I have taken three walking tours in London so far from two different tour companies. Here is my experience.
With the first company, Free London Walking Tours, I went on two tours. Looking at their website you will see they offer eight different t ours, so there are lots of choices and interests to choose from. The tours I took were the Royal London Walk & Changing of the Guard and Secrets of London.
Royal London Walk & Changing of the Guard
Things you will see: Buckingham Palace, Changing of the Guard, Houses Of Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, St James Palace, 10 Downing Street
We did not see what I would say qualifies as the Changing of the Guard. We did see the marching band, very upclose and personal but not the guards. Buckingham Palace was seen from a distance but nowhere close enough to see the changing ceremony. This tour should have just been called Royal London Walk. It also says it ends by Trafalgar Square, which is a long stretch; you will be much closer to Piccadilly Circus. Over all though, I can recommend this tour. We learned many facts and interesting tidbits about London I would have never known or seen. This is a great introductory tour of London.
After the tour, walk along Piccadilly St. (towards Piccadilly Circus) and you will pass several shops that you should stop in. Shops like Fortnum & Mason, Hatchards (the oldest bookshop in the United Kingdom – since 1797), St. James’s Piccadilly Church and then of course the shops all around Piccadilly Circus.
Secrets of London
Things you will see: Hidden Treasures, Secret ruins, Obscure monuments, Inner and Middle Temple (when accessible), Dr Johnson’s House, Somerset House
At first I was a bit disappointed but as I think back and relook at pictures of the places we went it was a good tour. We did wander many back alleyways and what felt like secret places.
The tour guide pointed out things that we see but don’t see, things that are out in the open that we just don’t recognize. Like the old fancy stone boat water gates.
The water from the river no longer goes up to them so you don’t even think about them. They look interesting but “what was that,” you ask. Did you know there is a Camel statue with a solder on it and a cat statue? Cat statues are rare. The tour did last a little over two hours and again a lot of walking – thus a walking tour! Be sure to take pictures, as you will want to remember what you just saw.
One added bonus, we also saw St. Bride’s Church, which is the world-famous Journalists’ church. If you are an author, reporter, journalist…you may want to stop by, just to get that little extra bit of help. It can’t hurt and who knows it may help.
The third tour I went on was operated by Strawberry Tours. If you look on Trip Advisory they are ranked #4 for London Tours. They offer eight free walking tours and many, many others that are paid tours. The tour I went on was the Harry Potter Tour.
Harry Potter Tour
Features: Hardy’s Sweet Shop, Diagon Alley, Knockturn Alley, Ministry of Magic, Westminster Station, Millennium Bridge, Leaky Cauldron, and Vue Cinema
At the beginning of the tour our guide went around the group and asked us which house we belonged to. The majority picked Gryffindor Tower. Then to set off on the walk we had to show our LEFT forearm to make sure we did have the dark mark tattoo. Of the places listed as features we only saw three of them in person, the others were only talked about.
My disappointment was clearly the anomaly, 100% of the other people on the tour were huge Harry Potter fans and seemed to be fascinated by every story and fact told by our guide. I would have loved to have gone to Hardy’s Sweet Shop (we were told it is over there, but we did not go there) and really where is the Ministry of Magic (smile). Our tour guide said, “if you don’t believe in magic you will not find it.” I am a believer but did not quite see it on this tour. Harry Potter tours seem to always get great reviews, hundreds of them so I guess it was just me. If you are a Harry Potter fan, I would certainly recommend this tour for you. Maybe I need to go watch one or two of the movies again!
There are other free walking tour companies like Free Tours by Foot. They say they offer 14 tours – but many of them I could not find on their calendar. They do have a “London All-in-One Tour” that last six hours! I can’t imagine a six-hour tour; it must cover a lot though. There is also a section on their website for self-guided tours which is worth checking out.
I also took a free walking tour in Oslo, Norway in January that was excellent.
If we have the budget for it, we like to take a ½ day guided bus tour on the first day. It is a great way to become familiar with a new city.
All three tours were each over two hours long. You do walk a lot so be sure to wear good walking shoes and be prepared to keep up with the group. Tours like these are a great way to see parts of a city that you would never see otherwise. I highly recommend them and don’t forget to tip your guide at the end.