Who’s too cool for audio tours?

Headphones are often criticized as one of the fastest ways to close yourself off to a culture. The bell of the rickshaw about to run you over is no match for speakers in your ear blasting, well, anything. However, if you’re going to trade local sounds for an MP3, why not expand your knowledge of a place with a few tracks from the audio tour underground?

This ain’t your daddy’s cassette-in-the-stationwagon-stereo Lombard Street cruise. Forget the image of shuffling through the Louvre with hearing-test headphones and a grimy tape deck. The new breed of audio tour understands the traveler’s goal of truly understanding a place.

By listening to these tours on your MP3 player, you can audiotour not only discreetly, but with as much ambient noise as you wish–just drop the second earbud.

Here are a few to check out:

Big boy on the block Audissey Guides has slick production, authentic sounds, and local flavor (like slam poet Kevin Coval presenting Chicago). This 2007 interview with founder Rob Pyles points out how the tours challenge travelers to engage with their location. Right now, Audissey is a finalist in a business competition run by Forbes. A win this month would bring welcome publicity to close-to-the-ground travel, but hopefully won’t dilute the product.

Up-and-comer Sputnik Guides has MP3 tours for destinations in New York, Madrid, and Rome (so far). Their detailed tour of Grand Central Station and its art deco neighbors Chanin and Chrysler clocks in at 1.5 hours (audio plus exploration), while a more ambitious host would try to whip the listener through Grand Central, Bryant Park and Times Square in that time. They could use some more music and ambient noise, but hey, it’s quirky and free.

Voices of Viengxay and Audio Tour — This doesn’t seem available on MP3 (yet?) but I had to put it in. Released two weeks ago, the tour tells the story of America’s “secret war” in Laos from 1964 to 1973, during which the US dropped more bombs on Laos than were dropped on Europe in all of WWII. With interviews from more than 40 survivors, it’s an unprecedented collection of Viengxay-region eyewitness accounts. There’s even a spooky narrator–but we shouldn’t expect anything less from Australian production company Narrowcasters, who you might remember from the goosebumps you got at the Mehrangarh Fort.

Honorable Mention: Civil War Traveler’s podcasts. Similar to Viengxay: It’s hard to understand a country without studying its scars.

You can go further by using your own recorder to supplement your journal and camera. It’s a great way to capture an experience without taking your eyes off of, say, dawn pouring onto Dhaulagiri.

I tried this out over Thanksgiving, recording observations along a stretch of NY-92 beside the Susquehanna River. Because of the mere presence of the recorder, details popped out which I’d otherwise have overlooked.

How do you feel about plugging into audio tours? Has an audio recorder changed the way you travel?

Photo by Trey Ratcliff via Flickr.

Posted by | Comments (1)  | December 2, 2009
Category: Travel Gear, Travel Guidebooks, Travel News

One Response to “Who’s too cool for audio tours?”

  1. Lynne Says:

    Hi Rolf,

    As the writer of both Meherangarh and Viengxay audio tours, I appreciate the mention. Thank you.

    I’m interested in your comments about the Viengxay narrator. What did you find spooky about his voice?