Central Park. Times Square. The funky streets and shops of Greenwich Village. New York City is best explored on foot. But, if your vagabond shoes long to stray from the signature sights, consider signing up for an alternative walking tour. You’ll discover a slice of the city that the double-decker buses can’t reach, with guides who really know their own backyard.
Brooklyn-born Norman Oder has been offering an array of tours of the borough since 2000, and his knowledge is intimate and impressive. He starts with a rapid-fire history lesson—the first steam ferry between Manhattan and Brooklyn: 1814—and then sets off at a brisk pace, inspecting the historic brownstones of fashionable Park Slope and admiring the architecture of Brooklyn Public Library’s main branch. Walks often end on the waterfront at Fulton Ferry where guests can try a coal-oven pizza. Not at Grimaldi’s, which is in all the guidebooks, but next door, at Juliana’s Pizza, which was started by the Grimaldi family after they sold the rights to use their own name. “Stop talking,” Oder instructs when a margherita pie lands on the table. “It’s hot. You gotta eat.”
From an Avenue C storefront on the Lower East Side, one of New York’s newest (and smallest) museums offers radical history tours of the now-hip neighbourhood where the city’s recycling and bicycling movements took root. Walks explore the community gardens and squats where artists and activists squared off against police in the 1960s and ’70s to save their spaces from redevelopment. “Most history is told by the rich,” MoRUS co-director Bill DiPaola says, pointing out composting and rainwater systems inside the tranquil 9th St. Community Garden. “It’s important to know the truth. And what we show is the truth—because we were there.”
Through its series of participatory art walks, this Brooklyn-based non-profit arts organization gets locals and tourists involved in “poetic exchanges” with the places they live and visit. On a rainy night, 10 people rendezvous with director/founder Todd Shalom and artist Ben Weber under the awning of a tavern. Soon, they’re making Twister-like human sculptures with each other in a Prospect Park pavilion, creating visual poetry on sidewalks with found objects (mushrooms, maple leaves, a broken pencil) and composing poems using text from the signs that surround them. Shalom wants people to feel confident, but a little uncomfortable, and, ultimately, to reimagine their daily lives.
Eat, play, sleep
For a base in Brooklyn, book a room at the New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge. Eat at Juliana’s Pizza or the Lincoln Park Tavern. And, if you’re in the mood for more walking tours, consider the many offerings by Big Onion Walking Tours or Rock Junket.