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You ready for an unsurprising confession? I’m a huge fan of good food. As I get older, finding excellent local food is my biggest priority on my travels. This wasn’t always true.
When I was in my 20s, I didn’t mind finding the cheapest and quickest fast food places on my trips. Sadly, this also meant I didn’t spend time researching great local establishments and food tours in my host cities.
Not to mention, I was also terrified to eat alone in public as a solo traveler for the longest time. Crazy, huh?
Now I’m happy to say that my priorities have changed in my 30s.
In particular, I don’t mind setting aside three hours to go on a quality food tour. And, of course, I wanted to join a food tour on a staycation close to home.
In this review, I highly recommend a Tenements, Tales, and Tastes Tour for those of you looking for a tasty adventure on your trip to New York City. The Lower East Side is a fascinating neighborhood for a variety of reasons. You won’t regret this experience, I promise.
To tell you the truth, I think you’d absolutely love taking this tour, whether you’re a New York City native or an international tourist. I even recommended it to my brother who has lived in New York for over five years now.
These LES tours are led by qualified guides at Urban Adventures. I adore Urban Adventures as a travel company. Their commitment to sustainability and the local economy greatly appeals to my travel style and ethics.
And the Urban Adventure guides? Know. Their. Stuff. They truly “connect” you and your destination.
I’m so happy to recommend this company on my blog. I hope you give either this tour or another one of their tours a chance the next time you go on a trip.
Full disclosure: Urban Adventures gave me a comped tour in exchange for promotion on this blog. All opinions are my own, and I promise I’m truthful in this review of the tour. I would gladly pay for it out of my own pocket.
Learning About the Lower East Side
The Tenements, Tales, and Tastes Tour isn’t only a chance for you to try some delicious foods on the Lower East Side.
Although you’ll eat a lot of great snacks, you’ll also have a wonderful opportunity to learn about the Lower East Side’s complex immigrant history.
For example, my guide (Brian Hoffman is SO knowledge and awesome! Try and get him if possible!!) told me all about immigrant life in the Five Points. And, if you’ve seen the movie “Gangs of New York,” you’ll have an idea about the tensions that simmered between the Irish immigrants and the anti-immigrant nativists.
This famous historical neighborhood is defined as being bound by Centre Street to the west, the Bowery to the east, Canal Street to the north, and Park Row to the south.
Even though I’ve strolled in this area many, many times, I didn’t know much about it.
In addition, you’ll learn about how current issues happening in the Lower East Side. Specifically about how gentrification threatens small, family-run businesses that are in these immigrant neighborhoods.
Gentrification is a real issue in New York City, and I’m glad the tour didn’t shy away from talking about its impact on the locals. Plenty of businesses that started in the late 1800s and early 1900s are now in danger of closing due to rapidly rising commercial rents.
Below, are some of the places and neighborhoods you’ll learn about on your Tenements, Tales, and Tastes Tour.
Keep in mind that your guide can adjust the itinerary depending on the number of people on your tour. I was the only one (yay!) on my tour, so we did a few extra stops. I’ll make a note of them in this review.
African Burial Ground National Monument
It’s impossible to talk about immigrants who lived on the Lower East Side without addressing slavery. The African slaves were forced to immigrate, ripped away from their homes and families, to an unfamiliar and brutal new land.
We cannot forget this.
In the Lower East Side, you’ll stop at the African Burial Ground National Monument that contains the remains of 419 Africans buried during the colonial era.
Visiting this site stirred up the same emotions in me that I felt at the Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston. Particularly sadness that I don’t know the names of these individuals and likely never will.
In a lot of ways, the United States still has a very hard time addressing its dark history with race, such as the enslaved people’s abrupt removal from their homes in order to forcibly work in the colonies.
I am so glad that Urban Adventures doesn’t just ignore the enslaved people in New York City. I know I will come back to this site again on my own.
Bowery Street is New York City’s oldest street and an important stop on this tour.
Throughout history, Bowery Street had a longstanding and rather rough reputation, which you will learn about from your guide.
For example, in the film, “The Gangs of New York,” Bowery was home to the nativist Bowery Boys who absolutely despised the wave of Irish immigrants.
Later, as more immigrants poured in New York’s Lower East Side, many families lived in horrific conditions in tenements.
These low quality buildings often squeezed in several families together, and had inadequate ventilation and often fell into disrepair. My guide showed me pictures of children who lived in these conditions. and their faces broke my heart.
Today Bowery Street is still a place where New York’s ultra wealthy and homeless populations collide. For instance, you’ll walk by The Bowery Mission, which has been providing services for the homeless since the 1870s.
On your tour, you’ll spend some time walking through the streets of Chinatown, which is a thriving example of an immigrant neighborhood that’s still growing today.
Chinatown is one of the oldest Chinese ethnic enclaves in the United States, and one of nine Chinese neighborhoods in New York City (the fasting growing one is the Chinatown located in Flushing, Queens).
In Chinatown, you’ll still see families gathered at the open air fruit stalls. In particular, I loved taking pictures of the colorful dragon fruits!
If you have time after your tour, be sure to visit Mahayana Buddhist Temple and see New York City’s largest Buddha statue. It’s certainly on my list the next time I visit New York City.
In Lower Manhattan, you can find Little Italy between Canal and Houston Streets and Lafayette and the Bowery. This neighborhood was home to Italian immigrants coming to New York City via Ellis Island in search of a better life.
Today Little Italy is still home to a small number of Italian families, although this area is rapidly gentrifying and is now considered a popular tourist destination.
As someone with Italian ancestry, I was very excited to see and learn about Little Italy.
One of these days I need to go to the Feast of San Gennaro!
Our Tasty Stops in the Lower East Side
At this point, I’ve listed all of the great places that we stopped on our Tenements, Tales, and Tastes Tour.
Buuuuuut, let me guess, you guys are here for the food, right? Don’t worry. I won’t disappoint you.
I loved that the food options were authentic to the cultures and people living in the Lower East Side. You won’t find fine dining on this tour, but instead experience various comfort foods that have been enjoyed for over a century.
One final note before we talk about all the delicious snacks that I ate throughout the afternoon.
Keep in mind that this itinerary may change depending on the number of people in your tour. If you have a small group, you may make some extra stops, and if you do, you can pay for the treats a la cart. The choice is yours.
Our first “food” stop was Chinatown, which like I said is still a true immigrant neighborhood at heart, and is an area that I loved exploring with my guide.
We went to Fried Dumpling where we ate … you guessed it! Fried Dumplings.
Fried Dumpling is a great place to eat if you’re traveling New York City on a budget. For instance, 5 fried dumpling pieces will cost you a $1.25! I could’ve easily eaten more as I really, really, really like pork dumplings, haha.
Thanks to this tour, I’m plan to do more exploring in Chinatown on my own to try more local restaurants, as well as see Buddhist Temples that are open to visitors.
Our next yummy destination was Ferrara Bakery in Little Italy. This bakery has been providing tasty and sweet treats to Lower East Side residents since 1892.
Enrico Scoppa and Antonio Ferrara opened Café A. Ferrara, as a place to relax with espresso, after seeing an opera performance.
Today go to Ferrara Bakery to sample cannolis and Italian specialty cookies. Calories don’t count inside the building either. I promise.
Di Palo’s Fine Foods
Luckily for me, we had another stop on our walk through Little Italy!
Di Palo’s Fine Foods specializes in the best of Italian meats, cheeses, and wines. Customers need to walk in line till their numbers are called, but once they’re really shopping, the employees will provide their undivided attention and expertise.
Mozzarella cheese is one of my favorite things in the history of ever, so unsurprisingly, I loved the snacks at Di Palo’s Fine Foods, haha.
The employees here also speak fluent Italian, which I think is incredible.
Yonah Shimmel Knish Bakery
You can’t visit the Lower East Side and not discuss the Jewish immigrant experience. After all, this neighborhood is home to one of the most famous delis in the world: Katz’s Delicatessen.
You don’t go to Katz’s on this tour. But you do make a stop at the nearby and equally delightful Yonah Shimmel Knish Bakery.
At this bakery, I deeply enjoyed a quintessential potato knish. This traditional Ashkenazi Jewish snack was baked to perfection.
And I loved the atmosphere, too. This bakery is small. It felt warm and safe, and I definitely want to go back again soon.
Our final food stop was Cafe Katja.
This is one of the only Austrian restaurants that I have ever been to. On this tour, I was provided with a delicious pretzel, which is a staple of Austrian cuisine.
Other Austrian favorites, such as goulash and bratwurst, are also on the menu if you decide to stick around and have a bigger lunch.
If you like beer, feel free to buy yourself a drink, too. You need to pay for your own beer, though. For me, this wasn’t a problem, haha.
Special Stop: Economy Candy
Economy Candy is one of the cutest candy shops that I have ever visited in my entire life!
This shop has been open since 1937, and has been helping kids and adults alike get their “sweet tooth fix” ever since!
You’ll want to come to Economy Candy for the sake of pure nostalgia. I swear, this shop had every single brand of candy that I remember growing up as a child from the 1990s.
As a FYI, Brian was able to take me here, because it was such a small group (aka only me, haha). So Economy Candy isn’t a guaranteed stop. However, it’s close to all the other official stops that you can always visit after your tour ends.
Final Thoughts on My Tenements, Tales, and Tastes Tour
All in all, I highly recommend taking the Tenements, Tales, and Tastes Tour.
With gentrification, I sometimes feel as if small businesses, run by multi-generations, are skipped over when tourists come to New York City. As prices increase, it’s more important than ever to support local and small businesses, especially those that are part of the city’s historical fabric.
Furthermore, I think this food tour is perfect for solo travelers in New York, because it alleviates the pressure of finding someplace to eat alone.
Lastly, I took this tour right before the Coronavirus Pandemic hit New York City. I am terrified that this pandemic will wipe out these small family-run businesses off the map.
We cannot let this happen.
As soon as it’s safe to do so, please, please, please support local restaurants and businesses on the Lower East Side. I cannot stress this enough.
I hope you all enjoyed reading about my Tenements, Tales, and Tastes Review, and that you will consider booking an Urban Adventures tour in New York City. This company does several amazing tours around the world, and I will definitely take one in the near future.