Updated: 7/10/18 | July 10th, 2018
As you may know, I’ve been basing my travels lately around a theme in order to make them a little more than just a checklist of the top attractions. Having spent some extended time in London recently, I decided to focus my trip around a thing I love to death: walking tours. I wanted to see this city on foot and learn about it from the ground up.
Since London is a megacity filled with a mega number of walking tours, from free tours and literary tours to pub crawls and specialty food tours and quirky tea tours, I had plenty of options to choose from. By the time my ten days were over, I had taken over 25 walking tours!
London is not an easy city to walk around as it is so spread out, but these tours do a good job of breaking it down into manageable bites while giving you a lot of good history and context. Here is what I think are the best walking tour companies in London:
Free Tours by Foot
I’ve taken (and loved) this company’s NYC tours, so when I found out it had a London branch, I had to take a couple. Their London tours are just as good as they are in NYC: well written, well presented, and very insightful, while covering the major highlights of each area. They offer a seemingly endless number of tours that run throughout the day. Some of better ones are the Westminster, Harry Potter, Soho, ghost, and street art tours. Most walks last 2–2.5 hours. Pre-booking via the website is preferred.
As one of the biggest walking tour companies in London, it offers dozens of tours as well as day trips to the Cotswolds, Oxford, Cambridge, Stonehenge, and Bath. They usually have four or five tours scheduled throughout the day. You don’t need to prebook and you can pay when you arrive. Most tours last 2–2.5 hours. I really dug their tours: they have very animated guides and a kept up a good pace. I highly recommend the Shakespeare tour, the one on classic London, and any of the pub crawls (alcohol not included)! Each tour is 10 GBP, but if you buy a 2 GBP “frequent tour” card, you can save 2 GBP off all your future walks.
Take Walks London
London is the newest city for this company that also offers walks in Italy, New York City, Paris, and Barcelona. You get the best access on their tours. The Parliament tour (89 GBP) will take you behind the scenes and show you places other tour companies can’t go. They aren’t cheap, but they are worth it if you’re looking to go deeper. Their a new WOWO (Walk On, Walk Off) pass offers the best value. It allows you to take up to 12 tours for 59 GBP. That’s less than 5 GBP per tour if you were to take them all! These tours are hyper-neighborhood-focused to minimize walking around and run about 60-90 minutes, which to me is the perfect length of time. (I mean, I love walking tours, but when they hit three hours, I start to tune out!) If your guide is Andy, you’re going to be in for a real treat! That guy was a walking encyclopedia.
Free London Walking Tours
This tiny company offers free walks from a few older British chaps that have an air of university professors. They tell silly jokes but also relate some of the most arcane facts of London history. Their tours tend to cover the dark side of London, like the “Fire, Pestilence and Plague” walk (about the plague) and Debauched London tour (about London’s history with beer). They tend to cover a lot of ground — physically and factually — but with their quirky stories, it never feels like a slog. The tours last a solid two hours. You don’t need to preregister.
Strawberry Tours is a more “hip” tour company for young travelers (the guides are younger as well) as they advertise mostly to younger backpackers and travelers. They run a number of free tours, specialty tours, and paid pub crawls (which might explain the young audience). While I didn’t love the pub crawl, the Harry Potter, food, and London in a Day tours were fun and informative. The day tours are free and last around two hours.
This London branch of a continent-wide food tour company offers three walks: one for the East End, one of historic pubs, and one for nighttime cocktails. The guides are super friendly and knowledgeable, and you’ll get to eat and drink a ton on the tour. Tours last about three hours and aren’t cheap: they begin at 79 GBP each (food and drink is included). I found the clientele tends to be a bit older (probably due to the prices.)
New Europe Walking Tours
This company has free walking tours all over Europe. They are sort of “the backpacker tour,” as most hostels promote this company exclusively and so most young travelers end up on this one. They are good for a general historic overview of the city. The guides tend to follow the script and don’t have some of the deep local knowledge you get with some of the other tours so do the general walking tour here and take more specific one with the other companies listed! Their London tours tend to last closer to three hours and usually have a short break in the middle.
This pub tour is a gentle two-mile walk that starts near St. Paul’s and ambles to the Strand and Covent Garden. The tour covers four traditional pubs and explains the country’s long brewing and drinking culture. Groups are small (capped at 14 people), and it’s the only tour company I know that offers a money-back guarantee. It lasts three hours and costs 25 GBP (drinks not included).
Jack the Ripper Tours
There are a million Jack the Ripper tours in London. When I took mine, there were four others following the same path as we did. Who knew Jack the Ripper was such a big draw? If you take one during summertime, your group is going to be 20-50 people! While I can’t speak for the others, I took the original Jack the Ripper tour and found it to be one of the best walking tours of the entire trip. While explaining the Jack the Ripper murder mystery, the guide really brought you back to 1888 London and made you imagine how the city was then. Be sure to get Mick as your guide. He was excellent. (He even wrote a book on Jack the Ripper!)
I love Context and have been a huge supporter of theirs. They offer detailed and in-depth historical tours led by experts and specialists in various fields; our guide on the ancient London walk was a historical architect and professor. This is what I love about Context tours: the immense knowledge their guides have. You know you’re gonna get a guide who will teach you some stuff! Their tours tend to cater to an older and family audience, as their cost (100 GBP) tends to price out most people. However, if you do have the cash, I can’t recommend these tours enough. Their tours last 3–3.5 hours.
Vayable / Get Your Guide
If you’re looking for something different and maybe a little bit more unique, check out Vayable or Get Your Guide and take a walking tour from a local who can offer any kind of tour they feel like! There are tea, street art, shopping, pub, park, and even dumpling tours — and everything in between. Prices and schedules are set by the guides, so be sure to inquire in advance, as you can rarely just jump on them like most of the companies above!
Honorable Mention: London Greeters
Greeter programs are local city initiatives that pair you with a local who will show you around the city for a few hours. These are passionate people who love their city and know a lot about their neighborhood! I didn’t have time to use the service in London but I’ve used it in other cities and am a huge fan of the initiative. It’s a fun way to learn about the city. It’s just you and your friends and the guide. The program is free but you’ll need to set up a time in advance.
London is full of walking tours. The next time you’re in London, take one of these tours. So often as tourists we wander the city but never really know the history of what we are looking at. Walking tours fill in that knowledge gap: you get to wander, see the sights, take photos, and learn something. After all, that’s why you’re traveling, right?
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