Free Local-Led Private Tours of the World’s Most Fascinating Cities

Moving out into the brisk morning air, our private tour guide Daniel, directed us north onto the bustling sidewalk. Reviewing my multiple layers in my head, I was ready for an 80° temperature shift in either direction…bring it on! 

Our Big Apple Greeter was here to spend a couple of hours with us showing us around his city, like only a local can. Daniel met us 30 minutes earlier in the lobby of our hotel to share some basics and give us a lay of the land, literally, explaining how strategically Manhattan’s streets had been laid out in 1811.

“20 Street blocks = 1 mile (1.6k), Avenues run North and South – Streets run East and West. Distance between avenues is about 3x as long as distances between streets. Fifth Avenue divides the city from East to West. House number progression is logical; 100 per avenue block (with a couple of exceptions.)”

This information delighted my husband, after living for seven years in a country with NO STREET ADDRESSES…Costa Rica, I’m looking at you.

When I signed us up for this free local-led private tour with Big Apple Greeter, I said, “We want to see the city from a local’s perspective. Obscure, little known facts and favorite haunts, are what we’re looking for!”

Big Apple Greeter is a not-for-profit, free welcome-visitor service from NYC volunteers. These passionate volunteers, many who’ve been at this for years, are like the uncle, or aunt you wish you had, living in in the city.

Walking alongside of our new friend, Daniel pointed out the city’s lesser-known architectural masterpieces, unique works of art, and shared stories about many buildings’ unusual past tenants. We also sampled specialties from numerous establishments that have been in business for generations, like the infamous black and white cookie at Glaser’s.

We hung on every word, listening intently to Daniel (our fount of information) barely noticing, the November day was so cold we could all see our breath.

While riding a neighborhood bus, I spied an elderly couple board, sit, and each pull out their own folded page from the New York Times. They began earnestly working on their crossword puzzles. Four stops later, they tucked the puzzle back in their respective bags, and ambled off the bus. This struck me as truly iconic and adorable!

We rode the subway up to Daniel’s neighborhood, and explored the path that he and his dog walk each day. It was all exactly what we wanted to experience and see!

That’s what is so great about volunteer Greeter programs like this, you can request the type of “tour” you’d like and they will make every effort to accommodate you! Remember though, Greeters are volunteer “friends,” not professional tour guides.

Website photo by Sherry Ott

From their website:

“Big Apple Greeter was founded in 1992 by Lynn Brooks as the first “welcome visitor” program of its kind in the United States…Today, Big Apple Greeter’s 300+ volunteer Greeters bring approximately 7,000 visitors a year to more than 100 neighborhoods throughout the City. Since its launch, Big Apple Greeter has welcomed visitors from all 50 states and 124 countries, with visits conducted in over 20 languages…Big Apple Greeter builds bridges between people and cultures, and promotes cross-cultural understanding. Greeters welcome visitors from all over the world, and visitors go home with a better appreciation of the diversity of New Yorkers and all Americans.”

So, how do I sign up?

Go to the Big Apple Greeter website and fill out the request form, at least 3-4 weeks BEFORE your visit. They’ll want to know your dates of travel, number in your group (max 6,) what neighborhood/s you’re interested in visiting, and also a little about yourself, so they can pair you with the perfect Greeter. They can also accommodate visitors with disabilities and those that speak some other languages.

***Be advised, a two night stay is required to schedule a Greeter visit, and Greeter visits can’t be scheduled on departure or arrival days. Understandably, demand for Big Apple Greeters is high, so be aware of the following:

  • Submitting your form does not guarantee you will have a Greeter.
  • Your Greeter is confirmed when you receive the name and phone number of the Greeter.
  • If they have no Greeter available for your visit, they will leave a message at your hotel or email you.

Similar Greeter programs are found in more than 200 destinations worldwide! Check out the Global Greeters Network website to see where they are.

Meeting Peter, our Chicago Greeter, in the Chicago Cultural Center

We were also enjoyed a Greeter visit on a trip to Chicago, last November (waving frantically at “uncle” Peter!) We learned so many obscure and amazing facts about that city! Did you know, it was a  globetrotting hotel owner’s wife, who, with her executive chef, invented the first brownie for the 1893 World’s Fair? Or that a nondescript doorway near the Hyatt Centric Hotel is inextricably linked to cows? 

All Greeter services are not-for-profit, so they rely on donations. There is no charge for a Greeter visit, but donations keep the service operating, and can easily be made online at each Greeter group’s website.

On your next trip, try to schedule a visit with a Greeter, and share about your experience in the comments section!

Pura vida, Penny


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