Been there, done that and bought the T-shirt? There is more to a major tourist attraction than meets the London Eye, or the Taj Mahal for that matter. Behind-the-scenes tours abound at attractions with nearly as many opportunities for backstage or VIP access as there are tourist hot spots in the world.
Often, higher-end hotels will offer exclusive tickets or tours via the concierge desk and increasingly tour operators such as Tauck and Trafalgar can provide exclusive experiences that go beyond the standard, tailored into their itineraries. But independent travellers on any budget can find a way to extend their fascination for even the most-visited monument and see it with new eyes through these experiences that go a little deeper and are perhaps a bit left-field.
To help you on your way, here's Traveller's guide, compiled by our team of expert writers, to the best behind-the-scenes stealers, from a tour inside Boeing's massive factory near Seattle where the big jets roar to life to a crowd-beating backstage glimpse of the Eiffel Tower in Paris from within its bowels and girders.
Level Nine Tour, Space Centre Houston, Texas, US
WHY BOOK The ultimate tour for space junkies and astronomy buffs, this tour takes you behind the scenes to NASA's restricted areas, usually led by someone who's worked on previous space programs such as Apollo.
WHAT YOU SEE Visitors to the Space Centre hoping for a crowd-free experience are typically sorely disappointed, while the standard NASA tour barely scratches the surface. Level Nine tours, however, give you unprecedented access to the workings of NASA. Over four-five hours, you go into the historic Mission Control, which served as the command centre for man's landing on the moon, and sit in the observation room of the International Space Station (ISS) Mission Control. You'll hang out in the cafeteria where the astronauts and NASA technicians eat and see the staggering Neutral Buoyancy Lab where training takes place for future space missions in the world's largest swimming pool – emulating the weightlessness of space. You'll also see where astronauts train for time at the International Space Station, come face to face with vehicle prototypes being developed for Mars exploration, while inside a gigantic hangar at Rocket Park, you'll be dwarfed by the massive Saturn V Rocket; the most powerful rocket ever built and operated.
THE DETAILS The tour costs $90 a person including lunch and two days entry to the space centre; book well in advance at spacecenter.org as only 12 participants (14 years old and over) are booked on each tour. Tours operate Monday-Friday. Two run on Mondays and Fridays; one a day Tuesday-Thursday. See www.spacecenter.org.
Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum and Tour, London, England
WHY BOOK Surely you've dreamt of doing a Novak or Serena and making your victory speech on the hallowed grass of Centre Court? Well, here's your chance to explore the inner sanctum of something that is not just a sporting stadium but an iconic institution. See where Pat Cash won the 1987 final against Ivan Lendl and established a new tradition by climbing into the stands to his family, and the Royal Box which Princess Diana made her own.
WHAT YOU SEE Led by a highly qualified Blue Badge Guide, you'll be taken on a 90-minute tour of Henman Hill, No. 1 Court, the Media Centre and the famous Player's Entrance to Centre Court. The ticket also gives you access to Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum with its 3D cinema.
THE DETAILS The tours cost $50 for adults and $30 for children. Online booking is recommended and during the Wimbledon Championships, the tours do not operate, although the museum is open to those holding Championship tickets. See www.wimbledon.com.
Behind the scenes Eiffel Tower Tour, Paris, France
WHY BOOK If you been to the top of the Eiffel Tower and back down again and think you've seen it all then think again, mon cheri. To really grasp the full majesty of Gustav Eiffel's belle epoque masterpiece, venture into its bowels and clamber around its monumental ironwork, something which is made possible by a compelling behind-the-scenes tour.
WHAT YOU SEE The nearly two-hour guided tour takes a small group of participants into the historic engine room that controls the tower's hydraulic lifts, designed to lean as they make their way up the giant legs of the true iron lady. And if you can't afford to dine at monsieur Alain Ducasse's two Eiffel restaurants then you can at least feed your fascination for the tower itself by climbing atop the roof of one of them, the exclusive Le Jules Verne. From there, well away from the tourist hordes, you'll be right among the intricate Meccano set-like structure, where you will enjoy unencumbered views of both the tower and Paris itself. If that's not enough, the tour also includes a visit to the once secret World War I bunker beneath Champs de Mars - the park next to the tower - where news of the end of conflict was first received.
THE DETAILS Tours, conducted in English or French, take place nine times a day from 10am until 7pm and cost from around $50 for an adult and child, depending on the prevailing exchange rate. See www.viator.com.
Panda, Adelaide Zoo, Australia
WHY BOOK It's a rare privilege to be given the opportunity to enter the enclosure of endangered giant pandas, not least at Adelaide Zoo, where the southern hemisphere's only such specimens, Wang Wang and Fu Ni, reside.
WHAT YOU SEE Enter bright and early through the back door with the pandas' keeper and set about helping to prepare their feed, hide food in the nooks and crannies of their public display enclosure, and - most joyously of all - feed them a pre-breakfast snack through the bars of their indoor sleeping quarters. Once they've been released into their enclosure, join regular zoo-goers on the other side and watch as they seek out the food parcels you've left them.
THE DETAILS The tour costs $495 for non-members (including zoo entry); $461.50 for members and lasts one and a half hours, includes morning tea and is open to people 16 years and older. Tours start at 8am on Mondays, Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. See www.adelaidezoo.com.au.
The Future of Flight Boeing Tour, near Seattle, US
WHY BOOK Because it's a chance to go inside the largest building on earth and watch planes being built.
WHAT YOU SEE Big things are often measured in terms of football fields. Well here, you don't just measure the building like that – the doors are the size of a football field. Boeing's cavernous Everett plant is where 747s, 767s, 777s and Dreamliners are assembled and painted. The tour allows you to view the big birds in a state of undress, covered in green plastic protective sheaths as workers tootle around in special vehicles, as it's too far to walk, methodically tending to highly individualised tasks. And the completed planes line up outside, waiting for test flights.
THE DETAILS Show Me Seattle runs tours from Seattle for $105. If self-driving, beat the tour buses by arriving for the 9.30am tour. The tour, plus entry to the Future of Flight Aviation Centre, costs $22 in winter and $25 in summer, when advance-booked (add $2.85 for rocking up unannounced). See futureoflight.org; showmeseattle.com.
Behind the scenes stadium tour of Manchester United Football Club, Old Trafford, Manchester, England
WHY BOOK Rival fans may not love them, but United are one of the world's biggest and best-known teams, with a history of on-field success, and off-field tragedy. In 1958, eight young players, returning home from a European fixture, were among 22 people to die in a plane crash at snow-covered Munich airport.
WHAT YOU SEE Visitors to the "Theatre of Dreams" see Old Trafford through the eyes of footballing heroes, from "the dizzy heights of the 76,000-seater Sir Alec Ferguson Stand (named after the team's legendary former manager) to the atmosphere soaked players' "dressing room", via the club museum and the Red Cafe.
THE DETAILS Basic, 80-minute tours run 9.40am to 4.30pm, seven days a week, except on match days, when restrictions are in place. A basic museum and tour visit costs $40 for adults and $25 for juniors. Pay extra for tours led by a "legendary former player." See www.manutd.com.
Point of Human Origins Experience, Pinnacle Caves, Mossel Bay, South Africa
WHY BOOK You will experience an archaeological wormhole into the Stone Age, transported to where the earliest evidence of human behaviour was discovered - not in Eurasia 50,000 years ago as was originally thought but at Africa's southern tip, about 180,000 years ago. Not just any guide either - Dr Peter Nilssen, one of the very archaeologists who made the recent discovery is your guide.
WHAT YOU SEE Nilssen, a brilliant commentator, tailors each visit according to the group's interests. He covers elements including Stone Ages, sea levels, cave formation, archaeological deposits and interestingly, our future as a species. After the presentation, descend 200 steps to Cave 13B, to stand at the exact point on earth where evidence for the origins of human behaviour began. There's no public access to the caves except via this tour, or as part of the excellent Oystercatcher Trail slackpacking hike.
The Mughal Heritage Walk in Agra, India
WHY BOOK To see the Taj Mahal – the world's most famous monument to love – from an entirely new perspective. You'll also help local people derive an income from tourism and improve living standards and sanitation in the surrounding villages.
WHAT YOU SEE Led by a local guide, this tour takes place on the north bank of Agra's Yamuna River, among the farmland and villages opposite the Taj Mahal. Far from the clamorous crowds, it's an opportunity to stroll through fields of wheat, millet and watermelon and admire the remnants of 16th-century Mughal monuments, such as Gyarah Sidi, a set of graduated stone steps used to compile astronomical tables. In nearby Kachhpura, you'll visit one of several groups helping local women find employment and providing advice on health and sanitation. The tour finishes in Mehtab Bagh (Moonlight Garden), where you can watch the sunset wash over a building so captivating Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore called it a "teardrop on the cheek of eternity".
THE DETAILS The tour costs $60 and can be booked through India travel specialist Banyan Tours; banyantours.com. ROB MCFARLAND
Walk to Art, Melbourne, Australia (tours also operate in New York and Venice)
WHY BOOK You'll discover and learn about an eclectic array of artistic mediums without the need to feel intimated or ignorant.
WHAT YOU SEE An insider's glimpse into art communities beyond the obvious, from back-lane jewellery workshops to artists' homes and studios or lesser-known exhibition spaces. Itineraries and destinations are always changing and are not revealed to customers until the day of the tour. Knowledgeable, well-connected guides keep the experience free flowing and fun. It's definitely accessible to those without an artistic background or a mustard yellow polar neck in their wardrobe.
THE DETAILS There are three Melbourne walking tours to choose from as well as private excursions that can be arranged separately.
Saturday tours depart at 2pm, lasting four hours, including one hour of cheese and wine. From $108 a person including coffee, water, cheese and wine. Monday express tours last two and a half hours, from $78 a person. Twilight tours run on various dates for the same price. See www.walktoart.com.au.
Guided Tour - Spanish Riding School, Vienna, Austria
WHY BOOK A backstage pass to the pampered lifestyles of these dancing white stallions is a dream-come-true for horse lovers. Fans of architecture and historical traditions will also be impressed (this year the Spanish Riding School celebrates its 450-year anniversary).
WHAT YOU SEE During the one-hour tour you'll visit the baroque Winter Riding School at Hofburg Palace and also the open-air, Summer Riding School, which houses the world's largest oval horse walker. You'll also see the tack room and the stables in the Stallburg, Vienna's most significant Renaissance building with its beautiful arcade courtyard. (Note: over summer the stallions enjoy a holiday break in Heldenberg).
THE DETAILS The tour costs $25 for adults and $12 for children (kids under three are not permitted). Tickets can be bought at the visitor centre before the start of the tours but to ensure specific dates/times it's best to book online at www.srs.at. Guided tours operate year-round at 2pm, 3pm and 4pm.
KERRY VAN DER JAGT
FIVE MORE GREAT BACKSTAGE TOURS
ROYAL BOTANIC GARDENS, KEW
There's a somewhat overwhelming 250 years of history and more than 100 points of interest in what is arguably the world's most famous garden and certainly London's. You can jump on the Kew Explorer land train to get an overview, or do your own meandering. But for those who want to do more than stop and smell the roses, Kew offers a fabulous program of activities that can take green thumbs and enthusiasts deeper. Seasonal experiences include tours of the usually off-limits nurseries with the nursery manager. But if you're wondering what the critters get up to when the gates are closed, sister property Wakehurst, in West Sussex, hosts kingfisher and badger watching evenings. From $15 to $25; see www.kew.org
BACKSTAGE MAGIC, DISNEY FLORIDA
There's plenty to see at the most visited place on the planet but if it leaves you begging for more, more, more or you're one of the millions of unofficial Mouseketeers roaming the planet then this is for you. Over seven hours, see the inner workings of Animatronic extravaganza, the American Adventure, head underground into the "Utilidor" tunnels that get staff and supplies around the park unseen, get a behind-the-scenes look at the goings-on in Disney design studios, hear a talk by a Disney's Animal Kingdom Park guide, and meet the craftsmen building and maintaining the many set pieces that create the magic kingdom. From $350; see www.disneyworld.disney.go.com
ULTIMATE PENFOLDS EXPERIENCE, ADELAIDE
You've been there, tasted that. So for the aficionados, Penfolds offers some privileged access at Magill Estate, the birthplace of Penfolds dating back to 1844 and recently redeveloped to be "the ultimate showcase of Penfolds heritage, culture and wine". It starts with a visit to Grange Cottage, the original home of Dr Christopher and Mary Penfold before checking out the Magill Estate winery, vintage cellar and the extensive underground drives. And of course, it finishes with a tasting. Tours $150; see www.penfolds.com.
WICKED BEHIND THE CURTAIN, BROADWAY
Wicked's Broadway run has been one of musical theatre's biggest sensations. It debuted in 2003, has run continuously since and spawned several international productions. The behind-the scenes experience was created and is hosted by two cast members, who show participants costumes, wigs, masks, props, original drawings, set pieces and memorabilia and more from the Tony Award winning production. Wicked geeks can ask questions during a good-length Q&A session and the tour guides are happy to reveal facts and anecdotes from across the show's history. The tour finishes inside the Gershwin Theatre to take a look at the performance space without the spellbound crowds. From $45; see www.emeraldcurtain.com.
BACKSTAGE SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE
The tour kicks off at Stage Door at the sprightly hour of 7am because it's only in the pre-workday hours that the Opera House isn't a hive of worker bee activity. Even so, you might cross paths with an Australian Ballet rehearsal. The tour explores the labyrinthine backstage areas of all the Opera House theatres as well as taking participants up into "the gods", the intricate network of elevated balconies and runs for technical staff. Throughout the two-hour tour you might climb 300 steps, so wear appropriate footwear. It finishes with breakfast in the staff and performer green room. Tours $165; see www.sydneyoperahouse.com