It seems like every city we visit in Europe (and many in the United States) now offer free walking tours of the highlights of their city. These free walking tours can be a budget friendly way to get a good overview of the city that you are visiting and its people, places and history.
There are big some pluses to these free walking tours. They are a great way to get your bearings in a new city and map out the places that you would like to return for a closer look at later.
These tours are of course not entirely free. Most of the guides for these tours work on a tip only basis and ask that you tip them at the end for what you feel the tour was worth (you should also consider when tipping your guide for these “free” tours that often the guide pays a commission to the tour company for each person on the tour, so not all of what you give will go to them.) All things considered, these are still a budget friendly option for seeing the sights of a city.
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They generally leave from a central gathering point in a city (often a historic square or such) so they are easy to work into your itinerary as you will generally already be in the vicinity doing the “tourist” thing.
There are some important things to consider when figuring out whether one of these free walking tours is a good fit for your group and your itinerary:
- They don’t call these walking tours for nothing. They can be long (and generally go on even in cold or inclement weather, so dress accordingly) so they might not be the best option for those with kids or traveling with someone who is mobility impaired. The tour guides generally tell you at the beginning of the tour that they are fine with you leaving in the middle if it gets too long of you have somewhere else to be, as long as you let them know so that they aren’t worried about where you went and we have done this on a few occasions.
- These tours are not small group tours. Generally, there are 20-40 people on the tour with you.
- These tours are generally not designed for the avid history enthusiast. The narrative given by the guide is generally a watered down version of what actually happened with humor thrown in to make it palatable for the general population (though we have taken excellent, history oriented tours, these have generally been operated by official tourist organizations for the place that we were visiting.)
- These tours cover only the basics, and generally only cover from the outside or from a distance any attractions that require admission to enter, so you will need to plan on going back to these on your own at another time.
A tip for your free walking tour…you will get the most out of the walking tour if you stay to the front of the pack near the guide so you are able to ask questions as they come up. Make sure to ask questions, as this is what the guide is there for and the guides that we have had on these tours have generally had a great wealth of information to share.
The background of your guide can also make a big difference in the quality of your tour. Most of our guides have been good, and they generally follow a pre-determined routine.
The guides that have been the best have had a background in history or were particular experts in the city that we were in. They went above and beyond our expectations and had an above average knowledge of the city. These super guides were generally able to answer most of our questions, and we made sure to tip them accordingly.
If this sounds like something that might be a good fit for your vacation itinerary, do a Google search for “free walking tour” and the name if the city that you are visiting to see if this might be an option for you. Sandemans New Europe is a walking tour company that is gaining popularity in many European cities, though sometimes individual cities have programs to offer tourists free tours by locals who are proud to show off their cities.
We have had some really excellent tours this way, and some that were a little lack luster, but generally the free walking tours have been a good and educational experience for us and something that we felt was well worth our time.