Food tours, street art tours, cooking classes, architecture tours, pottery making, ghost tours, yoga with a view, literary tours, ruins pub crawls, photo tours, sketching classes, fashion tours. There is a smorgasbord of thematic experiences on offer in every corner of the world. Websites like AirBnB and WithLocals make these activities a purview of not just large tourist companies, but also individual entrepreneurs who believe they have a unique skill or knowledge to share with travelers.
If you have never partaken in such services, offered on a private basis or for groups of strangers, you might be wondering whether they are worth the time and money. Well, I have been availing myself of such guided experiences with increasing frequency as of late, from Toledo to Tallinn, from Beijing to Stockholm. Here are my insights on the advantages, shortcomings and best ways to get the most out of travel with guided experiences.
DO organize your schedule
Particularly if you are feeling rudderless. Maybe you find yourself in an unexpected locale and don’t know where to start exploring. Or you decide to spend a substantial amount of time somewhere but don’t want to while it all away between cafés and directionless wandering. Tours are a way to get constructive with your days on the road.
This past December I had an organized activity for all but the last day of my two-week vacation. I had a private Art Nouveau walk in Budapest, took a pasta making class and a watercolor sketching lesson in Florence and went on a limoncello tasting tour in Sorrento. Even though I had to work for most of my holiday and sometimes spent hours on end sitting at a bar staring into my phone, I still got a ton out of each destination, because every day brought a different experience — thanks to already-booked events.
The one activity I recommend for everyone is a walking tour of the town you are visiting, preferably as soon as you arrive. You will efficiently hit up the most iconic sites and picture-perfect viewpoints. You will also get a crash course in your destination, which will help you explore it better on your own the rest of the time, by providing ideas, direction and context.
DO get out of your comfort zone
Traveling is all about new experiences — including those you wouldn’t necessarily try at home. I hate cooking, but I took a pasta-making class in Italy, because it felt like an essential element of the overall culture. If it wasn’t for a food tour, I never would have dared to try cow’s stomach — yet I wasn’t about to say ‘no’ to Florence’s signature sandwich stuffed with it, the Lamperdotto.
Use tours to experiment. Paint some pottery, blow glass figurines, listen to American Civil War ghost stories. These things might not be your your usual jam, but even if you don’t uncover a secret talent or passion in yourself, you will always have memories of a unique experience.
DON’T expect every activity to be revelatory or wholly positive
The aforementioned pasta-making class? It was an anxiety-laden process that, if anything, reaffirmed my knowledge that kitchens and I don’t mix (just like the flour and eggs on my workstation). I am yet to taste something mind-blowing on a food tour — and I’ve done quite a few. A walking tour of Riga was an endless rant about Evildoing Russians, to the point that German!!! tourists in our group called out the guide on it.
Yet I do not regret any of those experiences. I learned how different ingredients redefine cooking based on the season, discovered that I do not hate persimmons as long as they come from Sicily, got giggly-tipsy on Hungarian reds with a super fun American couple and pushed myself to empathize with historical trauma from a perspective diametrically opposed to mine.
DO meet the locals
A culture – any culture – is carried, first and foremost, by its people. Yet how often do you get to know the people of the land you are visiting? Museums and landmarks won’t give you that opportunity. A tour or a class will. They are usually hosted by the natives or someone who has lived in the place for ages. Your hosts will be happy to share their perspective and fascinating anecdotes about life and history of their country. This, in turn, will enrich your own understanding and appreciation of the place.
DO use tours to provide for independent adventures
When we got to the top of Santa Maria Del Fiore Cathedral, our guide spent a good half an hour pointing to different buildings, recommending secret library bars with stunning views of the Duomo and tiny churches housing unsung Renaissance masterpieces. While on a sunrise gardens hike I got tips on where only the locals go for the best steak in town. And in my hometown of Moscow our architecture guide showed us many beautiful mansions that I thought were private or business properties closed off to the public, but which, as it turned out, we could actually visit on our own time.
A good guide is a treasure trove of ideas and information far beyond the scope of your travel brochure. What is the symbolism of this fresco? What is the purpose of these plastered-over, hip-level windows in old buildings? (Answer: medieval wine ‘drive through’!) Which boat company has the best route and the shortest ticket line? What are the unique souvenirs from this area and where to buy them on the cheap?* Your guides will be happy to go beyond their usual spiel and offer up insider knowledge, as a matter of love for their hometown, professional pride and incentive for a tip. Ask and you shall receive.
*Of course there is always a chance that your guide will direct you to his shop-keep buddy and get a commission. But even in that case you are no worse off than if you had randomly stumbled into any old souvenir marketplace. In my experience, however, I am yet to have a bad recommendation from a guide. On the contrary, without their advice I would have missed out on some really unusual and interesting places where I ended up doing most of my buying, from ceramics to truffles. Sometimes you will even get a discount if you mention that so-and-so sent you!
DON’T limit yourself to the “classics”
While tasting tours and walking tours of a particular city’s old town or major landmarks have become practically a staple of tourism, make a point to seek out more esoteric experiences, often not listed on major travel sites like Viator, Get Your Guide and TripAdvisor. Curious about a particular neighborhood? Always wanted to try your hand at calligraphy? Enamored with a native author? Do a search engine deep dive or ask a concierge at your hotel. You are bound to find a local sharing your fancy and eager to make a little extra cash imparting their expertise.
That is how I connected with a lovely illustrator who taught me the tips for quick and easy travel sketching while we were sitting on sunlit steps of a monastery, sipping wine out of plastic cups. And I was stunned to learn that the rolling hills of Tuscany were at their most vibrant green in the middle of December — thanks to a photo tour of the countryside. The best part? You will have bragging rights to an authentic experience few others do.
DO consider the value for money
Although some tours are rather pricey, you might be actually saving money in unexpected ways. For example, when traveling solo, trying to taste all the local specialties can get both spendy and wasteful. There are only so many dishes one can order at a restaurant. Far from every fromagerie will sell cheese by the slice (some cheeses and sausages are only sold whole). You might actually hate that big-ass sandwich with cow’s stomach and have no choice but to throw it out! Meanwhile, on a food tour you will be introduced to a dozen or more small treats and discover what you like and don’t like without ordering an entire menu or filling up the garbage bin.
While holidaying in Sorrento I spent painfully major bank* on a private, all-day car tour of the Amalfi Coast. But right away the driver questioned me on my priorities and customized the itinerary to accommodate them. He advised me on the time I would need to walk to specific viewpoints, the most versatile shops and hole-in-the-wall bakeries, ensuring that I got to do, see and eat everything I wanted. He practically forced me (ok, “persuaded emphatically”) to go into a magnificent church that I would have missed out on otherwise (it’s easy to get “churched-out” in Italy and Europe in general, but Duomo di Sant’Andrea really is a gem).
I did not have to pay for car rental, gas and garages, or waste precious time looking for parking spots. I took a thousand photos of the breathtaking Mediterranean coastline while we were on the road — not an option, had I been the one behind the wheel. Alternatively, I avoided major stress of tying myself to a limiting, temperamental bus schedule. A private tour was a major investment, but one that paid off in spades.
*Bear in mind that while most tours charge a per-person fee, some activities, particularly private ones, are priced at a flat rate. Had I been traveling with friends or family, that Amalfi tour, in a Mercedes Metris minivan that could have comfortably accommodated 4-6 more passengers, would have been a veritable bargain on a per-person basis.
In short, next time you are traveling — take a tour.