The Tenement Museum
Offering tours through time as much as space, the Tenement Museum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side is a single building where every apartment has been renovated to reflect a different era of history. The “Hard Times” tour takes in the apartment of the Gumpertz family, German Jews who lived and struggled here in 1873, as well as the Italian-Catholic Baldizzis, who lived in the building during the Great Depression. Opera music floats above an abandoned game of rummy and dressmaker scissors sit as though untouched for 140 years. This is one of New York’s most extraordinary experiences: a walk straight into the past. tenement.org.
Cruise New York Harbor
For a city surrounded by water, New York has never really appreciated its harbour. That has started to change with the growth of public parks — Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Hudson River Greenway — and some residents have taken matters into their own hands. Walter Masterson, a former investment banker and now writer-slash-sailing instructor, regularly takes small groups out on his sailboat, Beckoned, brushing past the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island down towards Lower New York Harbour, and then back up the Brooklyn shore for unrivalled views of Manhattan’s extraordinary high-rises.
Soundwalk, a company creating “Audio Tours for People Who Don’t Normally Take Audio Tours”, consistently hits it out of the park in terms of originality and daring. The Hasidic Jewish community of Brooklyn, for example, is mostly closed to outsiders. But Soundwalk offers a men’s and women's walking tour narrated by community insiders that takes in synagogues, kosher dairies and even a travel agency. Simply download the appropriate audio file and map to your phone — gender divisions are very important for the Hasidim — and pull on a pair of headphones after arriving in South Williamsburg. Suddenly the closed community swings right open. soundwalk.com.
Once derelict and dangerous, SoHo is now most famous for its high-end shopping outlets. This consumerism can overshadow the extraordinary cast-iron architecture, though, which is the focus of Citifari’s SoHo Photo Tour. Over two-and-a-half hours, accomplished professional photographers take groups of visitors to different vantage points around SoHo that one might otherwise miss — the elegant Haggin Building, tenements on Spring Street, the James Hotel. These guides also help people frame their pictures, making the tour both a way of exploring an under-appreciated neighbourhood and a masterclass in street photography. citifari.com.
Jimmy Phillips moved from Australia to New York for love, which eventually led to marriage. Waiting for his green card to process, Phillips passed his days exploring the city on his bicycle. The result of these wide-ranging explorations is The Domestique, a tour company founded by Phillips that offers personalised cycling trips in and around Manhattan. One of the tours — “Piermont” — crosses the George Washington Bridge to take in scenic New Jersey for more than 80 kilometres up the Hudson River, showing visitors how quickly the gray urban clutter gives way to nature. thedomestique.cc.
Image: Andrés Nieto Porras