WASHINGTON — Erin Carr begins her two-hour tour of the nation’s capital in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, next to a majestic statue of Andrew Jackson on a horse.
But the diminutive guide in the floppy sun hat and Mary Janes with knee socks isn’t here to talk about when the presidential mansion was built, or who designed it, or Jackson’s heroism in the War of 1812 or his defense of states’ rights.
She’s describing where the Secret Service snipers hide, the widely forgotten assassination attempt on President Truman just a block from here, and how Jackson cheated in a duel to defend the honor of his wife — whom he married even though she hadn’t yet gotten a divorce from her first husband.
“This is not the nice tour,” Carr says in the sardonic tone with which she’ll later tell her group about the Treasury secretary who embezzled money to pay off the husband of the woman with whom he was having an affair, and how Thomas Jefferson kept the children purportedly borne to him by his slave and mistress, Sarah “Sally” Hemings, enslaved themselves until his death.
It is, in fact, D.C. by Foot’s Secrets and Scandals Tour, one of many unconventional new ways to explore old destinations that offer more than droning narrators reading from history textbooks on sightseeing buses.
“The entire country, and much of the world, is so homogenized that people are looking for something different when they travel,” said Robert Florence, president of Historic New Orleans Tours, which runs a cemetery voodoo tour and a cocktails and scandals tour with landmarks that include historical brothels. “Otherwise, why bother?”
Prostitution figures equally prominently in Bill Speidel’s Underworld Tour of Seattle, where it was once the biggest industry. There’s also an underground tour of that city, whose streets were raised after a ruinous fire and to solve sewage problems, but beneath which remain 19th-century subterranean passages and ruins.
“It’s almost a parallel universe,” said Dave Clavey, one of the guides.
“You’re taught a certain way in school about history, and it’s cleaned up and a little bit propagandized,” Clavey said. “But people like the dark side of human nature.”
There’s some of that in Chicago, too, where Weird Chicago Tours includes the inevitable gangster-themed options, and a Red Light District Sex Tour that visits still more onetime brothels — in this case, run by Al Capone.
“It’s a glimpse into the dirty past of the Windy City,” said Ken Melvoin-Berg, co-owner and a former sex educator who said the tour is nonetheless “clean enough that you can bring your mom, but dirty enough that it’s still fun.”
Melvoin-Berg likens tours like these to television shows such as “Mythbusters,” which try to make science entertaining. He’s doing the same thing with history, he said.
“It’s guerrilla education in a fun way.”
That’s also the idea behind San Francisco’s Discovery Street Tours, which explore the city’s geology, the physics of its hills (and the physiology of climbing them) — even the science of the wine and cheese for sale in its shops — and literary offerings like the James Joyce walking tours of Dublin. (There are several of them, but the best take tourists pub-hopping to Joyce’s favorite hangouts in the evenings.)
Popular culture is even eclipsing some tours. The Washington scandal tour makes references to the HBO series “Veep,” the Chicago gangster tour name-drops real-life characters from another HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” and Atlanta Movie Tours’ Big Zombie Tour visits some of the settings from the AMC series “The Walking Dead.” Those old-time tours of the stars’ homes in Los Angeles have given way to the even more gossipy TMZ Celebrity Tour, while dead celebrities are the subject of the L.A.’s Dearly Departed Tours, which include crime-scene photos and audio of 911 calls from some of the more spectacular examples. Celtic Tours World Vacations offers a new “Game of Thrones”-themed trip to Ireland, where part of the series was shot.
“People are always looking for something fresh,” said Sandra Thomas-Comenole, spokeswoman for the company. They also like joining travel companions with similar interests, she said.
Other big-name travel companies are getting in on the offbeat-tour trend. Tauck has a royal wedding walking tour of London. Rhode Island-based Collette Travel offers music tours to New Orleans, Memphis, and Nashville, with visits to Graceland, the Grand Ole Opry, and the Country Music Hall of Fame. Even Adventures by Disney has a New York tour that’s all about dance, on which visitors get to learn choreography from, and handle props used in, Broadway shows.
It’s not just what tourists see, but how they see it, that’s been changing.
The Wateriders Ghosts and Gangsters of Hustlertown shows them the seamy underbelly of Chicago — from kayaks. Potomac Paddle Sports offers kayak tours of the monuments in Washington, and City Kayak guides take visitors by kayak around San Francisco Bay.
The Magic Bus transports its passengers to 1960s San Francisco on a psychedelic tour, set to classic rock, of neighborhoods including Haight-Ashbury, epicenter of the summer of love. Nashville’s Redneck Comedy Bus Tour bus is painted a less colorful camouflage green, but it has bullhorns on the front, and guides named Georgette, Tater, and Junior. Foot! Fun Walking Tours in San Francisco employs stand-up comedians.
“We’re so inundated with information that you need to make it fun,” said AJ Davenport, whose title at Foot! in San Francisco is “tour diva.”
People want tours about “what’s unique, what’s entertaining, what authentically feels like the place they’re visiting,” said Dave Jones, director of operations at the Redneck Comedy Bus Tour.
That quest might also take them to the Street Art Tour of Montreal graffiti, led by an artist on a bicycle, or the Kansas City Barbecue Tour (which includes a stop at a hot-sauce bottling plant), or the Racing Insiders Tour of Charlotte, or Ben and Marty’s Bagel Tour of the Big Apple, or the Cultural Tours of Chassidic New York (daily except Saturdays and Jewish holidays).
These tours are not for everybody. One former visitor on the Washington scandal tour was so offended by a story about Jefferson that he walked away, Carr said. A Southern Baptist preacher stormed off the Redneck Comedy Bus Tour in Nashville with his kids, according to Jones. (On the other hand, he said, Vince Gill once got on to say hello, and the TMZ Celebrity Bus Tour in Los Angeles has run into Ben Affleck and Rihanna.)
But tourists are increasingly voting with their feet.
“Everyone wants to know the skeletons in the closet, the real deal,” said Mason Betsch, who was visiting Washington from California and took the scandal tour. “To me, that’s what the good stuff is.”Jon Marcus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.