We are big fans of walking tours. I like the slower pace of walking tours, as you can talk in between stops and ask questions. They give you a nice overview of the city or town without having to maneuver through roads at speed, like you would with the bike or a Segway. Plus, I’m addicted to taking photographs and I can lag behind if I want to get great shots.
Our most recent trip to London made walking tour number nine in the past few years. Previous tours included Berlin, Edinburgh, Paris, Barcelona, Vienna, Frankfurt, Luxembourg, Iceland (twice) and now London. All but one of them have been “free,” and I have learned there is a certain rhythm to them and a few things to know before you begin walking.
1. Tour Early in the Trip, Early in the Day
I like getting a feel for the city, the history, and the culture from day one. Many times, guides have great history lessons and information which will add value to the rest of the trip. Understanding the current monarchy or political situation helps to understand a city. Plus, we’ve found guides will point out off-the-beaten path places to visit that aren’t at the top of TripAdvisor, like the spot where Hitler died in Berlin. We’re partial to the Sandemanns free walking tours offered in most major cities, but they also have paid tours for specific areas of town. Taking our first general tour early in the trip means we can carve out time for the special Harry Potter tour, Night Watchman tour, food tour, etc. on another day.
If the schedule allows, morning tours tend to be better. In large cities like Paris, London, and Barcelona, the crowds can almost be unbearable in some areas. Most of the time, these high-traffic areas are where the guides will go. Touring a little earlier in the day means less crowds and a better chance of keeping track and hearing our tour guide, who is also likely fresh for the day.
2. The Guide Totally Makes the Tour
It doesn’t matter if it’s free or paid. A bad tour guide is a bad tour guide! I can send my kid to the best private school in the land, but if her teacher sucks, she won’t learn a thing. Great guides are key so make sure you compensate (or tip) them accordingly. (More on this later) Every guide usually shares his/her own story before beginning. Most are students looking to make extra money. Be we have met former lawyers, a musician, and a Cambridge grad, who just find being a tour guide makes them happy…and makes them extra money.
The quality of the tour is really based on their presentation of facts with some humor thrown in. Props really do help, too. In Iceland, I took a tour with City Walk twice and had two completely different tours. Don’t discount further walking tours if you get one bad one. Sometimes it’s just the luck of the draw.
Unfortunately, there’s just no guarantee–it’s the luck of the draw. Some guides just aren’t good. I don’t have any advice here–maybe don’t tip a bad one?
3. Go with Low Expectations
Which leads me to my next point. Expect very little, and you’ll be happy. Expect an introduction to the city, some sight/food recommendations, a bit of a history, fresh air and exercise, and hopefully with some humor thrown in. Consider it a high-level overview of this new place which should keep you engaged. Because it’s really dependent on the guides, it’s important to manage expectations. Free tours are great because you pay for what you think the tour is worth. If the guide is not good, then pay less. It will make the experience more bearable.
We realize now these tours can vary so much from place to place. Sandemanns doesn’t require their guides to go to certain stops, and they can make their own tour. Therefore, one tour can (and will) differ greatly from another even in the same city.
4. Learn More. Ask Questions Between Stops
Guides love questions, and I think even are bummed when people don’t ask any. I have found they don’t particularly love tons of questions while they’re presenting. Good guides have their route and their schedule to finish in the allotted time period. Too many questions throw them off schedule a bit or may result in a very short response. However, do ask them questions between stops. Walking tours often cover a lot of area and those in-between strolls are a great time to get nice detailed answers, especially for politics.
5. Get Info on Local Restaurants, Travel Tips, Sights
Most guides have some scoop on places to eat and where to go. We typically take morning tours and then get info on nearby restaurants for lunch. They guides are experts about their cities so ask them where to go for whatever you need. They also may have scoop on when to go, where to get cheaper tickets, what to avoid, etc. Take advantage of having their expertise right in front of you. Even better, in some countries there are local customs or expectations, find out why.
6. “Free” is Not Free. That’s OK.
Look on TripAdvisor, and you’ll find tons of walking tours in most cities, even some of the smaller ones like Heidelberg have students as guides for “free.” Like I mentioned, Sandemanns is a favorite (no, they don’t pay me, but they should!). You can find them with the red umbrellas, which makes it easy for us. They have a brand to uphold so, in general, we find their guides to be above average compared to others.
Related: Family Vacation: Are you Ready?
But what is a “free” tour? Is it really free? Free means there is no set price. Most paid walking tours run between €10 to 20 per person. The free ones leave it up to you. I have watched what people give at the end of the tour. Students may hand over €5 (which seems totally fair), and I have seen people hand over more than €50 for a couple. Pay fairly so the “free” trend continues. This means you need to have some cash in local currency ready to give. However, our most recent tour, the guide had a little credit card reader for his iPhone. That’s good business sense!
7. Wear Good Gear, Bring Snacks
Walking tours continue on in all types of weather for many hours and cover much ground. Umbrellas, extra gloves, layers, good shoes are all a must to keep everyone happy. Of the nine tours we have been on, only three made a stop halfway through for a potty and snack break. We (and other tour participants) really did appreciate a pit-stop halfway though. In cities like Paris and London, the amount of information and sights is endless so the tour just drove on. It’s a good idea to pack some trail mix, protein bars, or fruit to keep your teens/tweens from complaining. The guides know where the toilets are so if they don’t plan a stop, just ask. Even better, before the tour stars, it’s good to ask if there is a planned pit stop along the way.
Listing of Tours Taken
- Barcelona: Sandemanns
- Berlin: Sandemanns
- Edinburgh: Sandemanns
- Frankfurt: Frankfurt on Foot
- Iceland: City Walk
- London: Sandemanns
- Luxembourg: Twentytour
- Paris: Sandemanns
- Vienna: Good Tours
All other photos ©Linda Kerr, TravelTeening