Susan Kohlback of Punta Gorda has visited Paris several times. So when she had the opportunity to head to the City of Lights for a long weekend with business partner Linda Rappaport, she sought to go beyond the tourist sights. “I wanted to fill the experience with indulgences and engage the city,” she says.
Some online research dug up Paris Greeters, and Kohlback put in her request for a visit to the Left Bank. A month later, she and Rappaport met their greeter, Laurent, at a Metro stop.
“He took us on a winding path through the Left Bank pointing out cafes, where one could find the best macarons, along with his favorite street markets,” Kohlback says. Over two hours, the women enjoyed seeing where Parisians hang out, shop and which small side streets they use that tourists normally overlook.
Why spend $40 on a scripted, three-hour city bus tour, when there are locals willing to show you their hometown for free? From Athens to Zagreb, you can spend a few hours with volunteer greeters, sharing their favorite sights and hidden spots you might not find on your own.
Destinations offer plenty of guided walking tours, but the greeter concept is unique. Greeters — please don’t call them tour guides — are local volunteers who must complete an extensive application process, plus training and agree to not only host a visit, but to do so for no pay and accept no tips. There are other guide services that don’t charge a fee, but a $15-$20 per-person gratuity is expected at tour’s end.
New programs are springing up in major cities and small towns worldwide. London, Paris, Saigon and Munich now offer greeters. In Madrid, a greeter will show you how to eat tapas along Cava Baja street. Members of Greeters Nord show off their favorite parts of the Lille region in northern France. In Australia, Brisbane Greeters point out sites used by American servicemen during WWII. In southeast England, a Kent Greeter sets up visits to local micro-breweries on foot or by bicycle.
In the United States, New York, Houston and Chicago have greeter programs.
All are members of the Global Greeter Network, an association of welcoming programs around the world. Each is based on New York City’s Big Apple Greeter model, founded in 1992. That means greeter services are conducted by local volunteers, offered to an individual or small group (no more than six) and are free to all.
Says Alicia Pierro, executive director of Big Apple Greeter, “When you have an experience with a volunteer, it is more of a gift instead of a tour. It’s personal and intimate — my city, my stories, very unscripted, like getting a friend or family member to show you around.”
Big Apple Greeter Coreen Bourke takes visitors out up to three times a month. “I usually take visitors downtown, where my heart is, then to Battery Park and work our way up Broadway,” says Bourke. “There’s so much to do and see that half of my guests say, ‘We’ll go wherever you want to take us.’ So, I show them the things I love: an inexpensive restaurant in Chinatown, street dancers, the bronze bull of Wall Street, maybe a free ride on the Staten Island Ferry.”
While on an Australian cruise, Pamela Para, a Chicago nurse, and her financé, John Kasner, opted for greeters in Adelaide and Melbourne instead of a pricey shore excursion. In Adelaide the couple visited the immigration museum where their greeter, Mike Dawson, highlighted the importance of immigrants to the development of the city. And, because of Para’s medical background, Dawson showed her some local health clinics.
“It’s like having a friend show you around,” says Para, who enjoyed the one-on-one attention as well as her greeters’ flexibility. “While walking around Adelaide we came across a local fair, so we stopped to explore it. When other ship passengers found out what we did for free, they were a bit jealous.”
The “no tipping allowed” policy surprised Rodee Schneidert, when he and his wife Vanessa headed from Washington, D.C., to Chicago to meet his parents for a short getaway. “We really wanted to jump-start the adventure by being immersed in the city and see up-close what makes it thrive,” he says.
The foursome stopped in at the downtown Chicago Cultural Center to get their bearings and found Chicago Greeter’s InstaGreeter program. In addition to a full-fledged pre-arranged visit, Chicago Greeter offers a series of hour-long guided walks of downtown or Millennium Park.
“We ended up being shown the city by a former commodities trader who really knew the architecture and history of Chicago. We hopped in and out of old hotels, the trading facility where he worked, even where he used to grab lunch. The enthusiasm one has for their home is contagious,” Schneider says.
As for the gratuity? “I wanted to give him something for his time, which to me was valuable, but the greeter politely refused.”
Why do greeters like Bourne take to the streets for free? They love to show off their city. “I had a fun, wonderful visit with a family from Italy,” she recalls. “The parents and brother relied on the youngest son to speak English and then translate what he and I were saying. It required some mime and a lot of pointing on my part but they got the gist.
“I was touched when the younger brother told me that since he was 5 years old, he wanted to come to New York City. Although the family spoke Italian most of the time, I put together what I thought they meant — that they were excited, happy and grateful. It doesn’t get any better than that!”
Guests feel the same. “Being able to engage and ask questions gives you a whole new insight,” says Kohlback, who was fascinated to learn about Paris’ contingency plans should the city ever flood. “Laurent explained the elaborate system to save and move any artwork or antiquities should a huge flood loom. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteers each tasked with responsibilities to preserve specific works.”
As with many greeters, Bourne has a routine. “When I meet visitors at their hotels we have a little meeting. I ask what they have seen already and what they want to see before they leave New York. I give them free subway and bus maps, including a good map of all the streets in Manhattan, plus a list of my favorite things to do in New York if they’re interested.
“We walk ... up to four hours — sometimes more, sometimes less,” she adds. “Sometimes we’ll hit it off and spend more time together. I offer visitors to call me if they have any questions while they’re still in the city.”
By the time greeter and visitor depart, it’s handshakes or more likely hugs. Kohlback’s greeter even invited her and Rappaport to go out with a group of friends that evening for dinner.
Plus, Laurent gave her one of the best tips for visiting Paris. Never enter a Paris restaurant that advertises “French cuisine” on the door. They obviously cater to tourists and not locals.
Says Kohlback, “Seeing a city through the eyes of someone who lives there — that’s valuable. Leaning how a city works, that’s priceless.”