If you to want to get to know the real New York City, you'll have to step out of the shadows of Manhattan's skyscrapers and venture off for a brush with the outer boroughs. Yes, beyond Times Square and Central Park, the city's other four boroughs—including hip Brooklyn, multicultural Queens, the “boogie-down” Bronx, and just-a-ferry-ride-away Staten Island—offer fascinating glimpses into the multifaceted nature of this mega-metropolis. Wondering where to begin? Dig on in with a guided tour—these seven Fodor's-vetted tour companies pair intriguing itineraries with colorful insiders' perspectives.
A Slice of Brooklyn Bus Tours: Pizza Tour
Set out in search of the perfect slice on this seamlessly run bus tour that leaves from Manhattan's Union Square. A family-run operation (brainchild of native Brooklynite Tony Muia), A Slice of Brooklyn Bus Tours' 4.5-hour Pizza Tour ($80/person) leads guests to piping hot pies at two leading Brooklyn pizza institutions. Try Neapolitan-style Margherita pizza from the coal-fired oven at Grimaldi's, set under the Brooklyn Bridge, and then savor Sicilian-style “squares” at L&B Spumoni Gardens in Bensonhurst. Between bites, a native guide pairs Brooklyn-flavored quips with insightful commentary, while guests tour several Brooklyn neighborhoods, including the Brooklyn Bridge Park waterfront and Coney Island boardwalk. Plus, take in movie clips while passing by real-life film sites for flicks like Saturday Night Fever and Goodfellas.
Bronx Historical Tours: Little Italy, History & Pizza Bus Tour
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Impassioned proprietor and lead guide for Bronx Historical Tours, Bronx native Alexandra Maruri has made it her mission to dispel outdated “the Bronx is Burning,” '70s-era perceptions about her hometown. On her 4.5-hour Bronx Little Italy, History & Pizza Bus Tour ($65/person), guests are conveniently chauffeured by private minibus from Midtown Manhattan to take in some half-dozen Bronx neighborhoods, with stops for photo ops at Yankee Stadium and the wonderfully transporting Edgar Allan Poe Cottage (circa 1812). The tour rounds out with a lively walk through Bronx's Little Italy, along Arthur Avenue (A Bronx Tale territory). Maruri maintains strong neighborhood ties here, and she introduces visitors to an array of personable neighborhood shopkeepers, with samplings of coffee, cheese, cannoli, and wine en route, before a sit-down pizza lunch.
Get Up and Ride: Classic Bike Tour of Brooklyn
One of the best ways to see a city is by hitting its streets. Brooklyn-based company Get Up and Ride makes sure you cover plenty of ground while doing so. Their all-levels, five-hour Classic Bike Tour of Brooklyn ($89/person) rolls through some of the borough's most popular communities, running at a relaxed pace from Williamsburg to DUMBO, passing through Greenpoint, Downtown Brooklyn, and more along the way. Stop off for waterfront views of the Manhattan skyline, check out an urban rooftop farm, and refuel with pit stops for Brooklyn pizza and artisanally roasted coffee. All the while, thanks to the hands-free walkie-talkie with headsets, your guide will dish on neighborhood culture, history, and hot spots as you pedal.
Streetwise New York: Streetwise Queens
Touting one of the world's richest cultural composites, oft-underrepresented Queens oozes beyond-the-guidebook delights. Streetwise New York's Queens-based guides lead an off-the-beaten-path adventure here, infusing historical commentary with cultural insights, current events, and personal anecdotes. While Streetwise Queens tours are private (from $200 for a 3-hour tour, with up to 4 guests) and customizable based on guests' interests, they generally focus on Asian- and Latino-flavored Jackson Heights, where guests can wander an Indian supermarket, chow down on momos (Tibetan-style dumplings), and check out a Colombian-influenced commercial strip. Tack on optional extensions like to Elmhurst's Chinatown, Mediterranean-flavored Astoria, or yuppified Long Island City, with its sleek modern towers and stellar Manhattan views.
Cititrek: St. George by the Ferry, Staten Island
Every year, some 1.5 million NYC visitors take advantage of one of the city's best-known freebies: a ride out into New York Harbor aboard the Staten Island Ferry. Remarkably, without a clue of what to do, nearly all of them turn around and head straight back to Manhattan. Enter Cititrek, a Staten Island-based tour company, run by a mom-and-daughter team of teachers-turned-tour guides. Their two-hour St. George by the Ferry walking tour ($35/person) leads guests from the ferry terminal to some of the St. George neighborhood's historical sites, including the landmarked St. George Theatre and St. Mark's Place, lined by exquisite Victorian-style homes. Look, too, for exciting neighborhood developments, including the just-opened National Lighthouse Museum, and the future sites of the 60-story New York Wheel (2017) and Empire Outlets mall (2016).
Chopsticks and Marrow: Flushing Chinatown Food Tour
Get a literal taste of multicultural Queens via a guided gastronomic tour led by Queens-based food writer and culinary adventurer Joe DiStefano. (He's the guy that Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain call when they're looking to chomp their way about town.) Try his four-hour Flushing Chinatown Food Tour (from $75/person) highlighting Chinese specialties in NYC's most vibrant Chinatown, Flushing. Food sleuth DiStefano leaves no stone unturned in his quest for good eats—you'll be led into unassuming mall food courts and tucked-away markets in search of savory soup dumplings, duck buns, hand-pulled noodles, and fresh tofu. He'll spice up the tour with other exotic flavors, too—try an off-the-menu order of fiery Taiwanese fried chicken, and duck into the basement community center of an Indian temple for authentic dosa (a fermented crepe).
Urban Oyster: Brewed in Brooklyn Tour
NYC has been a hotbed of craft brewing and distilling activity of late, but the city's beer-brewing roots run deep, particularly in the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, area, which was once home to dozens of active breweries. Urban Oyster's 3.5-hour Brewed in Brooklyn Tour ($65/person) takes guests on a walking tour that covers the beer experience in Williamsburg from past to present. Gain historical insight into the breweries' booming pre-Prohibition era with visits to 19th-century brewery buildings on historic Brewers Row, and hear stories of the brew-savvy German immigrants responsible for them. Pair that with a tour and a pour at the wildly successful Brooklyn Brewery, as well as beer tastings at two neighborhood craft brew-specialized bars (plus a pizza lunch to help sop it all up).
Elissa Garay is a contributor to Fodor's, Yahoo, Condé Nast Traveler, Cruise Critic, About.com, and more. Based in Brooklyn, NY, she has traveled to and reported on some 55 countries and 20 cruise lines around the globe, and has resided in Argentina, France, England, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Follow her @TravelSpiritNYC.