IT may be uncool to take organized tours when you travel, but in a big, unfamiliar city they sure beat trying to follow the terse advice of a guidebook - not to mention fighting traffic.
Good tour guides know the whys and wherefores of the places you're visiting and put them in context. They assume you know little about what you're seeing and, without being patronizing, happily fill you in. The best ones are so captivating and amusing that they're a vacation highlight unto themselves.
On the other hand, a poor tour guide assumes everybody has arrived well versed on the topic at hand and only discusses the aspects of it that he or she and a handful of fellow fanatics find interesting.
My family is still struggling to forgive me for the awful 90-minute experience I inflicted on them on the last day of our recent holiday in Chicago. I wanted us to explore the city's blues history. I'd already listened to the evocative free audio tour narrated by legendary Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy, and I wanted to be able to see some of the places he'd mentioned without renting a car.
Those historic sites included the famous former headquarters of Chess Records, where Muddy Waters committed his early hits to vinyl, Chuck Berry recorded "Maybellene," and Etta James achieved immortality with "At Last." The Rolling Stones also recorded an instrumental there, named for the studio's address - 2120 South Michigan Avenue.
Chess is therefore one of the most famous recording studios in history. Its building is modest, as befitted the circumstances of its owners, Polish immigrants Leonard and Phil Chess. The Chess brothers, who were Jewish, had tied their fortunes to the thousands of African Americans who'd left the rural Mississippi Delta for better opportunities in Chicago during the Great Migration that began in 1910. The Chesses started out selling cut-rate liquor, graduated to operating a blues and jazz club largely patronized by blacks, and then got into the business of making records with, it turned out, some of the world's greatest musicians.
Our tour guide, a grizzled movie critic, touched on a bit of this, but only in between showing us a seemingly endless cavalcade of sites that had appeared in the movie The Blues Brothers. Once en route, we'd discovered that this tour, called The Blues City Tour, was not really about blues in the city of Chicago. Instead, it was about a silly comedy that came out in 1980 and wasn't even a hit back then ("The public stayed away," says Halliwell's Film Guide).
What a tour this could have been. Chicago is where the acoustic music of the rural South was electrified so the musicians could be heard over rambunctious big-city crowds, resulting in a new sound - rhythm and blues. We might have begun the tour listening on the bus's sound system to songs demonstrating the Delta roots of the blues, whose distinctive style is thought to derive from the "field-holler" of slaves at work.
Then we might have savoured music by Waters, considered the "father of modern Chicago blues," along with the likes of Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker (we did get a tempting Hooker excerpt from the movie), and Koko Taylor - amazing artists who all nurtured their genius there.
We could have been treated to Buddy Guy's own tale of how, when he was a starving 21-year-old newbie, a club patron yelled at Otis Rush mid-performance that this unknown kid was better than he was, and Rush invited Guy up to the stage to prove it. The club's owner called the famous Muddy Waters to come over and meet Guy.
According to the audio tour, Waters said, "I heard you're hungry," and offered Guy a sandwich.
"If you're Muddy Waters, I ain't hungry no more," Guy replied.
But there was none of that. We drove slowly past Chess Records, not going inside to see the sound studio, which apparently was designed with no parallel walls to achieve acoustical brilliance. More attention was paid to things like a new building that replaced the apartment where one of the fictional Blues brothers lived and the underpass where its chase scene was filmed. The Blues City Tour was the only sour note in our marvelous trip. Misled by its title, I hadn't read the fine print.
That disappointment stood in sharp contrast to the architectural tour we'd taken the week before.
The best way to appreciate this bustling city's famous skyscrapers is from a boat on the Chicago River, which snakes through the centre of town. The Chicago Architecture Foundation's volunteer guide, a former English teacher, couldn't have been more engaging; his love of the subject shone. He even managed to intrigue our 17year-old who'd been mystified by the very idea of a boat tour about a bunch of buildings.
As we chugged along, the guide quoted comedian David Letterman alongside poets Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman. He used salient remarks by key architects to explain their vastly divergent philosophies. We disembarked from the boat enlightened, refreshed and tantalized.
That's what good tours do.