If you’re an independent traveller, the phrase ‘guided tour’ probably conjures up images of a busload of backpack-wearing, camera-toting tourists being shepherded round a city’s top five sights. And the guide themselves? No doubt a strident umbrella-waver feeding their flock with facts. You’ve likely observed many such scenes around the world as you sloped past, preferring to retreat to a nearby café.
But by opting out of tours, are we missing out? Guide books, blogs and websites can give us pointers, but their inanimate nature can’t make up for the human touch. What if the guide wasn’t a shouty tourist board official, but a friendly local – maybe someone you’d be friends with if you met them back home? And what if they offered the tour in a group that’s less-than-bus-size – maybe even private? Well, not only does such a tour sound highly unlikely, it also sounds expensive.
Step in trip4Real. Research can tell you where those top five sights are, but it can’t necessarily show you the city’s quirkiest street art, its most Instagram-worthy angles or its coolest cafés. Residents with a particular expertise or just a desire to show off their city at its best can offer tours and experiences via the trip4real website: from photo walks to cooking classes to vintage shopping.
The range of activities varies based on local trends, traditions and location, so what you’ll find in Paris differs from Lisbon of course. And what do they all have in common? Invaluable local knowledge at a reasonable price.
For my first Trip4Real experience, I thought I’d put this local knowledge idea to the test and see what difference a personal insight makes. I skipped the tapas tours and personal shopping services in favour of a walk around my current home city, Madrid. The ‘From Madrid to Heaven’ experience is offered by lifelong resident Montse, and takes the popular Spanish saying as a starting point for showing you what she believes to be the best of the capital city. But would her ideas teach a resident of three years anything new?
We met at 4pm one Saturday afternoon. As instructed, I was ready with comfortable shoes: we were about to see the city on foot. Montse was warm and friendly, and we soon found ourselves chatting away in English as we wandered towards Retiro Park, Madrid’s most beautiful green space (below). Montse’s tour of the city begins with a stroll in the park to get to know the visitor(s), find out what they’ve experienced in the city so far and discover more about their interests, so that she can tailor her itinerary if necessary. As we walked, she told me a little more about the park’s history, and we chatted about our favourite areas in Madrid.
Far from feeling like a guided tour, it was as though I was enjoying a relaxed afternoon with a new friend. As someone who has travelled a lot, Monste decided to offer tours through trip4real as she loves connecting with travellers, and wants to show off her city, share travel experiences and give a glimpse into her life in Madrid.
From Retiro, we wandered towards Cibeles, the ornamental fountain where Real Madrid celebrate their big victories, and up grandiose Calle Alcalá to our next stop, the roof terrace at the Circulo de Bellas Artes. As we walked, Montse pointed out architectural details and shared snippets of popular history, such as the story of the ghosts in the Palacio de Linares, a former private palace which is now a Latin American cultural center.
While many of these details were new to me, the view from the terrace wasn’t – I agree with Montse that it boasts the best vistas of the city, with its panorama across Madrid’s rooftops (top pic) and out to the snow-topped mountains beyond. We stopped for a few photos while other punters lounged in the spring sun, sipping drinks from the bar.
We continued towards the Puerta del Sol, the heart of Madrid and the heart of Spain: it’s not only home to the statue of El Oso y el Madroño, the bear nibbling a strawberry tree (above) that’s the city’s symbol, but also Kilometre Zero, where road distances in Spain are measured from. As one of the city’s main squares, it’s somewhere any tourist would come across on a visit, but a bit of commentary from Montse helped to bring it new life. Our next stop was tapas-bar-lined Calle Cava de San Miguel (below right), where Montse pointed out several of her favourite spots – some great alternatives to the nearby Mercado de San Miguel, a pretty gourmet market which has sadly become a bit of a tourist trap. We meandered down to the Royal Palace, passing by several churches I hadn’t previously noticed and learning a little more about their history.
Our final stop was Plaza Mayor, where we watched the sun set before enjoying a tapa in Los Galayos (below), a bar I’d never have thought to visit. I’d long since written off establishments on the square as overpriced peddlers of poor-quality food, but Montse showed me otherwise: we tucked into a tapa of ensaladilla (potato salad), and she recommended trying the sliced grilled beef with green peppers and potatoes on a return visit.
All in all, my trip4real experience was an enjoyable afternoon. Three hours of wandering Madrid passed in a flash. Did I learn tons of new information about my city? Not so much, but for me, that wasn’t the point. Montse’s insights validated my own local knowledge – a first or second time visitor would certainly see Madrid in a different light with her friendly guidance.
For me, the best aspect was spending an afternoon in great company – trip4real experiences are a great idea for solo travellers looking for that local friend they don’t have. Fact seekers may prefer a traditional tour, but those looking for a memorable, personal experience shared between a small numbers should try out trip4real.
Monte’s ‘From Madrid to Heaven’ tour costs €30 for three hours, including admission to the Circulo de Bellas Artes, a tapa & a drink. You can book it here.
trip4real currently offers tours and activities in cities around Spain, plus London, Lisbon, Paris and Rome. I’ve been told they have their eyes set on Amsterdam, Edinburgh and Dublin next, so be on the look out and consider becoming a local yourself.