Recently I completed a cruise vacation in the Black Sea region that included a number of ports with limited online travel information. Not wanting to rely on a limited selection of cruise line shore excursions to see a smaller port, I road tested something new popping up in some destinations – free city tours given by locals.
The concept is simple – locals with an interest their town (or occasionally local visitors bureaus) will offer scheduled walking tours to out-of-town guests on a gratuity/tip only basis. The better the tour, the more you may be inclined to tip, so guides are incentivized to make their tour as interesting and accessible as possible.
I road-tested the concept in Nessebar, Bulgaria. This small UNESCO World Heritage Site has become a suddenly-popular cruise port this summer thanks to many lines cancelling their stops in Ukraine and Russia and instead adding more western Black Sea destinations.
Nessebar Free Tour can be booked via their Facebook page. Although the regularly scheduled tour operates in the evenings during the summer months, they were willing to accommodate a special tour during our daytime port visit. (Another free tour, Varna Free Tour was unable to accommodate a similar request.)
Our guide, Georgi, met us near the city walls for our one hour walking tour. During this time, he shared local history, showed us key tourist sites (along with additional information should we wish to go back and do a more thorough visit later), snapped photos for us, and pointed out services we might wish to visit later (ATMs, a bank, a popular shopping street, and recommended restaurants). At the end of the hour, we parted ways – with some in our group returning to revisit some sites in more detail while others of us, satisfied with our brief overview, were content to shop or enjoy other non-scholarly pursuits.
Local tours may not be best for those who need the services of an expert guide who can provide in-depth historical context or other highly specialized context. As well, the free tours I have researched are largely walking tours so they may not be appropriate for those with mobility restrictions. It was great, however, for how I like to tour as I consider myself a “drive-by tourist” in that I want to see a brief overview of highlights in an unfamiliar place – and then decide on my own where I’d like to concentrate my time or go back to revisit a particular sight.
We tipped as we would an arranged guide on a paid tour – based both on the quality of the tour and the time given. All-in-all, it was a great way to quickly see the highlights of new city without being trapped in a longer tour with many stops.
I found Nessebar Free Tour via raving reviews on Trip Advisor. Other free tours may be marketed via a new website Free City Tour although their listing is incomplete based on my own research via Google for upcoming city visits I have.
Have you taken a free tour in a city? If so, please share a comment about what tour you have taken and how you rate that experience!