Rethink: The ‘hop-on, hop-off bus’

Lonely Planet’s “Give it a Try” series is all about making a case for obvious travel experiences that may have been discounted for being too touristy or popular. Here, Lonely Planet’s Brekke Fletcher tells why a shiny open top tour bus is a great way to get your bearings in a new city

For travelers from the US, landing in a European city after a red-eye flight is an exercise in letting go. Yes, you’re exhausted, and no, you can’t check in to your rental or hotel until after 3 pm. It’s 9 am, y’all. It’s hard not to want to go find the nearest place to lie down and drool. But I do not waste a precious travel day snoozing, sitting at a cafe reading the same sentence in my book again and again, or basically not doing much of anything. 

Enter the ‘hop-on, hop-off bus’. Every major city has them, and I’m sure you’ve seen these brightly-colored monsters driving circles around town, with folks taking pictures and listening to prerecorded anecdotes and historical facts. But what self-respecting, well-traveled person would ever consider doing such a touristy, lame thing? 


Double-decker-bus-barcelona-shutterstock-404127943-rfe.jpegA ‘hop-on, hop-off bus’ passes La Sagrada Família in Barcelona, Spain © dvoevnore / Shutterstock

Tired after a red-eye? Beat jet lag on an open-top bus

The first time I arrived in Barcelona I was bleary-eyed. During the taxi ride from the airport to town, I attempted to use my mind powers to magically procure early check-in, but the check-in desk didn’t get the memo. With 5 hours to kill, and zero energy (with my bags mercifully secured), I asked the concierge for a place to hang. The lobby? No. She broke out the map and showed me a few cafes that might do. I stumbled outside, and there it was: Barcelona Bus Turistic. I paid my €20 and spent my first hours in Barcelona on a slow roll from Plaça de Catalunya to Parc Guell and back again. I never thought I’d first see La Sagrada Família (scaffolded, natch) from the top of a bus. But it was pretty rad.

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Explore the world in comfort with the latest travel insight from our weekly newsletter delivered to your inbox. Enjoying the fresh air of a double-decker bus as you get the lay of the land in your new destinationEnjoying the fresh air on the top deck as you begin to orient yourself © vgajic / Getty Images

How something kitschy and basic becomes kind of cool

Now, as soon as I drop off my bags after a red eye, I head to the nearest stop and hop on the bus. I prefer to sit up top in the open air if the weather cooperates. I plug in the headset and let the bus do all the work. It may seem silly, but I’m seeing the city from a unique vantage point. I’m learning historical details that I may have glossed over in my research. Most importantly, I’m getting an overview of the city’s geography, a passing look at attractions and lines that I may want to avoid, and figuring out the relative distance between neighborhoods and jumping ahead on the map to choose the spots to hop off, grab another coffee, maybe sit down to lunch or stretch my legs by taking a stroll.

If my energy lags at any point, I just hop back on the coach to be chauffeured and informed for the next little while, or until I complete the circuit. Sometimes I’ll even go ’round again. Because I’m so excited to be in a new place, doing something so kitschy and basic becomes kind of cool. In the meantime, I’m meeting strangers from far-off places, taking pictures, literally pointing at landmarks I have never seen before in real life and smiling like a clown.

The hop on, hop off buses are certain to route to a destination's top attractionsThe ‘hop-on, hop-off buses’ route to a destination’s top attractions © ANGHI / Shutterstock

If you’re truly up for anything — then why not reconsider the ‘hop-on, hop-off’ bus

I was most recently on a ‘hop-on, hop-off tour’ in Dublin last August. Friends had just arrived, exhausted and waiting to check in to their hotel. After a questionable breakfast of Guinness and toasties, the three of us made our way to the bus stop. Seriously, we had the best time and guffawed at the prerecorded, awkward history lesson about an eccentric Dubliner named “Bang Bang.” You can’t make it up.

The people I’ve met doing these tours really love it: Barcelona, London, Dublin and New York (where I live). I’ve recommended the ‘hop-on, hop-off’ experience to friends who visit for the first time, who then look at me like I’m nuts. They’re suspicious. Is this a prank or some kind of joke?

No, and I mean it. If you have hours to kill, you’re low on energy or wouldn’t otherwise have a way to see it all, if you’re truly up for anything, open-minded and enjoy learning new things and meeting new people, allow me to beg you to reconsider the ‘hop-on, hop-off bus’. You won’t regret it.


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