Your guide to walking tours

Exploring a new place, or even your hometown, can be a great way to learn about local history and culture. But if the thought of wandering around on your own is less than appealing, you can add some structure to the experience with a self-guided or professionally-guided walking tour.

There are many advantages to taking a walking tour, aside from the environmentally-friendly mode of transportation. It’s a great way to get some exercise, especially
if you’re on vacation and your regular routine is taking a hit. You have the opportunity to learn the local legends and stories behind the sites, and see things you might have otherwise overlooked. Best of all, they fit into almost any vacation, whether you’re looking to get out of town for the day, a tourist in a new city, a business traveller with a couple of hours to spare, or exploring your hometown on a staycation.

Walking tours have become so popular that you can find them practically everywhere
— whether it’s a large urban city or a small town. Before you don your walking shoes and pack your compass and water bottle, here are a few tips to get you started:

Self-guided versus guided tours

What kind of tour you choose depends on your preferences and what kind of tour you want:

Self-guided tours: Your tour guide is the information in your hands — a map with a marked route and information about interesting sites and events. It’s a budget-friendly option because you aren’t paying for a professional guide or being charged a per-person rate, making this a great option for friends and family. The information is often available for free online, and can be downloaded to your computer and prints. Many tourist bureaus or visitors’ information centres have print copies available for free or for a nominal cost. You can also purchase self-guided tour books for about the same cost as a single person admission to a guided tour.

These tours offer the most flexibility and independence. There’s no set start or stop time: you start the tour according to your schedule, and you set the pace. This often means more time for taking pictures, opportunities to investigate a place in more detail and the option to take a break or grab a snack whenever you want. There’s no worry about keeping up, and you don’t need to worry about missing something because your fellow attendees were talking.

Another bonus: These tours are widely available because they are relatively inexpensive to produce and maintain. As a result, many smaller locales can offer them where guided tours might not be profitable or cost-effective. Some guides are more comprehensive than others and may include pictures and trivia.

If you’d rather listen to an expert bring stories to life, many places have audio guides available for rent, or you can download free podcasts to listen to on an mp3 player. For example, expert Rick Steves offers free audio pod cast tours of Italy and France through iTunes. Dublin, Ireland has a free iWalk series available at no cost through the tourism board website.

Guided group tours: This option is worth the cost if you want to meet new people and prefer to have a knowledgeable person on hand to lead the group, answer questions and share personal anecdotes. Many places have regular
tours that run on an hourly or daily basis. The cost depends on the organization or company offering the tour, and can run up to $15 per person for a one to two hour walk (seniors, students and children often receive discounted rates). Many of these tours are run by local tourism organizations or private companies.

In addition, many local historical or cultural societies offer a series of a walks throughout the April to October period, each with a different topic or focus. Walks may be offered on a weekly or monthly basis, and often cost less because they are put on by non-profit organizations or are part of community initiatives. The goal is to make local history and tourism accessible to everyone, and volunteers and government funding make this possible. It’s a great way to get to know your home town, or find out about a particular part of the history of the place you are visiting.

Abroad, some tour companies such as Sandeman
offer “free” walking tours (there is no charge, but the tour guides work for tips) as a way to promote other products and services they offer. When in doubt, check out some of the online reviews before you go.

Private or personal tours: The ultimate tour for the “behind the scenes” experience, with a customized itinerary and personal attention from an expert. Costs can vary depending on the size of your group, the length of the tour and any additional transportation costs. Some companies quote rates of $100 per hour for private collections and studio tours, but a small group could split the costs.

Most organizations and companies also offer the option of booking a tour specifically for a large group. A customized talk or changes to the itinerary may cost extra.

What to look for:

Theme or specialization: Want to sample wine and food? Interested
in art and architecture? History or culture? Many walking tours are geared to specific themes, topics and activities rather than attractions. Larger cities tend to offer more options, both for guided and self-guided tours. Before you invest the time and money in a tour, find out a little bit about what you will see and do.

Certain tours may also be offered for certain events such as “haunted walks” at Halloween, or during local celebrations.

Length: Most tours tend to be in the one and half hour to three hour range, but some can be as short as half an hour or as long as a full day tour.

Difficulty and ability: Many sites and companies will let you know what kind of walking is involved if you’re leaving the city sidewalks — whether it’s rough ground, climbing stairs or walking up hills. Not all tours will be wheel chair or stroller friendly. Some walks are also ranked based on ability and level of fitness.

The trick is to find a tour within your comfort level. If you have any questions, call ahead for more information.

Reservations: Many guided walking tours only require that you show up at a designated time and place, but have limited room and require a reservation or advanced ticket purchase. You’ll want to know the cost and protocol before you arrive.

Other free places to go:

Local parks and hiking trails: Many municipal governments and local tourist bureaus will have this information. These locations are more conducive for other activities such as sports, swimming and picnics.

Cemeteries: Cemeteries often have interesting sculpture, well-tended grounds and are historic sites in their own right. Some even have online maps of where prominent people are buried or where you can find interesting monuments and markers. Many cities offer walking tours of historic cemeteries on weekends, or for Halloween.

Museum grounds and historical sites: Try walking around the site, not just through it. Take the time to look at the building from all sides, and look for architectural details and different points of view. Spend some time in the gardens.

Where to find information:
– Online: You can find many self-guided tours through city websites, local and provincial tourism bureau websites and local heritage societies. Tourist bureaus often list companies and tour providers in that area.

– Offline: check with the local visitors’ bureau or tourist information office for information about guided tours, such as time, cost and type. This is where you can often pick up print copies of self-guided tours as well.

– Whether online or in print, local events guides are also a good source of information about upcoming tours and other free events in your area.

– Look for podcasts in iTunes and other podcast subscription services, or through
tourism websites.

– If you’re creating a tour of your own, you’ll need a good map and guide book. Make sure that the areas you are planning to visit are safe for tourists before you plan.

Photo © Clerk


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