Guide Book vs. Guide
How an Expert Can Help You Read Between the Lines
I have a confession to make: I spent my first year in NYC with a copy of Frommer’s Guide to New York in my purse at all times.
It was my anchor in a concrete ocean. It kept me from drifting away.
I pretty much memorized that book. I knew the addresses and hours of operation for all the major attractions by heart. I could tell you where to find the best Black and White Cookies (R.I.P. Glasser’s) or which dive bar was the best (Rudy’s in Hell’s Kitchen). But I also became fascinated with the history of the city, with the remarkable stories of New Yorkers past whose lives had so shaped my present. I owe a major debt of gratitude to that paperback. Were it not for Frommer’s, I might never have been inspired to take the DCA exam and become a licensed guide.
So, I feel a bit like an ungrateful hack sitting here at my keyboard telling you why having a Tour Guide is superior to having a Guide Book. The fact is, there are some great Guide Books out there. And if you’re the sort of person who likes to do some pre-travel planning (FYI- a bit of advanced preparation goes a long way in a city like New York) then picking up a guide book and familiarizing yourself with the logistics of New York, as well as narrowing down places of interest you can reasonably expect to cover during your stay, is incredibly beneficial.
That said, there are some things a real, live New Yorker can do that no guide book, however thorough, can hope to accomplish.
To illustrate this point, I turned to Fodor’s Travel New York City 2020 edition and my old buddy Frommer’s Easy Guide to New York City 2019.
(A quick note: If and when you decide to get yourself a guide book, make sure you’re getting the most up to date edition! Turn over happens quickly in the city and what was there a year or two ago might be a thing of the past by the time you’ve touched down at JFK.)
Let’s start with Fodor’s. This guide book is remarkably user friendly. Lots of beautiful pictures, maps, information about transit and hotels, ways to score discounts, you name it. It also has a lovely feature breaking the city down neighborhood by neighborhood and listing some of the highlights of each area that help to make it unique and memorable. So, Kudos to Fodor’s for that!
Unfortunately, it’s suggested itineraries leave something to be desired. On page 84, Fodor’s has suggested One-Day and Five-Day Itineraries. The One Day begins downtown in the financial District with stops at Battery Park, Liberty Island, Ellis Island, Bowling Green, Wall Street, Trinity Church, Federal Hall, The New York Stock Exchange, National 9/11 Memorial and Museum, and One World Trade Center.
It then suggests that travelers, “Take the subway uptown” to visit The Metropolitan Museum of Art or Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), followed by a quick stroll through Central Park and finally a visit to Times Square for a Broadway Show.
OK, Fodor’s. That’s a great day in theory. But in practice it’s probably going to be harder than it sounds. Never mind the fact that the itinerary fails to mention where guests might consider eating during this marathon of a day or that subway directions are omitted entirely. The sheer amount of suggested attractions in the Financial District has the potential to eat up precious hours of time a traveler doesn’t have to waste. I mean, this is One Day we’re talking about!
I’m not saying I don’t think it’s worth it to see all those places. It is. And, to be fair, Fodor’s has extensive lists of restaurants, many of which I love and can vouch for personally. And it also provides a decent explanation of how best to navigate the subway system.
But a good Tour Guide might break it down a little bit more like this:
Take the subway downtown- we’ll pretend the traveler is coming from Times Square and suggest the #1 Train downtown to South Ferry.
Ignore the ticket vendors in the street! Fodor’s doesn’t mention these guys but South Ferry is crawling with them. They are scam artists. They are selling fake tickets. Or else they are selling tickets that will get you a boat ride to New Jersey. Don’t get taken!
Head for Castle Clinton in Battery Park and board your ferry to Liberty Island. Consider getting your ticket online in advance so you can skip the ticket queue and save time.
Now, for some Tour Guide Tough Love- if you only have one day to spend in the Big Apple, don’t get off the boat on Liberty Island. Take pictures of the statue from the ferry but only disembark at Ellis Island and plan to spend about an hour in the Immigration Museum there. The Statue is breathtaking, a marvel of engineering and design. If you somehow managed to score tickets to the crown (which you would have had to get months in advance) then sure, go up. By all means. But otherwise, Ellis Island is the place to go. 1 in 4 Americans can trace their families back to this slender slip of land in New York Harbor. A visit here is an American Pilgrimage and, in my humble opinion, this is where you should be spending your time.
When you return to Manhattan, you can head over to Fraunces’ Tavern on Pearl Street if you’re famished and want a proper, sit down meal in a gorgeous, historic setting. Otherwise, save the food for later and walk North on Broadway past Bowling Green Park (This is the oldest park in New York and it has a remarkable connection to the Revolutionary War. Fodor’s doesn’t mention the story but any guide worth her salt sure will!). You’ll see The Charging Bull and Trinity Church. Take a moment to get a picture of Alexander Hamilton’s grave (the white, pyramid like monument at the far left of the church yard, visible from the street) before making a right onto Wall Street. Here, get pictures of The NYSE and Federal Hall before doubling back to Broadway and making a right to continue North. (Note: Wall Street was the sight of the first major terrorist attack on New York way back in September of 1920. The scars of that attack are still visible, if you know where to look!)
At Saint Paul’s Chapel, hang a left and continue straight until you see the 9/11 Memorial.
More Tour Guide Tough Love- don’t visit the 9/11 Museum and don’t visit the top of One World Trade. I know, I know. But you have one day!
Instead, pay your respects at the Memorial, then head into The Oculus (the glittering, white spikes of this “Bird in Flight” are impossible to miss). If you haven’t eaten yet, this is a good place to do it. Or just catch the subway uptown from here. Lots of subway lines converge in this location so you can head almost anywhere you like. But, since Fodor’s suggests a museum, we’ll work with that. Take the 4/5 Uptown to 86th Street and visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (MoMA is actually closed for renovations right now so that isn’t an option for our day in the city. Sorry, Fodor!) The Met is enormous, far too large to see in a single day. Fortunately, the museum offers free, docent led tours all day long. This is the perfect way to make the most of your visit. Look up the schedule online ahead of time and pick one or two that look interesting to you! And, season and weather permitting, stop by The Iris and Gerald B. Cantor’s Roof Garden. Yes, the drinks are pricey, but the views of Central Park are so beautiful and you only live once!
(Note: if you’re travelling with kids, they’ll probably prefer The Museum of Natural History. Take the C train uptown to 81st street. Spring for the Planetarium and/or Butterfly Garden tickets!)
Both museums have cafeterias but since you’re headed into Central Park after your museum visit, get yourself a hotdog while you stroll! That’s about as New York as it gets! Move south through the Park until you arrive at 59th Street. If you’re on the west side of the park, you’ll find yourself in Columbus Circle. On the east side, you’ll be in Grand Army Plaza. Either way, take the subway downtown to Times Square for your Broadway Show. Any Red, Blue, or Yellow train will get you where you want to go.
You should have gotten your Broadway tickets ahead of time but if you didn’t you might still be able to score a last-minute ticket at the TKTS booth. Look for the “Big Red Stairs”. Alternatively, there are so many wonderful Off-Broadway venues you can consider patronizing. The performances are Broadway caliber, just in smaller venues with (often) less expensive seats! Have a look at The Signature Theatre, Theatre Row, or New World Stages.
If you’re planning to do dinner in midtown, Restaurant Row on 46th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues is full of solid options. I like The Hourglass Tavern and its cozy upstairs speakeasy Betti Bar. Joe Allen’s is a another favorite.
Please, don’t eat in The Olive Garden or The Hard Rock Cafe. You’re better than that.
I would add to this itinerary that a nice, late night, last hurrah might be a visit to The Empire State Building which is open until 2am and has much shorter lines later in the evening. Or, if you’re feeling fancy and want a great view of the New Year’s Ball, you can grab a (expensive but delicious) night cap at The Knickerbocker Hotel’s Rooftop Bar, St. Cloud.
That’s it for Fodor’s. Let’s look at my friend Frommer.
My sentimental favorite starts its guidebook with a helpful list of “The Most Unforgettable New York City Experiences.” They are:
*Seeing the City from On High
*Walking the Brooklyn Bridge
*Going to a Big, Splashy Broadway Musical
*Staying Out Late
*Touring Ellis Island
*Travelling Underground (aka Riding the Subways)
As you might have guessed, I’m basically on board with this list. If anything, I’d say it’s too short. I’d add:
*Visit the Other Boroughs (I see you, Queens!)
*Catch a Yankees Game
*Eat the Best Damn Pizza on Earth
They also provide lists for The Best Free, Best Off-Beat, and Best Family Friendly Activities in New York. They have lists of the Best Museums, Buildings, Parks, Neighborhoods to Stroll in, Best Food and Best Nightlife as well. It’s comprehensive if a little bit overwhelming.
And, like Fodor’s, Frommer’s provides a suggested One Day Itinerary. They recommend you start your day at The Empire State Building, followed by a trip to The New York Public Library. Then it’s off to Rockefeller Center, Grand Central Terminal (have lunch in the Oyster Bar), The Metropolitan Museum, and you’ll end the day in Times Square for a Broadway Show.
I both love and hate this itinerary. Here’s why.
First, don’t start your day at the Empire State Building. Everyone else has the same idea you do. And the views in daylight aren’t nearly as good as the views after dark when the city is lit up and sparkling. If you want a daytime view of New York, and you’re headed to Rockefeller Center anyway, you’re much better off with Top of The Rock.
I love the New York Public Library. It’s such an iconic place and they offer daily, free tours! But if you have one day I’m not sure this is where I’d send you. Even the most hardcore bibliophiles might be better off checking out The Morgan Library and The Strand.
I’m all about Grand Central Terminal. Seriously, go have lunch in The Oyster Bar. It’s an NYC institution in the best possible sense of the word. And there is an audio tour you can utilize while you’re there. But a guide would make the visit more seamless and provide a greater degree of nuisance and historical context.
We’ve already been over The Metropolitan Museum, Times Square, and Broadway so I won’t rehash those. However, it’s worth noting that both of these One Day itineraries confine themselves (largely) to the same general areas. This is understandable to a point. You want to see the most well-known places. The sights you’ve seen in the movies. I get that. But having a guide with you who can expedite your adventures and steer you toward the places and things that most interest you is always a solid investment.
Seeing a city with a guidebook is akin to visiting an aquarium. It’s all there to see, but it’s safely tucked away behind glass. Seeing a city with a tour guide is more like scuba diving. You’re all in.
You’ll recall how I mentioned the fence at Bowling Green? Without a tour guide, it’s just a fence. With a guide, it’s a Revolutionary relic.
And that’s the crux of this article, isn’t it? Your guidebook gives you a window into the city but your tour guide flings the doors open wide and invites you to the party.
Fodor’s and Frommer’s are indispensable tools for the savvy traveler. But even they have listings of the best tours in the city. That’s because they recognize that a guide book, however well compiled, can only take you so far. Guides pick up where the books leave off.
Incidentally, I didn’t see GANYC mentioned in either of the guidebooks I referenced for this article. A gross oversight, I’m sure. Come on, Frommer’s! Don’t let me down.