correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a Crystal City, Va., restaurant. The restaurant is Kabob Palace, not Kebob King. The story has been updated.
Before mid-November, Long Island City and Crystal City were never on the same page, much less uttered in the same sentence. Though both destinations are on the East Coast (New York and Virginia, respectively) and within shouting distance of a major metropolitan center, they had little else in common.
Well, that’s no longer the case. After a competitive national search, Amazon chose the sites for its second headquarters, a coronation that will release up to 25,000 subjects into the cities’ boutique coffee shops, craft cocktail bars and dog parks. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Visit both destinations and you will probably overhear conversations debating the pros and cons of Amazon, such as increased traffic and rent costs and a surge in development projects and millennials. Without question, the neighborhoods will change, which is why we spent a few days before the holidays exploring the cities. Read on for a tale of two cities that you can’t buy on Amazon or watch on Amazon Prime.
Fast facts: Arlington’s Crystal City, Pentagon City and Potomac Yard were originally part of Abingdon Plantation, and agriculture predominated until the railway arrived on the scene. In the latter half of the 19th century, the area dabbled in gambling but later turned respectable with office buildings, residential developments and hotels. In the early 2000s, the Naval Air Systems Command and the Patent and Trademark Office relocated, causing the work-and-play population to drop. Amazon will occupy three buildings on 18th Street near the Crystal City Metro station, plus two new sites in Pentagon City that will bookend a Whole Foods, another Bezos company.
The vibe: The city resembles an active ant colony, with bodies disappearing inside the malls and Metro station or marching home. People do gather for a midday coffee or happy hour before returning to their respective corners. Despite the transient nature, longtime residents still exist, including Freddie Lutz, owner of Freddie’s Beach Bar, who will happily take you on a nostalgic ride of Crystal City involving a drugstore soda fountain and a drive-in movie theater.
The view: Look past the tangle of highways at the sweeping panorama of Washington monuments and landmarks. For a 360-degree view, sit and spin in the rotating Skydome Restaurant, on the 15th floor of the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel.
Foodstuff: Several A-list and TV-minted chefs have opened restaurants here, including Spike Mendelsohn (We, the Pizza and Good Stuff Eatery), José Andrés (Jaleo) and Morou Ouattara (Kora). Most of the chains are represented, but for a homier experience, stroll 23rd Street. The dining spots act locally but cook globally: Indian, Italian, Ethiopian, Japanese, Thai and Greek. Late night, feed your insomnia at the 24-hour Kabob Palace or Bob and Edith’s Diner.
Caffeine and cocktails: In past summers, Commonwealth Joe has mobilized its kegs-on-wheels army, serving nitro cold-brew coffee to the undercaffeinated people of Arlington. For four-seasons coffee drinkers, it brought its nitro taps, pour-overs and specialty drinks (one holiday offering smacks of oatmeal cookie) indoors at its Pentagon City shop, which holds free cupping (or tasting) sessions on Sundays. Highline RxR has more beers than days of the month, and we’re not talking about February.
Currently flowing: Pick Up Your %@$# Brownies, No Veto and She Made Me, a pumpkin and yam ale from a Dulles brewery. Freddy’s Beach Bar, a straight-friendly gay bar going on 18 years, is no shrinking merman. The decor is overkill-chic, and the drinks taste like a Tahitian vacation in a glass. While waiting for your, say, Green Monkey or Flashing Flamingo, scan the shelves for the Ken-like doll in the closet.
Sleepy time: Crystal City has about 5,400 rooms in 15 hotels, and all are chains with the exception of the Americana Hotel. On average, rates are about 25 percent less than those in the District.
Culture fix: You will have to cross the Potomac for museums, but stay put for experimental theater. Synetic Theater, a neighborhood presence since 2010, leads the classics (“Cyrano,” “Richard III”) down an alternative path with dance, music, technology and the visual arts. A few galleries focusing on local painters, potters, jewelry makers and more appear in the underground arcade of the Crystal City Shops. Aboveground, a sprinkling of public art and murals add a touch of whimsy to the otherwise wan landscape of high-rises. For a walking tour, download a map. The Grounds, a repurposed parking lot in Pentagon City, hosts public events and art installations, including a recent assemblage of seesaws that radiated light and sound when see-ed and saw-ed.
Shop hop: Malls, malls, malls. The one surprise: Vintage Dress Company, which relocated from Del Ray in Alexandria to 23rd Street a few months ago. Owner Darlene Bakke scours estate sales, charity shops and thrift stores for threads and accessories from the 1950s through the 1990s. Some of her timeless finds include a pair of Jordache jeans, a Rudolph-red snowsuit and a Donna Reed-era yellow cardigan with pearls. She plans to add a wedding dress salon for brides who want to give gowns a second chance at love and marriage.
Fast facts: Long Island City was a real Long Island city with its own mayor and police force until 1898, when the five boroughs consolidated and LIC became a member of the Queens court. In the early years, the area was farmland, and Manhattan was accessible only by ferry. In the mid-20th century, the city experienced an industrial boom with 1,400 factories, including many — oil refineries, glass works, ship building, iron foundries — that left a dark smudge on the riverside landscape. Several kinder commodities, such as bread, spaghetti, shoes and film studios, also flourished, and a few survived the mass closings in 1970s and early ’80s. Over the years, LIC has staged a comeback, as more businesses and residents flee the rising costs of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Amazon will reside in Anable Basin, a 19th-century man-made inlet on the East River that once supported Old (cough, cough) Industry.
The vibe: LIC still has grit under its fingernails. The subway rumbles overhead, and warehouses sit abandoned on forlorn streets. On a misty night, I half expected Humphrey Bogart to appear out of the shadows. During the day, the city is frenetic, but you can always find a quiet place along the river or under an idled crane. Unlike other boroughs, you don’t need to squeeze into a pair of skinny jeans and cultivate a beard to fit in. Wear what you want and, if you say hello to an LICer, you might receive an even grander salutation in return: During a Big Apple Greeter tour, a resident in the Hunters Point Historic District invited us into his home to ogle his property and play with his one-eyed dog.
The view: If Long Island City had the pitching arm of Mariano Rivera, it could play catch with Midtown, which sits directly across the East River. (The landmass between the two shores is Roosevelt Island, which is accessible by tramway from Manhattan and ferry from LIC.) For a river-level view, grab an Adirondacks chair in the 12-acre Gantry Plaza State Park and shout out the names of the buildings across the way: United Nations Headquarters, Empire State Building, Chrysler. Nearby, Long Island City Community Boathouse at Anable Basin leads free paddles during the summer. Higher up, on the Z Hotel’s 12th-floor rooftop, watch the Manhattan skyline twinkle against the night sky like a not-so-distant planet.
Foodstuff: Queens is a center of diversity, and LIC reflects the immigrant story with a culinary map covered in pins. Diners can dig into Japanese noodles (Mu Ramen, Takumen), Indian (Adda Indian Canteen), Peruvian (Jora), Kansas City-style barbecue (John Brown Smokehouse) and Mexican at Casa Enrique, the only Queens eatery to earn a Michelin star. There is no shortage of Italian restaurants, but only one — Manducatis — comes with Tony Bennett’s seal of approval. (Hmmm. Does the fountain of youth run on pasta and broccoli rabe?) M. Wells Steakhouse is unapologetic: Order the bone marrow escargot and pig’s head tonight and atone with avocado toast the next day at M. Wells Dinette, inside the MoMA PS1 museum. If you crave an all-American burger and craft beer, with a side of female muse, the Baroness names all of its patties after women. To wit: the Marilyn, which is filled with mac n’ cheese and wrapped in bacon. Nearby, a sister restaurant called the Huntress specializes in wings and whiskey.
Caffeine and Cocktails: Sweetleaf, which was founded by a Queens native, has two LIC locations: the original site in a 19th-century building with a vinyl records room in the back and a waterfront store that transforms into a bar (with alcoholic coffee beverages) after 5 p.m. If you’ve grown immune to multiple espresso shots, Etto Espresso Bar amps up the jolt with the bulletproof latte, an espresso drink mixed with Kerrygold butter and high-octane brain oil. For coffee with a cause, order a cup of COFFEED, which donates a percentage of sales to a local charity. At LIC Landing, which serves the locally roasted beans, the money goes to Hunters Point Parks Conservancy. You won’t be the first — or last — person to walk past Dutch Kills, a speakeasy with discreet signage. Hint: Look for the blinking “BAR” sign above. Inside the former warehouse, the bar is replete with dark wood and brownout lighting. Order a drink from the menu, which looks as if it were banged out by a frustrated novelist, or drop a few key words like “ginger” and “don’t like the taste of alcohol” and the bartender will whip up a drink that fits your low (or high) tolerance for booze. The Long Island City Brewery Tour features four stops, including Big ALICE Brewing, which occupies a former Bible storage facility. The brewery has more than a dozen beers on tap and emphasizes local ingredients, such as the cold brew blend from a Queens roaster that appears in Date Night, Bro? (The donuts-and-coffee-flavored beer was inspired by a friendly interaction with a policeman outside a launderette.)
Sleepy time: Choose among 3,200 rooms in 33 hotels, with several dozen more properties on the way. Rates are significantly cheaper than Manhattan properties, and room size is generous. Example A: the Paper Factory, a quirky boutique hotel that honors its 100-year-old industrial history. A superior queen starts at $129 and measures 181 to 298 square feet. Example B: the Boro, where a 250-square-foot king or queen room starts at $122. Visitors with tighter budgets and no stranger danger can book a shared dorm at the Local or Q4 hostels for less than $40 a night.
Culture fix: Enjoy a modern art moment at MoMA PS1, an affiliate of the larger institution in Manhattan. The museum, which occupies Long Island City’s first school, showcases several long-term art installations plus exhibits with a shorter shelf life. The museum also holds free live performances (music, lectures, etc.) through its VW Sunday Sessions series. SculptureCenter goes large — in magnitude and concepts — with experimental artworks that fit comfortably inside a former trolley repair shop. Each year, it introduces one or two shows by midcareer artists and several exhibits by solo and group artists. Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi didn’t have to travel far to check up on his Noguchi Museum, which opened three years before his death in 1988; his studio sat across the street from the Zen repository of stone works and Akari light sculptures. More than 60 artists from 14 countries lent a hand — or spray can — to the Top to Bottom mural project, which covers all four sides of a three-story warehouse.
Shop hop: Long Island City is thin on retail. MoMA PS1 and the Noguchi Museum have well-curated gift shops, of course. More than a year ago, Book Culture, an independent bookseller with three Manhattan outposts, expanded into Queens. The two-level store sells more than just reading material: Pick up a Frida Kahlo paper doll, backpack by Sweden’s Fjallraven Kanken or dachshund-print notecards. Freed of London, the dance shoemaker, dresses the feet of Washington Ballet performers and appeared on the big screen with Natalie Portman in “Black Swan.” The English company’s sole U.S. store resides in Long Island City and stocks items by Japan’s Chacott, too. The attire is suitable for anyone who frequently bends their knees, even if it’s just to pick up a dropped M&M. Slovak-Czech Varieties specializes in toys (homemade wooden animals and trucks), edibles (three kinds of flour, chocolate galore) and glassware made in the homeland. Matted blurs the line between high and low art by combining a gallery (the current show features photos developed from vintage negatives) with anti-Kondo baubles, such as sequined stuffed animals and duct tape art kits.
More from Travel: