New York City is full of attractions and activities and you can live here for years and still not know everything there is to do. It is also rich with history and there are so many unknown stories about its residents and lots of secrets to unravel. It all began in downtown Manhattan and I recently went to the coolest downtown tour called The Downtown Experience that literally showed me what it was like when New York City was just being discovered.
The Downtown Experience is a bus tour that has multi-media features that are used in conjunction with a tour guide to tell the story of lower Manhattan.
The tour leaves from South Street Seaport and begins with a short talk with the guide, before embarking on the bus. Our guide was very charismatic and knowledgeable and shared lots of tidbits about the area. We got on the bus and he continued telling us about the history of Manhattan before it was even called Manhattan.
The seats are faced so that there are three long rows overlooking huge windows, which allows you to see a lot more than you would on a regular bus:
After the intro from our guide we put on a special headset that showed a virtual reality clip. Throughout the ride the headset is used occasionally and you can see clips that go along with the story that the guide is telling.
The clip, which showed briefly the history of Manhattan ended and our guide continued with more history, describing what life was like for the native Americans who lived there originally – the Leni Lenape – and the Dutch settlers. Our guide also pointed out major landmarks, such as the Brooklyn Bridge.
Here is downtown Brooklyn in the distance:
We passed by Battery Park City and I learned that it all used to be water and that it was actually built on landfill. We also passed by Federal Hall on Wall Street, where George Washington was inaugurated as the first U.S. President on April 30, 1879.
We were able to see historic footage on the small screens while the guide was telling stories and tidbits about people from the past.
We learned about famous people, such as Giovanni Varrazzano and P.T .Barnum, as well as not-so-famous people, such as Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind. We also learned about early immegration and how Ellis Island was formed.
Every now and then we’d watch a short virtual reality video using the headset. If your headset doesn’t work there’s a tech guy on the bus who has plenty of headsets to spare and the guide will quickly exchange yours. The virtual reality part is really amazing – be sure to turn your head to the sides as the videos are 360 degrees so you feel like you’re actually there.
Here’s a photo from one of the virtual reality clips:
Another interesting tidbit – we learned how the Holland Tunnel was built and that there are four large buildings, two in NY and two in NJ that have ventillation shafts that push clean air into the tunnel. Here is one of the four buildings:
As we were getting near to ground zero, we heard a song about 9/11. Suddenly, we realized that the song is being sung live and that there’s a guy walking outside singing it in real time!
Just as the song ended we arrived in front on the Freedom Tower – a poignant and dramatic moment and very nicely done.
The Downtown Experience is 90 minutes long and is appropriate for kids school-aged and older. Best of all, the tour doesn’t end when you get off them bus. As you leave the bus you get a free headpiece where you can attach your phone to watch more vitrual reality clips. All you have to do is download the free Timelooper app and you can continue to see more history even when the ride is over.
Click here for info for The Downtown Experience. Right now, if you buy a ticket at full-price ($49) you get a FREE 60 minute sightseeing cruise on the hornblower.
Check out my post on THE TOUR which is similar to The Downtown Experience but covers Times Square and Midtown Manhattan.
I was not compensated for this post. I received complimentary tickets.
Senior Reviewer Maytal Wichman has also written for The Huffington Post. She has been living in New York City for fourteen years and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature as well as a Law Degree, but blogging is her true passion. Maytal is a stay-at-home mom to three kids (ages 10, 8 and 4) and loves finding great products that make her family’s life easier.