Tourpreneur Podcast Highlights Custom NYC Tours

The Tourpreneur podcast spotlights individuals who have created their own tour business, discussing how they manage the business side of things while providing their tour experiences. I am proud to announce that their latest episode focuses on myself, and what I am doing with Custom NYC Tours.

Click the image below to read the post & listen to the podcast:

Central Park flashback 2005: Restoring the Minton tiles

On my Central Park tour, one of the more beautiful spots we see is the historic Bethesda Terrace, which provides a breathtaking transition from the Mall down to the Lake. One of many architectural highlights of this space is the Minton tile ceiling, created in the 1860s. Made up of 49 panels, the ceiling features almost 16,000 elaborately patterned encaustic tiles, handmade by England’s renowned Minton and Company.

Not fully indoors or outdoors, the arcade was conceived as an open-air reception hall that would provide visitors with shelter from rain and heat. The highlight of the arcade is the magnificent Minton Tile ceiling designed by British-born architect and designer, Jacob Wrey Mould, who also conceived of the decorative carvings throughout the Terrace. The arcade at Bethesda Terrace is the only place in the world where these Minton tiles are used for a ceiling.

But by the early 1980s, over a century of wear had threatened this beautiful ceiling, and the panels were all removed and put into storage. But two decades later, a generous donation allowed the park to begin the restoration of this landmark space. That was completed early in this century, and today we have those gorgeous back to enjoy.

This video, from 15 years ago, features Bob Vila spotlighting that restoration process:

Central Park: Palace Grounds for Common People

If you’ve ever wandered through a beautiful, sprawling park in a large urban area, you have Frederick Law Olmsted to thank. Today, he is considered the father of landscape architecture in America. 170 years ago, he was a mere civil servant. We often take public parks and green spaces for granted these days, but they weren’t always part of the city landscape… and many that did exist were private, for the city’s moneyed classes only. Olmsted came from a group of thinkers who sought to change that. And, with partners like Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould, he did.

Olmsted and Vaux were hired to plan and build “the central park” in 1857. This was an era where cities like New York were even more economically segregated than today… tenements and slums downtown, giving way to the beginnings of Gilded Age beauty in midtown, and far uptown, the estates of the elite. In the middle were unremarkable tracts of land, which Olmsted called upon first viewing, a “pestilent swamp”. It was on that land that Olmsted would create his legacy, and that would change New York City, and urban parks and landscaping, forever.

"We want a ground to which people may easily go after their day's work is done. And where they may stroll for an hour, seeing, hearing, feeling nothing of the bustle and jar of the streets. Where they shall, in effect, find the city put far away from them.” This was how Olmsted pitched his vision for what city parks should be. Palace grounds for common people, that was the laudatory praise heaped on his works in modern times. A park shouldn’t feel like part of the city, Olmsted believed. It should feel like an escape from it. And that is what Central Park remains today. Not to mention the 500+ other parks and green spaces that Olmsted designed in his lifetime. He was a man who helped make cities livable, and who changed America forever.

You can visit two of Olmsted’s greatest works on my tours. My Central Park tour is available several mornings each week, and remains my best-reviewed tour. My tour of Prospect Park is available on select Sunday mornings, or by private request on other days.

To gain a better appreciation of this legacy, outside of my tours, you watch this amazing documentary “Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America”:

The Art Deco Treasures of The Bronx

Here at Custom NYC Tours, we are always looking for unique, new tours to help people explore New York City. One of our more popular regular tours is our Art Deco & Architecture Midtown Landmarks tour (available many weekday mornings each month). So we created another tour to help people discover one of the city’s best pockets of art deco architecture, in a place they wouldn’t expect… The Bronx.

In the early 20th-century, French immigrant Louis Aloys Risse dreamed of a grand boulevard running through the Bronx, to be modeled after the Champs-Élysées in Paris. The “Grand Concourse”, as it became known, stretches over four miles (6 km) in length, south to north. The area experienced a population boom after the subway opened nearby in 1917. Going into the 1930s, it became the largest concentration of art deco buildings in New York. But they weren’t the skyscrapers of Manhattan that we associate with NYC art deco… they were gorgeous apartment buildings built for the area’s growing middle class families. Famed art deco architects like Horace Ginsburn and Emery Roth built mile after mile of those amazing buildings, most of which still stand today in protected historic districts. There are other types of gorgeous buildings of this era there as well, from the Bronx County Court House further south up to the (former Loew’s) Paradise Theater up by Fordham. The area has had its up and downs over the last century, but the grand architecture remains, as new waves of families have filled these beautiful buildings.

Interested in discovering more about the history & development of the Bronx, and seeing its amazing landmarked architecture? Contact us to arrange your own private art deco adventure… just blocks from Yankee Stadium!

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Top 5 Favorite NYC Spots Outside Manhattan

The new buzzword in travel is “overtourism”. This is the idea that travel has increased so much, it now has become a burden on many cities and national parks. First discussed in cities like Venice or Barcelona, these concerns have spread across the world. Because locals have always tended to hate tourists, no matter the amount, local governments are largely not responding in a smart way, with better urban planning, but rather with knee-jerk bans. Amsterdam has instituted several bans on tours. Paris is banning sightseeing buses in their city center. Even here in NYC, the National Parks Service has banned organized tours inside the structures on Liberty & Ellis Islands. Here in NYC, better city planning is the real key… ie. pedestrianizing more areas, like Times Square was a decade ago.

One solution New York is trying is to encourage more visitors to venture outside the Manhattan areas where most tourists tend to congregate. I wholeheartedly endorse this initiative. Most of what people think of when they hear “New York City” is just core Manhattan… but it is actually the smallest borough by size, and only third-largest by population. We are a city of 5 boroughs, and there is plenty of room for all, and so much to explore that even most locals never get the time to see it all.

So, on that note, here are my top 5 recommendations of fun ways to spend a day outside Manhattan:

1. Flushing Meadows-Corona Park: Best known to most as the site of the annual US Open tennis tournament, this 897-acre park began its life as as the home of the 1939 Worlds Fair, and more famously later re-used for the 1964 Worlds Fair. Numerous remnants of those fairs remain, most famously the Unisphere, and towers of the New York State Pavilion. Part of the site now houses institutions like the Hall of Science, Queens Zoo, a boating lake, and of course the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. But the must-visit is the Queens Museum, a building retained from the ‘39 Fair, and the original home of the United Nations General Assembly. Besides many great exhibitions, the museum also houses the must-see Panorama of the City of New York, a scale model of every block and building in the entire city. It is amazing to behold. And, if the Mets are in town, a pop over to adjacent CitiField for a ball game is another must. If there’s no home game, hop back on the 7 train to explore any of the other amazing immigrant neighborhoods along the line… there’s a reason Queens is called “the world’s borough”!

2. The Bronx, Belmont area: Take a quick ride on Metro-North rail to the Fordham station from Grand Central, and you’ll be in the Bronx neighborhood of Belmont… aka, the Bronx’s Little Italy. The Bronx as a whole has many great places to explore— Yankee Stadium, Wave Hill gardens, City Island, numerous historic districts— but this area has the best concentration of attractions for visitors. After getting off the train, take a quick detour west to see the former cottage home of Edgar Allan Poe. Then, double-back and head down Arthur Avenue, the area’s old-world-feel main stretch of restaurants, shops, and bakeries. The indoor Arthur Avenue Retail Market will be your main stop, where dozens of vendors congregate selling everything from cheese to beer to pastas to fresh-rolled cigars. A short walk away from this stretch is the Bronx Zoo, one of America’s largest zoos. A great spot for families to spend several hours. Just north of the zoo is the New York Botanic Garden, a wonderful open space with many great seasonal events and attractions. This area of the Bronx alone can eat up an entire day… Mangia!

3. Street art: An increasingly popular attraction in New York City, and a specialty of mine, is that— as the birthplace of graffiti— it has some of the world’s best spots for street art and other types of graffiti art. You can find amazing street art along the 6 line in the Bronx, at Welling Court in Astoria Queens, or Manhattan’s Lower East Side. But the best neighborhood to explore for unique art lovers is Bushwick, Brooklyn. The main hub in this vibrant community is off the L train, where the “Bushwick Collective” organizes sanctioned murals over several blocks, replacing each wall every year, ensuring fresh art even for return visitors. This project alone encompasses dozens of huge, gallery-quality murals. All the gaps in between in the area have been filled with independent street art works and raw graffiti. The art tourism has led to a great explosion in the area of bars and restaurants. If the Collective scene isn’t enough, more art can be found further west on the L line, and another big hub along Brooklyn’s Broadway for the “JMZ Walls” project. A whole days worth of urban art exploring in just one (large) neighborhood.

4. Prospect Park + beyond: The most famous park designed by the team of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux is Central Park, but they said their favorite was Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. With great trails, a massive lake, and the sprawling Long Meadow, it is Brooklyn’s backyard. The park also houses an old Dutch farmhouse, a skating rink (ice in winter, roller in summer), and a small zoo. Across Flatbush Ave from the Grand Army Plaza entrance to the park are three significant Brooklyn institutions: the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and the Brooklyn Museum. The latter, founded in 1895 and designed by McKim, Mead and White, was Brooklyn’s answer to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Besides a great collection of American and European art, the museum also houses the city’s second largest collection (after the Met) of Egyptian works, as well as the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. These institutions, and the park, are surrounded by numerous gorgeous historic districts such as Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Crown Heights, and more. Well worth a day of exploring.

5. Red Hook, Brooklyn: My favorite Brooklyn neighborhood was once the busiest port in the United States. Popularized in such works as Arthur Miller's “A View from the Bridge” or the 1954 film “On the Waterfront”, the area has a great past as a major industrial hub… numerous buildings & structures from this era remain today. Known to most New Yorkers are the home to the city’s Ikea, it has seen a larger resurgence trading in on its seaside & industrial legacy. Tours can be found there of whiskey distilleries, two chocolate factories, small-batch wineries, glass and woodworking facilities, and much more. Stroll along old Belgian block streets. Visit Pioneer Works, a fantastic art studio and gallery space. Grab groceries inside a beautifully-restored Civil War-era warehouse building. Grab a great meal at any of the popular eateries, such as Brooklyn Crab. Or just sit on a pier, watching boats go by, and soak in the amazing view of the harbor and the Statue of Liberty. For a slightly more authentic experience, walk over to Defonte's Sandwich Shop, operating in Red Hook since the 1920s. The area is a quick trip from Wall Street on the South Brooklyn ferry line.

Bonus!: Technically part of the borough of Manhattan, so I didn’t put it on this main list, but I’d be remiss not to mention Governors Island, my favorite in-city New York day trip (open May-October). A very quick ferry ride from lower Manhattan, the harbor’s largest island has a whole grove of hammocks waiting for you. In 1783, it became a US Army base, and then a Coast Guard in its final decades, before being shut down in 1996. In 2005, the island reopened as a public space and has been growing & evolving since. For history buffs, you can tour the Governors Island National Monument side of the island, passing old Army & Coast Buildings, and tour historic forts like Castle Williams or Fort Jay. Those seeking just a relaxing day can lounge in the plentiful park space, rent a bike, or eat & drink away the day at Island Oyster. A must-do is the Hills, which features the best panoramic view in the harbor. Art fans will also find numerous exhibitions around the island. For those looking to expand their time here, the Collectives Retreat offers a fun overnight “glamping” experience (just avoid Saturday nights, when party boats in the harbor will make sleep difficult). We recommend arriving early in the day, before the boats fill up.

And that’s our list. Feel free to send us any feedbacks or your own recommendations & faves!

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Revised Tour Schedules

We’ll be making some changes to our (public) tour schedule soon. As always, we can always provide private or custom tours on most days, by request.

A few tours will now be only available as private tours after June: Brooklyn Street Art, Lower East Side Street Art, and Long Island City & Roosevelt Island. Private availability is also still available for our Queens Worlds Fair, Greenwich Village, Red Hook, and Williamsburg tours. We’ll also be adding a Brooklyn Heights & DUMBO walking tour to our roster several afternoons a month.

We look forward to continue creating unique NYC memories!

The World Before Your Feet

I recently watched a fascinating NYC-centric documentary entitled "The World Before Your Feet". It is about a funemployed man named Matt Green who once walked across the country, and now is trying to walk all of the well over 8,000 miles of street, shoreline, and pathways in New York City. I have a similar, if way less ambitious goal, so everyone I knew messaged me about this film when it was released last year.

My own goal has been to simply explore every neighborhood in the city... I'm not done, but I'm very far along. Whether I’m working or not, I average 10-12 miles of walking a day. It’s the best way to experience New York, a city designed to be walked. Most people would be shocked to learn how little of the city even most lifelong New Yorkers have actually explored. But it can be an expensive city to live in, so if you’re here, why not take advantage of all the city has to offer, and see what’s out there? That’s been my motto, and partly what led me to tour guiding. I began discovering new neighborhoods over many years, and wanted to tell their stories and histories to visitors.

So, to me, on paper, the need to do *every* single street seemed to me kind of missing the point... a goal based more on OCD than a real enjoyment of the city. But Green is a unique person, and was clear from watching him that his goal in this is less "completism", and more an (obsessive?) desire to wander and explore. At one point, the documentary briefly speaks to two ex-girlfriends, where the relationship ended because he didn't like a normal life (even going to movies), he just wants to get up every day and walk. It's not a goal, it's a sincere lifestyle choice.

Many years in, and he's still not done, because in each neighborhood, he stops to look at little details-- unusual trees and flowers, synagogues turned churches, barber shops, talk to residents, really soak in all the nooks & crannies of this amazing city. He photographs, he documents. He lingers. No neighborhood is boring to him. And that's where the film draws you in. He finds beauty in the neighborhoods of the city even most New Yorkers often couldn't care less about.

I'd be curious to see how this movie plays to non-New Yorkers, who are certainly discovering a whole different side to NYC than they ever considered. And I’d love to take Mr. Green on a tour sometime, I’d bet he may even teach me a thing or two.

Tour-tle Power

Here at Custom NYC Tours, my specialty is, of course, custom tours. Many tour guides have a niche specialty in their realm of NYC tourism— food tours, gangster/crime tours, Broadway tours, etc. I certainly have my own NYC passions, but my real specialty is a little bit of everything. Name me a topic or theme, and I promise you I can craft you an amazing custom tour out of it. I sincerely believe that is not something most NYC guides can do, and my goal has always been to provide people with unique New York experiences.

I’ve gotten some great custom tour requests in the past— helping people trace their family’s ancestry & heritage in Brooklyn, TV & movie site requests, & more— but I got my favorite request so far last month. I was asked to create a tour themed around the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as the customer’s two children were huge fans. This would be a fun family tour. My first instinct was to think of the filming locations for the original 1990 live-action TMNT film, but since that came 20+ years before the kids were even born, I guessed correctly they hadn’t seen it (my own nephews love the current cartoon series, and I knew that’s the current way most know that universe). Since-- don't tell the kids, shhh-- the Turtles don't actually exist, I decided to approach the tour as "the New York City that the world of TMNT inhabits". So more of that old-school New York.

The goal was to make the tour as enjoyable for the adults, as well as the kids.

The tour began in Tribeca by the Ghostbusters Firehouse (always a fun destination) to discuss historic old New York, and how it is represented in pop culture. This, not Times Square or Hudson Yards, is the type of New York we see in TMNT. Beautiful old cast-iron buildings, smokey streets, windy alleys. We then headed toward Chinatown, via Cortlandt Alley, NYC's most filmed & photogenic alleyway. Now the TMNT are supposed to be of Japanese origin, but there is no Japanese neighborhood like this in NYC, so Chinatown did the trick, and the adults loved the neighborhood. Our main stretch was Mott St where we stopped at a martial arts store that sells authentic ninja gear (costumes, swords, nunchucks, etc). Kids loved that. Then, we headed to historic Doyers St (aka: "the bloody angle") and talked about the old clans and gangs of Chinatown and that bloody history, as well as the related history of the Five Points. From there, it was a short walk down to the scenic Civic Center. Our final stop: the Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall subway station, to take the 6 train loop through the old, decommissioned 1904 City Hall station (in the second movie and other iterations, they depict their lair as being in that station). Everyone loved that. Then we wrapped up at a nearby pizza place as the Turtles, living every child’s fantasy, subside on a diet of entirely pizza.

This was a wonderful tour on a lovely Spring evening, creating a unique experience for my Canadian visitors, and was the type of experience that made me want to be a professional guide in the first place.

Looking for a similar experience? Contact me today to begin planning your own custom tour!

This ad was part of a recent initiative by the NYC tourism bureau to encourage family tourism into New York. The Turtles were chosen as the official ambassadors of this campaign which featured numerous ads around the region.

This ad was part of a recent initiative by the NYC tourism bureau to encourage family tourism into New York. The Turtles were chosen as the official ambassadors of this campaign which featured numerous ads around the region.

Discovering Hudson Yards

Below are some photos of recent tours I’ve done helping groups discover New York City’s newest neighborhood, the Hudson Yards. This $25 billion, 28-acre rebirth of the West Side is the largest private real estate development in the city’s history, and it’s been a blast helping people learn the site’s history, along with its neighbor, the High Line.

And a walk up the Vessel certainly makes for an interesting perspective.

The project, like almost anything in NYC, is not without its debates and controversies, along of which we discuss on the tours. But the long story of New York is a story of constant change, and Hudson Yards is just the newest chapter in its never-ending tale.

We have public tours several afternoons each month, and are always available for private tours.

The Year Ahead

2019 will be another huge year for New York, and Custom NYC Tours can help you explore the city that never sleeps, or stops.

The 10th anniversary of the High Line park. The opening of the Hudson Yards (the Vessel, the Shed, and America's tallest outdoor observation deck!). More new park space throughout the city. Preservation wins and development growth. The new hotel at the historic TWA Terminal at JFK. New planned ferries providing greater access to Coney Island, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Staten Island. Numerous events, museum exhibitions, festivals, & more!

Our small-group or custom walking tours take you to the real New York, one tour at a time. We create NYC memories!

Central Park: The Birds of the Concrete Jungle

Few visitors in Times Square (surrounded by all that neon and noise) would think that, just 20-30 blocks north, is a spot that bills itself as one of the top bird-watching spots in North America. Central Park is best known to many tourists as a spot to recreate their favorite movie scenes, take a scenic horse carriage ride, or have a nice stroll to the Met. But eagle-eyed (pardon the pun) locals know that, on any given day, dozens of species of birds can be spotted inside its 843 acres.

We offer a regular Central Park walking tour, but we were contacted this Autumn about a custom birder tour of the park. Binoculars and cameras in hand, I led my group into the park’s best-hidden paths for our exploration. Over the course of just 2 hours, we spotted the following: the now-infamous Mandarin duck, wood duck, mallards, Northern Saw-Whet owl, Barred owl, great horned owl, red-tailed hawks, Cooper’s hawk, robin, cardinals, blue jays, woodpeckers, finches, sparrows, finches, a heron, kestrel, starlings, and more. A beautiful afternoon and so many wonderful birds.

Interested in a similar experience? Contact us today!

From the Bronx to the Bowery

The evolution of graffiti from the underground and streets, and to many a sign of urban decay, to an increasingly popular art form worldwide, is a major topic on our street art tours. All over the boroughs of New York City, you see amazing works on the street by adults who started out in their youths writing on the walls and trains of the city. They made a passion into a flourishing art career.

A great example is Tats Cru, the best known graffiti crew/collective from the Bronx, where graffiti was born. They recently completed the newest mural on the infamous Bowery Mural, a spot whose fame as the city’s top mural wall dates back to the early 1980s (see image at bottom for the finished piece, plus in progress shots, I took). Like many street artists, they even now have their own website where you can see their work, and contact them for commissioned work.

You can see several of the Tats Cru artists talking near the beginning of the video, at the following link, the first part in a fascinating recent documentary series about the origins and evolution of graffiti. Well worth watching.

The Rise of Graffiti Writing – From New York To Europe

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Making NYC Memories

This has been a wonderful year of exploring New York City, and helping both tourists and locals discover its endless treasures and landmarks. We are excited for another amazing year ahead. There is no part of NYC or aspect of its culture that we can’t help you explore. Contact us to begin making some NYC memories.

Here is a collection of photos from recent months, around our amazing city.

Representing NYC's Guide Community

In addition to running my own business and leading numerous tours each work, I also serve on the board at the Guides Association of NYC (GANYC). It was in this capacity that I was asked to speak to NY1 (NYC’s top local news channel) about being a tour guide in New York, and the licensing exam all guides here must take. Here is the full segment (see accompanying article at bottom, which has different info & quotes than the aired piece):

While I think the segment is overall an interesting watch, I was disappointed that the segment focused on a “gotcha” angle. NYC guides are first-class professionals, and I have gotten to know dozens of them, and this segment seemed aimed to undermine that reality.

The NYC licensing exam is an important step to ensure that those giving tours in NYC have a tested, basic base of knowledge before they serve as the ambassadors to our city. GANYC continues to work to promote licensed guides, and the importance of our profession to preserving this city's economy, culture, and history. Outdated audio recordings, guide books, flimsy maps… none of these can provide you the experience a human guide can (answer all your questions, adapt to fast-moving situations, provide a truly personal experience).

We are career guides who take pride in providing unique tours to both visitors and locals. I, in particular, take extra pride in providing a wider than average knowledge of the city, and being able to provide numerous types of tours.

So I do wish that rather than focus on an angle about 2 perceived inaccuracies over the course of 4 full tours that the reporter took that the reporter had also mentioned what she learned and experienced on these 4 tours. Did she learn anything new? What was the experience of the tour like? What was unique about each? How did the guide respond to the questions and passions of their guests? 20 seconds of information out of hours worth of touring is not representative about any tour or guide, though I do think guides should keep growing and learning (that’s actually a fun part of the job!). That's why GANYC offers our own internal Certification Course, as well as fam tours, PDPs, and other education offerings.

Some thoughts on the 2 minor inaccuracies the reporter found over the course of 8 hours of touring. The first example, the guide got the amount of the sale correct... the flub was over where that sale ranked in the list of real estate deals (it is among the higher). The second wasn't even an inaccuracy at all. The guide states: "This is the New York Marble -- this is one of the first secular cemeteries in the city." The reporter points out that the other, nearby cemetery with a very similar name was the first secular cemetery in NY, and that the one he was at was the second secular cemetery. The second such cemetery is, by definition, "one of the first secular cemeteries", exactly what the guide said, and is not 'almost true', but 100% true. The reporter found no flaws or quibbles with the Greenwich Village tour she took, nor with the New Amsterdam fam tour she took as an invited guest of GANYC.

(As an aside, I recently received an “A-” review from a history teacher for my Hamilton & Historic New York tour… I’ll take it!)

I will continue to work— through my own tours, and with the Guides Association— to work to represent this profession as best that I can. We all love the work that we do, and love serving as the ambassadors to this great city.

Full article: Do You Have What it Takes to Be an NYC Tour Guide?