Two Great Walking Tours in NYC
New York City is a walking city. Now, the idea of a “walking city” may seem strange to anyone from L.A. because we have a reputation of never walking anywhere. Ever. But one of the coolest things about New York is that there are so many amazing things to see on every block that you actually do miss a lot if you’re in a car – and even more if you are underground in the subway.
During a visit to New York last fall, I took not one, but two walking tours. One gave me the opportunity to explore most of Central Park – something tourists don’t always take the time to do – nor may feel comfortable doing on their own – and the other took me along the entire 1.5-mile elevated train line – turned local park – known as the High Line, and then into Greenwich Village for some amazing food, we had already walked off! What could be bad about that?
Central Park Tour
See Central Park NYC’s 2-hour walking tour traverses about two thirds of Central Park’s pathways, and not only takes visitors to the well-known highlights like Bethesda Fountain, The Boathouse, and Strawberry Fields, but also veers off the beaten path to reveal some of the park’s cool statues, hidden bridges, and secluded gardens.
I’ve been to New York many times and have often “cut across the park” as a shortcut from one side of the city to the other, but I had never really dedicated a big chunk of time to seeing everything that’s there – and there’s a lot.
Our guide Gregory Klaeboe explained that Central Park sits on 840 acres (51 city blocks) in the heart of New York City, bordered by 59th Street (aka Central Park South), 8th Avenue (aka Central Park West), (110th Street (aka Central Park North), and 5th Avenue, which is always 5th Avenue. He also said the 159-year-old park is publicly owned (except for one private lot, which is a lawn bowling area owned by the British) and is completely man made – the second largest man-made park in the U.S. – meaning every one of the 26,000 trees in the park were planted, and all the soil was brought in from other boroughs.
Of the park’s 58 miles of pathways, the only straight one – and the only one that goes directly north and south – is The Mall. The bottom portion of The Mall is called the Literary Walk and includes statues of Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Burns.
Fun fact: the only non-writer represented on the Literary Walk is Columbus, but the story is that there was nowhere else to put him.
Perhaps the most famous – and definitely one of the most photographed – landmark in the park is Bethesda Fountain, which is the only statue commissioned by the park’s architects in 1873.
But what many people may not know is that right behind Bethesda Fountain is Bethesda Arcade, which contains 16,000 hand-made English ceramic tiles. Gregory explained that in 1981, all the tiles were removed to be restored, but the original English company that made them no longer existed, so they sat in storage for 26 years – until 2007 – when over 14,000 of the original 150-year-old tiles were put back into the arcade.
“It’s the only place in the world where this type tiles are placed on a ceiling,” Gregory said. “It’s my favorite place in the park.”
One of the most charming areas in Central Park is Conservatory Water. This small pond is where colorful toy sailboats are raced on Saturday mornings at 10am. In fact, Gregory said that E.B. White got the idea for the famous sailboat scene in “Stuart Little” when he was working on the book in this part of the park. Around the pond are statues of Alice in Wonderland – the park’s most climbed on statue – and Hans Christian Anderson – the location for children’s story time at 11am on summer Saturdays. Plan your visit to Conservatory Water for spring, as it closes in November.
As we completed our tour, we passed through Strawberry Fields, the memorial to John Lennon that sits in the shadow of the Dakota where he was killed in 1980.
As a Beatles fan, a visit to Strawberry Fields has always been on my NYC “must do” list, but I never realized that right across the street, there is an everlasting flame at the Dakota’s gates in John’s memory. This poignant piece of information gave me a new perspective on Central Park as being connected to the city surrounding it instead of just a “shortcut” through.
Central Park Walking Tours are offered daily on the hour from 9am to 5pm. A minimum 24-hour advanced notice required. – $42 for adults; $32 for kids
High Line & Greenwich Village Food Tour
Manhattan Walking Tour offers a 3.5-hour combination guided walking tour that begins with exploring the length of the High Line – ranked one of the top ten places to visit in the world – and ends with five delicious food experiences that only Greenwich Village can offer (the tours can be booked individually as well). Along the way, I learned about the area’s history, culture, and even a few fun facts about this unique part of New York City.
“A Manhattan Walking Tour is an exciting way to expose travelers of all ages to foods they normally would not eat, while sneaking in lots of fun history,” says Garry Zafrani, owner of Manhattan Walking Tour. “We get dozens of testimonials from parents saying our tour was the highlight of their family’s vacation – even for their hard-to-please teenagers!”
Our guide, Nancy Paris, began the tour with a brief history of the High Line, which began its life as a traditional commercial railroad track. The problem, she said, was that the tracks went right down the middle of 10th Avenue, which was filled with horses, carriages, and pedestrians, some of whom would not move away from the tracks fast enough. In the 1860s, the city put guys on horses wearing cowboy hats and waving red flags – aptly named West Side Cowboys – to warn people about oncoming trains. Unfortunately, people were still getting killed (which was obviously very bad), so in 1930, the city wisely decided to elevate the tracks. After about 20 years, new ways of transporting goods became more cost effective, so the rail line was shut down – and over time, plants grew on the unused tracks.
By the 1980s, a community of artists thought the little bit of green space would be something really great for the city, so in 1990, they started a non-profit called Friends of the High Line, which manages and maintains the park. In fact, the High Line was the most expensive park to build – per acre – in the world, coming in at about $190 million, Nancy said. But why so much? Well, first they had to take everything off the tracks, re-enforce them, and put everything back, she explained. That’s because the city acquired the rail line through a “Rails to Trails” program, which says if it ever needs to become a working rail line again, the park has to be taken off. Is that going to happen? Nancy says no because the whole thing is only a mile and a half, and more importantly since they started dismantling the line in the 60s, it just drops off, which is not really practical for a rail line. So, we can all breathe a sigh of relief that the High Line will be around for generations to come.
One of the cool things you can see from the High Line, is Pier 54, where the Carpathia brought survivors of the Titanic back to New York. Nancy pointed out a building near the pier and explained that the New York Times set up a temporary office there in 1912 because there were phone lines, so the reporters could interview survivors at the pier, phone their stories in to the Times office, and scoop all the other newspapers. Another benefit of the High Line is that you can see many of the city’s famous landmarks from a new perspective.
“This is a really unusual vantage point to see the city because you never see it from this height,” Nancy said. “It’s either from the ground or from the top of a tall building.”
A couple of those landmarks are the Empire State Building, which can be seen peeking from above the roof tops and the Statue of Liberty, which can be spotted in the distance between two pedestrian bridges across from an area called “The Living Room.” This spot got its nickname because it’s a great place to hang out and watch the hustle and bustle in the streets below through huge glass windows.
The park also boasts over 300 species of plants and a rotating collection of public artwork for people to enjoy. As Nancy pointed out, it looks like it’s kind of wild and unkempt, but they’ve got what she calls “helicopter gardeners” – like helicopter parents – who take great care of the plants and flowers.
Nancy began the second half of the tour by explaining that we would be walking through the historic district of Greenwich Village, so the building façades can’t be changed from the era in which they were built, most from the early to mid 1800s but the oldest one from 1799.
“As we do the history, we’re going to do food,” Nancy said. “So it’s going to be dessert, dessert, food, food, food, dessert.”
Since I subscribe to the philosophy that “Life is short; eat dessert first,” this was already a perfect tour. Our first two desserts were little treats called merveilleaux – two meringues with whipped cream in the middle – and hand-made chocolates.
At Aux Merveilleux de Fred, which was voted the best bakery in New York by BuzzFeed and Yelp, they’re known for confections from the northern part of France and Belgium called mini merveilleaux, which means marvelous – and they are. The original is Belgian chocolate, but they also have flavors like coffee, speculoos, and cherry, so you really can’t go wrong no matter what you choose.
Across the street is Li-Lac Chocolates, Manhattan’s oldest continuously operating chocolate house (since 1923). Not only is the chocolate absolutely delicious, but they also use specialty molds, so while they have the usual chocolate bunnies and hearts, they also have chocolate stilettos, handbags, and lipsticks, which I pointed out, to my sons, would make the perfect Mother’s Day gift. Just saying.
Note: Chocolate lovers can also visit Li-Lac’s chocolate factory in Brooklyn, which is open 9am– 5pm, Monday- Friday.
After several samples – and with a bag of chocolates in my purse for later – it was time for a few savory snacks. First up was Bleecker Street Pizza which was opened by two retired New York City policemen in 2004. We tried their special slice called the Nona Maria, made with fresh tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella, and decided it was deservedly voted best pizza on the Food Network in 2014.
Next, we headed to Faicco’s Italian Market where we had amazing Italian sandwiches of prosciutto, ham, capocollo, sopresatta, mozzarella, and roasted peppers (they also have vegetarian options). While we waited for our sandwiches, we also got to taste arancini (delectable balls of risotto coated with bread crumbs and deep fried).
By then, I was pretty full, but not too full to have a cannoli at Pasticceria Rocco, a family-owned bakery that’s been in the Village since 1974. In my opinion, a cannoli is the perfect dessert, but this was the perfect cannoli. And the perfect way to end a day exploring New York City.
High Line Walking Tour + Greenwich Village Food Tours take place daily at 11am (rain or shine) – $139 per person.
You can read about another great tour with Sam and her kids here.