World's Coolest Factory Tours
On a small island in Louisiana’s bayou country, visitors entering a red-brick building are greeted by a distinctive hot-pepper smell. As they move further in, they encounter a display of oak barrels and several assembly lines staffed by locals. This is the Tabasco factory, the only place in the world that bottles the famous sauce. “You can watch employees whose families have worked here for generations,” says Cecil Hymel, vice president of administration for McIlhenny, Tabasco’s parent company. And those taking a tour of the facilities are treated to something different they can find nowhere else: Tabasco-flavored ice cream.
Tabasco’s factory is one of hundreds worldwide that open their doors regularly to visitors eager to get an inside look at the people and machines that “make the food we eat, the cars we drive, the musical instruments we play, and the sporting goods we use,” says Karen Axelrod, coauthor of Watch It Made in the U.S.A.: A Visitor’s Guide to the Best Factory Tours and Company Museums.
Some tours offer increasingly rare opportunities. While visits to large breweries can be more like amusement-park outings, for example, guests of the Anchor Brewing factory in San Francisco can watch the beer-brewing process from start to finish. “We’re very proud of the fact the tour is pretty technical, that we show the entire brewing, cellaring, and packaging process, starting in a brewhouse we believe is the most beautiful in the world,” says John Dannerbeck, Anchor’s sales manager. And the company doesn’t skimp on the serving sizes during the tasting at the end.
A factory tour can provide the real flavor of a region’s unique culture and history, while letting participants do things they couldn’t experience otherwise. Eating Tabasco ice cream is one. Watching motorcycles being tested at the Harley-Davidson factory in York, PA, the company’s largest production facility, is another. Visitors get to see the maiden voyage of each bike: at the end of the assembly line, each one is started and ridden on rollers to make sure it’s ready for the road.
Gift shops are a not-unexpected conclusion of most tours, but the best ones sell memorable souvenirs. At the Louisville Slugger factory, after you’ve seen the bat used by Joe DiMaggio during his 56-game hitting streak of 1941 or the stick wielded by Babe Ruth during his 60-home-run season of 1927, you can buy your own personalized bat or mini-bat to take home (or to the ball field).
Another plus, in today’s tough times: tours are usually free or reasonably priced. Before you go, though, make sure to find out if you must book in advance and when tours are offered and production takes place.
Once you’ve got the facts, make your plans to visit one of these sites (some are overseas, but all offer English-language guidance). Where else but on a factory tour can you enjoy a cold one at the Anchor Steam factory bar with the brewers who made it?
Anchor Brewing, San Francisco
The Tour: A complete overview of Anchor’s brewing and packaging operations, including brewing, fermenting, cellaring, and bottling.
Fast Facts: Tours are offered twice daily on weekdays. Reservations are required; no charge.
Don’t Miss: The panoramic view of San Francisco from the brewhouse and, of course, the free tasting at the end.
Fragonard, Grasse, France
The Tour: At the factory of this perfume maker, one of the most storied and venerable in France, visitors learn about the flowers, plants, and trees that are used in fragrances, and how they are distilled into essential oils in the laboratories. They then are able to watch the entire creation process, from distillation to bottling, of scents like Belle de Nuit and Suivez-Moi.
Fast Facts: Tours are offered daily; no charge. Grasse is a 25-minute train ride from Cannes.
Don’t Miss: Sniffing the residue of the perfume essence found on paper filters before the distillation process—it’s a blast of pure aroma.
Harley-Davidson Vehicle Operations, York, PA
The Tour: Visitors see the company’s largest production facility (230 acres), along with the manufacturing and assembly areas where the famous hogs get put together.
Fast Facts: Tours are offered weekdays year-round and on Saturdays during the summer; no charge.
Don’t Miss: The roller test, when each motorcycle is started and ridden on rollers that serve as a simulated road. It’s a final quality check prior to the motorcycle being crated and shipped to the dealer. Would-be riders can also siton current-production motorcycles at the tour center.
Louisville Slugger, Louisville, KY
The Tour: A trek through the heart of factory operations where baseball’s most famous bats are fashioned. To aid visitors, monitors show close-up shots of the work being done.
Fast Facts: Tours are offered daily; $10 for adults, $5 for children ages 6 to 12.
Don’t Miss: An 18-inch-long mini-bat is given to every tour participant. What Louisville Slugger claims is the world’s biggest bat—a 120-foot-tall, 68,000-pound rendition—is parked at the company’s entrance.
Tabasco, Avery Island, LA
The Tour: After a short film on this company’s colorful history, visitors see how the hot-pepper sauce—invented after the Civil War on this 2,200-acre island in the bayou country—is made, bottled, and packaged. The Tabasco smell is apparent as soon as you arrive on the island.
Fast Facts: Tours are offered daily; $1 toll to visit Avery Island.
Don’t Miss: The Tabasco Country Store at the end of the tour, which sells hundreds and hundreds of Tabasco products and souvenirs, and where you can sample Tabasco-flavored ice cream and other local Tabasco-seasoned specialties. Then visit Avery Island’s Jungle Gardens, home to alligators and snowy egrets saved from extinction by a member of the McIlhenny family, which founded Tabasco and still owns it.
Volkswagen Factory at Autostadt, Wolfsburg, Germany
The Tour: Visitors sit in a transparent electric train to pass through the work floors and see all stages of the production line; the focus here is on production of the Golf.
Fast Facts: An English-language tour, available at 12:45 p.m. on weekdays, must be booked at least one week in advance. Fees are $22 for adults, $9 for children ages 6 to 17; the charges include admission to Autostadt. Wolfsburg is a 90-minute train ride from Berlin.
Don’t Miss: The Autostadt theme park, home to what Volkswagen claims is the most-visited automobile museum in the world. Visitors can also test cars and participate in an off-road driving program.
The Tour: Watch luthiers at Gibson’s Beale Street Showcase craft some of the finest—and most historic—guitar models in the world, moving from binding and neck-fitting to painting, buffing, and tuning. The finished instruments have been the favorites of musicians from Les Paul to B. B. King to Jimmy Page.
Fast Facts: Tours are offered daily; $10 charge.
Don’t Miss: The inspection at the end of the tour, when factory workers eyeball every inch of the newly made guitar. Before the inspection, some even dance while they paint the instruments.
Riedel, Kufstein, Austria
The Tour: After learning about the history of glassmaking and of Riedel, a centuries-old, family-owned company, visitors watch glassmakers mouth-blow the meticulously crafted glasses, considered by many the finest in the world.
Fast Facts: Tours are offered weekdays; $7.50 for adults, $4.50 for children ages 2 to 16. Kufstein is a one-hour drive from Innsbruck.
Don’t Miss: The “glass tasting,” which lets tour takers sample one wine out of several differently shaped glasses, to show how the various shapes affect the wine’s taste. (This must be booked in advance and costs an additional $7.50.)
Caves de la Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France
The Tour: After watching a film on the history of champagne and how it is made, visitors descend into the caves, where they see how the bubbly is preserved until the dégorgement, when yeast sediment is removed from the bottle.
Fast Facts: From April 1 to October 31, tours are offered Monday through Saturday; in other months they are on weekdays. Fee is $14; free for children under 16. Reservations are required and a jacket or sweater is recommended, as the caves can be chilly.
Don’t Miss: The glass of champagne at the end of the tour, naturally. For oenophiles: the gift shop sells every champagne made by Veuve Clicquot, including Cuvée Saint Pétersbourg, which is not easily found in the United States.