Everyone travels differently. I get that. Some people like to wander without a plan, some go only by a book, some want a foodie trip, while others are there to shop. After telling several of my well-traveled friends that I enjoy taking bike tours in new cities, they all looked at me with disgust. I'm not trying to tell anyone how they should travel, but I think if my friends knew why I find bike tours so great, they'd probably want to take them too.
Lay of the land: There's no better way to get a layout of a city than by bike. Subways are underground so you can't tell where you are during transport. Cars and buses are confined to streets and traffic patterns, whereas a bike can travel in parks and on sidewalks. Not all cities offer bike share programs and even those that do aren't necessarily easy to navigate for a newcomer. There's no way I would have been comfortable using Vélib' in Paris because I didn't know the streets or location of landmarks well enough. Not to mention, I don't speak the language, so reading signage would have been nearly impossible. Also, compared to bus tours or renting a guide, bike tours are cheap -- sometimes even free!
- Cover a lot of ground quickly: Bikes are faster than exploring on foot. End of story. There's no way to cover nearly 20 miles of ground in under two hours like Staci and I did in Versailles or 15 miles of rainforest like I did with my family in Alaska (unless you're an insane runner and I'm pretty sure you're not enjoying yourself along the way). Also, fun fact -- I'm 99% sure we would have been ticketed for riding up the Champs Élysées on the sidewalk had we not been in a tour group.
- History lesson: Some people read up on a place before they visit. I'm not one of those people. I like to wait till I'm in a place, get a feel for it on my own terms, then get to know the story behind things. A bike tour is a great way to do this in a more interactive way. Most tour guides are incredibly knowledgeable about the history of a city, architecture, and of course, culture (since they live there!). Though most guides start with a basic script, they also invite tour-goers to ask questions along the way. Did you know that Valentine's Day (or Sant Jordi's Day) in Barcelona is celebrated by women giving their men books as gifts? Previous to our bike tour, I did not.
- Insider Tips: If not for the Versailles bike tour Staci and I took, we would never have known about the underground jazz club that the tour guide suggested. This former medieval torture chamber-turned-jazz club is a locals-only haunt that became a highlight of our trip.
- Exercise: As you probably know by now, Staci and I are gym rats. Being away from our exercise routines can be tough, but going for a half-day bike ride certainly helps. It also comes in handy when we order three giant pastries for a snack. Or go for a post-ride beer tasting (which some tours offer!).
- Meet new people: Did Staci and I walk away with new best friends? No. But we did meet really cool people from all around the world! We chatted with people from France, Chile, New Zealand, Germany and Australia.
Are all tours created equal? Of course not. Do I regret any of the ones I've taken so far? Not a single one. I get the stigma that comes along with taking a tour -- it's too "touristy," it doesn't look cool to be in a group of 10 people listening to a guide, and you're confined to the areas designated by the tour. That said, I'm pretty sure bike tours are considered normcore at this point (especially with the safety vests), so swallow your pride, ditch the too-cool-for-school attitude, and capitalize on being a dork while you can.
Still not convinced? Check out our night ride through the streets of Paris! (Note: This video does not feature Staci falling off a bike.)