Do you know about Rockaway Beach? It's free and is a subway ride away, located in Southern Queens.
Rockaway, like much of New York City, has a very rich and interesting history but I won't bore you too much: Rockaway was originally inhabited by the Canarsie Indian tribe until the 1600s. In the 1800s Rockaway was a getaway for New York's rich and famous, including such notables as the Vanderbilts, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Washington Irving. Hotels lined the shore for miles, and Rockaway was known as the "The Playground of New York".Through the next century, Rockaway remained a place where a good time was to be had and a place to just enjoy the summer and cool down. Lined with many bars and restaurants, Rockaway was soon to be inhabited by mostly Irish immigrants instead of just a vacation spot.
After WWII, Rockaway started to become more of a neighborhood, but we still had our beach and one last amusement park: Rockaway's Playland, providing enjoyment for the community and all of New York City until the 1980s. I run into people all over the city and to this day when I tell them I was born and raised in Rockaway, most of them had spent a summer or two in Rockaway and went to Playland. A really short personal history: my grandfather and grandmother (maybe the only Italians in Rockaway at the time) settled there around the 1940s. They had a house on 80th Street and a huge garden; they also owned a fruit, vegetable and meat store there. They moved to 69th street after the city decided to build a school on their property.
Fast Forward to today: Rockaway is still a place for playing and relaxing (just a lot fewer bars and resaurants). Take the "A" train to the end, get off at the Broad Channel Station and switch to the Shuttle. As soon as you get off the train you can see and smell the ocean air and amazingly it will be at least 10 degrees cooler than wherever you were when you got on the train. If you get off at 90th street, you can watch the surfers, head to Boarders Surf Shop on 92nd street, and maybe hook up with some lessons. There is a new taco stand on 96th street for a nice bite to eat. Bring your bike and ride along the boardwalk. If you keep riding uptown you will head directly into Riis Park and Fort Tilden (a retired WWII army base). Of course, the main attraction for me is to just relax on the beach and swim all day long. Don't forget your sunblock.
photo credits: forgottenny.com and farrockaway.com