Let’s be honest: one can do without a private guide, same as one can get fit without the benefit of a gym or learn a language without a language teacher.
But let’s face it: few people get fit by exercising in their living room or learn a language through a book and some CDs.
It takes time and effort (not to mention a good memory) to thoroughly study a place you’ve never been before and even if you do, the experience on the ground can be quite baffling and unlike the best illustrations in your guide book. On top of that, unfamiliar concepts are rarely comprehended unless interpreted by someone with first-hand knowledge of them.
What does a guide do?
In short, a private guide is a “cheat”, a shortcut. He (or she, but allow me to use just the first) will save you time and effort. He will know all the facts to be found in the best guide book, plus countless others no book can contain. He will have answers for you just when you ask them, without taking time to leaf through 500 pages to look something up. He will know the best route, plus a few shortcuts the book doesn’t mention. He’ll be updated, and will know all about changes in opening hours, timetables, and so on. He will know about the strikes and other events that may upset your schedule. He can help in case of something unexpected, such as illness, flight cancellation, strike, etc. He can advise you on how to avoid being ripped off. He can offer tips on where and what to eat, what to enjoy and what to avoid. He can tailor a tour to your needs and tastes. He can adapt, delivering a playful tour to a family with children and a fact-filled one to a group of history buffs.
Above all, your guide, if local, will be a window to the culture and mentality of the country you visit. He’s your instant fact finder to ask about anything that sparks your curiosity. He’ll tell you about the customs, habits, mores and morals of his people, and explain all the curious things that make his country different from yours.
So why licensed?
Tourist guides of Greece are a distinct bunch, among the best educated in Europe. By law, they have to study 2,5 years in a University-level school to get a license to guide. Many are university graduates also, usually historians or archaeologists, like myself. They all have to pass very strict exams during which they are tested on their knowledge of the entire Greek history, archaeology, geography, natural history and more. They also have to prove their proficiency in both Greek and at least one other language, the one they will be licensed to guide in. All in all, one could say they’re walking and talking encyclopedias of things Greek.
Are there non-licensed guides?
Legally, one can be a tourist guide only if they have proved that they know what they are talking about. If they have not successfully graduated from Guides’ school, then they get no license to guide and if they get caught doing so, they may get arrested or fined. Licensed guides can be recognised by the badge they have to wear when on duty (like the one on the left).
There are several individuals (usually taxi drivers, but others too) who also offer tours without being qualified or having a badge. Strictly speaking, these are illegal, but the police will usually look the other way, as long as they limit themselves to tours of the city, and do not enter a site or museum (which most are careful to avoid).
Local friends – if you’re lucky to have one – make great guides, because you get to spend time with them and their family, experiencing local life and habits first hand. A guide’s job is essentially that: playing the part of the friend you wish you had overseas, plus answering all your questions at the same time. Or, if you prefer, talking about history and art on one hand and explaining why on earth Greeks have dinner after 10pm on the other.
Summing it up
Sure, a guide may not be necessary, but it is worth hiring one, especially if you don’t have local friends waiting for you at the airport. A private guide will enhance your experience of the country in a way no book or audio guide can. Having spent a few thousand for a trip to Greece, spending a few extra euros on a guide is not a splurge, it’s an investment.
Having said all that, I perfectly understand that not everyone wants a guide. You may want to go exploring on your own, or skip the sites altogether and simply spend a few days in the sun.
Whatever you do, have a wonderful holiday!
PS. If you’re still interested in hiring a guide, you may want to see my reviews.
Ari, you just don’t know how to blow your own horn!
Being in Greece without a guide is like having lost your baggage, but being without a guide like YOU, is like having lost passport and credit cards too.
Greece is just too different and too ancient for us simple folk. We do some reading, pack a guide book and think we’re doing ok, but we’re clueless. It’s like wading in the shallows thinking it’s the ocean.
I should know, I’d been to Greece before, and I thought I knew a couple of things. Boy, was I wrong! It was you who showed us what we were missing. You put the bits of the puzzle together and it all made sense. Compared to what you did for us, the first time was not much better than googling. Honest. So brag about it. You got every right to.
Er, thanks Ted. I don’t know what to say…
Why hire a guide? Because then you get to meet the wonderful Aristotle! After our group tour in Oct 2013 for Athens and the Peloponnese, I raved about Athens and Greece so much that my husband wanted to see for himself. As you had been so great first time round, you were of course the first person to go approach to guide us for couple of days in Athens only. Although my husband is naturally an “interested” person, but had no prior knowledge of the city, he found your enthusiastic, in-depth coverage was still perfectly pitched to someone with no previous experience. For me it was a chance to have you to myself (well, plus one), rather than having to share with a group of 20! Which meant the chance to ask lots more questions as well. I would not hesitate to recommend you to anyone with a real INTEREST in experiencing Athens, whether or not they know anything about the place. And of course, as you are a professional archaeologist you are a walking encyclopedia. I know we will meet again, as I have every intention of asking you to take us to Delphi one day! Thank you!
Thank you F. Looking forward to seeing you and R. again, soon I hope.