We’ve been traversing Europe for around 2 years now, and there are many things we’ve learned. We downsized our luggage for a start, and now travel light with 35 litre backpacks wherever we go. We’ve clocked flying and staying cheap and we’ve become more efficient during our fleeting visits to each city, using our time in smarter ways. One of the best things we’ve come across during our time in Europe is the free walking tour concept. They are fairly new, but have been popping up all around Europe in major cities and in smaller ones now too. These tours are one of our favourite travel tools and are always the first thing we look for in a new place.
But how does it work? It’s simple really, a quick web search will tell you if there are any available at your destination, and you can check reviews from the same search. All you need to do is find out where the meeting spot is and what time to arrive. They usually start in the historical centres and guides will identify themselves with brightly coloured shirts or umbrellas. We have found that tours tend to run at around 10:00am and 2:00pm, if it’s a large city with a lot to see, the morning and afternoon tours will likely be different (in which case, take both!), if it’s smaller and the tours are the same, then you have the flexibility to choose which time suits you best. They usually last 2.5-3 hours and will involve walking through the city with a dedicated guide. They will pass on the essential information around the cities history and attractions to you and make further recommendations. After the tour, you show your thanks and gratitude for the experience by tipping the guide accordingly. It sounds a bit too good to be true, but for us, this is the ultimate travel hack. To shed some more light on this genius concept, here are 6 awesome reasons to take a free walking tour;
Orientation of the City
First and foremost, a free walking tour will give you a solid orientation of the main part of the city. This is useful for exploring during the rest of your stay, because you are way less likely to waste time getting lost and looking at maps. Your guide will usually point out a few landmarks that you can use to get your bearings and navigate the centre easily. It will also give you an idea of the terrain (hilly, cobbled, spread out etc.), so you can work out how long it will take you to get around, what shoes to wear (important!), and what your stamina is going to be like for other days.
A Well Delivered History
What we find the most useful of all is the amount of history and fun facts you learn on free walking tours. We find it so much more interesting to stand on Terreiro do Paço for example, and hear someone with extensive knowledge and passion talk about the Carnation Revolution, than to simply read about it. The stories are always well delivered, and we find the information much easier to retain this way. You will hear about things you didn’t even know to google! You can ask the giude absolutely anything as you go, most often they have an answer for you right away, and if not, they will do everything possible to get the right answer for you. These people are working for tips, they want to impress you, so they really know their stuff and how to make it amazing.
As far as we know, guides on the free walking tours are independent. Although they may work under a company, that company is not associated with any sort of tourist activity, accommodation or restaurants in the area. That means they will offer objective views on the do’s and don’ts of the city. Any recommendations they make to you will be true and honest ones, as they are not getting any kind of commission from their suggestions. They will tell you how to get around paying entrance fees if possible, what price you should pay for a meal, how to spot the best restaurants and so much more. It is completely invaluable information that makes your visit that much better. Based on guide recommendations from some of the free walking tours we’ve done, we ate the tastiest and most authentic carbonara and paid next to nothing for it in Florence , took the free way up the Elevador de Santa Justa and saved €5.00 in Lisbon, found a ‘secret’ ticket office and avoided an hour long wait for Duomo entry tickets in Milan, and found the best vegetarian version of Porto’s famous Francesinha sandwich!
Suitable for All
We have been on free walking tours with people from all over the world. Not only is there a mix of nationalities and backgrounds, there are people of all ages (from tiny babies right up to awesome oldies), and all physical ability levels. The walks are designed to pack in as much of the city in the easiest way possible, although they are usually 2.5-3 hours long, there are plenty of opportunities to sit, take a break, and reside in the shade while listening to the guide. Even in the most hilly cities – they will start at the top and work down, then share the best hacks for getting back up the hills without sweating to death (metros and parking buildings are our best friends!). The mix of people is great, everyone has a cool story to tell, and inspires each other to travel more, see more and do more. You never know who you’re going to meet!
Value for Time
If you have limited time in a city and there is a free walking tour available, we cannot stress enough how valuable it will be. Unless you have a good friend showing you around for free, there is no better way to get the most out of a city in a short space of time, in our opinion. You can have an in depth understanding of the history, culture and attractions in the city by early afternoon, and still have time to get to the airport and catch your flight if necessary. Even if you aren’t in such a rush, taking the walking tour at the earliest opportunity will help you shape what the rest of your visit will look like and allow you to use your time to the absolute max. No need to sit and do your own research with maps, reviews and recommendations (which may or may not be sponsored) for hours – just take the free walking tour! Are you convinced yet??
These tours are virtually free, which is unbelievable considering what you get from them. After your walk, the guides will ask you to tip them based on their performance and how valuable you found their tour. We really like this concept because it encourages everyone to get involved, no matter what their budget might be. It also means the guide must give a good experience, or they won’t get tipped well. It’s a win win for you both. You can go into it with a set tip based on your budget, or you can keep an open mind until you’ve seen how well the guide does – either way is acceptable and welcomed. If you are looking to do just one thing in a city you’re visiting, this is hands down the activity which will get you the most value for money.
Unless you got absolutely nothing from the tour and it was a horrible experience (which is not going to happen), then you should always tip something at the end. Your guide has worked hard for the last 3 hours and spent many more hours gathering and perfecting all that information you were just given. For us, we decide what to pay at the end and base it on our overall experience and the size of the group. If it is a large group, we tend to tip €5.00 (or equivalent) each, if we have had a more personal experience in a smaller group and managed to ask a lot of questions, we will tip €10.00 (or equivalent) each. We have never taken a free walking tour we didn’t enjoy, and as you can tell from this, we cannot recommend them enough
We have done free walking tours in;
Krakow (Morning and Afternoon), Budapest, Berlin, Lisbon, Porto (Morning and Afternoon), Barcelona, Bruges, Dublin, Milan & Florence
What is the best walking tour you’ve done? Would you also recommend the concept?
Check out some of our other awesome experiences for more travel inspo!