You haven’t experienced the Big Apple until you’ve seen it from the seat of a 5-speed bike.
As a pedestrian who doesn’t own a car or even a bicycle, I’ve long considered walking to be the best way to explore New York City. In fact, my top advice to visitors is always to “get off the bus” and explore the parks and byways by foot.
But when I was contacted by Bike and Roll, a leading bike rental and tour company, I jumped at the chance to take their Lower Manhattan/DUMBO biking tour. I have always wanted to bike around the city but was scared off by the frenetic pace of city streets. (Like many New Yorkers, I admit to harboring some hostility towards the aggressive bikers and taxi cabs that compete with pedestrians for space). Biking to historical landmarks under the watchful eye of a trained guide seemed like a safe way to dip my toe into the fast-paced world of city biking.
The three-hour tour took us over the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, through Wall Street and into the expanded Brooklyn Bridge Park, where we snapped photos of the Manhattan skyline.
It was a fun (and not overly strenuous) way to explore the city’s top attractions. Scroll down for photo highlights of our trip!
Jake and I headed to Bike and Roll’s Battery Park location at 2 o’clock on a sunny Saturday– in the midst of a heat wave– to begin our 3-hour tour. We were relieved to find the bikes had a fanny-pack to hold our SPF 45 sunscreen, which we frequently reapplied, and the company provided a bottle of water to all participants.
Despite the heat Bike and Roll’s rental business was booming and they were nearly out of bikes. Jake snatched up the last bike in stock suitable for his 6-foot frame. (We were told the company has an on-site storage pen with additional bikes, and two trucks that pick up and drop off bikes throughout the day to avoid shortages).
Two bubbly Australian tourists rounded out our biking group. We huddled around our guide, Chuck, a friendly Brooklyn native who is a certified bike instructor and New York City tour guide, for a brief safety run-down. (Rule #1: No taking photos while riding). Confident we were in safe hands, we set out to explore Lower Manhattan.
History lesson in Lower Manhattan
The first stop on the tour was The Sphere, a massive metal sculpture rescued from the ruins of the World Trade Center and relocated to Battery Park. Chuck explained how the city coped with 9/11 and answered questions from the Australian visitors. We then headed to Wall Street, where we parked our bikes and snapped photos of the Wall Street Bull and the Stock Exchange.
As locals who live in the heart of downtown Manhattan, we consider ourselves experts on New York City. Yet we still managed to learn a few historical tidbits from Chuck, including the fact that Wall Street had an actual wall running through it in colonial times. (We did feel a bit ignorant for not figuring this out beforehand).
Another stop on the Lower Manhattan tour was City Hall Park, where we saw giggling children beating the heat by dipping their hands in a fountain.
The bike ride was relatively easy to this point, as we mainly stuck to bike trails, near-empty streets and the occasional sidewalk (although that is technically a no-no for bikers). We followed a bike trail to the Manhattan Bridge, where we stopped to snap photos of the Brooklyn skyline. Chuck graciously took photos for the group.
After entering the bridge in Chinatown, we found the gradual incline to be manageable. The bike/pedestrian lane was fairly narrow, but there was hardly any traffic. We took Chuck’s advice and kept a safe distance from the bicyclists speeding down the bridge in the opposite direction.
Our first stop in Brooklyn was DUMBO, a trendy neighborhood that was once home to starving artists but is now known for its high-end condos and locally-owned clothing and craft boutiques. We biked past Jane’s Carousel, an impressively restored horse carousel on the waterfront, and took a restroom and photo break at Brooklyn Bridge Park. We marveled at the long lines for the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory and Grimaldi’s, two famous local eateries that draw visitors from Manhattan.
In the Brooklyn Bridge Park I experienced anti-biker hostility firsthand, as a group of stroller-wielding families shouted at us for riding on the sidewalk instead of the cobblestone streets. I couldn’t blame them– I actually felt a bit guilty about riding on the sidewalk, but was somewhat blindly following our guide– but it did give me a sense of how the “other half” lives. With so many obstacles– giant trucks, texting pedestrians, bumpy roads– it turns out it’s as challenging to be a biker as a pedestrian!
Our next stop was Brooklyn Heights, where the streets were blissfully empty of cars and people. This upscale neighborhood reminded us of the old city in Philadelphia, with its colonial-era brick buildings and upscale vibe. We paused at a promenade to take photos of Lower Manhattan, where the new Freedom Tower is rising on the former World Trade Center site.
Chuck prepared us for our return trip to Manhattan over the Brooklyn Bridge by warning us to go slowly. The bike path is shared by pedestrians, including hundreds of camera-wielding tourists who pay no attention to the lines delineating the bike and pedestrian paths. I relied on my bell to warn them I was coming. Jake thought I was over-using it to the point of being an annoying biker, but I still claim that I was erring on the side of caution!
We parked our bikes at an observation deck on the Brooklyn Bridge and snapped panoramic photos of the Manhattan and Brooklyn skylines. I was surprised to find a garbage collector in this fairly remote location; they are a frequent sight in the East Village and are a symbol of tough economic times.
The Brooklyn Bridge was the pinnacle of the guided bike tour, which wrapped back around Lower Manhattan and took us through the Battery Park Esplanade, where we had views of the Winter Garden, Freedom Tower and the Statue of Liberty.
The bottom line
It’s possible to bike this same route on your own by renting a bike from Bike and Roll; they even provide a handy map. However, the guided tour is well worth the extra money if you want to learn more about the city’s history or would feel more confident following an experienced bicyclist through the city’s crowded streets. Our tour ended up clocking in at 3+ hours, which means you’ll get your money’s worth.
What: Brooklyn Bridge Neighborhood Tour from Bike and Roll New York City
Where: Starts and ends in Battery Park City
Duration: About 3 hours
Cost: $50 for adults; $35 for kids 12 and under. Check for deals on the Bike and Roll website and Facebook page.
To book: Visit bikenewyorkcity.com
We received two tickets to the Brooklyn Bridge Neighborhood Tour in order to experience the trip and write this review.