When I arrive in a new city, the first thing I love to do is pull out a map and get my bearings. How far away are we from the things we want to do? Where’s the closest coffee place or bar? These questions and more always feature highly on my list.
But staring at a map won’t tell me everything I want to know. It won’t tell me much about what happened there. The history of the city. It won’t give me a heads up on the culture, what the locals like to do and it won’t give me the secret keys to the city I’ve just landed in. All it will do is tell me literally where things are.
Sure, I could grab my camera and go for a wander myself. But I like to go one step further – I like to take a walk with an expert. And the best thing of all? Most big cities have a free walking tour you can book on to.
If you’ve read any of my city guides, you’ll know I’m a huge fan of the walking tour. Here are some of my favourites.
Thank goodness for Sandemans New Europe Tours is all I can say. Offering free city tours in 18 different cities across the world (largely in Europe) they are a big player in the free walking tour market and for good reason. Their tours are led by seriously passionate, high quality guides that not only take you to all the best spots and give you the history lesson you never knew you wanted, they also make it entertaining too. Many of these guides are history grads or currently studying and they all are happy to give you awesome recommendations.
I’ve taken a Sandemans free walking tour in Berlin, Prague, Lisbon, Brussels and Paris and I hope to take their tours in London and Munich too. They were all completely different and all excellent in their own way – in Berlin we walked in the pouring rain and in Brussels it was snowing, but rain or shine these tours happen. They are a fabulous way of understanding where you are, seeing some of the big sites and getting some exercise.
All the tours last between 2.5 – 3 hours with a little break in the middle. The best thing is that they do not hard sell their other paid tours. Sure they tell you what they are and how to book, but we didn’t feel pressured in any way. In fact over the years we’ve booked on to a couple as we’ve enjoyed the free tours so much. At the end you can just walk away – or, you can give your guide a tip for what you thought the tour was worth. As these guys do the tours completely for free without payment from the company, we’ve always had no hesitation in handing over about if cash at the end. They’ve always been such high quality.All you need to know about exploring a new city with free walking tours!Click To Tweet
The Other Free Tours
A quick google search will tell you that most cities have their own free tour, and for places where Sandemans doesn’t operate (for example Poland and Italy) we’ve always found our own local tour.
My favourite were Cracow Free Tours where we did both an Old Town tour and Jewish Quarter tour for free, all in one day. The guides were locals and were fun, knowledgeable and extremely attentive to our small group.
I guess what I’m trying too say is don’t judge a tour by the costs – the free walking tours we have been on have often far outstripped the paid tours in terms of quality and length so it’s worth finding out what’s on offer on your next trip away.
The Premium Tours
Sometimes, a free tour doesn’t go where you want to go or show you what you want to see. In that case, I always then widen my search to include other tour operators that offer a paid for service. However, the walking part is always important to me – in my opinion there is no better way of exploring a new city than by foot, and whilst I’ve done my fair share of boat, open top bus and coach tours, walking always wins out.
I’ve also been on several paid for Sandemans tours which we’ve always booked whilst on the free tour – this gives us peace of mind that we are comfortable with the quality after being on a free tour, and the free tour guides offer good information on these tours which always induces us to book! We’ve seen Alfama in Portugal and Prague Castle this way, and both were worth the 16EUR we paid for them.
Walks of Italy are another premium walking tour company I’d recommend highly, after taking their tours in Rome. Visitor attractions in Rome can be insanely busy, so we went with walking tours to avoid crowds and queues and never once regretted our decision. Felix took us on a wonderful afternoon tour of the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palantine Hill and Dario led us around The Vatican in the morning, giving us more information about the areas than we thought possible. Tours are never more than 15 people, are available in plenty of languages and usually come with headphones so you can hear your guide clearly.
Walks of Italy tours are available all over the country, and they’ve just started offering tours in Paris.
Finally, combining food + drink with walking is ALWAYS a good idea. I’ve already written about my micro-brewery tour with Discover Prague and my Testaccio Supper Stroll with Eating Europe and both were brilliant. If you can combine cultural activities, eating and walking in one go, why wouldn’t you?
I much prefer getting my trainers on and using my two feet to explore. What’s your favourite way to see a new city?