Looking for a cheap “boots on the ground” way to get to know a city? Try a walking tour!
Within the first day or two of landing in a new city my husband Dave and I always go on a free walking tour; we find it is the best way to get orientated in a city, discover the attractions we would like to return to and get real inside information from a local guide.
Free walking tours can be hard to find. When Googling, all the fee-based tours pop up first, but persevere, there’s sure to be a free walking tour in whichever city you are visiting. Do book online, they can fill up fast.
There are many advantages to taking free walking tours; the guides are young enthusiastic locals who love their city, not a burnt-out, “been here, said that” guide. In our experience, these young people all bring an interesting unique personal perspective to their tour.
While “free” a tip is expected at the end of the tour, usually “whatever you think it’s worth”, so the guides work hard to keep the group informed and entertained. We usually tip with the equivalent to what we would have paid on a fee-based walk. I’ve been disappointed to often see a number of people who have enjoyed the tour slip away before the end to avoid giving the tip.
Our first free walking tour was getting to know Medellin in Colombia. Our guide was a bright red- headed young woman, a descendant of Jewish settlers to the city.
She set the pattern we have come to expect; over our well-paced, three-hour walk she showed us the highlights of the city, how to navigate the transport system, gave us the stories behind the history, pointed out interesting street architecture and street art, was happy to answer any and all questions and introduced us to where locals like to eat, for example a little hole-in-the-wall stall in a busy square has the best (and among the cheapest) empanadas I have ever eaten.
We learnt about the original settlers of the city; European Jews and Spanish, how the city has radically transformed itself since the violence of the 80s, where the safe ATMs are, how fantastic the transport system is for tourists and how proud the population is of their “democratic metro system”.
From her, we learnt not to mention the name Pablo Escobar out loud as all locals have an opinion about him and can be voluble with it…and we heard about and saw the wonderful impact artist Fernando Botero has had on his home city.
Showing us London, ex-military man Ben shared his experience of the different regiments and took us to view the changing of the guard with an up close and personal viewing position.
In Oxford, our guide loved the obscure and gave us many insights into the lives of the famous and not-so-famous scholars of the colleges. He themed the walk and locations as if we were students, applying, studying and finally graduating.
In Bath, England, volunteers do twice daily walking tours on behalf of the mayor. As true volunteers, they will not accept tips and will not recommend any eating or drinking options. We had a lovely time exploring this beautiful UNESCO heritage town with a lady who is a librarian and an enthusiastic amateur historian.
Athens and Barcelona walks were excellent too, showing us the highlights with great tips on which attractions were worth revisiting.
As a full-time traveller I am never in one place long enough to forge friendships and so am grateful that an unexpected benefit of these walking tours is the opportunity to meet and walk with other travellers, some of whom I have really clicked with. An invitation to go for a drink or a meal after the walking tour has led to plans to visit attractions together and on-going friendships.