In Praise of Walking Tours

Walking tours go on rain or shine!

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!

The venerable Randolph Hotel was our Oxford guide’s suggestion for afternoon tea . . .
. . . and the setting, service, and food did not disappoint!

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.

12 thoughts on “In Praise of Walking Tours

  1. Loved our walking tours of Paris and our guided tours which involved minivans in Tour and Sarlat. Mr S is not such a fan of listening to others so we tend not to do many.

    Have you got a link to the tour you did in Rome? We’ll be there in about six days and will be staying for five days.

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    1. Here the tour we did in Rome: Colosseum Small-Group Tour with Roman Forum and Palantine Hill. It was very in-depth and extremely interesting. Also three hours long (and tiring), but we got into places regular tours didn’t, and our guide really knew his stuff and was easy to understand. We learned so many things we couldn’t/wouldn’t have otherwise. I see they are charging more for it now than we paid last year.

      I’m excited that you’re heading to Rome! Have a plate of cacio e pepe for me!

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  2. Beautiful buildings that always make me think of the many artisans and workers who labored for years to build them. Also..antibiotics are really so new in the scene of things. have you ever taken a Portland tour?

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    1. I always think about the artisans and builders as well. I wonder if their children or other descendants got to attend any of the colleges at Oxford? Or was it closed off to people from their social class.

      We did a walking tour of downtown Portland many years ago, and also a bridge tour – I still remember so much from that (most hated bridge is the Broadway as it’s temperamental and breaks down easily; also, it’s roadway is difficult as well in the rain and other adverse conditions). One tour I’d love to do (if it exists) is one of all the big downtown churches, to go inside, learn their history, etc.

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  3. I did the Oxford walking tour through the visitor’s center and really enjoyed it. The guide was a young former Oxford student so we got the scoop on University life. Went on our first ever food tour in Bath, and I think we’d do it again in another city. You could lead a gelato tour in Italy. 🙂

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    1. Our guid in Oxford was an older man, but very sort and full of knowledge about the university and its history (he didn’t say but we all thought he was a former student or instructor).

      I haven’t done a food tour yet (they’re kind of spendy), but did take a pizza class in Florence – fun! I used to be the guide for the neighborhood tour the NAF Atsugi Family Service Center did for new dependent spouses just arriving in Japan, so guess I could brush off my skills and do a gelato tour in Florence if I had to 😉.

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  4. You have explained it so nicely! Walking tours are helpful, especially in heavy touristy areas, where lines can be a mile long. For someone who has a limited time to visit, waiting in line for an hour to get somewhere is such a waist of time.And I agree that one should not necessarily go for the cheapest nor for the most expensive either. Somewhere in the middle there is good value for money. Rome was grueling- I was so tired- so I learned my lesson to never book a tour that is longer than 2 hrs :))

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    1. You’re right about the tours helping you skip the lines. But they also can get you into places you couldn’t enter otherwise. We got to enter and tour a part of the Colosseum not open to the rest of the public, and no crowds either – we were the only (small group) there at the time. Made the tour worth every penny we spent. The tour we were on was long but we saw everything we wanted to see and more. That was the only 3-hour tour we’ve ever taken and once was enough! We actually limped back to our Airbnb!

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  5. My favorite is a good walking tour. I have taken many through ruins and churches. I haven’t ever taken one through a city! Thank you for adding something to my traveling to do list.

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    1. The first walking tour we ever took was in Charleston, SC, and we’ve been fans ever since. It’s a great way to orient yourself in a city, especially if it’s one of the first things you do when you arrive.

      We just discovered the city of Bath offers free 2-hour walking tours, no tipping allowed! We can’t wait!

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