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Walking Tours Bring Europe's Cities To Life

  • Published Friday, Sep. 24, 2010, at 5:58 p.m.

It was my last day in Lisbon, and I was on a roll, until a walking tour hijacked my work. I had intended to tag along for half an hour and then duck out. But the tour was so good that I stayed the entire three-plus hours. Run by a company called Lisbon Walker, the tour was billed as an introduction to the city. Yet even after visiting Lisbon numerous times over the last 20 years, I just couldn't leave. The guide had our entire group enthralled for every minute as we walked and took the trolley through the old town.

Walking tours are my favorite introduction to a city. Inexpensive and usually in English, they are led by well-trained guides who choose to show you their town with the goal of giving you an appreciation of its history, people, and culture.

In big cities, walking tours are a great way to get oriented, often zeroing in on the historic core. For about eight bucks, London's Blue Badge Tourist Guides lead visitors on an excellent two-hour walk that hits many central highlights, including Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey, and the Houses of Parliament. The tour, which leaves daily from Piccadilly Circus at 10 a.m. ends at Buckingham Palace, just in time for the last part of the Changing of the Guard.

Many cities have walks that focus on particular neighborhoods or themes. For instance, Paris Walks has great tours of hilly Montmartre and the lively Marais. In Berlin, walking tours from Original Berlin Walks or Vive Berlin enrich your experience by providing much-needed context for the city's many Nazi, Jewish, and communist sights.

Insiders run some of the best walking tours. Northern Ireland, with its recent history of turmoil, has several fascinating tours led by people who lived through these experiences. In Belfast, former IRA prisoners lead walks along the Falls Road and bring to life the struggles of this Catholic neighborhood. In Derry, walking tours of the Bogside murals, which depict the tragic events that took place during the Troubles, are guided by the artists themselves.

In London, the Yeoman Warders (nicknamed the Beefeaters) still reside in the city's famous Tower. In the old days, Beefeaters were assigned to guard the Tower, its prisoners, and the jewels. Today, their job is to don traditional garb — blue knee-length coats with red trim and a top hat — and take visitors through the Tower. Their talks are highly entertaining, with lots of bloody anecdotes about the Tower and its history.

Equally enjoyable is a stroll through Copenhagen with Hans Christian Andersen. Every summer, American expat Richard Karpen dusts off his long coat and top hat and walks people through the city's historic center. Wandering through Copenhagen with Hans Christian Andersen by your side is a bit strange but worthwhile, as he weaves in and out of buildings, courtyards, back streets, and unusual parts of the old town. In winter, Richard becomes himself again and flees "cold, dark, rainy, and expensive" Denmark with his wife to dance the tango in Argentina.

Night walks can be an enchanting — or eerie — way to experience a city. In Germany's Rothenburg, the Night Watchman (a.k.a. Hans-Georg Baumgartner) lights his lamp and takes tourists on his rounds, telling slice-of-gritty-life tales of medieval Rothenburg.

For some cheap thrills, Auld Reekie Tours in Edinburgh leads groups into the "vaults" under the old bridges "where it was so dark, so crowded, and so squalid that the people there knew each other not by how they looked, but by how they sounded, felt, and smelt." The tour comes complete with screaming Gothic characters that jump out at you. In London, several companies offer Jack the Ripper walks starting at the Tower of London — though almost no hint of the dark and spooky London of that period survives.

A few warnings about walking tours: These can vary in quality, so do some research before signing up. Also, be wary of "free" tours that are offered in cities such as Munich, Berlin, Paris, and Florence. While the tours are indeed free, tipping is expected; in fact, the guides don't earn money unless you tip. Personally, I find free tours light on history, and too often guides spend your valuable time heavily promoting their company's other tours, which are not free.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when guides tell stories, without tying those events to the surrounding wealth of visuals. A good walking tour shouldn't just recount facts and trivia. It should connect you vividly to the place you're in — and to the people living there, past and present. And when that happens, a walking tour is money and vacation time very well spent.

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com.

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