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The best websites for planning cultural vacations

SmarterTravel

George Bernard Shaw once said “I dislike feeling at home when I am abroad.” Many travelers today feel the same way, and seek out experiences that will expose them firsthand to a region’s customs, traditions, cuisine, and music—in short, an insider’s view of the local culture. Cultural travel leaves familiarity behind, and provides countless opportunities for learning, growth, and lasting memories.

A simple keyword search for “cultural travel” results in thousands of websites, with listings ranging from individual tour providers to blogs, travel community sites to volunteer groups. With so many choices, how do you separate the worthy from the junk? We’ve sifted through these countless offerings (then sifted again) to report on the best cultural travel sites on the web today.

responsibletravel.com

All travelers can find a vacation that fits their interests on responsibletravel.com, a worldwide clearinghouse of socially and environmentally conscious vacations. Choices range from adventure (mountain biking, scuba diving, safaris) to relaxation (beach holidays, luxury travel, and honeymoons). The variety of search capabilities enables travelers to browse by regions, activities, and departure dates for a fully customized vacation. You can also search for community-based tours that directly benefit and involve members of the culture you wish to visit. The site has a clean, well-organized look, so all that information is a cinch to find.

Additional features include user reviews and a blog reporting on favorite destinations, last-minute deals, and industry news.

Best yet, each travel provider represented has been carefully screened and vetted by responsibletravel.com’s staff, so you know you’ll be supporting local economies, preserving the environment, and encouraging sustainable practices.

Favorite feature: The site is impeccably presented and organized, and is very easy to search.
Could improve: Despite all responsibletravel.com’s search capabilities, there is no search by price option.

Greeter Tours

There’s no better way to see a city than with a local guide. With an insider’s perspective, you can avoid tourist traps, enjoy neighborhood spots off the beaten path, and dine at mom-and-pop places missing from your guidebook.

Global Greeters provide two- to four-hour visits with a local, who will show you a neighborhood, offer advice on navigating the city and using public transportation, and share recommendations for favorite restaurants and hotspots. Currently, there are Greeter programs in Chicago, Fairbanks (Alaska), Houston, New York City, and Toronto; Adelaide and Melbourne, Australia; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Paris. Each site is independently operated; visit the city that interests you for information on its local program. Some programs, such as Fairbanks, do not have a site just for the Greeter program; you may have to do a bit of digging on the city’s CVB website. The Paris Greeter website has a good directory of Global Greeter programs.

Favorite features: Each dedicated site provides a thorough overview of its program, with all application materials, requirements, and protocol clearly outlined.
Could improve: No centralized site to search across a number of cities.

Experiment in International Living Group Travel Programs

For true immersion in a foreign culture, consider a Group Travel Program through the Federation for the Experiment in International Living (EIL). Group programs are educational in nature, with activities and focuses varying by country, and are typically administered by a designated group leader. For example, a trip could focus on skiing in the Chilean mountains, a city stay in Tokyo, or community service projects in Canada, among many other possibilities. More than 23 host countries, including Argentina, Morocco, and Thailand are represented; individual homestays for those not wanting to travel with a group are also available.

The EIL website is well organized, with prominent links to specific countries and their programs, country representative contact information, and FAQs.

Favorite feature: Quick access to individual country contact information.
Could improve: No centralized listings of what’s currently available, you have to click through to the specific country website.

The Couch Surfing Project

Want to see your destination with a local host, make friends around the globe, and pay nothing for a spare bed (or couch)? Consider The Couch Surfing Project, which links budget travelers with like-minded locals around the world. More than 200 countries and 27,000 cities are represented.

Visitors to the site can scan local chat rooms for the region they wish to visit, “search for a couch,” and browse available host listings. To address safety concerns, users are vouched for by other members of the Couch Surfing network and include past-visitor reviews and extensive personal profiles.

Favorite feature: This is an extensive community site, with a plethora of details on hosts and travelers seeking a couch.
Could improve: With all the information on this site, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. The site could offer additional search parameters beyond country (the only option available at the moment).

Servas International

More formal than the Couch Surfing Project, Servas International is a worldwide cultural exchange program that seeks to foster international and intercultural peace and understanding through connecting locals and travelers. Locals provide a “roof and a bed;” travelers are expected to provide a letter of introduction for the host and a follow-up evaluation report for the country’s Servas representative.

The site is cleanly laid out. Features include member country listings and their respective local links, upcoming events, and information on how to join the network.

Favorite feature: Country listings are well organized and easy to browse.
Could improve: At press time, some of the site’s features (e.g., the discussion forum) were not yet up and running.

Shaw Guides

Want to see a country’s cultural artifacts, learn how to cook regional specialties, or take immersion language classes? With the Shaw Guides online directories, you can browse a wide range of options for cultural and learning vacations.

Despite the site’s cluttered look, it’s not too difficult to find what you seek. The site’s homepage offers 11 learning vacation links, organized by topic. In each specialty section, you can search by keyword terms, or see what’s available with links for travel dates, topics (e.g., art/architecture for cultural travel, baking-pastry for culinary travel, and Bulgarian for language classes), and locations.

Favorite feature: You can search for scores of cultural travel possibilities from all over the world.
Could improve: If any site was in need of a facelift, this is it.

TransitionsAbroad.com

If you’re planning on working, living, or just taking a vacation overseas, TransitionsAbroad.com is a good site to visit. The “travel abroad” section is particularly extensive, with links for accommodations, budget travel, cultural travel, independent travel, and more. To get additional insight on local customs and culture, follow the site’s links to the current issue of Transitions Abroad Magazine and the Wide World Café blog.

Favorite feature: Extensive resources here for all types of travelers.
Could improve: With all the information presented, it’s tricky to navigate the site’s pages, which are cluttered with content and ads.

Center for Cultural Interchange (CCI)

The Center for Cultural Interchange (CCI) works to promote “cultural understanding, academic development, and world peace.” While many of the resources here are geared toward students, adults can also benefit from the nonprofit’s homestay, volunteer, eco-tour, and language-school programs.

The site’s “Adult Programs” and “FAQ’s” sections offer particularly useful information in an orderly, easy-to-access format. Here, you’ll find details on what to expect out of a CCI homestay program, the latest eco-tours and language-school programs available, and how to volunteer abroad.

Favorite feature: The CCI site is easy to navigate, with all site resources organized on the left navigation bar.
Could improve: You sometimes have to sort through long stretches of text to find relevant information.

craigslist

Like one giant worldwide bulletin board, craigslist puts everyone in touch with the locals. While many topic links won’t be of interest (the jobs and gigs categories come to mind), this site is an ideal place to search for activities and events around town, or request a local tour guide. You also may find requests from residents for tennis, biking, or running buddies; foreign language practice; or even a date. And, it’s also a great site to search for vacation rentals both in and around the city you wish to visit.

To start your search, click on the city that interests you; listings are on the right-hand side of the screen. From there, see if your preferred city has an “activities” link under a “Community” header, or “vacation rentals” under the “Housing” category.

Favorite feature: With so much variety here, you’ll be sure to find something that piques your interest.
Could improve: Unscreened content comes with authenticity and safety risks. Practice good judgment when pursuing leads here.

Cross-Cultural Solutions

One of the best ways to learn about another culture is to volunteer with community members. Cross-Cultural Solutions provides volunteer opportunities in 12 countries throughout Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. Programs range from one to 12 weeks, varying by region and project.

Follow the left navigation bar for all the possibilities, with simple headers such as “Where You Can Go” and “What You Can Do” to get you started. From there, it’s easy to narrow your focus on project types, available regions, and how to enroll.

Favorite feature: The site is well designed, with clean text layout and attractive photography.
Could improve: With so much to take in, a few visits may be required to fully familiarize yourself with all that’s here.

UNESCO World Heritage Centre

The UNESCO World Heritage Centre highlights the world’s finest cultural icons and natural sites, with more than 850 places on its list of protected heritage sites. Search by property, country, or region; you can also browse cultural activities in topic areas such as conservation, architecture, and sustainable tourism.

Once you’ve found a site that interests you, the property or site link will take you to a landing page including a brief description, a photo gallery, and relevant policy documents.

Favorite feature: This is truly a one-stop shop for all World Heritage sites across the globe.
Could improve: Strictly informational, this site offers no travel planning resources.

The Big Blue Marble

Lifelong traveler Paul Heller has put together The Big Blue Marble for culturally adventurous travelers whose goal is to “travel-like-a-local rather than a tourist.” Here, “local travelers” will find tips galore on savvy travel strategies, how to be a culturally sensitive traveler, and how to cut costs. You’ll also be able to browse book reviews, blogs, and links to other useful sites.

Keep in mind this site features all hand-picked content and personal experience articles, and lacks the objectivity you’d find on sites with editorial staffs. As such, be sure to check Heller’s links to other sources, along with his own recommendations, to get a wider range of tips and strategies.

Favorite feature: Unabashed advocacy and enthusiasm from Heller, as well as his extensive links to like-minded sites.
Could improve: Heller always gets the last word, particularly in his blogs. A stronger community presence, with a wide range of reader tips, could make this site even more authoritative.

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