A week ago, I was in Palermo, and I revisited one of my favorite city travel hacks of all time: free walking tours. If you’ve never done a free walking tour, you’re in for a treat. I personally think this is one of the best ways to travel. Here are the top 5 reasons you should make an effort to do a free walking tour anytime one’s available.
1. The tour typically hits the main sites
My favorite time to do a free walking tour is on the first day in the city. Having a local guide lead you through the city to all the main spots, tell you the history, and highlight the current context is one of the best ways to get to know your surroundings. Plus, when you spend 2 hours hitting the 5-6 places that were on your shortlist, you have time to decide what looked cool enough to go back to for your remaining time there.
2. The tour is often led by a local
Local guides are the best way to see a place. I’d much rather be shown around Palermo by someone who was born and raised in the city than someone who recently immigrated. Getting the perspective of a local about the city (as well as all their advice on where to go and what to see) leads to a much more enriching trip! I also find that locals are often enthusiastic about making sure you have a great time in their city. They care much more than a tour agency.
3. The tour is a great value
Free walking tours don’t have a base cost. Instead, you pay what you think the tour is worth through tips. For some people, this is the equivalent of $5-$10 of the local currency, the loose change they have in their pocket, or $20-$50 if they think the guide did a fantastic job. I’ve seen some walking tour participants be really generous with their tips for great guides. For the most part, however, the going rate is typically $5-$10 per person. And while this may seem cheap, there are some tours that are 15-20 people. If everyone tips an average of $5, that’s $100 that the guide will make for 1-2 hours of time. That’s pretty good!
4. The tour can help you decide what you want to do
As noted above, a free walking tour exposes you to a lot of different areas of the city. During the tour, I often make a mental note of what I want to revisit after the tour (if anything). Sometimes there are a couple of monuments that I want to go back and take pictures at, a museum or church I want to go inside, or a restaurant or bar that the guide recommends. Other times, I’ve walked away from free walking tours without the desire to go back to much of anything. Still, I think that time spent is valuable because I walked away having seen so many of the main city sites even if I didn’t find them intriguing enough to return to.
5. The tour can help connect you with people
More than once, I’ve walked away from a free walking tour with friends for the next couple of days I’m in the city. I’ve done this when I’m solo or when I’m traveling with a friend or boyfriend. A lot of guides want the tour to be inherently social, but if you want to keep to yourself, there’s nothing that’s stopping you from walking away at the end. The introvert in me has done that more times than not.
The two drawbacks of free walking tours (that I’ve found) are that they’re heavily guide-dependent and don’t exist everywhere you go. Almost all large European cities have them. I’ve also participated in them in cities like Sydney, Melbourne, Singapore, and Cape Town. That said, much of Southeast Asia is completely devoid of free walking tours, so you won’t find them in every scenario. When I traveled in regions without them, I would still occasionally hire local guides to help fill in the gaps where necessary. You can read here about My Favorite Local Guides.
The other disadvantage to free walking tours is how guide-dependent they can be. If you get a great guide, then you can have an incredible experience. However, I’ve had subpar guides, which made the tour less than memorable. There have even been times where I’ve stayed with the tour less than 5-10 minutes before deciding I didn’t want to commit for the full 1-2 hours based on the guide or group.
Regardless, this is still one of my favorite city activities, and you’ll always catch me looking for one to put on an itinerary (especially in Europe!).