Visiting a new city is a great adventure. But also a hassle: you don't know the ins and outs of the city, you don't have a feel for the place yet, maybe you don't even know the language.
What if I told you that you could start your visit with a 2-hour tour with a professional, enthusiastic, witty tour guide, who will happily take you through the history and the main highlights of the city with a big smile on his face and a welcoming attitude... FOR FREE?!
I used this trade secret to explore Paris, Berlin, Prague and a number of European cities in the past couple of years, and now I'm sharing it with you lovely readers. It's called: free walking tours.
What are these?
All around the world, there is that thing called: Free city walking tours.
Usually, a short 2-3 hour walking tour to explore the main highlights of the city. Typically guided by a professional tour guide.
There are two types of free guided walking tours. The first is led by a bunch of local travelers and groups who just love their city. They are passionate, friendly, and eager to show you their city. But they are not professional guides.
The other type - the one I tried many times and liked - is the professional tour. Many professional tour guide companies offer these tours to introduce tourists to the city, while at the same time introducing their professional services. The tour is led by a professional guide, and let's say this one more time: it's completely free...
Well, not totally!
Show me the money
What happens is that the guides rely solely on tips.
Just before the tour starts, the guide tells you that this is a "pay as you wish" tour. You will evaluate how much it's worth, and pay whatever you want based on how much you enjoyed it.
You are not obliged to pay anything, but usually through a combination of really enjoying the tour, the sense of humor of the guide, your feeling of guilt for taking something for free (which the guide will keep feeding all the way by telling you over and over that your tips are the only money he gets from this tour :D), and peer pressure when you see other people tipping the guide in the end, you will pay a tip.
From my personal experience, it's between 3-5 euros (when I tried it in Paris and Berlin). So still almost free!
Pont Neuf faces, the first facebook time lone in history. (Photo: Nour Eldin Ebrahim).
"This is the famous "Pont Neuf," which by the way means "the new bridge" as all the previous ones were made of wood and constantly broke under water pressure, so this was the newest, most stable one. And ironically it's still called that although it's now the oldest standing bridge in Paris.
After finishing the construction, King Henry III invited his nobles to a three day party, with complimentary food and wine . And since drinking is the second-most favorite sport in France right after union strikes, you can imagine how these noblemen looked like by the third day!
So the king brought his personal sculptor and asked him to carve their faces on the sides of the bridge. So here you go, the first Facebook timeline in history."
This was one of the entertaining tales told by "Inga"; Our lovely Bavarian guide on the free walking tour in Paris. And these are the kinds of stories you will hear throughout your tour.
In Paris, the tour was 3 hours long and included the main highlights of central Paris: Notre-Dame cathedral, the Louvre museum, Pont Neuf bridge, the city island, Montmartre and a number of other sites, which you can read about here.
In Berlin, our guide was a short, bald, funny American dude called George. A professional tour guide with a passion for cold war history. Naturally, Berlin was a fantastic place for him to share his knowledge.
The tour with George was very informative; I learned a great deal about the history of Germany, WWII and Hitler. He also pointed us to some of the most famous dishes to try, for those interested in German cuisine, (proceed with caution).
George, Our Berlin tourguide telling us about the jews memorial (Photo: Nour Eldin Ebrahim)
"Before you cross over this line... Please stop for a moment.
This line represents what used to be called "the Berlin wall." Not so long ago, before 1989, passing this line would mean immediate death. 136 people died trying to cross this line between 1961 and 1989. The last one of them, unfortunately, attempted his escape just six months before it was taken down; he was a 16 year old kid. Take a moment to genuinely think about this idea. Pray to whatever god you worship for the souls of those martyrs, and understand the magnitude of their sacrifice so that today you can cross this line back and forth without fear."
The Berlin tour included Brandenburg Gate, the Berlin Wall, Hitler's bunker, Checkpoint Charlie, the Gestapo HQ, Topography of Terror museum and a number of fascinating places you can learn more about here.
How to find walking tours and what to choose
It's as simple as googling "free city walking tours" and adding the city name.
But if you want more trusted advice, do that same search in TripAdvisor. You will find tons of users reviews to help you make the right choice.
Check out this fantastic link, which has links to almost every walking tour ever.
There is another option if you want something a bit more focused than the normal highlights tour. These are known as “themed walks” and are often also available for free.
In Barcelona for example you can join a “Gaudi’s walk”: a walk named after the famous architect “Antonio Gaudi” that follows his footprints on the city, taking in Catalan-style architecture until you reach the masterpiece: the Sagrada Familia. You can learn more about the Gaudi tour on this link.
If you are a Harry Potter fan, you can’t miss London’sfree harry potter filming location tour. If your mood is more spooky, you can try the“Jack the ripper” tour.
I think by now you catch the drift. Wherever you’re traveling, there is a chance you will find a cool themed walk. Google your interests and find out.
Selfie at musee D'orsay. Paris (Photo: Nour ELdin Ebrahim).
Some tips from personal experience
- In Europe, don't hesitate, go for SANDEMAN, I've tried a bunch of their tours, and they are my favorites.
-I advise you to take the walking tour on your first morning in the new city; it's a great way to make sense of the city and get a quick head-start on the highlights and what would interest you. It's also an opportunity to ask a professional guide for information on sightseeing.
- Consider the paid guided tours. Listen to their offers and think about it. Sometimes it's worth it.
- Make sure to check the website of the company before you go. If you are interested in a guided tour, note its name. Usually, on the free tour, they give you offers and discounts on the paid ones, so come prepared to take advantage.
- Don't be cheap. Tip the guide if you enjoyed it. It's not obligatory, but if he/she did good work, it never hurts to spare a couple of euros. Keep your change ready for that moment.
-After the tour ends, go to TripAdvisor and put in a review. Let your fellow travelers know how it went.
-You usually don't need to book first. But out of courtesy to the guides, I encourage you to do it. This will help them know how many people to expect and allow them to better manage the group. Get there 10 minutes early to make things easier for everyone.
-You will walk for a long time, so wear comfy clothes, comfy shoes and bring a bottle of water with you.
And finally, engage and enjoy the experience. It's worth it!