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Four years ago, Jason and I traveled to Denmark and Sweden to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. One morning we woke up in Copenhagen and had no idea what to do that day. So we opened our computers and started researching options.
After a few minutes Jason said, “Let’s take a free walking tour!” To which I replied, “A what?” I couldn’t imagine who would offer a free tour. Was that similar to a free vacation in exchange for a time-share presentation?
I didn’t have any better ideas, so Jason reserved us a tour for later that morning. After breakfast we walked to the gathering spot in front of Copenhagen City Hall. It was easy to spot our tour company since the guides all held large, bright yellow umbrellas.
We were assigned Daniel as our guide. He began with an introduction of himself and then our tour began. We spent the next three hours learning about the history, politics and culture of Denmark, and enjoyed every minute of it.
Since that time we’ve taken free tours in Reykjavik, Chicago, New York, Prague, Barcelona, Bath, and Madrid. In Prague I actually took 3 free tours! Here’s what we’ve learned and what you need to know.
What Is A Free Walking Tour?
A free walking tour is an activity offered through organized companies, usually in major cities around the world. There are typically a few tours to choose from based on the most popular sights or neighborhoods of the city. Tours lengths average 2 to 3 hours and will cover popular sights in the city as well as history, culture, politics and religion. Reservations are required since most companies do restrict the size of the groups.
Let me clarify something up front. A free walking tour isn’t exactly free. While no payment is expected up front, a tip is requested--and typically expected--after the tour is completed. Your guide is not being paid by the company organizing the tour, so it is essential that all participants contribute some amount. How much is up to each participant, but according to my experience and research, 10 USD per person is common.
Paid Vs. Free Walking Tours
There are definitely pros and cons for both paid and free walking tours, so let me share those with you.
Over the years we’ve found most of our free walking tour guides to be very personable, helpful and entertaining. They know that the tip received at the end depends on how much you’ve enjoyed the experience.
However, free walking tours tend to be large and offer no frills. The group size can easily top 20 which can make it hard to hear a guide in a noisy city. In our experience paid tours groups are smaller, making it easier to hear the guide.
Many paid tour companies now offer a microphone for the guide or audio equipment for the participants. During our recent trip to Florence we paid for a two hour walking tour because in such a crowded city we knew it would be impossible to hear a guide without amplification.
When Jason and I plan to visit a new city we start with a free walking tour that will provide a nice overview. This is an affordable introduction to a new place. Then we may book other paid tours around a specific topic or interest (often this a food tour because we really like to eat!).
How To Find A Free Walking Tour
To find a free walking tour in the city you will be visiting, start with the website, Freetour.com. This is a central booking site for many free tour companies all over the world.
Sandeman Tours is another company offering free tours, specifically in Europe. I have not used them, but seen many positive reviews on TripAdvisor.
We’ve used a company called FreeToursByFoot.com and had a great experience in both Chicago and New York. In New York we enjoyed their SoHo, Little Italy and Chinatown tour, but they offer several other options.
In some cities, there are volunteers that offer truly free tours where even tips are prohibited. I recently learned about this while visiting Bath, England. The Mayor of Bath’s Corps of Honorary Guides lead tours one to two times a day. The gentleman leading our group, George, had lived in Bath his entire life and he was delightful to listen to for two hours. I learned from another travel blogger that this also exists in Munich, where they are called the Munich Greeters.
Go Out There And Take a Free Tour!
No matter which city you are visiting and which company you select, I highly encourage you to try a free walking tour soon. Then let us know about your experience in the comments below.
If you’ve already taken a free tour, or have more suggestions, be sure to comment below as well. As our travels continue we are always open to trying new things!