The Best Way to Get to Know European Cities
I’m addicted to walking tours.
I didn’t know about the popularity of walking tours before I came to Europe. It took me about a year to get into it, but soon I found that it is the best way to get to know cities in Europe.
Ever feel disoriented the first time you arrive at a new city? Ever wish that you have a friend to take you around and show you all the secret spots that only the locals know?
Walking tour is the closest thing you can get, without having to require the real-life friend to hold your hand. Sort of like a professional friend of sort, that you pay to show you around for a couple of hours. At times better than friend, because your friend sometimes doesn’t have much clue about the city they live in.
Not all cities in Europe have walking tours, but most of the big ones do, especially the ones that have stories to tell – in other words, A LOT of them, considering how old Europe is.
I still remember my first walking tour at Edinburgh, Scotland. It’s a big city, and I only spent a night in it, which means I didn’t have much time to explore. Walking tour to the rescue! It was a good 3.5 hour of walking and story galore, and by the end of it I felt like I knew Edinburgh so much more. (the Harry Potter details were a great bonus!)
There are a few types of walking tours:
1) the one you pay upfront, usually around £10
2) the one marked as free, which means they go on tips based, and you give them any amount you’re comfortable with at the end of the tour
3) the one that is truly free, usually organized by volunteers
For tips based tour, I recommend New Sandeman. I have taken many of their tours: Edinburgh, Oxford, Madrid, Liverpool, and I’m generally happy with them. Of course your experience would greatly depend on the guide you get, but this is true for paying tours as well.
For Cambridge and Canterbury I took paying tours organized by the city. Bath was special in that they provide daily truly-free walking tour service. It is stated that they accept no tips! (hope I don’t remember it wrong..) The tour is run by volunteers who love to tell people about their lovely city.
But the big one is of course, is London.
“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
— Samuel Johnson
(Thank you Mr Samuel Johnson Sir, I have endlessly used this quote in many occasions, convincing friends to come, convincing husband to stay, very useful.)
London is so big and complex, it would take you many walking tours to get to know the city a bit better!
A few that I have taken are on Kensington area, a Harry Potter tour, Jack the Ripper, and recently Secret London tour. Secret London tour you ask? Ah yes, it starts from Mansion House station, brought to you by Richard Jones, a Blue Badge tour guide. To be noted that Blue Badge guide is an internationally recognised guiding qualification in Britain. To make sure that your tour guide is not a random buffoon from streets of London talking about whatever. It is well known, just like the black cab taxi license, that they need to go through long and rigorous study and exams to get through. Respect!
I can’t remember if any of my previous tour guides had a Blue Badge, but they were all attached to a company, like www.walks.com, while Richard is guiding under his own name and company London Discovery Tours. If there is one thing that struck me about Richard that is different from everyone else (and remember I have been with many), is his volume of voice, omg. His voice was booming like a loud speaker, and made it so easy to hear no matter where you stand in the group. I’m one of the people who always stand or sit close to a speaker, no matter whether it’s walking group or a class, because nothing annoys me more in the world than not being able to catch what the speaker says because his/her voice is too soft. No such problem at all with Richard. I wonder if they teach that too in the Blue Badge Guide classes?
A bit of disclosure, I was invited to join Secret London tour and Jack the Ripper tour, which are both run by London Discovery Tour. My opinions however are true and unaffected by the complimentary tours. If anything, I’m probably affected more by Richard’s multiple comments about how good and inspiring my blog is. That’s right. So sweet. :)
So what is so secret about London? Plenty! I won’t spoil it all for you, but it has something to do with underground Roman amphitheater, a Very Important Tree, John Smith’s statue and story (that is John Smith of Pocahontas – oh yes they are real), the dead spot of Sir William Wallace aka Mel Gibson in Braveheart, the first church in London – which is featured in many movies including Four Weddings and a Funeral and one of Sherlock Holmes movie, even the tomb where Hugh Grant stepped his foot on in said movie (the Four Weddings, not Sherlock).
And talking about Sherlock Holmes, if you are a fan of the latest TV series with Benedict Cumberbatch and in suspense about what was happening at the end of season 2, in which Holmes was presumably about to die (really?), well we went to the very spot where it ended, and Richard told us that he saw just a couple of weeks ago that they were filming the start of season 3. (You can read Richard’s post about it here) So yes spoiler alert, Holmes doesn’t die. Has not died since 1887.
Going back to the Very Important Tree. So a poet wrote about this tree. A couple of hundred years later the Tree is still there and nobody, I mean nobody, is absolutely allowed to do anything to the Tree. Buildings were built to accommodate the Tree. They build under it, around it, as long as they leave the Tree alone! That’s what I love about London. Really I do. A tree appears in a poem, and god forbids anyone taking it down for any kind of purpose. It’s kind of silly, but in a lovely way.
The last way to explore London, is to do your own walking tour, by following a guide. Richard happens to have made a 38-page Harry Potter tour around London. You can do it yourself at your own pace. I just saw the free Harry Potter tour, so I’m excited. Will spare some time to do that one of these days. I’m not a huge fan of Harry Potter, I just read all the books and watched all the movies twice, but I’m up for all Harry-Potter-y stuff!
Another one I would recommend is Rick Steves’ London audio walking tour, which you can also download for free, complete with map, and do it yourself. In fact, I’ve done all of them! City of London, Westminster walk, British Museum, British Library. I’ve done the audio walking guide for other cities too like Athens, Florence, Pisa and Rome. Be assured that they’re really good.
So there you go. Whether you explore a city with a guide or do it your own, make sure you walk it. I’d say the guides are really great if you have limited time to explore. It’s also a nice way to associate your memory of a city with a living local person. I can clearly remember for example the lovely old lady that treated us like schoolchildren in Canterbury, the Scottish girl who has traveled around the world, the old man who spit a lot that-everybody-needed-to-keep-a-distance in Bath, and the very cute girl introducing us to Madrid. The memories are stronger, when someone tells you the stories.
Have fun exploring!