution in the world dedicated to preserving and interpreting the history of the Coney Island entertainment district beginning with the area’s earliest days.
The Coney Island Museum has a permanent collection of over 5,000 items from photographs, paintings, entertainment related items, architectural elements and vintage signs from throughout the years.
They even have archives that are used as a critical resource for scholars studying the history of American recreation and popular culture from the nineteenth century onward.
This is a great break from the boardwalk to explore the past of all the things to do in Coney Island throughout history and the culture and influences it has had on the city.
It’s only $5 for adults and $3 for children and seniors, and it’s one of the most fun museums in Brooklyn.
Another of the best things to do in Coney Island is to visit the New York Aquarium often referred to as the Coney Island Aquarium. This is the oldest continuously open aquarium in the country, right here on the Coney Island boardwalk!
The aquarium was first housed in Battery Park in Manhattan and dates back to 1896, but was moved to its current location on Coney Island in 1957. The current location of the New York Aquarium was one of Coney Island’s historic original theme parks, Dreamland.
The most popular exhibit and attraction here is Ocean Wonders: Sharks! tank that brings visitors inches closer to 20 different species of sharks.
In addition to being a place to see marine life up close, the New York Aquarium is involved in conservation programs as well as visitor education programs.
Another favorite tradition and thing to do at Coney Island is to enjoy the weekly Friday night fireworks show which is free to the public or anyone at Coney Island.
The fireworks show is usually from the 3rd week of June to the end of August and takes place every Friday night, weather permitting.
Where is the best place to see the fireworks? We recommend you to see them from the boardwalk or the beach! The show usually lasts 30 minutes from 21:30 to 22:00.
All of these fun Coney Island activities can’t be without a sweet treat.
You can taste plenty of sugar at Williams Candy on Surf Ave selling everything from cotton candy, ice cream, popcorn, marshmallows to the famous caramel apples in the old fashioned family bakery. It has become a Coney Island landmark serving park visitors and the Coney Island community for over 80 years.
While many of the businesses close in the off season, Williams Candy is open year round! Plus, these candies and apples make for an amazing Coney Island photo backdrop!
One of the most unique and amazing things to do in Coney Island is the Coney Island Circus Sideshow! This is a modern version of circus spectacles such as miracles, strange beings, swords of fire and other strange talents and performances by a large cast of artists.
The tradition of shows like this dates back to the 1800s in New York. It was not uncommon for these incredible shows to be performed in amusement parks and traveling circuses made extremely popular by World’s Fair exhibitions.
In the 1960s, these types of shows declined sharply due to the outcry from those who accused these shows and presenters of exploiting disabled or special performers as well as the socio-economic climate of the time.
Shows are usually about 45 minutes long and have 10 acts with various artists in a traditional ten-in-one line-up. The show runs continuously, so if you enter 10 minutes late, you can stay for the first 10 minutes of the next show.
The Coney Island Circus Sideshow prides itself on being the first professional non-profit theater solely dedicated to preserving the American tradition of live sideshows and is one of the only Coney Island activities you can see.
Another unique Coney Island attraction and activity is the annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade! This spectacular parade is as much fun as it sounds celebrating the start of the summer season with thousands of participants dressed as mermaids and mermaids along with festive floats.
The Mermaid Parade, held annually in June on the Saturday closest to the summer solstice, is the country’s largest artistic parade.
The parade was inspired by Coney Island’s Mardi Gras celebrations and parades from the 1900s. The first mermaid parade started in 1983 and each year they crowned and introduced their own King Neptune and Queen Mermaid.
If you plan to visit the parade, you can also book tickets to the fun afterparty, the Mermaid Ball. Tickets usually sell out very quickly as this has become one of the most fun and sought after events for mermaid lovers here in Brooklyn.
After the devastating passage of Hurricane Sandy, the Mermaid Parade was almost canceled in 2013 due to a lack of funding. However, the community and die-hard fans were able to raise $117,000 on Kickstarter and resurrect the parade and celebrations!
For all beer lovers this is one of the best things to do in Coney Island! What better way to cool off from a hot day at the beach or the amusement park than with a refreshing local drink?
Coney Island Brewery is one of the best breweries in Brooklyn with their unique limited release beers as well as their famous Mermaid Pilsner and Mermaid IPA.
Their original location was inside the historic building that housed the Freakatorium until Hurricane Sandy damaged not only the brewery but many of Coney Island’s historical rides and activities.
In 2015, they built the new, big, beautiful location near the original location. This is one of the few breweries in town where you can also tour the facility and the tours are free!
Coney Island Art Walls is an outdoor museum of murals and street art that features more than 30 artists from around the world each year. Each year the walls change, so there’s reason to return to this Coney Island attraction year after year.
In the heart of all the sights to see in Coney Island, right next to the boardwalk and beach, you can find some of the colorful art installations that are free to the public.
Another one of the best things to do in Coney Island along the boardwalk is catch a live show at the covered outdoor entertainment venue, Ford’s Amphitheater.
All shows held here go on, rain or snow.
The amphitheater opened in 2015 on the site of the historic Childs Restaurant on the Coney Island boardwalk. The restaurant, which dates back to 1923, has given its premises to the Ford Amphitheater, but the coolest place to have a drink is the stunning rooftop bar.
Another activity you can do in Coney Island is see one of the local minor league baseball games! The Brooklyn Cyclones are named after the famous Cyclone roller coaster, which is located on the original site of historic Steeplechase Park.
Enjoy a game while eating one of Nathan’s famous courtside hot dogs. Hot dogs have a long history with baseball and American culture, which is why you can find them here as a local Coney Island specialty!
In fact, MLB designated Nathan’s Famous as their official “hot dog.”
The Tilyou family opened Steeplechase Park in 1897, marking the beginning of Coney Island’s reputation as the “National Playground” and the rise of modern amusement parks. Steeplechase Park takes its name from its central feature, an eight-lane mechanical horse game on an undulating track.
In 1907 Steeplechase Park was destroyed by fire and rebuilt to include this pier. After the destruction of nearby Dreamland in 1911, the Iron Steamboat Company took over Steeplechase Pier until 1941. The beach and pier were transferred to the New York Parks Department in 1938.
Steeplechase Pier collapsed in 1992 and was rebuilt in a new cross shape. Popular for year-round fishing and crabbing, the pier was renamed after local resident, businessman and park activist Pat Auletta.
Hurricane Sandy damaged the pier in 2012, and it was rebuilt to include shades, an elevated viewing platform, and benches clad in salvaged wood from the old deck. The sturdy pier, more than 1,100 feet long, remains a waterfront attraction.
One of the best things to do in Coney Island is to visit neighboring Brighton Beach. Surrounded by Coney Island, Brighton Beach is home to not only more gorgeous beachfront property, but also ‘Little Odessa’, a Russian and Eastern European enclave with lots of great restaurants and shops.
The neighborhood is still home to a large Russian-speaking community that is genealogically connected to the neighborhood from the migration of ancestors. Many of the signs are even in Cyrillic.
Whether you’re looking for a slightly less crowded and more relaxed beach to relax on in the summer or one of New York’s most culturally rich neighborhoods a true melting pot, you can find it right here in Brighton Beach.
We suggest you sample the food at Brighton Bazaar, enjoy some vodka at Volna and stroll through the various shops on your first trip to Little Odessa.