America's Strangest City Tours
Guided city tours are ubiquitous, of course—New York City alone has more than 300 of them, according to the tourism office. And while it’s impossible to say how many of these are weird, offbeat, or downright strange, many have been borne of imagination and ingenuity. In fact, there’s no shortage of experiences for curious travelers looking for alternatives to the omnipresent sightseeing bus.
“You can see more of the real city this way,” says Drew Raphael, owner of Dead Apple Tours, who was inspired to create his 1968 hearse tour of New York City after seeing folks stopping by the SoHo building where actor Heath Ledger died. He compares his tour to “rolling performance art or rolling theater,” where those interested in Gotham’s morbid hot spots cruise Downtown in “Desdemona,” Raphael’s formerly casket-toting vehicle.
Often started and led by passionate experts on niche subjects—or those who see an opportunity in creating fun and unusual travel memories—offbeat tours can take you to spots you’ll never read about in guidebooks or find while walking through the city on your own.
“You feel as if you’re in a house that hasn’t been opened in years,” says Katharina Woodworth of one of the city’s strangest, most popular, and longest-running guided tours—Underground Tour. Accessed via a flight of stairs in Doc Maynard’s Public House, a restored 19th century saloon, the supposedly haunted tunnels are the remains of the original city that was destroyed by the Great Seattle Fire of 1889. (The current city streets were built on top.) “It’s like walking through catacombs into a secret world that takes you back a century to the realSeattle.”
As for souvenirs from these crazy tours, you are practically guaranteed interesting tales to tell family and friends back home.
New Orleans:French Quarter VampireHaunts
Strange Factor: You don’t have to be a fan of Twilight or True Blood to enjoy this creepy two-hour vampire-themed walking tour through NOLA’s most famous historic neighborhood. It’s up to you to decide if vampires are real while hearing tales about these creatures of the night.
Highlights: You’ll be “sucked” into bloody tales and sights such as the Vampire Tavern, locations where real-life vampire-like crimes were committed, and spots from famous fictional vampire stories.
Los Angeles: Escape from Paparazzi
Strange Factor: Strap on some running shoes and jog in the footsteps of actual celebrities who dodged the pesky photographers on the same streets when you take the Running from the Paparazzi tour. The four-mile guided run takes you from Wilshire Boulevard to Rodeo Drive, past many star hangouts, like The Ivy. Who knows, you might even catch a glimpse of Paris Hilton dodging the cameras.
Highlights: Need more motivation? The tour ends at Crumbs, where runners are treated to a cupcake.
San Francisco:Toxic Sites
Strange Factor: Calling Erin Brockovich. This isn’t your traditional upbeat trolley tour of northern California. Addressing serious environmental issues within our country, the toxic tours run by Communities for a Better Environment take you to refineries, chemical sites, and other eco-comprised spots called brownfields in the Bay Area.
Highlights: The tour incorporates moving personal stories of people living within these “sick” communities.
Austin: City Chicken Coops
Strange Factor: Peek inside the Live Music Capital of the World’s henhouses on the Funky Chicken Coop Tour. During the open house event, folks download a map and make their way around the Austin city limits to check out coops made out of everything from shingles to recycled materials—and their featured inhabitants.
Highlights: Although the Austin open house happens only once a year (in April), city chicken coop tours are a nationwide “sustainable living” trend across the country, from Albuquerque to Las Vegas.
New York City: Morbid Sites in a 1960s Hearse
Strange Factor: You don’t have to be dead to ride in a hearse through NYC. Drew Raphael, ex–marketing exec turned tour guide, offers tours of downtown in a 1968 beast on four wheels aptly named Desdemona, which seats seven “living” folks who hear stories of famous dead New Yorkers.
Highlights: Digging up the dark side of NYC history dating back to the 1600s, the tour visits macabre spots including a Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue cemetery as well as places where celebs like Sid Vicious, Heath Ledger, and other notable pop culture icons passed away.
Washington, D.C.:Spy-Sniffing Dogs
Strange Factor: Known for their keen sense of smell, dogs are the perfect companions to track down clues on this offbeat spy tour of our nation’s capital. Led by a retired intelligence officer, the Paws for Spies tour is packed with gripping espionage stories—some of which date back 400 years. Sometimes there are as many as 17 dogs per tour.
Highlights: From a secret tunnel under the Russian Embassy to tales of a mysterious American beauty who spied for the Allies during World War II, there’s a lot to sniff out on this walking tour.
St. Paul, MN: Twin City Tackiness
Strange Factor: Follow Gloria and Gladys, two totally tacky costumed “Gunderson” girls, through St. Paul on the Twin Town Tacky Tour, and hop from bingo games and garage sales to a local pet cemetery and even the world’s largest “snowman.” Pick up a souvenir along the way—a prize is awarded for the tackiest item purchased on the tour.
Highlights: Every tour stops at the local Ax-Man, a Twin City surplus store that sells everything from plastic body parts to gas masks. Talk about strange!
Colorado City: Polygamist Country
Strange Factor: This isn’t HBO’s Big Love—this is the real thing. Step into the private world of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints with a Polygamy Tour given by former FLDS members. Hear stories of growing up in the area while seeing neighboring polygamist colonies. Although you don’t go into compounds, you do visit area cemeteries and farms.
Highlights: Tours start at the Merry Wives Café, which is run by polygamist group members.
Seattle: Underground Tunnels
Strange Factor: This unusual tour focuses on the hidden history underneath city streets. Tour-goers descend three flights of stairs into old tunnels, where they see what were once the main streets and storefronts of buried Pioneer Square in Seattle’s old downtown. The subterranean stone passageways were created in the wake of the Great Fire of 1889, which consumed 25 city blocks.
Highlights: In operation for more than 50 years, this is one of the longest-running tours of its kind. “The guides are full of truly crazy stories about the pioneers who founded the city,” says tour-goer Stacy Davis of Longmont, CO.
Dallas: JFK Assassination Conspiracy Theories
Strange Factor: See Dallas through the eyes of an expert on JFK assassination conspiracy theories who believes Oswald could not have been the gunman, and that the incident is a government cover-up. The controversial 90-minute tour (on weekends only) weaves historical accounts of witnesses who saw the events on November 22, 1963, with the planning and preparation of the motorcade—and claims that you’ll never look at JFK’s assassination the same way again.
Highlights: Focusing on Dealey Plaza, the tour stops at the locations of the first shot and the fatal shot.