Free Tours by Foot Group

Walking New York: Free Tours by Foot

At this point, readers know that I have a love affair with NYC. I love walking around different neighborhoods and finding what they have to offer. It’s free and it works to get out and get your blood pumping, even just a little.

Recently, a company called Free Tours by Foot reached out to me and asked if I wanted to check out one of their tours. Of course, they couldn’t really offer me a discount, because well, it’s a free tour by foot. I had never heard of the company and I love NYC, so I agreed. I hopped on their site and signed up for a tour at the end of January.

Before I get into the tour, I want to give you all some background info on this company. This is not a NYC exclusive company. They have tours in 11 cities (mostly in the United States) and have partner companies operating tours in many more! The company actually started in Washington D.C. in 2007 (I did not know that they were so established before going on the tour). In each city that they expand to, they partner with a lead tour guide and grow from there. So what’s their business model if they are free, you ask? Well, I must disclose at this point that “free” is a bit misleading in this case. The model is “pay what you think is fair”. Of course, if you think the tour was terrible, then you don’t have to pay at all. They realize this and so they are incentivized to make their tours awesome. I’ll round back to my experience with this model in a bit.

So on to my experience.

A few days before my tour, I received an email with our meeting location along with a great, smiling photo of our tour guide (our tour guide had the whitest, straightest teeth ever – but I digress). I woke up (admittedly with a slight hangover) and shuffled out of bed. I texted my friend who agreed to go with me and agreed to meet at the subway station with plenty of time to get to our starting point. We had chosen a tour of Harlem at 10am on a Saturday.

I got ready and when I left my apartment, I got concerned.

It was COLD!

I probably should have known that the end of January was going to be freezing. I had plenty of layers on, but nothing could save my face from the bitter chill.

When I got to the subway and met my friend, we realized that the 2/3 uptown was under construction. In a split-second decision, we decided to hop on the 1 up to 137th st. If you know Harlem, you know that the 1 train at 137th st is a pretty far walk from the 2/3 at 135th st. You also know that the 1 isn’t express and has way more stops. With the cold and this turn of events, I started to worry:

  • Wow – a 2-hour tour in this weather is going to be miserable
  • What other idiots are going to do this? We are going to be the only ones
  • We are going to be late and our poor tour guide, who probably doesn’t want to be doing this on a day like today will have to wait for us.
  • 2 hours is a long time for a tour anyway. I get bored in museums after about 45 minutes.

Of course, we pushed forward anyway. Little did I know, each of my concerns were about to be addressed. We called the tour guide as we were walking over, letting him know we would be a little bit late.

Concern: We will be the only ones

We arrived and were welcomed into a group of about 15-20 other people. Wow! This Free Tours by Foot operation is bigger and has more draw than I thought! I instantly felt better.

Concern: We are late. Poor tour guide!

We started at the Schomburg Center and the tour guide had already started his talk. We hadn’t inconvenienced him at all and Free Tours by Foot plans it so the first 20-30 minutes or so is at a single location so that stragglers like me have a chance to find the group. They chose the Schomburg Center because there is a lot to talk about there (history and art). The tour guide seemed absolutely thrilled to be leading the tour. Harlem and black history/culture was actually his field of interest outside of the tour company and it showed.

Concern: The weather is terrible

As I mentioned, the first leg of the tour was indoors, but we soon left and spent the rest of the tour outside. With all the movement and the interesting facts/discussion, the time flew by and I was able to keep pretty warm! Our tour guide also made a point of stopping on the sunny side of the street whenever he would start talking.

Concern: 2 hours might get boring

I mentioned that I get bored in museums. I like them, but I tend to run through them faster than most people and then leave. However, this experience was completely different. I usually don’t take guided tours in museums, so it’s just me observing, reading plaques and slowly meandering from exhibit to exhibit. This walking tour was like getting 10 minute nuggets of really interesting information and then going on a nice walk outdoors for 5 minutes. Rinse repeat. They also smartly split the tour up into 2 halves. The first half focused on the history of Harlem and the second on modern day culture (including pointing out bars and restaurants that I might go to on special occasions!). When our guide announced that we were at our last stop, the Apollo Theater, I looked at my cell phone and was amazed at how the time had flown by.

Here are just some of the fun facts I learned:

  • Ethiopia was the first country to make Christianity the official religion (we stopped by the beautiful, old Abyssinian Baptist Church – where I might even want to check out a crazy, loud revival-style ceremony one of these days)
  • On Striver’s Row, you can get a beautiful, huge multi-level brownstone home for $2.5 million. Some single floor apartments in Manhattan cost that much! It’s probably a decent investment for someone who has a more aggressive strategy than I do. The history of Striver’s Row is also fascinating.
  • Lauryn Hill got BOO’d at Amateur Night at the Apollo (video here). She was an AMAZING talent, but maybe needed some work at age 13. The audience eventually warms up to her, though.
  • In 1960, Fidel Castro had to leave a hotel in midtown because his entourage brought live chickens and was slaughtering and preparing them for Castro’s meals. So, he instead stayed at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem.

I definitely recommend signing up for these tours. I already have plans to sign up for another one in another neighborhood. They have tours of a bunch of places in both Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Of course, then we got to the “pay what you want part”. This setup always makes me feel awkward. I had no idea what was appropriate. I ended up paying $10. Is that good? Is that not enough? Is it excessive? I have no idea! I would say to make sure to have a dollar amount in your mind of how much you are willing to pay and adjust it according to the value the tour provides. Having a baseline in your head makes that part less stressful.

I still think $10 for a great walking tour (less than going to a movie and a way more interactive experience) was a great deal. If your interested in checking them out, go to the Free Tours by Foot: New York website here.

Oh, and after the tour, we went to eat at a place that they pointed out, Manna’s Soul Food Restaurant. I hadn’t had fried chicken in a long time!

Free Tours by Foot Group
Here I am with the tour group! That’s me in the middle with the big puffy blue coat that I have owned for the last 17 years!


Free Tours by Foot is running a bi-weekly contest to win two free tickets to the Statue of Liberty. As a New Yorker, I have never actually been to liberty island, so whether you are visiting or have lived here for years, this is a pretty sweet contest to enter.

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