Millions — try 65.2 million visitors, according to 2018 tourism figures — flock to New York City each year. And when it comes to discovering this tourist destination, the options are endless — food, architecture, art, theater, to name a few. This sprawling city covers more than 302.6 square miles, but let’s make one thing clear: New York is a walking city. Sure, the transit system, including buses and subways, is robust, but a true appreciation for the city comes from strolling on foot.
When moving around New York City, the natural reaction is to look up. Why? Because of the massive skyscrapers towering overhead. But, there’s much more to this famed city than mile-high steel giants. Tours are ideal for exploring, and self-guided walking tours are even better. The good news is your wallet stays in your pocket for these tours.
Read on as we navigate a self-guided, architecture-centered pop culture walking tour of some of the city’s best offerings, with the focus on architecture around Manhattan, one of the city’s five boroughs. And we’ll avoid the typical tourist destinations like the Empire State Building, Ellis Island or the Statue of Liberty. This is a mix of the best architecture, exploring both architectural history and design, centered around music, theater and other notable historic buildings.
Can’t-Miss Famous NYC Music Venues (Broadway) — 2.7 miles
An iconic piece of New York City is a good place to begin. Madison Square Garden, a multi-purpose venue located on West 33rd Street and Eighth Avenue, is home to sporting events — and teams like the NBA’s New York Knicks and the NHL’s New York Rangers — but its claim to fame is the music scene. From Madonna to Bruce Springsteen, Madison Square Garden hosts the most noteworthy events in the city.
When you’re done marveling at the size — MSG’s massive structure spans half of a city block — head a half-mile north to the Town Hall, a cozy music venue that is a National Historic Landmark. This is an appetizer before moving a half-mile up Sixth Avenue to another historic venue, Radio City Music Hall. This art deco style structure is known for its neon bright exterior lights. A more intimate venue compared to MSG, the 6,000-seat center has hosted a laundry list of performers like Pink Floyd and Britney Spears.
A 10-minute stroll northwest leads you to Carnegie Hall, an international standard for music since the late 1880s. The hall is unique with an exterior constructed from masonry. From there, walk past Central Park to West 62nd Street, where you’ll find the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and David Geffin Hall. The Lincoln Center hosts a mix of performances like the New York City Opera. David Geffin Hall is the home of the New York Philharmonic.
Finally, take one more half-mile walk to the Beacon Theatre, an art deco style venue restored in 2009. If you want to extend your trip by an additional mile, feel free to start in Lower Manhattan at Irving Plaza and Webster Hall. Webster Hall may be unassuming from the exterior, but its interior is notable for terra-cotta architecture.
Relishing in Famous NYC Theater Venues (Midtown Manhattan/Upper West Side) — .8 miles
Consider this a short but engaging tour as these venues all fall within a half-mile of one another. Start at Shubert Alley, often noted as the geographical center of Broadway theater. This narrow walkway between West 44th Street and West 45th Street is popular before and after showtimes, when theater-goers spill out into the streets. While you’re there, check out the Booth Theatre and Shubert Theatre. They share a Venetian Renaissance-style facade.
From there, head south on Seventh Avenue to West 43rd Street to the Paramount Building, a 33-story office building once home to the 3,664-seat Paramount Theatre. Travel back north a couple blocks to West 45th Street to the Lyceum Theater, Broadway’s oldest continually operating theater. This petite venue (922 seats) is designed in the Beaux Arts style of architecture. Continue on west to 46th Street to the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. This 1,505-seat venue was a trend-setter, as it previously boasted a retractable roof for performances during the summer months. After a full gut, the theater debuted a redesign in the 1950s.
If you head west back to Seventh Avenue, you’ll pass the George M. Cohan Statue, a sculpture consisting of a granite pedestal and granite base. Cohan was a famous entertainer known for his musical comedy. He is often referred to as “The man who created Broadway.”
Next, continue north through Times Square to West 47th Street and West 48th Street, where you’ll encounter the Barrymore Theatre and the Longacre Theatre. The Barrymore, named after actress Ethel Barrymore, features an exterior modeled after public baths in Rome, with a two-story terra-cotta grillwork screen. The Longacre catches your eye with a French Neo-classical-style exterior.
A Stroll Back in Time With Notable Historic NYC Architecture (Lower Manhattan) — 3.7 miles
Lower Manhattan is known for Wall Street, the Financial District, Battery Park and the site of 9/11. Let’s revel in history, though, with some of the oldest buildings in the city. Start at Trinity Church on lower Broadway. This Episcopal Parish church has been a notable part of the city for more than 300 years, navigating through several rebuilds and construction efforts. Once you marvel in the Neo-Gothic architecture, move a block over to Federal Hall National Memorial, often referred to as the birthplace of American Government — George Washington took the oath of office as the first president here. The first structure, built in 1703, lasted until 1812 to make way for the current Greek Revival build.
A seven-minute stroll north takes you to St. Paul’s Chapel, the Georgian-style building that is the oldest surviving church in the city. The Woolworth Building lies ahead a block north. This skyscraper held the title of tallest building in the world from 1913 to 1930. It now is comprised mostly of residences and office space.
Across the way to the east is City Hall Park, where you’ll find New York City Hall. Built in 1812, the building features French Renaissance Revival on the exterior and Georgian Revival on the interior. A 1.5-mile walk through Chinatown leads you to the next stop, the Tenement Museum. This Lower East Side site, converted from apartments to a museum, earned a National Historic Landmark designation.
If your Fitbit/Apple Watch is feeling lonely, finish with a two-mile hike to the Flatiron District where you can’t miss the Flatiron Building. Located on East 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue, this structure is one of the more iconic skyscrapers in the city and features Renaissance Revival architecture.
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