I’ve been taking free walking tours in Europe for years. It’s usually one of the first things I do when I arrive in a new city.
In my experience, free tours are almost always great 🙂
There have been one or two occasions when I had to abandon a free tour (very discreetly) shortly after it started, when it was clear that the guide was going to bore me to death…
But that happens very rarely. The guides on free walking tours are normally well-trained professionals who know just how to make the tour enjoyable for everyone.
While not all cities have a free tour, most of them do, and some even have more than one.
To join a free tour, you can show up at the meeting point and look for the guide, who would usually wear a t-shirt or hold an umbrella with the words “free tour”.
I have found in recent years that more and more tours require you to register in advance for the tour, rather than just show up.
This helps the tour operator in evaluating how many people will attend. Sometimes, especially in popular European cities like Madrid or Prague, way too many people turn up and they have to split into two groups.
So reserving your place online in advance is always a good idea.
Why take a free city tour
Free walking tours will help you save money when you travel on a budget, especially if you want to go to some of the more expensive cities in Europe.
But that’s not the only reason to take them.
It’s always a good idea to take the general walking tour on your first or second day in a new city.
That’s the tour that tells you about the history, the most important attractions and monuments, local traditions and the like.
After taking that general introductory tour, you’ll find that while walking around the city you can easily put things you see in context.
During the tour, guides often share local tips, like where to find the best local dish or where to go for the best views of the city.
After the tour, it’s quite common for the guide to hang around to answer questions from the group.
You can ask just about anything – from how to use the public transport system to where to go shopping for shoes. I often ask about special events or festivals that only locals know about.
Guides are always happy to share their insider tips and that is priceless information that you might not find anywhere else.
How are free tours free?
At the beginning of a free tour, the guide will ask the participants if they are familiar with the concept of a free tour, and then go on to explain that free tours are tip-based.
You pay as much as you want or as much as you think the tour was worth.
That’s why the guide will make every effort to entertain you and make you enjoy the tour.
That’s also one of the reasons that free tours are so popular.
It’s not just about the money. After you take a few free tours you’ll realise that the guides are professional and know how to make even the most mundane historical fact interesting.
Not everything you see or hear on the tour will interest you, obviously, so it’s the guide’s job to keep you entertained.
I’m never surprised to find that the tour guide is actually an actor or an acting student.
It takes a certain set of skills to be able to stand in front of a group of strangers and actually engage them for a couple of hours.
Another thing that some tour guides will tell you at the beginning of the tour is that this is actually their job. It’s not a hobby and they’re not volunteers.
They treat it as a profession and in some countries they need to get a licence to guide tours.
Guides learn all there is to learn about the city and they often do more than one tour per day. For many it is their main source of income.
How much to tip on free walking tours?
On most free tours, €10 is considered a decent tip. Sometimes you will feel you want to tip more than that, so do 🙂
If you’re on a tight budget, you might tip €5 and I’ve seen people who apologised while doing that, but the guides have always been very graceful about it.
When you decide what to tip, take into account the guide’s knowledge, the valuable local tips, the guide’s performance, how much you actually learned on the tour and how much you enjoyed it.
The tipping is sometimes done in such a way that the guide cannot see how much you tip, for example when everybody puts the money into a hat. You can also shake the guide’s hand and give them the money directly.
What types of free tours are there?
The most common free tour is a general walking tour that includes sightseeing, history and a bit of culture (like typical food and drinks, some words in the local language or even some songs!)
As I said, you want to take that tour on your first or second day in the city.
Then there are also free tours that focus on a theme. These are also tip-based and led by professional guides with specialised knowledge.
Some examples would be a free street art tour, a free WWII history tour or a free tours of a certain part of the city, e.g. an Old Town or New Town tours.
Other than walking tours, you might also find free bike tours in some cities. These can be good fun as well.
The main advantage of a bike tour is that you can travel around the city much faster and cover more parts of it.
Free walking tours in Europe
I’ve listed free tours in most European capitals below, sorted alphabetically.
Save this post somewhere you can easily find it and use it next time you plan a trip around Europe.