10 Guided Tours That are (Actually) Worth Taking
The words “guided tour” can be a turn-off to many avid travelers. If you’ve experienced the sea of guided tour groups that dominate the Vatican or been bored to tears during a walking tour, you know why. But: tours as a genre shouldn't be written off entirely. Increasingly, the world’s savviest tour companies and guides are offering interactive experiences that allow travelers to absorb information in a fun way and give them access to places they wouldn’t be able to go on their own. Case in point: a jewelry-themed tour of Place Vendôme in Paris or a vineyard tour on horseback in Mendoza, Argentina. Read on for more.
Jewelry Tour of Place Vendôme in Paris
Bijoux Society’s two-hour Jewelry Tour of Place Vendôme is more a coordinated day spent window shopping Paris' famed jewelry houses than a tour. It begins on the steps of the Paris Opera before continuing down fashionable Rue de la Paix and onto Place Vendôme. Graduate Gemologist Alexis Vourvoulis explains the history of the area (it became fashionable after the Palais Garnier was built in the 1800s), and gives great tidbits on the secretive jewelers: 400-year-old Mellerio dits Meller counted Marie-Antoinette as a client and Van Cleef & Arpels still creates its pieces (like the famed zip necklace that doubles as a bracelet) by hand in its Place Vendôme location to this day. Expect this tour to sparkle even more when the renovated Ritz and the restored Vendôme column are unveiled later this year.
Underground and Third Ring Tour of the Colosseum in Rome
It’s well worth calling ahead to reserve a spot on the Colosseum’s Underground and Third Ring Tour. Often led by archeologists, tourists get to learn about ongoing research at the nearly 2,000-year-old site, and visit areas regular ticket holders don’t. Example: an up-close look at the narrow passageways and chambers where wild animals and gladiators sat prior to being hoisted on to the arena (via an elaborate mechanized system, of course). Tour groups are also allowed to step out onto the reconstructed arena floor. At the end, tourists head to the top floor (or “third ring”) of the Colosseum, where views of the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill cannot be beat.
D-Day Sites Tour in Normandy
To truly appreciate the complexity of the Allied Forces' Normandy invasion, sign up for the award-winning Overlord Tour Company’s Omaha Half Day Tour on your next trip to France. Included: a van ride to the Batteries of Longues-Sur-Mer, Omaha Beach, the American Cemetery and Point-du-Hoc, where the 2nd Rangers Battalion scaled a 100-foot cliff and, despite heavy losses, were able to disable a French battery captured by the Germans. Guides are passionate storytellers who transport you to that bloody day in 1944 and while they say the first scene of Saving Private Ryan is fairly accurate, there’s nothing quite like being there and hearing the history in person.
Winery Ride on Horseback in Mendoza, Argentina
The best way to see the Andes-backed wine country of Mendoza, Argentina may very well be from the saddle. Finca Las Lechuzas’ gaucho-led tours are a far cry from the trail rides you might expect in the U.S. The horses (some of which are former polo steeds), canter through the vineyards, stopping at two or three wineries like Finca Decero, a winery with manicured grounds and an award-winning red blend. Each stop includes a tour and wine tasting. Finca Las Lechuzas’ rustic homestead and stables are charming and has a bar, terrace and a traditional Argentine asado grill.
Wild Foraging Educational Kayak Tour on Lummi Island
Lummi Island in the San Juan Islands is home to the Willows Inn a hotel, which in turn is home to an award-winning restaurant known for its locally foraged cuisine. It's fitting, then, that the area's pristine waters host a foraging tour. Moondance Sea Kayak Adventure’s new Wild Foraging Kayak Tour includes a paddle to Lummi Rocks (where you might see a family of otters playing and seals bobbing in the water) as well as instruction on how to forage for edible seaweeds like bullwhip kelp and sea cucumbers. Wild foraging requires a permit in Washington State—the company will send you home with information on how to get a forage license—so the tour focuses more on education than eating. Still, freshly foraged pickled bullwhip kelp or seaweed Cheetos, made with dried fucus and powdered cheese, are often on the lunch menu.
Evening of Ghosts and Ghouls Tour in Edinburgh
Mercat Tours is the only tour company in Edinburgh with access to the Blair Street Underground Vaults, a series of reportedly haunted chambers completed in 1788. Mercat's Evening of Ghosts and Ghouls lasts two hours and includes a visit to the vaults, storytelling by candlelight and a dram of Dewar’s Scotch Whiskey. You’ll need the liquid courage when your guide tells you chilling tales of the infamous characters who used to roam the seedy vaults. Burke and Hare, for example, are the notorious 19th-century murderers who sold their victims for medical experiments. Oh, and there's Deacon Brodie, too, the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.
Hobbiton Movie Set Tour in New Zealand
The only way to see the bucolic Hobbiton Movie Set used in both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies is to go on a guided tour. Located on a private farm on New Zealand’s North Island, it was originally slated for destruction as part of an agreement with the film studio, but bad weather interrupted the demolition and the owners were able to strike a deal to keep it open as a permanent attraction. Tours depart from the Shire’s Rest ticket center and include a bus ride through the 1,250-acre sheep farm followed by a tour of the Shire itself. New Evening Dinner Tours includes a tour at dusk, and a banquet style dinner in the Green Dragon Inn. Bring a raincoat or umbrella; the farm is bright green for a reason.
A Street Food Breakfast Tour in Shanghai
The ultimate breakfast crawl begins at lush Xiangyang Park, where participants see locals doing their morning rituals—practicing tai chi or doing water calligraphy—before getting down to the eating. You'll sample all that Chinese breakfast has to offer at food stalls and markets. On the menu: pulled noodles, savory Chinese crepes, and Shanghai’s famous soup dumplings. Untour has been leading this popular tour for over four years, but they’re always adding new stops. A new coffee shop stop, for example, includes a Sichuan peppercorn brownie with a mouth-numbing spice kick.
State Department Diplomatic Reception Rooms Tour in Washington DC
Not many people seem to know that Washington, D.C.'s State Department’s Diplomatic Reception Rooms are possible to visit via guided tour. The 42-room suite was renovated in the 1960s and is filled with $100 million worth of American artworks and antiques from the 18th and 19th centuries. Rooms include the gilded Benjamin Franklin Dining Room and the John Quincy Adams State Drawing Room, where the Secretary of State receives guests today. Keep your eyes peeled for the wooden architect’s table where Thomas Jefferson is believed to have drafted the Declaration of Independence. Tours must be booked in advance over the phone or online.
Mayfair Art Walk in London
London tour operator Fox & Squirrel offers guided walks that immerse you in the city’s culture and creative scene. Art lovers who want to learn more about contemporary art and London’s premier art district should jump on their Mayfair Art Walk. It’s just £35 and takes place the last Saturday of every month (custom tours can also be arranged). Tour guide Julia Langbein is a postdoctoral researcher in Art History at Trinity College, who talks about how painters determine and draw attention to the value of their art. All tours begin with brunch and a discussion at Café Royal.