In Praise of Guided Tours

They’re tacky. They’re touristy. There’s no other way I’d rather sightsee.

Museum tour guide.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

The Vermont State House, on a manicured lot in central Montpelier, is not an original. The previous capitol was savaged by fire in 1857, and little survived, other than the six portico columns that still stand out front. The new capitol opened in 1859 and, fortified against attendants who might neglect the furnace, has stood ever since. The structure is a gem, with lobby floors decorated by the fossils of extinct animals and walls dotted with charming portraits of Vermont statesmen. Admirers of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean should make a hard left upon entry, where they will find a spectacular official painting in which he grips a giant oar next to a lake.

This is more than I ever expected to learn about the Vermont State House. I would understand if it is more than you want to know. But I’ll tell you what: I’m delighted to know it.

No one is more surprised by this development than I am. I’ve hated guided tours for as long as I can remember hating things. The risk is too great: A 45-minute visit can stretch into hours. You might end up in the thrall of pedant who cares about this far more than he should. You might end up with the guy who asks a dozen follow-up questions about local cheese making. You might have good old-fashioned social anxiety. (The tour guide is a strangers after all!) You might prefer to “explore by yourself,” a thing I have said even though it is not really true. And then there is the deeper problem: You might be outed as a know-nothing interloper, a gawky tourist, when all many people want when they travel is to masquerade as “a local.” In a tour group, no matter where you are, you’re nothing but another clueless dork with a camera around your neck. Fumbling over the local terrain solo at least allows you to pretend you belong.

So one day in Vermont, as I entered that gold-domed building with some friends, a man glanced in my direction, and I immediately knew his intentions. When the words came—“a tour is about to begin, folks”—I was ready to slowly back away and break out phantom lunch reservations. But I was thwarted. Take the tour, my friends said, politely and devastatingly. It’ll be fun! The guide looked me in the eye, and I knew I was had. I began a performance of nods and Mmm hmms. I accepted my fate of civic propaganda and dad jokes. But as my guide, who I would later learn was a former teacher named Brett Murphy, pointed out those ancient creatures entombed in the lobby’s tile, his oratory began to tug at me. His stories about the ghosts of Vermont history had a slight air of tabloid intrigue. He took us inside the legislative chambers and noted that the lawmakers’ desks were unlocked. (Don’t open them, he warned, which several people promptly did.) And when we made it to that august portrait of Dean, he couldn’t help but beam, either out of pride or because that painting is undeniably hilarious. I realized I was having a really nice time. I wasn’t even jealous of the people who blew past our group and were probably already having maple syrup products for lunch.

The statehouse awakened something in me. Not long after, on a visit to the Frick Collection in New York, I browsed the galleries quietly on my own, but the former residence only really came to life when I overheard a tour already in progress. The guide described Henry Clay Frick’s preferences in his commissioned portraits of women, and I could hear a raised eyebrow in his voice. “He liked to have all of them in the frame. Head. Feet. All of them,” he said. “Feet?” an older woman asked. “Oh yes, feet.” The guide turned the stiff galleries into a site of early-century tea talk. I was riveted and a little aghast. Had my resistance to getting led around like a rube cost me riveting trivia and crucial gossip on every trip I’ve ever taken? Had I ever really been anywhere without a tour? Why did no one tell me?

When I started to ask around, people did tell me. Friends offered stories of backdoor culinary tours in Istanbul down rickety staircases and through secret restaurants. I heard about guides whom you pay just to skip the line at overrun international museums but then charm you half to death anyway. And then there were many stories of guides like mine in Vermont, stewards of decidedly unexotic locations who know enough local chicanery to make every government building and local landmark feel like the seed of the next great American novel. I doubt I’d even remember I went to the statehouse if I hadn’t been forced on that tour. I thought of a tour I once contemplated before dismissing with a “sounds touristy” scoff—a guided trip through an impenetrable maze of food carts in Mexico City that promised to end with you and your guides staring down a bottle of mezcal. Why did I allow myself to miss out on this self-evidently necessary experience?

So, learn from my 31 years of petulance and error. Take the tour. You may encounter the pedant or the guy who wants to be on Jeopardy! or even a scammer, but more often you will find someone who knows the routine and is willing to air out some of the local skeletons. In my soul-searching on this matter, I located and called Brett Murphy, my Vermont guide, and asked him whether he could tell when people like me recoiled at his tours. He paused, and then offered, diplomatically, “I think there’s a desire for independence, and I think there’s a sense of I’ll do this on my own, thank you very much. I’m not sure this old guy can offer me much. I think it’s generational.” Murphy, who said he got to know this attitude well in his many years as a teacher, doesn’t take it personally; he’s happy to merely give tours to the people in their 40s and 50s who accept them without hesitation. But he doesn’t quite get the resistance. “Whenever I go someplace, I try to take a tour to benefit from the knowledge of that tour guide. It’s always, always, always entertaining, and certainly more informative than reading a guidebook,” he said. He still talks with wonder about a tour of Monticello, in Virginia, he took as a teenager.

As I type this, a thread about an upcoming trip to Paris with friends is lighting up with suggestions of a private meal with local hosts and an afternoon-long bike tour. This sounds, on its face, horrible to me. And yet: Who knows what secrets we’ll learn after our chef has had a couple glasses of wine? Maybe a real Parisian would ride around on bikes with 15 other sightseeing idiots, if it meant getting a glimpse of a hidden monastery or a Revolution-era cannonball. In any case, I’m in.