Those looking for an orientation of New York City might be tempted to hop on one of the many bus tours that all ply the same route through Manhattan, but for most a far better way to go is on the famous Circle Line boat tour that actually goes around all or part of the island. The bus tours are more expensive, and mainly take you by things you’ll want to see in person during your trip anyway. For those in a real hurry, those aren’t a terrible choice, but the Circle Line is hard to beat.
Why the Circle Line tours are so nice
The amazing density of Manhattan is one of its most unique features, with huge patches of big apartment buildings only broken up by the stunning skyscrapers. In other words, it’s a concrete jungle, and from any given point on the street you can only see a small sliver of the whole thing. From the rivers that run on either side of Manhattan, you can see almost half of everything from every point along the way. You can see the details at the tops of the most famous buildings that you could never see from street level.
You’ll definitely want to see many of the better sights from the ground as well, but to get the best orientation and see everything in a short period of time, you can’t beat the Circle Line tours. In addition to the views, you’ll get an running commentary by one of their entertaining guides, which includes really interesting facts and trivia about the city that aren’t nearly as easy to understand out of a book or while standing on a sidewalk.
The main tours
3-hour Full-Island Cruise
This route heads south toward the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, giving you excellent opportunities to take good photos in the process, and then loops around past the Wall Street area before heading up the East River. It goes past the United Nations and the Upper East Side, and all the way up past Yankee Stadium where the Bronx meets Manhattan. Then it goes past Columbia University and back down the Hudson River to where it started at the 42nd Street Pier.
2-hour Semi-Circle Cruise
This version begins exactly as the 3-hour version does, but after it reaches the Upper East Side, it heads back down and retraces most of the route back to its dock, although it doesn’t make another run past the Statue of Liberty.
2-hour Harbor Lights Cruise
This is exactly like the regular 2-hour cruise, only it takes place in the early evenings. The setting can be more romantic in the evening, and more people take advantage of the pricey drinks they serve at the bars on board, but it’s otherwise the same tour.
Which tour is best for you?
Having done both versions multiple times (whenever friends come to town to visit), I can comfortably recommend that the 2-hour tours are best for most people. The extra hour on the longer tour includes a couple of long breaks in the guide’s commentary, and the scenery around the northern tip of Manhattan isn’t nearly as interesting as the jaw-dropping views in the south. If anything, you’ll feel like you saw more from having two looks at the southern part than you would from one complete lap.
It tends to be cooler and much windier out on the water than on land, so if it’s a hot day then the 3-hour version might be a wonderful way to cool off and relax. But on a mild or cool day, it can feel very cold out on the water, so the extra hour is less welcome. Children will probably grow much more restless during that extra hour as well.
Prices for the tours
- 3-hour Full-Island Cruise – Adults $31 | Children $18 | Senior Citizens $26
- 2-hour Semi-Circle Cruise – Adults $27 | Children $16 | Senior Citizens $23
- 2-hour Harbor Lights Cruise – Adults $27 | Children $16 | Senior Citizens $23
Schedule of cruises
There is a different cruise leaving about once per hour during the summer, and about 5 times per day in March and April. For the complete schedule it’s best to check out the schedule page on the Circle Line site, which is quite annoying, but usually up to date.
You can buy tickets just before you board, and cruises rarely sell out completely, but the lines can be long and slow. You can also buy tickets in advance through Ticketweb on this link.
West 42nd Street & 12th Avenue
New York, New York, 10019
The Pier 83 dock is very easy to find at the western end of 42nd Street. If you are staying near Times Square, this should be a fairly easy walk for you, although the blocks are long in this part of Manhattan, and the scenery in the area isn’t great. There are no subway lines that come near Pier 83, but the M42 bus does come right to it as it goes back and forth along 42nd Street.