In trying (and largely failing, sadly) to keep my trip on some kind of budget, I spent some time researching free things to do in Paris. I turned up a company called Discover Walks that runs a handful of free tours around Paris.
Well, free is something of an overstatement. Rather than a set fee, they operate on tips. 5€ from every guest goes to the company for administrative costs, and the rest goes directly to the guide. The description of each tour offers an average tip amount for that tour (usually between 10-15€) to use as a guideline.
All the guides are Parisian, so they’re showing you around their own city, and all the tours are in English. I found the quality of the tour varied greatly depending on who I got as a guide, as there isn’t a set script, or even, I think, a set route. The idea is that each guide will show you their favourite places in the neighbourhood.
I took four of their five tours, split over two days. I met up with Victor on the steps of the Opera Garnier for a tour of Paris Landmarks (the right bank tour). And as far as guides go, he absolutely rocked my socks. He had spent two years studying at the school of art history attached to the Louvre museum, and then several months working in Malta to improve his English.
His explanations of the landmarks we visited were thoughtful and informative and funny. He gave us great details about the art and architecture we encountered and brought historical figures to life, giving them all personality and attitude. I had one of those rare and joyous moments of being able to connect dusty history learned in high school (in this particular case the Paris commune in the 1870s) to the explanations he was giving and the monuments I was staring at. I love when that happens.
Victor says he wants to run his own tour of Paris one day, and I would almost fly all the way back to the city just to experience that.
The second tour was of Notre Dame cathedral and its immediate surroundings, and Victor was my guide again. The tours were conveniently timed so that I just had time to cross the city and grab a quick lunch before the next one started. There was an American family with us on this tour – two sisters with five children between them – as well as assorted adults, and Victor kept even the younger kids interested in the tour.
We spent a lot of time looking at the sculpting around the doors of Notre Dame and it was fascinating. Victor told the stories of the building and the art with such character that we were all riveted. And it’s funny, when you get information like that, detailed and entertaining, you can’t not see it when you look at the building again next time. And you feel a little sense of ownership, a connection with the building. That may be the most valuable thing I take away from the whole experience. The Opera Garnier and Notre Dame are my friends, now.
The third tour of the day – The Left Bank – was immediately after the second one. I had to run for it a little, but mostly it timed out okay. This was my first experience with a different guide, and she was… a little underwhelming, actually. She did have historical information to share, but mostly it felt like a hurried tour of the guide’s opinions. Not as thoughtful, not as informative, not as funny. It was a little like getting just the headlines instead of the meat of the article.
The Left Bank was the tour I was most looking forward to, but I felt like the only piece of information I really took away from it was about the public drinking fountains.
The decorative statues surrounding the stream of water were put there to keep horses from using the same fountains as the people – the horses can’t fit their heads in between the statues. And you can actually drink from the fountains. The water is safe and clean. There are hooks on the side that used to have cups attached by a long chain for communal use. That was eventually deemed unsanitary and the cups were removed. These days, most people use their own water bottles.
On Monday, my last day in the city, I decided to do the Marais walking tour. I had met up with my friend in the Marais for tea on Sunday and it seemed like a lovely neighbourhood. I was interested in learning more.
I arrived early and had my fingers crossed to get Victor as a guide again. Or at the very least someone new. I almost walked away when the Left Bank crazy lady turned up again. Only a lack of any alternative plans kept me there. This tour wasn’t as scattered as the Left Bank one, but again it wasn’t as informative as I would have liked. We saw some lovely courtyards, and I really liked the Place des Vosges, but…. meh.
At least the tip-based system allowed me to compensate the guides on a sliding scale.
I was glad I took the tours, and even more glad I did the bulk of them early in my trip. It helped me to get a handle on the city and its history. I was able to put other things I did and saw into context much more easily, and the tours helped me to identify the other activities and sights in the city I was most interested in pursuing.
Discover Walks run five different tours of Paris. You can book ahead or just turn up on the day. (I never booked ahead and had no problems.) Look out for the guide wearing a pink jacket.