Best Historic Walking Tours in New York
New York City is the perfect walking town. The streets are laid out in a grid pattern so it’s easy to navigate and if you get lost or have questions, locals love to pave the way with directions and advice. (They may keep walking while tawking but they’ll go out of their way to help.)
Still, while many will happily tell you where to find the best Chinese food, if you want to learn about the city’s history, best to go with an organized walking tour that will embellish the walk with insider knowledge. These tours take 2 steps forward and 1 step back into New York’s past, sharing anecdotes about neighborhoods, residents and iconic buildings.
Personal History Tour
Joyce Gold, a New York history teacher at New York University and The New School, has been giving visitors walking history lessons for 25 years. Her 2- to 2 1/2- hour “field trips” include tours about the bohemian and flamboyant Greenwich Village, the Irish in Hell’s Kitchen and New York gangs. Gold leads most of the tours herself, which she enlivens with insights culled from her years of teaching history.
Central Park Tour
The Central Park Conservancy offers several free walking tours that delve into the park’s fascinating history. The “Views from the Past” tour gives a glimpse into how the park was designed by landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in 1858. The tour, “A Road Once Traveled,” explores the role of the park’s wildlife habitat, Harlem Meer, during the American Revolution and the War of 1812.
The popular Big Apple Greeter tours are led by more than 300 volunteers who lead custom-made tours of the city in over 30 languages. The guides will meet you at your hotel, or wherever else you want in any of the boroughs, and show you whichever neighborhoods you’d like to explore. The tours vary in time. Oh, and they’re free. Tip: You must book at least 1 month in advance.
New York Food Tour
Foodies will eat up the Foods of New York Tours that take a bite into the Big Apple’s historic neighborhoods including Chinatown and Greenwich Village. Experienced guides feed you tidbits of info about the culture, architecture and history -- as well as food tastings from specialty and ethnic foods shops and restaurants.
Grand Central Tour
Grand Central Terminal isn’t only the world’s largest train station; it is also an architecturally stunning building with a past that most commuters don’t even know. Take the self-guided audio tour (the 30-minute “local” or 1-hour “express”) or free guided walking tours. On Wednesdays, the Municipal Art Society runs a tour that highlights the architecture and history of the Beaux-Arts landmark. On Fridays, a tour of the terminal and surrounding neighborhood, led by urban historians, is offered by the Grand Central Partnership.
The Big Onion Walking Tours offer 30 neighborhood history-based tours led by guides who hold an advanced degree in American history or related fields. The 2-hour tours, spanning 1 to 2 miles, include explorations of neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights where you’ll see the former homes and haunts of many literary types including Truman Capote and Walt Whitman.
The Free Historic Districts Walking Tour by NYC by Foot explores a couple of the city’s oldest neighborhoods from a historical perspective -- SoHo, Little Italy, Lower Manhattan and Chinatown. Bonus: Your well-behaved dog can hoof it, too! The guides function as “part professor, part performer” and while the tours are free, the company’s motto is “We’re so hip, we know you’ll tip.”
There’s nothing too scary about the Haunted Greenwich Village tour offered by Gotham Walking Tours. Instead, this history tour led by Lina Viviano, a native New Yorker who taught American history and politics at Harvard, tells tales about sites linked to famous residents and events where ghosts are said to roam, like Mark Twain (who knows, maybe he had a ghostwriter) and the devastating Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire that still haunts New York.
Walking is not only a great way to discover the Big Apple but ideal for working off those extra calories and getting some fresh New York air (well, okay, maybe not fresh.) So, bring some comfy walking shoes and explore away.
Laurie Bain Wilson writes often about New York City and is the author of several travel guidebooks, including New York City Made Easy and New York City with Kids.