On our recent trip to Rome, we ducked into the Pantheon. If you haven’t been there, it’s a Roman temple-turned-church with a mind-boggling concrete dome that’s nearly 1900 years old (why not just round it up to two millennia?). It houses the tombs of three Italian Kings and Queens (including the Margherita, of the Margherita pizza), the composer Corelli, and a few famous architects and painters.
As far as visitors go, the Pantheon functions like many other old standing structures. You have to squeeze past the dumbfounded tourists at the entrance who are seemingly petrified with their cameras glued to their eyeballs, like Colin Creevey in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. There’s a crowd in the center of couples trying to take #OculusSelfies with the 27-foot-wide opening in the ceiling (which, honestly, you’re back-lit y’all) and another swarm at the tomb of Raphael. As I craned my neck to get a better view of his bust, a young couple pushed past me, as if escaping a stampede of ants.
“Who was that again?” the guy asked, peering at his camera’s LED screen at his snapshot of bust.
“I don’t know for sure,” the woman responded, following him out, “There’s lots of dead Egyptian leaders in here.”
As much as I’m (still) laughing about this, I wonder, how often have I been that traveler? How often have I mistaken the tomb of a great master painter to be an Egyptian sarcophagus?
Yet, how often to we visit a new place and meander through the squares, past the buildings and trees that all have stories to tell?
Want to know how can you avoid being that couple?
Three words, dear reader: Free. Walking. Tour.
This post was originally titled, “Why Free Walking Tours are the Sh*t!” because—spoiler alert—they are the sh*t. Often found in the larger cities, they usually operate daily from the city center. They show you the sites, they help you get your steps in, and they’ll give you that sweet, fresh knowledge. I’ve dragged my friends and my wife on these tours. This year alone (2018), I’ve taken tours in London, Bruges, Marseilles, and Rome.
Why free walking tours are the best:
Whether you’re studying abroad or just traveling on a budget (aren’t we all?), “free” is a great quality. Of course, “free” here means that you should tip your guide at the end of the tour. In most cases, the guides are usually scheduled with their company but rely on tips for compensation.
Every guide I’ve been with has asked for “whatever you think this was worth, or whatever you can afford.” I’ve given anywhere from 3-10€ for a tour (the 3€ was because I didn’t have enough small change, but I wish I had tipped more!).
The best part about “free” is that there is no risk! If you have to leave early, or are unimpressed with the guide, you can hand them a couple euros if you like and peace out.
2. The tours are usually run and lead by younger, hip folks.
No offense to stereotypical tour guides (I’ve been on a couple paid, scheduled tours with both younger and older folks in the past (and they were all great!)). What I mean here is the guides I’ve had held a degree in history or the like—they ultimately were a good mix of business and pleasure. They have the facts, but they’ll also take the second to point out their favorite haunt.
This also makes them very student friendly. I’ve found many free walking tours work directly with hostels. In London, for example, the guides picked us up directly from the lobby, which was awesome in helping us find our way (see point 4).
3. The guides are usually locals.
Having a local show you around is the best way to see any city. They not only have their assigned map, they have their personal map. My guide in London was building his career in the city as a DJ. In Bruges, our guide pointed out a historical building, remarking that his friend happened to live in the basement. Our guide in Marseilles told us what foods to try (and where to find them with our budgets). And our Roman guide pointed out his favorite pub where he hosts a weekly NFL night in the autumn months. By walking with a local, you get a personal, in-depth view of the city through their eyes.
4. They give you a logical walking route of the biggest sites.
Nothing makes me feel more accomplished while traveling than feeling so comfortable in the city that I can get myself from point A to B without a map. Since walking tours start in a central location and wind around the most important sites in the historical center of the city, I’ve found it’s easy to remember the route later when navigating the streets alone.
What tours have we taken:
- Undiscovered London (Great stories, picks you up from hostels)
- Legends of Bruges (They have a variety of historical and food-centered tours, their night tour ends with a free beverage)
- Marseilles Free Tours (Their tour was crowded, but provided a great route through the city and it’s historical background)
- Rome’s Ultimate (This is our favorite walking tour thus far! It’s run by a group of experienced tour guides/friends and keep groups at 15 people max.)
- Copenhagen Free Walking Tours (The Grand Tour gives a great overview of culture, history, politics, and local stories while the evening tour of Christianshavn takes you to the gates of Christiania).
- Free Tour Stockholm (Skip the city tour and take an Old Town tour (Connie is like Gina Linetti from Brooklyn 99, which is the highest complement I can give))
What are you waiting for? Final advice:
- Look up the schedule ahead of time. Some tours ask you to book online ahead of time, others just tell you to show up at an assigned spot (usually in the main square of that city).
- Make sure you have some spare change to tip!
- Be ready to walk. Free walking tours range from an hour to three hours and they really take you through the city quickly.
- Stay close to the guide. Since it’s not a paid tour, the guides usually depend on their voice alone, so you want to get close if you want to hear them.
Have you taken any walking tours, free or otherwise? Which ones did you love? Let us know in the comments!