Travel: San Gimignano sunset

Travel changes us. Whether it’s a trip around the corner or around the world, travel has the ability to affect us in so many unexpected ways. Find out why where you are affects who you are and how to travel better, no matter where you go.


How to make the most of a business trip

Make the most of a business trip: Pike Place Market, SeattleGood business travelers are efficient and get their work done. Road Warriors do all that with upgrades, perks and insider tricks. But great business travelers do something more: they go beyond business on their business trips.

I recently met with a woman I’ll call Carol at a conference in Seattle. Carol lives and works on the East Coast but before returning there, she took a few extra days to get to know Seattle. Let me use Carol’s example to illustrate how you too can make the most of a business trip.

  1. She was intentional. Carol planned ahead and did her research as to places to see and things to do so that when she arrived, she wasted no time. She’d read about places like Kurt Farm Shop, a recently opened ice cream shop that I, as the local, had never heard of (but now definitely will check out). She went beyond the obvious tourist locations to discover what mattered to her.
  2. She made the time. People in Carol’s line of work are constantly dealing with new projects and deadlines. They are not people with much free time. But Carol carved out the time to do more than attend the conference. She took advantage of being in a place she rarely visits to explore.
  3. She gained more than she gave up. Because her time is such a precious resource, it would have been easy for Carol, like most business travelers, to say, “I just can’t take an extra day away from work or family to stay longer.” But creative work is not something easily measured by the clock: sometimes that break from work to refresh your spirit actually makes you more productive when you get back to work.
  4. She understood the freedom found in limitations. Too many tourists to Seattle try to take in Pike Place Market, the Space Needle, Pioneer Square, Fremont, Lake Union, the International District, Mount Rainier, ferry rides across the Sound and more, all in one day (which is roughly like trying to fit your head into a drinking glass). Instead, she made Ballard (a quaint Seattle neighborhood by the water) her base and only ventured as far as easy, local bus service allowed. She got more from less.
  5. She was flexible and inventive. To ride those local buses, she snagged a bunch of quarters from the bank only to find that in Seattle, you can ride within certain zones all for the same fare. Most of us might have begrudged lugging around all those coins. Instead, Carol found a pinball bar and put all that change to fun use.
  6. She reached out to others. She met up with work and personal contacts (some being friends of friends that were new to her) so that she was able to share her time in Seattle with others and learn from those she met. Solo travel doesn’t have to mean a solo experience.
  7. She inspired locals. I mentioned the ice cream place, but Carol also told me about some great restaurants I’ve not been to like Eve. She helped me see the place where I live with new eyes. She made the most of a business trip in part by inspiring me to do the same and to get out and make the most of the places close to home that can seem overly familiar.

I was at a gathering of filmmakers awhile back. One of them noted that the people who excel in their field are those who do the work others aren’t willing to do and who make the time to do what matters even when they don’t feel like it. That applies to making movies or any creative endeavor. And as Carol reminded me, it applies to travel as well – even a busy business trip.

One last thought: I regularly bring a camera with me on business trips. If the trip is short and to a familiar place, I’ll rely on my phone camera. If new or has interesting possibilities, I’ll take an advanced point-and-shoot camera since it is better for low-light situations. Either way, making time to photograph an new city, even on breaks from meetings, adds another layer of enjoyment and meaning to a trip.

If you want to learn how to improve your own photography, particularly on a trip, download my free Guide to Making Awesome Travel Photos. It’s great for both beginners and more experienced photographers who want to make the most of each image and each trip.


The photographer’s DIY walking tour of downtown LA

See – and photograph –  downtown Los Angeles in a new way

Photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA: Downtown Skyline

I call this the photographer’s DIY walking tour of downtown LA, but you you don’t have to be a photographer to benefit from this self-guided tour of the highlights of downtown Los Angeles (DTLA). Here I offer you a route with stops along the way at some of DTLA’s most popular locations. At each one, I’ve included some shots to give you a visual sense of what to expect.

Photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA - city streetAs a photographer, I always wonder before a trip about what I’ll find in a new location from a photographic perspective. It’s fine to read about where to visit, but actually seeing it ahead of time helps clue me in as to how to spend the precious time I have in a place. Hopefully, the following shots will help you as well. At the end of this piece, I’ll include a list of some specific photography tips to consider for shooting the places on the walking tour.

Downtown Los Angeles offers travelers and photographers of any level (and yes, if you have and use the camera on your phone, that includes you) a wide range of subjects. DTLA’s still in an ongoing phase of renewal (some might say gentrification). As a result, you’ll find homeless shelters and million dollar condos all within a few blocks of each other. For the street photographer, this means an endless variety of faces, scenes and activity.

For landscape photographers, you won’t find unspoiled vistas. This is, after all, the second-largest city in the US. But you’ll find cityscape opportunities that combine the California vibe with one of the most exciting street mural scenes around. And if architecture is your thing, you’re surrounded by over 100 years of various styles.

Getting around LA

The following walking tour can be done in a half day or you could take a full day, go at a slower pace, and spend more time at the museums. I’ve based this tour on one I did the week before Christmas (hence the holiday decorations in the photos). My two sons and I started around 11:30 a.m. on a Thursday and ended at 4:30 p.m. Your mileage (and pace) will, of course, vary. The following map shows the whole route starting at the “A” near the center of the map near 3rd and Broadway. The lettering repeats itself after “I” since Google Maps only allows ten stops on the map. Thus, you’ll end the first half of the tour and begin the second half at The Millennium Biltmore Hotel. In general, you’re following the map roughly in a clockwise direction.

LA Map


In terms of getting there, LA is known as a driver’s city. Most people therefore expect that without a car, you can’t do much. They would be wrong. If you don’t want to drive, check out this helpful article on public transit and other options for getting around LA.

Since we had a car, we parked at a garage on the corner of Hill and 2nd Streets. It’s very convenient and the rates weren’t bad ($10 maximum versus a few open lots we saw later for as little as $8 or as much as $24). It’s just a few blocks to our first stop on the tour, the Bradbury Building.

The Bradbury Building

Start your walking tour at (the first) Point A on the map, The Bradbury Building on 3rd and Broadway, the oldest existing commercial building in the downtown area. This iconic building has shown up in numerous films and TV shows. Unless you have business there, you’re limited to the ground floor and the first set of stairs. There are tours, however, that will explain the history and show you more.

Before you enter one of the two entrances, look across 3rd Street for this mural. It’s one of many enormous works of art you’ll encounter on your tour.

The photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA - wall mural

Check out this wall mural across from the Bradbury Building.

Photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA - Bradbury Building

Look familiar? You’ve likely seen the Bradbury Building in movies like “Blade Runner” and many others.

The photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA - the Bradbury Building

Look up! There’s much to see here at the Bradbury Building.

Grand Central Market

Cross Broadway from the Bradbury Building and you’ll see one of the entrances to the Grand Central Market. If you can, time your visit so you end up here for lunch (or breakfast or dinner or…). The market sells produce, spices, baked goods and even has a dollar store in the basement. But most people come here for the food stalls throughout. The variety of food choices can be daunting from Asian, to Italian to plenty of great Mexican and even a German place thrown in for cultural breadth.

Wander the place first to see your choices, then grab your food and find a table anywhere in the market. When we were there, I had two tacos from Ana Maria and they gave me extra tortillas since there’s enough meat in each for 2-3 normal-sized tacos. Exceptional.

Photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA - Grand Central Market Sign

Photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA - Central Market Ramen

Ramen bar at the Central Market

Photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA - Ana Maria's

Behind the scenes at Ana Maria in the Grand Central Market

Photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA - Ana Maria's

Ana Maria’s at the Grand Central Market. A single taco could easily be enough for lunch.

After the market there’s a quick side trip you can take. On Hill Street almost across from the Grand Central Market is Angels Flight, the little funicular railroad that travels a whopping 298 feet up Bunker Hill. I haven’t included it as a stop on the tour since it has been closed since 2013 due to an accident and some safety concerns. The first photo below is from March 2011 when Angel’s Flight was still running. The photo after that was shot in December 2016 showing what it looks now in its suspended state. It’s worth taking a look if you have time even if you can’t ride it.

Angel's Flight in 2011

Angels Flight back in its running days, March 2011

Angels Flight

Angels Flight, December 2016

The Last Bookstore

Depending which exit you use from Grand Central Market (there’s one on Broadway and one on Hill), walk down to 5th then head south on 5th Street to the corner of 5th and Spring. There you’ll find The Last Bookstore (point C on the map) on your left. Opened (in a smaller venue) in 2005, the name derives from the apparent fate of independent bookstores at the time. They’re doing something right here as it has now grown to be the largest independent seller of new and used books and music in California.

The photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA - The Last Bookstore art books area

This is the area for the art books at The Last Bookstore

The photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA - Last Bookstore stairs

Stairways and navigation all in one at The Last Bookstore

The photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA - The Last Bookstore

View from upstairs looking into the main area of The Last Bookstore

The photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA - Book Tunnel

The book tunnel at The Last Bookstore

Downstairs, you’ll find their art books in a separate room. Upstairs you’ll want to wander through the photogenic stacks to see the book loop, old bank vault and book tunnel. In addition, there are three art galleries upstairs. I loved the recycled almost Steampunkish work of Dave Lovejoy. He’s got a killer studio/gallery overlooking 5th and Spring Streets below. We talked about his work for a while and he gave me some suggestions for less-well-known places to see in LA including MorYork and The Museum of Jurassic Technology. Great advice and very cool art.

The photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA - Lovejoy Art entrance

The entrance to Lovejoy Art

The photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA - wall in Lovejoy Art

One of the many interesting areas of Lovejoy Art

Spring Street

On our trip, I relied on memory rather than the map, so instead of just heading back up 5th Street to Pershing Square (our destination), we wandered down Spring Street. It turned out to be a good mistake, so I’ve included it on this walking tour. As you head south on Spring from The Last Bookstore, look for the various murals on the sides of buildings. These are captivating in their own right and can make great backgrounds for people shots.

The photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA - mural The photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA - Mural The photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA - Mural

Along the way, if you get hungry (hey, it’s likely been at least an hour since The Grand Central Market!), here are two options, both in the courtyard at 541 S. Spring (on your right). First, if you didn’t get your fill of Mexican food at the market, try Guisados. We didn’t eat there ourselves, but at 3 p.m., it was packed while every other taco place we passed (and there are many in this area) was empty at this time of day. Second, for a sweet treat, try Gelateria Uli (Point D on the map). Remember: In Italy, gelato isn’t a desert. It’s a snack. Need any other excuses?

FloydsKeep going south then turn right on 7th Street. Take in a whiff of aftershave and shampoo as you pass Floyd’s 99 Barbershop (Point E) – or maybe get a quick haircut or shave if you’re in the mood. From a photographer’s perspective, you could get some interesting shots of the place and people getting their hair cut.

St. Vincent’s Court

Keep heading west up 7th and you’ll come to an alley past S. Broadway known as St. Vincent’s Court, (Point F on the map). It’s one of those places you won’t likely find on any tourist map, but it was, for us, a fun discovery of shops and Mediterranean cafés with outdoor seating and interesting signage tucked away from the main drag. The map, by the way, shows you going up to Hill, turning right and then making another right to get to St. Vincent’s court. That was a Google Maps issue. You could go that way but you’d be retracing your steps so just turn into the court as you pass it going west on 7th. There’s no signage, but it will look like the following photo.

The photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA - St. Vincent's Court

St. Vincent’s Court from 7th Street

The photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA - St. Vincent's Court

A scene inside St. Vincent’s Court

Follow the court to the end and make a left working your way through valet parkers with some fancy cars. You’ll emerge on Hill Street. Turn right and go down to W. 6th Street. From that corner (Point G), you have a nice shot of Pershing Square (see photo at the top of this page) and the downtown skyline. Cross over to Pershing Square (Point H).

Pershing Square


A photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA - Pershing Square

Pershing Square (at the bottom of the photo) and surrounding buildings. You can buy tickets to go to the top of the one on the left (see details later on).

This mini oasis of green in the heart of downtown LA offers you a quiet respite or, in our case during Christmastime, the chance to do some ice skating. We passed on participating but watched kids struggling around the ice rink. You could see the ice melting in the 60+ degree weather three days before Christmas. From a photography perspective, look around at the various buildings. To the north, there’s an interesting roof garden. As we watched, a helicopter landed on one of the buildings to the west. Just another day in downtown LA.

The photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA - ice skating in LA

Ice skating in LA

The Millennium Biltmore

Your next destination is just across Olive Street from the west side of Pershing Square. Enter the Millennium Biltmore Hotel (Point I and also Point A of the second part of the tour) through the entrance on Grand and marvel at the entry lobby.

The photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA - Biltmore lobby

The Rendezvous Court (once the lobby) of the Millennium Biltmore is a great place to rest, grab a drink or take photos.

If you want to take a break, this is a good place to do so. You could order a drink or just sit and watch the people and marvel at the ornate architecture. Photographically, there are multiple options throughout the public areas of the hotel. It’s fun just to explore and see what you find.

The photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA - Biltmore hallway

One of the many decoroated hallways at the Biltmore, in this case, all decked out for Christmas

The LA Central Library

You can exit the way you entered the building on Olive and then turn left or find the north entrance of the Biltmore on 5th and go out that way. Either way, you want to end up on 5th Street heading west (uphill). As you do, you’ll go about one block and will find LA’s Central Library (Point B on the second half of the tour). The newer Tom Bradley wing with its gorgeous atrium (where even the escalators are designed to represent waterfalls in this lofty space) will be your first stop if you take a quick left on Grand and enter there. Otherwise, if you keep going up 5th, you’ll enter into the main Art Deco building. Once inside, take time to explore, but here are some of the highlights of the art and architecture from our quick time there:

Central Library Rotunda

This is the rotunda of the library with beautiful murals and decorative ceilings

A photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA - Children's Department

Pay attention to the details here in the children’s department including the murals, the ornate ceiling and even the carpet, where seemingly abstract patterns turn out to be figures found in the adjacent rotunda.

The photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA - Central Library Atrium

The atrium’s vast space and colorful chandeliers make it a wonderful area to stop and take in.

The photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA - International languages area

The international languages area has some amazing murals from the scenes of Ivanhoe.

OUE Skyspace LA and Wells Fargo Banking Museum

Be sure to check out the Maguire Gardens at the west end of the library before heading out and crossing 5th Street where you’ll go up the stairs (with the waterfall in the center) to the OUE Skyspace LA (Point C on the second half of the tour) ticket booth. We didn’t have time to go to the top of the U.S. Bank Tower building for views of LA. It’s also not cheap, but many people find it worth the price for the views and the chance to slide in the clear tube-like slide high above the city. From here, keep heading north and proceed up Hope Street till you get to W. 3rd where you’ll turn right and proceed down to Grand Avenue. If you’re a banking fan or want a quick glimpse into one aspect of California history, you can pop into the free Wells Fargo Banking Museum (Point D) there in the bank building on the corner of Grand and 3rd.

MOCA and The Broad

Turn left on Grand and at this point, you have some choices to make. Down Grand a half block or so and across the street you’ll see The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA, Point E). If you continue a block north on Grand, you’ll hit The Broad (Point F). Both are excellent contemporary art museums with very different displays. But here’s the challenge: The Broad is relatively new and thus, it is currently extremely popular. The good news is it is free. The bad news is that if you want a guaranteed entry time, you need an advance reservation and right now, the dates are booked about three weeks out. You can just show up, but you’ll need to wait in line (which could take well over and hour or two). If you go this more spontaneous route, arrive as early as possible. That might mean doing this whole walking tour in reverse so that you’re starting here and ending at the Bradbury Building, but that won’t matter.

Here are some shots of the interior of The Broad:


The photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA - The Broad The Broad The Broad the Broad

Here’s the outside of The Broad:

The Broad

The alternative is to pay for your admission to MOCA and get in any time they are open. Check out both websites first for details on times and shows, but do plan ahead if you want to visit The Broad. Also, The Broad is closed on Mondays and MOCA is closed on Tuesdays. Here are some exterior shots of MOCA:

MOCA sign

Reflections of the nearby fountain caught in the MOCA sign.


The pyramid on the left is an icon of MOCA and the large sculpture on the right sits outside the main entrance.

The Walt Disney Concert Hall

Finally, keep going another block up Grand and you’ll see the Frank Gehry designed Walt Disney Concert Hall (Point G), home of the LA Philharmonic. Tours are available daily, both guided and self-guided audio tours. Or better yet, time it so you arrive and can attend one of the many concerts here.

the photographer's DIY walking tour of downtown LA

Because of the reflective nature of the exterior of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the light dramatically affects how the building appears. Thus, if you can and are interested in photographing the place, visit it several times throughout the day for different angles and a different feel.

Disney Concert Hall Interior

This was taken at a Christmas concert in 2013 but it gives you a sense of the inside of the hall.

Additional Sights

This concludes our photographer’s DIY walking tour of downtown LA. But if you have additional time, here are some other highlights that are all within walking distance from here that are all popular and photogenic. You’d be hard pressed to do all these together with the above walking tour in one day, but you could do the above tour on one day along with a few of the following and then do the rest a second day.

Final Thoughts

We have looked at the popular spots in downtown LA, but these should just be your starting points for further exploration. There is much to see and do.

In terms of specific photography tips, here are a few that might help:

  • Bradbury PanoramaTake your time. As you can see from the above photos, some are better than others. That’s because many were taken hastily, more as snapshots than well-planned images. Taking your time allows you to view a subject from multiple perspectives and to figure out how you might capture it in a fresh way.
  • Bring a wide angle lens if you have one. I came with a 28-280 mm (equivalent) lens. I would gladly have foregone the telephoto for a wider lens since you’re in tight situations.
  • Use panoramas. The shot of The Broad, the interior of the Disney Concert Hall and the Rotunda at the Central Library were all stitched together from several shots. This allows you to make up for not having a wide angle lens in some situations. Just remember that you can shoot panoramas vertically too, as shown by the image to the right of the Bradbury Building.
  • Plan on low-light scenarios. Most of the interior shots shown here were shot at ISO 3200. My camera starts to show noise if I go higher than that. Just be aware that you’ll need a fast lens, good image stabilization, a great low-noise sensor or possibly even a tripod to get clean images in these low-light conditions. Flash won’t help because you’re likely too far away from the subject matter for it to work.
  • Time your exterior shots. By this I mean realize that in sunny LA, you’ll get a lot of shadow and glare during the height of the day. The only benefit to the bright midday sun is that for some buildings, the shadowy areas between buildings light up when the sun is directly overhead. Otherwise, save your outside shots for late in the afternoon if you can.
  • Don’t worry about the people. Obviously, you want to be respectful when taking photos of people. But there are enough tourists around that the locals are used to seeing cameras. There are also enough people who live and work downtown so that you rarely feel like you’re taking photos of other tourists. You decide if you want to go for stealth mode or for asking people before you take a photo. Both have their place, but asking opens the door for some great conversations and additional insights as to places to see.
  • Have fun. This is LA after all. Explore. Discover. Ask questions. Try new things. And most of all, realize that while millions of people have been here and taken shots of this city before you, this is still a discovery for you if it is your first time. So enjoy it. Make it yours.

Finally, if you’re new to photography, check out my Beginner’s Guide to Making Awesome Travel Photographs. It provides everything you need to know to improve your travel photography.

This is why we travel

Ever wonder why we travel? Or do you need a reason to travel? If so, watch this video from the Copenhagen-based travel site Monmondo.

Powerful video, isn’t it? It makes its point about our commonalities very clear. But it also made me think about some other aspects of travel that may not be as obvious.

Meaning rarely comes without reflection

First, the video is moving in part because it is a highly produced video. All the extraneous elements have been edited out for us as the viewers. But even for the participants, the producers have condensed the meeting of these diverse people and the revelation of the findings into a singular “aha” moment where what was abstract and different now becomes personal all at once. It makes for great drama, but also for strong impact on each person there.

With travel, I don’t get usually get my lessons delivered so neatly. No one with a lovely British accent has ever personally explained the implications of travel (or DNA) to me.

Instead, I tend grow into the awareness of things like similarity and trust over time and on my own. As a result, I’m usually not even aware that as I travel, my perspective has shifted. Thus, unless I make an intentional effort to reflect on what has happened to me on a trip, I often miss the main takeaway. I have the experience, but not the learning.

I need reflection for my trips to have their full value. Either that, or a film crew that can document my entire trip and then show me the meaningful highlights complete with insightful narration and a moving score.

Travel makes the abstract personal

Notice in the video that everyone talked about other countries when asked who they didn’t like so much. By all being in the room together, the revelation through the DNA of family history made the whole concept of “the other” more tangible. But even more important, seeing each other in the same room and hearing each other’s stories made the experience highly personal.

That’s what travel does for me. It eliminates “them” as an abstract concept and makes people into relatable individuals. What once were vague notions about cultures and countries become recognizable faces and relationships that completely shift how we think about a place, region or ethnicity. Personal is powerful. It also is the single biggest factor in overcoming prejudices.

We are more alike than we realize

The overt point of the video was to show how we all share bloodlines from all sorts of other places. But a more subtle point was this: We all have our biases and we all react to the revelation of our linked humanity in the same way. The fact that I tend to react in similar ways as you and millions of others like us reveals even more how much we have in common.

Why we travel

For me — and I suspect for many of you — I travel in part to see what is different, what is unique to a particular place or culture. But as the video reminds me, I also travel to see what is the same, both around me and even, remarkably, within me.


The best way to find a great local guide

The best way to find a great local guide: Local guides in the desert What’s the best way to find a great local guide?

A great local guide can dramatically enhance your trip. But how do you find a great local guide? This means more than looking up a list of options. The best way to find a great local guide starts with knowing what you’re looking for in a guide, doing some research and then asking the right questions. Let’s explore all of those steps and more.

Realize that your best guides may not be the ones you pay

Often people you meet along the way may turn out to be wonderful informal guides. The man who invites you to his mother’s house for a family supper or the group of children that lead you to a hidden courtyard that takes your breath away, these are all guides. You may informally tip them or not. But guides show up in many guises. Being open to the possibility of encountering them can enrichen your trip. What we’ll focus on here, however, are people who professionally guide you in a variety of ways on a trip.

Research before you go

You have essentially three overall ways of finding guides before your trip: offline printed resources, online resources and personal connections. Let’s look at each.

Offline printed resources

Your primary source will be written guidebooks. Many have some listings of local guides, drivers or tour operators in various locations. Because the printing cycle makes some guidebook listings obsolete by the time they are published, you’ll want to go online to double check if the guide is still around. However, the good news of guidebook recommendations is that usually only well established local guides get recommended there.

Travel magazines and even newspaper articles about destinations may mention positive experiences the writer had with a guide. Follow-up on these since the number one way to find a great local guide is to leverage a trusted recommendation.

Though not a print resource (but not “online” per se) are travel shows. Get the names of the local guides used by the hosts of travel-related shows (e.g. many cooking or sports shows that visit foreign locations in addition to typical Travel Channel fare use guides as part of the program). Get the names and follow up with them. And no matter where the local guide’s name comes from, always research online for reviews about him or her. Being on TV doesn’t necessarily make them a great guide for you, but it could be a good starting point.

The best way to find a great local guide: Telouet guide

Rashid was a great local guide at the kasbah at Telouet. He came recommended by our main guide in Morocco, Abdul. If you find one great guide, ask for recommendations of others.

Online resources

There are literally millions of options online. So what’s the best way to find a great local guide that is right for you?

Start with a strategy

Here are some key points in your search to find a great local guide.

  • Know what kind of guide you’re looking for. A person who can point out the highlights of the Louvre is a very different animal than someone who will bike with you through the Mekong Delta for five days. The greater the time, cost and even risk, the more homework you want to do. Sounds obvious, but many travelers don’t check references and rely only on a few online reviews even for guides taking them way off the grid. Do your homework when necessary but for a two-hour tour, don’t spend two hours researching.
  • Know if you need to reserve a guide in advance. Even on crowded days at Machu Picchu there are guides waiting at the entrance. Some are better than others so again, a bit of pre-trip research can help, but you don’t necessarily need to pre-book. Some friends just got back from Normandy. They booked their guide two months ahead of time to tour the WWII beach sites there and were fortunate to get a guide since all the others were already booked that far ahead of time.
  • Determine your own travel style and needs. Personally, I’m not a fan of big group tours. But if I just show up in some locations, those are the only ones available to me. Do research on alternatives before your trip if you want a private guide since they obviously take fewer people and thus may have fewer slots open. In addition, know specifically what your interests are. For example, I didn’t even think I needed a guide in Fes, Morocco until I saw a listing for one that introduces you to local artists. Researching guides can reveal all kinds of possibilities you may not have considered and that don’t show up in the normal list of activities in a particular place.
  • Know the right terminology. “Guide” can refer to a person, a guidebook, an online planning tool or a brand of dental floss. So to make your searches more accurate, try using the term “local guide” or if you need a specific type of guide (e.g. museum, fishing, hiking, cooking instructor, etc.) add that phrase. You may be brighter than me, but when I first started searching on “guide” I got way too many irrelevant results.

Check out travel forums

On travel forums, you can ask about other people’s experiences and get specific recommendations. Here are ten of the most popular travel forum sites listed alphabetically. They are useful for all sorts of destination and other travel-related questions, not just guides, so consider bookmarking some of these for your next trip.

  1. BootsNAll. This site for independent travelers has a forum organized by destinations, travel resources, ways to go, etc. Some topics get more recent posts than others.
  2. Cruise Critic. This forum is geared toward people taking cruises, so if you want to find a local guide to avoid paying the high price of cruise excursions, this site has some great advice. But you can also use it even if you’re not cruising to find guides in major cities frequented by cruises.
  3. Fodors. The community here is very helpful and can often recommend other sources of guides such as a recent response noting how, for example, the Japanese National Tourism Organization has a listing called Goodwill guides of free volunteer guides in Japan. Who knew?!
  4. Lonely Planet. From destinations to general travel question, this active community has over 1 million members.
  5. Rick Steves. If you’re going to Europe, this is the forum to check out. Lots of insights and tips offered by an engaged community.
  6. Travbuddy. The most popular topic here is around travel buddies but they have a large number of discussions on both destinations and other info like gear or travel alerts.
  7. Travelfish.  Going to Asia? Check out this forum of questions and answers pertaining to that part of the world.
  8. Travellerspoint. This site offers a large community plus many other resources like an interactive travel planner.
  9. Trip Advisor. The most popular site of those listed in terms of traffic, here you can get people’s recommendations in addition to finding guide listings on the main part of the site.
  10. Virtual Tourist. This forum isn’t structured as some of the others where you can search based on category of topic. But for general travel questions and answers, it has a dynamic community that regularly contributes.

Review local guide websites

If you’re not getting any decent recommendations on how to find a great local guide on the forums, try going direct. Here are ten sites (listed alphabetically) where you can find, review and hire a great local guide. I tested each out by searching for guides in Seattle, Washington and Granada, Spain. My results varied greatly as noted below. Thus, what may be a great resource for one destination may have few if any options for another. It gives you a chance to explore them all!

  1. – This site isn’t necessarily the first place to go to find a great local guide, but it’s useful if you want to BE a local guide and help improve Google Maps by adding your own photos and comments about places. The community aspect is fun: You get the chance to meet others through periodic hangouts in different locations.
  2. – This is supposed to provide tips and tours by locals. Nice idea, but looking through the site, it seems to need more contributors at this point to make it more robust. As noted above, however, you may still find what you need depending on where you’re going.
  3. – This site offers guides in over 110 countries and though the English site works well, the options for Europe are better than tours in the US which makes sense given this is a Germany-based site.
  4. – Advertised as “the world’s largest marketplace for travelers and guides,” the interface isn’t quite as seamless as some of the others but it does provide many choices, depending on the destination. It isn’t clear how they vet the local guides.
  5. – Like many of these guide sites, they offer a way to pick and choose which local guide you want in a particular city (assuming that city is on their list). Their selection process makes it easy to find a great local guide that matches your interests and needs.
  6. – As the site states, “Request a tour, let the locals bid for your tour and enjoy authentic experiences.” The emphasis here is on cultural and experiential tourism.
  7. – Another site where you can choose your own guide. These guides are selected and approved by the site. Tours here are priced by the tour, not the person. So it pays to have a bigger group.
  8. – This site has (to me) some of the most interesting local tours listed. A search for Seattle offerings presents tours ranging from local islands to thrift store tours to art and food tours. The focus here is on the experience more than the guide (though you do get a full profile and reviews of each guide).
  9. – Listed as “the largest online network of qualified local guides,” like many of the others, you get to select your guide, contact them for details then book through the site where they offer a 100% guarantee.
  10. – The site provides guides of all sorts from cooking to outdoors, freelance tour guides to tour companies. But my test of “Seattle, WA” produced results for Washington, D.C. so it’s hard to say how many options they have.
The best way to find a great local guide - local guide on steps

Another local guide, this one at Ait Benhaddou in Morocco

Personal Connections

The best way to find out just about anything is through people you know. They are (hopefully!) a trusted resource and you can usually determine what they like and decide if it matches up with what you like. But “people you know” is a broader category than you might think. Here are some of your most common options:

  • Friends or acquaintances – Ask everyone you know who has been to the place you’re going and see if they used a guide. But don’t stop there. Ask them if they know anyone else who has been there, then reach out to them asking about any guides they used and their recommendations.
  • Social media friends – You may clump these in with your other friends, but I’ve found followers online that I don’t really know well but who can be great resources. For example, I found Abdul through Kane at Roam and Recon simply because Kane had liked one of my Instagram images and in checking out his profile, I saw he happened to be in Morocco right then. A quick review of his site and then a follow-up email produced a great recommendation.
  • Tourism professionals – You need to be careful you’re getting an objective recommendation but tourist boards and visitor centers often have lists of guides and talking to people there can result in more specific recommendations. But don’t overlook one of my favorite approaches: ask local hotel, apartment, guesthouse or B&B owners for recommendations. Start by asking about general things to see how responsive they are and if you get a good reply, ask about guides. One of our favorite guides, Andy in Granada, Nicaragua came from Chris who runs Miss Margrit’s there. These guesthouse owners know their reputation is tied to your overall experience, so they tend to be quite careful as to who they recommend.
  • Fellow travelers — People you meet while traveling can be another great source because their experience will be fresh. Ask not only about the city where you are, but also about places you’re going. And if you hear of a spectacular guide in a place not on your itinerary, jot it down for later. You never know. A stellar recommendation might cause you to change your itinerary.

Finally, whether you get the name of a guide online or from a friend, don’t stop there. Search online for reviews or ratings for that guide. See what others have said. If you find a particular reviewer that seems to like the same things that you do, email them or contact them through the site with follow-up questions. Again, if it is a 90 minute city overview, you may not need to take so much time. But if you’re investing in a guide for days or weeks, do your homework well.

Key things to look for in a great local guide

So once you get a name, how do you evaluate if they are right for you? Consider these questions either about them or for them.

  • Are they licensed? This isn’t always a requirement, but given a choice, I’ll always go with someone who has some professional credentials. This may show up as a government-approved registration, an actual license or some form of accreditation. If in doubt, ask to see it.
  • Do you feel safe? This isn’t just personal safety, though that’s a very big factor. Does the whole payment process seem secure? Are there any guarantees? What currency do you pay in? Can you pay by credit card (which adds a layer of protection)? Do you have to pay anything ahead of time and if so, can you get your deposit back?
  • Is this a good fit? Do they cater to single women, families, elderly travelers or whatever your category is? Do they know their stuff (and how do you know that, e.g. beyond guide credentials, do they have degrees in the subject, have lived there their whole lives there, have other recommendations or reviews, etc.)?
  • Similarly, do they share your same interests? For example, a guide who is well acquainted with local sports teams won’t be useful to you if you don’t care about sports. But a great local guide will be flexible enough to adjust to your needs. Moreover, a great guide loves what they do. Their enthusiasm will likely be contagious and you’ll walk away with much more insight and excitement about a place as a result.
  • How well do they speak your language? Ask beforehand as to the level of fluency and, if possible, speak to your actual guide to see. I’ve had great guides with minimal English who are more driver/facilitators. But for deeper insights, it helps to have someone who can explain things in detail in your language.
  • What are the logistics involved? Where will they meet you? Do you have to figure out local transportation on your own to the starting point or will they come to you? Are meals or admission fees included in the tour price?

If you can, ask all of these questions ahead of time or at least start off the tour with them. If at the tour’s start, you may be committed to pay already, but at least you can get some norms clarified with your guide so they know what you expect.

Some concluding thoughts on how to find a great local guide

Finally, realize that you can never 100% guarantee finding a great local guide ahead of time because it all comes down to chemistry and compatibility and a host of other factors you can’t control. But if you do some research beforehand and know what you’re looking for, ask the right questions and take steps to find a great local guide who is enthusiastic, knowledgeable and trustworthy, he or she can literally make the difference between a good experience and a life-changing one.

If you have other ideas or have other tips on how to find a great local guide, please share them here.


Want an even better trip? Consider hiring a great local guide

Hiring a great local guide: Abdul and boys

Here’s our local guide Abdul hanging out with my two sons after a day of driving in Morocco.

When you might want to hire a great local guide

Group tours are perfect for some people. Then again, so are tie-dyed jumpsuits and lima beans. It’s all a matter of taste.

For me, I prefer to explore and discover something on my own rather than have a tour guide tell me and my fellow herd members about what the guide thinks is important. But there’s a downside to such independence: I sometimes don’t learn as much or see all that I could.

Moreover, I’m learning that if I

  • only have a short amount of time,
  • am in a country where few people speak my language,
  • want to travel far off the usual tourist routes or
  • am in a place where logistics  can be messy,

then I likely want to do what my two sons and I did on a recent trip to Morocco: hire a local guide.

We had the best of both worlds in Morocco: a tour guide/driver without the tour or the group. Someone who drove just the three of us on our trip around the country. Someone who had a general itinerary in mind but was open to alterations and spontaneous departures from the plan. Someone who knew the top tourist sites but also the off-the-beaten-path gems untouched by the wheels of a tourist bus.

Our guide’s name was Abdul. He works with Authentic Berber Tours. If you’re going to Morocco, you should check them out. I cannot say enough good things about Abdul, Samira and the team at Authentic Berber Tours. They literally and figuratively made our trip.

I’ll cover the details of that trip and how to find your own great guide in later entries here. But for now, let’s explore what makes a local guide like Abdul great versus just competent. Here are fifteen ways a great local guide adds so much value to your trip. They align but expand on this list from another guided tour closer to home.

The value of a great local guide: Tinejdad

One of the many places we visited with Abdul

Fifteen ways a great local guide can make a great trip

A great local guide will:

  1. Customize the experience for you. In our case, Abdul learned quickly what we liked and adjusted both the places we visited and the way we visited them – the timing, cadence, length of time there, etc.
  2. Flex. We traveled during Ramadan when many businesses and restaurants were closed during the day. Abdul worked around this and found alternatives. Great local guides stay flexible.
  3. Be relatable without being intrusive. For us, Abdul was there when we needed him, talked when we wanted to talk and was quiet when we didn’t (four males, after all, can comfortably travel for quite some distance without words).
  4. Look out for your best interests. From pulling each hotel owner aside to ensure we had the best room to rousing a chef at a restaurant from a Ramadan-mid-day rest to make us a special lunch, Abdul made sure we were well taken care of. Great local guides go the extra mile for you.
  5. Translate more than words. Sure, you can get by with gestures, but if you only speak five words of the language and vice versa, it’s hard to engage meaningfully with locals. A great guide not only translates the words but explains (usually later) the meaning behind them. Great local guides provide great insights.
  6. Value long-term relationships over short-term revenue. This is their job so of course guides need to make money. But a great guide knows that they’ll likely make more by creating a great experience for you than they will by exploiting you. For example, Abdul made sure that any of the specialist guides he introduced us to didn’t take us to shops where they’d get a kickback.
  7. Help you see differently. A great guide doesn’t just show you different things. He or she helps you see the world in a new way. For example, Abdul’s explanation of the differences between Arabs and Berbers helped us understand both the people and the history of Morocco in a completely different way.
  8. Be careful and considerate. This sounds obvious, but it’s not. In a country like Morocco where drivers either poke along like an ornery camel or treat the highway like the Bonneville Salt Flats, Abdul (who was both our driver and our guide) put safety above everything else. Unless of course we asked him to go off-roading on the sand dunes. But that’s another story.
  9. Empathize well. A great guide can sense when you’re tired, hungry, nervous, excited or even bored and they adjust the plan or their approach accordingly.
  10. Hiring a great local guide: Camel

    Our guide wasn’t the only one with a good sense of humor.

    Have a good sense of humor. With Abdul, there were some moments when our humor didn’t translate, but even then he wanted us to explain it so that his English was continually improving. And later, he’d make a joke about it. We laughed every day with Abdul.

  11. Practice patience. Great guides learn quickly what matters to you. For example, Abdul never rushed us whenever we stopped for me to take (yet another) photo. Great local guides put up with a lot and don’t complain.
  12. Take responsibility. Great guides free you to enjoy the journey rather than worrying about where to go next. With Abdul, he gave us choices, but also allowed me to relax and not worry about having all the answers.
  13. Vet the good from the bad and show you the best. Good guides show you interesting places and give you facts. Great local guides create experiences that change you. They go beyond facts to provide you with a richer understanding of what you’re encountering.
  14. Reveal places and experiences you’d never find on your own. Abdul took us a back route along a gorgeous river that few visitors ever see because they just don’t know about it. Local guides know the back doors that you might discover on your own…if you had far more time than you do.
  15. Make you feel like a local. Abdul taught us various Berber phrases and customs, took us to a locals-only weekly market, offered to find nice Berber brides for my two sons (who politely declined) and even invited us to his home where we met his extended family. It was, in fact, such a personal experience and not the norm that I will say no more out of respect to Abdul and his family. But I will note that this glimpse into a daily life in a Berber village was one of the highlights of our trip.

I could go on and on but the point is this: a great local guide enables you to gain and discover more in a short time than you could on your own. With a great local guide, as in the case of Abdul, at the end of your time together, you have more than new insights to the country: you have a new friend.

I still may not be a fan of group tours. But I’m starting to wonder if I will ever want to do another trip that doesn’t, at least for part of the journey, include a trusted local guide. A great guide.

Join me next time for ways to find a great local guide wherever you go.


Tourist vs traveler: 25 ways to be a traveler even in touristy places

Tourist vs traveler: Generalife Garden

Peaceful gardens such as this one at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain may not seem so peaceful with hundreds of tourists pouring through them. But even here you can enjoy the place as a traveler…if you know how.

Tourist vs Traveler

The age-old discussion of tourist vs traveler still rages on in travel circles. So what’s the difference? My favorite quote explaining it comes from G.K. Chesterton:

“The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.”

A quick trip over to Brainy Quotes revealed a few more pithy statements:

From Daniel J. Boorstin:

“The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes ‘sight-seeing.’”

 From Russel Baker:

“The worst thing about being a tourist is having other tourists recognize you as a tourist.”

From Agnes Repplier:

“The tourist may complain of other tourists, but he would be lost without them.”

Or, from a different source, I like this one (applied to more than just men) from The Englishman Abroad by Hugh and Pauline Massingham:

“The born traveller—the man who is without prejudices, who sets out wanting to learn rather than to criticise, who is stimulated by oddity, who recognises that every man is his brother, however strange and ludicrous he may be in dress and appearance—has always been comparatively rare.”

tourist v traveler - couple resting at Alcazar

Even people at rest still can choose to be a tourist or a traveler

Does the distinction matter?

Having just returned from Egypt (where there are virtually no tourists right now), Morocco (where there are some, but mostly in the larger cities) and Spain (where in some areas, I heard more American English spoken than Spanish), the notion of tourist vs traveler remains both fresh and relevant to me.

When I see huge hordes of people clearly on a group tour paying more attention to their phones than the surrounding sights, I think, “I don’t want to be like that.” But when I listen to travelers who have been on the road for months or years who condemn these so-called tourists, I think, “I don’t want to be like that either.”

I’ve come to believe that the distinction of tourist vs traveler is similar to that between artist and craftsperson: In most cases, it just doesn’t matter, at least to me as a traveler or a maker. Here are two other similar perspectives I think represent this same attitude:

The difference between being a traveler and being a tourist

Why it’s better to be a tourist than a traveler

To me, the distinction isn’t important because it involves comparison and judgment of others which rarely helps to make your own travel experience a worthwhile one. Your goal on a trip is to discover what matters to you, not how others are spending their time. So instead of looking at other foreigners in a country and classifying them as tourists or travelers, what the last few weeks in some very touristy locations in Spain (mostly Seville, Ronda, Granada and Madrid) has reminded me of is this: You can still operate as a traveler even if you’re visiting places frequented by tourists.

Tourist v traveler: people taking photos at Alcazar

Tourist v traveler: Everyone is taking similar photos. How will yours be different?

25 ways to be a traveler in a touristy area

The real issue isn’t classification or comparison or even location. It’s attitude. It’s about how you engage and go about experiencing a place. So to help you get the most from any location, even ones where millions of others visit every year, here are 25 ways to be a traveler in a touristy area:

  1. Stay curious. Keep asking questions and wondering about all you see and experience.
  2. Learn. As the Chesterton quote notes, you get more from a new place  when you learn something from it. Learning doesn’t have to be formal history lessons about some monument. You can learn about the culture, the food and even about how you react under pressure. Just try and remain open to learning something.
  3. Appreciate what you see. Seeing the positive of every place not only ingratiates you with the locals, it helps them to see their own hometown in a better light.
  4. Learn the language. Even a few words. In Cairo, Egypt, for example, I knew about five words of Arabic. But just trying those few words made a huge difference versus expecting everyone there to speak English.
  5. Engage ordinary people. Knowing the language helps, but striking up a discussion with the people who are used to treating you as just another disinterested tourist — shopkeepers, waiters, taxi drivers or people you meet on the street — can make a huge difference even in touristy places where such locals are normally treated as expediters of some foreigner’s request.
  6. Pause and reflect. While tourists can be great at maximizing limited time, the downside is that you never make sense of what you’re experiencing unless you stop long enough to think about the experience. Sure, you can do so after your trip, but pausing during your journey allows course corrections and the ability to go back to places that cry out for a deeper examination or greater discovery.
  7. Get off the beaten path. Maps are helpful in showing you where the key sights are located. But you don’t have to take the most direct root. Just one block over from the main thoroughfare lies a very different experience.
  8. Live like a local. Airbnb has made this much easier, but in an urban setting, the next best thing in my book to being invited to stay in someone’s home is to rent an apartment. I’ve had great success with and for apartments. These are usually cheaper than hotels, they avoid the group-think and clustering of other travelers that you sometimes get at hostels (which can be both a good and a bad thing) and best of all, they are usually in neighborhoods away from the normal tourist areas. The hosts can point out local markets and restaurants you would likely never find in guidebooks or on your own.
  9. Use public transportation. Public buses, trains, subways, bikes and boats of all kinds provide a very different experience than being on a tour bus or even in your own car. It’s a great way to do both Number 5 and Number 7 above.
  10. Be present. This sounds a bit ethereal, but I simply mean to listen and apply all your senses to a place. Listen carefully to the people you meet — in touristy areas, they are used to being ignored or only half-heard. But also ask yourself — intentionally — what do you smell, taste, feel or hear around you, in addition to what do you see. It really expands your appreciation of the place when you engage all your senses in a conscious manner.

    Tourist v traveler - Ronda plaza

    Sometimes the crowded places are the best…if those crowds are locals.

  11. People watch. You’re in an area surrounded by tourists. You can bemoan the fact or behold their behaviors in a non-judgmental way. Ask yourself, “What can I learn from watching them?” Or just sit back and enjoy the show.
  12. Forget FOMO. Actually, this Fear Of Missing Out lies more in the realm of the traveler than the tourist. But since we’re not making distinctions, just relax. Remember this obvious point: You will never see everything. So enjoy what you do see and chalk up what you don’t as something for your next trip.
  13. Go beneath the surface. Get behind the scenes. Talk to the people others ignore. Janitors, market vendors, ticket takers and security guards at museums and other venues can often provide you with information and access you’d never get through “official” channels. Here’s where knowing the local language really helps. Asking them questions not only informs you, it makes them feel special. You may end up with a private tour…or even a new friend.
  14. Have a good sense of humor. Joking with locals can be tricky because humor doesn’t always translate. But even when I only know a few words of the local language, taking a self-deprecating approach, being genuinely interested and staying playful breaks through even to those people hardened by dealing with thousands of tourists each day.
  15. Pay attention to details. While everyone else is gawking at the big sights, look around. There are small wonders everywhere. Often the small moments on a trip end up being more meaningful than the big ones.
  16. Break things up. No one says you have to eat dinner all at once in the same place. In really touristy areas such as St. Mark’s Square in Venice, Italy or Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Spain, don’t buy an overpriced meal on the square. Eat elsewhere then just enjoy of coffee or drink on the square itself.
  17. Play with local kids. In really touristy areas, the kids may be used to asking for a handout or trying to sell you something. Instead of giving them money, play with them. I recently spent time with some kids in Morocco making up goofy handshakes with them. We all loved it. Kick a soccer ball, jump rope, play tag. Who cares if you look goofy. Everyone will have a better time and you’ll help them see tourists as more than opportunities to make money.
  18. Take a class. You’ll likely be with other tourists, but even in popular locations, you’ll learn about the culture and a particular area — cooking, shopping, local history or crafts — that you wouldn’t on a tour or even on your own.
  19. Get out during the bookend hours. Get up early or stay up late and see the sights without any other tourists (being aware of safety issues, obviously). Especially early in the morning, you get to see the same people who will likely be serving all of us tourists later in the day, walking to work, getting some shopping done or taking their kids to school. The very same place looks much different in the off hours.

    Tourist v traveler: Ronda at Night

    Even places like Ronda, Spain, can be very different after the busloads of day tourists leave.

  20. Change your focus. Move from “What can I get from this place?” to “Who can I be in this place and how can I enjoy my time here?” The former is a consumer perspective where it’s all about the place itself. The latter helps you enjoy you and your traveling companions where your focus is on your experience rather than just the location. For example, I’ve learned to love long dinners not because of the surroundings so much as from simply being away from the norm and taking time out for deeper relationship building.
  21. Sketch. Who cares if you’re good or not. Pausing to draw or paint or even photograph in a slower, more deliberate manner helps break you from the tourist frenzy and helps you see the place in a new way.
  22. Study up before you arrive. I have a hard time digesting historical facts and figures when on site. But when I do research about the context of the place before I get there, I always enjoy the experience more because I understand more. Plus, I don’t have to wait in crowded lines or huddled up with a ton of other people trying to listen to a guide.
  23. Try new things. Even in the most touristy of locations, you’ll likely find food, activities and sporting or cultural events you’ve never experienced before. Now is your time to give them a shot.
  24. Get lost. Get the card or address of the place you’re staying written in the local language so you can always hand it to a cab driver. Then just take off. Nothing moves you from tourist to traveler faster than figuring out your own way in a new place.
  25. Know what matters to you…then pursue it. This is probably the most important one of all. Even in touristy places, you can home in on areas of interest: shops, crafts, hobbies, food, etc. Discovering makers or chefs or farmers or athletes becomes a form a treasure hunt. Everyone else around you will be looking at the same old tourist sites while you’re off connecting with your passion.

Now its your turn

What else can you do to be more of a traveler even in touristy locations? Share your thoughts. Then go out and try some of these approaches and see if the distinction between tourist and traveler really matters to you.