I think one of the best ways to experience New York is to walk around the city, so I decided to share my free self-guided walking tour route for Manhattan.
If you’ve followed me for a while, you may know I love big, vibrant cities. And that New York City is not just one of the best cities in the USA, it is one of my favourite cities in the world. And you also may know that I love to walk the streets of the cities I visit. I do use public transport and taxis, but I like to get out on foot as much as I can – it helps me get a real feel for the atmosphere and character of a city. It also helps me get to know it, to understand its layout and how the different areas and landmarks are connected.
Why Manhattan? Well, it is the borough I know best. I’ve been to New York City four times and always spent most of my time in Manhattan. I’ve been to a few places in Brooklyn but I don’t know that borough as well as Manhattan – and I know the other three boroughs even less. Plus, Manhattan has so many iconic landmarks packed in that one island! Thanks to the grid system, it’s pretty easy to navigate, with a lot to see and experience.
If you follow my free self-guided walking tour of Manhattan, rather than joining an organised tour, you won’t have to pay anything AND you get to do it on your own, at your pace. This is a bonus for those on a budget and for introverts like me who avoid group tours!
My Free Self-Guided Walking Tour of Manhattan
The walking tour route I am sharing here takes you from downtown Manhattan, through mid-town to Central Park and the Upper East Side, taking in many NYC icons along the way. There are other routes that I like in Manhattan and other neighbourhoods which are great to explore – but I wanted to start with something that was doable in one day. I walked this route on my last visit to New York when I went with a friend who had never been to the city before – so I have literally road-tested it, haha.
The whole route I am recommending here is 4.7 miles and would take approximately an hour and 35 minutes to walk non-stop according to GoogleMaps. However, it will take you longer because you’ll be stopping to take photos, grab refreshments and go into some of the attractions along the way. Using the photos I took when I walked this route as a reference, it took me around 7 hours. This included going to the Top of the Rock (but not the Empire State Building) – and I was pretty tired afterwards! That’s why I think you should allow most of a day for this.
When I walk around a new city, I don’t always take a fixed route. If possible, I like to know the general direction I’m headed but to have some freedom to walk down the streets that look most interesting to me. Therefore, I’d encourage you to take some liberties with the route I recommend and to take detours if you feel like it.
This route does require you to be able to walk for extended distances – and I’ll share some walking tips at the end. If walking is a problem for you, then you could take taxis or public transport in between sites. There are several bus routes along Fifth Avenue, which features in this walking tour.
Start in the East Village – Tompkins Square Park
The East Village is a pretty cool neighbourhood in Manhattan. It was an upscale area of New York, built when the city expanded in the early 1800s. Then in the late 1800s, its population swelled with immigrants, at one point being known as ‘Little Germany’. In the 1950s and 60s, the area absorbed some of the beatnik creativity of neighbouring Greenwich Village. Allen Ginsberg, W. H. Auden, and Norman Mailer all moved to the area in 1951–1953. Like a lot of New York, the area became run down in the 1970s and 80s. However, since the early 2000s it has been gentrified – so nowadays it is a desirable and expensive place to live.
At the heart of the East Village is Tomkins Square Park, which you can wander around. But I definitely recommend starting your walking journey with a drink – of water or coffee. Try The Maiden Lane, which is on the corner of Tompkins Square Park at 10th Street and Avenue B, or at B Cup, a couple of blocks north on 13th Street.
Greenwich Village – Washington Square Park
From Tompkins Square Park, head west toward Greenwich Village, the centre of which is Washington Square Park. The distance is approximately 0.8 miles, so should take 17-18 minutes.
NB. I don’t remember the exact route I took when I walked this segment of the route – so feel free to walk in this general direction, as I did. In the map that is lower down this article, I’ve used the specific route that Google suggests.
Greenwich Village was the bohemian capital of New York in the 1950s and 60s, the epicentre of art, counter-culture and the LGBT community. These days, the quiet, leafy streets of Greenwich Village are amongst the most expensive places to live in the United States.
Washington Square Park is one of the best known of New York City’s parks and spending time in it is one of the many free things to do in NYC. It features two key landmarks: the ornate marble Washington Square Arch and a large fountain. Just north of the park is the start of Fifth Avenue and the location of one of the most well-known addresses in Manhattan, the art deco skyscraper at One Fifth Avenue.
If you are a 1990s TV fan, you might want to take a detour here into the West Village, where you can see the following TV locations (both marked in my map later in this article):
- the ‘Friends building’. The building that was used for the exterior shots of Monica & Rachel and Joey & Chandler’s apartments is on the corner of Grove Street and Bedford Street
- Carrie Bradshaw’s apartment. The exterior for Carrie’s brownstone building was shot at 66 Perry Street (even though she is written as living in the Upper East Side).
Union Square Park
From Washington Square Park, walk up University Place towards Union Square. This route takes through the heart of the NYU campus. The distance is 0.4 miles and should take approximately 8-9 minutes.
Union Square Park has a big chess scene, so you could watch some games here – or play if you fancy your chances! There’s also a statue of George Washington here, and a farmer’s market on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.
Flatiron Building & Madison Square Park
From Union Square Park, walk up Broadway to Madison Square Park. The distance is 0.4 miles and should take approximately 8-9 minutes.
Madison Square Park is surrounded by gorgeous-looking skyscrapers from the early 20th century. However, at the southwest corner of Madison Square Park is one of the first truly iconic buildings you will see on this walking tour of Manhattan: the Flatiron Building. The Flatiron Building is 20-story a steel-framed building that was built in 1902. Officially a New York City Landmark, it is well-known and loved for its triangular shape with a narrow-angled corner facing north at the junction of fifth avenue and 23rd street – it really is a marvel!
You’ve been walking a lot by this point, so you may want some refreshments and there’s a great option for that near the Flatiron building at Eataly, which has a great selection of different food counters and eateries in its complex. My choice was an Italian gelato, which I took outside to eat in Madison Square Park.
Empire State Building
From Madison Square Park, you’ll see your next stop way before you reach it! Walk up Fifth Avenue towards the impressive and inimitable Empire State Building, which occupies an entire block between 33rd and 34th streets. The distance is 0.5 miles and should take approximately 9-10 minutes.
Along the way, you can snap pictures of this art deco architectural masterpiece from various distances – it really does dominate this area of mid-town! It was the tallest building in the world when it was built in 1931 and it held this record until the World Trade Centre towers went up in 1970.
There are observation decks on the 86th and 102nd floors of the Empire State Building, which give amazing panoramic views of New York City and six states. However, if you will only have an appetite (or time) for one observation deck, I personally think the Top of the Rock is better. And don’t worry – that is also on this walking tour of Manhattan!
New York Public Library
From the Empire State Building, carry on up Fifth Avenue for 7 blocks until you come to the New York Public Library on the left. The distance is another 0.5 miles and should take approximately 9-10 minutes.
By this point, Fifth Avenue is like a man-made canyon: the road a deep chasm between towering skyscrapers. But the next stop is not a high rise.
The New York Public Library is an NYC institution and has been providing access to books and information for more than 125 years. Even if you’re not in the market for some literature, the building itself is worth a detour from your walk. The Beaux-Arts style building, guarded by two marble lions called Patience and Fortitude, was built in 1911 and is a National Historic Landmark. The whole building is wonderful but the Rose Reading room, with its grand arched windows, chandeliers and rows of lamp-lit tables, is really stunning.
And if you’re a movie fan, like me, you may remember scenes from the New York Public Library in Ghostbusters, The Day After Tomorrow and Sex & The City: The Movie.
Rockefeller Centre & Top of the Rock
From the New York Public Library, carry on up Fifth Avenue for another 8 blocks until you come to the Rockefeller Centre. The distance is another 0.5 miles and should take approximately 9-10 minutes.
At 42nd Street, look right for a glimpse of the Chrysler Building, which is a couple of blocks east of Fifth Avenue. This is my favourite skyscraper in Manhattan – I just love the elegant art deco style and silver finish. You’ll also start to see lots more shopping opportunities as you go further north on Fifth Avenue.
At Rockefeller Centre I highly recommend you go to the Observation Deck in the Rockefeller tower. It is called Top of the Rock and is 70 stories high with stunning views of the city – it is one of the best observation decks in New York City. Looking northwards, you can see Central Park and uptown – It is amazing to see the park from so high up and to see just how huge it is, and to see those ornate towered buildings that line it on both sides.
However, in my opinion, the best view is south, towards midtown and lower Manhattan. Standing proud in the middle of this view is the Empire State Building. It really is the cherry on the top of views of Manhattan. You can’t admire the view of the Empire State Building from the top of the Empire State Building, so that’s why I said earlier the view from Top of the Rock is the best one.
The Rockefeller Centre is also a good place to grab a bite to eat. At street level, there’s a restaurant with an outdoor terrace right by the fountains. It’s not cheap – but it is scenic and the salads are great.
By the way, if you like views of NYC, you might consider staying in one of the hotels with the best views of New York City.
The Plaza Hotel and the Pulitzer Fountain
From the Rockefeller Centre, carry on up Fifth Avenue for another 9 blocks until the buildings give way to Centra Park. On the corner of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street is the Pulitzer Fountain and the Plaza Hotel. The distance is another 0.5 miles and should take approximately 9-10 minutes.
On the way, just across from the Rockefeller Centre, on the right side of Fifth Avenue is the St Patrick’s Cathedral, its Neo-Gothic style contrasting with and dwarfed by the modern skyscrapers around it.
The shops become more high-end as you get closer to the park, including Saks Fifth Avenue opposite the Rockefeller Centre and Tiffany’s flagship store (made famous by the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s, of course) at 57th Street.
The Plaza Hotel is another New York Icon. If I can continue my movie location theme, it features in The Way We Were and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. I can highly recommend the cocktails in the Champagne Bar, which is pretty good for people-spotting: I saw Princess Diana’s brother, the Earl of Spencer, there a few years ago.
The fountain opposite the hotel was bequeathed by Joseph Pulitzer, who also established the journalism prizes.
Once you get to Central Park, I say just have a good wander around – that’s what it is there for! Exploring Central Park is one of the best free things to do in New York. If you want to go as far as the Boathouse, the distance is approximately a mile, so will take 18-20 minutes if you walked non-stop – but of course, there is plenty to distract you in the park!
For example, you might come across talented skaters practising on the paths, or a free performance in the Naumberg Bandshell. The Bethesda Fountain is a lovely spot, and it is lovely to watch the rowboats on the lake.
It can be hard to get a table in the Boathouse, but it’s worth trying because the views over the lake are wonderful. After completing this self-guided walking tour of Manhattan, you will have earned a rest and some refreshment!
But you might be keen on having a good dinner, so consider one of the unique restaurants in New York City. Or you could finish with a cocktail in my favourite cocktail bar of all time, the Bemelmans Bar, in the Carlyle Hotel.
Self-guided walking tour of Manhattan Map
Here’s a map of my free self-guided walking tour of Manhattan:
And here’s an interactive map with various attractions I have mentioned marked:
How To Use This Map: click the tab in the top left-hand corner of the map to view the layers. If you click the icons on the map, you can get more information about each one. If you click the star next to the title of the map, it will be added to your Google Maps account. To view it on your phone or computer, open Google Maps, click the menu, go to ‘Your Places’, then click Maps and you will see this map in your list.
Tips for doing this walking tour of Manhattan
This walking tour of Manhattan is fairly long, so it will pay to be prepared:
- Wear comfortable shoes!
- Bring water and something waterproof in case the weather changes
- Respect traffic & use crossings
And if this is your first time in New York City, check out these NYC tips for first time visitors.
When to go to New York City?
I think the best time to do this walking tour of Manhattan is in the shoulder seasons: March to May and September to October. I did this on the last day of April, and it was glorious!
I hope you like this self-guided walking tour of Manhattan!
If you follow this route, do let me know how you get on! If you need more inspiration for NYC, check out this list of movies set in New York City.
And if you are interested in more NYC walking tours, I did another one for Lower Manhattan!