5 Fascinating Historical Tours of New York City

Love History? Discover Manhattan's Long & Curious Past on 5 Guided Tours

Ellis Island Museum
Photo credit: Allan Montaine / Allan Montaine / Getty Images

New York City tells the tales of its past through art, architecture, food, and landmarks. Yet with the fast pace of the city, it can be hard to truly take it all in. That’s where historical tours come in. Across Manhattan, knowledgeable guides are bringing the history that surrounds us (and that we often walk right by) to life. From the earliest history of New York as a Dutch settlement to the opportunity to board an historic aircraft carrier, here are our 5 favorite historical tours in NYC.

1. Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Tour

New York is a city of immigrants, and for many new Americans, their story began on Ellis Island. Follow in their footsteps with this 4.5-hour guided tour with New York Tour1, kicking off with a boat ride in New York Harbor. The first stop is Liberty Island, home to the Statue of Liberty, which served as a symbol of welcome to millions of immigrants. After a guided tour of the museum in the statue’s pedestal and a stroll around, the tour continues back on the boat as it sails toward Ellis Island.

The original building still stands where millions of immigrants over five decades were processed before officially entering the United States. After your guide provides context about the buildings and the island’s history, it’s time to explore. You can look up the records of your own ancestors, wander through the Ellis Island Museum, and roam the grounds before boarding the boat back to the tip of lower Manhattan. Meets at the bookstore inside Castle Clinton National Monument in Battery Park, from $55/person, get tickets

2. Tenements, Tales, and Tastes: A Tour of New York’s Lower East Side

For many immigrants, their story continued on from Ellis Island to the tenements of New York’s Lower East Side. This 3-hour tour with Urban Oyster is an on-foot exploration of one of Manhattan’s largest melting pots, home to Italian, Irish, and Jewish settlers, among others, over the years. This tour begins at City Hall with a Dutch snack before winding through the narrow streets of Chinatown and Little Italy. Stops will include everything from historic synagogues to a century-old bakery to the recently revitalized Essex Street Market.

Historical sites are also included; expect to see both an African burial ground and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Snacks from a variety of cultures are included in this tour, so bring the appetite. Meets at the fountain at City Hall Park, from $62/person, get tickets

3. Wall Street and 9/11 Memorial Tour

The most comprehensive history tour of New York City is found downtown, in today’s Financial District, where Manhattan as we know it first began. This 90-minute walking tour with Wall Street Walks begins on Wall Street – named by the Dutch during the 17th century, when Manhattan was still New Amsterdam. The street today marks the northern extremity or “wall” of that settlement. This neighborhood is also dense with landmarks dating back to the American Revolution, including Federal Hall, where George Washington took the oath of office as the first President of the United States.

Jumping forward in time, this tour covers Wall Street as the home of the American financial sector, including the imposing New York Stock Exchange. A stroll through the neighborhood concludes at the 9/11 Memorial, now home to two striking pools in the footprints of the former World Trade Center Twin Towers. Meets at 55 Wall St., from $17/person, get tickets

4. Rockefeller Center Tour

In Manhattan, a rich history is often right under our noses. One of the best examples is Rockefeller Center, known today for its annual Christmas tree lighting and iconic ice-skating rink, but actually an important historical site in its own right. This 75-minute walking tour is led by a local historian and explores the history of Rockefeller Center from its Art Deco buildings to the Radio City Music Hall to its extensive displays of art, including sculptures and murals. This tour is a particularly good fit for art and architecture enthusiasts, with in-depth coverage of 30 Rockefeller, formerly called the GE Building, which is home to the viewing decks of Top of the Rock and a major Art Deco landmark dating back to 1933 (it was here that the famous photograph of workers sitting on a beam high above the New York City skyline was snapped).

Meets at W. 50th St., btwn. 5th and 6th aves., from $17/person, get tickets

5. Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum Tour

History is brought to life aboard a floating landmark at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. The USS Intrepid, a 900-foot-long aircraft carrier, is docked in the Hudson River and contains a wide range of exhibits spread throughout four decks, including a space shuttle, spy plane, submarine, and a hands-on flight simulator. Take your museum visit to the next level by joining a guided tour. Several different options are available, including tours that cover the USS Intrepid in World War II, Intrepid 101 (that covers the basics, including the flight deck), Concorde: A Supersonic Story (an exploration of the fastest airplane to ever cross the Atlantic Ocean), and Space Shuttle Enterprise: Up Close and In Depth.

Pier 86, 12th Ave. & 46th St., from $27/person, get tickets