How to Enjoy Visiting Historical Sites Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

How to Enjoy Visiting Historical Sites

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A group of visitors listen to a tour guide.

There are thousands of historical places available for the general public to visit. These range from simple burial mounds, little more than small grass-covered hills, to imposing castles and grand palaces. There are modest private homes, re-created villages and towns, military sites, ships, seaports, caves, historic naval dockyards and even prisons. They all have stories to tell.

One of the largest organisations, with an international presence, that assist with the running of these sites so that people can visit them is UNESCO1. Other sites are operated by government agencies (such as local councils), private organisations and even individuals (like property owners, volunteers or even the aristocracy).

The reasons for visiting a historical site can vary: from an afternoon's diversion near home, to a holiday overseas with many years planning, the primary goal being only to visit a historical site or two as a tourist. A trip to another area, either for business or pleasure, can also provide an opportunity for a day out to a historical site, as can a visit from out-of-town relatives or friends. Most sites offer entry for a modest price, or even free of charge.

The people visiting are almost as varied as the sites visited. Several h2g2 Researchers have offered their own varying experiences and preferences, and this Entry has included contrasting view-points to allow the reader to reach informed decisions on the subject of visiting historical sites, and how to get the most out of said visit.

Deciding Which Sites to Visit

The first consideration is how far you wish to travel and by what method: by car or by public transport. Another important point to consider is how long you wish to spend at the site. While half an hour might be fine for a country cottage, it will take far longer to view a manor house, castle or indeed the HMS Victory. A visit to a massive site such as Hadrian's Wall, can easily take a week or more. If you want to return again and again to a specific site, or many different sites, in order to fully appreciate what they have to offer, one Researcher suggests:

It can also be rewarding to join an organisation like English Heritage or the National Trust, and get good value for money by visiting all their properties in your area within a year.

Probably the most important question to ask yourself is what are you – and even more importantly, those visiting with you – interested in? No matter how intriguing a site may be to you, the constant nagging about 'How soon can we leave?' / 'Can we go yet?' from companion(s) and/or children will ruin your, and ultimately their, visit.

Preparing for Your Visit

A little research into the site you plan to go to can enhance your experience. One Researcher suggests:

Do a history degree first.

While this may be a bit extreme, other Researchers have varying opinions:

First rule is to do some independent research online. Here you can find those interesting bits about the history you may miss (and also fuel for some good questions for the guides).
A guidebook really helps too. In fact, it can be better than a human guide in some ways, because you can move around at your own pace. It's how I gained the most out of sites in Japan, and especially Kyoto: I enjoyed reading bits aloud to my family as we got to the relevant points. It contrasts notably with my experience of Machu Picchu in Peru. We spent four days walking the Inca Trail to get there and, while this was reward enough in itself, the end point was somewhat disappointing because I had done very little research and didn't have a guide book. I ended up ambling down pathways, looking at piles of stone that bore no significance to me, as I knew nothing about them.
Do some advance research of your own first (depends on the building, mind – if you're visiting something really historic such as the forum in Rome, get the audio-guides – much better than the guided tour). If it's a random stately home then the guided tour probably is a good option.

Others prefer to learn first-hand at the site:

I don't read a lot before hand, but I do find out as much as possible about the history whilst I am there. I take a tour, and read the guidebook. I'll often then buy a book in the shop about any particular event or personality associated with the house. I love finding out about history in the place where it happened, it really fires the imagination. can be fun going to places with a blank slate and no knowledge.

A little research is required just to have a successful visit, such as the days and hours the site is open. You should also find out if you can bring your own refreshments, what amenities are available, how much walking is required, and, if necessary, whether or not it is handicapped-accessible. Several Researchers have varied experiences and advice in regards to looking before leaping:

Indeed, I was so up on the Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul, we set aside Thursday to go see it initially (it's closed on Thursdays, it transpired).
[I] fully agree with doing some research first, and we're all expert at that, including how to get there, opening times, facilities, events and what else is in the locality. Does it offer an audio-guide and, if so, is it free? For example, Hampton Court offers them free, while Tate Britain charges for this facility. Of course, the former charges entry, the latter doesn't.2
Another thing to check is prices. Are they all-inclusive or are there add-ons? An example is Kew Gardens. The gardens are one price, but Kew Palace is an additional fee. Also does a Membership scheme exist, offering entry to a number of venues? Is the ticket one price, valid for unlimited entry for a year? Is there a benefit for Membership? For example, membership to the Royal Historic Palaces is the same as single entry to each Palace so, unless visiting twice in one year, there is no saving.
I would also check on restrictions, as some don't have facilities like bag storage; photography rules can be complex, including no photography, photography allowed in certain areas, no flash photography, no tripods; there may be height restrictions, limited disabled access, etc. Also does it have gardens? If so is there a best time to view? Does it have picnic areas? Is it child-friendly?
I often try to do research beforehand – especially if I am planning on taking children, so knowledge of how pram-friendly it is, whether there is a playground, activities for the children etc. is often vital. Places with good dressing up are a big hit at the moment with the children. A visit to tourist information offices in the area often can supply you with a range of leaflets advertising several nearby historic houses. Reading through these, checking the website and seeing if there are reviews from other visitors, including parents, can be worthwhile, and if there are any books on the place in the library so you can know what is there that you are particularly interested in. It can be frustrating to go somewhere, chase after the children and miss something of interest which you only read about in the guidebook on the way home.

Focusing Your Visit

It is recommended, by some, that a little research on the time period and site itself will improve your experience. This is not to say that if you find yourself in a strange city and find you have a few spare hours, you should not visit a local site and enjoy what is presented without any foreknowledge. However, if you are planning to visit a Tudor castle it might be well to have some idea of Henry VIII, his six wives, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, so you can spend more time in learning about the battlements and tapestries. One Researcher explains:

If possible, try and arrange to visit different places perhaps pertaining to one theme. For example, go to a different Tudor castle every weekend during the summer holidays. That way, you will gradually build up a coherent picture of the era, and see, for example, how architectural styles developed during that period, and work out the relationships between the various families and generations.
This sounds a bit odd, but think of the alternative: if you spend those summer holidays visiting sights from the Palaeolithic to the Edwardian, you (or your children) will just be overwhelmed by the amount of history there is, and you will have scraps of detail and superficial knowledge of a huge variety of historical periods and be left with a feeling that you'll never figure out the big picture.

When is the Best Time to Visit?

Many sites have special events such as historical re-enactments or theme days, sometimes one, or more, times each year. Volunteers can travel long distances to participate at such events. Some Researchers enjoy the added experience:

...the best thing is probably to go on a day when they have an organised event of some description. Best to check the website to find out when something is happening.

Others find them a distraction, due to the large crowds and multiple presentations:

Don't go on a Bank Holiday. There will be so many people there that you might as well just walk down the high street – you won't see anything for crowds. Go on a mid-week day in autumn, preferably cloudy.
The worst thing is probably to go on a day when they have an organised event of some description. Unless you enjoy the spectacle of bored people dressed up as Tudors/Vikings/Victorians performing some camped up version of street entertainment.
My tip would be to find out what was going on in the grounds. Ring and ask the following questions:

  1. Are the bluebells/snowdrops/delphiniums out?
  2. Is there a refreshing absence of kids' Easter egg trails or sculpture displays from the local 6th form college?

However, most of the volunteers at such events, who travel at their own expense, are quite dedicated and wish only to improve the visitor's experience. One Researcher, who often takes part in historical re-enactments, points out:

In my defence, such things can be enjoyed ironically...

Things to Do

Available activities vary greatly from site to site. At some sites the rule is, 'Look, but don't touch!', while others have hands-on activities, play areas and specialised or themed interactive events for people of all ages and abilities. The following Researchers give some sage advice for having a good time:

Have a good poke around, and make the most of their gardens/landscapes [but] whatever you do, don't touch the curtains...
Don't miss an opportunity to dress up, or try out props!


Many historical sites are filled with rare and delicate objects, and while most are not particularly valuable in a monetary sense, they would be difficult, if not impossible, to replace. One Researcher's tongue-in-cheek comment about 'How do you get the most out of a historic building' brings out a real concern:

Visit in the dead of night – wear a black catsuit, have an infra-vision headset and make sure you are highly trained in ninjitsu (a large sack is also recommended).

Many sites are equipped with state-of-the-art security systems to protect the contents. Others have security guards living full-time on site. They not only watch for intruders, but fire and weather emergencies will also bring a call for help. One Researcher, also a guide, remarks:

...they tend to have people like me actually living in them to go after you with a big stick.

A number of sites, especially wood-frame houses, are not as sturdy as we are familiar with nowadays, due both to age and earlier building techniques. Even 'ruins' are not immune to abuse. Climbing, and pocketing 'a few souvenirs' might seem insignificant, but after thousands of visits by many they will take their toll. Even sturdy looking cannons and castle walls can be compromised by steady abuse.

The Guided Tour

Make sure you get the guided tour. Just bumbling around on your own is useless, and you will miss loads of stuff.

Where the Guided Tour is Compulsory

At many sites a guided tour may be another facet of on-site security. One Researcher tells:

We're not allowed to let people leave [the tour], for security reasons. Officially, 'security reasons' are to keep stuff from getting stolen, unofficially, part of the lock-up routine is to check for bombs... So sure, you can leave, but you can't just wander off, we have to radio someone to come get you. It's also a liability insurance thing – you're responsible for your group. If one of them wanders off, then gets hurt, you're still responsible. Unfortunately.

Much security is for health and safety reasons also, such as in the instance of guided tours. Two Researchers offer their experience:

Yes, when I was in Turkey last year, you had no option but to do the guided tour if you wanted to see many of the Ottoman Palace interiors.
Some sites don't allow you to wander off and just look, particularly those with hazards like caves, steps, or darkened areas, or those that are being restored with all kinds of hazards like workmen and rakes lying about. If a tour is the only way of seeing somewhere, it's usually for good reasons, and not just another way of hitting you for more money.

So, if a site offers a specific route or method of visiting, it is usually in your best interests to abide by it. If a carpeted or other path is provided, you should respect the site by not straying from it. You should convey this message to those attending with you, including children. This will make the visit less nerve-wracking for everyone, including yourself3.

The Optional Tour

Some sites offer self-guided tours; providing printed guides, electronic listening devices, or they may simply provide a placard at significant points along the tour. Many botanical gardens and nature walks use this last system. Some sites are staffed with guides who may be stationed at various places, while others may have a guide appointed to lead a group from station to station in a regulated presentation. The explanations given can be either a well-rehearsed talk, or spontaneous thoughts based on an individual visitor's age-group and apparent interests, although certain important points about the site are almost always included for all.

None of these methods is best; after visiting a few historical sites you may decide which you prefer to make use of. However, the different methods are quite often more suited to one site than another. The individual writer, narrator or guide's style and knowledge will also affect the over-all presentation, although many sites try to conform to an overall standard. Guides may be dressed in the uniform of the site's managing entity, modern clothing or even period dress (please do not call them 'costumes'), and many will use the words and accent appropriate to the time period presented in order to heighten the visitor experience.

As a visitor, you should also understand that the guides may be paid staff, interns or volunteers interested in the site and the historical period it deals with. The presentation often depends not only on the guide's knowledge, but also their enthusiasm. While an intern is usually just getting started, they may have the most enthusiasm of all. The paid staff should certainly know their sites, at least from the site manager's point of view. Volunteers will range from newcomers with only the basic information to veterans with decades of independent site knowledge.

While many people enjoy guided tours, others feel they are rushed through spots they find interesting, and waste too much time in other areas, as the following Researchers explain:

I hate...[the guided tours]... you get dragged away from things you're most interested in.
I'm one of those rude people who has no concerns about leaving a guided tour if I so fancy. I appreciate the guide might be a volunteer and I respect that, but there's no point in suffering a tour you're not enjoying, surely the guide wouldn't want that? Unfortunately, when I'm with family, I can't do it, because it's wrong apparently.

Tours can be more enjoyable in some circumstances than others. The smaller the group, the more control you have of the tour, as one Researcher agrees:

It's best to get a guided tour when there are only a few people on it (the small group you came with), so it's more like a conversation. And avoid drones, bores, and bullies giving tours, they just want to hear themselves talk. A guided tour done right is a wonderful thing, but I also admit to wanting to skip out on them fairly often.

Another Researcher has a more selfish take on guided tours, that may suit individual tastes:

Go by yourself, or disassociate yourself from the [people] you are with. Everyone will have different tastes and want to study, in depth, different parts of the property and grounds which, from my experience, can lead to tensions and ruin a good day out.

Going on a tour is another area where a little prior research pays off. Although at some sites the guide has a script and a schedule, many allow some flexibility. No guide with the knowledge and ability to answer will rush a group forward when questions are pending. A good, informed, query will earn you the respect of both the group and the guide. If you manage to stump the guide with a legitimate question4 you may give yourself an imaginary gold star! Don't overdo it though, or you will eventually be ignored.

However, be wary, as guides may have different opinions to your own in regards to history. Some guide's remarks may not favour your own political views, particularly if they are given from a biased historical viewpoint, as experienced by the following Researchers:

Try not to get too annoyed by the pro-aristocrat propaganda, and instead wonder at the trappings of wealth and exquisite taste of the descendants of robber barons.
That's something which annoyed me; the guide tried to convince us that the family were some sort of philanthropists for employing hundreds of servants.

As the Tour Finishes

There is also an awkward moment when a tour ends, and whether or not you should tip the guide. This varies from site to site and culture to culture. At some sites the guide will be strictly forbidden from accepting tips (particularly if they are full-time staff, and they are actually paid to provide the service), while at others tips are expected, sometimes even demanded, as one Researcher found:

The most unsubtle way I've ever seen it done was in Berlin. The guy said 'Now, the question I'm always asked at the end of a tour is whether it's okay to tip the guide. The answer is yes.' And then he just stood there with his hand out.

When in doubt though, it does not hurt to offer if you are so inclined; should the guide refuse, just repeat how much you enjoyed the experience. Volunteers are not paid, and usually spend a good deal of their own money on their presentation as well as travel expenses. Recently, a few sites have even resorted to asking the volunteers to pay their own entry price at special events due to budget cuts! While some view this as their own donation of time and money to the site, most are not wealthy individuals. No one is getting rich as a tour guide, not even the paid staff.

In France, it used to be almost everywhere that you would see a little sign at the exit to a site that stated, N'oubliez pas le guide (Don't forget the guide) because they were paid nothing else or very little else. You may feel inclined to tip because of the following:

  • you have been specifically asked
  • you thought they were very good
  • you liked the site you were being shown
  • you broke something along the way...
  • you tip every time, regardless, just in case
  • you've got some small foreign change left over
  • the guide is young and obviously a student desperate to earn some money, and they can't play an instrument or busk

However, to tip or not to tip? The answer is best left to you, the reader. As mentioned, tipping is often a matter of culture and conviction. Many visitors to an area they are unfamiliar with will watch the others and follow their lead. Again, if the guide refuses an offered tip, an extra donation to the site in their name would not be amiss, which will almost always be accepted gratefully.

The Guide's Point of View

Some of the Researchers who have contributed to this Entry also serve as tour guides at historical sites themselves. Here are some honest 'behind the scenes' views:

As a volunteer guide I always prefer a small group, maybe a dozen or less. We can chat and get into details that are often glossed over with large crowds. The site managers prefer large groups, as they are counting the admissions paid.

One Researcher volunteers at a re-created Second Seminole War Fort that was originally built in 1836:

Fort Foster is under the management of Hillsborough River State Park. We have a square picket wall, two block-houses at opposite corners, each two stories high, a store-house and powder magazine. Visitors are carried by a tram to our site from the park on the opposite side of the highway by a Park Ranger. The site is only open on weekends, unless special arrangements are made in advance.
Normally the Ranger alone will lead the group through the complex, explaining about the site and its history. About once a month, volunteers arrive and each will take a station or two and give presentations from the view-point of the Victorians who were stationed there. The Seminoles usually set up a small camp across the river, and present their point of view from a period perspective.
Tour groups range in size from a single family to groups of 60 or more. Large groups are usually split, if we have enough people to go around. Tour groups range from cub-scouts aged 8 to 11 years old to an outing for a senior-citizens home. We have even had a group of about 60 Army Reserve Medics who toured as part of their summer training.

Another Researcher often takes guided tours of a cave system found at Nottingham Castle, a site with a very complex history:

Many visitors to Nottingham Castle are disappointed in the fact that little remains of the castle, and it is instead a Museum and Art Gallery in a 17th Century Ducal Palace. Hence the tours, for usually about 20–30 people, of the dungeon, caves and tunnels underneath are quite popular.
The tour gives the guide a chance to explain what happened to the castle over time, and allay a little of that disappointment in providing an entertaining service. Putting visitors in stocks, telling gruesome (and true!) tales of murder and intrigue, interacting with international and local visitors in a relaxed and informal way really helps bring the place to life.
Being a guide is a very rewarding experience, although it can be fraught with danger. The public can be unforgiving when it comes to misinformation, so you need to know your stuff, or be able to blag your way out of a situation. Confidence is the key. I generally tell people on my tour that (as a way of an ice-breaker), if they have any questions feel free to ask, but if I don't know the answer, I'll make something up!

So if you do go on a tour, just be mindful that it is more for you to enjoy your visit further, as the guides are generally not Professors of History!


A visit to a historical site usually ends with an opportunity to purchase a souvenir or two. As one Researcher reminds us:

Exit by the gift shop...

Many sites use the revenue from the selling of gifts to help in the upkeep of the place, and you may even find donation boxes for this purpose also. A little spare change can go a long way, and if you make a return visit you may find that things have improved and you'll enjoy visiting again with friends and family.

So, the next time you want to find an interesting diversion for an afternoon, be sure and check out a historical site – with the advice given here, you're sure to enjoy it all the more!

1United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.2At time of writing (2012), this information is correct.3And staff members...4Questions like, 'Who was the original owner's grandfather's brother?' don't count. And can upset the guide.

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