Rules of Travel #1: Avoid Touristy Stuff
Generally speaking, we at Elegant Retreats are advocates of avoiding the usual tourist trappings while on holiday. The whole point of renting a holiday flat, cottage or home on vacation is to avoid the myriad costs, hassles and inauthentic experiences heavily marketed to visitors of any city, town or village. We cherish the sensation of living like a local as much as possible in the few short days or weeks that we get to spend in an area, and most of the tourist-targeting hoopla tends to detract heavily from that feeling.
There is one place where we quite emphatically and consistently contradict ourselves on the subject, however: City Bus (or Boat) Sightseeing Tours.
Rules of Travel #2: Periodically Ignore Rule #1
The first time you visit a famous monument and landmark-filled city, go ahead and hop on one of these delightfully garish tourist traps. Most large cities and some of the smaller, more popular villages in Europe have some version of these guided tours, usually on an open-top double-decker bus, sometimes on a small shuttle bus. In cities with prominent rivers or waterways, there is very often a floating version of the tour via canal boat or other small craft.
These sorts of guided tours are the single best way to quickly and easily get to know the approximate layout and major landmarks of a new destination. The best ones are manned by live guides, who spin tales of history woven with modern hints, tips and humorous facts about the places being visited along the way. Some versions feature taped commentary (which sometimes lowers the price of a tour) and ensures that you won’t be stuck with one of those bored guides who can no longer hide his disdain for telling the same story day in and day out. (To be fair, these sorts of sour guides are rare, and while they can dull the fun of a city tour experience, they can also rather funny to listen to in their own right – it’s amazing what a bitter, bored, had-it-up-to-here-with-this-nonsense person will come up with to amuse themselves or keep from karate chopping the 37,000th tourist who asks about leprechauns in Ireland, or where to find the best “coffee shops” in Amsterdam, or if it’s possible to attend high tea with the Queen in London).
Rules of Travel #3: If Ignoring Rule # 1, Embrace the Elements
What’s so great about these tourist tours, with their tourist price tags and their potentially snarky-at-tourists tour guides, you ask? They are, in just a word, great:
- Designed for broad appeal: They hit the hottest spots and most ubiquitous landmarks in every guidebook. You can get a cursory lay of the land quickly and without having to think too much about it.
- No thinking skills required: The absolutely perfect thing to do straight off the plane, require zero effort beyond finding a stop and purchasing the ticket (which can often be done ahead of time online and with a discount!), and can be enjoyed in the fog of jetlag while waiting for the sun to go down so you can finally collapse into bed on the day you’ve arrived.
- Inspires serendipity: A great way to figure out what of the major attractions you might feel most inclined to visit or experience more in depth. (For example, we had no desire to visit the Whisky museum in Edinburgh until our bus guide pointed it out as we drove down the Royal Mile away from Edinburgh Castle and told us that it featured an interactive carnival-type ride in a whisky barrel, carrying passengers through 3-D diorama scenes explaining the history of Scotch in Scotland and ended with a fancy shot of booze… off the bus we went, picking up the another one about an hour later, now very well informed about the intricacies of Scotch whiskey making in the various regions of the country and very pleasantly buzzed!).
- Dual carriage: A nice, low-stress way to get around on your first day in town. Passes are usually good for 24 hours and let passengers hop on and off at any spot.
- Reasonably priced for something that rolls sightseeing and transportation into one easy package. Some tickets come with discounts for the monuments and attractions along the route. Prices vary only slightly between competing companies in any given city. It seems that most offer a fairly similar experience, though in larger cities like London, routes and major attractions may vary by company, or even within a single operation.
Rules of Travel #3B: Embrace the good, avoid the bad, try not to worry about the smaller details in between.
The caveats: Yes, you will see the city in a bit of a blur. Yes, you will take terrible fuzzy photos of famous monuments and interesting sites from very odd and ultimately unattractive angles. Yes, you may very well be a bit chilly in the open top bus (but it’s really the best place to sit, so bring layers!). Yes, you will laugh at the corny jokes of your guide and immediately forget all the interesting historical anecdotes you found so fascinating in the moment, that you wanted to remember to write down in order to pass along to others later, perhaps at a dinner party or a wedding reception. Yes, the price of the ticket will feel a bit extravagant if you are trying to keep within a daily travel budget.
And yet: we cannot over-emphasize the value of these wonderfully cheesy, terribly informative, exceptionally tourist targeting sightseeing vehicular experiences. Once your 24-hour pass expires, you can continue on your merry trying-to-blend-in way, and no one (except those who might one day look at your cockeyed photos) ever has to know you indulged in such a guilty tourism pleasure.
More Information about Various City Tours
We don’t have any particular tour operating recommendations. In every city, these kinds of companies seem to be well regulated by the local tourist board, well managed, legitimate operations and thoughtfully (if not sometimes cheesily) entertaining.
You could always sift through online reviews of various operators in your destination location in order to make your decision, or you can wing it and jump on the one that looks best when you stumble into town or is select one that lets on/off closest to your apartment. Research ahead of time is worth it for large groups when group or pre-booking discounts might be available.
Rules of Travel #4: Have Fun!
This is really rule number 1, of course. Have fun, take lots of wonderfully terrible snapshots and perhaps send us a few pics from the road!