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.
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!!