I work in New York City.
When I’m in Manhattan, I’m usually on my way to work, to the gym, or trying to catch a train home. So when the tour buses crawl buy, I barely notice. If you live or work in a big city, it’s probably the same for you … unless they’re blocking the crosswalk.
But, as I’ve learned travelling through the past few years, we’re overlooking a major opportunity.
When I land in a new city, my favourite, first thing to do is hop on an open-top tour bus. Before you roll your eyes, turn up your nose, or otherwise suffer an attack of snobbery, let me explain.
I love travelling to islands — particularly islands in the Mediterranean. The way you reach them is usually through a major city, and I prefer to spend a day or two in said city at the end of my trip rather than the beginning, to lessen the chance of missing a transatlantic flight home. Time is tight, but I still want to hit the tourist hotspots.
For about A$40 or less, a hop-on, hop-on tour bus will fulfil three purposes: It gives you an overview of and context for the city, it makes sure you hit the most famous sights, and it serves as transportation. When you only have 48 (or 24) hours somewhere, it’s a brilliant, efficient use of your touristing time. In Bath, England, when my travel companion took a nap, I took two bus tours consecutively.
It was great.
I never gave the tour buses a second thought — other than “that was fun!” — until I recently landed in Amsterdam to spend two weeks working with Business Insider Netherlands. I’d be in the city much longer than I would on holiday, so I didn’t feel pressed for time.
My flight got in at 6:30 a.m., before the train station luggage storage option opened and well before I could check into my Airbnb. Killing an hour over breakfast at a cafe, I realised I was sitting almost directly on top of a familiar red flier: The Hop-On, Hop-Off bus.
Except in Amsterdam, it’s the Hop-On, Hop-Off bus … and boat!
For around A$40 USD, I booked myself on three routes valid for 24 hours: two canal tours by boat, and one by bus. I got right on a boat, plugged in my provided headphones, and listened to a narrator with a soothing English accent tell me all about Amsterdam’s ports, homes, and residents.
Periodically, I hopped off: First to try on diamond rings at the Gassen factory and amble over to Rembrandt’s home a few blocks away; later to lounge in the Rijksmuseum sculpture park and take some obligatory photos of the iamsterdam sign. I had even bought a ticket — without an expiration date — for the museum itself from the tour operators in the morning, but I wasn’t feeling up to giving the museum its proper due after a red-eye. The buses and boats come every 20 minutes or so all day, so there’s no rush to get back on.
Knowing I was meeting friends for dinner and rather tired of lugging my laptop around the city, I packed it in on the early side and picked up my luggage from the train station. Then, I got back on a tour bus that just so happened to stop a few blocks from my apartment. That day, Hop-On, Hop-Off was my guide and my transportation. If I hadn’t needed to go to work the next morning, I could have used my existing ticket for another route, bright and early.
Now, I have an idea of what’s where in the city, a few notes on what I want to make sure to see before I leave, and approximately two dozen mediocre pictures of houses along the canals.
I know that a tour bus is unabashedly touristy. But, occasional traveller, I have news for you: You, like me, are a tourist.
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