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Best guided city walks

Guided walks in London, Rome, Paris, Dublin, New York and San Francisco are now available on iPods, but a live tour can provide a much richer experience.
Become immersed in Barcelona by taking the Barcelona Walks Modernisme. The focus is the Golden Square area, a virtual “open air museum” of world renowned Art Nouveau architects such as Gaudi, Montaner, and Cadafalch.
Become immersed in Barcelona by taking the Barcelona Walks Modernisme. The focus is the Golden Square area, a virtual “open air museum” of world renowned Art Nouveau architects such as Gaudi, Montaner, and Cadafalch.Alamy
/ Source: Forbes Traveler.com

Guided walks in London, Rome, Paris, Dublin, New York and San Francisco are now available on increasingly popular iPods, but a live tour can provide a much richer experience.

Or so says Paul Bennett, owner of the highly acclaimed Context Tours, who maintains that “there's no substitute for the impromptu interaction with a knowledgeable and personable guide — best of all, one with a Ph.D. in the topic! Socrates had it right. When you can ask questions and engage in a real dialogue, learning happens.”

On a guided walking tour, travelers are not only listening, but also seeing, hearing and feeling.

Most guides are constantly researching and thinking of clever ways to explain historical background and current happenings in a city. If a new building is going up, they know about it. If a place has just been renovated, they will tell you why and how. Unlike the voice on the iPod, live guides live right in the city and know the enchanting alleys and shortcuts. After the overview a guided walk provides, it’s much easier to return to places along the way. And walkers learn a lot while they are strolling along.

The tours themselves also provide entertainment. On a route through Dickens’ London, a guide, fully costumed in a long dress and bonnet, will act out scenes from novels like “Oliver Twist.” On a tour of Rome’s Forum and Coliseum, you may go to a special panoramic location with a knockout view of the ancient city’s temples, palaces, courtyards and government houses. On the French Revolution Walk in Paris you may stop in front of Le Procope, the café where Voltaire, Robespierre, Marat, Ben Franklin and others often met, and be treated to rich, anecdotal history.

And what could be better than going to Paris foodie haunts with expert Paule Caillat who tells stories with warmth and humor, and can answer questions?  In trendy Berlin, Henrik Tidefjärd takes guests to different off-the-beaten track restaurants for each course of a meal.

Tommy Graham, director and founder of Historical Insights in Dublin, says his guides “are constantly striving to offer some ‘insights’ into Irish society through the medium of history.” In Dublin’s historic district south of the Liffey River, you can may stroll through Trinity College, where Jonathan Swift, W.B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde and other notables studied. In and around Duke Street, quotes from James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses” are carved in small plaques on the sidewalk. On Context Tour's archaeological tour of New York City you can get a sense of what was underneath the city — old foundations, sewers, an current digs rather than the taverns, churches and historical sites one sees on the conventional tours.

John Harper

Another advantage of guided tours is the helpful information travelers share with one another. David Tucker, owner of London Walks, says that travelers offer each other more than tips about restaurants and museums. One suggestion from a traveler: “Make sure to get to events half an hour early,” Tucker says. “That way, you avoid two hours in a queue.”

Guides often recommend reasonably priced restaurants in the area, and others are apt to chime in with anecdotes about good eating places. Indeed, at the end of a walk through Trastevere — once Rome’s ancient Jewish ghetto and now one of its trendiest neighborhoods — four of us took our guide’s suggestion and went to a little café near the Ponte Sisto Bridge and shared discoveries in Rome and other places.

Getting to the designated starting point is part of the fun. Walks usually start outside specific subway entrances, but sometimes at well known museums, churches, or squares. Tourist maps are abundant in big cities, and hotel clerks and concierges are always eager to pencil in directions.