Over the last year, as part of our quest to get beneath the skin of the places we’re staying in, we’ve been exploring the best ways to explore places. We’ve got two main interests when we do this…
Firstly, we’re looking for things travellers can do to kick-start their stay in a place, experiences and activities that can help them to hit the ground running and quickly settle in. In big cities like Barcelona and Cape Town, those hop-on hop-off sightseeing buses can also be brilliant for getting your bearings, although they’re useless in small cities like Kraków, when a map will suffice. This is where a bespoke tour of Kraków with a local made sense.
The market tours we did in Istanbul and Budapest are also great examples – do one of these on your first day in a place and you’ll know what locals eat, how they shop, what you should buy, and where you can buy it. Cooking courses and bar hops are also fun ways of learning about the local food and wine, as well as learning what to cook and how to cook it and what to drink and where to drink it.
Secondly, we’re looking for experiences that can really help travellers understand a destination on a deeper level so that they come away feeling like they now know their temporary home intimately and hopefully they have made some new friends along the way.
Many of Context’s tours, whether they’re history, archaeology, art, or architecture tours, are excellent in that respect. We’ve also done very locally focused tours with tiny, niche tour companies that took us off the beaten track and into people’s homes — everything from township tours in Cape Town to favela tours in Rio.
Throughout the year, I’ve often felt after interviewing people for our Local Knowledge series, how I wished I could ask those people to spend a day showing us their city and their favourite places. Unfortunately, it’s always too late as we’re always about to move on to the next destination.
But when we interview locals for that series we ask them to suggest things to see and do that are ‘local’. We don’t want touristy things, things they think people should do, but rather things that they like to do, that they’d do in their own spare time, things that they’d show their friends if they were on holidays or were new to town.
With this in mind, I started to think about bespoke tours along those lines… what if travellers hired local guides but instead of doing the generic ‘Introduction to Kraków’ walk that every guide in the town does, they gave the guide the same brief: “show me your Kraków”.
That’s exactly what we did with Małgorzata Lubowicka, a Kraków-born guide with Our Explorer, who is passionate about medieval history.
A Bespoke Tour of Kraków with a Local
I asked Małgorzata to show me her Kraków, within certain parameters. These were the rules:
- we could only go to places she liked
- they had to be places where she would take her family or friends
- she could choose any of her favourite places, but they should include the following: a street or area in the city, a park or place for reflection, a favourite landmark or building, a shop or two, a café, a restaurant or two, and a bar.
Our walk took in everything from the 15th Century Collegium Maius with its peaceful courtyard, and the charming 930-year-old St. Andrew’s Church, Krakow’s oldest, to a confectionary shop where they make rock candy on the premises to a jewellery store specialising in amber in contemporary settings.
We began on one of Małgorzata’s favourite streets, Ul. Bracka, dotted with charming cafés and shops, including local favourite Nowa Provincja, and homemade liquor store Szambelan, and we finished in the atmospheric Jewish Quarter, where the streets are lined with galleries, art and craft shops, bookshops and bars.
Was the experiment a success?
Yes, it was, with a couple of qualifications.
- Do a walk like this as soon as you arrive in a place – while there were some new discoveries, because we’d already been in Kraków two weeks, there were also places we already knew.
- If you’re not alone, establish guidelines for the walk together with your partner/friend – while I thought it was a terrific walk (I had briefed Małgorzata, after all), a couple of the choices were a bit too girlie for Terence.