Want to get to know your city better? Turn your smartphone into a tour guide and take a walk.
That is the idea behind Detour, an app that takes you on a guided walking tour based on a single topic or story. It uses GPS to track your progress along the route, so the audio is always in synch.
As I recently discovered, Detour is not only a great activity when visiting a city, but it is also a fantastic way to discover a city that you recently relocated to. Right now Detour has one tour available in my adopted city of Austin, TX.
It took me along some familiar paths, but the narration provided a fascinating history to those places that I never knew. It took me into buildings that I have passed by a hundred times but may not have gotten around to checking out otherwise.
Getting the app
Detours are only available in a few select cities at the moment; most tours are concentrated in San Francisco and New York, as well as a handful of international cities. Most of the San Francisco area Detours (as the startup calls its audio tours) cost $4.99 per download, but you can get all 15, and a new one every month for $19.99 a year.
The Austin Detour, titled The Year That Broke Austin, is currently free. It is about America’s first serial killer that terrorized the city in 1885. It was quite dark material for such a sunny afternoon, but as a fan of history and true crime stories I was intrigued. Having nothing to lose, I decided to check it out.
First things first, you have to have an iPhone, but an Android version is coming soon. After downloading the app, it will determine your location and show you a list of available tours. Select the tour you want from the screen and download it—it only took a few seconds for me. There is a map on the screen that shows you the route.
I went by myself, but if you are with a group there is a feature that allows you all to synch the audio so everyone experiences the story at the same time.
Follow the path
I made my way to the starting point and opened up the Detour. The narration didn’t start until I got to the exact spot, outside of a menswear store called Dandy’s. A compass on the phone points you to each waypoint, a feature I found very helpful and used frequently to make sure I was on the right track.
The narration itself was slickly produced by Radiolab, which is part of New York public radio station WNYC. It featured original music, sound effects and multiple interviews throughout. Interspersed throughout the main audio track, the narrator gives you walking directions when its time to move to the next stop.
For the most part these directions are all you need to get from point A to B. If you start to feel lost, the app displays visual cues on your phone that act as digital breadcrumbs to help keep you on the right path.
Sense of adventure
From Dandy’s, the tour led me to the free to enter O. Henry Museum, which I didn’t even know existed. I won’t spoil any of the other stops for you, because part of the fun is not knowing where you will end up next. The tour was full of surprises and there were several points where the tension of the story combined with the adventure of entering an unexplored place that really got my spine-a-tingling.
In just an hour traipsing around several city blocks, I felt like I packed in a whole weekend of sightseeing, visiting several places I can’t believe I haven’t been to during my two years as an Austinite.
Make sure that you go during the hours recommended in the description. If you go outside of those times you might find yourself locked out of the coolest parts of the tour.
There were a few portions of the trip that I would warn others about before heading out. Part of the trip is along Waller Creek, which is a secluded spot in the middle of downtown that draws in a lot of homeless folks. Some people taking the tour might feel a little uncomfortable during this section, although I didn’t encounter anybody along the way.
It is a place I have tended to avoid, so I’m personally glad the app pulled me out of my comfort zone and led me through it. The narrator says to keep walking and mind your business and you will be fine, which I thought was helpful advice.
Another potential drawback is construction projects that crop up after the Detour is published. I came across one such obstacle. Being familiar with the area circumventing it was no problem, but it is something the folks at Detour might want to account for in the future. Also there was a couple times where you are told to cross the street, but not at an intersection—so be careful!
Ready for more
Overall I found using Detour to be a perfect way to get to know a city better, whether you just moved there or you have lived there your whole life. I eagerly await the next Detour to come out in Austin, and I wouldn’t even mind paying for it.
If you don’t live in Austin, New York or San Francisco you might have to wait a while before embarking on a Detour—but more cities are on the way. You can sign up to be notified when new Detours are available in your town.