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A Brief, Strange Trip Through the New York of ‘Sex and the City’

Twenty years later, the “fifth character of the show”—otherwise known as Manhattan—has changed dramatically from its portrayal in the HBO series. But did that New York City ever really exist?

HBO/Ringer illustration

“Raise your hand if you’re from New York Ciiiiiitaaaay!”

On a dreary Tuesday morning on Fifth Avenue, a blonde woman named Lou in a bright purple sheath dress was determined to inject cheer into the universe, or at least the boat-sized tour bus she was about to ferry across Manhattan. Not a single hand popped out of the crowded aisles. Not a soul from New York Ciiiiiitaaaay. Lou moved on, undeterred, asking if any bachelorettes were on board (nope), birthdays (there were four), or anniversaries (one, a couple celebrating 25 years of marriage, prompting awws from the group and a whoop from Lou). She assured us that, no matter our reason for riding the official On Location Sex and the City tour, we would have fun.

I couldn’t help but wonder how dated the fun would feel. Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon), Charlotte York (Kristin Davis), and Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall) first appeared on HBO 20 years ago this June, in 1998. They’d debuted in a very different New York, where cigarettes were still smoked in bars and the Twin Towers still stood in Lower Manhattan. Brooklyn was a frequent punch line, and Miranda’s late-season decision to relocate there with her husband and child was treated as evidence that she was willing to radically reinvent herself in the name of family, a voluntary banishment to a far-off place. Now, rents in the borough’s luxury condos and rehabbed brownstones can exceed those of Carrie’s Upper East Side neighborhood. Meanwhile, the rows of designer stores on Bleecker Street, once a condensed paean to Sex and the City’s consumerist vision of city living, is dotted with vacant storefronts, a victim of “high-end blight.”

The franchise’s appeal has weathered the city’s changes and the passage of time. In the eight years since the last film, Sex and the City 2, came out, fans have continued to reference the lifestyle and sartorial choices of the show’s quartet of female leads. Most recently, Cynthia Nixon’s run for the governorship of New York increased reverence for the show’s most relatable character. Her supporters created a “We Should All Be Mirandas” T-shirt, tapping into the show’s glossary—the four leads as archetypes for women, with the wry, cynical Miranda as the favored avatar of the moment.

Despite the show’s lasting cultural traction, I was surprised by how packed the tour was. It brimmed with Europeans clutching shopping bags and chatty Texan families. I knew that Sex and the City had been an undeniable entertainment juggernaut, spawning countless real-life trends as it aired, to the point where dermatologists credited Carrie and Co. for mainstreaming Brazilian waxes. But so many of the trends it inspired (Fendi baguettes, the Meatpacking District, nameplate necklaces for white women) are dreadfully tired. The show’s sexual politics are often as dated as its fashion, as anyone with an HBO Go subscription and the gumption to watch cringey episodes like “No Ifs, Ands or Butts” (Samantha dates a black man and spends the episode making racist quips) or “Boy, Girl, Boy, Girl” (sex columnist Carrie gets freaked out by bisexuality) can attest. I’d assumed active fandom in the franchise had waned along with the popularity of cupcake bakeries, and that I’d be on a nearly empty bus feeling melancholy about an outdated sitcom. I quickly learned I was wrong. Not only do people still care about Sex and the City, they’ve cared enough to fuel a location-specific tourism cottage industry for nearly two decades. “We started three years into the series,” On Location’s marketing director Alan Locher told me, noting that the tour reached a peak in popularity at the end of the show, but had maintained a high baseline of interest.

“Here we are, 17 years later, and we still run 10 tours per week,” Locher said. “And there can be 12 to 15 tours. I think the 20th anniversary is going to give it another spike.”

I asked Locher if On Location had any other, newer shows they were interested in crafting tours around. “We tried with Girls, but it just never panned out. The locations were never as glamorous as Sex and the City,” he said.

The official itinerary: Drive past some of Sex and the City’s most iconic filming locations, with breaks to peruse the sex shop where Charlotte purchased her first, beloved Rabbit vibrator, as well as the West Village stoop used as a stand-in for the facade of Carrie Bradshaw’s unrealistically spacious Upper East Side one-bedroom. A snack break and photo-op at Magnolia Bakery (where Carrie told Miranda about her new crush, a handsome furniture designer named Aidan). A peek inside Buddakan, the ornate B-list finance bro hangout and Asian fusion restaurant complex where Carrie and Big held their rehearsal dinner in the first film, and then a final toast at “Steve’s bar,” an inconspicuous pub which would serve our horde Cosmopolitans for the discounted price of $10. (Lou assured us that many Manhattan establishments would bilk us for double that for the honor of tippling Carrie’s favorite alcoholic beverage.) After running down the bus rules (no onboard filming, snacks allowed but booze not allowed) we were off. The anniversary-celebrating couple took a commemorative selfie with a digital camera as the bus rumbled into drive.

Lou pointed out that we were already, at that moment, witness to a piece of Sex and the City history. The bus wheeled past the entrance to the Plaza Hotel, known to fans as the cursed spot where Carrie spotted Big as he celebrated his engagement to another woman. We then headed toward the West Village, where the majority of filming for Sex and the City took place. Drop-down television screens played relevant scenes from Sex and the City as we approached the sites where the scenes were filmed, such as the gym where Miranda had met a hot dad with an annoying child and the restaurant where Samantha picked up a billionaire with a saggy ass. On our way, Lou informed us that the tour had actually run into Sarah Jessica Parker on several occasions, and on every single occasion she had been as sweet as could be. She also dispensed some advice for interacting with Chris Noth, a.k.a. Mr. Big, noting that persistence was key if he was not in the mood to take a photograph.

Then it was time for the main event: Carrie’s stoop. Lou explained that Carrie’s stoop originally was not part of the tour, as it is the stoop of normal people who want to live their lives without a constant barrage of out-of-towners posing for photos and blocking the entrance and exit to their home. However, after finagling some sort of arrangement with the tenants, On Location Tours was able to offer a sighting, albeit a distinctly humiliating one: Everyone had to line up across the street from the stoop and move past it in a single-file shuffle, so as not to block the sidewalk.

Lou chirpily pointed out HBO landmarks while ignoring more famous city signposts; we were alerted to our arrival at Buddakan without, for instance, anyone noting that we were also passing the High Line and the Chelsea Market. It was a fascinating way to take in Manhattan, ignoring everything except that which was pertinent to an off-the-air television show; while I felt a little sorry that my fellow tour-goers were missing so many actual landmarks, the narrow parameters for paying attention meant that the city felt more digestible than it normally does.

The view from the bus let us look down on the traffic we rode alongside and also provided a great perch for people-watching. I was mostly charmed by the tour, but I started feeling unnerved as we crisscrossed the West Village and it seemed like four out of five people I spotted were carrying luggage or wearing the tourist’s uniform of fanny packs, New York–branded graphic tees, and nervous expressions. It was also disorienting to hear how Lou framed the city—she warned the bus to hold onto our belongings if we ventured onto the (very safe) New York subway, and conceded that Brooklyn “has a few cool neighborhoods now.” She also kept referring to the Meatpacking District as “Me-Pa,” an abbreviation no human has ever used.

When we arrived at “Steve’s bar,” Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” blasted from its speakers, and the bartender had already begun pouring premixed Cosmopolitans in anticipation of our arrival. The group quickly filled the bar, with its few patrons looking around with surprise. The bartender, who looked tired, told me that they cued up a special playlist for the tour’s 20-minute invasion. I’d never seen anyone prepare a cranberry-based cocktail so joylessly. The tour-goers, however, were having a ball. I chatted with a mother and daughter from Houston and a woman from Vancouver trying to figure out which American beer to drink. Two young German women snacked on the complimentary Magnolia cupcakes we’d been offered on the bus, discussing their plans to rewatch the series. Merriment and the scent of sweetened lime juice filled the air. If someone had lit a Marlboro Light indoors, I could’ve squinted and swore it was 2002.

When I asked Locher what made people so obsessed with Sex and the City specifically, he used a phrase I’d heard dozens of times about the show. “New York City is really the fifth character,” he said. Trite, but not untrue: Carrie “dates” the city, the characters traipse across Manhattan with a mania for being in the exact right place, and Carrie’s late-season decision to leave New York is framed as a sort of divorce from her old self. Carrie muses that “mistakes are what make our fate,” but the show’s underlying thesis was that fate all depended on where you were. And the characters always existed in a neverland-y Manhattan, a twinkly playground full of restaurants having grand openings, shoe boutiques, and available cabs.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I went on my own walkabout through some of the tour’s locations to see what the show’s impact on the spots had been without tourists in tow. The line at Magnolia Bakery didn’t snake around the block as it once had, but was still too dense to pop in for a cupcake. (The craze for paleo and low-carb foods does not seem to have impacted the storefront.) The sidewalk in front of Buddakan was uncomfortably packed, but with people headed for Chelsea Market, not the restaurant. Walking by the “Carrie stoop,” there were signs of ordinary life—a woman sitting outside with a New York Times, takeout coffee, and her two terriers, two bored-looking men locking their door—but there were also several groups of excited selfie-hunters crowded around, passing iPhones and gawking at the anti-Trump sign the inhabitants had hung in the front window. I’d been so focused on quashing my embarrassment at lining up with a group of tourists that I had somehow not noticed the sign when I came with the tour earlier that week.

There it was, a deliberate interruption into the Sex and the City fantasy, staged by the same people who had to confront the long tail of that fantasy on a daily basis. Nobody taking photos seemed to pay it much mind. It didn’t seem like a gesture of protest against the tour itself, but rather a reminder to people in New York to pay tribute to the show’s version of the city of the present moment. Alongside the picaresque brownstones and specialty cocktails, there are actual people muddling along without the rosy lens nostalgia provides, unable to separate the appealing, glittery SATC Manhattan from the real one.

The streets were moderately crowded, but my most direct encounter with tourists happened when I sat next to a group of French people in athleisure on the G train on my way home. They got off in Williamsburg.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.