The walking tour is evolving from standard guided walks into quirky treks and high-tech adventures. MEEGHAN TRUELOVE reports.

Lauren Klain Carton T+L reporter Meeghan Truelove, footloose in Manhattan.
| Credit: Lauren Klain Carton

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 They've been replaced by increasing numbers of guidebooks, ambitious tour companies, and high-tech, self-guided treks that run the gamut from homemade podcasts to multimedia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 frisson.

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 York–based 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 travelers.

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 Kong–based 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 Castello district.

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.