City Escapes: A Different Kind Of Self-Guided Tour

There are plenty of options available when you arrive in a foreign city and want to go exploring. You can wander behind a tour guide who recites facts about landmarks while holding an umbrella aloft, you can plot out your own course with Google Maps or a guidebook or you do a city escape that turns the sights into a giant escape room as you run around solving a mystery.

Escape rooms are a great way to spend a time arguing with your friends as you struggle together to solve riddle after to free yourselves from an enclosed space. Turning the idea inside out and running around a wide open city retains the best parts of an escape room and gives you an appreciation for the city you’ve just spent an hour or two running around.

You won’t find too much about the history of the landmarks you visit but you’ll have a unique and fun perspective on them.

I recently did two city escape games – The Mystery of a Secret Sender in Amsterdam (€25 ($39.11) per person) and The Secret of Manneken Pis in Brussels (€12 ($18.78) per person). Both escapes followed a similar format: We were given a collection of puzzles, a map to the city with a route drawn on it, a way to call for help and instructions to solve the mystery in two hours to earn our way into a secret society.

Our goal in Amsterdam was to discover the identity of a 17th century member of the Rosicrucian order – a secret society that immediately transformed into the ‘Rusty Crustaceans’ in my immature mind – that had lived in the city. Our search took us from Dam square to the red light district and around to the Jewish quarter. Every location we went to had a different environmental puzzle that unlocked pieces to use in the next puzzle.

Meanwhile in Brussels we hunted for a miniature Manneken Pis statue by running around the old town. Each puzzle we solved unlocked further puzzles to reveal symbols found at each of the locations we went to. These symbols were then drawn on the map and used in the final puzzle.

Both games had my team cover about two or three kilometers in under two hours.

Escape room veterans will find the whole process very familiar as many of the puzzles involve finding a three or four-digit combination to unlock a compartment. Taking the experience outside opens up a whole range of ways to build these puzzles so that city escapes don’t just feel like another escape room. Most puzzles revolved around finding monuments, plaques or other features then using information on or about those features.

The path leading you along historical landmarks gave the puzzles a clear sense of progression. There was no fumbling about working out which piece went with which puzzle or scouring the walls with black lights to find secret messages. This approach to puzzles isn’t for everyone as there are a number of escape rooms that thrive on non-sequential puzzles that reuse pieces. It does, however, make sure that everyone has a chance to steadily progress through the city and never feel like they’re truly stuck.

It’s a difficult balance to strike but a necessary one when you remember the goal is not just to solve puzzles but also to explore.

Being an outside experience city escapes are at the mercy of the weather. With heat bouncing off of the cobblestones and sunburn making my acceptance into the Rusty Crustaceans simply a matter of checking my skin colour, it’s all too easy to see how the games could’ve been ruined by factors outside of our control.

Similarly, roadworks and crowds hampered our exploration. If we had waited a day to do the Secret of Mannekin Pis the game would have been impossible to complete as Grand Place – a key location for one of the puzzles – was packed with football fans celebrating the national team’s success at the World Cup. Getting in touch with the people running the game could mitigate these problems.

It’s very easy to get caught up in the race against the clock. Instead of enjoying the sights you can race from location to location, only drinking in the little you need to solve the puzzles in front of you. Don’t. The time limit in these games are quite generous. Make the most of it to enjoy the experience.

One of the many bridges that crosses the canals of Amsterdam is now the site where my wife and I had to match the facade of some houses to solve a riddle while a group of German tourists asked for help taking a photo. A guildhouse is where we sat and weighed boxes as some locals rode past on their bikes. I couldn’t tell you what that bridge was called or when the guildhouse was built yet I now have unique memories of those locations that aren’t tied to the dull recitation of historical facts from a tour guide.

You won’t learn much – if anything – about the history of a city by playing a city escape. Instead I found that I had quickly built a mental map of landmarks that helped me navigate Amsterdam and Brussels over the next few days I spent in those cities.

City escapes are a wonderful and unique way to explore a city. Taking the challenge of an escape room and using the twisted logic as an excuse to gawk at landmarks gives the players an experience that they won’t forget.

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