Let an expert be your guide on walking tours of cities, guided tours of museums, city bus tours, or guided excursions in Europe
• Walking tours
• Sight tours
• City bus tours
• D.I.Y. bus tours
• Escorted daytrips
• Private guidesEven if you're a die-hard solo traveler and scoff at the folks being herded from one sight to another in big tourist clots, you can get a lot of mileage out of sightseeing guides.
Bus tours of the city, escorted day trips, walking tours around town, guided tours through museums or cathedrals—these are all what I call microtours (as opposed to the macrotours of fully escorted tours).
Local guides who concentrate only on one city or sight are usually experts, not tour bus escorts who’ve merely memorized a canned spiel for each town, stop, and sight along the way.
By combining do-it-yourself planning and travel with microtours, you can get the best of both worlds. The best microtours are packed with more information (history, background, anecdotes, details, and explanations) than any guidebook has room to print.
Tip: On any tour, be a head-of-the-class nerd and stick next to the guide. Walking from stop to stop on the tour, you’ll be able to chat on your own with her and ask questions, and you’ll also get to hear her answers and explanations to everyone else’s questions.
There’s no better way to bring a city’s culture and history to life than through a guide’s anecdotes, character sketches, jokes, and tons of background details.
It might be an Irish music pub crawl in Dublin, seeing London’s Shakespearean sights, visiting the Rome of the Caesars, touring the hidden gardens of Paris, or gawking at Gaudì’s buildings in Barcelona.
For some walks, you must reserve in advance; for most, you just show up at a specified place and time and pay the guide (usually anywhere from $5 to $30).
I am pretty much incapable of visiting London anymore without latching myself on to at least one of these most excellent walking tours through London's streets and history offered by London Walks (london.walks.com).
Perhaps the three best resources for finding guided walks and other fun activites are:
- Viator.com- A central clearinghouse for some of the best local tour companies around the world. Amazingly, their prices are usually the same as, if not cheaper than, going direct to the tour companies themselves. (I recently booked a Literary Pub Crawl in Dublin through Viator and not only paid less, but guaranteed my slot—when I showed up for the tour, it was already full and they were turning away walk-ups; I breezed in simply by flashing my voucher.)
- City-Discovery.com - Chief rival to Viator, representing many of the same tours (at the same prices), but it also seems to cover more destinations, especially secondary ones. When it comes down to it, City-Discovery and Viator have maybe 70% the same inventory, but then 30% will be competlely diffent (some Viator has City-Discovery does not, other vice-versa) so it pays to check through the offerings from both.
- Context Travel - This bespoke walking tour company doesn't even call its 200 tour leaders "guides." It calls them "docents"—perhaps because most are academics and specialists in their fields: history professors, archaeologists, PhDs, art historians, artists, etc. Groups are miniscule (six people maximum), and most docents can be booked for private guiding sessions as well. They aren't always the cheapest tours, but they are invariably the best. People rave about Context.
- MyCreativeTours.com - A site that acts as a virtual bulletin board for local guides to post their services. It allows any local tour guide or tour company to sign up and list the tours they offer. Some are licensed guides, many are not, but you can shop around to find the one that best suits your needs. If Creative Tours offers among the most well-vetted guides, MyCreativeTours offers the least-vetted—though it does have a user rating system for guides and tours; perhaps once the site has been around a while and those ratings accrue, it will help separate the useful from the not.
Whether led by learned volunteers, hired guides, a dusty professor, or a rotund old monk, a 30- to 120-minute tour of an individual sight can do the same thing for a cathedral or art gallery that walking tours do for a city. Guides can spin stories and give insightful commentaries on the meanings of every tiny detail of a sight or painting, conjuring up the past and enriching the experience of your visit tenfold.
This is great for city orientation and crossing the major architectural sights off your list. Almost every city has these city-run or private tours, which may last from 45 minutes to a full day, but usually average 60 to 90 minutes.
There are three main flavors: the roundabout bus that trundles you past everything in one big loop; the hop-on, hop-off bus that makes a long circuit of the major city sights (you jump off whenever you feel like visiting a museum or whatever, then board a later bus when it swings by); and the mini guided tour, where everyone gets off the bus at certain stops and you’re lead by a guide quickly through churches, museums, and other sights (these tend to last at least half a day).
Most buses have either a live guide or recorded commentary available in a dozen languages.
With a map showing bus routes and a bit of imagination, you can put together your own budget tour for the price of a regular bus ticket. Most major cities have a few bus lines that, either by design or default, happen to pass by some or all of the tourist highlights. A good guidebook will tell you about them. Here are a few in major cities:
- 116, 117, 119 [Three miniature electric buses that trundle overlapping routes through the medieval streets of the historic center]
- 15 [Paddington Sta., Oxford St., Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Sq., Fleet St., St. Paul's, Tower of London]
- 12 [Waterloo, London Eye, Big Ben, Whitehall, Trafalgar, Regent St., Kensington Gardens, Notting Hill]
- 14 [V&A, Harrods, Hyde Park Corner, Piccadilly Circus, Shaftesbury Ave., Covent Garden]
- 69 [Bastille, St. Paul/Marais, Hôtel de Ville, Louvre, Dôme church, Eiffel Tower]
- 42 [Gare du Nord, Opera, place de la Concorde, Champs-Elysees, Eiffel Tower]
- New York:
- M1 [Battery Park and the Bull on Broadway at Bowling Green, Financial District, wall St., Trinity Church, TriBeCa, SoHo, Village, Union Square, Grand Central, Rock Center, Museum Mile, Central Park, 125th St. in Harlem and Apollo Theater],
- M3 [Koreatown, Empire State, St. Paddy's, Upper East Side, Central Park, St. John the Divine, Columbia University, Fort Tyron Park/Cloisters]
- Map of routes: travel.nytimes.com/2008/11/23/travel/23weekend.html
If you don’t want to hassle with figuring out the logistics of how to get out of the city to see some nearby sights and small towns—or you have limited time in which to do it—a local escorted bus tour can be just the ticket.
It whizzes you out to the sights with a live guide who’ll walk you through everything and returns you to town in time for lunch or dinner (most are either half- or full-day excursions). Using public transportation, for example, it’s pretty much impossible to see both Siena and San Gimignano in a single day trip from Florence, but an escorted bus trip can do it no problem.
Private tour guides are less expensive than you might think. In Europe, they might charge anywhere from €10 to €100 per hour, or €60 to €500 per day. (In a place like Bangkok or Cairo, you're looking at around $7–$35 per hour or $35–$90 per day.)
What you get for your investment is a local specialist who knows his or her destination inside out, far better than any generalist bus tour guide ever could. Also, unlike a standard tour, your personal guide who will take you around town to see only the things you want to see, on your terms and your timetable, crafting an itinerary of local sights and secrets according to your wishes and interests.
The local tourist office will have a list of licensed guides—but it will usually be just that: a list of names and phone numbers. You can get more information on pre-vetted guides if you do some advance research, and book them ahead of time through one of these services: