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oct 08 2008

New York: The free Times Square walking tour

Times Square (Courtesy Michael McDonough/Flickr)

Free tours aren't always worthwhile tours. So when I heard that Times Square offers a free Friday lunchtime walking tour, I was curious just how informative and entertaining it was.

Good news: I took the Times Square Exposé Tour a couple of weeks ago, and I found that It's definitely worth taking. It will open your eyes to the neighborhood's good, bad, and even ugly history. And it's price—free—sure beats the typical $25 cost of similar neighborhood tours.

Lucky travelers will have Judy Richheimer as their guide. She's a true New Yorker with a flair for the dramatic who has been leading the Times Square Exposé tour for over a decade. (When she does take the occasional day off, an equally knowledgeable substitute leads the tour.)

Judy's tour starts at the Times Square Visitor Center under the antique chandeliers inside a gorgeously restored 1925 theater on Broadway between 46th and 47th streets. At the end of the tour, Judy points at the art deco former headquarters of Paramount Pictures, and the ultra-modern New York Times Building. As you stand on the busy street corner, you'll see the differences between the buildings from two very different eras. If you're like me, you'll be awestruck.

Along the way, Judy will make more puns than there are lights in Times Square and even teach you how to jaywalk like a true New Yorker. The tour isn't limited to Broadway and theater sites. You'll visit two "churches" on the tour: St. Mary the Virgin, an Episcopal church, and John's Pizzeria, a deconsecrated church. Both stops include views of stunning stained glass features and intriguing smells. John's, of course, smells of the garlic and basil used in their coal fired pizza. St. Mary's, though, smells strongly of incense—so strongly, in fact, that many, including Judy, refer to the church as "Smoky Mary's." The church even sells tins of Smoky Mary's Incense at their gift shop ($15).

Judy will also point out interesting architectural details, such as the marble and bronze statues of famous actresses on the outside of the I. Miller Shoe Building. The story goes that Miller, an immigrant cobbler whose shoes were a hit with Broadway actresses, wanted to thank the people that helped him "get his feet on the ground" as Judy would say. He decided to put effigies of his favorite New York ladies on the side of his building. He let the public vote on which ladies should be immortalized. The winners and the roles they portrayed—Ethel Barrymore as Ophelia, Marilyn Miller as Sunny, Rosa Ponselle as Norma, and Mary Pickford as Little Lord Fauntleroy—were unveiled in 1929 and are still proudly visible today.

—Katie Jakub

The free weekly Times Square Exposé tour is sponsored by the Times Square Alliance, which works to improve and promote the neighborhood. The tour starts every Friday rain or shine at 12 p.m. and lasts about two hours. It leaves from the Times Square Information Center at 1560 Broadway, by the landmark Embassy Movie Theatre. Although no pre-registration is required, you should sign-in at the information center (inside the restored theater) and find out where to meet your guide. The tour ends at Smith's Bar on the corner 8th Ave and 44 Street.

MORE INFO? Contact the Times Square Alliance by phone at 212/768-1560 or e-mail at info@timessquarealliance.org, timessquarenyc.org.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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