When you step onto a Circle Line Sightseeing Cruise, you will, naturally, see major sights like the Empire State Building, the United Nations and the Statue of Liberty. “The Statue of Liberty,” says tour guide Chris Mason, “is always breathtaking. I've been doing this for so many years, but it's still such an amazing icon.”
But the experience runs much deeper than that. Mason was born to do this; his father, John, has been a Circle Line guide for half a century, and his grandfather was a tugboat captain. The native Brooklynite—just one member of a colorful cast of guides including actors and even a former CIA agent—really knows the City and shows his guests a thorough assortment of NYC sights that are sure to impress visitors and, yes, even hardened New Yorkers. Below, find some highlights from the two-hour “Semi Circle Cruise.”
Just because New Yorkers know the City's essential landmarks doesn't mean there aren't new ways to see them. Take the aforementioned Statue of Liberty, for example. “When you're sailing up the East River around the Williamsburg Bridge,” says Mason, “you can see the Statue of Liberty underneath the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge.” The sight simply can't be duplicated from land.
The tour takes in a number of New York City landmarks, like the Statue of LIberty (far left), the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge. Photo: Marley White
Speaking of bridges, you'll see many of the spans that link the City. New York is mostly made up of islands—Manhattan and Staten Island, plus Brooklyn and Queens on the western end of Long Island, leaving only the Bronx as part of the US mainland—so bridges are vital to getting around. In addition to the structures mentioned above, you'll also see the Queensboro and Verrazano Bridges on this tour. The latter, which connects Brooklyn and Staten Island, is the longest suspension bridge in the United States. Take that, Golden Gate.
The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Photo courtesy of the Staten Island Borough President's Office
The Brooklyn Bridge. Photo: Marley White
New York is a city of neighborhoods—and this trek down the Hudson River, through Upper New York Bay, up the East River and back offers a chance to lay eyes on many of them in a short period of time. In Brooklyn Heights, see the new Brooklyn Bridge Park, and in DUMBO, Jane's Carousel, newly restored and housed in a glass pavilion; in Midtown, gaze straight across West 42nd Street and see the bright lights of Broadway; and downtown, peek up Wall Street to the silhouette of Trinity Church. You can explore the areas more deliberately on land, of course, but this is a worthy seafaring sampler.
Jane's Carousel. Photo: Marley White
An easy way to get your bearings on the East River is to look for the United Nations Building (foreground). It's situated just north of 42nd Street. Photo: Marley White
The silhouette of Trinity Church is visible among the canyon of Wall Street skyscrapers. Photo: Marley White
Signs of Change
The City's constant evolution is part of what makes it so vibrant. You can see the interplay between history and new development through the old Domino Sugar factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (slated to become condos, but retaining that famous logo), and the Pepsi-Cola sign in Long Island City, Queens (the ad was actually moved from its original perch in Hunters Point, where a Pepsi factory once stood).
The Domino Sugar factory. Photo: Marley White
The Pepsi-Cola sign serves as a landmark of Long Island City in Queens. Photo: Marley White
The Hidden City
The Circle Line offers a glimpse of some rarely seen, but essential, pieces of New York City's infrastructure. For example, the boat passes by several ventilation towers for commuter tunnels—including the Holland Tunnel, the first to ever use such a system—and a Consolidated Edison power plant that provides electricity for NYC residents.
Ventilation towers like this one provide fresh air for various commuter tunnels under the City's rivers. Photo: Marley White
Power plant. Photo: Marley White
It's almost impossible to take a Circle Line tour and not learn something new. Mason told us that he hasn't “been thrown off by a surprise question in all the years” he's worked on the water, and we believe him. When a passenger asked him, “What's that old building?” in reference to a downtown structure at South Street Seaport, he seamlessly answered “Pier A” and explained its origin as a haven for fireboats. Other choice pieces of trivia: the United Nations is international property and technically outside United States jurisdiction, and the star-shaped structure beneath the Statue of Liberty—Fort Wood—predates the statue and was designed to ward off British invasion. Lady Liberty's base was built inside the fort.
Pier A. Photo: Marley White
The UN General Assembly. Photo: Marley White
A tour on the Circle Line affords stunning views of the Statue of Liberty. Photo: Marley White
It Happened Here
Mason often gets asked about hero pilot Chesley Sullenberger, and the cruise does pass by the place where Sully successfully ditched US Airways Flight 1549 after both of its engines were disabled by a flock of birds. It all happened on the Hudson, near the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. Mason notes that the former aircraft carrier is visible in some videos of the incident.
The Circle Line landing site is near the U.S.S. Intrepid, a decommissioned aircraft carrier that now serves as a museum. Photo: Marley White
The tour also offers the chance to see many other notable spots. It would be impossible to cover them all, but they include Brooklyn Heights (where Truman Capote once lived), Castle Williams on Governors Island (built in the early 19th century and used during the Civil War) and Steiner Studios in Downtown Brooklyn, where The Producers (the new version) and the HBO series Flight of the Conchords were filmed.
Of course, the tour also affords remarkable vistas of Ellis Island, the first stop for more than 12 million immigrants from the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th. Those new Americans all first spotted the landmass from the water, too.
It's worth exploring Lower Manhattan on foot—in fact, we have some terrific event suggestions lined up for the area—but the waterfront looks particularly stunning from the East River. Highlights include the ongoing development at the World Trade Center site, where 1 World Trade Center continues rising; the World Financial Center Winter Garden and the pulse of activity on the streets of the Financial District.