Last year, my family had the opportunity to visit Paris, France. One of the highlights of our trip was walking around a Parisian suburb with our guide Patrick, as part of the Paris Greeters walking tour. The organization is made up of volunteer “ambassadors” who are eager to share what it’s really like to live in their city. So, when I started planning our recent trip to New York City, I was thrilled to discover Big Apple Greeter. It’s the same organization and they offer free private walks of New York City.
What is Big Apple Greeter?
Big Apple Greeter is a not-for-profit organization that matches worldwide visitors with friendly New Yorkers who are happy to share the city they love. They run free, private walking tours all over New York City.
Once you have secured your NYC accommodations, you can fill out their application. Then, you have to wait for them to match you up with a greeter who is available during your dates.
We found out about 2 months before our trip the date/time of our tour. Unfortunately, we had already booked a tour during that time frame. So we were thrilled that we were rematched for a date/time that worked better for our schedule.
What Happens Before Your Walk?
We found out about 2 months before our trip the date and time of our tour. Unfortunately, we had already booked a Real New York Tour during that time frame. Usually, that means we’d need to forfeit our tour. Thankfully, Big Apple Greeter contacted another tour guide to see if he’d be available. I’m so happy they were able to find Jeff!
Our New York City tour guide Jeff started emailing with me about a month before our trip. Since I’m a travel blogger, I had already connected with a few places to collaborate on blog posts. I sent him our complete 4 days in New York City itinerary and we decided to tour Brooklyn, since we’d already be there for a photo shoot. It’s also a place my husband and I really wanted to explore. He was really flexible about where to meet us and what we’d like to see.
The night before our walk, we exchanged cell phone numbers. This was helpful because we were able to call the next morning to find each other at the meeting spot in Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Tour of Brooklyn
Jeff called us right as we were wrapping up our Flytographer photo shoot around DUMBO, a trendy area in Brooklyn. We had spent the previous hour racing around DUMBO for iconic photos of New York City. We chatted with our photographer a bit about the area and got a sense of what makes it so popular. So when we met up with Jeff, we shared what we had learned about the area and asked him to fill in any blanks.
We met him near the carousel by the water and we sat down at a shaded picnic table. He told us of the history of the area around DUMBO and about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. The way he told the stories gave us the feeling that he was genuinely excited to talk about his city. That made us more eager to ask questions and learn more.
After we chatted a bit, we got up to explore Brooklyn. We headed straight to The Osprey, since it’s supposed to have a stunning view of New York City from the rooftop bar. However, we’d need to check our bags and cameras weren’t allowed (cell phones were ok.) Now, normally that wouldn’t be an issue and we’d do it for the experience. But, we only had about 3.5 hours to see Brooklyn and we really wanted to get some nice photos.
NEW YORK PIZZA
Our tour started at 11:30am, so Jeff and I had previously emailed about eating lunch together on our tour. I’ve found that food really connects people on a personal level. So, as we were walking around, we kept our eyes open for a good place to stop.
We had our first taste of real New York pizza at Juliana’s Pizza. Jeff told us that it used to be a popular restaurant called Grimaldi’s. The owner retired, but then tried to come back. The new owners didn’t want that. After some legal issues, Grimaldi’s moved to a new location and the original owner opened up Juliana’s Pizza.
There was a line out front, but were were able to be seated after just a few minutes. We ordered a small margherita pizza, which was much larger than we expected. I’m so glad Jeff assured us that the small would feed three adults!
I’d never had New York pizza before and appreciated the simple flavors. We knew to fold our pizza and it was definitely the way to avoid dropping toppings. And it was just the right amount of food to energize us without making us want to take a nap!
BROOKLYN HEIGHTS + PROMENADE
With our bellies full, we headed to the promenade to walk around Brooklyn Heights. Jeff kept insisting that we needed to walk the promenade for the panoramic view. We thought the view from the Brooklyn Bridge Park was pretty incredible, so we weren’t sure what to expect.
Holy moly! The Brooklyn Promenade is a great spot to see the NYC skyline! We were able to see the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. There were tons of benches lining the promenade so residents and tourists could sit and just marvel at this incredible city.
He talked a bit about how the city built a sound barrier to keep the noise level down as we headed up to the neighborhood to explore. We saw historical homes, easily recognizable brownstone rowhouses, Plymouth Church, tree lined streets, and neighborhood playgrounds. This is the part of the tour where my husband and I truly fell in love with Brooklyn!
As we were walking around, it had the arts and culture vibe of NYC, but with a more suburban feel. In fact, the kids at the local private school were (adorably) protesting in the streets while others were performing songs for their parents. I think if we had explored Brooklyn on our own, we probably wouldn’t have known to venture into the residential area and we would have missed the core of Brooklyn Heights.
We were solidly invested in our tour of Brooklyn when Jeff told us we needed to wrap up. He knew we needed to get back to our hotel to drop off our cameras before heading out for the Late Show with Seth Meyers taping. He was kind enough to be in charge of the time so we wouldn’t have to keep checking our phones to make sure to stay on schedule.
Not only that, but he was kind enough to walk with us to the correct subway station and he rode the train with us until our stop. I quickly asked my husband to take a photo of us when I realized that our tour was over and we might not see Jeff again (at least not until our next tour.) It was quite bittersweet.
Perks of Big Apple Greeters Private Tour of New York City
IT’S COMPLETELY FREE (BUT DONATIONS ARE APPRECIATED)
I cannot stress this enough. The costs of New York City attractions adds up quickly. This is a great way to get in-depth private tours of New York City at a price anyone can afford. But, since they are a volunteer-run organization, donations to the organization are appreciated so they can keep offering these amazing services.
PRIVATE TOURS OF NEW YORK CITY
So, I know there are several free walking tours of NYC. But, this is the first New York City free private tour I’ve found. I mean, you get a personal New York City tour guide. And it’s FREE.
Since this is a private tour of New York City, you can customize the tour to fit your interests. You can pick the neighborhood and let your guide know what types of things you’d like to see. Many you want to see as much street art as possible. Or NYC architecture. Or maybe you want to know where true New Yorkers like to eat.
The tours typically last 2-4 hours. We only had about 4 hours (including lunch,) which actually felt a bit short. I think 6-8 hours would have been optimal.
MAXIMIZES YOUR TIME
Because it’s private and customized, you won’t waste your time seeing things you aren’t interested in. When you have a limited time in New York City, this is crucial. And since you’ll be with a New York City local, you won’t waste time getting lost or trying to figure out how to get to your next stop. Plus, your greeter will take care of planning your NYC itinerary, so you can relax and go with the flow.
An extra perk of the Big Apple Greeter tour is that your guide really wants to help you. That means, you can ask recommendations of other places to go in New York City, which NYC tourist attractions to skip, or where to find a good steak (our guide told us about Benjamin’s Steak House.) I felt like we got solid advice from someone who didn’t want us to waste our time (or money) on things.
Plus, Jeff even sent us a follow-up emails with Broadway shows his wife recommended and additional dining options for us. And he wanted to make sure we got to our hotel in time to get ready for Late Night with Seth Meyers, so he rode with us on the subway. It’s touches like that that really set Big Apple Greeter apart from regular tours.
LIKE NYC WITH A FRIEND
What my husband and I appreciated most about our Big Apple Greeter tour, is that it felt like we were walking around New York City with a friend. I also felt this was about our Paris Greeter tour, so I’m hoping it’s a universal trait. We got to know a bit about Jeff and his family.
We believe that people bond best over food. That’s when you can relax and just get to know people. That’s what happened when we sat down for pizza. For awhile, we were just 3 people hanging out at a pizza joint in the middle of the day talking about life. And we all wanted to be there together.
Later, we appreciated having a contact in NYC. We knew if we had a quick question, we could call Jeff and he’d help us. We didn’t need to do that, but it was very comforting to know we had a real person who was a personal ambassador of his city.
BUILT IN PHOTOGRAPHER
When you are traveling solo, it’s hard to get photos of yourself (besides selfies.) And when you are traveling with a partner, it’s tricky to get photos of both of you. With Big Apple Greeter, you automatically have someone who you can hand your camera to and ask them to take a photo. It might not sound like a lot, but we don’t typically hand our cameras to strangers. We lucked out because our guide brought his own camera and emailed us the photos later that evening!
How to Sign Up for a Big Apple Greeter Tour of New York City
Not everyone who applies for a tour will get one. Our guide Jeff told us they are only able to provide tours to about 2/3 of guests. People need to apply at least 3-4 weeks before their trip.
1. BOOK YOUR HOTEL
Your first step is to secure accommodations. You must be staying at least two nights in one of NYC’s 5 boroughs. It’s a requirement to apply for the Big Apple Greeter free private tours of New York City program. You have to be able to state exactly where you’ll be staying in New York City.
2. PICK A NEIGHBORHOOD TO EXPLORE
In the application, you’ll need to state which areas of NYC you’d like to tour. Think about what you want to get out of this tour. Are you wanting to see the top attractions in Manhattan? Would you like an in-depth tour of a favorite area? Or would you prefer something off the beaten path? I suggest learning a bit about the different boroughs by searching online or reading their Neighborhood Profiles.
3. FILL OUT FORM
Next, fill out this online application. They will ask you to choose your top 3 walking tour dates/times. Try to do it your first full day in New York City to really get the most out of it.
This is the hardest part. If you are a planner, like me, try not to schedule anything for the dates/times you listed on the application. At some point, you will hear back whether a greeter is available for your stay. Until you get the name and phone number of the greeter, it is not confirmed.
Best of luck! This Big Apple Greeter tour of Brooklyn was a highlight of our trip to New York City!
Things to do in New York City