Tour group Urban Adventures prides itself on showcasing the small, local places New York City has to offer, with a big emphasis on food, drink and history. This makes its newest tour, “Beyond Broadway,” a very ambitious feat, since it focuses on a major artery of the city – Midtown.
The tour is admittedly geared toward tourists, in order to conflate the sights they want to see (think Times Square, Grand Central Terminal, the New York Public Library, et cetera) with the quaint and unique. And if you’re a local New Yorker? It’s still a way to get reacquainted with a neighborhood you may have typecast. Corporate culture reigns supreme in Midtown, but there is still a unique New York hidden within — if you know where to look.
Stop No. 1
The tour starts at the majestic Grand Central Terminal, which is awe-inspiring no matter how many times you may have been. The historic ceiling tiles make for great acoustics, particularly across from the Oyster Bar, which is situated in the belly of the terminal, also known as the “whisper gallery.” If you and a friend stand at opposite corners of the gallery and talk while listening at the same time, you can carry on a crystal-clear conversation.
So if you happen upon some folks who appear to be facing a wall corner muttering to themselves, you’ll know you’re in the right place. Occasionally there’s reportedly the odd complaint at the Oyster Bar from patrons who say they can hear people yelling at the next table, but really it’s just a part of the acoustical anomaly.
Be sure to visit the lower level of Grand Central to visit a personal favorite, Taste NY, for a unique souvenir. Everything in the shop is made in the great state of New York.
Stop No. 2
The next sights on the tour include a firefighter memorial located near East 43rd Street and Madison Avenue to commemorate those lost on 9/11, and a look at the palatial New York Public Library (incidentally the first free library of its time).
Then comes a shopping respite at Bene Rialto, the antithesis of a chain store. This boutique specializes in pieces created by carefully curated up-and-coming designers. The designers have a chance to showcase their work and take part in an internship of sorts, receiving support from the store’s owners and feedback from the customers. I was a fan of the faux-leather purses and the adorable Javie brand flats with removable rubber cases – perfect for those New York moments when you inevitably get caught in a downpour.
Stop No. 3
By this time you’re likely a bit peckish, and luckily Untamed Sandwiches is next — an oasis of grass-fed, farm-to-sandwich-shop goodness amidst the sea of overpriced cafeteria-style eateries designed to fuel the Midtown weekday lunch frenzy. We sampled the General Zapata sandwich, with juicy chicken, queso fresco, pickled onions, pickled jalapenos, cilantro, radishes. It was delicious, and followed by some substantial gluten-free chocolate cookies. The best part? Even during mealtime rush hours, Untamed aims to make your sandwich in five minutes flat.
Stop No. 4
Next comes a meandering walk through Times Square, a labyrinth of a route designed by Urban Adventures to evade the crush of people. A helpful commandment to follow to retain your sanity: Thou shalt only travel east to west while in the grips of Times Square.
It’s also tough to find local eating amid the food circus in Times Square (Hard Rock Café and the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, anyone?) but City Kitchen, located on the second level of West 44th Street and 8th Avenue, boasts a “local food court,” replete with any type of cuisine your heart might desire. Giant doughnuts from Dough, a fried dough joint that started in Bedford Stuyvesant, serves hefty goodies in an array of flavors, which we happily sampled.
Stop. No. 5
Honestly, fighting the crowds in Times Square can leave you cranky and thirsty. Luckily there’s Beer Culture, a pub serving up local New York brews on tap to soothe your nerves. But if you’re looking for tried and true, you can always grab a bottle of mainstream beer from “grandpa’s fridge,” which is literally an antique white fridge in the middle of the bar.
Congratulations! By the end of the tour, you’ve navigated the chintzy, the glitzy, and the crowded while retaining a healthy dose of original, unique New York along the way.
p.s. love local tours? here’s a NYC craft cocktail tour we are completely rosy over!
By: Sarah Henry