In Europe, one of the best ways to meet people, learn about history, and spend a day cheaply is doing a free walking tour. These are in every city, sometimes put on by volunteers from hostels but always put on by volunteers for the city’s tourism industry. Free walking tours are donation based, and guests are encouraged to give whatever they feel the tour was worth at the end of the gig. Usually this is around 5 euros, but if it was extra good you can go up to 10 or even 20 euros. (Tour guides love it when Americans – and especially parents and grandparents – arrive because the American tipping culture lends tour guides a nice hefty sum at the end of the day.)
Like mentioned above, you’re encouraged to give what you feel the tour was worth, and the value of the tour largely depends on the tour guide’s personality. Here are a few standard tour guide personas.
1: The Down in the Dumps Guide
The down in the dumps guide is a guide only because the tipping helps to pay the rent. They are a bit disillusioned with their home city, and should really get a new day job.
Disillusionment happens when a city is overly touristic or when the weather is so bad no one is listening to them over the howling of the wind. The down in the dumps guide has to yell to get people to hear what they are saying. These guides don’t get too many people coming with them for the after-the-tour drinks.
Anyplace where the weather is bad can feature one of these guides. To avoid it, don’t do the free walking tour on a foggy day in London.
2: The Overly Enthusiastic American
This guide is a study abroad human (or a person on erasmus, like they call it in Europe) who moved to the country six months prior, fell in love with the land, and decided to get a gig doing the first thing they ever did upon arrival: a free walking tour. Because they are new to the city, they have voraciously consumed it in the last few months and are extremely enthusiastic about everything.
They have read up on ancient histories and can tell you the significance of holes in walls (in Barcelona, wall holes are permanent graffiti left by the Spanish Civil War bombs) or on the ground (in Venice, ground holes are where people would grind ingredients for medicine into pulverized material). They know how bright and shiny everything is to you because they were new and fresh not long ago, and thus they make for excellent tour guides. They are concerned about whether or not you have questions.
3: The Funny Foreigner
Like the overly enthusiastic American, the funny foreigner is not a native to the land they are leading a tour around in. Because of their non-native status, they notice things that locals are blind to, and poke fun at the culture in a sarcastic and charismatic manner. These are the Irishmen giving tapas tours in Madrid, and the Australians leading people around Barcelona. Their endless jokes are not mean-spirited, but do lend a different perspective to a culture then a tour by a bonafide local.
On a tour with a funny foreigner in Madrid you will learn that during the bubonic plague the king made it illegal for citizens to drink water for 15 months, and thus the whole city consumed wine instead. Drunk toddlers and drunk grandmothers pranced around the city. You will also learn that the Madrid symbol, the bear with a tree, stands for the idea that when bears eat and drink they laze around and take siestas, mirroring the lives of the Spanish.
4: The Bonafide Local
The best of the four, the bonafide local will lend to the most proper, enthusiastic, and information rich tour. The bonafide local has grown up in the city as a little kid and knows all the parks and restaurants, the best places to eat cheaply and the best spots to view the sunset. They are intensely patriotic and love their city, love their country, and tend to hate on other cities within the country. “Don’t you dare go there – well I mean, you can go there, but this city is much better,” said the bonafide local tour guide.
A great place to find a bonafide local tour guide is in Portugal. The Portuguese love travel and exploration, but many reside in their homes and choose to stay in cities they grew up in. This is due in part to a poor economy that doesn’t support long term travel stints, and in part to the immense love they have for their mama pacha. An added bonus is that Portugal lacks large, international cities so the experience felt here, from the hostel workers to the bus drivers to the tour guides, is one that is spectacularly local.
Really though, whatever type of tour guide you end up with, you’ll be sure to walk away with a few gems of information useful for cocktail parties and educating your friends back home. Plus you’ll have a whole bunch of new friends to explore the city with. Have fun walking! Don’t forget to tip.