Did you know it’s possible to get into the Tower of London alone after-hours? Tour Italy’s closed-to-the-public castle wineries with the nobility that owns them? Have a romantic dinner amid ancient ruins on an uninhabited Greek island?
Such magic can happen when you book your trip through the right insider—such as the Trusted Travel Experts on my WOW List. They’re the people you contact when you realize that life is too short not to make your next trip extraordinary. They can get you into places that are normally off-limits, introduce you to fascinating locals and otherwise-impossible-to-meet VIPS, and guarantee you return home with profound insights and priceless memories.
Here are 26 examples of what they can pull off in Europe. (Stay tuned for articles on what they can do for you in other parts of the world.) They typically arrange such experiences as part of a larger itinerary, so they can guarantee a magical trip from start to finish. Reach out to them by clicking on their name in each entry: That way they’ll know I sent you and you’ll get priority status.
1. Gain special access to the Acropolis Museum after-hours.
The Museum can be mobbed during the day, but it’s entirely different at night when it’s closed to the public. We can arrange for you and an expert guide to have the whole place to yourselves. The views of the ruins from the third-floor Parthenon Gallery are always exceptional, but they’re especially dramatic when the Acropolis is spot-lit after dark—and when you have the space and quiet to appreciate them.
2. See Lake Como’s hidden treasures on a classic Riva Aquarama speedboat.
Lake District, Italy
Your English-speaking captain will pick you up in one of these mahogany beauties favored by the locals and take you on a lakeside tour that will reveal the many magnificent villas and gardens that are hidden from view on land.
3. Have high tea with the Duke of Argyll in his legendary castle.
Love history? Downton Abbey? Scottish clansmen? If the Duke (who’s the chief of the Highlands’ Campbell clan) is in residence, we’ll arrange for you to tour his home, iconic Inveraray Castle, and chat over tea in one of its formal entertainment rooms. The property stood in for Downton Abbey’s Duneagle Castle, where the Crawleys celebrated Christmas.
4. Discover true farm-to-table Italy in a local family’s home in a tiny village on the Amalfi Coast.
Your hosts—gracious, heart-warming people who live more or less off the land—will treat you to an unforgettable culinary experience in their simple home in Nocelle (pop. 120). Almost everything you taste has been grown in their garden. The oil is pressed from the uncle’s fruit. The wine comes from a cousin’s vines down the way. Activities vary—helping in the kitchen, lolling on the terrace—but the finale is always an incredible meal. For guests who want to spend more time in this magical place, we build a multi-day itinerary based on individual interests, such as village history, food preparation (pasta, eating seasonally, etc.), and the Walk of the Gods—a spectacular coastal footpath that has its nexus in Nocelle.
5. Get into the Tower of London after-hours.
A Yeoman warder will show you the secrets of the ancient fortress that is the Tower of London. You’ll enjoy a private viewing of England’s crown jewels in all their splendor and get to see things the public never does.
6. Gain entry to the Hermitage’s secret storage rooms.
With 1,000-plus rooms, The Hermitage is Europe’s largest museum. A deeply knowledgeable curator can get you past the lines and crowds, help you navigate to the best artwork, and make it come alive. You’ll get to see pieces from Catherine the Great’s original collection (she opened the museum in 1765, in what was then the royal residence of the world’s wealthiest family) and even visit the storage rooms, 40 minutes away and stuffed with rarely seen treasures. There are only a handful of curators at the Hermitage who can do this, and you have to know someone who knows someone to arrange it, but the experience is unforgettable.
7. Be alone in the Alhambra at sunset.
Free of the tourist mobs that pack this medieval Moorish complex during the day, you’ll experience the true magic and majesty of its palaces, courtyards, and fountains—and feel like you’ve been transported to another world and time. The private tour is expensive, but well worth it, especially for an extended family or other large group.
8. Take part in a traditional Turkish wedding.
Summer is prime wedding season in Turkey, and we love to arrange for travelers to attend akina gecesi (henna night), which kicks off the three-day celebration. The evening starts when the bride is brought in, her face covered with a red sheer cloth. Women apply henna to her hands and wrap them to give her palms the desired ornamental color. Then there’s music and dancing (men with men and women with women, in traditional Turkish fashion), and a more-the-merrier atmosphere in which everyone is welcome. Travelers who’ve participated in these festivities always come away having made new friends.
9. Tour closed-to-the-public Tuscan castle wineries with the nobility that owns them.
Italy is a land of wine, but no region has wineries more storied and revered than Tuscany. Many of these historic estates have been owned for centuries by successive generations of a single noble family, and they are set around private castles or villas open only to a select number of guests for private visits. Our connections can gain you access to certain exclusive estates, where you’ll spend the day touring the property with the (invariably charming) owner, sampling their prestigious wines, and joining the family for a lavish lunch that shows home cooking at its finest.
10. Stretch strudel with a master.
Make authentic Habsburg-style strudel from scratch with a chef at Gundel, the century-old restaurant in Budapest that Hungarian-born restaurateur George Lang (of New York’s Café des Artistes) helped restore to its former glory in the 1990s. Tradition says you should be able to read a newspaper—or a love letter—through the thin, hand-stretched dough that is the basis of Hungarian strudel. You may not be able to perfect your technique in a single lesson, but there’s no harm in trying. After class you get to eat your creation.
11. Be awed by Princess Isabelle’s Private Apartments in Palazzo Colonna.
The palazzo is one of Rome’s great showpieces, filled as it is with artistic masterpieces dating from antiquity to the Baroque age. You may even recognize it, as it was prominently featured in the movie Roman Holiday. Normally the palazzo and Princess Isabelle’s rooms are open only on Saturdays, but Context can get you in according to your schedule.
12. Enjoy a romantic dinner amid ancient ruins on your own uninhabited Greek island.
Close to Mykonos lies the uninhabited island of Delos, an impressively large archeological site where myth says Apollo and Artemis were born. Delos has the most monumental antiquities from the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods. We can arrange for it to be all yours for an evening, with tables set between the ruins and traditional food brought in by a Mykonos restaurant.
13. Get inside Burgundy’s most exclusive wineries for private tastings.
The Côte d’Or is all about access and contacts. While it’s not difficult—and it’s very worthwhile—to call a smaller winery and get in for a one-on-one tasting with the winemaker, the higher up the ladder you go, the harder it is to get in. There’s simply no replacement for contacts, and from our headquarters in Beaune, we can get wine lovers into the very hardest-to-visit domaines.