If you want to see what’s special about a city and get away from the tour bus crowds at the same time, there’s one sure way to make it happen: hire a local guide who lives there.
On my second visit to Budapest, the city was bulging with tourists. It was summer this time and the river cruise ships were lined up four deep on the Danube. It was hard to find a spot to pose for a photo on the Fisherman’s Bastion without getting a stranger in the shot. The most expensive restaurants—the ones where they automatically handed everyone a menu in English—were packed and had a waiting list at the hostess stand. Fortunately I had a secret weapon that would get me away from all that: a local guide who knew the city inside and out.
She took me to a museum in Pest where they were glad to see us. That’s because we were the only people there. We took two metro rides then walked to board the Children’s Train in the Buda hills, then came down on a ski lift. We visited the guy who maintains the oldest bridge across the Danube and saw the drawbridge machinery. At night we checked out some lesser-known ruin bars that were 95% full of locals, off the radar of most visitors to Hungary.
Usually though, summer in Western Europe can be really frustrating. Crowds that were already bad in the past have swelled with the new ranks of travelers from China, who tend to travel in big groups. As we’ve gotten to the point where every single person seems to want to take three different selfies in front of everything, it’s difficult to even see what you came to see without a sea of people in front of it. A local connection can get you around all this and show you the real beating heart of the city, the places the locals love instead.
If you’ve got a friend or acquaintance who’s willing to spend hours showing you around and taking you to their favorite haunts, well that’s ideal. Few of us even have friends of friends in every major city, however. One way to get around that and be sure to have a memorable experience is to book a day tour with a company like Withlocals.com. They are a connector to help you find a local guide for a unique tour.
Special Experiences Through Local Eyes
We can have a silly argument all day about the difference between a traveler and a tourist, but when you put aside the air of superiority and really talk to people, all of us are looking for connections and memorable experiences. We could strap on a virtual reality headset and go check out the Taj Mahal or see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. We go somewhere to get the kind of experience we can’t get at home.
Everyone seems to love Italy, so in summer it feels loved to death. How different would your vacation there be if you could have dinner in a local home in Rome and see how they make pasta? What if your Vatican tour was based on pizza and Prosecco? Or you could go on a tour titled “Discover Rome Like a True Local”? How different would your trip photos be if you went on a street art tour or saw the city on a Vespa?
Withlocals offers all these Italy experiences in one place. See the Rome tour options here. (They also offer tours in Milan.)
The Things You Miss Below the Surface
One of the greatest benefits of going on a local tour is getting a deeper understanding of the place, its history, and its people. You often find out things that look clear as day after someone points them out, but you didn’t even notice them before. I had no idea, for instance, that in Mostar, Bosnia, one street divides the city by religion and ethnicity. On one side are the Catholic Croats. On the other side are the Muslim Bosnians. There’s no fighting, but they don’t talk much and don’t even serve the same brand of beer. Without my local guide pointing this out, I would have been blissfully ignorant and only seen what’s on the surface.
In Bucharest, Romania, here’s what contributor Chris said after joining up with two local tours there.
A tourist to Bucharest can too easily ignore the empty buildings and overgrown lots in favor of the parts of the Old Town that have catered to tourists… If you restrict your travels to the Old Town and the more developed areas of Bucharest, you’ll miss a huge part of the story.
Think about how much history you will walk past without any insight in a city like Athens, Greece. How much is out of sight or literally below the surface?
Sure, a guidebook or a regular city tour guide will inform you of the greatest hits like the Acropolis, but what about the rest?
On the Withlocals Athens page, they’ve got 20 tours to choose from, some with names like “hidden Athens,” “Athens’ hidden gems,” and “A Day Like an Athenian.” of them hitting these unusual spots. There are multiple cooking classes, four tours, and home dinners if you want to get deeper insight into the local cuisine.
Most tours are in the range of 13 to 39 euros except for a private driver for the day or a painting tour. In each case you’re connecting directly with a local guide and you can read their bio to find out more.
What memorable experience have you gotten from a local city guide?