I’ve often found one of the great delights of taking tours while travelling comes from putting yourself into the hands of a local expert who is passionate about where they live. Their tours give you those little insights into their world, tiny nuggets of information you just don’t get from guidebooks or simply wandering around on your own.
You may already have noticed that with global travel restrictions due to the pandemic there has been a sudden increase in virtual tourism. Virtual visits to museums and art galleries, drone footage of cities and an ever-widening pool of online experiences now enable you to explore the world from the comfort of your sofa.
My first thoughts of these virtual experiences were along the lines of, “Oh well, it’s not the same as being there in person but it’s better than nothing.”. I was also wondering what would make virtual tours worth paying for when so many museums and monuments are offering free virtual visits to their buildings and collections.
After trying a few online experiences, I realised that they can be good in unexpected ways. You can’t replace the physicality of standing before a monument, touching the stonework or soaking in the atmosphere. However, I found that exploring a city without the distractions of being in a busy street allowed me to pay closer attention to the storytelling and actually learn more than I might have done in person.
Plus, there are no hills to climb!
You can also travel widely – I’ve recently been to locations that I had no intention of planning a trip to. Having learnt more about New Orleans, I’m seriously tempted to visit when the time is right.
Let me tell you what I gained from my virtual adventures that makes me think they’re well worth trying.
Porto UNESCO World Heritage City Tour
After just a few minutes it was obvious that Sara knew what she was talking about, although I already knew this. Sara has been running a boutique private tour company in Porto for several years and she’s passionate about sharing her city and culture with visitors.
She quickly explained how her tour would work, outlined our route on a map of Porto and off we set. She had designed a 90 minute ‘walking’ tour taking in both famous and unusual elements and, because she was born and bred in Porto, she was eager to pass on those snippets of local information.
Sara videoed her tour during the lockdown so we ‘followed’ her virtually around the sights of ancient Porto while she gave a live commentary as we made our way up and down the deserted streets. She paused the video where necessary to give more detailed info and to answer any questions.
One thing I do love about these virtual tours is the opportunity to use a range of resources you wouldn’t necessarily have access to on an in-person tour. Often the guide wants to show how a building has changed over time. Of course, they could just whip a couple of photos out and pass them around the group and hope everyone hears and understands the explanation.
What Sara did was quickly change the video to a range of photos and documents and effortlessly highlighted what had changed and why. Perfect.
Another advantage of this being an online tour was soon to emerge. Sometimes it can be a little risky (or downright dangerous) taking a bunch of tourists along a crumbling wall or a disappearing pathway. But if you have a nimble guide (and camera person!) they can take you there without any worries. Sara showed us a lovely view of the Douro River from the top of a wall you would not have dared to climb yourself!
The pace of the tour was also good. On a ‘normal’ tour you may find that some participants are not able to get around quickly because of mobility issues or even just the heat. With an online tour, everyone can stay together and share comments when an opportunity presents itself.
It was also extremely useful to just speed things up where necessary by fast-forwarding a walk through a longer part of the route between monuments, for example.
Jewish History Tour of Porto
One of Sara’s most popular in-person tours is her Jewish Heritage tour so she was keen to create an online version of this. Since I knew nothing about Jewish Porto, I was excited to learn about it on her virtual tour.
As with the UNESCO tour, the virtual tour of Porto’s Jewish history is based around a video of Sara walking the route so that you can see the context of the places that she talks about. She also used more images to illustrate her stories of important people, like the founder of the current Porto synagogue and the kings that founded and later destroyed the Jewish Quarters in the city.
Paintings of the hellish auto da fé during the Portuguese Inquisition, a model of the walled Jewish Quarter, plus a privileged shot of a secret synagogue made the tour really interesting and informative.
We also saw some wonderful Porto viewpoints and other significant buildings and sculptures, including my all-time favourite sculpture of the lauging men in Jardim da Cordoaria.
The Gardens of New Orleans online tour
After introducing herself and explaining how the tour would work, Libby used a PowerPoint presentation to guide us through the architecture and history of the Garden District of New Orleans using live commentary.
Photos of previous owners, documents, maps, close ups of railings, before and after pictures of mansions and societal images certainly gave me a deeper understanding of the significance of the homes we ‘visited’.
The use of still images worked well because quite often each photo had been taken from an alternative angle or showed a different aspect, usually one which would have not been possible to see if you were there in person. Again, certain highlights could be focussed upon, for example the intricate designs in the decorative wrought iron railings on balconies and fences.
We really enjoyed the neighbourhood tour but I must admit, I was not expecting the cemeteries!
Libby gave us the gory but fascinating details of certain procedures necessary when dealing with the dead in New Orleans in order to protect their remains from being flooded.
7 Wonders of Lisbon online tour
I haven’t done this tour myself but in the interests of helping you find ways to enjoy Portugal even when you can’t be here, I thought I’d find some additional experiences that look promising.
Alex will take you on a multi-sensory tour of Alfama, the oldest neighbourhood in Lisbon, where fado music is still hugely popular. You’ll also find out about some of the typical flavours of Lisbon.
Lisbon Drink and Draw online experience
by Mike… who is not the man in the photo, by the way! He was this happy though 🙂
As part of my birthday celebrations I spent an enjoyable 90 minutes with Jilly, Tom and a bunch of other people from around the world, drawing and drinking!
When you book you are asked to bring along the necessary items needed for the session, in my case drawing implements, objects to draw and a drink!
The session was split into two. Tom led the first part by encouraging us to experiment with a range of quick drawing activities that were basic techniques but perfectly enjoyable to do. Everyone had the opportunity to hold their masterpieces up to the camera to share which all were happy to do.
When we were working on our drawings both Tom, and later Jilly, chatted to us, as they would in an in-person workshop.
After a quick 5-minute break and a closer look at a couple of chosen artists’ work, Jilly took over. Her focus was on portraiture and she led us through activities which incorporated drawing each other.
This lent itself very well to Zoom although it felt a little strange not knowing who was fixing their gaze on you and vice versa. Again, everyone shared their work although this felt a little uncomfortable (would your sitter appreciate your attempts?).
Overall, the experience was enjoyable and it was nice to spend a little time doing something I never seem to find the time to do!
Virtual tour of Lisbon’s street art
Lisbon is full of amazing street art, and some less attractive graffitti but all urban artists need to start somewhere in order to work on their talents! From what I understand of the description, this is a self-guided virtual tour of 30 key works of urban art with information about the artists and pieces.
Zoom around Paris with a local
This was my very first experience of online tours so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. It turned out that although other people could have joined the same tour as me, no one did so I had a private tour of Paris. During a brief getting to know you chat with the host, whose name I can’t remember, I told her that I like to get away from crowds and tourist traps.
Using a combination of Google Street Maps and photographs, she took me to see some of Paris’ most iconic landmarks, such as the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, but from an alternative perspective.
I had been to the Notre Dame many years ago, and not since the fire, so it was interesting to hear the stories behind its construction, architecture and the plans to rebuild it. I was also impressed with the beautiful Gothic chapel that she showed me nearby, which is not as busy as other monuments and has beautiful stained glass windows.
She also took me to a courtyard inside a mosque and a tea room in one of the hip neighbourhoods.
One thing I especially appreciated was being able to ask questions and, should I ever plan a trip to Paris, I am now armed with insider tips on which neighbourhoods to stay in.
More art and culture experiences you can enjoy online
The online tour booking platform Viator is not only providing a range of live online experiences, they also have links to free virtual tours of some of the world’s most beautiful monuments, including my favourite building, Casa Batlló in Barcelona.
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