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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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.

Victorian Flatbush, Brooklyn

Time Out New York magazine listed our popular tour of Victorian Flatbush, in Brooklyn, as one of “10 fascinating architecture tours in NYC”. We were honored to be included there, and hope you will join us sometime to see why it was spotlighted as a unique NYC experience.

Flatbush itself is one of the original six towns of the formerly-independent city of Brooklyn, dating back to the Dutch colonial era. Remnants of this heritage are seen on the tour, including one of the city’s oldest cemeteries. After Prospect Park was built in the 1860s (back when much of Flatbush was still farmland), developers took notice of the potential for new neighborhoods in Flatbush. Just south of the park, starting the 1880s, several developers worked to build a wealthy suburb that would be different from the brownstone & row-house trend of the rest of Brooklyn. Instead, they aimed to build a more suburban neighborhood, filled with huge homes and mansions, private sporting clubs, all within walking distance of this new park (and a short train ride away from the beaches of southern Brooklyn). Thus was born “Victorian Flatbush”.

Half of these developments across the area were destroyed in the 1930s to make way for middle-class apartment complexes, but several historic districts preserve its more picturesque and historic parts.

Recently, the Brooklyn real estate blog Brownstoner published some unique, birds-eye view photos of the area as it had grown, circa 1907. These are great shots, and experts on this neighborhood’s history will spot some unique finds in the photo, which I’ll spotlight here.

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In this large, panorama shot, on the upper right, I’ve circled a pedestrian bridge across the railroad tracks (today the tracks are used by the NYC subway). This bridge was placed along the most scenic road— Albemarle— to connect one end of the Victorian neighborhood to the other. Today, the rail tracks largely (with a few exceptions) mark the dividing line between the preserved section of the neighborhood and the post-1930s section. The bridge was demolished about 40 years ago, to meet the angry demands of the wealthy mansion-dwellers to better separate themselves from the working-class populations starting one block over. You can read the fascinating history of this rail line, and the forgotten bridge here.

The Brownstoner article also includes a close-up of the area near that bridge, the intersection of Albermarle and Buckingham Roads:

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Circled by me there is a mansion that no longer exists. It was built by developer Dean Alvord as his personal new home. He had decreed that, after his death, the home be razed and the land donated to the community for common use. Today, the lot is the home of the Flatbush CommUNITY Garden. If you look at the site today, the driveway and the foundation of the home are still intact, but otherwise it remains a (now membership-only) community garden.

Flatbush CommUNITY Garden

Flatbush CommUNITY Garden

Want to see all of these sites, and the larger neighborhood, as they look today? Take a look at the slideshow of images on our listing page for our Victorian Flatbush tour, and see our calendar of public tour dates. We can also do this as a private tour on many other dates.

Come see gorgeous suburban blocks, Victorian-style mansions, and history in central Brooklyn!

Serendipity

As professional guides, we often do the same tours several times a week. But by the nature of an ever-changing city, each time is a little different. Different customers have personalities & interests, and can create different energies & directions for each tour. Different days bring something new.

Sometimes, you even get a little extra on a familiar tour. These occasions are a treat for both guide and guest. I had a few such occasions these past few weeks (I must've earned some karma recently).

The first was during a street art tour in Brooklyn I'd been hired to do, earlier this week. I was showing the customers a piece by local street artist David Hollier. Then, from across the street, I saw a woman on a stoop, standing near a man, waving frantically at me. "Do you want to talk to him?", she asked. I didn't understand at first. We walked across the street to hear better what she was saying, when we realized that the man with her was David Hollier. He was generous, spending several minutes with us, explaining his piece, his role in the Bushwick street art community, and his larger ambitions for the future.

For the customers, this was an exciting (and rare) chance to put a face to the art world I was introducing them to.

A piece by David Hollier, Brooklyn in 2014.

A piece by David Hollier, Brooklyn in 2014.

Another occasion was on February 13, the day after Abraham Lincoln's birthday. I was doing my full-day Manhattan tour. As we entered the World Trade Center transportation hub early on, we encountered a group of children, surrounded by photographers, reciting the Gettysburg Address. (I explained to my foreign customers memorizing & reciting this address is a ritual most American school children do)... It turned out that this was a group of fourth-graders from Packer Collegiate Institute on a school trip. It was a delight to watch, and had the whole Oculus buzzing with energy on a chilly morning.

Honest abes

Honest abes

Another serendipitous event occurred during my afternoon tour of Central Park just today. As we walked around the Pond on the lower end of the park, I explained about the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, a 3.5-acre gated aviary preserve, which is the only part of the park not regularly open to the public. As we rounded the corner, we found the gates open. The park was having one of their rare open hours for this quiet haven. The customers, and myself, were delighted to have the opportunity to wander around an unpaved part of Central Park that even most locals have not (yet) set foot in.

I personally find the Central Park tour above others to be one that I enjoy, no matter how many times I do it. Experiencing the park vicariously for the first time through guests is a treat. But special surprises like this make it an even more memorable experience.

(My photos from a previous venture inside the sanctuary here.)

I'm even more excited to see what surprises await in the week (and month!) ahead.

My Tour Philosophy

In the FAQ section of this website, the first question I ask and answer is "Why should I choose you?". After all, there are many options for tours in New York-- walking guides, double-decker buses, water taxis, & more-- and all provide an amazing service. So, again, why me? The answer, I believe, is that I am providing something more personal. As my home page says, I aim to create memories.

I've seen guides leading big groups that will spend 2 hours covering only a few blocks in a circle. Stopping every few minutes to stand ahead of the group and give them a 10-15 minute static history lecture on a corner. I admire the amount of time & scholarship that goes into such a tour. But, I also see the participants staring at their phones, shuffling their feet, whispering among themselves, and I wonder... is this tour a lasting memory for them?

I travel a lot myself, and love taking tours in the cities I visit. But one thing that I found, and my fiancé concurred, was that in the days after the tour, I had only fleeting memories of the facts, dates, and other information thrown at me during the tour. But in a good tour, we had a clear memory of specific things that we saw, the basic historical context for what we had seen, and some of the little secrets the guide imparted onto the group. Plus, great photo opportunities. That is what lasted. So I decided to give tours that aim to maximize that experience.

An example: When I started doing High Line tours, as I pointed out the Hudson River at the start, almost every tour group has asked me to show them where on the river Sully landed the plane (answer: parallel to the USS Intrepid and the Manhattan Cruise Terminal). I realized almost of them would remember that. And the art pieces & design flourishes that I showed them. And the general experience of the park. But probably not the fact that the original High Line rail viaduct opened in 1934, or that the Friends of the High Line's annual operating budget is $11.5 million dollars.

In short, I focus more on show versus tell.

(Or, think of my tours like an Aaron Sorkin show: Walk and talk.)

I limit most of my tours to 10-12 people max to make sure everyone has a personal experience, and is able to talk to me and ask questions (or have me take pictures of them!). I provide customers with the basic history they need, show them some historical photos for reference, and encourage follow-up questions as we go. The tour is a conversation, not a lecture. 

I aim to cover as much ground as possible in every tour, to maximize how much a visitors sees in their limited time in NY. For instance, the Financial District and the World Trade Center? That's one tour for me, not two tours... after all, they're right next to each other, and part of the same (continuing) story of downtown. So you will walk a lot on my tour. But you will see so much more than on many other tours, and (I hope) have a real lasting memory of the experience.

For some visitors, that's not what they want. And that is fair, and I am happy to point such visitors toward other great companies I know who can give them the experience they need. But if you are a traveler (or a local) who prefers the type of tour that I've described, then... that's why me.

I love doing these tours. And I hope that passion will be contagious.