With new technologies come new ways to waste our time and make our lives more complicated instead of easier -- or so I jokingly say every time I have to upgrade something I own. Technology's changes, however, provide us with new ways of communicating, and podcasting certainly does just that by making information portable: you download audio files to your computer or directly to your iPod and take them on the road.
Because they are relatively easy to do and are not necessarily expensive to produce, podcasts are increasingly being implemented for tourism as both visitors bureaus and residents embrace them as quirky ways to guide visitors toward places of interest and provide insider information. These podcasts are especially useful for the independent traveler who doesn't like shuffling along in a giant tour group on someone else's schedule. We've rounded up some of the more noteworthy ones; many more of varying quality and in various languages exist, but for the sake of understanding we've stuck to those in English.
Boston Behind the Scenes (www.bostonbehindthescenes.com) does just for that for those who visit the site, read the accompanying blurbs, and download its free audio files. Creator Adam Weiss has archived all kinds of things, from a Sam Adams Brewery Tour and a "Hahvahd Tour," along with interviews with characters and looks at destinations that make Beantown what it is: the street vendor, the local politician, Cheers, Haymarket, and more. On the website, you can search for downloads using a map feature and find a suitable audio tour to give you the inside scoop. Other items of interest include a look at the historic Omni Parker Hotel and a podcast that deconstructs one of the city's most recognizable exports -- the Boston accent, a fascinating linguistic exercise if not a "tour" per se.
In what Carl Sandburg called the city of big shoulders, stunning architecture is a key attraction for visitors, as Mies van der Rohe, Louis H. Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright have all made important contributions to the city's skyline. The Chicago Institute of Architecture provides fantastic guided walking tours that are worth paying for, but the most recent change to the urban landscape, Millennium Park, has its own podcast tour, with thoughts from those who had a hand in creating it -- architect Frank Gehry and artists Anish Kapoor and Jaume Plensa. This self-guided tour is free and is produced by Antenna Audio, which creates the audio tours you may have experienced at museums, archeological sites and other attractions around the world.
Additionally, the City of Chicago's Office of Tourism (tel. 877/CHICAGO; www.877.chicago.com) will launch a podcast series (www.downloadchicagotours.com) on April 1 and the first, called Chicago Blues, is narrated by musician Buddy Guy. The 50-minute tour will take you to the important blues haunts in the city -- Maxwell Street, Chess Records, the 708 Club -- that all played a part in the evolution of Chicago Blues. The audio file can be played right from the site -- maps pop up and show you where it's taking you -- or you can download it for free. The tourism office is currently working on more audio tour offerings, so stay tuned.
According to the Official Visitors site for Dublin (tel. 353/605-7700; www.visitdublin.com), it was the first tourism organization in Europe to offer walking tour podcasts for visitors. Called iWalks, the 11 free downloadable files are narrated by historian Pat Liddy and cover everything from the Historic Northside and Georgian Dublin to Temple Bar to the Docklands. They include something you might also expect in the city of James Joyce: a unique tour called "In the Steps of Ulysses" that follows a large part of Leopold Bloom's 18-hour walk and explains how the city has changed since Joyce's day. The podcasts provide exceptionally clear directions and a real flavor of Dublin, a city that, along with much of Ireland, had undergone tremendous growth and change in the last ten years.
Through the confident and knowledgeable narrator and creator Robert Wright, the podcasts of London Walks (http://londonwalks.libsyn.com) guide you around the city to typical sites such as Covent Garden, Buckingham Palace and the River Thames, but there are tours through less obvious destinations, whether it's neighborhoods such as ritzy Mayfair or Kensington, the Victorian cemetery Kensal Green, or even London's Inns of Court and Temple Church (which was featured in the Da Vinci Code). The podcasts are chockablock with specificity, whether it pertains to directions, history, architecture, religion, art, or transportation. A companion blog for each walk offers helpful information such as how to get to its departure point, how long it typically takes, and ways to shorten it if you're pressed for time.
New York, India and Paris
Described as "audio tours for people who don't normally take audio tours," Soundwalk (tel. 212/674-7407; www.soundwalk.com) started off by producing some offbeat and captivating personal looks at neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx. The award-winning and well produced tours try to get you take a closer look and see your destination in a new light. You can listen to the comedian Jami Gong guide you through an uncompromising view of Chinatown, or download Brooklyn-based author Paul Auster's narration of a visit to Ground Zero, or let Jazzy Jay take you on a hip-hop walk through the Bronx.
Soundwalk does more than just cover New York -- it also covers Paris and Varanasi, India. When you go to the site, segments of the Paris podcasts play. The intoxicating look at red-light Pigalle attempts to seduce you; the music is spare against the high-heeled footsteps of the narrator as she guides down the street. The Paris podcasts are available for purchase in either French or English. Each Soundwalk is available for purchase from the website as an MP3 for $12; you can preview each walk with an audio sample, read a short description of the walk and its narrator, and see a map. Or you can purchase the podcasts as CDs from stores scattered throughout New York, Dallas, San Francisco, Paris, and Bern, or online retailers such as Barnes and Noble and Amazon.
The Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation (tel. 800/537-7676; www.gophila.com) put together something it calls "SoundAboutPhilly" to give visitors an insider's look at the city of brotherly love (www.gophila.com/soundabout). The free podcasts cover the likes of the South Philly landmark Melrose Diner through background and interviews with the owner, for example. There are tours in a number of categories, such as vintage shopping, history, or "Philadelphia Flavorhood" which has colorful, tasty looks at food-related attractions in various neighborhoods, from Chinatown to Reading Terminal Market to South Phillly's Italian Market. The website even has an inset of Google maps, so you can see exactly where you are. The site also invites users to create their own tours, so you have "A Foodie's Tour," "Literary Philly," and "Haunted/Eerie Philly" and so forth, put together by residents.
Stroll San Francisco (tel. 415/665-8911; www.strollsanfrancisco.com) takes a different approach to the audio tour -- it's more of a production, with a mix of hired actors and city residents to take you around the city in 33 different "story-tours." With topics ranging from Chinatown to North Beach to Haight-Ashbury, the Presidio and the rise of gay San Francisco, the podcasts offer a vivid look at the city, rendered in a spirit that feels like a mix of an old-time scripted radio variety program -- no surprise, given that founder and chief storyteller Sam Pond is both a former Shakespearean actor and a radio writer. You can download free samples of the podcasts or purchase neighborhood or theme specific podcasts from $4.99 for the "Golden Gateway Package" to $14.99 for all 33 San Francisco podcasts.
If you are looking for the highlights and tour of sites and neighborhoods that you must absolutely see, investigate AudioSteps (tel. 415/346-2604; www.audiosteps.com). Formerly known as AudioTreks, the company's podcasts (all of them $12) aim to guide you to the most popular places in a handful of cities, including New Orleans; Philadelphia; Sacramento; San Francisc; Washington, D.C.; and Bath, Bristol and London in the United Kingdom. You get a route diagram that you can print out to take along with you as you walk. In San Francisco, you can download tours of the Marina, North Beach and Chinatown or The Castro and Dolores Heights.
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