Just about every city I have visited, the second day of the itinerary was the Hop On/Hop Off bus.
Tourist Trap? Maybe.
Guilty Pleasure? Definitely.
Why do I not despise the very touristy attraction that is the bane of every local? A few reasons: easy way to get my bearings, transportation, and a fast history lesson.
When I arrive at a location, I like to walk around my hotel and find a few things (often I did much of the research before arrival): a supermarket or convenience store, public transportation access (usually railway, subway [metro/tube], or sightseeing bus), and quick dining whether it is a local cafe or fast food. The second day is usually reserved for the sightseeing bus. Often the company has two or more routes throughout the city and the tickets are good for 24 or 48 hours from the time you buy the ticket. Dublin and Budapest had 48 hour tickets for the same price I paid in larger cities for a 24 hour ticket. Budapest, Paris, Amsterdam, and London included a free river cruise with the ticket purchase.
Easy Way to Find Way Around Town:
It’s a great way to actually see how close or far apart attractions and historical sites are when you have previously only seen them on a map. I need time to get my bearings and visually connect in my mind the 2D map image with the living, breathing streets around me. I’m not one of those people who can easily and naturally navigate around unfamiliar surroundings without a map and some landmarks. My sister was able to decipher the twisted, narrow streets of the Santa Cruz neighborhood in Seville easily whereas I was just getting around without constantly checking my gps or map the last two days we were there.
The buses have maps with the attractions and bus stops clearly marked. Larger cities may have more than one route, it’s a way to easily gain access to attractions out of the city center. I visited Schonbrunn Palace (20 minutes out of Vienna’s city center) for a quick picture-taking jaunt through the gardens as I already had a tour of the palace on a previous visit to Vienna. I knew I wanted to walk through more of the gardens, but I didn’t want to spend the whole day there. The bus pass paid for itself (for me) with that stop alone. A taxi would cost €4 per person one way without tip. My hop on/hop off pass was included in my 3 day ViennaSightseeing Pass otherwise just the bus would cost €13.50 for adults. The Vienna bus pass (5 separate bus routes in the city) includes free walking tours of the city center and it can be upgraded to include a boat tour on the Danube. To get the most from my ticket purchase, I often go through the whole route and choose other routes that I’m interested in seeing. After sitting through the routes in their entirety, I pick out attractions/historical sites I’m interested in visiting more closely, but I may not have an easy time getting to on my own. For the duration of the ticket, I use the bus as public transportation. Often there are attractions I stumble upon that I never would have visited otherwise. In Vienna, I visited the Danube Tower, which has great bird’s eye views of Vienna and I didn’t even know it existed until the I was on the hop on/hop off bus.
History on the Quick:
I like history…actually I love history. I’m an unabashed, self-proclaimed history geek so I adore seeing the sites from the top of a double-decker open air bus listening to the down and dirty history of the city, country, and attractions and the people who shaped its history. I jot down fun or interesting facts in my journal for my photo book later or things I want to further research later. I like to understand the history of a city to help me connect to this place I’m visiting. Having visited Vienna, Prague, Bratislava, and Budapest (as well as Spain, the Netherlands, and Belgium) areas who have all been controlled or influenced by the Austro-Hungarian empire gives you very differing viewpoints of the Habsburg empire from harsh and unyielding to strong and beloved. Knowing the names and faces of the history makers really gives you a broader understanding of how complex and incestual (“interconnected” did not seem a strong enough word choice) European history can be. I’m sure when I finally get to Germany and Italy–I’ll hear about those controlling Habsburgs again. Just remember France’s Queen Marie-Antoinette was the youngest daughter of Austria’s Empress Maria-Theresa’s .
Extra benefits to using the sightseeing bus include is the ease to see far-flung attractions when traveling with a person with mobility issues. My mother has a bum knee that pains her with excessive walking, but she was dying to see Paris (a day trip from London we booked). The bus was a way for her to see way more of Paris in one day then she could have on foot or even by metro–the stairs up and down to the stations would have killed her knee.
I’ve also used the bus as a way to sight-see without exerting much effort. The vantage point of being on the second level has made for some nice pictures. On a trip to London in either 2009, I had a day trip booked to Paris that went very wrong (a story for another day) and I had developed horrible blisters from walking around in “walking” sandals that were highly recommended for travelers. Bummed and broken, I needed to get out of my negative head space. I hobbled to Victoria Coach station from my nearby hotel and I bought a ticket on the London hop on/hop off bus. Ironically enough, though I visited London 3-4 times already, I never ventured on the double-decker sightseeing bus. This bus ride saved my trip. I was able to sight-see without developing blisters on my blisters and get out of my own “Negative Nelly” head space so I could regroup from a travel set-back and enjoy the remaining three days of my trip.
The Hop On/Hop Off brand is not the only double-decker sightseeing company. Many larger cities have 2-3 competing bus companies. Often they share the same bus stops with their competition and have about the same ticket price. Just do your research in terms of the features that suit your sight-seeing plans better: free walking tours, free sightseeing cruises, night time routes, free or reduced travel for children, or extended day tickets.