Looking for the best New York City day tours for first time visitors? Read my detailed experience and review of Real New York Tours.
This New York City day tours post was written by family travel expert Marcie Cheung and contains affiliate links which means if you purchase something from one of my affiliate links, I may earn a small commission that goes back into maintaining this blog.
It can be exciting to visit a new place! Especially a city as infamous and iconic as NYC! But what’s the best way to get in some sightseeing in the Big Apple? I recommend New York City day tours.
My husband and I recently took a 4-day whirlwind trip to the Big Apple. And I thought we could squeeze in a lot of NYC attractions by taking a full-day New York City sightseeing tour.
So, when we had a chance to book the local, family-owned company, Real New York Tours, I jumped on the chance! Below, you can read every detail about our experience and my real-life review as a first-time visitor to NYC.
What is Real New York Tours?
When I started planning our kid-free trip to New York City earlier this year, I felt overwhelmed. I love planning trips, but there are so many places to explore in New York City.
I was worried we wouldn’t have time to see even half of what was on my list. So, I started researching the best tours of NYC.
I looked for New York City day tours that were friendly to first-time visitors and hit up all the biggest landmarks and attractions. Real New York Tours was always at the top of the list.
Launched in 2007, Real New York Tours is run by native New Yorker Luke and his wife, Amber. Both of them are passionate about sharing their vibrant city with people from all over the world.
Their goal is to offer guests an immersive tour experience. And they want to disprove the belief that all New Yorkers are rude.
They’re a small family business with a select number of tour guides that also want to connect with people visiting their amazing city.
Book the NYC in a Day Group Tour
Of all the tours Real New York Tours offers, there was one that seemed like the best tour for us. Their NYC in a Day Group Tour is 6.5 hours long and hits up all the main tourist attractions in Manhattan.
It’s a small group walking tour (usually 6 to 13 people). And we liked that one of the selling points is that you’ll learn to use the subway! They just ask you to bring your own subway pass.
The itinerary included: Times Square, Central Park, Greenwich Village, Soho, Chinatown, Little Italy, Wall Street, and the World Trade Center site.
Also note that this tour is only currently available on Saturdays at 10 AM.
Why We Picked the NYC in a Day Group Tour
- It started at 10 AM, so we’d have time to get coffee and get over jetlag
- We could practice using the subway with a local
- It covered many Manhattan tourist attractions much faster than we could on our own
- It’s a small business run by a family with 2 little kids
Highlights of our NYC in a Day Tour
It felt like the 6.5 hours went by in a flash! Probably because we walked quickly and hopped in and out of subway stations.
We covered a lot of ground, asked a lot of questions, and were totally immersed in the magic of New York City! Here’s some of the highlights:
We met at Paramount Plaza where Trey, our tour guide, checked us all in and made sure we were paid up.
He came to NYC to become an actor and has been with Real New York Tours for years and years. He was originally from Alabama, but New York City is definitely his home.
Trey talked about how Times Square used to be a shady part of town until the city encouraged family-friendly businesses like M&Ms, Toys R Us, and McDonald’s to come there.
Now, it’s one of New York City’s top tourist attractions.
We got a quick overview of the area and then headed out of there as quickly as possible. Personally, I was glad to leave!
The NYC Subway
We all headed down to the subway and Trey made sure we all had metro cards. Most of us did, but he helped the rest figure out which pass to buy.
Then, he explained how the NYC subway system worked and answered our questions.
Trey did a great job of telling us which stop we were getting off at. And while we were on the subway, he made sure he had eye contact with everyone.
In all the years he’s been providing tours of NYC, he hasn’t lost a single guest. And with how quickly this tour moves, that’s pretty impressive!
We were very excited to explore SoHo. That’s where our hotel was located, but we hadn’t had time to explore the area yet. We’d always heard it was a “cool” area, but we weren’t exactly sure why.
SoHo is a neighborhood filled with details you’d probably overlook if they weren’t pointed out to you. For instance, most of the facades are made up metal that has been painted to look like stone.
We stopped at the world’s first modern elevator. It’s a doorway we easily would have walked past without giving it a second thought!
We also stopped for a moment to talk about fire escapes. When you see a fire escape, you immediately thing of New York City.
Trey explained the history of New York City’s overpopulation during the industrial revolution. Fire escapes were put in give families a chance of escaping in case of a fire!
That’s when I realized just how iconic fire escapes are. I mean, they’ve been so ingrained with most movies, TV shows or Broadway shows set in New York City. It was nice to take a moment to really look at them.
Another area I was interested to see was Little Italy. I’d heard so much about Little Italy in New York City from movies and TV that I just had to see it for myself.
Walking through Little Italy, you can feel the history all around you. I tried to imagine it when it was truly bustling.
I could imagine people speaking Italian as they shopped for groceries, kids playing in the streets, and the smell of food in the air.
While times have changed a bit for Little Italy, the smell of delicious food still fills the entire neighborhood!
It was a bit too early for lunch and we just didn’t have enough time to sit down to eat. But I’m glad we got to peek inside a few Italian restaurants.
I may have geeked out a bit when we came across Mulberry Street Bar. It was the filming location for The Sopranos and many mob movies!
Trey told us that Little Italy used to be huge, but now only takes up 3 city blocks. It’s quickly being absorbed by Chinatown.
And there’s no transition between Little Italy and Chinatown. It’s literally cannolis on one corner and roast duck on another!
Being Chinese, my husband was pretty curious about seeing New York City’s Chinatown. His dad actually lived in NYC Chinatown briefly in college.
As we cross the street from Little Italy, it felt like we had traveled across the globe.
Walking around, it reminded me of the first time I went to Hong Kong. The side streets were winding, and it almost felt like a movie set. That’s no surprise, as many movies and TV shows have been filmed there!
But you could just feel the history pouring out of the buildings and streets.
My husband heard Cantonese as soon as we entered Chinatown, but as we got closer to the edge of this neighborhood, people started speaking Mandarin. It was an interesting observation to us.
We could have spent a few hours walking around Chinatown in New York City. Trey pointed out a foot massage place that sounded perfect for our aching feet.
I would have loved to stop in at a few of the Chinese bakeries, too. But the point of this tour is to keep moving and see as much as we can, so we soldiered on!
I didn’t know much about Wall Street, except from TV shows. I envisioned tall buildings with people in business suits walking around on their cell phones.
That wasn’t exactly the case. Actually, Wall Street is filled with some of the most beautiful architecture. And there’s a bit of artwork, which is nice.
But, contrary to belief, the famous statue of the bull is not located on Wall Street. It’s a few blocks away and no, we didn’t see it.
The first stop was the New York Stock Exchange. I couldn’t get over that hanging from this incredibly ornate building was a massive banner asking people to follow them on Pinterest!
My husband is a HUGE Hamilton fan, and he was pretty giddy seeing Trinity Church, where Hamilton is buried.
Thankfully, we had just seen Hamilton when it came to Seattle. Otherwise I wouldn’t have realized just how much American government started in New York City!
Next, we stopped at the Federal Building, another popular attraction on New York City day tours. We stood at the bottom of the stairs while Trey talked to us about the history of Wall Street.
Apparently there used to be a real wall there, hence the name Wall Street. I couldn’t stop looking up at the Federal Building.
The statue of George Washington in front of such an important place in American history was truly awe-inspiring. You have to see it in person to really appreciate it!
World Trade Center Memorial
In a completely different way, the World Trade Center Memorial was also a powerful place to visit. Frankly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to visit.
I’m not someone that likes to visit memorials or hear about atrocities. You won’t find me touring these places on vacation. So, I was a bit torn about stopping at the World Trade Center site.
We stopped briefly at one of the free outdoor memorial areas. They’ve created a park with massive fountains that take up the footprint of each tower.
Along the fountain are the names of the people who died in the 9/11 attacks.
Trey told us that the names aren’t alphabetical, but grouped so that co-workers are listed with the people that sat next to and worked with on a day-to-day basis.
And white flowers are placed by their names on their birthdays. I thought both of those were really thoughtful touches.
If you look up from the World Trade Center site, you’ll see One World Trade Center, AKA The Freedom Tower. It’s the tallest building in New York City for symbolic reasons.
You can buy tickets and go to the observation deck at the top. We didn’t have time to go up during this trip, but I know my husband really wants to do that on a future trip to NYC.
We walked up to a huge white building and Trey asked us if we knew what it was. No one had any idea.
It turns out it’s a train station that also has high end shopping inside. It’s fairly new and it’s a very bright place. But don’t be fooled, it’s not as awesome as it sounds.
This was the funniest part of the tour. Trey pointed out many reasons why New Yorkers HATE the Oculus.
He talked about how people stand at the top of the stairs to take photos, which blocks the flow of traffic. (Yikes, sorry!)
Then he showed us places where the building is still unfinished. He went on to show us places where the marble is already stained due to spilled drinks and how the marble is so slippery with wet shoes that they had to scuff it all up for safety!
The real kicker is when he shows us how the old part of the station (from the 1970s) has ramps, but the new part only has stairs. There’s a spot where the ramp ends and it’s just stairs.
As a mom who travels with a stroller, I can imagine how frustrating that would be. It’s so strange that no one realized (or has remedied) this major oversight.
Next, we took the subway to Greenwich Village for a lunch break. Trey took us to a spot where we could get pizza, sandwiches, bagels, bakery items, and more.
My husband and I decided to grab a slice of pizza and go sit in Washington Square Park. It was really cool to see people from all walks of life also eating their lunch at this park.
We still had a bit of time before we needed to meet up with the group, so we grabbed sorbet from Grub. It was super tasty and just the boost we needed to keep walking!
We happen to be in NYC the week of college graduations at NYU! The college is right off Washington Square Park, and we were there at the perfect time to see people taking their graduation photos.
We also walked past the apartment from the Friends TV show. I only had time to snap a pic on my phone to send to my friend, who is a huge Friends fan!
But my favorite part of our tour of Greenwich Village was seeing this sign on Commerce Street:
See, this building is situated between Aaron Burr’s house (the guy who shot Hamilton) and a famous writer. This entire street is filled with historic homes.
Most of them have plaques out front stating who lived there and why it’s significant.
Trey told us that the owner of this home got fed up with people stopping to take photos of everyone’s house on his street that he put up this sign. Who knows if that’s actually true, but apparently similar signs have been spotted all over NYC.
We love hidden gems like this!
Our NYC in a Day tour ended in Central Park at around 4 PM. And ending at Central Park was pretty brilliant. People could spend as much time as they’d like exploring the park on their own time.
We walked right past the doorway where John Lennon died before heading into the park. The first thing we saw was a memorial for John Lennon in the Strawberry Fields section of the park.
It’s supposed to be a quiet area for reflection, but someone was singing loudly and playing the guitar.
With all the people gathered around to see this, I wouldn’t imagine it being a very quiet spot most of the day.
One of my favorite scenes from the Disney movie, Enchanted, is when Amy Adams is dancing around this fountain signing “That’s How You Know.” Part of the scene is Patrick Dempsey wondering how everyone suddenly knows the lyrics to this song as they join in.
My husband and I quote this all the time, so we both thought it was pretty cool to see this Central Park photo spot.
It was also cool just seeing people enjoying the park. We saw people break dancing, playing music, painting, strolling on a romantic walk, and pushing strollers.
The tour ended as we exited Central Park. We later looked at a map to see how much of the park we covered.
We basically just walked across a tiny section of the park. And we walked quite a bit, so it just goes to show how incredibly huge Central Park is!
At the very end of the tour, Trey asked each of us where we were headed. Then, he gave personalized directions to make sure everyone knew where they were going.
He also gave us a few tips about where to eat, which was helpful.
My Review of Real New York Tours
At the end of our NYC in a Day tour, I was left with these final thoughts:
It’s Perfect for Adults
We specifically picked this tour because it’s ambitious. However, if we were coming with our little kids, we probably wouldn’t pick it.
It would be cumbersome to do with a stroller and there aren’t a lot of bathroom breaks. But you could easily do it with a baby carrier and a backpack.
Do It at the Beginning of Your Trip
It would be perfect for your first day in NYC because you learn the subway system and get a feel for Manhattan.
Wear Comfortable Walking Shoes
We walked close to 10 miles during the tour! We only sat for lunch and on the subway (when we could get a seat).
This tour moves very quickly and there’s not much time to take photos or really look around. So, if you are hoping to have time to leisurely explore, this isn’t the tour for you.
However, if your goal is to get an overview of Manhattan and see as much as possible, this is the right tour!
The Tour Length is Perfect
For a New York City day tour, 6.5 hours is enough to see a lot of the city without being exhausted. I appreciated that this tour ended at 4:30pm, because we still had time to explore the city on our own.
And we had plenty of time to eat something, head back to our hotel to rest, and then go to a Broadway show!
Real New York Tours provided me media passes to review this NYC in a Day tour. All opinions are my own.