Lower Manhattan Historical Highlights

Erin O’Hara

Along with exploring Lower Manhattan’s wealth of dining, shopping and nightlife options—not to mention beautiful hotels—visitors to the neighborhood can take the time to discover the area’s heritage sites. In the early 1600s the Dutch established New Amsterdam here (back then, Lower Manhattan was the capital of New Netherland) because it was prime real estate for trade and defense. In the years since, the neighborhood has variously been where George Washington was inaugurated, one of battlegrounds where Americans fought for the fledgling city against the British and, of course, the seat of American finance. Through a variety of tours, visitors and residents can explore the area where small settlements took root and eventually expanded into the bustling five boroughs we know today.

Fast-forward from the New Amsterdam settlements to more than a century later—the colonists have won the American Revolutionary War, and General George Washington bids his officers adieu at Fraunces Tavern. Those glory days are evocatively revisited at the Fraunces Tavern Museum. To continue celebrating that era of American history, visitors can grab a bite to eat and raise a glass to George and his men in the tavern itself.

Patriot Tours, a company that loyally leads visitors and residents through Lower Manhattan's history every day, stops at Fraunces Tavern and other landmarks on its various expeditions devoted to Revolutionary times and historical sights. The company also features tours dedicated to the Civil War and Lower Manhattan architecture. (If you're meeting your guide at New York's City Hall, the oldest city hall in the United States still housing its original government functions, look across Broadway to admire the Woolworth Building, one of NYC's first skyscrapers, and still one of its tallest.) Another tour company, Beyond Times Square, has options to bring tour takers to Federal Hall National Memorial, the site of Washington's inauguration and the iconic statue crafted in his honor, and The Battery, where British troops based their artillery batteries and then eventually departed from American soil.
For those who prefer to trace the City's—and the country's—emergence as a financial powerhouse, Wall Street Walks offers tours covering everything from Lower Manhattan's prosperous beginnings as a Dutch trading post to the stock market's most shocking crashes.

The National Museum of the American Indian, housed in a Beaux-Arts building that was originally the US Custom House, is the starting point for a number of great downtown tours. Among them is one from Big Onion Walking Tours, whose name harkens back to a moniker for NYC from its pre–"Big Apple" days. The company's Historic Lower Manhattan tour stops at Trinity Church, a towering Gothic Revival building that was once one of the tallest structures in the area. If churches are a draw for you, don't miss St. Paul's Chapel, a few blocks away. Part of the Trinity Church parish, this chapel was (somewhat unbelievably) located outside the City's boundaries when it was built, a testament to how much NYC has grown from its diminutive origins. St. Paul's was the house of worship that Washington himself attended.

Of course, Lower Manhattan was also the site of a more somber piece of history. The 9/11 Memorial is a tribute to the nearly 3,000 people killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and February 26, 1993, at the World Trade Center in NYC, near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon in Washington, DC. The memorial includes two reflecting pools, each nearly an acre in size, located within the footprints of the former Twin Towers. They feature the largest man-made waterfalls in North America and, when fully complete, will be surrounded by a grove of more than 400 oak trees. Admission to the memorial is free but requires the reservation of a visitor pass; reservations can be made at 911memorial.org.

As it should be clear by now, the City has a rich history of architecture, and The Municipal Art Society of New York focuses on that aspect of NYC. The society's downtown tour gives guests an informed and up-close view of Lower Manhattan's many structural marvels. (For more information, visit mas.org.) After the tour, architecture aficionados will also want to explore South Street Seaport, where they can get a glimpse of some of the oldest still-standing buildings in the City. <!--The South Street Seaport Museum, meanwhile, explores New York's storied relationship with the sea. Upon exiting soak up the Seaport's vibrant atmosphere, complete with more than enough shopping, restaurants and live music to make a day of it.-->