Savvy travelers these days demand an experience that goes beyond just ticking off the most popular attractions in any given destination. Instead, we want to live like locals do, and discover off-the beaten path gems and one-of-a-kind experiences. That’s where a good tour guide can help. Armed with the kind of knowledge you can only have if you call a place your home, the right guides can provide the most defining — and Instagram-worthy — moments of your getaway. And while there are plenty of overpriced and downright disappointing tours out there, these global recommendations from world travelers, digital nomads and bloggers are sure to guide your itinerary well beyond what’s offered in the guide books.
A ghostly tour of Estonia
If there ever was a city that could transport you hundreds of years back in time, Estonian capital Tallinn would be that city, says travel blogger Elizabeth Blasi. From Town Hall Square and myriad clock towers to the architecture, you’ll find yourself dazzled by the sights — and the haunting memories. Though there are many tours worth the expense, Blasi recommends ghost-themed ones in particular. Who knows, you might come home with a magnet — and goosebumps!
Taking a hike in Machu Picchu
Regardless if you hike the Inca Trail or take the vertigo-inducing bus up the mountain from Aguas Calientes, you’ll want to book or find an expert guide once you reach the entrance, says travel expert Hilary Welter. In Peru, the profession requires training and certification. Welter says this experiences means guides are armed with a wealth of knowledge you wouldn’t have received if you wandered around on your own.
Studying gastronomy (and gluttony) in Italy
It seems like a no-brainer, but how often do you take a day out of sightseeing to actually pause for hours to learn how to roll pasta or make a marinara your grandmother would be envious of? Travel blogger Jessica Norah says in Italy, there is no better excuse to spend a day being a student of gluttony. As a bonus, says Norah, plenty of chefs and culinary tour guides know the hidden restaurants to savor later in the evening!
Cave tubing with glow worms in New Zealand
Imagine floating through an illuminated tunnel, sparkling with glow worms who guide your path down a river. Sound epic? It was, according to traveler Melanie Long. Even though she and her buddies had low expectations, they were pleasantly surprised by a cave tubing adventure outside of Auckland. “They outfitted us in full-on wet suites and hard hats with lights,” says Long. “We hiked through a farm to get to a small entry to a cave where we entered into total darkness, led by our guide and the lights on our helmets. Eventually we got to the water where we sat in our tubes and latched on to each other as our guide slowly pulled us through a mesmerizing maze of glow worms. You even jump off a waterfall, and there’s a surprise water slide. It ended up being one of the highlights of our trip.” And psst: Plenty of these cave tours also include a trip to the Hobbiton movie set!
A safari in Africa
At the top of everyone’s bucket list? A safari tour, of course! But while Kruger National Park in South Africa and Maasai Mara in Kenya get plenty of double-taps on Instagram, do not discount Chobe National Park in Botswana, says Blasi. She was amazed at the presence of so much wildlife, compared to other destinations. It’s recommended to book a local safari tour company who will know the best places to find these creatures cohabitating. “As we drove through the park, we turned through the bush, where the delta lays in the distance,” she says. “I saw hundreds of species of animals at a watering hole: hippos, elephants, giraffes, zebras, wildebeest, crocodiles, you name it! My heart skipped two beats.” Since they know where to go, a guide can get you close to this natural action.
A water-based view of Vietnam
Attention movie buffs: If you love Avatar, you have a new spot to add to your bucket list. Blasi says paddling Halong Bay’s cascading, beautiful blue waters made her feel like she was part of the fantasy world of Pandora. Not only is Halong Bay voted the top natural wonder of the world, it is the setting of many films, including the latest King Kong. It isn’t enough to just look at it though. Take a water tour to experience the rock cliffs lining the bay and the dreamy sunsets. “By getting on a kayak and exploring the many cliffs and islands,” says Blasi, “there’s a surreal connection with the bay that’s indescribable.”
Bugging out in Mexico City
Even though Welter has made a lap around the world, there is one experience she still dreams about: a food tour through the robust flavors and colorful streets of Mexico City. “We spent three hours with a local English-speaking guide who took us to street vendors, markets and traditional cantinas to enjoy various tacos, sandwiches, cervezas, tequilas, bugs and other snacks,” says Welter. “It was well worth it because we likely wouldn’t have found these street vendors and hidden markets on our own, and would have felt like outsiders walking into a traditional cantina as a group of American tourists.”
Catching culture in Colombia
As tourism in Colombia continues to build, more and more tourists are flocking to Medellin, a mountain city known for its tainted drug-trade history, ripe culinary scene, backpacker community and colorful street art. While there, make sure to schedule time for a day tour to Guatape, says Welter, where you will find yourself immersed in decades worth of history, including a stop by cocaine-king pin Pablo Escobar’s former summer home for paintballing. “The day starts with the group loading into a ’70s style van where you can actually ride on the top through a Colombian countryside to view local homes and farms, and you have a chance to jump off of a bridge all before lunch time,” she says. “Then, you go to El Penon de Guatape, a gigantic rock lined with hundreds of stairs. When you reach the top, you see one of the most incredible views.”
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