We are all faced with too much choice in life, which jeans to buy, what to watch on Netflix or which takeaway to order on a Friday night, and planning what to do when you visit London is no different. A guided city tour is a great way to get to know London, but you will have to choose whether to take a self-guided tour, a free tour or join a guided tour for which you’ll pay a set fee.
It’s sometimes hard to decide what’s best, so here are some of the things you should consider.
Self-guided, guided or free tours – what’s the difference?
This may be stating the obvious, but there are essentially two kinds of tours:
- a guided tour, where a guide will walk with you on a designated route, and
- a self-guided tour, which is generally found in a leaflet or on a website and you walk the route yourself.
A guided tour can be either public or private, and for this you pay a fee in advance. Public guided tours take place on scheduled days and anyone can turn up. A private guided tour will be arranged for a specific group of people on a time and date to suit the group.
A free tour is a guided tour which is advertised as being for free (more about this later).
There is a reason the English talk constantly about ‘The Weather’ and that is because the UK has a wet, changeable climate, meaning you could have sunshine, showers and a fresh, easterly wind all in one afternoon. This is when having a guide can help as they’ll do their best to adapt the route so that with any luck the walk can still go ahead and you’ll get to stay dry(ish).
Closures and Road Works
The City of London is a dynamic city and often seems like a perpetual building site. The skyline is always peppered with the metallic fingers of cranes, roads are often closed at short notice, and views obscured by scaffolding and hoardings. Self-guided walks may therefore be out of date and result in frustration. A good guide will walk the route the day of the walk to make sure roads are still open and the tour can go ahead as planned.
Having a guide with you is like having a chatty friend who knows the area like the back of their hand and is only too happy to share their knowledge. Qualified guides tend to be people who have lived and worked in London for many years and if you’re looking for a recommendation for the latest vegetarian restaurant or a drink in a historic pub, or just the nearest loo, a guide should be able to point you in the right direction.
Going on a tour will hopefully pique your interest in the buildings, history and stories that you hear and may prompt questions. While we all may have Google on our phones, a qualified guide can chat to you about your questions and even make left of field suggestions. So whether your thing is modern architecture or innovative green spaces or you want to know the best spots to take photos of St Paul’s, a qualified guide will be only too happy to try to answer your questions or suggest similar or related things to see.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch
Often when something seems too good to be true, there is a catch, and some companies which advertise a free tour in fact will expect a tip at the end of the tour. This could be a good way of rewarding a particularly good guide, but beware of the few unscrupulous companies that pressure the clients into paying a tip. Read the reviews on TripAdvisor and avoid such companies.
Guided tours are more straightforward and have a transparent fee paid up front, meaning that everyone has paid the same and can relax on the tour and enjoy the walk.
Self-guided tours are, of course, entirely free – so a good option if you are on a limited budget.
A self-guided tour can be taken at a time to suit you, but remember that the City of London is primarily a place of work and some 500,000 people were commuting into the City daily pre-pandemic. While this gives the place a great energy, it also means that weekdays can be very noisy and chaotic if you don’t know where you are going. Dodging suited City boys is not fun and a guide will be able to show you the tranquil spots in the City even on the busiest day.
Meet like-minded people
One of the joys of exploring a City is meeting locals or other travelers. On a scheduled walk you’ll meet both like-minded people with interests to match your own and people from very different backgrounds. And there is nothing nicer than getting to know new people.
How to find a tour
The City Information Centre opposite St Paul’s Cathedral offers daily guided walks by qualified City of London guides and will have a number of leaflets showing various self-guided itineraries around the City (also available on the City of London’s website).
For guided walks there are many companies or individuals offering walks and Google and Trip Advisor will help you find the ideal walk. Check our Walks Page for guided walks by Six in the City.
Whatever you choose, enjoy your time in the City!