Similar to the traveler vs. tourist debate, there seems to be a certain stereotype that I’ve noticed in the travel world that taking tours is too “touristy” of a thing to do and certainly no way to spend a trip if you’re really looking to experience a destination authentically. Personally, I don’t get distracted by this limited way of thinking because I believe that travelers and tourists are one and the same, and I think that either way you explore a destination – independently or with a guide – is great for the simple fact that it’s a blessing to be able to travel in the first place!
With that said, because of my travel style and the fact that I’m almost always pressed for time, I’m always on the lookout for a tour guide or guided tour that can give me a solid overview of a destination in a relatively short amount of time.
So during our recent 3-night getaway to the Bay Area, before moving on to spend one night in the Central Coast, it was a no brainer that we’d take a tour to help us cover some ground and learn more about San Francisco.
On a beautiful Saturday afternoon, Jave and I met up with Michael, owner of the Boutique Traveler, a tour company that specializes in small group and private walking tours of the city. Michael and his wife moved to San Francisco from Oz four years ago, and since that time, Michael has learned the ins-and-outs of the city’s history and culture.
Over the course of 3 hours, Michael led our small group into some of San Francisco’s most beautiful and grand buildings, he shared interesting details about local vendors and shops, and he brought history to life by leading us to some of the sites and structures that have played such a pivotal role in shaping the city’s history.
And while I’ve taken lots and lots of tours throughout my travel life, our recent tour in San Francisco gave me pause to reflect on some of the perks of exploring a destination with a tour guide like the Boutique Traveler…
They have interesting stories to share
San Francisco has no shortage of intriguing stories surrounding its history. As Michael shared, the beginnings of the city as we currently know it began with the Gold Rush of 1849 when the city received an influx of residents without having any sort of infrastructure in place at the time. As a result, San Francisco was literally like a scene out of an old western movie which is still evident in some of the city’s architecture.
A little over 50 years after the Gold Rush, San Francisco nearly burned to the ground when a major earthquake incited a fire. Because most of the city’s firefighters were only experienced with fighting forest fires, as would be the procedure in fighting a forest fire, they set a perimeter around the city fire by igniting more fires which wreaked greater havoc and caused more damage to the Victorian era buildings and homes which were made primarily of wood at the time.
This building was once occupied by A.P. Hotaling & Co. and it housed the West Coast’s largest liquor repository. Amazingly, the building was spared from the flames due to a mile-long fire hose that was made and that ran here all the way from Fisherman’s Wharf.
Without a knowledgeable guide, it’s highly likely that we would’ve walked right past this historic building (if we would’ve even passed it at all since it’s tucked away in an alley) that has such an interesting story without ever giving it a second thought.
They know your destination’s secret spots
At one point during the Chinatown portion of our tour, as we were standing in an alleyway, Michael pointed out the fact that below the ground we were standing on was a network of underworld opium dens, gambling rings, and the like, and that a notorious Chinese crime boss was busted by the FBI in the area just last year.
While in Chinatown, Michael also took us by a local fortune cookie shop for samples of just-made cookies.
And who knew that there’s a grove of redwoods in the heart of the Financial District? We certainly wouldn’t have known if we hadn’t taken this tour.
Let’s face it – I can bet that many locals don’t even know the details of San Francisco’s fascinating history and many probably aren’t privy to the city’s secret spots, much less tourists. But when you tour a new destination with a passionate local guide like Michael at the Boutique Traveler, their passion is contagious, and it gives locals and tourists alike a fresh perspective beyond the usual sites and places of interest.
[bctt tweet=”Tour guides offer a fresh perspective + insider knowledge of your destination.”]
They instantly become your local connection
Throughout my travels, I’ve taken tours with both large tour groups and more intimate ones like the Boutique Traveler. Needless to say, the intimacy factor of small group tours makes me feel more connected to the guide because it gives me more chances to ask questions and speak to the guide one-on-one so that I can pick their brains about the destination, local issues, etc.
They lead you to some of the most photographic spots
During our tour, Michael took us to a handful of spots around the city that are ideal for professional and amateur photographers alike. If we’d been exploring on our own, I’m pretty sure that we wouldn’t have captured some of these photos…
An uncommon view of the San Francisco Ferry Building or a beautiful, winding staircase taken from the courtyard of a random office building.
Or this architecturally interesting fountain (turned off due to California’s current drought) with the Ferry Building in the backdrop.
They take pictures of you and send them to you after the tour
One of the takeaways from the Boutique Traveler’s tours that I think is a thoughtful touch is the fact that at certain points during the tour, Michael took our photos and emailed them to us afterward which makes for a great souvenir and eliminates the hassle of having to ask random strangers to take your picture.
For all of these reasons, tours like Taste of the Bay with the Boutique Traveler make for an intimate and unforgettable experience that we would’ve missed out on if we fell into the trap of believing that we’d somehow lose travel cool points for taking a guided tour.
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