How to plan a good walking tour


I met with a colleague over coffee at the new Greenmount Coffee Lab to share advice on organizing a two hour walking tour program later this spring. When I got back to my desk, I thought the advice might be worth writing up into a quick tutorial.

In my experience, it takes about five hours to plan a two-hour-long walking tour program. It may take you more or less time depending on your background and how you approach the tour. The process I use works best for guided walking tours where you already have information about most or all of the tour sites. If you are planning a guided bike tours or bus tours or any self-guided tour, you may need to tweak this approach. If you are just getting started and do not know what tour sites might be appropriate to visit, you may need to do more research before you plan your walking tour.

Planning your walking tour with a map, schedule, and notes

1. Make a map of your tour route

  • Use geojson.io (advanced) or Google My Maps (beginner)
  • Mark any stops where you want to spend a longer amount of time
    • Stops include public artworks, prominent buildings, local businesses, plaques or signage, parks, etc.
  • Draw a route on your map that connects all of the long stops
    • Try draw a detailed and accurate route (e.g. show where the route crosses a street)
    • Try to draw a route that ends at or near the same location the route began
    • If the tour seems too long (distance or duration), try drawing a variation on the route that excludes some stops
    • If the tour seems too short (distance or duration), try drawing a variation on the route that follows an indirect path or includes more long stops
  • Fill in any stops along the route where you want to spend a shorter amount of time
    • Short stops can give participants an opportunity to catch up and keep the tour group together
    • Short stops can also be a good opportunity to share interesting information that is not directly related to the main theme of the tour

2. Make a schedule for your tour stops

  • Make a table (use Google Docs or Markdown)
  • Add columns to your table for:
    • the name of each stop
    • the duration of each stop (or separate columns for arrival and departure times)
    • brief notes
  • Fill in the schedule table:
    • List out each stop as a separate row
    • List out the amount of time to spend at each stop
    • Add in time for questions and discussion
    • Add in time for moving between stops
    • Add in any relevant notes for each stop

3. Write your tour notes

  • Create headings for each of the longer stops
  • Add sub-headings for shorter stops
  • Headings should typically include:
    • a related place name
    • a date of construction
    • an address
    • e.g. Old Town National Bank/Holiday Inn (1925) - 221 N. Gay Street
  • You can see examples of tour notes on Baltimore Heritage Open Tours
  • If you want to share your tour notes and collect comments from co-organizers or neighbors in advance, you can use Google Docs to share your tour notes and invite readers to share comments.

4. Try out the tour in advance

  • Look out for issues with physical accessibility (e.g. stairs, steep grades, missing curb cuts, uneven pavement)
  • Look out for issues with physical comfort (e.g. loud noises, unpleasant smells)
  • Identify where the tour guide should stand and the participants should stand at each stop
  • Identify any amenities available along the route (e.g. bathrooms, coffee shops)

5. Revise the map, schedule, and notes as needed

If you have enough time between when you try out your tour and the day you lead the tour, you may want to incorporate revisions into your map, schedule, or notes. Try to be realistic about how much time you need to lead participants through the narrative and travel between each stop. Good tours always end on time.

Additional considerations when planning walking tours

I’m hoping to update this post with links and more information when I have more time. Here are a few more important topics to consider:

  • Researching walking tour sites
  • Promoting a walking tour
  • Keeping people engaged during a walking tour
  • Revising and adapting your walking tour notes
  • Being kind and inclusive when communicating with tour participants

If you have any suggestions for existing resources on these topics or ideas for other topics a walking tour guide should address, please let me know @elipousson or share them on Twitter with the #localpast hashtag.