Why a walking tour should be your No. 1 priority when traveling

You’ve seen them in every big city – groups of tourists shuffling along, taking up the entire sidewalk, following a guy in a bright orange windbreaker or a woman holding an umbrella in the air. You might have rolled your eyes and silently patted yourself on the back for being a “real” traveler. But it’s time to push that pride away and accept the truth: walking tours are, without a doubt, the best way to get to know a new place.

This is especially true for solo travelers, but couples, families, friends, and even locals can benefit from a couple of hours spent with a trained guide who knows the history, culture, and ins-and-outs of the city. It’s a way to get your bearings, learn the layout of the area, get a crash course on local history and customs, and even use public transportation with a “professional.”

I love to window shop and scope out restaurants or areas to revisit later in the trip, and a walking tour brings you down side streets and hidden squares that you might miss just heading to the “must-sees.”

On almost every trip we’ve been on together, Mark and I have started our first day with a walking tour. Even in cities we return to often, like London, we can always find a niche walking tour that teaches us something–or somewhere–new every time.

Different types of walking tours:

  • Free city tour – This is the bread-and-butter of walking tours, and an excellent starting point. You’ll find different options in hundreds of cities around the globe. Some will accept walk-up reservations, but we recommend reserving your space ahead of time so the guide knows to expect you if you’re running late. The offerings differ by location, but a few good companies to check out in the U.S. and Europe are: Free Tours By Foot, Sandeman’s New Europe, and Free Tour.
  • History/topic specific – If you find yourself in a location known for its history, you might want to opt for a more niche walking tour. While most basic walking tours will cover at least some history, there are a number of options that will allow you to go in-depth on a certain topic. While visiting Berlin in 2015, we took a tour that focused on the history of the Third Reich from Original Berlin Walks. In addition to an excellent overview of Berlin and the darkest parts of its history, our guide was supremely knowledgeable about Nazi architecture and history, and was able to paint a picture of what the atmosphere in Berlin may have been like at the time.Another one on our bucket list is the Coiste Irish Political Tour in Belfast, which I first learned about from this NPR segment. Led by former prisoners and members of the IRA, this tour provides a perspective on the British-Irish conflict, known as “The Troubles,” unlike any other.
  • Haunted tours – Many cities have a dark history you won’t see on a regular walking tour, whether it’s a grisly serial killer or paranormal sightings. Ghost tours and haunted tours can range from purely historical to totally gimmicky, so do your research first, and keep in mind the age range of your group. These usually take place after dark, so they can be a fun evening activity if your day is already packed with touring. The Aldgate East Jack the Ripper tour is a must-do in London, as the guides are all professional Ripper researchers, not just tour guides.
  • Movie/television tours – For the film buffs, there are tours in several major cities that show you the locations where famous scenes were filmed. New York City and Boston have several options, but you might be surprised what you find in other locations. Game of Thrones walking tours are bringing more people than ever to Dubrovnik, Croatia, perhaps most recognizable to visitors as King’s Landing.
  • Alternative tours – One of the greatest travel experiences we’ve had was one of London’s “Unseen” tours. This is more than a tour company – Unseen Tours describes itself as a “social enterprise,” working with homeless and ex-homeless Londoners to bring their unique perspective to tourists. Our guide, Henri, shared information about the changing culture of the Shoreditch area of London, educated us on the wide variety of homelessness experiences, and provided a truly one-of-a-kind look at London. While “Unseen” tours operates just in certain areas of London, there are similar “alternative” tours in other big cities that aim to show visitors a different side of their destination.

Making the most of your walking tour:

  • Dress appropriately: Walking tours typically last between 2 and 4 hours, most of which is outside. Beyond the obvious comfortable shoes, make sure to prepare for the climate, whether it’s sunscreen and a liter of water, or a wool hat and umbrella.
  • Ask questions: Tour guides know a lot more about the city and topics they’re sharing with you than they let on. If you’re curious about a particular subject or something you spot on the tour, don’t hesitate to ask.
  • Meet other people: If you’re traveling solo, or are a natural social butterfly, walking tours are a great way to make friends with other travelers. There is plenty of time in between sites for casual chatting with others on the tour.
  • Use your guide as a local resource: Guides have spent months, if not years, living in the area and can be excellent resources for local living. After the tour, feel free to ask your guide for a restaurant recommendation, directions to their favorite lesser-known attraction, or other tips and tricks to make your visit memorable.
  • Tip your guides: Free walking tours are just that–free. But that means your guide is 100% dependent on tips for their income. The amount you should tip depends on what you thought the quality of the tour was, and on living expenses in that country. Free tour guides are just as high-quality as those who work for companies that charge, so do a bit of research to find out the going rate for a paid tour. It is also recommended to tip a small amount to guides on a paid tour, especially if you thought it was particularly good quality. And beyond monetary tips, leaving a review for the tour company (with your guide’s name) on TripAdvisor or Yelp is a much-appreciated way to help the guides – they are often assigned more tours when they receive positive reviews.

What’s the best walking tour you’ve been on?

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