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When people think of free walking tours, they seem to naturally think of strolling along the Seine and the Notre Dame in Paris or snapping pictures of London’s Big Ben. In summary, they think of big cities and the classic stops on a European tour. While free tours by foot in Europe have set the tone for this style of sightseeing, smaller or less frequented cities have caught on to the trend and have introduced their own versions. Below, we count down our favorite free walking tours in off-the-beaten-path European cities.
The capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina is now an up-and-coming cosmopolitan city with plenty of museums and stunning architecture to entertain visitors. Plus, for a tour, the city is perfect as it’s soaked in history, both past and more recent. Sarajevo, although not a big name amongst other European cities, has had an incredible influence on the continent and has been maybe hurt more by recent conflict than anywhere else in the continent. The local guides of the free walking tour give insights into the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, sparking World War I, and the four year siege of the city during the terrible 1990s Balkan conflict. Tourists also find the tour’s highlights of the intersection between Western and Eastern culture to be very interesting.
No longer held under the thumb of Soviet influence, Tallinn, Estonia underwent a huge 21st century expansion. While it’s still experiencing modern development, Tallinn’s old town remains one of the most well-preserved walled cities in the world. Highlighted by medieval churches, a Gothic town hall that was completed in 1404, and ornate former homes of the city’s merchant class, the free tour lasts for about two hours, with occasional stops in picturesque parks for quick history lessons. Named Lonely Planet’s “Best Value Destination in 2018”, Tallin’s free walking tour only adds to the cost-cutting.
The first of three tours by foot on our list provided by Sandeman’s — a successful tour company started by a Yale grad and expat who realized people best respond to tours when they are given by someone with local knowledge and a passion for the city. This model was further improved by the tip based “pay-what-you-like model”, now used by the majority of free tours.
Seville’s iteration of these free tours aims to give a two-and-a-half-hour crash course on the rich 2,000+ year history of the Southern Spanish city. Transporting folks back through time to show how the various rulers of old Seville, like the Romans, Muslims, and the Tartessians, have influenced the culture. Tour highlights include the city’s grand plazas, the crowded streets of Santa Cruz, and the most recognizable building in Seville, the Giralba bell tower. The tour isn’t limited to history though; tour guides are excited to talk about Flamenco clubs, art, and scrumptious foods also.
As Portugal’s “second city”, Porto at times can be overlooked for the capital Lisbon, but undeservedly so. The free tour of the city divided by the banks of Rio Douro capitalizes on the city’s natural and human-made beauty as every turn of the corner reveals a new view or breathtaking perspective. Waltzing past the hand-painted tiles decorating metro stations, the unmistakable Dom Luís I Bridge, and the Clérigos Chruch makes the tour fly by. Meanwhile, Potterheads on a literary journey can rejoice as a stop at the Lello bookstore explains how the beautiful building influenced JK Rowling. Another appeal of Porto is its lively people. Tour guides are happy to tell everyone about how the inhabitants embrace their history and the uniquely Portuguese feeling of saudade. They’ll also point tourists in the right direction for as many samples of Port wine as possible.
Liverpool’s magical mystery tour takes tourists around the city that was built by hard labor and put on the map by four floppy haired musicians. Many people flock to Liverpool for a touch of Beatles history, and the tour quickly indulges them. Showcasing important locations for the band’s meteoric rise to fame as well as subtle tributes to the band, fans of John, Paul, George, and Ringo will be undoubtedly be satisfied. This tour could easily become a tour of music history but Sandeman’s makes an effort to explore Liverpool beyond pop culture. Guides will also emphasize Liverpool’s impact on industry, WWII, and art, as well as the accuracy of its nickname “The World in One City.”
Perhaps a prime example of the Slovenian capital not receiving enough love from European travelers, the free tour here is available upon request, rather than at a set time everyday. An incredibly charming city any time of year, Ljubljana is best visited during summer, when it’s primed to enjoy the city’s strong café culture and river that flows along manicured banks of shaded grass asking to be picnicked upon. The tour loves to speak to the design of the picturesque town as early developers added flourishes around the city just to make it more pleasing to the eye.
Another capital city heavily influenced by its geographical position and its interactions with differing neighborhood cultures, Sofia is a fascinating place to walk through. With impressive mosques, old statues paying tribute to controversial Soviet leaders, and stunning cathedrals all within walking distance of each other, the Sofia sightseeing tour is quick to point out the melting pot mentality of the city. With so many cultures coexisting in a peaceful environment, the tour does its best to give a peek into everyday life. Aside from this cultural highlight, the tour also stops at 29 points of interest.
Hardly a small city compared to others included on our list, the metro area of Frankfurt has over 5.6 million inhabitants. Surprising then, that Berlin and Munich still steal most of the limelight for tourists in Germany. Traversing the city from its old historical architecture to the monolithic glass skyscrapers of downtown, this tour depicts how key the city is to the world market. Since the tour is given primarily by local students, they are also a great resource to answer questions about where non-tourists hang out, the best way to experience Frankfurt’s nightlife, and good places to grab some hearty grub.
The quickest tour on the list at just one and a half hours, the Old Town Riga Free Tour gives just enough history and information on the Latvian capital to get the general feel for the city before branching out separately. Although it is a lesser-known city, even just the façade of Riga seems to fit the stereotypical image of a European city, cobblestone streets, an impressive church, and a thriving market. Conversation topics vary on the tour but often discuss why Riga is in a prime position to become the biggest, coolest, and most artistically inclined city of the Baltic countries.