Reservations are required for some of the tours listed here, but even if they’re not, it’s always best to call ahead to confirm prices, times, and meeting places.
If you’d like to sail the New York Harbor aboard the 1885 cargo schooner Pioneer, check out the South Street Seaport & Museum listing for more information. Note that some of the cruise lines may have limited schedules in winter, especially for evening cruises. Call ahead or check online for current offerings.
Seeing NYC from the Deck of a Historic Fireboat -- The fireboat John J. Harvey served New York City from 1931 to 1994. Saved from the scrapyard by a group of boat lovers who purchased her in 1999, the Harvey is being lovingly and painstakingly preserved and restored, mostly by volunteer labor, and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Currently docked at Pier 66 on the West Side of Manhattan (btw. 26th and 27th sts.), the boat offers occasional free tours around the harbor and up the Hudson River from May through autumn, periodically unleashing the “deck pipes” (water guns) to spray all around (at 18,000 gallons a minute). Expect to get soaked! Check the calendar at www.fireboat.org to see if you're lucky enough to be in town when one of these tours is offered, to learn more about the historic and heroic boat and its crew, or make a donation to help fund its restoration. Even after starting its second life, the fireboat answered the call for New York City once more: on September 11, 2001, the John J. Harvey left its slip to head down to Ground Zero, and the crew rigged its pumps to draw water from the Hudson when downtown’s fire hydrants weren’t working after the attack on the World Trade Center. The boat and its crew pumped water for 80 hours. For more about the John J. Harvey and how New York Harbor and the Hudson River have shaped New York City and the United States from the Colonial era through today, pick up a copy of Jessica DuLong’s My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work that Built America (Free Press, 2009), a personal memoir and history of the river and its times by the Harvey’s acting chief engineer.
The Attack of the Double-Decker Buses -- If you were to climb aboard any public bus (cost $2.50), turn to the person next to you, and ask, “What building is that?” you’d probably get a response as informative, accurate, and interesting as what you’ll find on the much pricier, hop-on, hop-off bus tours of New York City. I know, I rode a slew of them doing research for the Frommer's guidebooks and website, and was appalled by the poor quality of the guides and audio guides. I think New York is best appreciated on foot, or on public buses and subways. Not only do you learn more about the city that way, you meet locals, rather than peering at the streets from afar, almost as if you were watching it all on TV. And you’ll actually see more than you will if you waste time waiting . . . and waiting . . . and waiting for the next of these hop-ons to arrive, rather than just footing it to the next sight. If you insist, the top bus tour is Big Bus (http://eng.bigbustours.com; tel. 800/669-0051). Tours depart from various locations. Hop-on, hop-off bus tours start at $49 adults for an 8-hour Manhattan tour, more if you get a 48-hour pass.
Take the M5: A City Bus That Hits the Highlights -- If your feet are worn out from walking, but you still want to see some sights, I suggest hopping on the M5 bus. Its route runs from Washington Heights down to the Staten Island Ferry terminal. If you board uptown, around 125th Street and Riverside Drive, and take it downtown, you’ll pass landmarks such as Grant’s Tomb, Riverside Church, Lincoln Center, Columbus Circle, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Rockefeller Center, the New York Public Library, Empire State Building, Flatiron Building, and Washington Square. And all you need is your MetroCard (or exact coin change) and your trusty Frommer’s New York City guide with your maps in hand. The bus will move slowly enough where you will be able to consult your book and find the corresponding landmarks.
Grabbing a (Pedi)cab
You really don’t want to burden that nag with a carriage ride through Central Park in the middle of the summer, do you? Better you should hire a real beast of burden—a driver of a pedicab who probably really needs the money. Pedicabs are becoming common sights on the streets of New York. The drivers are friendly, informative, and don’t poop in the street. The Manhattan Rickshaw Company (tel. 212/604-4729; www.manhattanrickshaw.com) is one pedicab company, where fares range from $15–$30 for a street hail ride; call to arrange a guided tour.
For those interested in a tour that takes in NYC architecture in an erudite, interesting way, try the Municipal Art Society (tel. 212/935-3960 or 212/453-0050; www.mas.org). It offers periodic specialized tours of many areas of the city, each with a specific focus and a varying price point.
The 92nd Street Y (www.92y.org; [tel] 212/415-5500) offers a wonderful variety of walking and bus tours, many featuring funky themes or behind-the-scenes visits. Subjects can range from “Carnegie Hall Tour and Tea” to “Jewish Harlem.” Prices range from $35 to $100, but many include ferry rides, afternoon tea, dinner, or whatever suits the program. Guides are well-chosen experts. Advance registration is required for all tours.
We also have a number of other tour companies listed on this site, so take a look at
Take a Shopping Tour -- If you want some help in your shopping and feel a bit intimidated by all the options Manhattan has to offer, you might want to consider taking a shopping tour. Shop Gotham ([tel] 212/209-3370; www.shopgotham.com) offers walking tours of SoHo and Nolita (Fri–Sat at 11am, Sun at noon) and the Garment Center “Insider” Tour (Wed and Fri at 10am). They can also customize private and group tours like the Sweet Sixteen Shopping Tour. Tours range from 2 to 4 hours and from $38 to $58.
Independent OperatorsHere are our recommendations for independent tour operators. Click on the link for full pricing and contact info.
- Big Onion Tours: hese popular tours are led by local graduate students, most of them studying history, with a few sociologists and literature majors thrown in to the mix. The emphasis therefore is on the history of the area you may be visiting—Greenwich Village, Times Square, Central Park—and the lectures tend to be complex, illuminating portraits of those places. My only quibble with these tours is that the talk is often only tangentially related to the building or park you may be viewing at the time, so the walking tour can feel more like a classroom lecture than an afternoon’s exploration.
- Free Tours by Foot: This outfit offers the most well-rounded, spirited tours of the city. No they’re not actually free; you’re expected to tip at the end, about $20, and you really should because the guide has to hand over a percentage of the tips to the “boss” who runs the operation. But because the guides are dependent on tips (and so is the boss who picks the guides), only truly gifted raconteurs make the cut. The tours hit all the classic areas of the city—Harlem, Brooklyn Heights, Greenwich Village, Chinatown, Central Park—but also include some more unusual offerings, like street art tours of Bushwick, Brooklyn, and ghost tours of the High Line area and Greenwich Village. They also offer food tours at a much lower price than the competition, since you pay what you want for the tour, and then can pick and choose among the treats offered, paying for each as you go. But what I like best about these tours is how seamlessly they combine history with pop culture, offering something of interest for pretty much all visitors.
- Harlem Spirituals: As you might have guessed, this tour specializes in gospel and jazz outings of Harlem that can be combined with a traditional soul-food meal. Frankly, you can go to the churches visited for free on your own, but if you want some guidance it might be worth taking this tour.
- Joyce Gold History Tours: Joyce Gold is an instructor of Manhattan history at New York University and she’s been conducting history walks around New York since 1975. Her tours are a mixed bag. On some she curs right to the core of the story, dispensing telling details that bring a neighborhood's history to life. Others can be slightly dry and academic, dwelling too long on real estate pricing, over the years. So if you’re choosing between this and “Free Tours By Foot”, I’d go with the latter.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.