When you’re traveling indefinitely, it’s important to cut costs any way that you can. We’re really good at budgeting, and we found the best ways to pay almost nothing for lodging. And as for activities and the best ways to experience a new city, our go-to was definitely free walking tours.
Curious what they’re all about? We’ve got you covered! Read on to find out how to find them, what to expect, and why we love them so much!
What are Free Walking Tours?
Free walking tours are exactly as they sound: walking tours led by local volunteers, so they’re entirely free! (though it’s customary to give a tip – more on that later). They’re an excellent way to get to know a new city while traveling. They provide an in-depth history of the place you are visiting, along with local tips, food, culture, and even off-the-beaten-path suggestions. The guides take you to some of the most popular attractions, and they make the tours both informative and entertaining.
Tours typically run about 2-3 hours long, are offered in multiple languages, and take you walking at least a couple of miles. Some tour guides will give you a few stops to rest, but not all will, so be prepared. We made some new friends during these tours, and we went to a recommended market or bar afterwards where we could get to know them better.
Our first free walking tour was in Frankfurt, Germany. Not knowing what to expect, we raced to the meeting point, afraid of being late – so much so that Brianna tripped on the escalators and immediately had to find some napkins to staunch the blood on her knee. What a great start! Who knew escalator steps were so sharp? (She still has marks on her knee a year later.)
Little did we know we needn’t have rushed so much; though we barely made the meeting time, we didn’t leave that spot for another 20 minutes or so.
Our guide was a true local, and he insisted on showing us his favorite parts of the city and their related stories. Many buildings there were bombed during WWII, and the prevalence of American troops helped give rise to the famed Red Light District. Behind the Spiderman disguise, we learned that red curtains denote brothels. And with most being above the streetside shops, “climbing stairs” quickly became a popular euphemism.
Afterward, we hung out with a couple of our tourmates, sipping apfelwein in the rain. We even bumped into one of them later in our travels, in Heidelberg!
What to bring
Since the tours last a few hours it is best you bring some snacks and water to hold you over. We also recommend you bring a camera as you will see many of the top places of the city. Bring some comfortable shoes for walking, especially if there are cobblestone streets. If you want to take down some notes, bring a smart phone or notepad with you. It helped us when we wanted to stay in touch with some fellow tourmates.
We loved the first walking tour so much we signed up for another when we reached the small city of Cologne. We had no idea how much fun this one would be!
Our guide, Andre was so charismatic, and he told us all the best stories of the insatiable competitive nature of Germans. From the various titles to keep the Cologne Cathedral at the top of the “tallest” record list to a simple pillar constructed (over four years) from old Roman ruins that was later labeled as a monument to the moon landing so as to not be upstaged in 1969. He regaled us of Tünnes and Schäl (said to bring love if you rub Tünnes’s nose or wealth by gripping Schäl’s hand – but never both) and of Hennes the goat – who is so famous, broken gargoyles of the cathedral are replaced with goats!
He also took us to a kiosk where he encouraged us to purchase a Kölsch to sip on the street as we followed his Pikachu beanie.
Andre waxed poetic about Carnival – a months-long festival that begins on November 11th at 11:11am. It’s just the kind of quirk that made us fall in love with Portland and makes us dream of returning to Cologne!
How to find a tour
Finding a free walking tour is easy, and most cities have them. Search for “free walking tour <city name>” in your browser, and you will usually find one. Some common ones we found are Sandmans NEW Europe Tours and Strawberry Tours. They seemed to have a presence in many continents. However, each city is unique and there could be local free tour companies as well. Most of these need to be booked online in advance, though others accept walk-ins and will register you on the spot.
The free walking tour in Brussels felt more structured and less personalized, but it was still a wonderful insight into the city. We learned about the historic monuments and the legacy of all the guilds surrounding the Grand Square.
Our guide told us about the history of french fries, and how they aren’t even French (they’re Belgian! But Americans during the war thought themselves farther south than they actually were, thus calling them “French” fries). He also clued us in to where we could score the best frites in the city – and it wasn’t the tourist trap with the huge line! – AND he gave us suggestions on the best sauces to try (Brianna went with the Samurai Sauce – YUM!).
While the tour is free, expect to pay a tip. Guides don’t get paid by the tour companies and tips help them earn a living. Depending on the size of the group and quality of the tour, we usually tip between $8-20 USD per person. If the group was only a few people, we would tip more. On average, we did about $10 per person. We have had no unsatisfactory experiences, but if they really go out of their way, a higher tip is worth it. These guides are workhorses and deserve every penny.
Some companies will also use this as an opportunity to sell some of their other tours. This is a great opportunity to learn about other ways to see the city – like by bus or boat – but expect to pay for these. We strongly considered a boat tour in Porto, but we ultimately decided against it for time and cost reasons.
A free walking tour was one of the very first things we did upon arriving in Porto. This gave us a wonderful overview of the city before we explored on our own.
Our guide, Diogo (not Diego) was very knowledgeable and personable. He took us in a wide circle around the centerpiece of the city: the Clerigos Tower, which is the highest point, visible from almost anywhere in Porto. We learned about the beautiful São Bento Railway Station, and how its azulejos tell history, as well as the love J. K. Rowling had for the city (did you know the Hogwarts uniforms were based on those of the university students in Porto? or that she named Salazar Slytherin after the Portuguese dictator?).
And best yet, Diogo told us where we could find the best port wines to sample (across the river in Gaia), and where to grab some truly local cuisine – a monstrous sandwich called a francesinha.
Questions to ask your guide
Asking your guide good questions can help you better discover the new city you are in, especially if you do what we love to do: take a free walking tour as your first activity! One question we always enjoy asking is where the best place is to get authentic meals. We love trying new cuisines from around the world, and food is a very important part of many cultures. Many times the tour guide will provide general recommendations, but we sometimes need to dig deeper for anything specific. Here are some other questions we’d recommend you ask.
- What is a must-see place to visit off the tourist path?
- Which unique drink is this city known for that I should try?
- What originally brought you to this city, and what is your favorite thing about it that makes you stay?
- Are there some nearby cities you would recommend for a day-trip?
Walking tours are one of our favorite ways to get an introduction to a new place. We learn the locals’ perspective of the history, best places to eat, and off-the-beaten-path city views – all while getting a bit of exercise! And better yet, we got to hang out with others who speak our language and have their own unique travel stories to tell. What could be better?
What is your favorite way to get to know a new city?
Psst… do you love tours? You might also enjoy these:
- 32 Actually Awesome Free Digital Tours
- Jungle Canopy Tours in Costa Rica – Helpful tips
- Portland: Our Personal Tour
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