The free English-language tour concept is popular in cities all around the world – local enthusiasts promote fixed time and meeting place in various places frequented by tourists and maps.
In Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, free tours – Vilnius With Locals – have been going on for ten years now. We were thrilled when Kaunas Free Tours launched last year – and found no better occasion than February 21, International Tourist Guide Day, to interview the people behind the project. We talked with Martyna from the Vilnius crew and Narmin, Gabi and Mantvydas, the Kaunas-based guides. So, read on and meet the kaunastic people at midday on Saturday in front of Soboras church!
What was the reason to start the project in Kaunas – was it the success in Vilnius, or an obvious opportunity in Kaunas?
Martyna / Vilnius with Locals: Over the last few years we received more and more questions about activities and tours in Kaunas. However, we checked what was going on in Kaunas, and we saw no one else was offering anything like that regularly. So, we started looking for local people who would be interested in bringing Vilnius success to Kaunas and helping travellers to get the most of their stay in Kaunas.
Narmin: Luckily, I met Martyna’s colleague Jūratė 3 years ago, on a trip to Lapland. During one of the freezing northern evenings next to the fire, our conversation somehow led to the topic of free walking tours.
We were discussing how free walking tours are missing in Kaunas and would be great to bring it to city, she mentioned she is one of the founders of Vilnius with Locals, and they’ve been thinking about it as well. That’s how we met with Raminta and Martyna to bring the idea into reality.
I like to attend free walking tours around the world when I travel to a new place. It helps to get insights from locals in an alternative way and have a better overview of the city and local culture during the short amount of time. As a foreigner living in Kaunas, I searched for these kinds of tours here as well, unfortunately, couldn’t find one. Once I started hearing and learning more and more stories about Kaunas, I felt terrible that people visiting the city for a short time or even staying here for years don’t get to know a lot about our city, pass by the important places without noticing them and for that reason find it not very interesting sometimes. Fact is, Kaunas has a lot more to offer and has great stories to tell. I wanted everyone to hear them.
For how long have the free tours in Kaunas been going on? Maybe you know the exact number of people that have attended?
We started in April 2019. Since then 972 people have joined the tour. And within six months we were already recognized as number 1 tour in Kaunas in TripAdvisor list.
Guests from which countries most often join the tours? Are the attendees usually short-term visitors or residents of Kaunas?
Usually short-term visitors, but quite a few locals join from time to time. In the summertime, you can often meet tourists travelling through all three Baltic states, and in winter there are more tourists who use an opportunity of affordable flights to Kaunas from other European cities.
Tourists come mostly from Germany, the UK, Australia, Israel, USA. Also, we had guests from countries like Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, South Africa, New Zealand, Taiwan, and so on.
Some of the most curious guests are Lithuanians living abroad and visiting the city.
Who are your guides? How do the guides prepare for the tours?
Our tour guides are mostly Lithuanians, licensed tour guides, or those currently attending tour guide courses to get a license. One guide (Narmin) is from Azerbaijan, living in Kaunas for six years. We’ve participated in Kaunas2022 CityTelling Festival 2019 with a guided tour of “City through the eyes of a foreigner” by our foreign guide.
Preparations start with a lot of reading and researching about Kaunas history, architecture, current situation, places of interest, restaurants, and so on.
We prepare the initial route, test it with the guides from Kaunas and Vilnius and then adapt it according to the tourists’ interest – what they are more curious about, also constructions in Kaunas streets affect our route map as well.
Overall, it depends on the guide and the group, what the group is more interested in, and what stories guide wants to share with them.
We do the tours in English, and can offer in Lithuanian as well. Our guides can speak other languages like Russian, Turkish, Italian, German. Sometimes the tourists don’t really speak English well; we communicate in their language if we know it.
Maybe you have some books/guides, or blogs about Kaunas to recommend for those planning a trip to our city?
Gabi: The book ‘Architecture of Optimism: The Kaunas Phenomenon 1918-1940.’
Narmin: Free maps Gastro Guide, Wallographer’s Notes map, and It’s Kaunastic blog.
Mantvydas: Actually, I love the maps and information provided in visit.kaunas.lt page, so I really recommend everything in here.
Which objects are guests of Kaunas most interested in? Which raise the most questions, opinions etc.
People like street art in Kaunas, the story of Kaunas cats, Yard Gallery is quite interesting for them, and the stories hiding behind sculptures of “Kaunas accents” initiative. Another favourite stop is “Monument for routine”.
People are also impressed by the Visas for life memorial in Laisvės Alėja and stories of Jan Zwartendijk and Chiune Sugihara, so the second World War history raises quite a lot of questions.
Do you offer themed tours?
We offer private Jewish tour for those who are interested in learning more about the Jewish history in Kaunas. We hope to offer more themed tours regularly in the future.
Why is Soboras the meeting spot?
Soboras is a meeting point for most of the locals in Kaunas; it’s easy to find, and more convenient for the tourists, as most of them stay in the hotels or hostels nearby. We end the tour at Town Hall or near the Kaunas castle, at the end of the tour tourists are usually looking for a place recommendations to have their lunch; from traditional food to the best coffee places or bars, there are more options to recommend in the old Town.
Do some tours have ‘afterparties’ in bars or cafes?
When the group is fun, they like to get lunch or coffee after the tour; the guide is usually invited.
Once our free walking tour worked like a team-building event for Erasmus students: there were many different groups of students in a tour at the beginning of September, and after the tour large groups of students went to a bar.
Also, if there is anything interesting happening in the city for English speakers on that day, like pub quizzes or free concerts, we share the information and sometimes meet again in the evening.
Can you share some funny moments from the tours?
Mantvydas: Once I had a very fun tour with a small group of tourists from Australia, Switzerland, Denmark, and in the middle of the tour it started to rain very heavily. So we went to the bar and spent more than 1 hour there. After the rain stopped, we continued the tour, so overall the tour took more than 4 hours.
Once I started the tour with only one tourist, but in the middle of the tour more people joined (some near the war museum, others in the yard gallery), so I ended up with six tourists.
Once there was a girl from Latvia who was learning Lithuanian language at university, so I helped her with university tasks during the tour.
Do people tip the guides, or do they use the opportunity not to pay anything?
Most of the people tip the guide as they value your time and insiders’ information they get. But it all depends on the people. We offer our time and knowledge, and it is up to them to decide how much it is worth.
But generally, most of the travellers are aware of the free tour concept and are big fans of it.
What has to happen for the tour to get cancelled?
No people showing up, and it happened only once! Weather condition doesn’t affect the tours; we do the tours even if one person shows up, if the weather is cold, during the trip we make breaks at coffee shops, then continue exploring the city.
All photos by Kaunas Free Tours
More info: kaunasfreetours.com / email@example.com / +370 648 911 52