Paris, 1995. I saw all the sights. I climbed the Eiffel Tower, walked the Champs Elysée, took in the view from the tower at Notre Dame and was entranced by the scene playing out in the shadows of the Sacre Coeur. I had “done” Paris. Or so I thought. I liked travelling independently and figuring things out for myself. I never considered hiring a local tour guide.
Many visits later I know that I had barely scratched the surface of the iconic city. My travel style has changed. These days I like to seek out local tour guides and experiences in the places I travel to. Here are the reasons why.
1. Learn about history and context from your local tour guide
Michelangelo’s David is an incredible sculpture complete with intricate and precise anatomical detail. It is beautiful in its own right but your fascination only grows when you discover more about its background. The process behind making the statue and the politics behind how Michelangelo was able to create his art are incredible stories I learned when I visited Florence and took a cultural tour.
Favourite history tours
2. Discover unique details and stories about a destination
Uncovering the stories and details of the places you visit make them come alive and cement them in your memory. Walking around Venice you notice stone structures in all the campi or squares. These are the cisterns that ensured the city had fresh water. Some of them are elaborately decorated and beautiful but without them the city would not have thrived as they were the only means of accessing drinking water. We learned this on a walking tour as well as many other interesting details about Venice.
For me the stories behind what we see are important in making our trips special.
3. Learn about the local food culture
I think if you could only do one tour in the destinations you are visiting it should be a food tour.
We love tasting new foods on our travels. Apart from being delicious, food is central to most cultures. Taking a tour with a local guide means you learn about the importance of ingredients and dishes to the local people. You go to local cafés and restaurants and avoid mass produced tourist traps. While I love simply browsing produce markets we learnt so much about how the Rialto market is central to life in Venice on a recent tour. Plus we were able to try the most delicious figs.
All over the world food tours and experiences are the perfect way to learn about cultures and cuisines. One of my favourite experiences in Vietnam was a cooking class in Hoi An. Vietnamese food is so fresh, tasty and delicious and the class opened my eyes to this thoughtful and balanced cuisine.
Eating a meal prepared by a local home chef is another food experience growing in popularity. Sites like BonAppetour offer you the opportunity to find home dining experiences around the world. What a fantastic way to appreciate a destination and support local communities.
Favourite local food tours
4. Support the local community
Local tour guides and companies offering local experiences are predominantly local businesses. This means your travel spend is directly impacting the local community. Why is this important? Recently I was shocked to learn about the impact of short trip tourism on local economies. The pretty Belgian city of Bruges welcomes 7 million visitors a year however only 1 million of those stay overnight. Day trippers contribute very little to the local economy meaning that maintaining historical sites is difficult and the local way of life is under threat.
Choosing a local tour means you are directly supporting the local economy and people, helping to preserve the sights for future visitors. Some tours offer a deeper and more immersive experience connecting travellers with local communities. London’s Unseen Tours works with homeless and ex-homeless people to provide unique tours of the city.
To discover tours that benefit local communities around the world go to Visit.Org
Favourite tours for supporting local communities
5. Uncover lesser known places of interest
Do you get a bit of a thrill when you discover a new place that is out of the way and a bit unusual? I love searching beyond the obvious and finding places that aren’t on the popular tourist routes. One of my favourite discoveries on our Berlin bike tour was the hauntingly beautiful Soviet Memorial in the east of the city. I am quite sure we would never have visited this monument had we not taken the bike tour.
6. Take in the views from another angle
While I am a big fan of simply wandering around a city exploring, sometimes your feet need a rest from walking. It seemed 2016 was the year of visiting cities on canals and we enjoyed boat cruise tours in Amsterdam, Berlin, Strasbourg and a once in a lifetime gondola ride in Venice. Sitting back on a boat is one of my favourite ways to appreciate a city.
Bike tours are another great way to discover cities and regions as often a bike can take you to places that you can’t reach by bus and are too far to walk to. Many European cities like Copenhagen are incredibly bike friendly and touring by bike lets you experience the local lifestyle in a unique way.
In Paris we enjoyed a private tour of lesser known locations in the Marais and Latin Quarter in a Citroen 2CV. Zipping around the streets in an open top classic car was so much fun.
Favourite tours on wheels and water
7. Meet fellow travellers
If you are travelling solo or extending a business trip a tour is a great way to connect with people on your travels. Hiking and food tours in particular offer a wonderful opportunity to sit and chat over a delicious meal and lovely wine. There is something about sharing a meal that connects people.
I made some firm friends on a tapas tour of Madrid. It was the day after Spain won the World Cup and the atmosphere was electric. After the tour some of us made plans to join in the huge celebration party. I probably would not have done that if I was on my own and would have missed one of my all time travel highlights.
8. Learn about local art and artists
Art tours are one of my favourite ways to discover a city’s street scene and galleries. Sure you can spend time on your own appreciating paintings and murals but they come to life when you understand the background to the work, techniques used and personal histories of the artists. On a recent street art tour of London we saw an incredible mural created by our tour guide and learnt about his process and motivation for creating the art.
Favourite art tours
9. Gain a fresh perspective from your local tour guide
Tour guides are usually very talented and interesting people. It takes a certain amount of confidence and passion to be a tour guide and I have rarely come across one that does not add deep insight and a sense of fun into their tours – often in a second or third language. Our cheeky and irreverent guide on a recent tour of the Houses of Parliament ensured we had a wonderful time full of laughs while we toured one of the world’s most interesting buildings.
Given the skills needed to do this job I also commend Unseen London for supporting people who are homeless or have been homeless to become tour guides. Beyond the iconic sights of London there is a living city waiting to be discovered.
Favourite tours with fun and interesting tour guides
10. Save time and skip the line
If you are short on time or low on patience many tours offer skip the line or fast track options. This is a great way to visit many attractions without the time wasting frustration of standing in a queue. As a horribly impatient person I choose this option wherever possible. I also recommend these tours for people with health issues that mean standing for long periods of time is uncomfortable.
Top tours for avoiding lines
Paris: Priority access for the Eiffel Tower
New York: Express pass for the Empire State Building
London: St Paul’s Cathedral skip the line
Favourite local tour guide and experience resources
Checking the offerings at the local tourist office and at your accommodation when you arrive is a good idea however I find many of the best tours are booked before you arrive. Make sure you prepare and book well in advance. The quickest and easiest way to do this is using online resources.
I am afraid Google is not your friend when trying to find local tours and experiences. Many local business do not have the experience and resources to rank highly in searches. I find the following sites useful for finding and booking tours all over the world. What you get when you use these sites is the ability to compare tours, read objective reviews and choose activities that are monitored and vetted by experts. Some of these, such as Get Your Guide, have useful apps that hold all your ticketing information and allow you to book last minute tours on the go.
Remember when using these services the price may be a little higher to cover tour vetting and administration costs but I have found the convenience of using a one stop shop to compare tours and book tickets more than justifies that additional expense. Many of these sites offer a lowest price guarantee regardless.
Get Your Guide
Book tours, attractions, and activities online with the world’s biggest collection of things to do. Get Your Guide lists almost 30,000 activities in destinations from the four corners of the world and has a handy app allowing you to book tours and activities on the go.
Authentic and immersive travel experiences from hand picked not for profit organisations around the world. If you want to support local communities when you travel Visit.org has the best list of tours and experiences.
TripAdvisor owned Viator has curated and sourced activities around the world for over 15 years. With over 800,000 independent reviews you can pick a travel experience with confidently knowing that they have been tried and tested by experts and travellers.
I always check TripAdvisor quickly for reviews of all the activities and hotels we choose when we travel. Now you can book tours directly on the site making it perfect for those who like to plan their trips using fewer resources.
I think my favourite new food travel experience is the concept of home dining with a local cook. Bon Appetour connects travellers with home chefs for one the most memorable travel experiences you are likely to have.
This site offers great deals on tours and attractions worldwide.
My tour and experience wish list
I have a growing list of tours and experiences I would love to take with a local tour guide. Here is a list of some of the tours I covet. I hope it provides some inspiration for your next trip.
✪ A hot air balloon ride over Cappadocia in Turkey
✪ An Amazon cruise discovering local wildlife and learning from the local community in Peru
✪ Discovering local food producers on a food tour of Emilia Romagna and Bologna in Italy
✪ Taking in the sights and heady smells of the lavender fields tour of Provence
✪ A home cooked meal by a chef in Rome overlooking the Vatican City
✪ Watching the sunrise at Uluru the spiritual centre of Australia with a local guide
I’d love to know. Do you take local tours and seek out unique experiences on your travels? What has been your favourite unique tour experience so far?
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