London Sightseeing: Get on the Bus

With limited time and budget, a bus tour of London is one way for the family to get a fulfilling Cliffs Notes experience of the city.


John Cleese once said that a primary difference between the United States and England was that when they held a World Championship for a particular sport, they invited teams from other countries to play as well. During my London travels, I was determined to find a fitting rejoinder.

Our family’s visit to London was part of an extended journey across Europe. And while our calendar may have been wide open, our wallets weren’t. The economic reality was that we couldn’t afford admission to all of the places we wanted to see—Westminster Abbey, the London Eye, the Tower of London and a host of other well-deserving destinations. We decided to splurge on one activity that would best give us a feel for what London had to offer; then we would be in a position to decide what was worthy of our time and money. 

Tourist Schlock Becomes Family Budget Savior

After studying our options and discussing the interests of each member of the family, we chose to splurge on the City Sightseeing buses. We had to let our pride take a back seat—look up tourist schlock in any dictionary and you might see a picture of one of these buses—but we don’t regret our choice one bit. Here’s why.

For about $130, a family of four can experience a Cliffs Notes version of 500 years’ worth of London history in just a few hours. A red, open-roof, double-decker bus that is a throwback to the iconic Routemaster that was once ubiquitous in London will take you to all the major sites, while a knowledgeable guide engages you in an entertaining history lesson. When your guide piques your interest at a particular spot, simply hop off the bus to get a closer look; another bus will pick you up in about 15 minutes. As an added perk, your ticket includes a short Thames River cruise.

The buses circle on four established routes. Your 24-hour bus pass allows you to hop on and off any bus on any of the connected routes. Buckingham Palace? On the Red and Orange routes. London Planetarium? On the Red route. The Orange route also has a recorded commentary specifically for kids.

Keeping History Real

One of the best things you can do in preparation to visiting any place is to learn about what makes it special. With that in mind, we bought our kids the book Horrible Histories-Loathsome London, by Terry Deary (Scholastic, 2005). Only they didn’t get much time with it, so we took it along on our travels. For someone who really didn’t mature past sixth grade, I found Deary’s version of history much more engaging than some stuffy tome about the year 1066 authored by a noted historian.

I always knew the British royal family was a colorful lot, but the current group is positively Walton-esque compared to their forbears. Thumbing through Loathsome London, I discovered that occupying the British throne in medieval times was undoubtedly the most hazardous job in the kingdom. I had read of Elizabeth I and Bloody Mary (Queen Mary I, not to be confused with her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots) before, but had never fully realized that they were half sisters, albeit in an are-you-sure-what-you-are-eating-isn’t-poisoned sort of way. When I learned that they were buried side-by-side at Westminster Abbey, paying them a visit was on the top of our to-do list. However we opted not to enter because of the stiff admission fee (£10/$20 for individual adults or £24/$48 for a family of four). We took a good look at the outside of the complex, imagined their tombstones, and simply hopped back on our tour bus and opted for the British Museum instead.

And there, prominently displayed, was the rejoinder I was seeking. The primary difference between the U.S. and England is that when we fill a museum, it isn’t with objects that were nicked while no one was looking. If you ever doubted the depth and breadth to which the British looted their colonies, the museums of London are fascinating to peruse. And admission is free—from the Museum of London (a short walk from the Red and Orange route), to the British Museum (Blue route) and the world-renowned Natural History Museum (Blue route).

That’s what we got out of our day riding the City Sightseeing buses, and as far as I’m concerned, it was the bargain of a lifetime.

Destinations: London

Themes: Family Travel

Activities: Sightseeing

User Comments

This is simply great for the bus, There is no doubt about it that London is a one of the best cities in the world. This city contains an fascinating culture, top rated restaurants, stupendous architecture, pretty parks and popular museums.

This is so awesome for the bus. I can't wait to ride on the new London bus !

Can't wait to go back to London Makes me want to go visit again, and enjoy the crowd at Picadilly Circus...

London in a day. The next time I have a day in London, this American plans to schlock-it up on the City Sightseeing Bus!

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