As travel returns to its usual rhythms in the coming years, nowhere will it be more necessary—and more difficult—to get off the beaten track than in the iconic tourist magnets of Europe, where every street and sight can be swarmed by with crowds on the same group tours and guidebook routes. But with the right local fixer, you can experience popular places in safer ways that are not only more private but more immersive, focusing on the hidden villages and locals-only hangouts, and taking in the best views, walks, and meals at the optimal moments. Below are readers’ reviews from favorite European trips; their memories are reminders of how wonderful travel can be, and how much we have to look forward to in the future. You’ll find more trip inspiration among our traveler reviews.
Venice with insider access and local connections
“Maria planned a wonderful 9-day trip to Venice and the Italian Lake District. We were met at the Venice airport and taken to our private water taxi that literally dropped us off right in front of Londra Palace, our beautiful hotel. Our trip coincided with the Venice Film Festival, so many people were waiting at the docks for one of the scarce transports. Our ‘taxi’ pulled up, as scheduled, because Maria had made the reservation far in advance.
As we motored down the Grand Canal in our gorgeous watercraft, wind blowing through our hair, we knew this was going to be a very special trip. After a quick power nap, we headed off on an early evening ‘Cicchetti’ walking tour, where we visited several local spots for Venetian appetizers and wines. The next morning, we met our guide for a visit to three islands. The first stop was Murano, where we enjoyed a tour of the famous glass factory, conducted by the son of the owner, who was also a grandson of one of the grand master artisans. We visited two other islands, observing the art of lace making by hand in Burano and the island of Torcello.
Venice was also the site of our WOW Moment. Although I won’t spoil the details, in case others may be treated to this same experience, let me just say that it was very special and a trip highlight. People applauded as we went by.
The remainder of the trip was spent in Stresa and Bellagio. The Villa Aminta was a lovely boutique hotel. We never would have found it on our own, nor the town of Stresa, for that matter. But what a wonderful location and lodging choice for three days. Every day in the Lake District was filled with a special experience—a private tour by the owner of a renowned wine cellar, a fun cooking class, a tour of the beautiful Villa Balbianello, where our guide had a key to allow us entry into rooms which were off limits to the general public…
While I have always enjoyed planning my own trips, there is no comparison to the benefits of utilizing the talents of a travel specialist. Maria had access to the best guides and knew the right people behind the important scenes. We received early check-ins and special welcome gifts at the hotels she chose. Her restaurant recommendations were wonderful. Kudos to Maria and her staff.” —Debbie Grob
Hiking, cooking, sailing in Sicily
“Marcello understood our desire to engage with local people and visit out-of-the way places that most travelers would miss. Trip highlights included hiking Mt. Etna with a vulcanologist, deepening our understanding of this mysterious, mystical mountain that Sicilians refer to as Mother; wine tasting/pairing with a sommelier expert on Mt. Etna wines, who introduced us to the special quality of wines grown in volcanic soil; a visit to the tuna factory on Favignana and the “Impossible Garden”, a dream realized by a determined woman who envisioned a garden in the midst of the rock quarries; shopping the local market with Maurizio, the entertaining and charismatic chef of Macalle in Ortigia, followed by a cooking class and meal, and many ideas to take home; hiking and sailing on the island of Salina, enjoying lunch where Il Postino was filmed, visiting a local caper farm, and enjoying the outstanding wines of the local vineyards; a visit to a water mill which has been grinding wheat into flour since the 1690s, a process that results in flour naturally low in gluten; and visits to many small, beautiful villages, walking and chatting with the men who congregate in the piazzas, enjoying a meal prepared by Annalisa in her home, gaining insight into their traditional way of life over centuries…
I could go on. Marcello and team created a trip of a lifetime for us. We returned home with a deeper understanding of the Sicilian culture, their love and loyalty to family, a well-deserved pride in their diverse and complex history, and their vision, hopes, and dreams for the future of Sicily.” —Cathy and Rob Unruh
Discovering beautiful beaches and new hotels in Portugal
“Goncalo and his team planned a Portugal trip to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. They secured one of the few very best rooms with the best view at our resort on the Algarve, which we could not have obtained ourselves. Very few rooms at the very large hotel had ocean views, so this was a big deal (we even had two balconies facing the ocean).
All of their recommendations as to where to stay were great and took into account our preferences, which we discussed in a planning call. They planned great activities, like a lovely large private sailboat from Sintra back to Lisbon, a visit to an observatory (at night of course), and a private cruise along the cliffs of the Algarve. We would not have known about the lovely hotel converted from a farming village in the Alentejo if we hadn’t used a Portugal expert, and we wouldn’t have known which towns to visit. We loved the itinerary they planned and will use them again if we return to Portugal!” —Rita Solomon
Avoiding the usual tourist spots in Switzerland
“Nina did a fantastic job of listening to our preferences to avoid the usual tourist spots and spend time off the beaten path. The hotels she suggested were exceptional. The views from our rooms at Villa Orselina and Coeur des Alpes were amazing, and we truly enjoyed the mountain-hut experience at Guarda Val. The guides they picked for us were great, particularly Anna in Ticino, who led us on a magical walk through the Bavona Valley; Nikki in Zermatt, who was a delight and took us on a great hike and gave us ideas for our next two days of hiking; and Albert in Zurich, who suggested a side trip to Rapperswil that was very enjoyable. Nina’s suggestion of a first-class Swiss rail pass was excellent: We used it for boat rides in Ascona, Zurich and Lucerne, a bus ride in Ticino, and side train trips to Bellinzona, Lucerne, and Rapperswil. Well worth it! Restaurant suggestions were all excellent, from dinner in the castle in Bellinzona to dinner on the terrace of Sonnmatten in Zermatt. An exceptional trip.” —Gary Reading
Seeing the real Provence by foot, bike, horse, canoe…
“We requested an active trip in Provence, and Philip created the perfect itinerary for my daughter and me: We went horseback riding in the Camargue region, biking in the Luberon, canoeing in the Verdon Gorge. The local guides Philip arranged for us were amazing, ensuring we experienced the unique and out-of-the-way places known only to locals. They were fun, spontaneous, and adaptable. At a moment’s notice, they would take us up a hill to show us a great view, or walk us to the remote and charming village of Lacoste, or take us to get the best crepes at a place that was underground and accessible only if you know it is there. Each restaurant was more fantastic than the last. Incredible food, breathtaking views. A highlight: Le Petit Café in Oppède-le-Vieux. We also had a cooking class in a private home after picking the ingredients at the weekly market and sampling wines in a local vineyard. We could not have been happier.” —Kimberly Byron
Meeting artisans, families, and farmers in Romania
“Our trip to Romania was a perfect mix of city and country, led by wonderful local guides who gave us a sense of Romanians past and present. Some of the special experiences that Raluca arranged for us were an afternoon carving wooden spoons with a fantastic wood artist; a day visiting a local market and cooking with a wonderful woman known for the herbs, jams, and handmade christening gowns she sells in Romania and abroad; and four days in the village of Viscri (up from the two days originally planned because we didn’t want to leave), where we visited shepherds in the hills as they milked 500 sheep, spent time with a family tasting delicious foods and homemade cherry brandy and learning to cook a few dishes, and watched the cows ambling home down the village street each evening.” —Lori Lander
Savoring private experiences in Portugal
“We had only one week for Portugal—in peak season. Our goal was to somehow thread the needle between exploring a country we’d never visited, having deep and personal experiences, avoiding tons of crowds, not bouncing around too much, and relaxing. Got it? Goncalo put together an itinerary that fit exactly what we were looking for. He had us stay in three different, small, unique, hotels—Areias do Seixo (on the coast an hour north of Lisbon), Barrocal in the Alentejo, and Santiago de Alfama in Lisbon—and each really enriched our experience of the location. Our favorite stop was the Alentejo region, and we would highly encourage others to include it in their plans. It’s beautiful, serene, has very special medieval towns, is extremely welcoming to visitors, and is much less visited than Lisbon, Porto, and the Douro Valley. Barrocal, a farm converted into a 5-star hotel, was a phenomenal homebase there. Our single favorite experience was visiting Herdade de Esparao winery, where we somehow spent almost six hours on a sweltering 104-degree day. Our private tour was followed by a private tasting and then an amazing five-course lunch with wine pairings. It was probably the best meal we had in Portugal.” —Jeremy Silverman
“It was so unexpected and right out of a romance movie…”
“We had two standout experiences on the Amalfi Coast, thanks to Andrea. One was an entire day seeing the coast by sea. We did not know what to expect when we arrived at the wharf—where there were so many tour boats—and were a little confused when a very large, beautiful yacht pulled up. My husband said, “You should have seen your face when they held up a sign with our name on it!” Captain Beni gave us an experience we will never forget, including a stop for a delicious meal at a restaurant high above the sea and accessible only by boat. A perfect day! The second amazing experience was when our driver was taking us from Positano to Ravello and we were supposed to have a three-hour stop in the town of Amalfi. It was a gray, drizzly day, so our driver asked us if we would rather go to his friend’s winery. The owner gave us a very personal tour and then joined us for a lunch that his wife had prepared. It was so unexpected and right out of a romance movie.” —Carrie Hadden