In her essay ‘City Tour Guides’, researcher John Wynn referred to tour leaders as ‘urban alchemists,’ almost mage-like in their ability to bring forth magic from banal streetscapes, and conjure fascinating stories out of thin air.
There are a lot of tours in our town – and why not? Melbourne is a fantastic walking city. A signatory of the International Charter for Walking, and blessed with broad, well-planned streets and plenty of parks, it’s no wonder so many walks (guided and unguided) are available – but why take an expensive guided tour when you can see the best of the town for free? Melbourne has a host of tours available, including I’mFree, Melbourne Underground, and Peek Tours.
I’mFree is one of the better-known providers. It’s a well-known fact that residents rarely explore their own backyard, so I braved the unseasonably stunning spring weather to play tourist. After a 3-hour tour in which we wound our way around the best The Grid had to offer, I asked our guide Matt Phillips a few questions.
What makes Melbourne such a great walking city?
The early planning of the streets and laneways allows for a thriving atmosphere – they’re just full of cafes and street-art.
Why offer the tour for free?
It’s a great system for tourists. We offer it for free and hope people enjoy it enough to tip – the burden, then, is on the tour guide to give the absolutely best tour they can. Also, if bad weather hits, or if someone doesn’t like the tour they can leave.
I noticed you had a few locals here today amongst the travellers. Why should people who live here take a walking tour?
There are more Melbourne locals on the tours than there were on the Sydney ones when I was guiding up there – I think Melbourne residents are more engaged with their city. I think to acting a tourist allows you to see your city in a whole new way. I find that’s one of the best compliments I can get when a local likes a tour.
Why take a tour with I’mFree?
We only hire locals. A lot of tourists ask whether we’re from here, and they really want to be shown around by a local. We put a lot of work into researching current events and putting together an interesting tour route, and we finish with a big view of the city to put a few things into context. We aim for a balance of serious history and facts, and to keep it lighthearted too.
Tell me a strange fact about Melbourne.
There’s a story of the mace being stolen from parliament, and rumours of a tunnel beneath the building leading to a local brothel – there is proof of tunnels beneath government buildings leading to brothels across the world! Things like the gas pockets in the basalt (volcanic rock) that we walk around on everyday.
I’mFree Tours run from the State Library every day at 10.30am and 2.30pm.