When I first purchased my plane tickets for JetBlue (which is awesome by the way!) to NYC, I looked into various tour options. I highly considered the CityPass and NYC Pass because I knew I wanted to be a total tourist in NYC while I was there for 48 hours. I kept putting off the purchase of the CityPass because I was secretly hoping that the pass might go on sale and I could get a good deal. Thank goodness I did, because I ended up with a much better way of visiting and experiencing “real” NYC. By some chance of fate, I found Free Tours by Foot and was hooked!
Free Tours by Foot is an amazing group of passionate people who give tours of various cities within the United States and even a few cities in Europe. As there website says “Free Tours by Foot is a group of young at heart, fun loving tour guides who have come together for a common cause: To teach history and entertain guests with creative tours of America’s great cities.” The tours are exactly as they sound – free! There are no upfront fees for the tours and anyone is welcomed to attend a tour. Tour guides earn money through your tips at the end of the tour. I decided to sign up for their Brooklyn Bridge, Brooklyn Heights, and DUMBO tour on Saturday morning followed by the Harlem tour on Sunday afternoon.
On Saturday I met the group at 9:50am in front of the fountain in the City Hall Park off of Broadway. There was probably about a total of 12-15 people in our tour group, which was the prefect size in my opinion. A couple who flew from British Columbia for the day, a Canadian teacher, and several others from across the globe made up our little tour group for the next three hours. After waiting in line at the Starbucks across the street to use the bathroom (I highly recommend using the bathroom before the tour begins because you’ll have to wait awhile before you can use the potty in Brooklyn), we headed out of City Hall Park and walked towards Brooklyn Bridge.
I couldn’t have asked for better weather either! Both days were in the 80s and sunny. It was a far cry from what I was expecting for the last weekend of September when I booked my plane tickets. Our tour guide for the day, Onel, stopped us right before walking across the bridge to inform us that we absolutely had to walk in the walking lane over the bridge or else we may be crushed like a bug by the cyclists in the cycling lane. New Yorkers are aggressive about their bike lanes and have no problem yelling at you to move while running you over. Both the bike lane and the walking lane are quite narrow so you really have to walk single file across the bridge.
Brooklyn Bridge is 1 mile long across and Onel stopped us several times to give tidbits about the history of the bridge, the NYC architecture, and the history of the area. He pointed out important buildings on both the Manhattan and Brooklyn side. As a self-professed history dork, I really appreciated Onel’s history lesson on the Brooklyn Bridge. It has an absolutely fascinating story and its leading character is actually a woman!
The Brooklyn Bridge is a hybrid cable stay/suspension bridge connecting the island of Manhattan and Brooklyn over the East River. The bridge was originally designed by German immigrant, John Augustus Roebling. However, during early surveying and construction of the bridge, a ferry pinned Roebling’s toes between a piling and the toes had to be amputated. Roebling developed a tetanus infection which led to his early death. Roebling’s son, Washington Roebling, took over the construction of the bridge. To keep in line with the tragic history of the Roebling family, Washington suffered from decompression illness (commonly referred to as the “bends”) while ascending to the surface of the river that left him paralyzed in 1870. His injury left him unable to supervise the construction of the bridge. Luckily Washington married a brilliant woman who became his eyes and ears of the construction phase. Story goes that Washington would look out his window of his apartment with a telescope and tell his wife what to do. Emily Warren Roebling spent 11 years relaying messages from her husband to the engineers working on the bridge.
The Brooklyn Bridge opened to the public on May 24, 1883. Emily was the very first person to walk the entirety of the bridge. On its first day over 1800 vehicles and over 15,000 people cross the bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn. On May 30, 1883, a rumor that the bridge was going to collapse caused a stampede that killed 12 people.
Onel informed us that a few days before we embarked on our tour a couple of German tourists scaled the main towers of the bridge and replaced the American flags with white flags. The NYC police did not notice until the German tourists confessed back in Germany and sent the American flags back. Onel also pointed out one of the police boats that stays nearby the bridge watching for jumpers. Also, a Russian tourist scaled the bridge to the top to snap a selfie on his smartphone and was arrested at the bottom. He told the authorities that he did it for fun. This past winter a Chinese woman jumped from the bridge in her PJs and was in the water for several minutes before being pulled from the water alive. New York must bring out the crazy in people!
Onel was a top-notch tour guide. I learned after the tour that he is a retired criminal trial lawyer and now gives tours of his “home town” of Brooklyn. He is exactly how I pictured a stereotypical Brooklynite. He has the accent, the Yankees hat, and an excellent sense of humor. While pointing to the area below the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges, he said the area is called DUMBO, but don’t forget the “O” or else it’s just dumb. 🙂
As we exited the Brooklyn Bridge, we entered Brooklyn Heights. Brooklyn Heights is the oldest neighbor in Brooklyn. During the Revolutionary War, the area was heavily fortified by forts. Onel even pointed out a spot where George Washington himself had to make the decision to retreat from the city before the British bombarded the colonists. He told us that the colonists lucked out that a heavy fog rolled in that night and the colonist commandeered all the boats and rowed across the river away from the British troops. The colonists outsmarted the British by leaving lighted fires and wrapping their oars with blankets to limit the noise.
Most of Brooklyn Heights is owned by the Jehovah Witnesses whom you’ll see on the corners of many of streets trying to hand you brochures and convert you to their religion. Apparently they own a lot of the properties in Brooklyn Heights including “The Watchtower. We strolled through some of the lovely tree-lined side streets looking at the beautiful brownstones. Onel informed us that the average rent in Brooklyn Heights averages between $3000-$6000 a month! Almost all the streets are named after rich men who owned property in the area – Montague, Pierrepont. I guess one local woman decided that she did not like all the male-dominated street names and started replacing some of the street names with fruit. Finally the police got tired of her changing the signs on a nightly basis and decided to leave a few names. Today you can see Pineapple, Cranberry, and Willow Streets in Brooklyn Heights.
We strolled down the Brooklyn Heights Promenade while Onel shared more stories of his beloved Brooklyn. He pointed to one boarded up house where the owner is losing out on about $30,000 a month in rent because he is in an ugly divorce battle with his wife. He said it’s not uncommon in NYC. A couple of years ago a physician was in a nasty divorce settlement with his wife. Instead of giving her half his estate he turned all the gas on in the house and lit a match blowing himself and the building up. The inferno damaged the neighboring houses and now the wife will get absolutely nothing because what’s left of his estate will have to repair the other buildings. Onel joked that his tombstone says “I won.”
We strolled down the Promenade towards DUMBO. We took a pit stop at the bathrooms and strolled over to the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory on Water Street for the best ice cream in Brooklyn as Onel put it. The small ice cream joint was badly damaged during Hurricane Sandy and was closed for a while due to extensive damage. Across from the ice cream shop is the infamous The River Café. The River Café was also very badly damaged. The entire wine cellar was flooded during Sandy ruining thousands of dollars worth of expensive wine that all had to be thrown out due to missing labels. I have a feeling someone had a great time drinking all those unlabeled wine bottles!
Onel led us over towards the little restaurants located on Front Street. Someone asked where was the best pizza in New York. He told us the best pizza can be found at Juliana’s and not Grimaldi’s like most people think. Over 10 years ago the original owner of Grimaldi’s, Patsy Grimaldi, sold his pizzeria to the current owner, Frank Ciolli. Ciolli moved Grimaldi’s Pizzeria down the street and Patsy started a new pizzeria named after his mother in his old shop. He cooks his pizzas on an old brick coal oven. I didn’t try any pizza while in Brooklyn so I can’t actually vouch for Onel’s claims. Next time in Brooklyn though I will try the pizza! Since not eating pizza in New York is probably sacrilege.
We then finished our tour over in the Brooklyn Bridge Park where a small art festival was going on in and around the park. The park was a hustle of activity on the gorgeous day. Kids were playing on the grassy lawn, parents were observing from the shade, and families were taking a quick ride on Jane’s Carousel. Jane’s Carousel has been a main attraction of the Brooklyn Bride Park since September 2011. The original carousel was created in 1922 by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company during the heyday of American carousels. The carousel’s first home was in Youngstown, Ohio. In 1983, the Empire Fulton Ferry State Park developer, David Walentas, included a historical carousel in his design of the park. David and his wife, Jane, purchased the entire carousel at an auction and began the painstaking process of restoring the carousel back to its former glory. The carousel is open almost everyday and tickets are $2 a piece.
We ended our tour nearby with a group photo. Onel answered questions and gave directions to people for other attractions and places to eat in Brooklyn. He also accompanied a few of us back over to Manhattan via the subway. At the end of the day I was highly impressed with Free Tours by Feet. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I signed up online for the tour. Although, I knew the tour company has excellent ratings on TripAdvisor. You must sign up in advance online to do a tour with Free Tours by Foot. They are 100% free and group size is limited to first-come-first-served. Tour guides get paid via tips. I would recommend a tip between $10-$20 depending on group size, the length of the tour, and the quality of the tour guide. Onel was top-notch and I would absolutely do another tour with him. He was personable, funny, and extremely knowledgeable about the history and culture of Brooklyn. He was constantly telling us free things to do in Brooklyn and Manhattan. He was the one to suggest taking the free Staten Island ferry across the river to see the Statute of Liberty instead of paying $20+ for a tour.