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What sites are worth spending money on a tour guide?

Hey everyone,

With my trip approaching in another week or so, I was reviewing my itinerary and I was wondering what some people would recommend in terms of if there are any sites that one simply must hire a guide to get the most out of the experience? There is so much history behind the sites I'm visiting, I am always afraid I am missing details that would make the experience more complete that an educated guide may be able to give.

I will be going to Seville, Cordoba, Granada, Toledo, and Madrid and will be hitting most of the major tourist sites as it is my first time in Spain (so the Cathedral and Alcazar in Seville, the Mezquite in Cordoba, the Alhambra and Albaicin barrio in Granada, etc. etc.).

Just wondering what you all think, if there is one or more sites that really should be led by an experienced guide.

Thanks!

Posted by
18869 posts

There are good audio guides available for the Alhambra, the Mezquita and the Alcazar. There's probably also an audio guide for the Seville Cathedral but I go to so many cathedrals (and often rent their audio guides) that I don't remember. I will say that I haven't found the audio guides for most Spanish churches to be particularly interesting, but that's probably because I just am not really all that interested in the religious iconography.

The Alhambra in particular can take up nearly a full day. I quail at the thought of what a private guide would cost you for 6 hours or so. In addition, if you have a significant interest in photography, you might want extra time for that when you're not paying for a guide. Because the Alhambra is a large complex of many buildings plus grounds and quite a few of the buildings allow only one entry, you can't necessarily return after your guide departs to see things for which you want more time.

This is not to say that a private guide wouldn't be illuminating at any of those sites, just that you do have another option.

Posted by
5287 posts

It depends on your level of interest and knowledge...high interest and low knowledge...get a guide, especially if it is a site with little descriptive information or just a jumble of old rocks.

That said, we rarely get a guide. For places of interest, I usually read up on them ahead of time, study, and have a good base. I supplement that with audio guides, and booklets or phamplets available on site.

But, if you can afford it, guides can be interesting, I like someone who has an historical background, not much patience for one that spouts a rehearsed blurb and includes lots of stories of dubious historical accuracy, bordering on outright "made-up".

Posted by
762 posts

When your in Madrid I would recommend hiring a guide as you enter the Prado Museum, the paintings & sculptures are truly breathtaking but they really come alive when you know the backstory to the art work and the artist.

Maybe I’ve been lucky but every time we’ve hired a guide in Europe, we’ve felt that the results were worth it.

Posted by
2785 posts

I agree about the Prado. We went to Spain on a bus tour, so we had guides for most of the sites except the Alhambra, which only allowed their own guides. I don't think a guide is necessary for most sites, but really enjoyed having the guide in the Prado.

Posted by
99 posts

i think guides are a waste of money and time. much like a cruise or organized tour they provide a canned experience. i prefer to read up/gather information on the site i want to visit beforehand. my main goal for travelling is to soak up the atmosphere, be visually stimulated and not be distracted by a droning voice that points out minute details that may be dubious in the first place. when it comes to art and architecture my attitude is definitely not to miss 'the forest for all the trees'. perhaps i just hate being 'guided' and being told to look at something rather than to discover it myself. i want the experience to be my own and not packaged by someone else. on my recent trip to sicily i just wandered around the island by myself. did i miss a detail on the 8th column on the north side of the cefalu cathedral cloister? i am certain i did. do i care? no! i was happy to 'see' and admire the whole and 'zoom' in as i pleased. i suppose being a cinematographer by profession and a semi-serious photographer i prefer to observe, sometimes waiting for minutes for the perfect 'shot'. the only occasion i would ever have a 'guide' is if i were to have a conversation about caravaggio with an art historian while standing in the contarelli chapel. anyway, this is just me. to each his own. the main thing is to enjoy your trip the way you want to. good luck.

Posted by
145 posts

It depends. I´m a tour guide, so my opinion is biased, but there are many types of guides. A group guide may be repetitive or may be fantastic, a private guide may be a local insider that takes you to places you´d not go on your own...or he may be someone you did not empathize with and your experience is ruined. It always depends on your interests, your expectations and how much you want to spend. And on how able you are on designing your own visit, of course. I always hire a private guide for me and my family. Some have been fantastic and some have been disappointing. The ones in Seville and Merida were great, the one in Toledo did not do anything out of the ordinary.

Posted by
3206 posts

We’ve never hired a tour guide, but have used the audio guides that come with many of the entrance fees. A good guide will provide a plethora of information, most of which I would forget within a couple hours. Also, we generally like to move around quicker than a guide would. My wife is more apt to listen to the audio and I’ll be off taking photos. It really is a personal preference.

Posted by
4866 posts

I have been to all those places and did all on my own with a book as a tour guide. Buy a good one. The Michelin Green guides are excellent, but there are many.

Posted by
388 posts

I think a specific answer to your question depends on a few factors: how much research do you do on your own before traveling, how good are resources already available at the sight (like audioguides, signage, etc.), how much interest you have in a particular place. I'm a fan of guides in specific situations where I really want in-depth knowledge.

I have been to Spain a few times and am currently coordinating a two-family return trip in December. It will be the first time in Spain for half the group, and most of the rest will not have been to all of our destinations. I plan to use tour guides in a few places, primarily because there will be 6 teens/young-20's in our group who I know will NEVER do any advance research on their own, but I also know that they are very interested in background information and historical context, and they just won't get this without someone speaking directly to them at the time they are viewing the object of interest!

We are traveling to Toledo, Granada, Cadiz, Cordoba, and Madrid (one night only in Madrid, no art museums). I'm planning to line up tour guides for the following:

-- Toledo -- about 2 hours for a walking tour of Toledo and to give historical context of the city itself. Specific sites in Toledo that I have been to have excellent available written or audioguides (especially the cathedral), so I don't feel the need for a "person" guide for those. Also, if you have Rick's Spain guidebook, there are some very good, thorough "tours" of specific sites, so be sure to use that resource if you have it (I like the electronic version; I can pull it up on my phone while I'm out and about).

-- Granada -- tour guide for the Alhambra. I've done this before, and I find it just makes the visit so much more meaningful to have an experienced, knowledgeable person who can bring the place to life as it was over the centuries. Three years ago, I used Margarita Ortega Ortiz de Landazuri, recommended in Rick's guidebook. Her partner Maria did our tour, and it was so good.... really, really added to our time in this wonderful treasure. We had her for nearly 4 hours (supposed to be 3, but we had tons of questions, and she was very happy to stay with us until we had seen and talked about everything we were interested in) for 130 euro. A fantastic investment. I will contact her again for our trip this year.

-- Cordoba -- like Toledo, I plan on finding a guide to give us a roughly 2-hour walking introduction to give us historical context for the city, which was so important long ago, but difficult to understand now unless you either do the research beforehand or have someone guide you through.

I will probably also check into some type of food or beverage tour in one of our destinations. We've done this is the past and find it a great way to get some cultural background (food is important!) as well as explore some bars/food/drinks that we might otherwise not have tried on our own.

We are not planning to go to Sevilla on this trip, unless we go for the day from Cadiz, but I will note that the audioguide for the cathedral is terrible; last time I went, I wound up reading aloud from Rick's guidebook so that my family could make some sense out of what is an overwhelming number of notable items packed into an absolutely enormous building. You might consider some type of tour so that you can appreciate the importance of all you will see.

Also, for Madrid, if you are truly an art fan, then think about a guide in the big museums like the Prado and Reina Sofia. I find that art is so much more meaningful when I understand the background and history surrounding the object, and there is SO much to see in Madrid that a good guide might really enhance your experience.

So, that's my 2 cents. I hope you have a wonderful trip!

Posted by
3134 posts

I’m with DebVt and the others who have said that a good guide immeasurably enhances your experience. I find that if I try to read from a guide book, I focus more on the reading than on the sight. Audioguides are better, but not as good as a live person. The Alhambra, especially, with its multiple sections and long history will be better experienced with a knowledgeable guide.

Posted by
7908 posts

Wow, I am a tour guide and NONE of my tours are "canned". That is an insult to every professional guide who is passionate about making your time with them be special and worth every euro you spend. Sounds to me like someone may not have done much research and had the bad luck of getting a crappy guide, perhaps on one of those "free" tours. That said, everybody has a bad day now and then, including guides.

I personalize every private tour, and go out of my way to make the time spent touring with me be memorable. I invest 100s of hours in research and go on tours myself to make sure I am always up to date and that I know what I am talking about.

Posted by
416 posts

What Rosalyn said.
Money well spent for tour guides on many of my trips. I've never had a bad experience and always learn something new.

Posted by
2061 posts

I can appreciate the thoughts of MikelBasqueGuide and Ms. Jo as I worked as a guide for a few years when living in Rome. Like them, I spent hours researching, taking other tours, talking with fellow guides, and becoming an expert - at least, that's what my clients told me! I enjoyed painting a picture and creating lifelong memories for the travelers I helped. I primarily did private tours and you quickly adapt to "walk & work" at the pace and interest level of your clients. A good guide "reads" his audience. Thus, I am a firm believer in using guides and often coordinate a guide when I travel to a new location. I've been fortunate to meet many excellent guides.

I understand it's a personal choice... But I'd suggest those that have never used a guide - a private guide - try it; you might be surprised by how enjoyable it can be.

Posted by
648 posts

James,

In Spain, I have mixed guided walking tours (group & private) with the use of guidebooks and audio guides. I find that the Rick Steve's audio guides provide a some good background information and narrative if you are going to be your own tour guide.

Where I found guides very helpful are walking through the Albaicin and Sacromonte in Granada. It is very easy to get lost and without someone pointing out why there are cedar trees, wells, and some of the history of the caves, I would never have been able to get the insights on my own.

I also enjoyed combining walking with food tours in Madrid and Seville with Devour Tours. They have a nice blend of taking you to small, local places along with history.

I would also second the Prado, I have been there a dozen times over the years and this last trip with my husband, we got a guide and there were aspects of the museum that i discovered.

Enjoy your trip.
Sandy