Looking down on D.C. from the top of a Big Bus
Up until this summer, I’d never taken a Big Bus sightseeing tour. I’m a thrifty traveler, and the idea of paying $40 or more to sit next to what I imagined would be a bunch of boisterous tour-group types never appealed to me. But I live in a city that happens to be a major tourist attraction, so the big, red, double-deckers are ubiquitous, even when I’m not on vacation.
It seemed a little weird to pay for a tour — and the prospect being on the top level, in the open air, sweating it out in the D.C. heat, didn’t sound very appealing. But when someone floated the idea, I decided that maybe it could be fun, or at least a little kitschy. On a recent Saturday afternoon, I lathered myself with sunscreen and bug spray, packed a bag lunch and took the Metro over to Union Station for a $39 “Classic Patriot Tour.”
Because I’m the kind of person who always bikes with a helmet and thinks it’s weird when people don’t buckle up in cabs, my first reaction to the Big Bus was annoyance at its lack of seat belts.
Once it started moving, I was surprised that it gave me the same kind of rush as a mild amusement park ride. And when it really got going, the wind whipped so quickly that, more than once, my hat almost flew into Mia and Jim, the couple sitting behind me. Even so, I liked how the breeze kept me cool while the bus zipped under tree branches that hung so low I could touch them. Sometimes, I even had to duck my head for fear I’d get a face full of leaves.
Alas, these thrills never lasted for long. The thing about hop-on-hop-off buses is that they need to stop a lot so that people can actually hop off to see the sights. There were 22 stops on my two-hour tour, which meant that we stopped every few minutes to bake in the roughly 90-degree heat.
Even during peak tourist season, the bus never seemed very crowded. When I first got on, there were only a handful of people on board, including a mother who mistook the replica Liberty Bell near Union Station for the real thing then got schooled about it by her preteen son. Mia, Jim, and I were about the only ones who stayed on the bus for the full tour. The other passengers, mostly couples and families, constantly shifted at big-name spots such as the National Air and Space Museum, the Lincoln Memorial and Ford’s Theatre.
Mia and Jim, who were visiting from New York City, thought the frequent stops provided a really solid transportation system for tourists who wanted to get to all the sights without doing too much walking, and said that they might use the bus that way later in their trip. (A single Big Bus ticket is good for the whole day and can be bought for multiple days.) But I just wanted to feel the wind on my face.
It was fun to see D.C. from so high up, but it seemed as if the other passengers weren’t always sure which building or monument the audio tour was talking about — after all, the audio guide couldn’t physically point them out as a live one could. And sometimes the narration got a little weird. When the bus drove by the White House, the speaker told us not to be surprised by “the men in black” with sniper rifles on the roof. Pretty sure that freaked everyone out.
Still, it provided some interesting historical nuggets. I’ve been down Constitution Avenue many, many times, yet I never knew that it was built over a filthy creek that still runs beneath it. Also, I learned that when the Washington Monument debuted its first elevator in 1888, only men were allowed to ride it.
The highlight that drew the most attention from my fellow riders ended up being something that wasn’t even supposed to be on the tour: a motorcade speeding down the road, sirens blaring, near the Washington Monument. The other passengers stared at it and one woman appeared to be filming it with her iPad. Jim wondered aloud what everyone was clearly thinking: Was it President Trump? I joked with him that it probably wasn’t because the president was never in D.C. on the weekends. (In fact, I later read Trump was in New Jersey that afternoon).
At one point, Jim told me the he had taken a lot of bus tours in Europe, but this one was the best he’d ever been on. I didn’t have anything to compare it to. Still, I’d definitely consider it if I were visiting, say, Paris, or even Chicago, for the first time.
Even if it doesn’t have seat belts.