When I know we’ll be in a location for only a few days like we were in Edinburgh, London or Oxford, the first thing I look into is whether there are any walking tours that might pique our interest, and give us a different or deeper look into the place we’re visiting. In Edinburgh, we took three tours: one that focused on the city’s medical past, another that looked at the dark side of the city, and one that dug a little deeper into the Old Town’s history. In London, a walking tour gave us a fun and closer look at the neighborhood of Notting Hill, where we learned all sorts of interesting things about the area’s history, who had lived there, or what was going on there now.
With only a day for a visit to Oxford, the walking tour we booked through the city’s Visitor Information Center took us to places we wouldn’t have known to visit or gotten into otherwise, and we also received in-depth and fascinating information about the university and its history including how many colleges are included (38), its libraries (12 million books and counting), acceptance rates, how classes are taught, where and how students live while attending, how meals are taken, and the college’s extensive wine collection (which students can enjoy at low prices). We learned about famous people who had attended Oxford and which colleges they had attended as well as visited sites where scenes from the Harry Potter movies were filmed. The pictures below are part of what we saw in our two-hour tour, most of which we’d have never figured out on our own, at least not in a day:
We’ve done guided walking tours in Buenos Aires, Paris, Rome, Edinburgh, London and Oxford, and self-guided tours in Strasbourg, Lucerne, Bordeaux, and Florence. Most every city we’ve visited has offered free guided walking tours and throughout our travels we have toggled between those and ones purchased either through Airbnb Experiences or local visitor centers. In some places, free tours can be offered through local volunteer groups as well. We had a free, custom tour of the Montmarte neighborhood in Paris arranged through Paris Greeters, and have used free local guides in Kamakura, Japan, for private tours as well. Our biggest issue with some of the larger free tours is that they can be too general, and the size of the groups that congregate for the tour can sometimes be 20 (or more) people, making it difficult to keep up with the group and/or hear the guide. These tours often also count on tips received from tour members at the end, so they’re not really free unless you stiff the guide. Tours booked for a fee typically are small-group, with no more than 10-12 people maximum, and a few times we’ve ended up getting a private tour or going with just one other couple. We have tipped on those if we’ve had an exceptional time, but usually, it’s not required nor expected.
Choosing tours is one of my travel tasks, and the first thing I do when looking for a walking tour is to read lots of descriptions to see if any tours sound interesting and like something we would enjoy. Once I’ve gotten two or three tours picked out I go on and read lots and lots and lots of reviews. Airbnb tours are rated on a five-star system, so I look for tours that have received high scores and have been taken by more than a few people. I also read tour reviews on TripAdvisor and other travel sites. A tour’s price is also a consideration – I’m not looking for the cheapest tours out there, but neither do I want the most expensive. Our three tours in Edinburgh cost the two of us $92 in total and ranged in price from $13 to $19 per person, but we could have done similar tours that cost more. I always check to see if a senior discount is offered as well; we did receive a nice one for the Oxford walking tour (along with a student discount for YaYu). Tours generally last anywhere from 90 to 120 minutes, although we did a three-hour one in Rome, and the distance covered in that time can be up to three miles or more. Comfortable shoes are a must!
Suggestions from our guides about other places to see or eat or shop are also some of the best things we’ve taken away from the walking tours we’ve done. All of our guides have been locals with deep knowledge and love of their city, and they’ve always been eager to share what they know if we ask.
We don’t always use them but have found walking tours a terrific way to explore a city if our time is limited or we want a more in-depth or unusual look at a city’s history. Whether free or for a fee, we’ve found these tours to be a good travel investment and one of the first things we investigate before traveling to a new city.