For almost any city I go to, I don’t consider it one that I’ve really visited unless I have walked through a good number of its streets. Relying on a map and GPS is the only way I can get a good handle of a city. By that token, walking tours are the best way to learn a city! Walk through its alleys, along its busiest streets, and from one public transportation stop to the next. It’s the best way to discover stores, restaurants, and coffee shops that you never knew existed!
Benefits of Walking Tours
The benefits of walking tours are endless! Not only are they great ways to meet other tourists, especially if you travel alone, but they’re also often free. By walking, you can get great exercise, and you won’t miss details like street art or interesting restaurants! You’re much more likely to go in different buildings, up stairs, and don’t have to compete with engines to hear the guide. You can see things more closely, experience public transportation, and squeeze into small alleys. Since you can look at a map while you walk, you can also get an idea of where you are in the context of the city! In short, your guide should show you all the key places in a city, and help you see some hidden gems in the process.
How to Find Walking Tours
The easiest way to find tours before you arrive to your location is to look online. Usually TripAdvisor has all the options, but not all of the options have updated information or enough reviews for you to figure out whether one is worth it or not. Sometimes, you can directly search Google for walking tours in [city], and find some in-depth reviews written by bloggers or on forums. This is a really useful way to look!
P.S. I’ve done walking tours in:
- Portland, Oregon, USA
- Seattle, Washington, USA
- Cusco, Peru
- Arequipa, Peru
- La Paz, Bolivia
- Valparaiso, Chile
- Santiago, Chile
- Malacca City, Malaysia
- London, England
From your accommodation
Often, your hotel or hostel will have many different maps for you to take. Since they are free, they usually have a lot of different ads on them – including walking tour companies! If you’re in a country/city where the standards and costs of living aren’t as high, you can be sure that any company that advertises on a map will have some revenue coming in. In other words, people are taking their tours and tipping them. The great thing about getting maps from your concierge is that they can sometimes also give recommendations if there are competing companies, or review the tour for you. Getting vouched by someone is one of the strongest recommendations you can get! You won’t have to worry about finding where the tour starts, either, since it’ll most likely be written on the map directly.
The other thing about maps where you are staying is that chances are, someone else staying there has taken the same walking tour. You can ask around and see if anyone at the breakfast table can tell your their experience – see below!
From another traveler, friend, or local
While finding good tours is a must, it’s difficult to trust information. If you find someone who has taken a tour, you can be much better informed. The benefit of finding someone in person to talk to is that you can get an idea of what kind of things they like to do when they travel. Are they a history buff? No wonder they liked the tour, which focused on the city’s history! If you’re not, though, you need to know. This is a great benefit over reading a review online from someone that you don’t know at all.
Free or Paid Walking Tours?
Another dilemma with walking tours is choosing between free or paid ones. In most cases, it is very difficult to tell which kind would be better for you, on factors such as organization of the tour and number of people. Quality can also be paid for with tips! But some benefits of each kind of tour are obvious, and some are not:
Benefits of Free Walking Tours
As the name suggests, free walking tours are often cheaper. They are not completely free because they expect you to give a tip, though! See below for how much to give.
In order to make enough money, guides will often give you some free things in exchange for a sales pitch by a local restaurant or shop. In Cusco, our guide took us by a specific little store that had all the same hats and scarves that all the other shops did, but the shopkeeper and guide swore that her prices and quality were better! It’s a small price to pay for free, but paid tours almost never have sales pitches.
Free walking tours are almost always general. They will take you to the most famous parts of the city and give you the history of the local area and country, and introduce you to it. This is great if you’re in town for just a couple days and haven’t been before. However, if you’re a local or are looking for something specific, these tours usually aren’t for you!
You don’t have to book in advance. This means that you don’t have to worry about a tour being sold out, which is great! However, it can (but not always!) mean that you get a large tour group.
Benefits of Paid Walking Tours
In general, small groups are [usually!] guaranteed. Unless the tour is extremely popular for some reason (ex. the Seattle Underground Tour), they limit groups to about 10. This is great because you don’t have to fight to hear the guide, get in the shade, etc.
Paid tours are also often themed. Are you a sucker for local food, beer/wine, urban legends, or something of the like? Paid tours can focus on one of these and give you what you want to your heart’s content! There’s variety and specificity. As a result, you will almost always learn something new.
If there are special, hard-to-access places in your city, you almost always need a paid tour. The companies typically make more, meaning they have the resources to invest in permits, cooperations with the city, and routes that are more interesting and deeper in the city.
You can also know what you will see. Since paid tours often try to sell you on their programs before you get to a place (i.e. online), their websites and marketing materials will be better. They often have a detailed itinerary and can let you know what you will learn when you go with them.
Appropriate Tips ($) for Free Tours
The easiest way to pick a tip is to listen to the guides’ suggested donations or see what other people are giving. Experienced tour guides know that giving you a suggestion will “anchor” you and give you an idea of what they expect. However, if they don’t say anything, think of the cost of living in the area!
If you are not sure, you can maybe think of the tour in relation to other attractions. How much does a typical meal or higher-end museum admission cost? If you are in a large group (maybe 7+), giving about that amount is usually a pretty good tip. In South America, ~$5 is good. In the UK, you might be looking at closer to $10-15. Any smaller group, you might want to double that amount just to help support the guides, especially if they work full time.
Tips on What to do on Walking Tours
Bring water and a hat if it’s hot out, as not all guides know to let you stand in the shade.
PAY ATTENTION when moving between locations. Mostly because I once almost crossed a street right in front of a bus because I was taking a picture!
Scan the city’s Wikipedia page. Just like reading a textbook before class helps you prepare for the class, knowing the basics about a city or country can give you a much better idea of what you’re seeing on the tour. This is especially useful if you love history!
Ask your guide. For all the advice, seriously. They are probably the best resource you have – better than your hotel concierge, I promise! – for the best bars, restaurants, and tips for how to avoid all the other tourists.
Ask about cultural differences, if your guide is an expat. This is, after all, part of why you travel. Since they live there, they will know! Even locals (non-expats) can tell you some things, simply because they have been asked the same questions before.
Thank your guide. Even if you have nothing else to give (tips or questions), it’s still nice to hear appreciation. When I was a college tour guide, I thrived on compliments! I still remember one tour I gave that really got great compliments from several visitors. Plus, you have no idea how long it takes to memorize a tour route and start leading them by yourself!
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