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 the ideal choice to give Pope Benedict XVI a private tour of Hagia Sophia.
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.