If you want to get to know a place, guidebooks aren't enough! The simple fact is that if you want to learn about history and hidden customs, you need to have a guide. You could hire one for the day, of course, and blow your paycheck. Or you could rent a guide for a few hours. Here are ten informative, fun walking tours that have won our favor for being affordable, educational, and readily available.
Boston By Foot (617/367-3766, )
Since 1976, this non-profit company has done the way Boston's done best: intellectually. Its offerings are generally $9 ($6 kids) and take about 90 minutes, and they include classic routes such as the Freedom Trail, the Back Bay, one on Boston's remarkable subterranean engineering (the first American subway, the "Big Dig"), and even one for kids aged 6 to 12 ("Boston by Little Feet", $6 all, including a free map). Guides are trained volunteers, and no advance reservations required. The only bummer: They only run May through October.
Chicago Architecture Foundation (312/922-8687, )
On these acclaimed book-ahead tours of America's most famous architectural city, guides really know their stuff. The Foundation's tours are well-heeled, which means online ticket purchase is an option and you never end up with a know-nothing leader. Most tours are $5 to $10 (a little nothing) and there's something on tap pretty much every day. Themes are as varied as canvas: Modern Skyscrapers, the "Museum Campus" including Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum; Printer's Row; a three-part river series; the Victorian mansions of Evanston; Frank Lloyd Wright's Oak Park--and on and on. Obviously, with a city this rich in architecture, the historical anecdotes and cultural revelations aren't far behind. Its comprehensive Web site lists the daunting array of opportunities for the coming months; summer is its peak season.
Mercat Tours (011-44-131/557-6466, )
You can't leave the home of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde without taking at least one ghost tour. Tourist-trap spook tours are a dime a dozen, but since is considered by many to be the most haunted place on earth, we figure this is the only place to indulge in one. Our favorite two tours: the exploration of the underground city were hundreds of plague victims were once sealed in and burned alive; and the Ghost Hunter Trail, which temporarily locks walkers in a pitch-black crypt located in poltergeist-afflicted Canongate cemetery (90 minutes, 6 pounds/$9.70). Brrrr!
Los Angeles Conservancy (213/623-2489, )
If you think of L.A. as being a car-centric city, you've just proven why you need to get onto your feet and see what you've been speeding past. Almost everything the LAC explores is found somewhere near much-maligned but history-rich downtown area, the original nucleus of America's second-largest city, in which even many lifelong Southern California residents have never set foot. A shocking amount of sumptuous early and mid-20th-century sights await there. Choose between Art Deco, Little Tokyo, Union Station, historic Spring Street, a circuit of the city's surprising cache of gorgeous old theatres, City Hall, and the Biltmore Hotel (among others). When it's not conducting tours, this 25-year-old non-profit organization spends its time and money shielding L.A.'s treasures from voracious wrecking balls--these people adore Los Angeles, and their Saturday tours make that passion contagious. Most of the LAC's walks take about two and a half hours to complete and cost $8 to $10. Reservations are required. The LAC also furnishes a free, downloadable self-guided walking tour on its Web site, but we like the depth that its excited guides bring.
The Original London Walks (011-44-20/7624-3978; recorded info: 011-44-20/7624-9255; ) Oft-imitated but never equalled, The Original Walks has a enough routes, timings, and themes to satisfy any interest. Most people start with its nighttime Jack the Ripper walk through Whitechapel and get hooked by the immense knowledge and theatricality of the guides. Then they spend years sampling its other themed walks-Greenwich, the Beatles, Christopher Wren, Sherlock Holmes, hidden pubs, Oscar Wilde... Another excellent selling point: It doesn't ask walkers to pre-book; just show up at the designated Underground Station entrance at the preordained time, and off you go. Pretty much every walk (two to three hours each) costs a mere 4 pounds/$6.50.
Save Our Cemeteries (504/525-3377, )
The city memorialized as The Big Easy is also famous for memorializing the Big Sleep; its rococo resting places, stocked with crumbling old crypts and cracked-open above-ground coffins, are probably America's most famous. This 29-year-old organization exists to preserve and restore atmospheric necropoli, which, as resting places for legends like voodoo mistress Marie Laveau, are as vital as the city's current history. It undertakes (for lack of a better word), two graveyard tours that emphasize art, architecture, and colorful Louisiana history-intelligently, it eschews the cheap ghoul stories favored by the higher-priced tours that clog this city. Four times a week, pay $6 adult/$5 seniors and students, take its walk through the Garden District's opulent Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. On Sundays, pay $12/$6 (a good 50 percent less than its tawdry competitors), to be educated on St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, off the French Quarter. On the way to the resting places, guides point out the history on the streets, too. Kids under 12 are always free, and no reservations are required for the hour-long walks.
Big Onion (212/439-1090, )
This outfit, run by Columbia students with advanced degrees in American history, can be as hip or as hifalutin as its audience demands. It has partnered with the Historical Society, and it has even compiled its own guide book to the city, which few other walking-tour companies can claim. Its guides love the city and love it show it off, and every day they take tourists into areas where tourist might otherwise be nervous to go. Nothing to worry about here. Its roster is huge and varied--not only in-depth neighorhood tours, but ones that take you where the big inventors worked; the Brooklyn Bridge and Brooklyn Heights; Revolutionary War sites; the infamous Bowery; pre-Stonewall gay Manhattan; the activist's New York of Emma Goldman; "Gangs of New York"; and so on. Tours are usually two hours long and cost $12 ($10 students).
Paris Walks (011-33/1-48-09-21-40, )
Contrary to lore, it's easy to find someone who speaks understandable English in ! Associates of the Original London Walks, these English-born or -speaking Paris residents provide excellent guided walks for Anglophiles. Its repertoire of about six staple tours (including one about Ernest Hemingway and others devoted to specific neighborhoods) run on a regular weekly schedule, found online. Don't miss its "short courses," either, which are sporadically scheduled and zero in on arcane topics such as Thomas Jefferson's Paris and one called "In the Shade of the Guillotine." Two hours, 10, rain or shine, children _5, no reservations required for most tours.
Scala Reale (U.S. number: 888-467-1986, )
These architectural tours are conducted by experts in the field (many of them American grad students-just try to stump them!), and are so popular that rivals often pretend to be Scala Reale guides just to to siphon tourist business. Ranging from 20/$21 for a two-hour introductory walk (maximum of 12 participants) to its storied four-hour, six-person tour of the Vatican's art treasures. Book ahead, preferably before departing for Italy, because spots on these affordable tours get snapped up quickly.
Wok Wiz (415/981-8989, )
This one, a specialty food tour, is a touch more expensive than we'd like ($40) but it comes with a seven-course dim sum lunch (it's $28 without; kids $35/$13), and it veers into territory not often explored by mainstream tours. Operated seven days a week by the gregarious Chinese-American chef Shirley Fung-Torres, the Wok Wiz Daily Tour romps through America's most famous Chinatown as it cracks through the rituals Asian culture. Visit Chinese herb shops, a temple, a tea tasting, and culminate with an hour-long dim sum feast.