Sightsee closer to home with a bus or walking tour to get under the skin of the capital
I’ve always been fascinated by aerial views, losing hours in big coffee-table books and latterly on the wonders of Google Earth. There’s just something about rising above the hustle and bustle for a unique perspective on a place. The same concept applies to the ever-popular open-top bus tour, offering visitors an experience of a new city they simply wouldn’t get at street level.
In my case – making the most of Big Bus Tours’ Deluxe London Ticket – my desire to fly high above the streets and houses was given an additional bonus in the circular shape of the towering London Eye, but first up was the bus itself.
I had never experienced an open-top bus tour before and I’ll admit I had a few preconceived ideas. Would my 10 and 12-year-old children, brought up on a riotous diet of Horrible Histories, stay engaged with the fact-packed commentary, and would the journey be peppered with hold-ups in traffic or endless stops to allow passengers to ‘hop on’ and ‘hop off’ on a whim?
On both counts, I was wide of the mark. There are plenty of stops to embark or disembark if you want to explore a particular area in detail, but they aren’t so regular as to turn the tour into the equivalent of a commute.
And far from being dry and monotonous, the commentary was more akin to a radio breakfast show, with a host (Motherland actor Oliver Chris) and two sidekicks mixing up key information with quizzes, jokes and a soundtrack of London-centric music that kept my children, Bronwen and Evan, entertained throughout.
Two separate routes take in the majority of central London’s sights and sounds, with the option to interchange as many times as you like for one day with a Classic ticket or two days with Premium or Deluxe options.
On the water
In addition to its hallmark open-top offering, Big Bus offers another view of London on a river tour.
This involves a partnership with City Cruises and primarily covers the central London stretch between Westminster and Tower Bridge, though there is the option to stay on all the way to Greenwich for those keen to explore maritime history or split time with a foot either side of the meridian.
“the giant wheel has proved an enduring hit and is a great way to get a snapshot of the city”
Again, this offers a different perspective of the city, and a good chance to kick back before getting back on the sightseeing trail.
For the cherry on top of a successful day or two’s exploring, customers taking the Deluxe option also get fast-track entry to the UK’s most-visited paid-for tourist attraction, the London Eye.
Originally designed to be a temporary structure to mark the Millennium, the giant wheel has proved an enduring hit and is a great way to get a snapshot of the city.
We chose to finish our day with a late-afternoon spin, which proved a good choice as Bronwen and Evan picked out the landmarks we’d just learned about on our bus and boat tours. And as for their dad – he was lost in aerial view ecstasy.
Big Bus Tours operates tours in 23 cities across four continents and carries six million passengers a year. London Classic tickets cost £39 per adult and £29 per child and include a one-day hop-on, hop-off ticket and one-way river cruise, plus free onboard Wi-Fi and commentary. Premium tickets cost £49 and £39 respectively and include a two-day bus ticket, return river cruise and an evening tour. Deluxe tickets cost £69 and £59 and add fast-track entry to the London Eye.
Tried & tested: Travel curious
Great Scotland Yard Hotel private walking tour
“The world is moving from industries that provide services to industries that provide experiences,” says Travel Curious co-founder and chief executive Amir Azulay. “How many travel agents are sitting at home now wanting to sell something to re-engage their customer base?”
He expects demand to grow for themed experiences based on the history or contemporary culture of a location. Globally, the market is valued at $254 billion annually, with about 50% of tours booked ahead of travel; for Travel Curious, the average booking value is £282.
The firm has 1,100 licensed guides worldwide who work with Travel Curious to create bespoke experiences that can be sold by trade partners. That’s what brought us to David, who has created a tour tailored to the history of the Great Scotland Yard Hotel. The five-star property opened in 2019 after a £50 million refit and was the original home of the world’s first police force in 1829.
The tour takes in nearby Charing Cross Station, Trafalgar Square, Horse Guard’s Parade, Parliament Square and Downing Street. Notable landmarks and statues of some of London’s ‘unsung heroes’, which most walk by without noticing, are pointed out and their significance explained.
But this is not just a history tour, with our guide making references to recent events that have had an impact on society or politics. There’s even the chance to see the entrance to the Ministry of Magic, made famous by the Harry Potter films.
A half-day walking tour might seem like an inconsequential part of a trip, but it’s likely to be the one thing your clients tell everyone about when they return home. As people look to get more out of their travels, this experiential approach is very much on trend, and it was a reminder of just how valuable local knowledge is. travelcurious.com
3 of the best London family tours
National Holidays offers a Harry Potter-themed tour of the capital, visiting filming locations. The two-day coach break costs £149 including travel and accommodation. nationalholidays.com/agents
Omega Breaks offers a one-night trip to see Frozen the Musical in London, with departures from September 18 to December 29 priced from £189, including coach travel and accommodation. omegabreaks.com/agents
Vox City Walks has launched new walking tours of the capital led by local guides. Guests can access the tours on a ‘hop-on, hop-off’ system. London passes start at £25 for 24 hours. voxcitywalks.com
PICTURES: Marc Sethi Photography.