It’s taken me a while to put the ol’ proverbial “pen-to-paper,” or fingers to keypad on the one experience in Madrid that left me disappointed. Our walking tour was lacking. There, I said it.
Most of you know i am a big fan (and proponent) of walking tours. In fact, I recommend them as something to do the first day because they can really help give you a lay of the land in addition to providing you with some basic history. And, until now, i’ve always thought a free walking tour was even better.
If your guide is good, you can also walk away with suggestions for not-so-touristy things to do. But that’s a pretty big “if” and our experiences with free walking tours in Spain would make me think twice before I did it again. I booked a Sandeman’s walking tour in Madrid, but in fairness it seems to be any of the “free” walking tours—not one specific outfit—based on feedback from other tourists we met along the way.
Initially the tour was great. We covered a lot of ground and saw among other things:
Our guide was entertaining and fluent in English. But later on in the day, i discovered that about half of the history our guide shared was inaccurate, or debatable. This really bummed me out. For one, the copious notes I’d taken all had to be scrapped, because i wasn’t sure which points were correct. So, although we did get to see the main highlights, without good information the three hours we spent were mostly a waste of time.
Having been to Egypt (where it’s practically a government requirement guides have advanced degrees in Egyptian history), and having hiked the Inca Trial with a guide who grew up living on the trial, i have to say that fluency is an absolute necessity in a guide. Unfortunately, it cannot be at the expense of knowing what you’re talking about. It seems like many of the “free” walking tours were made up of charming bilingual young men and women who know little more than a brochure can tell you.
Maybe these tour companies figure they don’t need to work as hard. But I’d say they’re currently not worth it. And yes, the walking tours are “free” but you need to tip the guide because that’s how they make their money. And again, these are very charming and personable people—certainly, that’s part of why they were hired. Ultimately, this business model is shortsighted. After all, happy customers are likely to tell other people about their experience, creating more business.
I’ve already raved about Madrid Food Tours. Because food is such a key part of the city’s history, i’d honestly bag the free tour. Save your pennies up and invest in a tour with guides these who really know the history and are invested in showing you a great time.