“Start spreading the news. I’m leaving today. I want to be a part of it. New York, New York!”: Is there a more famous line in New York City music lore? Frank Sinatra’s iconic song aptly captures the spirit of the pioneers who created a musical heritage as diverse as the city itself. Indeed, musicians have turned every square inch of NYC into a mecca to song, but don’t just read about it — get out there and see where they played on a music-focused tour. Go uptown in Harlem to where jazz blossomed into an international sensation, or downtown to where the punk movement took off. Whichever you choose, you’ll start to understand why New York really is a “concrete jungle where dreams are made,” as Alicia Keys sings on Jay Z’s NYC-emblematic “Empire State of Mind.”
Marvelous Music of New York: Musical History of the City from Levy’s Unique New York
Want the ultimate overview of New York’s historic music scene all in one afternoon? This comprehensive tour from Levy’s Unique New York hits all the high notes. It can be adapted as a four-hour vehicle tour or a three-hour walking tour and will educate you on the history of Swan Lake at Lincoln Center and the John Lennon memorial at Strawberry Fields, and provide an introduction to the story of salsa in Spanish Harlem and Bob Dylan’s haunts in Greenwich Village. Along the way, you’ll hear snippets of your favorite New York songs (ditties from Talking Heads, Ella Fitzgerald, Tito Puente and more). Kicking it off, of course, is Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.”
DETAILS: By appointment; $400 for four-hour tour, up to 12 guests; meeting location upon booking; levysuniqueny.com
East Village Tour from Rock Junket
Join rock and roll historian Bobby Pinn on this two-hour walking tour through one of New York’s most musical neighborhoods — the place where Andy Warhol’s Factory once made its cultural mark and where new groups are still trying to make it today. Get the skinny on how the punk movement blossomed in the East Village from the knowledgeable Pinn, a former rock DJ and music industry executive who worked with Nirvana and The Ramones, among others. You’ll get to check out fascinating landmarks that aren’t on your usual tourist route such as Madonna’s first apartment, Iggy Pop’s former home and the Joe Strummer mural, as well as famous album cover highlights, including New York tenement buildings featured on Led Zeppelin’s huge hit Physical Graffiti.
DETAILS: Sat. 11am; $35 pp; E. 9th Street and 3rd Avenue, exact location upon booking; rockjunket.com
History of Art, Crime, Drugs and Punk Rock on the Lower East Side from Rocks Off Punk Tour
Longing for a gritty look back at the New York of decades past? Then beeline it to this three-hour tour of the Lower East Side led by John Joseph, frontman of the Cro-Mags and self-described “author, ex-con, ex-drug addict, musician, street hustler, triathlete, 30-year vegetarian /vegan and lifelong New Yorker.” How’s that for real? There’s no candy-coating on this walk, just unbridled tales about a once harsh area where revolutionary music and crime lived side by side (ask about his one-time upstairs neighbor Daniel Rakowitz). You’ll walk the same streets Lou Reed and The Ramones once roamed and visit the locations of legendary venues such as the Fillmore East, CBGB, Max’s Kansas City, The Palladium and Irving Plaza.
DETAILS: May 17, 18 12pm, check site for more dates; $35 pp; Cube at Astor Place; rocksoff.com
Birthplace of Hip Hop Tour from Hush Hip Hop Tours
Hip-hop fans unite from around the world on this four-hour bus tour that travels to the upper reaches of Manhattan and the Bronx to see where the phenomenon came to life. You’ll ride past the Apollo Theatre, Yankee Stadium and the Graffiti Wall of Fame as you make your way to Bronx clubs and parks seminal to the movement. Led by famous emcees and DJs from back in the day such as GrandMaster Caz (Cold Crush Brothers), Kurtis Blow, Rahiem (Furious Five) and Reggie Reg (Crash Crew), the tours give an inside account from the pioneers who were there from the start. And don’t be surprised if you get to hear a few original rhymes or try your hand at one too — it’s all part of the spirit of old-school hip-hop culture.
DETAILS: Various dates and times; $75 pp; 290 Fifth Ave.; hushtours.com
Harlem Gospel Tour from Harlem Spirituals
It’s fun to learn about New York musical history, and see the places where it was made, but nothing beats hearing it live and in person. That’s exactly the draw of this four-hour guided Harlem bus tour that culminates in a visit to a local church to hear live gospel music. But first you’ll drive through the streets of this historic neighborhood and hear about its journey from an African-American writer mecca in the 1920s to the heyday of jazz through the 1950s to its continued renaissance today. Among the many landmarks visited are the famous Apollo Theater, Cotton Club, Morris Jumel Mansion and Duke Ellington’s apartment. In the end, however, it’s all about the soaring sounds as the band finds its groove and that Sunday choir hits the high notes.
DETAILS: Sun. 9:15am; $59 pp; 690 8th Ave.; harlemspirituals.com
Great Jazz in Harlem Tour from Big Apple Jazz
To experience the sights, sounds and tastes of Harlem, you could take the A train like the famous song declares and explore on your own, or you could opt for the comfortable mini-bus run by Big Apple Jazz that takes you directly the neighborhood’s current and historic hot spots. During this five-hour tour, you’ll see the legendary jazz outposts like the original Cotton Club, Apollo Theatre and Minton’s Playhouse along with the home of Duke Ellington and the haunts of Billie Holiday. Best of all, the Harlem jazz scene is still going strong, and you’ll get to experience it with three live sets from established and up-and-coming musicians in a club setting. Sit back and enjoy the sound of Harlem that is as vital today as it was in years past.
DETAILS: Sun. 3pm; $149 pp; along 125th Street, exact location upon booking; getinsellout.com
New York Broadway Tours
Warm up your singing voice, and get ready for a walking tour unlike anything you have experienced. Fans of musical theater will enjoy this walking tour through the Theater District where real actors, singers and dancers — who double as professional tour guides — lead the way. The musical history of Broadway theater comes to life as you stroll past the famous venues where the biggest names in showbiz have wowed New York audiences for generations. This isn’t a tour for wallflowers as the talented crew leading these excursions will break out into song and encourage you to as well — it’s all part of the fun as you get an up close view of the Great White Way.
DETAILS: Sat., Sun. 11am; Theater District, exact location upon booking; newyorkbroadwaytours.com
Carnegie Hall Tours
It’s one thing to see a show at Carnegie Hall, the world’s most famous concert venue, but that’s only part of the experience. To really get a sense of how important this musical institution has been in the development of everything from classical music to rock and roll, take a behind-the-scenes tour to get the full low-down on 120 years of history. You’ll learn about famous performers and their legendary concerts — from Tina Turner and Benny Goodman to Itzhak Perlman and Yo Yo Ma — as you roam the stunning halls of this first-class architectural gem from 1891. As the website says, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, Practice, Practice … or, you could just take the tour.”
DETAILS: Mon.-Fri. 11:30am, 12:30pm, 2pm, 3pm, Sat. 11:30am, 12:30pm, Sun. 12:30pm (depending on Carnegie Hall performance and rehearsal schedule); 881 7th Ave.; carnegiehall.org
Discover more of top places to see and things to do while in New York City with our Best of New York series.