Updated: 01/17/20 | January 17th, 2020
New 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.
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 the best walking tours in New York City:
Best Overall Tour
Walks specializes in behind the scenes access that other tours don’t offer. I went on their Met tour, which was hours of educational fun. Their Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island tour as well as their Disney tour take you behind the scenes and give you insider access you won’t get anywhere else I highly recommend all their offerings — the folks behind them really know what they’re doing.
Best Free Tour
Free Tours by Foot
These free tours are offered throughout the city by volunteer guides, with multiple tours offered each day (On some days, you can find up to twenty tours being offered). 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.
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 poetic on gentrification.) Just make sure to sign up in advance!
In addition to these two awesome tours, New York has over a dozen other insightful, educational, and delicious tours in the city. Here are my top suggestions:
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. Meeting a greeter is free of charge and there is a no tipping policy. However, please consider making a donation to help this service continue.
This is a free tour of Grand Central Terminal, highlighting the architectural history of the building and surrounding area. 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!). No reservation is required. The Grand Tour meets each and every Friday throughout the year at 12:30 pm.
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 and last under two hours— you just need to show up.
The Village Alliance offers free self-guided walking tours of Greenwich Village. You can get the itineraries and maps on their website so you can learn about the history and social culture of the area. You will also get information on the bohemian art scene, food, and gentrification. It last as long as you want it to. If you’d rather a guide, join a free Greenwich Village walking tour led by the Village Alliance, each Saturday from June through September. This tour is free.
This is one of the biggest walking tour companies in New York. Using PhD 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 $25.
The Bowery Boys started off as a podcast back in 2007, focusing on the unique history of the Big Apple. Since then, they’ve branched out and created their own walking tours based on some of their most popular episodes and topics. They offer 4 distinct tours that cover specific areas around the city as well as different historical periods, such as their Landmarks and Legends of Broadway tour. I like that their tours are limited to 15 people so you’re never crowding to hear the guide. Their tours last around 2 hours and cost $35. Be sure to book in advance since there is limited space.
In addition to your standard walking tours, food tours are another great way to explore and sample some of the city’s amazing cuisine. New York City has no shortage of them. There are food tours for every part of the city, focused on every type of cuisine imaginable, so there will likely be something for everyone here! My suggested food tour companies to check out are:
- Scott’s Pizza Tours
- Foods of NY
- Famous Fat Dave’s Five Borough Eating Tour
- Secret Food Tours
- Jersey Girl Food Tours
Some other NYC walking tours I’ve heard are worthwhile from reliable, trustworthy sources but haven’t used myself include the following:
- 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). Walking tours range from $25 to $75.
- 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 the city. Her history-focused tours are very detailed. Go if you’re a history buff! There are lots of tours to choose from and all are $20.
- 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. Tours are $25.
- New York TV and Movie Tour — This tour takes you to all the famous spots you see in movies and on TV. Tours are $45.
But no matter what company you tour with on this list, you’ll learn a lot, have fun, and discover parts of NYC with these walking tours 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.
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