A Tale of Two Tours: Lisbon and Hagia Sophia DEATHMATCH!

Lisbon is Pretty!
Lisbon is Pretty!

On my grand Lisbon-Rome-Istanbul sojourn I did something out of the ordinary when I participated in a free tour of Lisbon, and then I did it again, when I paid to have a tour of the Hagia Sophia. Despite both being tours, the two experiences couldn’t have been more distinct from each other. So here is a head-to-head match-up between them on their glories, issues, and ultimately a choice made with regards to tours.

Price: Free city tour mostly wins. It was free. The Context Tour in Istanbul was $80 a person (though we got a discount). HOWEVER, the quality and value of the Context Tour was so high (to be explained in greater detail throughout this list) that $80 was pretty reasonable.  So, wash.

Length: They were both three hours. Which is too long no matter what you’re touring, so, wash.

Guide: Context Tour guide wins this by a landslide. She was a PhD student, gave us GREAT lunch recommendations, and talked at a reasonable speed instead of the rapid-fire outbursts of the Free Tour guide. While he was nice, he also was a computer science student, so he wasn’t quite at the same level. Context wins.

Group Mechanics: The free tour had upwards of 30 people trooping around–no good, I hate that. In the Context Tour we were a group of 5 total, much better. Context wins.

Tour Meeting Point: The Free Tour met in a city square at 10… then didn’t actually leave until after 10:30. And the guides didn’t provide much information about what we were waiting for (turns out one  of the guides was AWOL). Not great management. The Context Tour met at a cafe near our tour sight, so much bigger improvement– we could relax and have a coffee while waiting. That tour also started late because two people who had signed up were no shows so we waited for them while the guide got in touch with the company to try to locate them. The guide was really informative/straightforward with why we were waiting and since we were in a cafe, with snacks, I hardly minded. Context wins.

So is Hagia Sophia! So pretty.
So is Hagia Sophia! So pretty.

Necessity of a Tour to Understanding the Sights: Eh. The Free Tour of Lisbon was nice for getting a sense of the city and seeing its lay-out, but we didn’t go to any neighborhoods or see any sights that I hadn’t been at least passingly aware of from reading the guidebook. The Context Tour went into a ton of detail about Hagia Sophia, but since I’m pretty familiar with that stuff, wasn’t all that revelatory. Especially since–unlike the Forum for example, which is just a big jumble of columns–a thoughtful guidebook with good descriptions would’ve been enough to navigate Hagia Sophia. So, wash.

Desire to go on more tours in the future: Nil. I will never go on a free city tour again, I found extremely limited value in it. I would consider tours run by ethical/sustainable companies like Context again (assuming I’ve built it into my trip budget) on sights/neighborhoods/themes that I’m more unfamiliar with.

Conclusion: Like in almost all things, you get what you pay for. Budget allowing, I would strongly recommend Context Tours (and similar ethical companies), while I would not recommend doing a Free Tour.

What is your experience with Tours? Good? Bad? Indifferent? Let me hear it!!



8 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Tours: Lisbon and Hagia Sophia DEATHMATCH!

  1. I did two free tours in my travels – one in Budapest and one in Ljubljiana! I actually absolutely loved both as they were very informative and really introduced the history of the country! Also really interesting to get in touch with other travelers! Being from Portugal and very close o Lisbon I am sorry to hear you didn’t appreciate your free tour, but have to say that actually you probably just lucked out! (In my experiences we were not even close to 10 people)! But basically don’t completely discard the free tours in the future! Hope you enjoy the rest of your time in Lisbon 🙂

    1. I’m dying to go to Ljubljana! I think for me that tours might be more appealing outside of Europe. I’ve travelled and studied Europe SO MUCH that not so much of it is new to me anymore. I’ll probably give a free tour another go sometime, thanks for the encouragement! And thanks for reading!

  2. I once did a tour in Rome (it might even have been with Context, or some similar outfit) and I liked it and learned a lot. But I’ve also never felt the need to do any other tours anywhere else, so I guess it wasn’t mind-blowingly enjoyable…? I guess it mostly won on “necessary to understand the sights” and in most places I’ve been since, that hasn’t been a major category 🙂

    1. There are a lot of places where a tour just isn’t really that necessary, but some places where I’d say it’s essential. The Roman Forum is definitely a place where a tour is a good call. The Vatican also (but ONLY in a small group), because there’s SO MUCH THERE it’s easy to get overwhelmed by it all. The other benefit of tours is that you tend to be able to skip the line, which is a big plus. Thanks for reading!

  3. The only European city tour I’ve done (aside from London double decker bus) was a walking tour of Oxford, back before most of you were born probably (1991). It was worth whatever we paid, b/c we made a day trip on a Sunday, only to discover that the colleges were mostly closed. The tour gave us access to some places and was very helpful.

  4. In San Francisco, we did a 3-hour tour (a la Gilligan’s Island) by bus that focused on movies shot in SF. If we had done the tour our first day there, it would have been worth it (we’d already been to Alamo Square). Cost was about $25-30 per person. You had to call or email to get the price! Both my teenagers, my husband, and even my 9yo loved it. If you could afford it and had never been to SF, I recommend this tour. They were about to change to 2 different 2-hour tours, but I’m glad we got the whole package.

    1. That sounds like a pretty successful tour! Since I’ve had a pretty “meh” reaction to these two tours, I wonder how many more I should try before I rule them out completely? Maybe one more– three-strikes style? Thanks for reading!

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