Travelers are fueling demand for a bespoke approach to sightseeing: private, off-the-map tours led by savvy locals. "Nowadays, the most sought-after travel operators are those who can bring visitors into direct contact with local culture and people in a meaningful way," says Nora Brossard, a spokesperson for the European Travel Commission. Here, three companies catering to those seeking elusive insider secrets.
Made for Spain (34/91-310-7070; www.madeforspain.com; half-day tours from $450) was cofounded by Madrid native Virginia Irurita, a former event planner, who uses her connections with Spain’s socialites to arrange style-driven excursions. Among the highlights: tours of Madrid’s boutiques led by designer Lorenzo Caprile and walks through the city’s hidden antiques stores with Mercedes Urquijo, a Spanish aristocrat with her own furniture shop.
With 67 hosts in 10 European countries (including Germany, Portugal, and Romania), InTouch Travel (888/396-5102; www.intouch-travel.com; $650 per couple per day) tailors itineraries to virtually any interest, such as gastronomy, photography, and theater. Offerings include a trip around Konavle, Croatia, with B&B owner Inga Zivkusic, that takes in open-air folk dancing at Cilipi; and a tour of the Bordeaux vineyard Château Margaux led by James Lawther, a certified wine expert.
For sightseeing in Italy with a scholarly bent, the U.S.-based company Context (888/467-1986; www.contexttravel.com; 2-hour custom itineraries from $290), whose network of experts includes architects, art historians, and other academics, devises private itineraries in Tuscany and Florence and group tours in Rome. One of the company’s exclusive trips is a three-hour tour through the artisan’s workshops of Florence’s Oltrarno quarter—a labyrinthine matrix that veritably demands professional guidance.