What makes a good tour?

Tuesday, March 1 2022

Many of my friends were surprised to hear that I went on a tour of London. ‘Don’t you live in London?’ I was surprised in turn by this response, I’ve been on several tours of London, and I only plan to do more. Why would I pay someone to tell me about the city I see every day?

Most people agree that doing a tour on holiday is fun, ‘free walking tours’ are especially popular and combine:

  1. Walking slowly, an inherently nice activity,
  2. Some basic insight into your surroundings that you may not be able to decipher due to language barriers and possibly ‘aha!’ moments where you understand a city a little better,
  3. Costing nothing, depending on your guilt and inclinations to social norms.

But relative to this, people seem to drastically underrate tours of the city they live in. Have you ever been on a tour of your local area?

In particular I believe:

  1. Cities are incredibly large, there is more than you could possibly know about them, and peoples' knowledge of their local area, let alone city, is vastly overestimated. The town my parents are from in Poland has at least 6 books written about it and it has a population of 2,000. I know this because I own them, and that’s only the books I know about! I haven’t searched particularly hard for these books. If there is an equal ratio of population:books for my local borough of Ealing as there is for Ostrów Lubelski, then there should be at least 172 books on Ealing. That sounds ridiculous, except I know of at least 3 books that have been published on Ealing just last year!
  2. It is far more rewarding to know more about an area you spend a lot of time in, than an area you’ll visit a handful of times. Each time you walk through an area you’ll consider the details and depth you know, and be open to spotting even more. You will probably get some amount of pleasure each time you walk past something you are familiar with, compare this effect over time to the handful of times you’ll visit the foreign city you do a free walking tour in.
  3. Love for your local area is very charming. This is offhand but I truly believe it, I tend to rate people that are proud of their local area highly, because there is almost always some small part of your local area you can be proud of. Perhaps this is a more objective measure, tied in with how many of lack a sense of community in our people-of-nowhere lives.
  4. You probably won’t be able to go to one of the really good tours abroad. The really good, specific tours are rarely scheduled and hard to come by. You most likely won’t be in a foreign city when one of these great tours is happening, you’ve got to be a local. Of course this implies that I find tours interesting, but not interesting enough to travel abroad for, I’m not a fanatic!

Books on Ostrów Lubelski, a town with a population circa 2,000. You should see the gmina’s Wikipedia page!
Books on Ostrów Lubelski, a town with a population circa 2,000. You should see the gmina's Wikipedia page!

So what makes a good tour?

  1. A subject matter expert rather than a professional tour guide. I’ve found the best tours are given ad-hoc and not regularly or frequently occurring. They seem to be more an interesting side project or pastime for the guide.
  2. Specificity. A general tour of London is great at entertaining without providing any interesting insight that’s going to stay with you. A tour of London’s history of coffee from 1650-1700 will leave you with takeaways that you didn’t expect. Generally, you’re more likely to reach interesting insights and broad conclusions from studying the very specific.
  3. Good weather, obviously.
  4. The hardest to pin down and the most important factor: a good audience. The best tours I’ve been on have been self-selecting for their audience. They’ve been niche and promoted through podcasts or newsletters. As a result the audience has been similarly niche and asked thought-provoking questions.

I can only recommend you go on more tours of your local city and pick up a book on your local area! Can you find a tour of your local town? Your local borough? Your street (I yearn for this tour).

I leave you with a quote from Rilke:

“If your everyday life seems to lack material, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to summon up its riches, for there is no lack for him who creates and no poor, trivial place.”

I would love to hear from you if you go on a local tour.