As someone who doesn’t mind spending time alone on holiday, some of my favourite travel memories involve walking around a city or exploring a museum on my own. On a recent trip to Paris, I wanted to experience the history and atmosphere more than the last time I set foot in the City of Light, when I focused on ticking off the ‘must see’ tourist attractions.
So, with the mindset of seeing the city more as a traveller and less as a tourist, I decided that instead of hiring an expensive personal guide or joining a crowded group walking tour, I would turn to one of the most trusted guides in European travel: Rick Steves. Steves is a renowned travel writer, synonymous with European travel and his philosophy of embracing local culture while abroad. The Rick Steves guidebooks are very popular – in fact, I picked up the pocket version of the Rick Steves Paris book specifically for this trip.
While I couldn’t book Steves to personally guide me through Paris, I had the next best thing: his audio tour. As I set off to explore the Left Bank, I had the convenience – and added company – of Steves right in my ear as I began my walk. Great audio guides allow listeners to explore cities at their own pace, without having to plan an itinerary in advance. Just download the audio tour, go to the first landmark and press play.
Steves spent much of his 2022 travels talking to himself, carefully noting updates and changes for his 60 self-guided audio tours. In April 2023, Rick Steves Europe re-released updated versions of these tours, with guides in Athens, London, Salzburg, Paris and more. The tours are excerpted from the Rick Steves guidebooks, and the free Rick Steves Audio Europe app includes bonus features such as a companion map, tips, and the full script of each tour.
I chose the Historic Paris Walk audio tour as it covered much of the area near my hotel. The tour is advertised as a three mile walk and Steves recommends two hours for the walk and another two hours if you want to go inside the sights.
Starting at Notre-Dame de Paris, I was immediately immersed in the story of Paris that Steves tells, building on the history of the city and the religion that led to the construction of the cathedral. Although the Gothic landmark is still undergoing repairs after the 2019 fire, I was still able to listen to a good portion of the tour, as Steves covers a lot of the history and architecture from the outside.
One of the great things about the audio tour is that each chapter of the narration has a separate title and image, making it easy to navigate forward or backward in the audio to find the right spot. Walking through the city centre, I enjoyed having Steve as my companion, taking me from place to place with enough insight to keep even my jet-lagged self interested. His narrative style is friendly and informative.
The tour also includes verbal step-by-step directions, so if you have a good sense of direction, you can easily follow the turns and get to the next landmark or street without missing a beat. (I did have to stop once or twice to look around and make sure I was going in the right direction). But it’s easiest to follow the tour in the order Steves has laid out, as I did almost a full loop around the Île de la Cité, from Notre-Dame to the Pont Neuf, the Left Bank, the Latin Quarter and the Place Saint-Michel.
Of course, when I reached the famous bookshop Shakespeare and Company, I had to interrupt the guide to go inside. And that wasn’t the only time I deviated from the tour: when I reached Sainte-Chapelle, I decided to skip that section as well. With Notre-Dame closed, this nearby church is now even more popular, and the queue was too long for me to wait that day.
But as I walked around Paris, it really felt like I had a personal guide with me. I didn’t feel like a tourist at all – I never had to take out a map or guidebook, and it made me appreciate walking around the city while learning about its history.
The next day I went to the Musée d’Orsay, one of the most popular museums in Paris, perhaps best known for its extensive collection of Impressionist paintings, including works by Van Gogh and Monet. This is where I pulled out my pocket-sized Rick Steves Paris guidebook (and quietly read it to a friend as we walked through the vibrant maze of Manets and Picassos). Steves also has an audio tour of the museum and others, such as the Louvre, if you’re more inclined to listen than read.
If, like me, you’re not an art student but still want to appreciate these masterpieces, Steves’ guides are helpful in pointing out which works are important to stop at and what to look for once you’re there. I loved learning more about the art world throughout history in Paris, and Steves is able to compare and contrast different styles and movements, and build on this knowledge as you progress through the museum.
The Steve’s Guides allowed me to explore sights and places I wouldn’t have known about otherwise, and to get a great understanding of the city without the language barrier. Plus, self-guided tours offer flexibility and independence, while still providing a rewarding and informative experience.