Finding Authenticity in Midtown Manhattan isn’t Easy; Urban Adventures Meets the Challenge
Beyond Broadway is the sixth in a line-up of tours so great a large percentage of their clientele is local and repeat visitors.
If you’re not familiar with Urban Adventures, they are the day trip division of Intrepid Travel, a well-regarded company that creates experiential tours around the world for over 700,000 travelers annually. In NYC, Urban Adventures tours are run by Urban Oyster, the team that organizes some of the best city tours in existence. Specializing in exploring small, local food and drink producers, Urban Adventures offers such great tours as a Williamsburg Craft Beer Crawls, Craft Cocktail tours, and lest you think I’m obsessed with drinking, Tenements, Tales and Tastes of the Lower East Side.
Midtown Manhattan is not what people think of when hearing the words authentic, small, and local. Urban Adventures’ goal was to encourage travelers and locals to approach midtown similar to their tour style in Brooklyn, finding the gems amid the office buildings, banks and chain brands.
For visitors, Urban Adventures offers a way to explore midtown beyond Times Square and the theater district.
For New Yorkers, Urban Adventures wants to re-introduce us to a neighborhood we may have written off.
The result is a fun 3 hour tour, with lots of great culinary and shopping finds, plus the most useful tip ever, “hacking Times Square” or how to avoid several blocks of crowded sidewalks.
We met out guides Nikki and Alex at the clock in Grand Central. Having been on tours with Nikki in the past, I knew we were in for an engaging tour. Not that all of Urban Adventure’s guides aren’t excellent. But, Nikki displays a contagious enthusiasm for leading tours and unparalleled knowledge of the places she describes. This results in having a group of jaded New York travel media members trying out the Whispering Gallery in front of the Grand Central Oyster Bar. And, it actually works!
Nikki and Alex take turn describing what we are seeing in Grand Central – things I never noticed before despite other area tours. The black spot left in the corner of the (backwards) zodiac ceiling of Grand Central to show how much tobacco smoke residue was removed when the station was restored. Or the fact that all the bulbs in the ornate light fixtures are bare, because at the time electricity was a marvel to be showed off.
And speaking of lighting, did you know it takes six people to change each Grand Central bulb? There’s a joke there.
Before leaving Grand Central, we visit Taste NY, a Governor Cuomo initiative to generate more exposure for NY made products. With stores in multiple high visibility locations, Taste NY introduces locals and visitors to the best purveyors in our state. Wines from the North Fork of Long Island, craft beers and ciders from all over the state, and many packaged snacks for commuters can be found in the Grand Central outpost. We get our first snack here with some parmesan crackers, Made in New York.
We head west on 43rd Street, pausing at The Kneeling Fireman in front of the Emigrant Savings Bank headquarters, between Fifth and Madison Avenues. Although not originally planned as a 9/11 memorial, it turned into one for the first responders and victims lost in the attacks and the aftermath. The statue was meant to pass through NYC on its way to the Firefighters Association of Missouri, but was delayed due to the air traffic stoppage after 9/11. It was later given as a gift by that association to the firefighters and citizens of NYC.
Alex takes over when we get to the main branch of the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue and 42nd, informing us that this was the country’s first free public library. Until then, libraries were only for the rich, in private residences and universities. The library set New York apart from old world Europe by building a stately public building that anyone could use, regardless of income and stature. At the same time, the building was a way for rich New Yorkers to flaunt their wealth and ability to be charitable.
This is a research library with the famous showpiece Rose Main Reading Room, the Map Room, 88 miles of shelves, and significant underground storage that is being expanded below Bryant Park. Reading materials are sent from the basement to researchers via pneumatic tubes.
For a complete change of scenery, Nikki leads us to Bene Rialto, a well curated fashion incubator featuring emerging designers, on West 38th Street. The multi-level store offers a unique bridge between the buyer and the designer. The store’s owners help new designers merchandise, market and set up boutiques. In the store setting, they get direct feedback from customers that serves to refine the brand before bringing it to a broader market. The designers are always changing and usually 35 brands can be found on the levels that make up the store. Prices are reasonable, with a large selection of handbags, shoes and jewelry. My favorite bags were from Fiocco of Mexico City. The lines displayed were primarily for women, but there was a small section of clothing and accessories for men.
As a food-focused New Yorker, I always thought I had a handle on what’s new in the city, but Untamed Sandwiches on West 39th was not on my radar. Dedicated to making local, sustainable ingredients and grass fed meats more accessible, the small sandwich shop features braised meats. This enables sandwiches to be quickly assembled for lengthy midweek lunch lines, as the restaurant boasts a 5 minute turnover. And, the goal is to make a perfectly laid out sandwich; the perfect bite every time.
With a difficult to choose from menu, my eye immediately zero’d in on the General Zapata. Made with chicken tinga, queso fresco, pickled onions, pickled jalapenos, cilantro and radishes, it was Central Mexico on homemade ciabatta, with prime ingredients. And, I’m happy to note the sandwich pictured on the Untamed homepage is as out of focus as mine here.
Next we travel to the site of the nicest public rest rooms in NYC – Bryant Park. The only park in midtown, Bryant Park was once a potter’s field. What later became the famous “Needle Park,” home to junkies and Quaalude dealers in the 80s is now a spectacular oasis full of events and community engagement. With movies in the summer, skating in the winter, and plenty of tables for outdoor lunches, it is a favorite for locals and visitors.
At this point, Alex and Nikki show us how to hack Times Square – or use a series of walkways, parking lots, and hotels to avoid the slow moving masses on the sidewalk. I won’t give away the secrets – you need to take the tour, but it starts off east of the Conde Nast Building on 42nd Street.
Most visitors or even locals may not know this, but Times Square was named for the old New York Times Building that was located there. The building still exists, but the New York Times moved out long ago. Now, it is more lucrative to rent billboard space on the facade than floor space inside and the building is empty. The first Times Square New Years party was held in 1904 and has continued as a tradition since.
Love it or hate it, the gentrification or Disneyfication of Times Square had a huge impact on the area. What used to be the porn industry and one of the noisiest, grittiest parts of the city got an infusion of much needed capitol when Marriott and Disney moved in. Nikki points out the Hand to God marquee, which moved to Broadway from Off Broadway. Many shows used to launch that way, now it is so expensive to produce a show on Broadway that only the really commercial shows with big money backing (like Disney) survive.
Nikki and Alex also gives us great tips about finding public restrooms in Times Square. When in doubt, head to a hotel. The Marriott Marquis, 2nd floor, back corner, for example.
At this point, I had to run to a France tourism event and the group continued on to City Kitchen. One of many similar new places around Manhattan, it is a food market with mainly small, mostly outer-borough artisan prepared food stalls. The group stopped at Dough, for one of the best doughnuts in the city.
The tour ends at Beer Culture, a small bar and bottle shop, around the corner from the chaos on Broadway. Beer Culture focuses on craft beer, with a local beer always on tap, but they also have an “old school” refrigerator in the back for non-craft drinkers who prefer Bud Light or Pabst Blue Ribbon.
If you’re a visitor who wants to get to know a different side of midtown, or a New Yorker who needs to be reminded that we still have small businesses amid the chains, the Urban Adventures Beyond Broadway tour will broaden your experience of New York City.
Please contact me here if you are interested in booking this, or any other Urban Adventures tour.
Although I was a guest of Urban Adventures on this tour opinions are my own.
In full disclosure, my travel agency also partners with Urban Adventures to book tours for clients; however I would never recommend a tour or any other travel component that isn’t right for a traveler, despite compensation.