Call us independent, if you like. But we always prefer to make our own way in a new city. Discovering its heart and character and history alone, at our own pace, hitting the streets with at most a guidebook, a detailed map, and a hearty dollop of curiosity.
Oh sure, on occasion we'll first take a sightseeing bus - preferably the hop-on, hop-off variety - to get our city legs. Or, when desperate, to fill in time. As on a recent visit to Barcelona when we had hours to kill before a ferry departure. It was raining torrentially, so we took the circular sightseeing bus tour. And napped.
But once this broad overview is behind us, it's time to take out the walking shoes - the Eccos, the Reeboks, the L.L. Beans, or whatever - for the big plod.
Ten-mile days are not uncommon as we take on the town with nothing but our daypacks and water bottles and provisions, investigating all it has to offer.
Nirvana, however, is the happy discovery of a printed, self-guided walking tour that will take us through a city sight by sight, icon by icon, neighborhood by neighborhood, with concise, intelligent, and insightful descriptions of the historical, architectural, and cultural significance of what we're seeing.
It never ceases to amaze how such a walk can totally change our attitude towards a place ... especially if first impressions had perhaps been rendered unfavorable by some previously negative encounter.
Amsterdam, for example, had been mentally out of bounds for us for many a year, decades in fact. This mindset was based on an earlier visit, when as thin-skinned travel rookies, we were faced with fully booked hotels, closed banks (it was the final day of World Cup soccer), atrocious weather, and bored tourism officials.
A few hours with a good guidebook and a detailed map would almost certainly have changed all that, and opened up the city's many secrets.
Self-guided walking tours come in many shapes and forms, and from a variety of sources: a single mimeographed sheet or a colorful, multi-page brochure put out by the local tourist office, a chapter tucked inside a general guidebook, or an entire volume devoted to the subject - the possibilities are seemingly endless. And growing.
The genre seems to have begun in the early 1970s with a man named George W. Oakes. His two books, Turn Left at the Pub and Turn Right at the Fountain, were instant hits, soon to be followed by Alison Landes's Pariswalks and then a list of others in the same series. Another early offering was A Mystery Reader's Guide to London, published in 1986.
Since then, several more publishers, recognizing the increasing popularity of this brand of active, personalized sightseeing, have jumped in. Favorites for us have always been the Cadogan city guides, which incorporate simply excellent in-depth walking tours of individual neighborhoods. And over the years we've whiled away many a happy hour and day learning about Paris and Rome, Prague and Amsterdam under their expert tutelage.
Another very good, if more generalized, series was started more than 20 years ago by Earl Steinbicker, a self-confessed “born tourist who believes travel should be a joy, not an endurance test.” His Daytrips books radiate by train or car from a central hub to cover dozens of towns and villages within 100 miles or so.
For London visitors with a few days to spare and a good pair of legs, Louise Nicholson's London Companion (now a Fodor publication) is a treasure. The core of the book is a dozen in-depth walking tours through fascinating parts of the city that most Londoners know nothing about.
But all things in moderation. And sometimes it makes sense to put yourself in another's capable hands for an hour or a day. A local authority who knows the town like no outsider ever can, and enjoys sharing that knowledge. Enter the guided walking tours that are becoming increasingly popular and available.
Granddaddy and most extensive of them all is no doubt the “Original London Walks” with a current repertory of some 200 outings that take place throughout the year, rain or shine. Two to three hours in length and led by actors, playwrights, poets, and journalists, they tend toward such intriguing topics as “Jack the Ripper Haunts,” “Legal and Illegal London,” and “Beatles Magical Mystery Tour.”
Similar types of guided excursions on foot are cropping up in other cities. We've been on a literary pub crawl in Dublin and a tour of Gaudi architectural masterpieces in Barcelona that added greatly to our appreciation of those already beloved places.
Readers may write to travel advisers Roger Holliday and Claudia Fischer at P.O. Box 272, Bowling Green, OH 43402. If a reply is desired, please enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope.