There are websites that rank attractions but most of them will direct you to the crowded tourism hotspots. So how do you discover what’s worth seeing in an unfamiliar city?
“A lot of the online travel research is very focused on the ‘top tens’ and mainstream travel. It’s tick box tourism,” says Nick Whitfield, founder of City Unscripted. Nick’s service pairs you up with a personal guide. He came up with the idea after he was contacted by former colleagues who wanted advice on what to see in London.
“I had a lot of ex-colleagues and friends from the Middle East, where I had worked, who wanted advice. They came from a range of nationalities and cultures. They wanted people to show them around but they also wanted guides with skills in their own languages too. I started doing research for them and it turned out to be harder than I thought,” says Nick.
So he analysed what had made his best trips abroad memorable. “I thought of Johannesburg, where I had the best time but it isn’t a place that necessarily springs to mind as a favourite city for most people. In Johannesburg a very good friend showed me things that he knew I would like. He shaped the trip around me. Paris is one of the most loved cities in the world but I had a disappointing experience there. I thought I’d be able to guide myself around but you end up doing the same sort of things as everybody else.”
City Unscripted has launched across major cities including London, Paris, New York, Tokyo Barcelona and Amsterdam. “It was about having a friend in that city to bring it alive and make it a personalised experience. That made me want to create this network of locals,” says Nick.
When you log on to the City Unscripted site you can book a personal guide who speaks your language. You search the profiles to find one who shares your interests and who covers the part of the city you are visiting. If you’re a football fan visiting Barcelona there is an English-speaking guide who can take you to see the soccer sites. If you’re travelling to New York and you love house music you’ll be able to find guides who know where to take you.
City Unscripted isn’t just for younger travellers, as many online services tend to be. “We have got people aged from 18 to over 60, with a huge range of interests,” says Nick. “It’s not just targeting early 20s. This is for 28 to 55 year-olds who want a deeper experience.” Nick’s guides also share lots of different language skills. “We have 25 languages offered in London and our guides have lots of different cultural backgrounds.”
Although there are some suggested tours on offer, the guides can change the schedule if after meeting the customer they think they may prefer another option. “Somebody booked our ‘Big Ben to Covent Garden’ tour recently,” says Nick. “The guest had a chat with the local guide for a few minutes and the guide realised that they’d prefer looking around Brixton instead. So they just jumped on the tube and headed off. It’s totally spontaneous.”
City Unscripted meets your guide’s travel costs across zones 1 to 3 on London Transport. If you agree to travel further you would have to fund the guide’s extra ticket costs. If you end up going out for a meal or drinks with your guide because, for instance, you want a food tour you’d be expected to cover their portion of the bill, which seems reasonable. They are working for your benefit, after all.
If you find yourself in a different city at short notice and want to trip, Nick says his team can respond rapidly. “Recently we got a booking at the beginning of the week, at 2 o’clock in the morning for a 10am start and we were able to fill that. But we typically like 24 hours notice as it takes the pressure off us,” he says.
In London, prices are based on a couple (two adults) and children are free – you can bring up to four along. The first hour is £30 and the second hour costs £20.
You can find out more at cityunscripted.com.