In a new city? Take a walk on the wild side

Noomi Noren as Lisabeth Salander in <i>The girl with the dragon tattoo</i>.
Noomi Noren as Lisabeth Salander in The girl with the dragon tattoo

I enjoy getting lost. It's one of the best ways to really discover a place, when everything is so unfamiliar that you need to use all your senses. Just as well, because I'm geographically challenged.

Nevertheless, I charge on undaunted. My strategy for any new city is to dump my bags and immediately head out into the streets without a plan. Aimlessly roaming the great walking cities like Paris and New York allows you to discover things for yourself at street level that a one-size-fits-all guided tour invariably glosses over. Being aimless in a city like Rio might be a dodgier enterprise but if you want the "unofficial" story of a place, experiencing it at a human level is essential.

I have always rejected the idea of joining a big tour group when I hit somewhere new, although I do think taking one of those hop-on-hop-off buses on the first day is not a bad way of understanding a city's layout. But in recent years, I've also discovered the joys of joining small, themed walking tours conducted by passionate, often eccentric, locals.

Quite often these tours are inexpensive or even free and, at the very least, get you out of your hotel and for a pleasant stroll along some unfamiliar streets. But at best, depending on the guide, they can be wildly entertaining and insightful.

The first walking tour I remember joining was a "Ghost Tour" of Greenwich Village. I was writing a novel that had a ghost for a protagonist and I wanted to soak up some supernatural atmosphere.

I recall one building in particular, 14 West 10th Street, which is purported to be haunted by Mark Twain, as well the ghosts of little children who were murdered there in the late 19th century. Creepily, it was also the home of Joel Steinberg, an attorney who battered his six-year-old adopted daughter Lisa to death in 1987, one of the most famous cases in recent New York legal history.

From the street, it's a lovely brownstone, and you wouldn't have known that locals call it The House of Death.

I'd lived in New York for years and knew the Village well, but on this tour I discovered some very unpleasant things about the buildings I'd walked past each day.

You could say that I'm drawn to the dark side of cities. I've done the Hitler and the Third Reich tour of Munich, visiting beer halls, places of mass rallies and inside the former offices of National Socialist leaders, which all spookily escaped Allied bombing, and The Killing tour of Copenhagen, a wonderfully detailed tour of locations used in the bleak Danish TV crime series.

Following the dark theme, I've also walked the Stieg Larsson tour of Stockholm, visiting locations for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series of crime books. We even went to the tattoo parlour where the fictional dragon tattoo was inked.

The trick, I think, to a really interesting walk is to choose a niche subject that's likely to attract aficionados and is guided by someone with a real love of the subject matter.

If you tour a city with charismatic locals who have a vested interest in it, such as those who are fighting to preserve Shanghai, you can't help but become part of their crusade.

Sometimes your fellow tourists are more of a trip than the guide. On our Killing tour in Copenhagen we were joined by two crime fiction fans from Britain who knew everything about every TV crime series ever created, at least as far as I could tell. Both guide and followers were delightfully dotty.

A city like New York, for instance, offers tours that appeal to just about every interest and quirk. Don't head for the Empire State Building with thousands of tourists, stay on the ground and tour Queens with an aerosol artist or forage for edible plants in Brooklyn.

There are Sex and the City tours and Woody Allen tours and a Cupcake Tour if you're so inclined. I imagine some enterprising person has already begun a Cronut Tour to take advantage of the latest food craze. I'm in New York this month and would like to be on that one.

One more thought: if you have a spare couple of hours on a weekend, book a walking tour in your own city. You might be surprised by the secrets held by buildings you walk past every day.

lee.tulloch@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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