Through my last couple year of traveling I’ve discovered one of my favorite ways to start off any big new city. That is with a free walking tour. I’m sure some of you have heard of these or even been on one yourself. But if you don’t know or haven’t heard of them they’re pretty sweet. Basically they’re tours offered for free in most big touristy cities. You usually get a two and a half to three hour tour for free, if you choose. However the guides have to make a living somehow and it’s pretty well expected that you leave some sort of tip at the end depending of the quality of the tour.
This business set up for tours usually works in favor of the tourist however. As the tours have to be great if the guide is expecting to make any sort of real money. For who’s going to leave a good tip for a bad tour? As a result I’ve found this is my prefered way to learn a cities basic history, little hidden gems, and to help establish my sense of direction.
So all throughout Italy Jade and I were trying to book these tours for any city we were staying in for more than a day. We did tours in Venice, Florence, and finally our favorite, Rome. Although I’ve been rambling about free walking tours the tour we had in Rome wasn’t that, it was a free bike tour. Same concept just on a bike is all.
At first it didn’t look like the tour was going to work out. We emailed the good people over at Free Bike Tours Rome and told them we had one night free. They asked if any other night might work out or any other time even. We told them no unfortunately and thanked them for their time. We were disappointed but quickly received an email back and were told it was okay and the tour would be put on for us.
The night came for our tour and we met at the location at 7pm. Our guide rolled up along with the bike store owner and outfitted us with some bikes. We were the only two and asked if we were expecting anyone else. Our guide, Lorenzo, smiled and told us that we were it for tonight. Which is pretty unusual for a free tour. For the guides make their money off of the twenty to thirty small tips they receive off of each group. The concept of a free tour doesn’t really work out when the numbers are small. So we thanked him for his kindness and even felt a little ashamed for being the only ones.
This never seemed to phase Lorenzo for a second as we got comfortable on our bikes and where asked if we wanted to see or learn about anything in particular on the tour. This once again struck us as odd as a tour is usually a pretty rehearsed and set thing. (Which I can’t imagine how a guide does that three hours twice a day for seven days a week.) It was our first night and we had other tours lined up for the Colosseum and the Vatican so we told him no. We were greeted with his friendly smile as he seemed to muse over the route he’d be talking us on in his head for a moment. Then we were off.
The free bike tour was unlike any other tour we’d been on before. Usually the free walking tours are pretty slow going and you hit all the main touristy things. But with a free bike tour you are liberated from a short itinerary with only the main monuments. You get to cover so much more ground and explore more fully all the romance of back alleys and the city’s night life. And since it was at night the number of tourists out was far less and the heat from the day had tapered off. It was the perfect way to see the city.
Lorenzo also proved to be the best tour guide we’d ever had on any tour, free or paid. He told us that he’d been doing bike tours for years. That before this company that he and a friend had started up he worked for the major bike tour companies. Which allowed him to see how not to run a tour. He eventually grew tired of the oppressive and routine nature of those companies and broke out to do it right. And although their company was still pretty new you could see the passion behind his eyes and words. You could sense the amount of work and time that these guys were throwing in to make this a success, and that passion and determination is infections, it makes the tour just that much better. You feel as if you’re apart of something great.
There wasn’t a question Lorenzo couldn’t answer and being Roman himself he gave us a more in depth look at the views and the ways of the city. It was also a relief that he was so familiar with his city as he made sure to constantly be leading us past fountains to keep hydrated and on the easiest routes around the city itself.
I thought I was pretty familiar with the way free tours were run, but this experience opened my eyes to a whole new way of doing things. I even worry that future free tours will be spoiled a bit by this revelation at what quality can be.
So if you’re ever in Rome in the future be sure to do yourself a favor and look up Free Bike tours of Rome. And even if you’re not in Rome and you have plans to go to some other big city give a free tour a try. Chances are you’ll learn a few cool things and it’ll make your appreciation of your stay just a little bit deeper and fuller.