Historical Walking Tours of New York City: The Good, Bad, and Amazing!

By Nomadic Matt | Published June 16th, 2014

walking tours of nycNew York City has many walking tour companies—from free tours to food tours to neighborhood tours to expensive private walking tours. This place has it all, and with so much history and culture and so many nationalities represented here, it’s not really that surprising. New York seems to have a walking tour for everyone’s needs.

Now, I love walking tours. I think they’re a wonderful way to see a city, get your bearings, and learn about where you are from a local expert’s point of view. After all, why visit a place if you don’t want to learn about it?

Over the last month, I decided to learn about my new home and took tours with most of the big historical walking tour companies (food tours are for another post) in order to find the best. My feet still hurt, but I learned a lot about NYC history.

Here’s a review of them all:

Free Tours by Foot

These free tours are offered throughout the city by volunteer guides, with multiple tours offered each day. You can find a wide range of tours (historical, food, cultural) that take you all over the city. The company really shines in its diverse catalog—there’s a neighborhood or tour type for everyone. Most of the guides are actors and other long-time locals. They add a bit of quirky history to each tour, and since there’s no set script, each tour differs based on your guide. (My SoHo tour guide waxed poetically on gentrification.) I’ve taken a number of their tours and wouldn’t hesitate to take more. You’re required to sign up for tours in advance, but unless it’s a major holiday, the tours are rarely full and you can just show up.

Context Travel

walking tours of nycOne of my favorite walking tour companies, Context runs tours throughout the world, and I mention them on this website often. They offer a lot of tours in NYC, and I’ve taken three of them. Most recently, I took the Brooklyn walk, which taught me a lot about Brooklyn and the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. I’m also a big fan of their lower Manhattan historical walk. If you want really intellectual and educational tours, this is the company to choose.

They aren’t the cheapest tour company in the city (tours run $70 per person), but luckily, you can use the code “nomadicmatt” to get 10% off.

Walks of New York

walking tours of nycThe folks who brought you Walks of Italy now run NYC tours and use NYC-based guides. I love both their Italy tours and their NYC tours. I went on their Met tour (amazing), which was hours of educational fun. They’re just starting up in NYC and, as a result, have limited offerings, but their tours provide access that others can’t. They’re developing tours with super chef Mario Batali and backstage Broadway tours. I highly recommend all their offerings—the folks behind them really know what they’re doing.

Tours range $35–50 per person, and you can get 10% off with the code “NOMADIC10.”

Big Apple Greeter

Big Apple Greeter was founded in 1992 and connects visitors with local residents who show them around their neighborhood for a day. These aren’t professional guides, just locals showing you their favorite spots. I haven’t taken a tour with this company in many years, but the concept is still spot on and it’s something I highly recommend first-time visitors do. Demand is high, so it’s best to fill out the request form at least four weeks before your arrival.

Grand Central Neighborhood Tour

walking tours of nycThis is a free tour of Grand Central Terminal highlighting the architectural history of the building and surrounding area. It’s offered Friday at 12:30 and lasts for 90 minutes. Grand Central has such an important presence in NYC history that I highly recommend taking this tour. And when you’re finished, head to the swanky Campbell Apartment for a drink (dress nice, though!).

Central Park Conservancy Tour

Ever wanted to know about the flora and fauna of Central Park? Well, now you can. Several free tours highlight the various features of the park. Not only do you get to walk around the park on a beautiful day, but you learn about what you’re looking at too! The tours are free—you just need to show up—and last under two hours.

The Village Alliance

walking tours of nycEvery Saturday in the summer, the Village Alliance offers free walking tours of Greenwich Village. The guides focus on the history and social culture of the area, so you get a lot of information on the bohemian art scene, food, and gentrification. It lasts only 90 minutes, and all you have to do is show up. It’s a unique and very informative tour.

Big Onion Walking Tours

This is one of the biggest walking tour companies in New York. Using Ph.D. candidates as tour guides, this company runs about 30 tours on varying days each month. I took the Prohibition walking tour. I liked my guide, and she provided a lot of historical information, but much of it wasn’t directly related to prohibition. While that was a personal bummer (I’m a sucker for anything Jazz Age!), I still really liked the tour and would recommend the company. Tours are only $20, making them one of the cheaper companies in the city.

The Wall Street Experience

Started by former brokers, this Wall Street tour is dubbed one of the best in the city… and I’m not sure why. I was really excited to take their famed Wall Street Crisis tour but found it just awful. I mean, wow, was it bad! They bill this as an insider’s tour on the financial crisis (guides are ex-stockbrokers), but in reality, it’s just poorly explained recent history that could be run better by anyone who’s spent a few minutes reading a book on the topic or watching CNN. Skip this one.

Wall Street Walks

This is another Wall Street tour that I found disappointing. They offer tours similar to those offered by the company above, and I took their historical walk. It’s clear they read off a script, which was littered with historical inaccuracies. For example, after the 1920 bombing on Wall Street, it was J.P. Morgan’s son, not Morgan himself (who had died years earlier), who decided to leave the damage on the building’s facade. They said they opposite. (There were tons of historical inaccuracies about the founding fathers and colonial NYC too.) Another company I wouldn’t take a tour with again.

Some other tours I’ve heard are worthwhile from reliable, trustworthy sources but haven’t used myself include:

  • Greenwich Village Literary Pub Crawl — Actors from the Bakerloo Theatre Project take visitors around bars in the West Village and fill their heads with information about famous drinking writers and their stomachs with a lot of beer. Come thirsty!
  • Harlem Your Way—This tour visits the main sites in Harlem and on Sundays, the Gospel Walking Tour takes you to a music-filled service at a neighborhood church (very popular with Europeans). Their website is broken, so call 212-690-1687 for more information.
  • Joyce Gold Tours of New York — Joyce Gold is a 30-year tour veteran who teaches history at NYU and leads very informational small group tours around city. Her history-focused tours are very detailed. Go if you’re a history buff!
  • New York Gallery Tours — This tour company takes you to a wide variety of galleries throughout New York City. It’s a great way to see up-and-coming art without having to figure out what galleries are worth seeing. The galleries visited frequently change, so check the website for tour information.
  • New York TV and Movie Tour — This tour takes you to all the famous spots you see in movies and on TV. I just signed up for their tour, so I’ll report back and update this later.

Although many companies offer a lot of the same tours and routes, what really makes these companies stand out are the different guides and styles each one employs. If you have a few days in the city, I would mix and match a few tour companies.

But no matter what company you tour with on this list, you’ll learn a lot, have fun, and discover parts of NYC you wouldn’t have found otherwise. Nothing can replace an insider’s tour of a city!

P.S. Be sure to always tip your guides—free tour or not!

All images except the top one are taken from each company’s website.

comments 13 Comments

Too bad the Wall Street Tours were disappointing! And the Greenwich Village literary pub crawl sounds very interesting.

I totally agree with you Matt, walking tours are a great way to see a place! And it’s nice to get some exercise :). I have never been on a walking tour in NYC though. Will definitely check some of these out on my next trip to the Big Apple. The Free Tours by Foot sounds wonderful, as well as the New York TV and Movie walk with Wall Street Walks. Would be great fun to see places where famous movies and TV shows were filmed!

Great Post, I’m always iffy about tours. They can be great, but they can be awful. When I went to Versailles Palace, I actually ended up leaving the tour because it was so bad. Thanks for the recommendations.

Great review. It’s always nice to have someone who can show you and tell you everything about a place. A guide sometimes can really make a difference, especially if it’s a good one!

I love a walking tour, especially the “free” ones that are popping up all over the world in just about every city now. It really is a great intro to a city, its most important sights and history and of course it’s food. I was slightly disappointed in the Grand Central tour when I did it a few years back, but I think that was mostly to do with the guide who looked and acted as though he didn’t want to be be there. I’ve heard only good things about the Big Apple Greeter tour and wish I had taken their tour when I arrived. Like you said, its a really great concept. Maybe next time.

My family live in NY so I often visit. Thanks for breaking down this list – can’t wait to check out a couple on my next visit!

I always try to take a walking tour of a new city if they’re offered. Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to do so in New York, but these suggestions will be really helpful for the next visit. I did join a couple of walking tours in Washington DC though, which were offered through the HI Hostel there. They were great – the tours were interesting and kept your attention, and the guides really friendly.

Thank you very much for sharing this very fascinating post!
Unfortunately so far many cities have not added walking toues to their offers for visitors and newcomers.
I have just experienced a historical walking tour on the Algarve – and it was very fascinating and added a lot to what I already knew!

These tours in New York sound great. In fact, taking a walking tour is just good sense. You get a feeling for your environment, a chance to connect with locals, and hopefully, insiders tip and secrets of the locality. Always a win-win. I went on a walking tour in Berlin recently.

Thanks for sharing Matt. :)

Vh

Thanks for the timely post! I am planning a NYC trip for October and will keep these tours in mind. I am particularly interested in tours like the food tours that take you around the city on public transportation. Not only does it broaden the area you can cover, you get to learn a little about getting around the city, which benefits the rest of your trip.

Ooh, good info for my next NYC trip (whenever that is). Last time I was there, I took a really impressive walking tour run by the Tenement Museum – a food tour of the Lower East Side. The tour was fantastic, AND I got to eat. Highly recommended!

I only heard about the Big Apple Greeter tour after I visited New York but I wish I had heard about it earlier. The Village Alliance sounds like a great tour, I love Greenwich Village.

NomadicMatt

Check both out!

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