Stepping Out with Walking Tours
Published: April 2009
By Meeghan Truelove
The walking tour is evolving from standard guided walks into quirky treks and high-tech adventures.
<span class="caps">MEEGHAN TRUELOVE</span> reports.
In this dizzying age of nonstop long-haul flights, the notion of slowing down to explore
a city on foot seems slightly old-fashioned. And yet, incongruously, walking tours are experiencing
something of a golden moment these days. Gone are the high-strung guides brandishing know-it-all
attitudes and rote statistics. They've been replaced by increasing numbers of guidebooks,
ambitious tour companies, and high-tech, self-guided treks that run the gamut from homemade
podcasts to multimedia presentations designed for PDA's. Indeed, as travel grows more sophisticated,
the walking tour is keeping up.
It's difficult to pinpoint when city dwellers first realized they could make some pocket
change by showing strangers around the neighborhood. During the 1800's, Americans on the requisite
Grand Tour were hiring professionals to lead them around European capitals. By the early 20th
century, the guided tour was showing signs of becoming something a little more colorful. In
New York's Chinatown, for example, George Washington "Chuck" Connors was leading well-heeled
visitors through narrow streets and bringing them to ersatz opium dens to deliver an illicit
Since then, walking tours have evolved into a thriving industry. Though overall global figures
are hard to track, local companies are reporting extraordinary numbers of customers. Last
year, London Walks, founded in the early 1960's, led more than 250,000 people on nearly 7,000
tours. The 15-year-old New Yorkbased Big Onion Walking Tours has expanded its portfolio thirtyfold
since its inception and last year reported having nearly 40,000 clients. Meanwhile, grassroots
companies featuring specialized itineraries—from the excellent building-focused rambles
by San Francisco Architectural Heritage to Dark Side tours' prowls through the red-light district
in Wellington, New Zealand—are cropping up to appeal to more discerning and demanding
Guidebook publishers are also getting in on the act. Frommer's and Time Out each has a series
dedicated to walks, and creative publishers such as San Francisco's Chronicle Books are drawing
in travelers who pack light with sleek map-based guides such as the City Walks sets (decks
of 50 cards, each with a map and a tour). New urban series, most notably the four-year-old
Asia-focused Luxe City Guides, with its hyper-stylish, shopping-driven approach, are ensuring
that walking tours remain a prominent feature of their guides even as the books themselves
become smaller and more selective.
But what really makes this the heyday of walking tours is the introduction of new technology.
Podcasts, e-books, and graphics-rich PDA files are broadening the field, often taking travelers
where they haven't gone before and offering unprecedented convenience and flexibility. Hong
Kongbased Walk the Talk offers a mobile-phone tour of the Tsim Sha Tsui district linked to
martial-arts movies. The five-year-old audio-tour company Soundwalk has produced guides to
some of New York's most unrecognized neighborhoods, such as the south Bronx and Hasidic Williamsburg.
History Unwired, a collaboration between MIT's SENSEable City Laboratory and the University
of Architecture in Venice, uses PDA's to produce a multisensory exploration of Venice's little-known
Even as the tours themselves become more elaborate, the walking tour phenomenon essentially
remains a cottage industry, driven by locals who feel passionate about helping travelers experience
their city as insiders. Stephan Crasneanscki, the founder of Soundwalk, started by making
mix-tape tours for visiting friends. "I was crazy about my New York neighborhood, and I wanted
my visitors to feel that—to forge a connection with it.
"What it all boils down to, regardless of the medium, is that there are more ways than ever
to slow down, sink in, and experience a city in a meaningful way.