The 10 Best: Cultural tours
Nick Trend tracks down the best trips to give you an authentic flavour of your destination
One of the most memorable experiences in my travelling life was being shown around the Prado Museum in Madrid by a curator of Spanish paintings from the National Gallery.
"This," he said, pointing to a streak of light across the canvas of Velazquez's great painting 'Las Meninas', "is my favourite white line in the whole of art history." He went on to describe the extraordinary visual power of that simple stroke of white lead paint and how it illuminated and unified the image.
For the small group of us clustered in the gallery, he brought the painting to life in a way that no audio tour or museum guide can usually get close to.
That's the difference that a real expert and enthusiast can bring to a guided tour. And I don't seem to be alone in appreciating this. The number of expert-led, small-group tours that focus on art, architecture, history, music, military history and other cultural themes has grown sharply in recent years.
Many of the better tours now include admission to houses and collections not usually open to the public, after-hours visits to the more famous ones, or the chance to meet curators.
Meanwhile, the bigger operators of escorted tours have been developing their own range of cultural tours – often with bigger groups and a more general approach, but just as appealing for those who prefer a bit more variety and a little less academic focus.
Whichever approach you prefer, such holidays can be a great opportunity to learn and enjoy the culture and history of a destination, and they can also be great fun. After all, you will be among fellow enthusiasts, and you will have plenty of time to chat to the guide while travelling, eating and drinking on the tour. Here are some of our favourite options for the year ahead.
1 Art in Amsterdam
Offering the chance to be among the first to see the restored Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which reopened last month, British expert Tate Travels, in partnership with the Ultimate Travel Company, has a trip including two visits to the museum in the company of Robert Uterwijk. An artist and lecturer, he will explain the renovation and show the newly displayed collection of Dutch paintings.
The itinerary also includes the newly reopened Van Gogh Museum, and a reception at the privately owned Huis Van Loon.
Details From €1,500; see theultimate travelcompany.co.uk.
2 Venetian delights
Vienna offers something for culture vultures of all stripes, with its imperial architecture, classical music, food and fine-art traditions.
This five-day tour introduces you to Austria's artistic and cultural legacies, from the architecture of Otto Wagner to the shimmering artworks of Gustav Klimt. Digest what you've seen in style, over coffee and Sachertorte, at the iconic Hotel Sacher.
Details From €1,100; see vjv.com.
3 In the Footsteps of Alexander
A new tour for 2013 retraces the footsteps of Alexander the Great across Turkey from Istanbul to Bodrum. The guide is Peter Sommer, who in 1994 walked 2,000 miles across Anatolia, from Troy to the battlefield of Issus, retracing Alexander's march in Turkey.
Details From €2,700. See petersommer.com.
4 Classical Campania
A chance for special, behind-the-scenes access to some of Pompeii's private monuments and buildings is why this tour is among Andante Travels' most popular options.
Spring and autumn departures are led by a range of expert lecturers including William Manning, Emeritus Professor of Roman Archaeology at Cardiff University.
Details From €1,500; see andantetravels.com.
5 Heritage of America
From the luminous Palladian facade of the White House in Washington, to the gleaming skin-and-bones skyscrapers of NYC, the architecture of the commercial and political capitals of the US bespeaks the confidence that made America great.
Western & Oriental's Heritage of America Escorted Tour explores the two cities during a 10-day itinerary that also takes in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence was signed, and a night among the Amish in Lancaster.
Details From €2,000; see wandotravel.com.
6 Normandy Landings
This four-day trip includes visits to some of the most evocative of the D-Day sights: Arromanches, where one of the Mulberry harbours was established, Omaha Beach, Pegasus Bridge and the British cemetery at Bayeux. The guide is Rhydian Vaughan, formerly of the Welsh Guards and a member of the Guild of Battlefield Guides.
Details From €1,000; see theultimatetravel company.co.uk.
7 Mayan magic
The combination of landscapes, cultures and history in Central America create a destination ripe for exploration.
Mayan civilisations are uncovered on this tour through Guatemala, Mexico and Belize with Intrepid Travel.
Included in the nine-day itinerary are the abandoned city of Tikal, now overrun with jungle wildlife, and visits to San Ignacio and Caye Caulker. Local guides lead small groups away from the regular tourist track.
Details Prices from €1,102; see intrepidtravel.com or call 01-524 0071.
8 Russian Highlights
The cultural contrasts between Russia's two biggest cities, Moscow and St Petersburg, are explored on a week-long trip with Tucan Travel. Beginning in Moscow, the tour leads you through the relics of the Soviet regime, including Lenin's mausoleum, as well as iconic buildings such as St Basil's Cathedral.
From the complex history of Russia's capital, the journey takes you to St Petersburg, known as the 'Window to the West'. The differences between the two cities are fascinating.
Details From €999; see tucantravel.com or call 1800 553 559.
9 European Jewels River Cruise
Uniworld specialises in boutique river cruises, and this one, beginning in Budapest, takes in some spectacular sights before docking in Amsterdam.
An expert art historian covers 'European Jewels of Art and Architecture', and there are 18 excursions led by local experts along the way.
The trip includes nine Unesco World Heritage sites in four countries, as well as medieval villages, palaces and hidden corners of cities, bringing you back to a luxurious ship each evening.
Details From €4,799; see uniworld.ie.
10 Best of Spain
Spain is a diverse and vibrant country, but most visitors opt to spend their time in one city, rather than travelling between a few. The 'Best of Spain' tour from Responsible Travel begins in Madrid, where guides lead you through the best of the capital's art and architecture. From there, it's down to Andalucia, taking in the Alhambra in Granada, tango in Seville and the city of Cordoba.
The tour finishes in Barcelona, with an exploration of all things gothic and Gaudi.
Details From €1,404; see responsible travel.com.
Need to know
Choosing a tour: the questions to ask
Look at the itinerary in detail – does the place look right for you?
How much is squeezed into the time available?
Is the 'expert' named in the brochure or website? You should be given some biographical details and evidence of expertise in the subject of the tour.
What is the maximum size of the group? More than 15 to 20 and the atmosphere ceases to be intimate.
Ask about the hotels. Often they aren't named in the tour description, but a good operator will tell you which they are, and whether they are in the centre.
If you are having to pay a single supplement, get the name of the hotel so that you can check, by looking at the rates published online, that the supplement is a reasonable one.
Which meals are included?
Will you have to pay extra for flights, travel and entrance fees or tips?
Compare offerings from rival companies – the price or timing might be better, or the expert more appealing.
Additional research by Nicola Brady