New York is one of the world’s easiest major cities to explore on foot.
For the most part the terrain is flat, and because the island of Manhattan is packed with things to see in a reasonably compact space, walking is a great way to explore. Plus, you can beat the traffic in the process!
During a recent visit to the Big Apple, I went on several guided walks to gain a better understanding of life in this incredible city. Here’s a selection of the best New York walking tours for the first-time visitor.
The Manhattan Walking Tour takes groups of no more than eight, which makes this a very personalised option. There are several tours on offer. We booked the High Line and Greenwich Village Food Tour combo. I didn’t know a lot about either coming into the day.
We met our guide Alex and four other guests, and proceeded up to the High Line, a disused elevated rail line that has been transformed into 2.3 kilometres of parkland and walking paths through the neighbourhoods of Chelsea and the Meatpacking District. Alex explained how the area was regenerated from a largely derelict zone into vibrant, picturesque community space. He was also able to delve deeper into the transformation, giving us a real sense of the community spirit and pride in the project, which residents voluntarily maintain.
After coming to the end of the High Line we strolled into Greenwich Village to begin the food tour.
Greenwich is not at all what one would expect in the heart of New York. It’s quiet and peaceful, with mainly low-rise buildings. We stopped at five separate places to sample the variety of food on offer. All of it was different — from pizza and sub sandwiches, to chocolate and cannoli. Trust me, you won’t need any dinner that night!
Where required, food was ordered ahead so that when we arrived it was freshly prepared and ready to be served. The food was delicious and each eatery we visited had a story, which made us truly appreciate the love that goes into their food.
Free Tours by Foot is a ‘pay what you wish’ service. You still get an informative tour of a specific part of the city, but chances are you will be walking with a larger group. I chose the Chinatown and Little Italy Tour and when I arrived at the designated meeting spot there were 35 people registered, so we were divided into two groups — each with our own guide. Our guide Michael was very knowledgeable about the area, but sometimes it was a bit of a challenge to gather round and hear the stories he was telling, while still letting foot traffic through.
At the end of the tour you are invited to contribute privately as you see fit. Michael stayed for a long time after the tour answering questions and giving people directions to where they needed to be next, which was great.
Big Onion Walking Tours provide in-depth historical and literary tours of New York, to help visitors gain an understanding of why a particular area is what it is today. Most of their guides are full-time graduate students who have studied American history, so they’re well placed to provide as much information as you want.
We booked Upper East Side: A Clash of Titans which focussed on wealthy families who changed the Upper East Side of New York from a farming district to an area of opulence, luxury and scandal around the turn of the 20th century. Our guide Zach shared stories about the Carnegies, Vanderbilts and Fricks, who were at the heart of the wealth that flowed through New York at that time. But money doesn’t always buy you happiness! I was totally engrossed for the full two hours.
Group sizes vary depending on bookings — there were only seven on my tour. Tours are very reasonably priced for what they provide, and cover many different areas of the city — including Harlem to the Brooklyn Bridge, and Central Park to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
If you want to eat like a local during your stay in New York, then a walking tour with Food on Foot Tours is a must-do. There are around fifteen different itineraries — several of which are included in the New York Pass.
One option is the eclectic East Village, where you’ll try a range of delicious and inexpensive eats and treats, including dumplings, home-made corn dogs, cupcakes and pastrami sliders, washed down with boutique root beer. You’ll also discover some great bars and restaurants to try at your leisure. Do this one early in your stay if you can.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best New York walking tours for the first-time visitor? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
Stephen Hodges was a teacher and a social worker before he left Australia for a three-year overseas adventure. While travelling, he worked as a grouse beater in Scotland, a chicken farmer on a Kibbutz in Israel and a camp counsellor in France. On his return to Melbourne, Stephen began working in the travel industry and set up a business, which he ran for six years. He still has a passion for travel and believes life is all about experiences — and that you can find them in the most unlikely places, if you look hard enough.