I don’t mind splurging on activities here and there while traveling. Often times I’m not sure if I’ll be back in a specific place again, or when it will be, and I want to make the most of it. But let’s be real: my budget is far from unlimited, and it’s always satisfying to find great sightseeing options that don’t break the bank. And when they don’t cost anything…at all?! Count me in.
Enter my favorite sightseeing go-to: the free walking tour. Usually lasting anywhere from one to three hours, they are always at the top of my list when visiting a new place. And the appealing price tag (or lack thereof) is not the only pro: they’re the perfect way to get an efficient and interesting introduction to a new city, they give you a chance to get your bearings, and they offer helpful insider tips regarding the more practical side to your stay. It can be overwhelming arriving in a brand new place with no idea what’s going on, and getting expert advice from a local right off the bat is invaluable. (Always at the top of my list: Where should I eat? Also helpful: How does the public transportation work? Which neighborhoods are must-sees? Which should be avoided?)
As an added bonus, they’re super easy to work into your itinerary. Just Google “free walking tour” with the name of the city you’re going to, browse the options, and make your choice. There may be just one tour option or close to a dozen, depending on how big of a city you’re visiting. The tour websites will usually share a rough itinerary of their route, the days and times that the tours are offered, and where the meeting point is. Sometimes they will request that you reserve your space by “booking” online, but more often than not, you just show up with your sneaks and get ready to work those legs.
I’ve taken free walking tours in Paris, Nice, Budapest, Prague, Kraków, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Sydney and Reykjavík. While they’ve always been fun, the benefits of each have varied, and they are rarely what I expect.
In Budapest, I learned about the city’s formation through the joining of two former cities, called – get ready – Buda and Pest. I also learned that the actual pronunciation of the city is “Budapesht.” (It’s good to get the basics sorted first.) Our tour guides gave us maps with their favorite restaurants highlighted, which allowed us to sidestep the guessing game of where to eat and meant that the remainder of our meals in the city were all delicious (most notably an unexpectedly amazing quesadilla I still think about regularly). We also learned more about the city’s public bath culture and ended up at this beauty:
In Kraków, our tour guide pointed us in the direction of a small, cozy bar called Singer, with sewing machines and candles at each table – the perfect respite from the dreary rain outside – and then a funky bar whose smoking section was only reachable by walking through a large, wooden wardrobe. (I don’t smoke, and had no reason to go in there other than the novelty of walking through an actual piece of furniture to get to a different room. It was all very Chronicles of Narnia.)
In Reykjavík, I visited the home of some elves and learned more about their steadfast place not only in the country’s history and folklore, but even in their daily lives, as evidenced by their recent influence on an Icelandic roadway project. (If you have a couple of minutes, this article is seriously worth a quick read, and exhibits why I fell in love with Iceland so quickly.)
…and the list goes on!
Some free walking tour companies have even expanded their offerings into more specific tours. In Kraków, we could choose between a walking tour of the old town or the Jewish Quarter, or opt for a tour focusing on the Communist Era. Other companies offer a mixture of free tours and paid tours. Taking the free one first can be a good way to try out their services and see what you think before parting ways with your hard-saved travel funds. It’s also pretty common for the tours to be offered in more than one language. Long story short: there are lots of options to customize the experience to your preferences and needs.
Sometimes it’s fun to wander aimlessly on your own. Sometimes it’s fun to get lost, know absolutely nothing about your surroundings, and daydream your own narratives and history into being. But it’s also pretty cool to learn more about the people and events that have shaped a place; to move beyond that quick blurb you caught on Wikitravel, or that uber-curated photo you saw on Instagram.
We all have those quintessential images in our mind of what we’ll see, taste and hear in a new city or country. Seeing those images in real life is always exciting – watching a woman ride by you in Paris with a baguette in her bike basket, or seeing your first bright red phone booth while wandering the streets of London – but there’s also so much more to the story. Don’t miss out on it! Especially at this price – you won’t find a better deal.
What are your go-tos for budget-friendly activities in a new place?
*While free walking tours really are free, it’s always a good idea to tip your guide at the end, especially if you’ve really enjoyed the tour.
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