Chicago Detours tour company founder and executive director Amanda Scotese has lived abroad, worked for Rick Steve’s Europe, and thinks Chicago is one of the greatest cities on earth. She’s been featured in NPR, USA Today, Thrillist and the Chicago Tribune. Read on for her tips on traveling locally and REALLY exploring your own backyard!
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Head over to this link to catch the full audio recording on Fireside with Chicago Detours’ Amanda Scotese – but in the meantime, here’s a snippet of the conversation. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Amanda, can you share a little bit about how you got from point A to point B, how you got started in the travel industry and ended up starting a travel company in Chicago?
I got very fortunate. Many years ago, when I was at a community college, I’d had the curiosity to travel and I talked with one of the instructors and he said, ‘maybe we can get some money to help you do that.’ and they actually ended up creating a travel scholarship for people to apply too, and I ended up getting it. And so that was my first trip to Europe, and I was completely hooked. We started in northern Europe, and I was particularly curious about Italy because of my heritage, and wanting to try out learning other languages. And when I got to Italy, it was like the most magical moment I’d ever had. The whole trip was awesome, but something was different when I got to Italy.
From there on out, that’s what I wanted to do – to learn Italian. And then over the years I’ve just been a full-blown travel addict, and I ended up working in tourism and becoming a tour guide in Italy for Rick Steve’s Europe. I also updated his travel guidebooks for Italy. And many times, our tour guests would say, ‘where else is your favorite place to travel?’ And I don’t know how to sum it up with Chicago; I grew up with Chicago as my idea of a city. And as I had gotten older and gone to different cities, but I wanted to be in Chicago, I was just completely in love with the city. So back in 2010 I started a company called Chicago Detours, and eventually built a team of 10 doing tours that bring people to places that even locals don’t know.
I love it, and you know we’ve spoken many times about your passion for getting people away from the masses, off the beaten path (especially on your Chicago Detours tours). In our first interview, you and I had a wonderful discussion about taking some time and effort to learn somebody else’s language rather than shoving a square peg into a round hole, or screaming English at someone.
Do you have any tips for those who maybe are a little bit overwhelmed by the idea of trying to find a non-traditional tour or excursion? Or those intimidated to talk to people, which you’d noted as one of the best ways to travel locally?
There’s a lot there in what you’re asking. So if people are intimidated by the idea of talking to strangers, I would say, start with baby steps. Talk to the person you’re buying an ice cream from, or you have small interactions with that you can build up to larger ones. It’s always easier to talk to people in a contained environment; how about your Uber driver? Or a taxi driver. Or talk to somebody at the store. But that’s what I would say as far as getting out and talking with people to start to connect with the place that you’re visiting.
I love it – that seems to be a common thread through this show, taking pretty big, scary things like travel and breaking them down into baby steps. Everything is more manageable when you think smaller.
And a theme of tonight’s show is trying to be a traveler in your own backyard, so maybe do it in your own neighborhood and see where that takes you.
Absolutely – and we will come back to that topic. As we’ve been talking about your background and Chicago and your company Chicago Detours – do you have any resources or go-to places where people can get information (in addition to tour guidebooks and other things) – but are there specific ‘I always check this site or go to this particular building in a city’ to find good information?
Great question – I would say it depends on how broad or detailed you’re trying to learn. I think sometimes, because we’re in this age of the internet, people really want to be able to just Google something and immediately know about it and it creates a rather rote, encyclopedic kind of way of approaching the world. You can get great information that way, but sometimes it’s incredible to zoom out too. Let’s say, for example, someone is visiting Rome. If you just look up the Tiber River in you can find out so much about the city by learning about the river, and it seems like, ‘okay, yeah, whatever. There’s a river.’ But that’s a study in itself.
Or let’s say you’re in Chicago and instead of looking up a specific building, what about just learning about skyscrapers, so you can really zoom out to learn things, and then you can zoom in on another resource. I Wikipedia everything and skim and just pull out the information I think is interesting. I’m really a curator – creating stories. But I’ll also zoom in and get into a micro level – looking up a specific address to understand the history of a building. So I think a little more zooming out and in instead of taking everything at face value can be an interesting way to learn about the things around you.
I feel like I just got a mental image of the different ways Alice went through Wonderland – I think she went through really large, and really tiny – something like that. But there is this middle route where everything is just hunky dory, everything is totally neutral, but then picking these different perspectives is really great.
You have been all over the world and lived abroad, but you decided to settle down in Chicago, and even studied Chicago – you got your masters at the University of Chicago, and then started a tour company called Chicago Detours Can you tell us a little bit about that as well as how to cultivate this idea of backyard exploration?
I went into this program, an interdisciplinary degree in the humanities, with the intention of specifically starting up a tour company and learning everything about Chicago. And it was basically the top people in their field – every lecture I had my mind blown to bits. So it was really just an all-around awesome experience. And I got to pave my own path, which is a growing path for people who are pursuing a higher education. Not everyone wants to pigeonhole themselves into a very specific subject, and there are a lot more interdisciplinary thinkers at that level. I took classes in the social sciences, in the business school, which not only surprised me with knowledge of Chicago, but helped me become a better communicator and writer and all-around enrich my life.
Your other question is how to be a better traveler in our own backyards. Something that I noticed when I worked with the Rick Steve’s Europe tour group was so many people who were just ecstatic to be in Italy. Some had traveled a ton and some were new travelers. I love how when people travel there is an incredible openness and a desire to observe and learn about the things around them. Some of the questions people asked or comments people made me think they didn’t know a lot about the United States of America or cities in the US or how people live in cities at all.
So one thing I started realizing is that when we travel, one of the things we love about traveling is that it makes us more present, because we’re out of our comfort zones in a different place. We’re fascinated with the world around us. It’s different than when we’re in our everyday lives. In our everyday lives, we go on autopilot, or zone out – as you do the same route to and from work. There’s an idea that if you tuned into all the sensory information around you, you’d be exhausted. So your brain actually has to filter out some of the input.
But people got in touch with [awareness] during lockdown last year – they took walks in their community and actually took notice of what was around them, every element in the landscape – and there’s a story behind it. Not just the architecture, but it could be the landscaping of someone’s yard, or the arrangement of streets, or the design of the business you walk by. There’s so many things going on around us we don’t know about and once you start actually observing, you can start to tune in and feel more connected to the world around you and get excited about where you live in your everyday life.
That actually goes hand in hand with the Greater Good Science Center at Berkley University, I follow along with them and they talk about this idea of awe walks, where you just walk around and look at things from a different perspective and it makes you a lot happier scientifically. What’s one thing you’re super fascinated by?
My main thing is that I love everyday stories. It’s always fun to know about the Coliseum in Rome or any massive site – the Great Wall of China. They’re amazing, but I get excited about the everyday kind of stories that are overlooked, the things that we kind of normally pass by.
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Learn More About Amanda Scotese and Chicago Detours