It’s good to think in travel themes when planning a group tour. But on the landscape of culture and history that makes up this expansive country, that might be tough at times as the options to explore become a type of smorgasbord—there are so many to choose from. If you, as a tour planner, are having a tough time deciding what your next itinerary should include, don’t fret. Decisions must be made, of course, but the plentiful options are good news for those in your group with a sense of wanderlust: Whatever you decide this time, they’ll come back for more.

Put cultural tourism on your list and, as clients return for more, not only will they visit places they might never have been before, but as they have different cultural experiences, they will also deepen their intercultural understanding and gain a broader worldview.

According to the trends, those are some of the very reasons people want to take cultural tourism trips. They want to have positive experiences outside their norm. “Cultural tourism is backed by a desire to discover, learn about, and enjoy the tangible and intangible cultural assets offered in a tourism destination,” according to a report by UNESCO, “ranging from heritage, performing arts, handicrafts, rituals, and gastronomy.”

The destinations highlighted below are your group’s ticket to experience the culture and history at four locations among the country’s smorgasbord of options.

‘It All Starts Here’

Group tour planners looking for a place that seems to have it all—including a long his- tory of many cultures—wouldn’t be amiss to point their compass to San Francisco and the Bay area of Northern California. Steeped in history and multiple cultural influences, San Francisco is a hotbed of activity perfect for any tour group.

Some of the earliest peoples we know about are the Mojave and other Native American tribes, who had lived here for thousands of years when, on Sept. 18, 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Spanish explorer, set his feet on California soil for the first time. Others followed, including those some 300 years later, such as Commodore John Drake Sloat, who, in 1846, declared California’s independence from Mexico. It became a territory of the United States, and the community of Yerba Buena was changed to San Francisco. But remnants of that long-ago past remain and continue to have cultural appeal.

At the Mission District, the oldest settled area of San Francisco, planners will find an array of old churches, historic buildings, and classic Victorian and Edwardian homes. Here, your group can see Mission Delores, built in 1776 and known as the oldest surviving structure in the city, and Mission High School, built in 1896 but rebuilt in the Spanish-baroque style after a fire destroyed much of the structure in the mid-1920s. Besides the historic sites, there are plenty of eateries and other shops on the Mission tour.

As seen here, San Francisco’s cultural richness extends beyond its landmarks. It is found in its art, food, and many diverse communities. Another example is Chinatown, which is full of festivities, food, and shopping that will excite any group touring San Francisco. Plan a visit to the Exploratorium or the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to let your clients’ imaginations run wild.

In large part, San Francisco’s culture is also one of exploration and innovation. A promotional video by the San Francisco Travel Association highlights the region’s creative diversity, from its early use of railroad and street cars to the later creative magic of film, such as George Lucas’ space opera “Star Wars” and the special effects company he founded, Industrial Light & Magic.

“There’s a certain inexplicable magic that happens way out here in this cauldron by the Bay,” the narrator of the video intones. After recapping the many things the city has explored and accomplished over the years, and after reminding viewers that “it all starts here,” the narrator says: “and the best is yet to come.”

Royal House Oyster Bar, New Orleans, Louisiana;
Credit: New Orleans & Co./Rebecca Todd
A Smorgasbord of Culinary Delights

Every city has its oldest neighborhood. In New Orleans that neighborhood is the French Quarter. In this historic area of Louisiana’s most famous city, tour groups will find many opportunities to explore new horizons, among them a flavorful array of tasty eats from various ethnicities that helped make New Orleans what it is today—a mecca of cultural and culinary diversity.

Foodies will enjoy Doctor Gumbo Tours, which offers guided walking explorations through the heart of gumbo and jambalaya territory in the French Quarter. Groups will dine at some of New Orleans’ historic restaurants, some of them more than a century old. Among the menu items are boudin balls, muffuletta, and seafood gumbo. You don’t have to dine in silence; nearby jazz performances add music to the atmosphere.

Royal House, as with other establishments in the area, takes a spin on its menu—including offering alligator bites. Put New Orleans Creole Cookery on the list as well, where groups will find classic Creole cooking—sometimes described as having African, European, and Native American roots. In all these establishments, history is in the mix. Ask the cooks, owners, and servers, and they might wax long about the culture and history behind their famous dishes and establishments.

While food might be a centerpiece of attraction in the French Quarter, there are other experiences to be had here as well. “Often called the Crown Jewel of New Orleans, the French Quarter is one of the most historic neighborhoods,” says Rachel Funel, tourism sales senior account executive with Visit New Orleans. “Tour groups have the ability to easily walk throughout the French Quarter and experience world-class restaurants, the French Market, modern boutiques, the St. Louis Cathedral, and Jackson Square, which are all within a few steps of each other.

“If your group prefers a quaint hotel with a private courtyard or a larger name brand with several restaurants, you’ll find the perfect accommodation in this area. Within every corner of the French Quarter, you can experience exciting museums, a variety of walking tours, riverboats, and cooking schools to serve every traveler.”

American Swedish Institute, Minneapolis, Minnesota;
Credit: Meet Minneapolis
Kaleidoscope of Culture

Of all the places in the Midwest, there is nothing that quite compares to Minnesota. Known for its friendly people—thus the phrase, “Minnesota Nice”—and sometimes harsh winters, the Land of 10,000 Lakes also offers an enriching experience for tour groups seeking cultural diversity. That diversity stretches back to its earliest inhabitants—the Dakota and Ojibwe tribes, both of whom helped shape the state’s culture.

Many more cultural influences are entwined here as well. Czechoslovak, Finnish, Irish, German, and Scandinavian all have impacted Minnesota, making it a kaleidoscope of culture and heritage. It might be tough to nail down just what to see and experience first because there is so much, but because it has the largest population of Norwegians and Swedes outside of Scandinavia, a good place to start is in the Twin Cities and its Nordic heritage sites. (Of note, even the name of the state’s national football team, the Vikings, pays homage to these people who came here long ago.)

In Minneapolis, visit the American Swedish Institute where groups can tour historic Turnblad Mansion, which, according to Explore Minnesota, “features sculpted ceilings, intricately carved wood, beautiful Swedish wool rugs, and exquisite porcelain kakelugnar,” or Scandinavian stoves. For lunch stop by Fika Cafe, housed in the institute building, to try its Swedish meatballs or gravlax, a Nordic dish of cured salmon. If someone in your group doesn’t have much of a hankering for seafood, no worries. The cafe also has other Nordic-inspired meals, as well as coffee and pastries.

The Gammelgården Museum of Scandia, located in Scandia, Minnesota, on the northern edge of the Twin Cities, was established in 1972 and honors Swedish immigrants but “celebrates the story of all immigrants to their new land,” according to the site. “With eight open-air museums throughout Minnesota, Gammelgården Museum is the only one of this type in Washington County.”

Located on the 11-acre parcel are historic buildings constructed by the Swedish immigrants in the 1850s. Guests will learn about the Swedish immigrants and their impact on the region. In nearby St. Croix, visit Hay Lake School, built in 1896 and which served students until 1963, and a log home built in 1868 by Swedish immigrants Johannes and Lisa Erickson. The family lived in the house until 1904. Both buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Minnesota is a wonderful place to experience culture and heritage sites,” says Jake Juliot, public and communication specialist with Explore Minnesota. “To the Midtown Global Market, which feature Somali, Hmong, and many other cultures brought together in one space, to the American Swedish Institute that features many rotating exhibits from Swedish artists, there is so much to see and do in Minnesota.”

Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and U.S. Capitol;
Credit: Adobe/Mandritoiu
A Culture of Memorials

Groups can’t go wrong at the nation’s capital, where they can experience cultural landmarks that memorialize historic events, individuals, and groups in American history, all which helped add to the culture of a growing nation. Washington, D.C., is the epicenter of monuments and memorials to times now past.

Besides the popular sites often mentioned—Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and Jefferson Memorial among them—there’s also the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, located on the National Mall, which houses modern and contemporary art. It’s another monument of sorts, adding to the artistic expression and history of a country. The facility’s unique circular design and outdoor sculptures make it a must-visit for art enthusiasts in your group. They also can chat with local artists and soak up the creative energy in the Eastern Market. Located on Capitol Hill, the market features artisanal crafts, fresh produce and other foods, and street murals.

Groups will enjoy time at the Rubell Museum DC, where they can immerse themselves in contemporary art. And don’t forget the National Gallery of Art, which houses an impressive collection of American and European masterpieces, as well as modern and contemporary art.

Want to help your clients feel like a dignitary? Plan a trip to the Woodrow Wilson House, where guests can eat in the presidential dining room, enjoy cocktails throughout the main museum rooms, or relax in the period garden.

When visiting D.C., be sure to bring tissues for your group. They’ll need them at this next stop, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Groups can learn of stories about the Holocaust and be deeply moved by the stories related here about the Jewish and others who died, held captive, or escaped the Nazi terror. Whether they lived or died, however, all of them suffered trauma, including the deaf and disabled. Learn about them at the “Deaf Victims of Nazi Persecution and the Holocaust” exhibit. Also on display are artifacts from families and individuals who took items with them when they went into hiding from the Nazis. Among the items are an accordion, children’s toys, clothing, jewelry, suitcases, diaries, and love letters. Groups won’t leave the museum unmoved.

Before leaving the nation’s capital, take your group on a stroll through the historic Georgetown neighborhood. Its cobblestone streets, charming shops, and waterfront views make it a delightful stop for any group.

By Andrew Weeks

Main Image: Chinatown, San Francisco, California; Credit: San Francisco Travel Association