Rothenburg's Night Watchman walking tours offer the most compelling hour...

Rothenburg's Night Watchman walking tours offer the most compelling hour of medieval wonder anywhere in Germany, according to Europe travel expert Rick Steves. Credit: Rick Steves

It was my last day in Lisbon, and I was on a roll, until a walking tour hijacked my work.

I had intended to tag along for half an hour and then duck out. But the tour was so good that I stayed the entire three-plus hours. Run by a company called Lisbon Walker (lisbonwalker.com), the tour was billed as an introduction to the city. Yet even after visiting Lisbon numerous times over the last 20 years, I just couldn't leave. The guide had our entire group enthralled for every minute as we walked and took the trolley through the old town.


Tours on foot

Walking tours are my favorite introduction to a city. Inexpensive and usually in English, they are led by well-trained guides who choose to show you their town with the goal of giving you an appreciation of its history, people and culture.

In big cities, walking tours are a great way to get oriented, often zeroing in on the historic core. Many cities have walks that focus on particular neighborhoods or themes. Insiders run some of the best walking tours, leading tourists off the beaten path, offering a local's perspective on landmarks and attractions.


Noteworthy tours


LONDON

Blue Badge Tourist Guides lead excellent two-hour walks that hit many central highlights, including Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. Tours leave daily from Piccadilly Circus at 10 a.m. and end at Buckingham Palace, just in time for the last part of the Changing of the Guard (about $8, tourist guides.org.uk/essentialwalk).

The Yeoman Warders (nicknamed the Beefeaters) still reside in London's famous Tower. In the old days, Beefeaters were assigned to guard the Tower, its prisoners and the jewels. Today, their job is to don traditional garb - blue knee-length coats with red trim and a top hat - and take visitors through the Tower. Their talks are highly entertaining, with lots of bloody anecdotes about the Tower and its history (about $30, hrp.org.uk).


PARIS

Paris Walks has great tours of hilly Montmartre and the lively Marais. Tours last about two hours and are led in English (about $16, paris-walks.com).


GERMANY

Walking tours can enrich your experience by providing much-needed context for Berlin's many Nazi, Jewish, and Communist sights. Berlin Walks offers six different tours - ranging from 3 to 6 hours each ($16-$20, berlinwalks.com).

Vive Berlin operates an "Essential" tour that covers the city's highlights as well as a few historical walks that encompass its Communist past ($16-$21.50, viveberlintours.de)

Night walks can be an enchanting - or eerie - way to experience a city. In Rothenburg, the Night Watchman (a.k.a. Hans-Georg Baumgartner) lights his lamp and takes tourists on his rounds, telling slice-of-gritty-life tales of medieval Rothenburg (about $8, nightwatchman.de).


NORTHERN IRELAND

With its recent history of turmoil, the country has several fascinating tours led by people who lived through these experiences. In Belfast, former IRA prisoners lead walks along the Falls Road and bring to life the struggles of this Catholic neighborhood (about $16, coiste.ie).

In Derry, walking tours of the Bogside murals, which depict the tragic events that took place during the Troubles, are guided by the artists themselves (about $16, freederrymurals.com).


COPENHAGEN

Every summer, American expat Richard Karpen (better known as fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen) dusts off his long coat and top hat and leads people through a 90-minute tour of the city's historic center, weaving through courtyards, back streets and unusual parts of the old town (about $12, copenhagenwalks.com).


EDINBURGH

Auld Reekie Tours leads groups into the "vaults" under the old bridges "where it was so dark, so crowded, and so squalid that the people there knew each other not by how they looked, but by how they sounded, felt and smelt." The tour comes complete with screaming Gothic characters that jump out at you (about $12.50, auldreekietours.com).


TIPS

* Walking tours can vary in quality, so do some research before signing up.

* Be wary of "free" tours that are offered in cities such as Munich, Berlin, Paris and Florence. While the tours are indeed free, tipping is expected; in fact, the guides don't earn money unless you tip.

* A good walking tour shouldn't just recount facts and trivia, it should connect you vividly to the place you're in - and to the people living there, past and present.

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