/ The New York City Traveler
New York — By Steve Mirsky on February 20, 2010 at 11:45 am
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NYC’s Most Unique Walking Tours

When you’re new to town and just have a couple days, picking from a panoply of must-see sights can be daunting.  Sometimes your best approach is letting somebody else lead the way, giving an insider’s view on what this city has to offer.  So lace up your shoes and get ready to walk because despite the fact that a gazillion double-decker open topped tour busses barrel down many a Manhattan street each day, sitting on your duff isn’t the best way to go.

Big Onion Walking Tour

My walking tour picks listed below are staffed with native guides who have teaching experience along with advanced degrees in the subject matter they cover, each have distinct backgrounds and approaches:

Context Travel

Relatively new arrivals to NYC but certainly not the world, Context Travel began covering the Villa d’Este and other Roman treasures like the Vatican and Colosseum nearly a decade ago.  Branching out in early 2004 to Florence, Naples, and Paris and again into Venice in 2007, their latest foray planted them squarely in New York about 1 year ago.

It all began when people began asking founder Paul Bennett, a classics and garden history scholar, to conduct public garden tours.  Gradually, visitors wanted him to cover other more historical sites. Realizing that he didn’t have the expertise, he reached out to other scholars who loved sharing their city with visitors.

Walks are less geared toward the big picture and more like walking seminars. Bringing this same formula to NYC, guides lay it on heavy in extremes from sensory laden chocolate walking tours in Soho led by locally renowned pastry chefs to deep hands-on examinations of lower Manhattan’s urban archaeological sites.

Big Onion Walking Tours

Offering a rotating roster of nearly 30 history-based neighborhood walks since 1991, Big Onion is quick to point out, in support of their namesake, that NYC was called the Big Onion long before it was dubbed the Big Apple.  Often illustrating how each immigrant group built upon those that came before, tours peel away the many layers that comprise today’s city neighborhoods.  Must-do walks include the Brooklyn Bridge Tour where guides recount the sheer engineering feats and dramatic labor behind its construction.  While the theme may be overdone, their Gangs of New York Tour meticulously covers the finer details of the Five Points neighborhood with stops at Paradise Square, Murderers Alley, and sites of the 1857 Police and 1863 Draft Riots.  Other tours reveal what you may have always been wondering such as what the heck Tribeca stands for (psst: It’s Triangle Below Canal).  You’ll also discover just why the Bowery was once so big and bad and how it experienced an economic renaissance.

New York Talks and Walks

Run by Dr. Philip E. Schoenberg, NewYork Talks and Walks offers 100 different customized group tours.  Drawing from

NY Talks and Walks Tour

real life stories and folk tales, guides entertain as well as inform.  Topics include Santa Claus who was in fact a New Yorker going through various transformations including when Madison Avenue advertisers for Coca Cola turned his suit red.  The Haunted and Mysterious New York Tour takes you on hunts for the Peter Stuyvesant apparition as well as Edgar Allan Poe and the Astor Library ghost in Greenwich Village.  Other notables for the choosing include a media tour where participants learn how the expressions “news flash” and “yellow journalism” originated.  Do you know why Times Square was once called “The Great White Way”?  Trace its evolution from farmland to theatrical hub.  Think that the Natives were the only ones to get scammed by trading glass beads for lower Manhattan?  Find out how the Dutch before them were similarly hoodwinked and afterward over the decades, questionable and sometimes downright scandalous real estate deals shaped NYC’s skyline as we know it today.

photos courtesy of Big Onion Walking Tours and New York Walks and Talks

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