Posted May 5, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com
(Photo: Magic Bus)
See a completely different side of a city when you break away from the mob of tourists following the guide with the red umbrella. On these 10 unique city tours, you'll venture into the Bronx with an old-school rapper, see abandoned buildings in Portugal's second city, and go longboarding through Amsterdam's most famous park. You're sure to come home with a camera full of authentic experiences that most visitors miss.
(Photo: Bats Over Congress Avenue Bridge via Shutterstock)
Never Unpack Your Travel Items
Crowds gather from March through October on the Congress Avenue Bridge to see a natural spectacle that has earned the resident bat colony celebrity status in Austin. Each night at dusk, 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats emerge from beneath the bridge, swirling like a black ribbon into the sky. For a unique perspective on the mass exodus, watch it from the water on a Congress Avenue Kayaks bat tour. With a small group of 10, you'll paddle under the bridge in sit-on-top kayaks. After encountering the bats, you can venture out on your own to see other sights on the water.
Details: The 90-minute kayak bat tour departs at sunset in season and is $30 for a two-person kayak.
Insider Tip: You can also watch the bats from the Four Seasons Hotel Austin's lobby lounge, which serves a "Batini" cocktail. Plan an August visit to coincide with the city's annual bat festival.
(Photo: Magic Bus San Francisco Tour)
1960s Summer of Love Tour, San Francisco, California
It's all peace, love, and bubble-spewing on this psychedelic hippie bus that takes you on a trip back to San Francisco's 1960s counterculture. The Magic Bus Tour stops at landmarks of the city's hippie movement; you can even join in a drum circle (this time without the purple haze). On the bus, a groovy guide/actor will share interesting stories and rock out with you to the music of the era. It's a multimedia adventure that evokes the decade's politics and attitudes through live action and video projections on the bus's retractable window screens. The tour hits Chinatown and the North Beach spot where Jack Kerouac hung out. You'll see Golden Gate Park and the crossroads of Haight and Ashbury streets, home of the Summer of Love, in a whole new light.
Details: The two-hour tour is $55 and starts at Union Square.
Insider Tip: Bring a jacket or sweater. It can be chilly at Golden Gate Park even if it's warm downtown at the tour's start.
(Photo: Rob Moody)
Downtown Yoga Tour, Asheville, North Carolina
Take your downward dog downtown in Asheville, North Carolina. On this Travelling Yogini Tour, you'll strike a pose and connect with your breath in several of the city's iconic spots. A yoga guide will start with beginner-level stretches and, as you move from Pritchard Park to the Flat Iron Building to the artsy Chicken Alley district, the poses will become more challenging. By the time you finish with a cooldown and meditation, you'll have heard about Asheville's history and architecture. Between flowing in and out of poses, you'll meet street performers, artists, and others who are out exploring the city.
Details: The 90-minute downtown tour is $20.
Insider Tip: Along the way, the yoga guide will point out funky boutiques and specialty shops, giving you interesting tidbits on the history and products so you can plan your apres-yoga shopping route.
Urban Home-Visit Tour, Berlin, Germany
Want an invitation to sit in a Berliner's flat and chat over coffee or beer? The Urban Living Tour, the ultimate insider's tour, will introduce you to three different Berliners in three different neighborhoods. You'll get to go inside their homes and spend an hour visiting and checking out their decor. The hosts you'll meet will depend on who is in town on the day you're visiting. It could be a set designer in an underground courtyard apartment or a photographer with an uber-luxe pad on a main thoroughfare built in the Stalin era. While you snoop around and see how they live, you'll hear about what drew them to the city and what they love about it.
Details: The 4.5-hour tour includes visits to three private apartments, drinks and sweets, sightseeing between the visits, transport, and a private guide. Prices vary based on how many people are taking the tour; see website for details.
Insider Tip: Keep an open mind and come with questions.
(Photo: Dominic Stevenson)
City Tour Led by Homeless Guide, London, England
See London through the eyes of someone who lives on the city's streets. Unseen Tours hires and professionally trains homeless and formerly homeless people to lead its walking tours of London Bridge, Camden, Shoreditch, and Convent Garden. See the stark contrast between historical landmarks and sites where the guides have slept, hear riveting personal stories, and discover tucked-away places few others ever experience. The tour ends at either a pub or a cafe, so you can carry on with your guide or group in a discussion that ebbs between the politics of street begging and the effects of gentrification on the East End.
Details: The tour runs $9 to $14 per hour and usually lasts about 90 minutes.
Insider Tip: On each tour, the company reserves two free spots for those who are either unable to pay or are accompanying someone as a caregiver. Wondering how much of the ticket sales goes back to the guide? About 80 percent. Unseen Tours was the winner for best tour operator for local experiences in the World Responsible Tourism Awards 2011.
'Worst' Walking Tour, Porto, Portugal
This tour in Portugal's second-largest city is the antithesis of a tourist trap. Avoiding all of Porto's polished postcard-perfect sites, it takes visitors past decrepit homes and crumbling shops. Started by three out-of-work architects who stuck around after the country was hit hard by the recession, The Worst Tours will show you the not-for-tourists sites and guides will tell stories about the old markets and abandoned buildings, helping you understand what's behind Europe's economic crisis. Learn about Porto's architecture, history, politics, and urbanism from a few people who are "OK with not being popular or cool or the best in anything, least of all touring."
Details: Tours are two to three hours and are free.
Insider Tip: Let your guide know which parts of the city you've already visited and what your interests are, and he or she will create a route that shows you things you haven't seen.
(Photo: Urban Adventures)
Gwana Music Tour, Essaouira, Morocco
New this spring, the Gnawa Music Experience tour gives you a unique encounter with one of Morocco's off-the-charts popular trends: trance-like Gnawa music and its acrobatic dance moves. You'll be introduced to the addictive music's Afro-Moroccan culture and customs in the medina, where musicians will be jamming. Then, you'll step inside hidden domains typically inaccessible to visitors: You'll go into the home of a dancer to see him perform, watch a troupe master play a traditional lute-like instrument in his private quarters, and visit a temple where sacred rituals drive out evil spirits.
Details: The evening tour costs around $100 and lasts two to three hours.
Insider Tip: Both men and women should dress with respect, covering everything from the shoulders to the knees. At the end of the tour, your guide can recommend places to go dancing where you'll hear Gnawa music fused with Western and Latin music.
(Photo: TripAdvisor LLC)
Hip-Hop Tour, New York, New York
With a legendary hip-hop artist as your guide, Hush Tours will give you a truly entertaining experience in the Bronx and Harlem, the birthplace of the culture. Here, people on the street might recognize and give shout-outs to the Hush Tours guides—Grandmaster Caz, Kurtis Blow, and others—as they delve into four aspects of hip-hop culture: DJing, MCing, B-boy and B-girl dancing, and graffiti artistry. You'll see the important landmarks and check out where Biggie, Nas, and Jay-Z grew up on this fun tour.
Details: Tours range from two hours ($32) to four hours ($75).
Insider Tip: Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. At one point on the tour, you'll learn hip-hop moves and try them out on the streets.
Date-Night City Tour with a Photographer, Toronto, Canada
Nothing against snapping a selfie with your iPhone, but on LiveToronto's Date Night Tour, you'll get enviable pics (without your arm) for posting on Facebook or printing in a photo book. Depending on your interests (sports, architecture, music, etc.), your personal paparazzo will plan a walking route to hit Toronto's key sites and set up photo ops. As you explore downtown's icons and hidden gems, your photographer guide will share interesting details about each landmark while capturing everything from classic poses to silly shots. Choose your own adventure: You can include the Harbourfront, the base of the CN Tower, Osgoode Hall, Roundhouse Park, and others.
Details: The 60-minute private tour is $100 to $200 per couple and includes 50 fully edited digital photos, which will be delivered within 24 hours.
Insider Tip: Don't surprise your significant other with this date-night tour—there are too many things to consider beforehand (including hair, nails, and a second outfit or pair of shoes for another look). The company runs tours for families and corporate groups, too.
Longboarding Tour, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
You won't find this longboard tour through Vondelpark in your guidebook or officially operated by any local tour company. But check Vayable.com and there it is: Vondelsurfing, offered by a "semi-professional amateur" longboarder named Milan V. In the new sharing economy, websites like Vayable.com connect you with a vetted local guide. Here, Milan V. puts you on a long skateboard in the middle of Amsterdam's most popular park, hands you a rope, and pulls you behind a fixie bicycle for a couple of hours. It's a chance to see the park like a true hipster Amsterdammer, says Milan V., who has hosted beginners as well as seasoned longboarders.
Details: The two-hour tour is $24 and includes all gear, a drink, and photo/video of your ride.
Insider Tip: Vondelsurfing is fun in pairs of two, so you can switch and watch how the other is doing.
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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title 10 Truly Unique City Tours Around the World.
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Posted November 11, 2010 by Kate Hamman
Just north of San Francisco, leave your hectic workaday pace behind as you encounter farms with grazing cattle, meadows of wildflowers, and especially rows of grapevines. This is Glen Ellen, Sonoma, where Jack London found his inspiration and agriculturists work the soil to produce top-notch wines, vegetables, and even flowers. Taste the fruits of their labor with a glass of Cabernet and a gourmet meal while you unwind and let the chaos slip away.
Glen Ellen Inn: Looking for a place to hide from the outside world? Look no further than the secret cottages of Glen Ellen Inn. With creekside views, fireplaces, Jacuzzi tubs, and a lack of in-room phones, these private, free-standing bungalows are just the place to lay low. Because of the inn's location close to downtown Glen Ellen and many of the area's vineyards, you can still get in a day of wine-tasting and shopping without having to travel too far. If you decide you never want to leave your little hideaway, the on-site Glen Ellen Inn Oyster Grill & Martini Bar brings the local scene inside with California-fusion inspired dishes paired with regional wines. Prices start at $149 for weeknights and $239 for weekends during high season.
Valley of the Moon Winery: If you want a different type of escape, take a walk in the Valley of the Moon, where the wines are heavenly. Operating since 1863, this winery is the oldest in Glen Ellen, and pairs contemporary wine making with time-honored traditions. Free tours of the expansive grounds run twice daily, taking you through historical stone buildings, ancient trees, and fertile land. Complimentary tastings are offered between 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m, and you'll find classic Sonoma-style reds and whites, as well as a smooth vintage port.
Oak Hill Farm of Sonoma: Though it sells much of its bounty to local restaurateurs and markets, including San Francisco's famous Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, Oak Hill Farm welcomes visitors to eat off the fat of the land, too. With the Mayacamas Mountains as a backdrop and set among 700 acres of protected wildlands, the Red Barn Store, a 100-year-old dairy barn, sells vegetables, fruits, and herbs, as well as flowers and wreaths produced on its 45-acre organic farm. Prices reflect the quality of the produce, but it doesn't cost a thing to inhale a more agrarian-side of life.
Use our price-comparison tool to search for flights and compare prices to Oakland, San Francisco, and Sacramento, which are home to Glen Ellen’s nearest major airports.
(Photo: Oak Hill Farm of Sonoma)
Posted September 13, 2010 by Kate Hamman
Monterey Bay captures the essence of the sea. Here, you can get up close and personal with marine life without getting wet, dine on seafood at a wharfside restaurant, and stay at a hotel just steps from the beach. Plus, this ocean escape won't cost you a whole lot of clams.
Monterey Bay Aquarium: The "Splash Zone" exhibit features several old sea friends, such as the blackfooted penguins, cuttlefish, and seahorses. Explore the Kelp Forest, where you can walk under a kelp canopy and search for creatures or fishes living within. You'll also still get to see some of the older exhibits, which include giant octopuses, sea otters, and jellyfish. Tickets cost $29.95 per adult, and $17.95 per child.
Abalonetti Seafood Trattoria: With nearly a dozen different types of calamari dishes, Abalonetti is the place to go for squid. But, there's much more to this wharfside restaurant than just tentacles. Choose from a range of seafood dishes, or snack on items from the a la carte antipasto menu. You can also order pizza for the little ones if they don't like the looks of calamari. While you dine, you can enjoy sweeping views of the bay from the restaurant's location on Fisherman's Wharf. Dinner entrees start at $13.95.
Monterey Bay Lodge: About 150 steps from the beach in the heart of the peninsula, the Monterey Bay Lodge is ideal for a family getaway. It features 43 guestrooms, as well as two family suites that come equipped with twin bunk beds and a Nintendo 64. Relax by the heated outdoor pool while your kids frolic in the fountain. Rates are reasonable and the hotel also features several packages, including one that features a discount on two-day Aquarium passes.
To search for flights and compare prices to San Francisco, which is home to Monterey’s closest airport, please use our price-comparison tool.
(Photo: Monterey Bay Aquarium/Randy Wilder)
Posted April 16, 2010 by Jaclyn Liechti
Despite the unwelcoming name, millions of visitors head to Death
Valley National Park each year. The extreme heat during the summer (an average
of 115 degrees in July) may be intimidating, but more comfortable temperatures
during the spring, fall, and winter attract adventurous travelers. Spread across three million acres of land, the
park holds wide open deserts, stunning canyons, the lowest point in North
America on the salt flats of Badwater Basin, and even a castle. Visitors to
Death Valley should take precautions such as bringing plenty of water, ensuring
their cars are filled with gas (since gas stations are few and far between and
cell phones have no signal), and bringing a map (as GPS units do not always
The Racetrack: A visit to Death Valley wouldn’t be complete
without a trip to the Racetrack playa, the source of a much-debated mystery.
The dry lake bed received its name from the rocks that move around the playa,
leaving behind strange trails (up to 1,500 feet long), but no explanation.
Although several theories have been formed explaining how the rocks—some up to
a foot tall—travel, nobody has actually seen them in action. The best views of
the stones are found on the southeast corner of the playa, about two miles
south of the Grandstand.
You can use our tool to compare airfares to Las Vegas, the closest major airport, from multiple travel providers.
(Photo: iStockphoto/Jon Larson)
Posted March 11, 2010 by Jamie Moore
Get a natural high and soak up some California sunshine at Squaw Valley ski resort. After navigating 4,000 acres of skiable terrain, plot your way to great deals on non-skiing adventures. And don't miss uncorking boutique bottles at a hip wine bar or the Olympic Inn, which puts you in the heart of Squaw's nonstop action.
Squaw Valley: Sure, 450 inches of annual snowfall, 300 days of sun, and breathtaking views of Lake Tahoe could make any ski resort spectacular. But forgo the slopes and you'll unearth lots of other winter fun. Take the cable car 2,000 feet up and try out your skating moves on the high-altitude rink ($29 for both). Or, zoom down the mountain on a snow-tube ($16). You can even leave the mountaintops behind and explore the resort's namesake valley on a snowshoe adventure.
Uncorked at Squaw Valley: Sample fine wines and delectable cheese plates at Uncorked, located in the Village at Squaw Valley. This hip wine bar is the perfect place to relax after a long day on the slopes. Come learn more about winemaking and listen to live music at the weekend tastings, or simply purchase a bottle of boutique wine to take back to your room.
Olympic Village Inn: This homey inn offers easy access to Squaw Valley's chairlifts. When the slopes close, soak off skiing aches in the five outdoor spas. In the outdoor heated pool, you can marvel at panoramic views of the valley and mountains. Or, spend a free afternoon sledding or snowshoeing with the inn's complimentary equipment.
You can use our tool to price compare airfares Reno, the closest major airport, from multiple travel providers.
(Photo: Squaw Valley USA)
Posted July 28, 2009 by Katie Blais
When I think of Yosemite, well actually, first I think of the brash Looney Tunes cartoon character. But then I think of camping, outdoor expeditions, roughing it, and now, book writing courses and lounge singers too. Here's a quick glimpse into some of the more educational and offbeat offerings in Yosemite.
For all of you hoping to be the next J.K Rowling, why not get inspiration while soaking up the beautiful scenery of the famous Californian valley. Yosemite offers children’s book writing courses as well as courses for moonlight photography, acorn basketry, and lots more!
Remember that Brady Bunch episode when the whole Brady clan take a mule ride down the Grand Canyon, after escaping from a jail cell by using their socks? Well, you're on your own for the socks, but Yosemite also offers mule rides with breathtaking views of the Yosemite landscape. Just make sure to not get a nasty Mule like Alice did.
In addition to mules, and storybook writing, the park offers different programs to keep your trip to the park interesting. Wander up to the Wawona Resort to listen to Tom Bopp belt out some vintage tunes on his piano (I hope he takes requests), or scare yourself silly telling stories around a campfire with other park guests, then try to get a goodnight sleep in your tent in the woods!
So whether you want to ride a mule, write a story, or sing some Kumbaya around a campfire, Yosemite has got you covered.
Posted July 14, 2009 by Kate Hamman
Once a favorite stop for people traveling between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Santa Barbara is now coming into its own as a major destination. And feeling good is the name of the game. Come discover how affordable this waterfront city can be and what it has to offer with its free audio-walking tour of architecture and history. After you work up an appetite, stop in for some healthy eats before heading to your homey inn nearby.
Beyond the Rooftops; Santa Barbara's Red Tile Walking Tour: With the help of modern technology and the vocal styling of John O'Hurley from Seinfeld, you can learn all you'd ever want to know about Santa Barbara's Spanish architectural heritage. Once you download the one-hour podcast, you can follow Hurley's directions through 12 blocks to find 22 historic adobes from the 1700s and 1800s. The podcast is free to download.
The Natural Cafe: Serving only the freshest ingredients, this all-natural cafe doesn't fool around with your health. Vegetarians and vegans will delight in the variety of non-meat and non-dairy options, though it's not all tofu and tempeh. The cafe serves three different types of burgers, all made without red meat, as well as chicken or fish entrees. You can finish your meal with a shake or fruit smoothie without feeling guilty. Entrees start at $6.75.
Franciscan Inn: Only one block from the beach and close to downtown, the Franciscan Inn combines prime location with killer prices. The 1920s Spanish-style building's setting in a residential neighborhood creates a local atmosphere for your stay and home-baked cookies and a hot beverage bar just add to the welcoming feel. Relax by the outdoor heated pool before making your way to the excitement of the city. Rooms start at $114, and include continental breakfast.
To search for flights and compare prices to Santa Barbara, please use our price-comparison tool.
(Photo: Santa Barbara Convention and Visitors Bureau)
Posted July 10, 2009 by Amy Westervelt
There's no place on Earth quite like Big Sur. The tiny hamlet along California's coastal Highway 1 has a little piece of everything that makes the Golden State beautiful crammed into a five-mile radius: redwoods, beaches, cliffs, hot springs, mountains, wildlife—not to mention award-winning spas and restaurants. Thankfully, you can still find a decent deal here, even if you're not into camping.
Point Sur Lighthouse: The Point Sur State Historic Park & Lighthouse is worth a visit any time of year. Perched on volcanic rock just off the coast, the walkways and lookouts surrounding the lighthouse provide prime Big Sur views even when the area's trademark fog is swirling about. In the summer, however, visitors can take a moonlit tour of the lighthouse. There's no better way to get a sense of the building's original purpose, and on the rare clear summer night, taking in the Big Sur coast by moonlight is an experience not to be missed. Tours cost $10.
Big Sur Roadhouse: Fortunately, some of the best food in the area is also some of the most affordable, particularly at the Big Sur Roadhouse. With an emphasis on California's Latino roots, the menu includes everything from straightforward but delicious enchiladas and burgers to more inventive dishes such as portobello mushroom caps stuffed with leeks, chilies, and Manchego cheese. The decor is also pleasant with a fireplace in the corner, wooden tables, and plenty of big picture windows, plus the staff is friendly and helpful. Entrees range from $14 to $26.
Treebones Resort: Set on a hillside with the Los Padres National Forest behind it and sweeping ocean views in front, the Treebones Resort offers 16 yurts, complete with heating, electricity, wood floors, and big comfy beds to make this the most luxurious camping-like experience you've ever had. The property also has a heated pool and hot tub, and a restaurant in the lodge where guests get a self-serve waffle bar breakfast each morning and can opt for dinner too, if they like. Showers and bathrooms are a short stroll away from each yurt, and are absolutely immaculate. Rates start at $155 per night including breakfast and require a two-night minimum on weekends and all stays April through October.
To search for flights and compare prices to San José, which is home to Big Sur’s nearest major airport, please use our price-comparison tool.
(Photo: Big Sur Chamber of Commerce)
Posted June 18, 2009 by Nicki Krawczyk
Ah, lovely Santa Catalina Island. Just an eesy-weensy (and by “eensy-weensy”, I mean “hour”) ferry ride from the bustling berg that is Los Angeles, Catalina offers both rugged outdoor adventures and charming seaside towns.
While there are only two ways to reach this tiny island (air and sea), there are a multitude of ways to explore it. Cars are scarce and you could always walk or bicycle, but you’re on vacation—let loose a little and explore in a few more unconventional ways.
Segway: Faster than feet but goofier than scooters, Segways have been slow to win fans in normal, everyday life. On an island vacation, however, their high fun factor is ideal and these two-wheeled, self-balancing dynamos are a perfect way to get a leisurely look at the island while still covering some more-than-decent mileage.
Unimog: Besides being phenomenally fun to say, Unimog tours offer the pleasure of learning all about the island from tour directors as you venture up to an elevation of 1,300 feet in a canopied open-air vehicle. Even better, tour prices include lunch at the Airport in the Sky. Niiiice.
Glass Bottom Boat: Having trouble deciding between surf and turf? Get the best of both worlds with a glass bottom boat tour. Above the waves, you’ll enjoy the coastal view of this pretty island gem, but a quick glance at the glass beneath your feet will reveal the teeming sea life below. Feed the fish on one of the larger tour vessels, or get really up close and personal with a glass bottom kayak.
Submarine: So, this option won’t help you scout out a dinner spot for the evening, but it could certainly give you an idea of what might be on the plate. Book yourself a tour in a semi submersible craft to see the sea around Catalina and get a feel for how the fishies feel.
Parasailing: Some might classify this as a water activity, but I’m going to go with “air”. If land and water are both too tame for your wild nature, strap yourself to the back of a boat, give the driver the old “a-okay” and get yourself hoisted into the air for an adrenaline-pumping view of this lovely isle. And…I’d probably recommend a lesson or two first.
Posted May 28, 2009 by Nicki Krawczyk
Okay, get this: Alaska Airlines is adding service from Oakland, California to Kahului, Hawaii and Oakland and Kona beginning in November, plus expanding service between Seattle and Honolulu. Suspicious, wouldn’t you say? Alaska and Hawaii, two states who, heretofore, have never done much fraternizing are all of a sudden flying back and forth by way of California.
Coincidence? I think not. It’s blatant collusion. I propose to you: “Alaska and Hawaii’s Conspiracy to Gang Up on the Mainland” Fact: People in Alaska and Hawaii hate it when tourists go there and say things like “We’re from the U.S.” as if Alaskans and Hawaiians aren’t, too. Fact: Alaska and Hawaii were the last two states added to the union and, as such, missed out on historical moments like the launching of both fruit flies and mice into space as well as the invention of M&M's. Fact: Alaska and Hawaii are the farthest states away from Washington, D. C. and, as such, their representatives have to travel a really long time to get there and undoubtedly miss out on all kinds of congressional parties because of jet lag. Conclusion: Alaska and Hawaii are probably hopping mad and ready to take out their vengeance on the mainland.
And now, now, it appears that we've got all kinds of mingling and moving and perhaps even rampant skullduggery going on between Alaska and Hawaii by way of Alaska Airlines. There’s something big going on, people—I recommend you keep your eyes open and your mouths shut. Sure, this could end up being a nice little weekend getaways route for the people of California and a pleasant jaunt to paradise on a nice airline…until Alaska and Hawaii unleash their nefarious plans. You heard it here first. And you’ve been warned.