There would have to be a really good reason for me to miss out on free walking tours in the city I am traveling in. For instance, there aren’t any. That is justification enough for me to take a pass. Grave illness. There’s another reason. They charge money upfront. Um, well then stop calling yourself a free walking tour.
For those of you who don’t know the premise of the free walking tour craze that is starting to sweep the world, essentially a tour guide will take you around the city imparting knowledge and hopefully humor. At the end of the tour, they ask that you tip them what you thought the tour was worth. If they were a terrible guide, that might be nothing (I have never encountered this situation); if they were excellent, you can decide what they deserve. I have found this is the perfect way to get to know a city, especially as a solo backpacker on a budget. The tours are also a great way to make friends because there is plenty of time for idle chitchat during the walking portions between destinations.
As with most things, some free walking tours are better than others. After much deliberation, these four European cities host my favorite walking tours to date.
A lot of different companies run free walking tours in Barcelona. I had a fabulous experience with Runner Bean Tours. But how do you choose? Firstly, they not only offer a free tour around the Old City, but there is an option for a free Gaudi (a batshit crazy architect, in a good way) walking tour as well. And oh my Gaudi, I’m obsessed with Gaudi. Secondly, they have ridiculously good TripAdvisor reviews.
The old city walking tour was great and informative, yadda yadda yadda. But I really loved the Gaudi tour. It is expensive to visit all of the Gaudi houses, so I highly recommend taking this free tour first. You visit the outside of three Gaudi houses as well as the Sagrada Familia. You receive a ton of information about the architecture and what the inside is like, so you can make an educated decision about where you would like to spend your money. I ended up touring La Pedrera (Casa Mila) afterwards along with the Sagrada Familia. Like I said, I am obsessed; so worth it!
This free walking tour runs like a well oiled machine. It is obvious that they know what they are doing which is very refreshing. The guides were some of the most enthusiastic I had ever seen. My guide treated the tour as if it were a Broadway play and donned a mustache that Tom Selleck would be jealous of. Needless to say, it was very engaging, but also interesting and informative. In addition to the historical aspect, we learned about local cuisine, booze, and the nonsense that is the Hungarian language (meaning it is totally random and lacks any sort of linguistic connection to another modern language). Not to mention, Budapest is beautiful. And spoiler alert: Buda and Pest are two different places separated by a river. WHAT! I know, I had no clue. My only regret on this tour was that I did not snap a photo of my guide’s stache.
I liked the Lisbon free walking tours because, that’s right, there were options! They divided up the neighborhoods to give a more focused experience. There are morning and afternoon tours and three neighborhoods to choose from. All three tours don’t run at each of the times, so make sure you check the schedule ahead of time with a guide to ensure you don’t miss one of the tours you were hoping to attend (she says from experience). This tour company actually is partners with the company that ran free walking tours in many locations in Spain as well. You know they must be good if they are expanding! I went on two of the three free walking tours offered in Lisbon and I definitely learned a lot.
Firstly, having a guide is great motivation to get you up and down the hills of Lisbon. It is just not the same when you have to tell yourself to keep walking. Secondly, we made several pit stops for some goodies including a free sample of port wine as well as the option to purchase a shot of cherry liqueur as well as the famous custard tarts. You totally deserve these treats after all the hills.
Albania is still developing in terms of the standards of living in Europe. They were essentially cut off from the rest of the world, just like North Korea, until communism fell in 1990. That is extremely recent! The tour impressed me to no end because the company was founded by a local Albanian man with a passion for tourism. While he covered the history thoroughly, the personal stories are what set this tour apart! He recounted the first time he chewed gum, or bought Levi’s, or indulged in a Coke. He also had funny anecdotes explaining why Albanians are bad drivers, his words, not mine! The personal touch along with such a genuine guide, made this free walking tour extremely memorable for me.