Anyone who has ever visited Times Square knows exactly how touristy the typical bus tours and walking tours in NYC can be. Still, guided tours aren’t just for the most well-known New York attractions: They can also give you a behind-the-scenes look at what some call the “secret New York.” Some of the most beautiful NYC buildings, coolest abandoned places and most exclusive social clubs will only allow a few lucky tour groups inside. That’s an experience you definitely won’t get on a hop-on hop-off bus.
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Things in NYC you can only do on guided tours
What would the Met be like without hordes of tourists clogging every gallery? You can finally find out for yourself on an EmptyMet Tour that allows a select group of 25 people into the museum early in the morning. Take our word for it: There’s nothing quite like standing in front of the marble statue of Aphrodite or the Temple of Dendur in silence.
First founded in 1888, the Players (as it’s known to members) still occupies the same Gothic Revival mansion along the edge of Gramercy Park. If you’re not a budding thespian or patron of the arts, the only way you’ll see inside those double doors is on a tour. Peep the ornate Gilded Age decorations, Norman Rockwell painting and the pool cue Mark Twain once used on a two-hour tour of the building.
Though it has since been surpassed in stature, the Woolworth Building was the tallest building in the world from 1913 to 1930. Today, the Gothic Revival tower is closed to the public with the exception of the lobby, mezzanine level and lower level, which you can only visit on guided architectural tours. The stained glass, intricate mosaics, vaulted golden ceiling and murals of Labor and Commerce are really something spectacular to behold.
Discover remnants of the old Penn Station
What with the rampant delays, crumbling tracks and mysterious liquid leaking from the ceiling, Penn Station doesn’t exactly seem like a place you’d like to visit voluntarily. Still, there’s something remarkable behind the chain restaurants and nasty benches: remnants of the original structure that survived demolition in 1963. Join this 90-minute guided tour to locate more than a dozen odds and ends left over from the station’s earlier incarnation. This is one tour where you’re actually encouraged to touch the artifacts.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia Commons/Alan Turkus
The vault inside the Federal Reserve is the largest gold repository in the world, holding an astonishing 508,000 gold bars weighing more than 6,350 tons. The only way the building is able to support that weight is by setting the vault directly onto Manhattan’s bedrock. Tourists can enter the vault through free guided tours held twice a day every weekday, but be forewarned: These unique tours fill up quickly. The Federal Reserve releases new dates every month on a rolling basis, so be prepared to check the website daily to reserve a spot.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Reading Tom
Theater impresario Samuel Lionel "Roxy" Rothafel was the mastermind behind Radio City Music Hall’s entertainment program, pairing new film releases with a live orchestra and the dazzling dancing Rockettes. In recognition of his talents, interior designer Donald Deskey and architect Edward Durrell Stone gave Rothafel his own apartment inside the building. Now known as Roxy’s Suite, the space is an Art Deco masterpiece with 20-foot ceilings covered in gold leaf and cherry-paneled walls. It’s often used to host VIPs like Sir Elton John and Paul McCartney, but regular visitors can check out the luxe digs on the venue’s Stage Door Tour.
The very first subway train left the now-defunct City Hall station in 1904. Trains no longer stop here, but commuters who take the 6 train to Brooklyn Bridge station might catch a glimpse of it as the train turns from downtown to uptown. It’s a true architectural gem, complete with beautifully preserved arched ceilings, ceramic tile and electric chandeliers. The only way to get up close and personal with the station today is on one of the New York Transit Museum’s 90-minute walking tours. They’re only open to members and tend to sell out quickly, so sign up for the museum’s email list to grab your spot as soon as the next block of tickets is released.
Before the Frick Collection became a museum, it was the home of steel magnate and art connoisseur Henry Clay Frick. Most of the rooms were converted to galleries after Frick’s death when he bequeathed his collection to the public. However, the mahogany-paneled two-lane bowling alley in the basement rec room rarely has any visitors: Since it’s not up to code, the bowling alley can’t be opened to the general public. A few members might get the chance to check it out during Frick events, if they’re lucky. If you’re dying to take a look, your best bet would be to become a member, befriend a curator and cross your fingers.