I LOVE free city tours. When I first started travelling, however, I despised them. I thought they were lame, the perfect way to scream tourist, and way too much like organised fun to ever actually be fun. But I was wrong.
The first time I realised that city tours actually weren’t that bad was in Italy. Rome, actually. I hadn’t enjoyed Italy the way I had thought I would, and when I arrived in Rome, it was insanely hot, HUGE and altogether a bit overwhelming. I wandered around a little bit, visited the Colosseum, ate a lot of pizza and even more gelato, and pondered about all the things I was seeing. Of course, everyone knows the history of Rome to some extent. (Everyone’s seen Gladiator… right?) but I had no idea what every beautiful thing at seemingly every corner was.
So I embarked on a tour. My tour guide was funny, he was friendly and he knew a helluva lot about the history of the city. I got to know a lot about Rome that I otherwise would have failed to understand without my head buried into Wikipedia or – old school – reading a book. His passion for it was contagious, and ignited a passion within me to explore and discover what a magnificent city I was visiting.
Free city tours come in all shapes and sizes. My inaugural ‘good’ city tour was at night time, lasted 3 and half hours and consisted of myself, one other guy, and our zealous host. That was particularly unique, I guess, as the majority of the others I’ve henceforth attached myself to have been substantially bigger groups and almost always in the day time.
But what’s struck me about all of them is the absolute value of them. I honestly cannot stress this enough. If you’re visiting somewhere with a lot of history, I really think it’s almost essential to involve yourself in a tour of some kind. I can already hear the moans and groans and general protestations from all the hardened travellers out there…
So, another example. It’s one thing reading about the graffiti scene in Berlin, but it’s completely another to have someone tell you about what it means, where it came from, and where it’s going. I saw some famous artists’ work without having to think too hard about it, and learned a lot about the city I had previously so determinedly disliked. (My graffiti tour in Berlin was awe-sum. Check out Alternative Tours Berlin!)
Most touristic places have free city tours, and if you’re staying in a hostel, that’s usually a good place to start. Don’t be one of those travellers who insist that the city tours are boring or lame or too much information to be of any worth (…guilty!) They actually end up adding a lot to your experience of a destination. Every body is a tourist, and as I’ve previously written about, there is no shame in that.
Better yet? (There’s a clue in the name…) They’re free! Meaning everyone – no matter what your budget – can find out a bit more about where they are and, well, why they’re there. Of course it’s expected to give your guide a tip, but that can be anything. It would suck to get 50 cents a person every time they trekked around their city for the millionth time but… tip them what you think it’s worth, and what you can afford. Or buy them a beer. Either way, you’re going to have a good time. Brave the rain in Dublin, brave the cold in Copenhagen, brave the crowds in Beijing, brave the bikes in Amsterdam. It’s worth it.