Experiential Audio Tours that Break the Mold

by  Karen Gardiner | Sep 28, 2016

We are not all lucky enough to have close and knowledgeable friends in every city we visit. Luckily, there are a handful of audio tour guides that can fill in. The following audio tours can discretely (and affordably) be downloaded onto your phone and offer experiences that bring you closer to the places you visit and the people that live there. Here, four ground-level experiences that are far more enriching than zipping around a city, seeing it only from atop a double-decker bus.


Detour ($4.99) is like having a well-informed local accompany you as you walk around a city. The audio app uses your phone’s GPS tracker to guide you around neighborhoods, providing background information as you arrive at different landmarks. Launched in San Francisco last year, Detour is now available in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Austin, London, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, and Marrakech. Each guide is narrated by someone intimately acquainted with the neighborhood. In New York, for example, Brooklyn-born, Academy Award nominee Ken Burns guides you across the Brooklyn Bridge, revealing the stories behind its construction along the way; while, in San Francisco, a lifelong commercial fisherman will show you Fisherman's Wharf from his point of view, a side tourists rarely see.


Founded in the early 2000s by an international sound collective, Soundwalk has long been noted for its cutting-edge tours ($1) that combine the poetic sounds of a city with its most fascinating stories. What makes Soundwalk a heavy hitter in the audio guide scene is the standard of its guides. The Manhattan: Ground Zero tour is narrated by one of our era's best chroniclers of New York City, the novelist Paul Auster, while The Sopranos' cast member Vinny Vella will guide you around Little Italy. Aside from the celebrity appeal, however, Soundwalk brings you into close contact with the people that build the neighborhoods. In New York's Chinatown, for example, you'll meet the owner of the neighborhood's oldest store.

Cities Talking

Cities Talking offers audio tours of European cities including London, Paris, Berlin, and Madrid, including historical background and insider tips. Like Detour, the app syncs with your phone’s GPS and plays information related to particular sites as you approach them -- you can also pause for a break and rejoin the tour later. The guides are written by travel writers and local historians and promise to reveal "little-known secrets" about each of the cities. The Edinburgh guide, for example, promises the city's "centuries of history, ghosts, and priests will accompany as you duck into the narrow alleyways." Each tour costs $6.99, but there are two free tours available in London and Ibiza.

One-Off, Niche Tours

Recent years have seen a rise in super-niche audio guides to specific neighborhoods that are of as much interest to locals as they are to visitors. As a diverse city with many distinct neighborhoods, New York is unsurprisingly home to several. Narrated by film director Jim Jarmusch, Passing Stranger - The East Village Poetry Walk is an audio tour of poetry related sites in New York City's East Village, including commentary from key figures from the East Village poetry scene, as well as historical audio from poets like Allen Ginsberg. Over in Brooklyn, Southside Stories takes you through rapidly changing Williamsburg where community members tell stories of the neighborhood's struggles and strong sense of community and cultural pride.

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