Tourists on a Free Walking Tour in Lisbon Portugal run by the company Lisbon Chill-Out Free Tour.. Photo: Glen Berlin/Shutterstock

This Free Hack Helps Solo Travelers Better Navigate Almost Every City Worldwide

Solo Travel Budget Travel
by Molly O'Brien Feb 20, 2024

When I’m exploring a new destination anywhere in the world, my first mission is to try to get acquainted with the local culture and become familiar with my surroundings.

One of my favorite ways to do this is by signing up for free walking tours in cities, also known as “pay what you can” tours. Plenty of organizations host free walking tours worldwide with local guides who can offer insight into their cities in exchange for tips (and appreciation) in a safe and social environment. In many cases, the guides are in training programs for tourism certifications, or the free walking tours may be funded by tourism boards trying to boost visitors to their destinations.

On the tours I’ve taken, from Athens, Greece, to Melbourne, Australia, I’ve met interesting people from across the world and explored parts of cities I may never be able to find on my own. And thanks to these walking tours, I’ve been introduced to great communities of like-minded adventurers.

Here’s what to know before embarking on one of the ultimate travel hacks perfect for outgoing (or not) travelers: free walking tours of cities and towns around the world.

How to stay safe

To stay safe, vet your tour source. If you’re staying at a hostel or backpacker hotel, there are often message boards in common areas advertising legitimate, ongoing tours offered by trusted sources. Sometimes, hostels even offer them for free to guests as an added perk of staying there.

If you’re searching online, ensure the company is rated and reviewed by authentic travelers on a trustworthy website. Examples of a few tour sites I’ve used, GuruWalk, and Generation Tours. Official tourism board websites for destinations often also list tours. For example, you can find “Paris Greeters” free walking tours in Paris on the official “I love Paris,” website, and there are tons of free walking tours in NYC.

As always, steer clear if your gut tells you something is off. Never meet someone at an isolated location or at an awkward time. Free walking tours are common enough around the world that finding them should be pretty easy.

General etiquette for free walking tours

tourists on a free walking tour in lisbon

Tourists on a Free Walking Tour in Lisbon Portugal run by the company Lisbon Chill-Out Free Tour. Photo: Glen Berlin/Shutterstock

Even in countries that tend not to have a tipping culture, from my experience, guides on most free walking tours are volunteers, meaning they aren’t being paid for their time and the only compensation they’ll get is from tips. So if you’re able, tip accordingly. Cash is king when it comes to tipping abroad.

Avoid leaving the tour early or without warning, especially if it’s a small group. The guide will likely be concerned about losing people, and you don’t want to disrupt the rest of the group’s experience just because you had a set lunch reservation time or weren’t interested in doing the whole tour. It’s also respectful to the guide to stay the whole time (and not talk when he or she is talking).

Tips for free walking tours around the world

rainy free walking tour bogota, colombia

Check the weather before you go, and be prepared to spend several hours outside. Photo: Felipe Mahecha/Shutterstock

Go to your tour prepared for an adventure. Tours can range between 90 minutes to a few hours, depending on how well the group gets along and how fast you move. Some tours are longer than others, and sometimes it depends on how much the group is chatting and what they’re interested in. It also depends on what the tour guide has planned for that day, and the terrain you’re walking through as some cities are known to be more hilly than others (hello, San Francisco). Comfortable shoes make for a more enjoyable trek. I’ve walked up to five miles, and been on tours that were just over three hours long.

If you get sunburned easily, bring sunscreen, a couple of layers in case it gets chilly, and an umbrella, if you’re in a destination known for its wet climate, like London, Seattle, or just about anywhere in Norway.

Carrying water and snacks is also a good idea. Some guides plan for a break halfway through for tour-goers to use the bathroom or grab a quick bite to eat, but it’s easier to bring something with you, leaving that break for one-on-one chatting with your (presumably) knowledgeable tour guide.

Why I love free walking tours

guide on a a free walking tour with colorful umbrella

Photo: EvaL Miko/Shutterstock

As you can probably tell, I recommend these tours to everyone, whether you’re a young backpacker or a DINK couple jetting around the world. Here’s why.

They’re my favorite way to meet like-minded travelers

There’s a strong chance if you’re doing a free walking tour by yourself (or traveling by yourself, for that matter), you’re an outgoing person. You’re probably interested in meeting new people and having authentic, non-manufactured experiences in new destinations.

From my experience, most people who go on these tours are either solo traveling or traveling in pairs, which can be an excellent opportunity to meet one or two like-minded friends for the remainder of your time in the city. Sometimes, the guides are also very social, and are up for hanging out after the tour, or can at least give you the scoop on where solo travelers tend to congregate.

Guides are your best source for info about a city

young guide speaking in front of a musuem on a free walking tour

Guides are locals who know way more than any guidebook — and are the type of people who enjoy chatting with strangers, like you. Photo: Preisler/Shutterstock

The various free walking tours I’ve taken have all had another benefit: they allow you to pick a local expert’s brain for recommendations on restaurants, bars, and attractions, including harder-to-find information, like when museums offer free entry or bars host live music.

There’s a good chance the tour guide’s suggestions for the best (or cheapest, or coolest) local watering holes might not be in the travel guides, and can be great places to meet locals or expats. You may even find yourself hanging out at the last stop with your fellow tour participants or the guides themselves.

Being on a tour with a local allows you to see the city through the lens of someone who knows the city well, and knows what kinds of people will like various bars, restaurants, or attractions. But they’re also people who welcome tourists and are happy to share their town with visitors, so they’re going to give you honest recommendations, instead of sending you to the touristy places that give them kick-backs when you mention their names.

For example, while on a tour in Melbourne, my guide was a local university student who shared suggestions on everywhere to grab a drink, from trendy underground speakeasies to the most affordable dive bars and places well-known for being safe LGBTQ+ and BIPOC hangouts. I actually went back to one of her recommendations that night with someone from my tour – something that happens frequently when I travel.

You might get extra discounts

Of course, you don’t want a guide who is going to send you to the lunchtime pizza place in Rome that only has menus in English. But if you listen to their recommendations, you may get the locals discount.

In Athens, Greece, our guide was friends with the man who owned one of his local favorite restaurants. When we walked in, you could tell they were buddies, rather than it being some business exchange where every guide in town is sending tourists there. He ended our tour at the restaurant, and the owner gave everyone on the tour a discount. That made us stay longer, eat and drink more, and build deeper connections with each other.

Even if your guide doesn’t know business owners by name, they probably at least know what places in the city have happy hours, discounts, or other good deals for budget travelers.

They make starting conversations feel more natural

free walking tours - friends taking photos for each other on observation deck

Asking someone to take your photo can start a conversation. Photo: Ekaterina Pokrovsky/Shutterstock

There’s usually a fair amount of free time to chat while walking from landmark to landmark on these free walking tours. It can be intimidating to put yourself out there, but asking your tour-mate questions – “What else have you been doing in the city so far?” “Is there anything you’re looking forward to?” “What made you to decide to visit place?” – is a good way to start natural conversations, and maybe learn something new about the destination. Even asking someone to take your photo can be a conversation starter.

There’s a chance you’ll find someone with a common interest, from a deep love of Spanish tapas to a bowling obsession to speaking Greek as a second language. If you get along well and the timing works out, it may be the first of many conversations with a new friend who shares similar tastes. It helps to have WhatsApp downloaded on your phone if you’re outside of the US, as that’s the easiest way to communicate with travelers with phone numbers from other countries.

They eliminate language barriers

From my experience, it doesn’t matter whether your tour group is large or small. They’re always great ways to connect with other travelers, especially since tours are offered in specific languages. So if you’re taking a free walking tour in English, the other people on your tour will also speak English, no matter where in the world you are.

During your tour, don’t be afraid to speak up and ask questions. It shows the guides that you’re interested, which drives them to share even more information. And curiosity can connect you with other travelers with common queries, sparking conversations and encouraging other people to speak up, too.

New friends can be future travel buddies

chatting tour mates on a free walking tour in australia

You’ll likely meet other outgoing people who you can travel with short- or long-term. Photo: Ben Wehrman/Shutterstock

Another easy way to initiate a conversation is by asking people on the tour where they’re from. People usually enjoy sharing stories about themselves and their backgrounds, and I’ve met multiple people who had similar mindsets on travel, as well as similar backgrounds. I’ve met people who live in places in the US I’ve always been interested in visiting, and we’ve connected so well that I know I’ll be reaching out to them when I make it to their hometowns back in the States.

These free walking tours aren’t just fun and helpful, but a good reminder that we’re all human beings who crave connections. So if you’re feeling lonely on the road, consider giving one a try. If you’re brave enough to put yourself out there, you’ll probably be rewarded. These tours can be a way to find community in a new place, get to know a city on a deeper level, and create friendships that go beyond the boundaries of the tour experience (and maybe beyond the trip itself).

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