New York City is a pretty easy place to just see on your own with a combination of walking and public transportation, but especially if your time is limited, an organized sightseeing tour can be a great introduction to see a lot in a hurry. You have three main options: bus tours, boat tours, walking tours, and they’ll each be covered below.
Bus tours of New York City
Two large companies dominate bus tours of New York City. Both Citysights NY and Gray Line offer a dizzying array of tours starting around $25 for adults and going up to hundreds of dollars for ones going well outside the city. And they can each combine their bus tours with Circle Line harbor cruises, which is an excellent idea if your time is short.
This company operates deluxe motorcoaches and double-decker buses on a variety of tours. They have some specialized tours and they are more than happy to add various attractions to your bus ticket, but the key offerings are basic hop-on/hop-off tours of Manhattan, with tickets lasting 48 hours from the time you validate them.
- Downtown Tour — This covers most everything of significance from Times Square down to the harbor in the south, but also includes a roll by the United Nations and Carnegie Hall of 57th Street.
- Uptown Treasures & Harlem Tour — This tour covers Central Park, the main museum areas, and Harlem. The interesting things in this area are easily visited on foot or by public transportation, so make this one a lower priority.
- Night tour/Lights of the Holiday tour — This covers most of the Downtown Tour area, only at night. And during December it changes slightly to cover more areas where impressive holiday lights can be seen from the bus.
- Brooklyn Tour — This tour covers many of the more notable Brooklyn neighborhoods, and if you don’t know what those are already then this tour is probably not a great use of your time.
Price — Each of the above is $37 for adults and $27 for children.
- All Around Town Tour — This is a combination of all the above tours and the highly recommended 2-hour Circle Line boat tour of the harbor (see below). The price is $49 for adults and $39 for children, which is an excellent deal if you intend to do any tours at all. You’ve only got 48 hours of hop-on/hop-off time to do all of them, but that’s still plenty of time to do 2 of the bus tours and the Circle Line tour as a great combination package.
More details and options can be found on the CitySights NY website.
Advice on the above
In general, it’s not a great idea to try to use these hop-on/hop-off tours as a means of transportation. Whenever you hop off you risk the complication of your next bus being late or overfull. These companies try their best to accommodate everyone, but in a city like this there are hundreds of things that can go wrong in spite of that.
The advice is to complete a full circuit first, then consider hopping off somewhere along the way. If you want to use the bus for onward transport later, you have that option, but you may find it’s easier just to jump on the subway or walk to your next stop.
The Downtown Tour above covers lots of interesting places that aren’t otherwise easy to string together on your own. That one should be your top priority. The Uptown Tour might be interesting, but probably isn’t worthwhile for full price on its own. The Circle Line boat tour is excellent and the package that includes all of these together is a rare great deal for sightseeing.
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Especially during colder months, if you want to ride on the open upper deck, dress warmly. It can get insanely cold up there.
This company also operates double-decker buses, although without the hop-on/hop-off option. They offer many specialty tours, but their main ones are similar to Citysights NY described above. Their Downtown and Uptown tours go for the same price as Citysights, but are $5 off when booked online in advance.
They also offer tours in foreign languages, a cheap and short NYC Heritage Tour, and a NYC Showbiz Insiders Tour, among others.
- All Loops Tour — This tour is identical to the CitySights All Around Town Tour above, only without the Circle Line Tour included. It’s also $49, with $5 off if you book in advance online.
Circle-Line Sightseeing Cruises
This company has a variety of harbor cruises, and they also run the ferries that take people to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The main sightseeing harbor cruises leave from Pier 83, which is at the western end of 42nd Street on the Hudson River.
The main offerings are:
- 2-hour Semi-Circle Cruise ($25 for adults) — This version heads south down toward the Statue of Liberty, getting close enough for good photos, and then continues around the southern tip of Manhattan and up to the United Nations on the east side, then basically retraces the same route back to the pier, without the Statue stop.
- 3-hour Full-Circle Island Cruise ($29.50 for adults) — This version starts the same as the 2-hour one, but continues past the United Nations and all the way up past Yankee Stadium in the Bronx as it loops Manhattan.
>>more information the Circle Line Tours
Advice on Circle-Line cruises
These tours are excellent, with very entertaining live narration from someone who knows the city well. It’s really amazing that you can actually see so much more of the city from the water than you can from the streets themselves.
If the weather is really nice (warm) and you are up for a nice aquatic diversion, the 3-hour one is great. But in cold weather or if you are in a hurry the 2-hour one is better. About 90% of the interesting sites are on the route of the shorter one, and the longer one has a few dead spots where the narration stops and you are just cruising through unfamiliar and non-scenic areas.
Even in mild weather it can get very cold out on the water, especially if you intend to stand or sit outside for part of the cruise. Dress warmly and in layers and you’ll be fine.
A company called Big Onion Tours offers a huge variety of walking tours all over New York City and based on a variety of themes. They are $15 for adults and last about 2 hours with 1 to 2 miles of walking.
The wide variety of tours are usually staggered throughout the month, so each tour might only go twice in a given month, but there is something going nearly every day. Check their website for details.
There are also individual walking tours given by individuals or other organizations. They are sometimes free, but are usually surprisingly expensive. You can check listings of daily tours in Time Out New York every week.
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