The best introduction to any city is an enthusiastic local who loves the place. Visitors to New York city are lucky: New York is so big, so famous, so busy, yet Gotham City has 400 volunteers ready to personally show you their favorite town.
The name to remember is Big Apple Greeter: a non-profit organization that's offered this free service in "The Big Apple" for 12 years. Visitors are matched with volunteers who show them famous NY sights or unique neighborhoods, usually for 2 to 4 hours.
If you're interested in Coney Island, SoHo, art museums, or Harlem history, there's a volunteer who's right for you. And some volunteers are happy to squire around families.
What's it like being Greeted?
My 13-year-old son and I joined a veteran Greeter, John Borders, as he met the Guyatts, a family of three from England. (Normally, he would take only one family; a Greet is a one-on-one outing, and not a group tour.)
Our first foray: a lesson in using New York's cheap, convenient subway. Our Greeter jokes that he always teaches the kids how to navigate the subway, because they're smarter than the parents. He's kidding. I think.
After the subway, we boarded the Staten Island ferry: a free ride that swings by Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, with great photo op's. Next is Battery Park and Wall Street. The gregarious John was full of historical facts and anecdotes, and later, at the World Trade Center, his personal comments make our visit to Ground Zero-- emotional for any visitor-- especially meaningful.
Typically a Greet lasts two to four hours, but our Greeter enjoyed doing extra-long outings, and when my son and I took our leave, he and the Guyatts were on their way to the Upper East Side for lunch followed by a trip to Roosevelt Island, a small neighborhood reached from Manhattan by aerial tram. I'm sure they all had a terrific time.
Where do we meet?
Your Greeter will meet you, right at your hotel.
How do I sign up?
At the Big Apple Greeter web site; sign-up allows you to suggest several possible dates, to express interests in certain neighborhoods, and to list the ages of any children in your party. From one to six people (including children) can go on a Greet. Sign up three to four weeks in advance; more lead time is better still.
How much does it cost?
Zero. Remember, your greeter isn't a tour guide, but rather a new friend showing you around his/her town. On that note, tips are not appropriate; visitors who want to express their appreciation are invited to make an online donation to support Big Apple Greeter.
Can I specify a particular interest?
Absolutely; the more you specify, the better the chance you'll be matched with a volunteer who shares your passions and interests. On the other hand, you can open the door to the unexpected by simply requesting "Greeters Choice".