The Best NYC Tour
What's the best way to learn about a city—with a book in hand, on a guided stroll, or listening to your trusty iPod?MEEGHAN TRUELOVE hits the pavement of her native New York City to find out
THE BOOK TOUR Frommer's Memorable Walks in New York
John Wiley & Sons, $12.99.
OVERVIEW A slim, pocket-sized volume that covers the basics of 11 New York neighborhoods and comes with well-designed maps, sidebars, and transportation tips.
HOW IT WORKS The Lower Manhattan/Financial District trek snakes a circuitous trail from Bowling Green to City Hall—beginning and ending near subway stops—and is the only tour I tested that brought me past St. Paul's Chapel to City Hall.
THE EXPERIENCE Although the entries are brief (the whole of Wall Street is allotted less than two pages), they provided just enough background to inspire me to explore on my own. Prompted by the book, I checked out the second-floor rotunda in the Beaux-Arts–style U.S. Customs House, and visited the museum of historic land grants and architectural drawings in the back of Trinity Church. Of all the tours, this one seemed most suited to a walking pace—gentle and contemplative.
BEST FOR Bookworms willing to dig a little deeper on their own.
ALSO AVAILABLE Editions for Chicago, San Francisco, London, Paris, and Rome.
THE GROUP TOUR Big Onion Walking Tours: The Financial District
212/439-1090; www.bigonion.com; $15 for a two-hour tour.
OVERVIEW The granddaddy of New York City walking-tour companies, with a rotating roster of nearly 30 history-based neighborhood tours; group size can range from one to a few dozen.
HOW IT WORKS Tours run at least three times a week, year-round, rain or shine; travelers just need to check the company's Web site and show up at the designated time and place. Most walks cover one to two miles. The rigorously trained guides, all of them grad students in history, employ a mix of erudition and wit and are comfortable improvising to suit a group's needs.
THE EXPERIENCE The day was cold and our group freakishly large (almost 60), but our plucky guide, Josh, was up to it. We cut a slow-moving triangle through downtown, pausing in sunny spots to hear Josh's detail-rich stories about shipping titans, robber barons, and revolutionaries. Because of the group's size, we skipped some stops, but I was so captivated that I didn't mind.
BEST FOR The curious, amiable stroller.
ALSO AVAILABLE One or two neighborhood tours are added each year.
THE SPECIALIZED TOUR Savory Sojourns: Financial District/Downtown
888/972-8679 or 212/ 691-7314; www.savorysojourns.com; $165 per person for a five-hour tour, including breakfast and lunch.
OVERVIEW High-end, food-centric neighborhood jaunts (Harlem, Greenwich Village, Arthur Avenue) led by Addie Tomei, a passionate native New Yorker (and mother of actress Marisa Tomei).
HOW IT WORKS Tours begin with breakfast and end with lunch, with time between given over to food, food, conversation, and food. Groups rarely top 10 people, and tours are less about historical investigations than enjoying a day on the town.
THE EXPERIENCE Like spending time with a favorite, fun-loving aunt. Tomei's connections got us into J. P. Morgan's former pied-à-terre on the 31st floor of 14 Wall Street for a peek around, even though it was closed that morning, and before our fireside lunch at India House (a private club since 1902) we poked around the rest of the stately building. We zigzagged to take in landmarks of note: the Woolworth Building, Century 21, and the excellent Financier Patisserie on Stone Street.
BEST FOR Bons vivants who enjoy a healthy dash of sightseeing.
ALSO AVAILABLE Twenty New York City tours; more are in development.
THE CELL PHONE AUDIO TOUR Talking Street: The Rise of New York
www.talkingstreet.com; $5.95 for a 16-stop, two-hour tour with 40 minutes of narration.
OVERVIEW Insightful, easy-to-use cell phone tours of American cities, with celebrity narrators who complement the locations (actress Sigourney Weaver narrates for Lower Manhattan).
HOW IT WORKS Walkers dial into a main number at each stop and enter a site code to hear the corresponding segment and get directions to the next stop. Dramatic readings, commentary from award-winning experts, and interviews flesh out the basic script.
THE EXPERIENCE The tour began and ended at the World Trade Center site, which is discussed in several powerful segments that incorporated audio clips from September 11, 2001. The content was smart and engaging with lots of historical details, but I missed the camaraderie of a group. Although having to constantly redial the number can be tiresome, I liked the price and the flexibility (I stopped for a snack and then picked right up again when I was ready). Caveat: the clang and roar of city traffic can make it difficult to hear the narrative.
BEST FOR Low-tech, history-loving visitors who like to go solo.
ALSO AVAILABLE The Lower East Side (Jerry Stiller), Boston (Steven Tyler), and the Washington, D.C. Mall (Larry King); mobile guides for Web-enabled phones will launch this spring.
THE CD/MP3 AUDIO TOUR Soundwalk: Wall Street
www.soundwalk.com; from $12 for a one-hour tour.
OVERVIEW An audio production that's more sonic journey than conventional tour. A local narrator guides walkers through his or her neighborhood's byways and back doors accompanied by sound effects, interviews, music clips, and ambient noise.
HOW IT WORKS Available on CD or as an MP3, each tour comes with a map and is designed for continuous play. Stopping and restarting is possible, but such disruptions are not encouraged. Local joints and tucked-away gems are heavily featured—a bonus, but such places are also more likely to close unexpectedly.
THE EXPERIENCE Felt like being cocooned in another world, with narrator Johnny T. Solitto—a revved-up former equities trader—showing me his haunts. We traced a path from Delmonico's (where he paused for a Johnnie Walker Black) to 14 Wall Street (martini), passing a cigar store and more watering holes. As Solitto mused about waterfalls and hula girls to a sound track of ukuleles, a bland office-tower atrium seemed to dissolve into tropics. The post office he led me to had closed, but I still enjoyed his story about it.
BEST FOR Intrepid iPod lovers looking for local flavor.
ALSO AVAILABLE Tours of other New York areas, Paris, and Varanasi, India; more walks will be released this year.
THE PDA TOUR Racontours: Lower Manhattan
www.racontours.com; $14.95 for a downloadable file fit for PDA's, smart phones, or MP3 players; tours are 11/2 to 2 hours long, with 55 minutes of narration.
OVERVIEW A downloadable historically minded tour for handheld devices (PDA's, iPods), with audio narrative, interactive maps, and archival images. Note: MP3 tours can't access graphics.
HOW IT WORKS The sophisticated technology makes downloading a little tricky. I had to call tech support. Once you get moving, the audio tour is synced with great supplementary images, and the electronic map is well-plotted.
THE EXPERIENCE An earnest (and somewhat somber) trek from Bowling Green through the Financial District to Trinity Church. Kudos to the tour for being the only one to swing down into the history-rich Battery; however, I found myself paying more attention to the lively scene around me than to the plodding, didactic voice-over. The narration often had me wondering what was going to show up on the midterm exam (the segment on Fraunces Tavern, an important Revolutionary site, veered into a discussion about Huguenots and the Edict of Nantes). Ultimately, I found the tour more conducive to curling up in an armchair than embarking on an inspired wander.
BEST FOR Tweedy history buffs who like to get their geek on.
ALSO AVAILABLE Tours for five other Manhattan areas.
Looking for the perfect New York City walking tour?NYC & Co. posts links to a selection of local tour operators on its Web site (www.nycvisit.com), including the Central Park Conservancy, which offers free tours of the park, and City Hunt, a company that leads scavenger hunts throughout Manhattan.