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6 City Tours That Capture the Essence of American Destinations

From Los Angeles to New York City, these excursions offer deeper perspectives of urban metropolises

July 11, 2023

The Apex at City Climb, New York City / Photo: Courtesy of Edge

Why settle for a cookie-cutter tour of a city when a not-so-standard insider excursion awaits? Jack Ezon, founder of the luxury travel company Embark Beyond, says that unique experiences of urban destinations give visitors a much deeper perspective of the metropolis than run-of-the-mill tours. “These ways to explore could be a recreational activity or behind-the-scenes access that gets you up close and personal with an aspect of the city that not many people see, even locals,” he says.

Here, we’ve rounded up six examples in urban locales around the United States. Our selections all impart a sense of place, whether you’re in town for work, play or a combination of both. Now, let the fun begin.

New York City

City Climb

Edge, at New York’s Hudson Yards, is the highest outdoor sky deck in the Western Hemisphere, and thrill seekers can actually ascend the exterior of the 1,300-foot skyscraper. Called City Climb, this heart-pounding adventure—the tallest open-air building ascent in the world—includes platforms and stairways that range from almost 1,200 feet to 1,271 feet in the air. It’s a 75-to-90-minute rush that ends at The Apex, where visitors can hang over a platform and savor the unbeatable city views. Celebrate your feat with a victory lap around Edge’s indoor/outdoor viewing areas.
edgenyc.com; $185 per person

Charleston

The Hidden Charleston Experience

South Carolina Society Hall, Charleston / Photo: DBA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Charleston local Ian Sanchez is a go-to for high-profile visitors and celebrities such as Sarah Jessica Parker for his off-the-beaten-path tours. His signature half-day excursion hits graveyards where notable figures are buried, historic buildings that are closed to the public such as South Carolina Society Hall (a filming site for The Patriot), and private 18th- and 19th-century homes with gorgeous gardens. Sanchez also takes guests to spots that have a place in Charleston’s history of enslavement and closed-off sections of museums.
Email iansanchez4@gmail.com; from $120 an hour

Chicago

Chicago by Private Boat

Chicago River and landmark buildings / Photo: Courtesy of Espiegle/iStock/Getty Images

The luxury travel company Embark Beyond offers an excursion in Chicago where visitors can see the city from an elaborate private boat. Sip Dom Pérignon champagne and tuck into a delicious picnic courtesy of three-Michelin-starred restaurant Alinea while you sail along the Chicago River. You’ll stop at popular destinations such as Millennium Park, the Art Institute of Chicago and Grosse Point Lighthouse, which you will visit privately. Your guide will also show you boutiques, introduce you to local artists and musicians, and arrange for a private encounter with one of the city’s celebrity chefs. The cap-off to the day is a fireworks show.
Email info@embarkbeyond.com; from $1,000 for a day

Los Angeles

L.A.’s Street Art by Bike

Arts District murals, Los Angeles / Photo: Courtesy of Robert Rosenblum/Alamy Stock Photo

A pioneer in the global graffiti art scene, Los Angeles enjoys a thriving street-art culture. On this private excursion from LA Art Tours, a working street artist will be your guide through the city’s downtown Arts District, where you’ll explore graffiti-filled back alleys and hidden spots by bike. You’ll see colorful art in all styles and sizes that the public rarely views. The culmination of the experience is a workshop with your guide, where you can create your own art piece as a keepsake to take home.
laarttours.com; from $360 for two people

Nashville

Private Recording Studio Experience with a Country Star

Recording studio, Nashville, Tennessee / Photo: Courtesy of Filippo Bacci

In the heart of America’s country-music scene, you can watch stars perform at a concert or club, or go beyond the tourist route by recording a song with a famous country musician. Excursionist, a travel company that specializes in unique and immersive tours, pairs guests with CMA-nominated artists for an afternoon in a private recording studio. You’ll learn about their musical background and how they got their break before recording one of their hits while they coach you. The grand finale is a private concert for you with the star and a goody bag full of swag including a copy of the album that’s truly your own.
excursionist.com; from $2,500 for up to 12 guests

Washington, D.C.

A Tour of the National Air and Space Museum with a Former Astronaut

National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C. / Photo: Courtesy of PlanetPix/Alamy Stock Photo

Your guide on a private tour of the renowned National Air and Space Museum is a former astronaut who has flown one or more missions into space. Of course, they will answer your questions about what the experience is really like, but they will also show you the Apollo moon gallery, which features an Apollo capsule, lunar space suits and the lunar rover (moon car). You’ll also visit the Space Shuttle gallery to look at early Mercury and Gemini capsules and some of the first rocket planes, and see the Hubble Space Telescope, SpaceShipOne and the Wright brothers’ Wright Flyer. You’ll even get to touch an actual moon rock from the Apollo 17 mission.
excursionist.com; from $2,000 for six people