World's Greatest Tour Guides
Frequent traveler Catherine Clark thought she’d figured out the perfect way to explore Athens, a notoriously difficult city to navigate. She decided to take her hotel receptionist up on his offer to give her a one-on-one tour of local hot spots. The receptionist showed up impeccably dressed, holding a single red rose. Sure, he pointed out a few Greek Orthodox churches, but within a half hour he was ordering orzo for two at a seafood restaurant. This was not a tour. This was clearly a date.
That is one of the many reasons why finding the perfect tour guide is so important. Clark may have scored a great meal, but Athens’s ancient and modern history, architecture, and art—the inspiration for her trip—remained a mystery.
Finding a truly great guide is akin to discovering a grandmother-owned restaurant on a back road in Tuscany, or a secluded beach on the French Riviera, far from bikini-clad throngs. It took some convincing to get our global resources to open their little black books and divulge names and numbers. But open them they did.
So what distinguishes a wonderful guide from the rest? For one thing, many of these fantastic lecturers are as committed to their city subjects—art, architecture, history, music—as they are to their tours.
Advisors at Brownell Travel, for example, put us in touch with Sinan Yalcin in Istanbul, whose expertise made him an ideal choice to accompany First Lady Laura Bush during a visit to the city.
In Madrid, Mencia González-Barros may be famous for her on-trend store Arquitectura Humana, but what many people don’t realize is that she also hosts insider fashion trips.
Frank Dabell, also featured in the article “Walk This Way” (May 2011) by T+L editor-at-large Peter Jon Lindberg, teaches art history at Temple University Rome and gives small group tours of his beloved city. Guide Francis Morrone has published nine books (with three more on the way) on New York’s architecture—and he’s the only guide with private access to the Plaza Hotel.
Varied though their backgrounds are, these guides do have in common a sincere passion for their hometowns, a healthy obsession quickly revealed through their committed expertise, thoughtful insights, and commanding energy.
Read on for our list of the world’s best tour guides.
Sinan Yalcin Grand Buildings in Istanbul
In his 26 years giving biblical and Islamic tours all over the city—making stops in places as grand as the Blue Mosque and as commonplace as local sweet shops—Yalcin has led trips for a number of celebrities, including First Lady Laura Bush.
Tour Highlight: “Nothing can contend with the Hagia Sophia,” says Yalcin. “It served Christianity for 900 years and Islam for 500. It’s a real experience in today’s world of crisis to witness how a building shared the two great religions for hundreds of years.”
Frank Dabell Art and Architecture in Rome
“I can't keep my love of Rome to myself,” says Frank Dabell, of Context Travel. In addition to leading private and small group tours in Italy’s capital, he teaches art history at Temple University Rome. His favorite spots include buildings such as the Pantheon, a building he considers “the world’s most magical building,” and Gesù, Rome’s grandest Baroque church.
Tour Highlight: The Santa Maria sopra Minerva, a Renaissance frescoed chapel by Filippino Lippi, with Michelangelo’s Risen Christ, two sculptures by Bernini, and several papal tombs.
(800) 691-6036; contexttravel.com
Rick Evans Architecture in San Francisco
Rick Evans created a tour originally to jump-start research for his book on San Francisco’s architecture. Five years later, the book is still a work in progress, but his excursions are immensely popular. Evans brings attention to downtown’s unusual buildings, including the Hallidie (the first glass curtain wall building) and the Crown Zellerbach (the city’s first postwar glass building). He also loves the Golden Gate City’s Privately Open Public Spaces, or POPS, such as little-known roof gardens mandated by city planners.
Tour Highlight: In the Mechanics’ Institute, a private library, Evans takes travelers to see the oldest chess club in the country.
(415) 264-8824; architecturesf.com
Rosie Peattie Royalty in Edinburgh
Edinburgh visitors should opt for a tour with Rosie Peattie, who has also led trips for foreign royalty and film stars. Tours are completely timed and tailored to guests’ wishes, though common requests include the Royal Mile, a winding street in the city’s old town that often elicits tales of medieval misdeeds, and Rosslyn Chapel, recently made famous by Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, and known the world over for its Knights Templar history.
Tour Highlight: Through luxury outfitter Dream Escape, Peattie can arrange private nosing and tastings with the Scottish Malt Whisky Society.
Nemo Glassman Ancient Arts in Kyoto
After studying the martial art aikido in Kyoto, Glassman made it his mission to introduce visitors to the master practitioners of traditional Japanese arts, in an effort to spread their popularity and also to preserve artists’ methods for generations to come. So while Glassman also arranges visits to must-see temples, museums, and shops in Kyoto and around Japan, his private meetings with artists of tea ceremonies, calligraphy, flower arrangements, and martial arts are his best-known excursions.
Tour Highlight: Have tea with a grand master in the ancient capital of Kamakura or watch a 24th-generation sword smith at work.
Francis Morrone A New Yorker’s New York
Morrone wrote the book on New York architecture—literally. The author and historian has published nine works (with three more on the way) about the city’s buildings. He started leading neighborhood tours, from architecture-focused walks of the Upper East Side to financial-history trips through Lower Manhattan, to promote his writings. Now he can’t get enough of the stories the Big Apple has to tell.
Tour Highlight: Morrone is the only guide with access to private tours of the Plaza Hotel, a trip he loves for the “endless stories to tell of Eloise, the Beatles, Truman Capote, and so on.”
Municipal Arts Society; (212) 935-3960 x294; mas.org; Plaza tours must be booked through the hotel: (212) 546-5311
Karen Pierce-Goulding History Tours in London
This former actress and journalist has a knack for storytelling. She combined her two passions—sound reporting and good storytelling—by becoming a guide, completing London’s prestigious Blue Badge Tourist Guide program. For the last nine years, Pierce-Goulding has led groups with London Walks. Of her various neighborhood tours, she considers Old Westminster her best.
Tour Highlight: The streets behind Westminster, where historical markers such as gas lamps that still light up Barton Street and signs for air raid shelters go unnoticed to the untrained eye.
London Walks; 44-20-7624-3978; walks.com
Ignacio Aguirre Art and Wellness in Santiago, Chile
An avid traveler himself, Aguirre understood the importance of seeing a destination as an outsider. His perspective inspired him to become an expert on his own city, and he earned a degree in Chilean tourism from Santiago’s International SEK University. While his bespoke tours can cover subjects such as history and architecture, Aguirre notes that visitors often request art-focused trips—so he put together an itinerary that includes Santiago’s top galleries and museums as well as private shops where visitors can meet artists.
Tour Highlight: Sybarites should request a rare sound healing in the Andes Mountains with a native shaman.
Charles Spreckley Architecture Tours in Tokyo
The U.K. expat was inspired to start his tour company 13 years ago after hunting down event news for a Tokyo magazine. It’s easy to get lost in Tokyo, Spreckley points out, since most buildings are not protected, and the city is constantly regenerating itself. Of his architecture trips, he says, “you get an amazing mix, like a new building by Kenzo Tange across from a decrepit old vegetable shop.”
Tour Highlight: A secret house that’s been converted by a genius architect. “It’s a magical escape,” Spreckley says, “a restaurant by night and sweet shop by day.”
Rashida Anees City Secrets in Mumbai
Anees’s exclusive, personalized tours of Mumbai have earned her the trust of many well-traveled clients (including a number of Travel + Leisure editors). It’s hard to get Anees to tell you exactly what makes her day trips so successful; she keeps bespoke itineraries secret, so as not to tempt copycats. But she did divulge a few favorite stops to us, including a handmade-paper market, where travelers can find beautiful stationery, cards, and delicate paper bags.
Tour Highlight: Lunch with Anees and a Mumbai-based family in a private city mansion.
Milos Curik Music and Art in Prague
Curik, a global nomad himself, believes in seeing a city through a fresh lens. Perhaps that’s why he is as enthusiastic (though, after 32 years in the business, much better informed) as the clients on his custom-tailored music and art tours. Top stops include the John Lennon Wall, the first monument to the Beatles in Europe, and the Estates Theater, the best-preserved classicist theater in Europe.
Tour Highlight: Upon request, city walks can end up at downtown jazz clubs, where guests can enjoy music and meet some of Curik’s musician friends.
Carolin Young Food Culture in Paris
The food historian and author was also the chair and organizer of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, the world’s oldest and arguably most prestigious conference about food. So along with samples of cheese, wine, and foie gras on her Belly of Paris tour in Les Halles—home to Paris’s central food market for 800 years—travelers get a taste of Young’s in-depth knowledge of the city’s food culture, and its connection with culinary circles today.
Tour Highlight: Travelers get private access to the upstairs room at the Rocher de Cancale, a gastronomic hot spot with storied frescoes.
Mencia González-Barros FashionTours in Madrid
González-Barros knows Madrid fashion. A designer herself, she owns trendsetting store Arquitectura Humana. She also leads private tours of the city’s leading style circles: the Salamanca neighborhood, where established names such as Agatha Ruiz de la Prada have set up shop, and the Chueca quarter, where streets are lined with up-and-coming designers.
Tour Highlight: Travelers meet some of González-Barros’s favorite designers, including Helena Rohner and Baruc Corazón, both in the Chueca quarter.
Top Culinary Guide: Angela Yang, Beijing
Shopping for candied strawberries and shrimp balls, exploring the city’s teahouses, and eating Peking cheese custard at the hutong food stalls are just a few highlights on Yang’s two- to three-hour excursions.
From $51 per person for two hours; hiasgourmet.com
Top Culinary Guide: Aylin Öney Tan, Istanbul
The food columnist for Istanbul’s daily newspaper Cumhuriyet, Tan is also a historian: on her tours, you’ll visit Turkish spice shops and pastry shops that date back to the early 1900’s.
From $90 per person for three hours; contexttravel.com
Top Culinary Guide: Penelope Alzamora, Lima, Peru
Before a classic Peruvian lunch in her house (think shrimp ceviche and pisco sours), Alzamora brings travelers to the city’s outdoor markets, teaching them about the country’s culinary traditions along the way.
$165 per person for four hours; mai10.com.ar
Top Culinary Guide: Veronica Mausbach, Mendoza, Argentina
Wine aficionados won’t want to miss Mausbach’s jaunts to the region’s high-design wineries such as Bodega Salentein, a contemporary estate built in the shape of a cross at the foot of the Andes.
From $335 per person for five hours; mai10.com.ar
Top Culinary Guide: Lesley Téllez, Mexico City
U.S. expat Téllez leads taco tastings (guisados, árabes, and cochinita pibil) at fondas (eateries) throughout the capital.
From $65 per person for three hours; eatmexico.com
Top Culinary Guide: Anissa Helou, Middle East and North Africa
Lebanese-born Helou just opened a London-based cooking school, but she still accompanies small groups to cities such as Tangier, Morocco, to visit local markets and artisanal shops, and lead classes in Middle Eastern and North African cuisine.
From $3,350 per person for five-day trips; anissas.com
Top Culinary Guide, Penang, Malaysia: Robyn Eckhardt
With writer and food blogger Eckhardt, you’ll get to know Penang’s best street-food vendors. What to expect? Cups of rich kopi (Malaysian coffee), hokkien mee (spicy pork and prawn noodle soup), and deep-fried wontons.
From $110 for 2 1/2 hours; eatingasia.typepad.com
Top Culinary Guide, Tokyo: Yukari Sakamoto
After training at the French Culinary Institute, Sakamoto began taking clients on bespoke trips that often include stops at the Tsukiji fish market and seafood-cooking classes.
From $93 per person for four hours; email@example.com