How to Enjoy Visiting Historical Sites

1 Conversation

There are thousands of historical places available for the general public to visit. These range from the simple burial mounds, little more than a small grass covered hill to castles and grand palaces.

There are modest private homes, re-created villages and towns, military sites, ships, seaports and at least one historic naval dockyard. They all have stories to tell.

One of the largest organizations, with an international presence is
UNESCO. Other sites are operated by government agencies,
private organizations and even individuals.

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

The people visiting are almost as varied as the sites visited. Several Researchers have offered their own varying experiences and preferences. We have included several contrasting view-points to allow the reader to reach an informed opinion for their own choices.

What will I See?

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.

Other sites are staffed with guides who may be stationed a various places along the tour, while still other sites 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 the individual group's age 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 historic sights you may decide which method you prefer. 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 effect the over-all presentation.

As a visitor, you should understand that the guides may be paid staff, interns or volunteers interested in the site and time period presented. The presentation 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 research into the site and time-period.

Guides may be dressed in the uniform of the site's managing entity, modern clothing or period dress (please do not call them "costumes"), many will use the words and accent appropriate to the time period presented.

Deciding Which Sites to Visit

The first consideration is how far you wish to travel and how, either by car or 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 or HMS Victory. A visit to a massive site such as Hadrian's Wall, can easily take a week or more. Probably the most important point is what are you, and even more importantly those visiting with you, are interested in. No matter how intriguing the site may be to you, the constant question about "How soon can we leave?" from spouse and/or children will ruin your experience.

Preparing for Your Visit

A little research into the site you plan to visit 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

... it 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 will also want to 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.

Indeed, I was so up on the Dolmabahce palace in Istanbul I 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 £5:00[at time of this writing, spring 2012] for the facility. Of course, the former charges entry, the latter doesn't.[Again at the time of this writing.]

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, no photography, photography - no flash, photography - no tripod, 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

Focusing your Visits

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 planing to visit a Tudor Castle It might be well to have some idea of the six wives, Edward. Mary Tudor, Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots, so you can spend more time in learning about the battlements and tapestries. At several points in the tour the guides will usually ask for questions. A good, informed, question will earn you the respect of both the group and the guide. If you manage to stump the guide with a legitimate question1 you may give yourself an imaginary gold star.

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 at times, some one, or more, times each year. Volunteers travel long distances to participate at the event. While some people enjoy the added experience;

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

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.

Others find this 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?

Most of the volunteers, who travel at their own expense, are quite dedicated and wish only to improve the visitor's experience.

In my
[own] defence, such things can be enjoyed ironically...


One 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. Others have guides living full time on site. They Not only watch for intruders, fire and weather events will also bring a call for help. One guide, who is also a Researcher replies;

That won't do you any good, they tend to have people like me actually living in them to go after you with a big stick.

Many sites are filled with rare and delicate objects, while most are not particularly valuable in a monetary sense, they would be difficult, if not impossible, to replace.

A number of sites, especially wood frame houses, are not as sturdy as we are used to, due both to age and earlier building techniques. 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 more enjoyable for everyone, including yourself.

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 steady abuse.

The Tour

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

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

I hate those
[the guided tour] and 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 here'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.

At many sites the tour is primarily another facet of security.

Depends on the site as well. We're not allowed to let people leave, 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.

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.

Under some circumstances tours can be more enjoyable than others.

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.

Go by yourself, or disassociate yourself from the ones 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.

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.

This another place where a little previous 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. The smaller the group the more control you have of the tour at most sites. You should not try to overdo or you will eventually be ignored.

Some of the guide's remarks may not favour your own political views, particularly if they are given from an historical viewpoint.

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
[also]; the guide tried to convince us that the family were some sort of philanthropists for employing hundreds of servants.

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 a hands on play area.

have a good poke around and make the most of their gardens/landscapes

whatever you do, don't touch the curtains

don't miss an opportunity to dress up, or try out props

The Guide's Point of View

Some of the researchers who have contributed to this entry also serve as guides themselves. We will share some of our experiences from behind the scene.

One contributor 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.


The tour usually ends with an opportunity to purchase a souvenir or two. As one researcher reminds us;

Exit by the gift shop.

There is an awkward moment when the tour ends about tipping the guide. This varies from site to site and culture to culture. At some sites the guide will be strictly forbidden to accept tips, while at others tips are expected, even demanded. When in doubt 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 "N'oubliez pas le guide" (Don't forget the guide) because they were paid nothing else or very little else.

Should you pay them;

- only if you are specifically asked?

- if you thought they were very good?

- if you liked the site you were being shown?

- if you broke something along the way?

- every time, regardless, just in case?

- only if you've got some small foreign change left over?

- only if they're young and obviously students desperate to earn some money and they can't play an instrument and go busking?

This answers to best the left you, the reader. It is 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 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 OK to tip the guide. The answer is yes." And then he just stood there with his hand out.

The next time you want to find an interesting diversion for an afternoon be sure and check out one of your local historical sites, you may enjoy it.

1 Who was the original owner's grandfather's brother don't count.

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