Most memorable guided tour?

I like to mix it up with some fairly standard tours as well as some very, very offbeat ones when I travel, and I’m finally at a point where I considering putting together some of my own. I plan to test out a walking tour of the strange and hidden monuments of Downtown Tampa over the next couple weeks, which has gotten me thinking - what makes a great (or terrible) tour? Is it the knowledge of the guide, the showmanship, authenticity, or something else entirely that makes the experience memorable?

One of my most memorable was Adam Selzer’s tour of Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, after which we went hunting together for the grave of Captain George Wellington Streeter. (Podcast here: mysteriouschicagostreetergrave : Adam Selzer : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive)

So what about you all? I look forward to your thoughts and input.

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To be honest I’ve never really been such a big fan of guided tours as I much prefer exploring things by myself at my own pace and by my own itinenary.

But one guided tour I have done really comes to mind as an exception and being extremely memorable for how brilliant it was. It was a trip in Minas Gerais that I took through the Serra Da Canastra National park with a local Eco-lodge and Ecotourism guide “Tamandua Ecoturismo”.

He was a really brilliant guide and thanks to him I was able to get very close to a Pampas deer doe frolicking with her fawn and over 6 Giant anteater’s in the long grass of their natural habitat. Unfortunately I didn’t see the maned wolf during the trip but this was probably because it wasnt the right season to catch them out in the open plains.

Seeing wild anteaters in this way was particularly memorable because it gives you an idea of how well adapted and suited they are to the cerrado grasslands. Up till that point I had only ever seen them severely degraded and urbanized habitat in Sao Paulo state where they behave like a totally different animal because they are under huge conditions of constant stress and threats and so completely lack the liveliness and confidence of those in Minas Gerais.

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I believe that the guide is the most essential ingredient. In practical terms, this means I try to determine which tours to go on based on recommendations from people I trust, specifically about the guide.

I think it’s perhaps more common for people to choose a tour based on the thematic subject matter (e. g. Prohibition Era New York, or Tudor London). Obviously that is a good starting point if you have no other information, but personally I find that being too tied to a theme can actually detract from the freedom that a guide should, I think, feel to go off on tangents of special interest to them.

Side note: One legendary guide to comes to mind is Timothy “Speed” Levtich. Well worth looking into his archives.
http://speedlevitchonline.com/

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I had plans to visit the Barnes Foundation while I was in Philly, but I didn’t realize that the free tickets are booked well in advance. There was, thankfully, one slot open for a (rather pricy) guided tour the only day I could visit so I grabbed it. I didn’t know what to expect initially, but I can’t imagine seeing the Barnes Foundation any other way. The guides there are rigorously trained, and vastly knowledgeable. My docent was able to foster insightful conversation within our small group and provide levels of depth that added tremendous value to the collection, it’s history and curation, and my experience throughout.

https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/the-barnes-foundation-philadelphia-pennsylvania

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@Blake reminds me of the last institution I was at where every guide was clearly extraordinarily trained and skilled in the subject. At Rosslyn Chapel, south of Edinburgh, the docents are deeply knowledgeable on the relevant history. Thanks to the Da Vinci Code, the chapel is also the most conspicuously well-funded tourist site I have ever seen, which I imagine helps them keep the very best guides.

I am not a fan of generic guided tours. But I cannot say enough about the joy that is the Architecture Boat Tour by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. I used to work as a managing editor at the Chicago Tribune, and time and again, locals and tourists told us how beloved it was to them. Every guide brings different historic tales of the buildings that sit along the Chicago River. From an early 20th century car elevator (yes, really!) to murderous gangsters, the stories are at once endless and wonderful. Oh! And pro-tip: grab one that serves wine and beer (and maybe mixed drinks, I forget).

And shameless plug: Atlas Obscura’s is wonderful too! We just run it a bit less frequently.

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Thanks @schultjh - I agree entirely about the Chicago architecture boat tour. When I lived there, that was always something I took out-of-towners on when they came to visit the Windy City. And I also agree about Atlas Obscura’s tours - I took a couple with Adam Selzer and they were both phenomenal - especially the Graceland Cemetery tour.

As a writer, I probably would have enjoyed a literary Chicago tour too - seeing the old homes and hangouts of Nelson Algren, Mike Royoko, Gwendolyn Brooks, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sandburg and others. Maybe an idea for a future Atlas Obscura outing…

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@Blake thanks for the insight - I plan to visit the Barnes Foundation next time I’m in Philly and I’ll plan to check out the guided tour there. It sounds like the extra cost is worth it for a knowledgeable and engaging docent. I’ll also keep this in mind as I test out my own small tour here in Tampa.

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Algren! Brooks! Burroughs! I think a literary tour of Chicago sounds amazing. @Joie_Mikitson , on your radar!

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As a tour guide, I have so many thoughts on this topic! In fact, one big reason I became a tour guide is that, during a 2-week trip to India, I experienced one really transformational tour in Mumbai (Reality Tours tour of Dharavi) and one really mediocre generic tour at the Amber Fort.

100% agree with @lukert33 that the guide is the make or break element of a tour. I find that the best guides are either incredibly dynamic storytellers (many are actors) or super super passionate about the subject matter. I also loved the Chicago Architecture Tour, which fell into the latter category.

Three more of my recent favorites are:

  • Real City Tours walking tour of Medellin, Colombia (guide had grown up there during the Escobar years and witnessed the city’s transformation first-hand)

  • East Village tour with the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (guide had literally been a squatter there in the 70s)

  • Badass Bitches of the Met tour with MuseumHack (guide was an actress)

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It’s been several years but the tours of the St Louis Cemeteries provided by the Voodoo Museum had an excellent guide. Very knowledgeable and captivating.


https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/saint-louis-cemetery-one
https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/saint-louis-cemetery-two

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Thanks, @ArielAzoff! I’ve added those two NYC based tours to my to-do list.

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I find that the only times I prefer a guided tour over exploring on my own is when the tour offers “extras” such as access to an area restricted to the general public or ability to skip a long line.

The best guided tour I’ve been on was a tour of the Royal Alcázar of Seville, Spain. The guide allowed us to skip an hour long line and the tour had little facts, stories and history about all of the rooms and gardens we visited. The best part though was the humor he had while sharing his knowledge with us. I found that I never once tuned out or got distracted and at the end of it I was glad that we had made the decision to take the tour.

I think it is not just knowledge alone but also a degree of showmanship and personality that makes a tour memorable.

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Graceland is a fascinating place! I had a tour there a number of years ago given by Adrienne Lieberman on “Women of Influence” buried there. That was, I believe, sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation.

One of the very best was sheer accident. I was in New York City, and we went to see a site-specific work on the Lower East Side, by Shimon Attie, Between Dreams and History, text projected onto tenement buildings. As we walked around, a group of people came by with a guide talking about the work, and we were able to join them. Turned out that the “guide” was, in fact, Shimon Attie!

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That Graceland tour sounds incredible!

Neuschwanstein Castle. But this is only because I lucked out with a tour guide who was a mash-up of Franz Kafka, Peter Lorre, and Renfield. He was gaunt, pale, and had a genuine “castle creep” demeanor. This was not a performance! It’s just how the guy was.

My favorite part was when he was describing the final “fantasy castle” that King Ludwig had planned on building before he died. He talked about how it was going to be grander than all the rest of them. And whenever he said the name of it, he got a far away look in his eyes and couldn’t help but smile - “Falkenstein.”

After the tour, I asked him about it just because I wanted him to say the name again.
“What was the name of that castle that never got built?”
“Ah, yes!” he said. “Falkenstein!”
“Can I find out more about it?”
“Yeeess. You can go to our media room and see a short film about it that shows the plans. You can see what it was…What it could have been!” Then the crazy-man smile again. “Falkenstein!”

I am now thoroughly convinced that Crazy King Ludwig II achieved immortality and is giving tours of his own castle.
https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/neuschwanstein-castle

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FALKENSTEIN! I love this story. Supposedly (I have not vetted this information) this was one of the design concepts:

Yeah, the most dramatic of the designs. The actual mountaintop that it was supposed to be built upon was apparently too small for anything like this. But in order to please the boss, the architect just went for lavish, anyway.

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As a tour guide and walking tour company owner I make a point to taking tours wherever and whenever I can. Since I’m often travelling with my kids, I book a private tour guide who will be flexible with our itinerary and let my wife and I focus more on the kids and less on worrying about how to get to the next stop.

My favourite tours recently were a Mekong Delta 2-day tour with www.maikatours.com in Vietnam and a private day tour to visit the countryside and take a river cruise in Phnom Penh in Cambodia with www.urbanadventures.com.

Full disclosure: I partnered with Maika Tours to start www.saigoncraftbeertours.com and I operate tours in Toronto Canada for Urban Adventures. What I enjoy most is the conversations with the local guide and getting to know them. It’s the best possible local interaction money can buy!

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We were extremely fortunate on a tour we took in Budapest. We only do half day tours to learn what we didn’t during our prevacation rituals and to put some missing pieces together. I learned in Japan that days long tours aren’t the best way to take in a culture or learn a country’s practices.
In Budapest, we took a tour where we were the only ones who had signed up. Our guide was an older guy who was extremely insightful and had in depth information about everything I was asking. As I asked more and more questions, he slowly morphed from a nice, mundane tour guide into a lively educator. Shortly after we started, and based on the questions I was asking, our guide told us that he was a retired journalist who had originally moved from the Netherlands to Budapest in 1989 to cover Hungary’s transition from communism as the Russians withdrew. I knew I had hit the jackpot as far as tour guides go, and took full advantage of it. I gleaned every ounce of information I could from this guy and got his personal views on Budapest’s situation at the time.
My girlfriend probably missed out because he and I went a little further than what she knew about Budapest’s history, but it was the greatest, most informative tour I’d ever been on because of what this man had to offer. If I remembered his name or the tour we took, I would direct everyone I could to this man who has so much to offer that the unsuspecting patrons he maneuvers through the castle district a few times a week will never know.

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