Walking Manhattan, New York From Top To Bottom Along Broadway Street ... The Best (And Cheapest) Way To See The City

Old New York City is a friendly old town,
From Washington Heights to Harlem on down.
— Bob Dylan, Hard Time Is New York Town
 Lower Manhattan, as viewed from Jersey City, the morning of my Big Walk.

Lower Manhattan, as viewed from Jersey City, the morning of my Big Walk.

 

The best immersion into the bright lights of Manhattan? Mine is to start at the top and walk to the bottom -- thirteen miles along Broadway Street: views of Gotham in its entirety from sparsely populated Inwood down through Battery Park, history dating back to the Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam, not to mention great exercise. 

 
 

Nicole and I spent five days back in our adopted hometown of NYC last week. Before heading in, I texted a good friend of mine: "You going to be around Sunday morning? I'm headed into the city this weekend. If you want to get crazy, I was toying with the idea of walking the length of Manhattan. I've done it before, 13 miles, tough but doable."

His response: "Lol. I'm around and of course am game for anything."

And just like that, the Big Walk was on.   

There are any number of routes to trek the the whole island, but only one runs continuously the entire length: Broadway. Manhattan's longest street, snaking 13.3 miles, Broadway began as a Native American trail, grew as a Dutch settlement road during the Seventeenth Century, and today is one of the most well known thruways in the United States. Walking it offers glimpses of countless Big Apple mainstays -- from relatively sparse Inwood and Washington Heights in the north; down through ever emerging Harlem; into the heart of old money Upper West Side; by electric Times Square and the Theater District; skirting the flagship Macy's store and iconic Flatiron Building; through SoHo and into the Financial District beside the Charging Bull of Wall Street; before ending just short of Battery Park at the southern tip of the island looking out upon the Statute of Liberty.

Beyond these modern highlights, walkers also tap into a rich history. Take Battery Park alone where the journey culminates: originally a Dutch military garrison in the days when Manhattan was known as New Amsterdam, later an epicenter of the Evacuation Day celebrations on November 25, 1783 after British troops left New York at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War. And that's merely one stop. It's possible to trace the history of New York City as a whole through the microcasm of Broadway, and a new book released this year does just that. (For history buffs, the New York Public Library maintains an easily navigated database of old photographs searchable by street. Below is a picture I took of the Flatiron Building at Broadway and 23rd Street during my recent walk, alongside a photo from 1925 near the same vantage point.)

 
 
 Flatiron Building circa 1925; Source: New York Public Library

Flatiron Building circa 1925; Source: New York Public Library

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Public buildings arose on designated spots. Private dwellings, however, were situated helter-skelter by colonists who squatted wherever they chose. This explains the irregularity of streets which even today characterizes lower Manhattan. Before streets were laid out, two formed by common consent. One was Pearl Street along the East River. The other, farther west, followed a ridge northward through the [Dutch West India Company’s] farms and fields. Originally, it had been an Indian trail. The Dutch named it Heere Straat, or High Street. We know it as Broadway.
— The Epic of New York City: A Narrative History by Edward Robb Ellis
 

I'm not alone in my enthusiasm for the Big Walk. Trekking Broadway has become a thing. Although definitely not as popular as watching baseball at Yankee Stadium or riding the elevator to the Empire State Building lookout, a growing cadre of fans have embraced strolling Manhattan tip to tip. These guys made a movie about it ("There’s one more item every New Yorker might want to add to that city bucket list — and it’s a lot healthier than eating at Shake Shack and more exciting than standing in line for the Statue of Liberty.") Another New Yorker walked every street in Manhattan but saved Broadway for his final capstone hike ("I saved Broadway for last.  In addition to being New York's most iconic street, at 13.3 miles it's also the longest.") The New York Times even gets in on the action ("Whether you are a native New Yorker or a new one, Broadway will eventually intersect with your hopes and dreams."). The walk is fun, great to do with friends, and offers an entirely unique vantage of the Big Apple. Easily one of my favorite NYC things to do.

 

Below are tips for fellow travelers interested in making the journey:

  • Travel north to south to finish in a more central location. With respect to direction, most people go north to south, traversing the sparse northern sections at the beginning and building to the busier Times Square on down to the Financial District. One big advantage of this route is getting the lengthy subway ride to 225th Street out of the way prior to the walk, not when worn out afterwards. 
  • Beat the crowds by going south to north. On the flipside, to make the best time, it's better to start in Battery Park and go south to north. The southern half of the island is much busier and heavily populated than the north. Waiting at crosswalks for traffic to clear and dodging people on the sidewalks severely slows things down. By starting early in the morning before the streets are busy (i.e., before 9am or so), it's possible to have these busier portions of Broadway to yourself at the start and make good time through Times Square and beyond before heavy congestion sets in. The streets and sidewalks above Harlem are less busy and much easier to navigate. Having said all that, I've done the walk in both directions and, honestly, either way is great. 
  • Elevation change is negligible. Many internet commentators recommend going top to bottom, solely in order to be travelling "downhill." That's largely bunk. According to this topographic map, the elevation gain at the northern end of the island amounts to approximately 150 feet. Over 13 miles, not a big deal. Make your directional choice based on other factors outlined above. 
  • Use the subway at 225th Street. The fastest and cheapest way to get to (or from) the northernmost part of Manhattan is the on the Number 1 subway line exiting at 225th Street. $2.75 for a single ride ticket. 
  • Fun with friends. Although perfectly good as a solo endeavor, the walk makes for a great group activity, like this group of friends did ("This is something people do."). Both times I've made the journey, I've done it with a friend. The first time Nicole even joined for half the walk, another option if friends don't have most of the day to devote to Broadway. 
  • No need to pack food or water. There's plenty available for purchase along the way. 
  • It's safe! Even most local New Yorkers have never traversed north of Harlem and, thus, wonder about safety. Both times I've done the walk I've never felt even close to in danger in any way (but, of course, be smart and aware of your surroundings).   
  • Count on at least six hours walking time, more if you plan to stop along the way. 
  • CitiBikes line the southern half of the route. Although maybe technically cheating, don't be afraid to hop on a CitiBike for part of the journey. New York's bike share is available from the Upper West Side on down with checkout stations scattered along Broadway. During my most recent trip, my friend and I hopped on Citibikes to break up the monotony of walking in a couple places. Pedaling is great for a few blocks.  
  • Stop for a drink, or don't. Drinking along the way? Many people ask me if I've made the walks into pub crawls. Of course this could easily be done as there's no shortage of bars along the way. But, for me, thirteen miles is difficult and time consuming enough without beers. Just my opinion! :)
  • Finding bathrooms can be a challenge. I've found ducking into one of the many Starbucks along the route to be the best bet. 
  • Finally, make the walk your own! There are so many options along Broadway of places to see, eat, and drink. Meet up with a friend, or hike sole. Journey straight through making good time, or take it slower with stops along the way. There's no right or wrong way, only Broadway!
 

A completely arbitrary list of attractions and ideas for potential stops (from south to north):

Have fun, get out there and enjoy Broadway! It's the best way to experience Manhattan.

 
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 Mission complete; Statute of Liberty in the distance.

Mission complete; Statute of Liberty in the distance.

 
 Pics from the Broadway walk I did in 2014...

Pics from the Broadway walk I did in 2014...

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Give me such shows! give me the streets of Manhattan! Give me Broadway, with the soldiers marching—give me the sound of the trumpets and drums!
* * *
People, endless, streaming, with strong voices, passions, pageants; Manhattan streets, with their powerful throbs, with the beating drums, as now;
* * *
Manhattan crowds, with their turbulent musical chorus—with varied chorus, and light of the sparkling eyes; Manhattan faces and eyes forever for me.
— Walt Whitman, Give me the Splendid, Silent Sun (Leaves of Grass, 1900)

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