Get a Free Walking Tour From the Big Apple Greeters
While I've made many trips to New York City, and relish it each and every time, I admit that my comfort level still soars when I have a friend show me about. Not only do they steer me to the most interesting restaurants, taverns and galleries in ethnic neighborhoods, they know the subway system. It makes for a much richer and less-stressful experience.
For 20 years, Big Apple Greeter and its 300 volunteers have been filling that role, giving visitors a local's look at the city — free of charge.
According to its website, founder Lynn Brook wanted visitors to experience New York as a "a great big small town with diverse neighborhoods, mom-and-pop stores, fun places to dine, and friendly residents who go out of their way to help an out-of-towner feel welcome." What she found, from speaking to others, is that many perceived the city was too dangerous, expensive and overwhelming.
A Big Apple Greeter simply shows a visitor around an area of New York in a way a friend would. He or she will share what living in the city is like, how to use public transportation, recommend restaurants, shops and sites. A greeter isn't a professional tour guide, and may not have historic or tourist information about a landmark or location. Rather, these are friendly folks who are willing to share their personal knowledge from living and working in the city.
Gail Morse, Big Apple Greeter's director of Marketing and Public Relations, makes clear that greeters aren't tour guides, nor are they competing with tour companies. "The time with our greeters is informal, unscripted and does not follow a preset itinerary," she said.
Discovering lesser-known sites
Seeing the iconic sites of New York City — the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center, Central Park, Times Square and Empire State Building — is pretty straightforward for most tourists, and CityPASS has the top NYC attractions covered at a discount. But what about those seeking an insider's glimpse of the town, places that go beyond tour companies and go into New York's different boroughs?
"Say you want to experience ‘Little Italy," Morse said, "A greeter might tell you about Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. That's a lesser-known Little Italy but just as rich. Say you want Chinatown; a greeter can show you about Flushing Avenue in Queens. It's a huge Chinatown, but not often as visited as the one in Manhattan."
Transportation is another biggie. "A lot of our visitors ask if the subway is safe, as they're confused about the different lines," explained Morse. "A greeter will show them how to use it, which really expands the number of places a visitor feels they can go to on their own. That's the great thing about greeters: they give you so many options of what you can do on your own for the rest of your time in New York."
Some greeters can offer ideas on where to see different shows, off-Broadway theatre or how to get ticket discounts. There are greeters who can guide people to great shopping areas, while others won't go near shopping at all.
It's important that visitors specify on the form what they're interested in. That will help match visitors up with a suitable greeter.
How it works
Once your arrival and departure dates are set, and accommodations are confirmed, fill out and submit the Visit Request Form at least four weeks in advance of your arrival. During the summer months, Christmas and Easter, spaces fill up quickly.
First they match greeter and visitor by date and time. Second, they match by the language (Big Apple Greeter offers 20 languages). Third, they match by which neighborhood the visitor wants to see — about 60 percent say "greeter's choice." Then, when they can, they narrow matches down by interest. They don't match by gender or age.
As an independent, non-profit organization, Big Apple Greeter operates on financial support from corporations, foundations and individuals. And while you may be inclined to tip your greeter, greeting comes from the heart, so greeters pay all their own expenses and don't accept tips.
Today there are greeter programs around the world all based on Big Apple Greeter's model. Go to www.GlobalGreeterNetwork.info to learn about them.