Look­ing down on D.C. from the top of a Big Bus

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY BECKY LIT­TLE travel@wash­post.com Lit­tle is a writer based in the District. Find her on Twit­ter: @MsBeck­yLit­tle

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.

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