Attention, lesser-known politicians: You don’t need prime Mall real estate to secure your legacy. What you want is a modest statue near a gridlock-prone intersection, one where slow traffic prompts bus-based tour guides to kill time by telling your entire life story. I know, because I just spent three days riding all three of D.C.’s hop-on, hop-off bus tours, and I now know a lot about Sen. Robert A. Taft, a perennial presidential hopeful who somehow scored a memorial near the traffic nightmare known as Union Station. Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson gets short shrift because his memorial stands near some very low-hanging branches, where bus-top tourists are more focused on avoiding decapitation than absorbing U.S. history.
While these bus tours are generally marketed to tourists, I wanted to see if they’d be fun for locals too. The answer: A resounding yes! Our low-rise city looks great from the rooftop of double-decker buses. Plus, these tours provide a terrific overview of D.C.’s many museums and monuments, including some you might not know about.
Daylong access to the tour buses (which travel along one to three intersecting routes and allow you to hop off at any site you want to see on foot) costs a hefty $40-$50. There is, however, an inexpensive alternative you may not know about: The D.C. Circulator. This bus, which costs $1 per ride, takes an even more picturesque loop around the Mall than the tour buses. The downside? You’ll take in the sights through regular bus windows, and the drivers don’t narrate your tour. If you go for this cheap option, consider supplementing your ride with an audio guide — I recommend downloading the GPS-enabled app “D.C. Driving/Walking Tours” ($5 by Tour Buddy) or Slate’s free “D.C. Memorials” audio tour.
But if you prefer live narration and a giraffe’s-eye view of the city, one of these hop-on, hop-off buses will be perfect for you.
Old Town Trolley Tours
$46.95 for access to two loops: the Mall and Arlington National Cemetery
The good: These guides have local flair! In addition to doling out the usual historical tidbits, one guide lectured his captive audience on D.C.’s lack of voting rights, and another talked about gentrification. Also, an Old Town Trolley ticket includes an open-air tram ride in Arlington National Cemetery, which is an excellent way to see the sprawling 624-acre site. (Other tour bus companies will drop you off at the cemetery, but then you have to pay $13.50 for the tram.)
The bad: These “trolleys” are actually just buses with big, open windows. It’s a pleasant ride as long as you’re moving, but the situation can get sweaty when you’re stopped in traffic. Additionally, Old Town Trolleys are not double-decker buses, so you can’t get on the roof for unobstructed views.
The weird: Since the drivers do double duty as tour guides, their patter can be derailed by road conditions. After being cut off by another driver, one guide repeated several minutes’ worth of narration like a glitchy robot. Others slipped into that hypnotic tour guide cadence when the going got tough.
Questionable tour guide quote: “The reason the American Indian museum is so curvy is because Native Americans believe that evil spirits lurk in corners.”
Questionable tourist quote: “Oh, look, a chipmunk! They have no natural predators.”
The bottom line: Old Town Trolley offers the best value overall, especially if you want to see Arlington National Cemetery.
Big Bus Tours
$49 for access to three loops: the Mall, Northern Virginia and Georgetown
The good: Overall, Big Bus Tours seems to have the best, liveliest tour guides. Since they aren’t driving, they can focus their attention on talking about history or giving tips about sightseeing in D.C. I was particularly impressed with one guide who described her favorite painting at the National Gallery of Art in such lavish detail, I wanted to hop off and see it immediately. Also, the top half of these open-air double-decker buses offer spectacular views of the Mall.
The bad: The downstairs, enclosed portion of the bus can be hot and smelly, due to anemic air conditioning and ripe tourists. And though buses are plentiful on the Mall loop — with 15 minutes or less between them — the buses along the other routes are sparser, leaving tourists waiting around 30 minutes for the next bus. There is a Big Bus Tours app that shows where all the buses are, but it (currently) only works on the iPhone. Also, the price is high, especially considering that you’d have to pay an additional $13.50 for an Arlington tour. (Your Big Bus ticket does include entry to Madame Tussauds’ creepy wax museum.)
The weird: The Northern Virginia loop features some less-than-thrilling sights, including Crystal City apartment buildings and a Pentagon parking lot. I also found it off-putting when one guide switched, without warning, to a recorded version of the tour — making me worried that the bus driver had also switched to autopilot.
Questionable tour guide quote: “In 1953, a train crashed into Union Station, and the engine is still in there.”
Questionable tourist quote: “People don’t decompose anymore because there are so many preservatives in our food.”
The bottom line: Big Bus Tours is the best option for non-English speakers, because you can use bus-provided headphones to tap into prerecorded tours in eight languages. This is also the only hop-on, hop-off tour where you can catch a ride to the National Zoo.
$42 for access to one loop that covers the Mall and the Waterfront area
The good: In addition to costing a little less than its competitors, DC Trails’ buses all follow the same loop, so there are no confusing transfers. Also, these guides seem to focus more on black history and women’s history — a refreshing addition to the usual white-guy-centric narration.
The bad: Buses are sparse, leaving tourists waiting for upward of 40 minutes for a ride. At one point, a bus blew right by me and I had to chase it down on foot. Also, many of the stops lack signs.
The weird: Seemingly less tethered to an official script than their competitors, DC Trails’ guides are prone to tangents. One guide talked about the current challenges to the Endangered Species Act as we passed the Environmental Protection Agency building. Another, apropos of nothing, gave an extemporaneous lecture on the mystical properties of the number 13.
Questionable tour guide quote: “Washington, D.C., never gets hurricanes or tornadoes, because it’s located on the prime meridian for the United States.”
Questionable tourist quote: “That’s where Nicolas Cage lives,” as we passed the National Archives.
The bottom line: DC Trails is a good, relatively inexpensive option for people who aren’t planning to do much hopping on or off, as well as those who enjoy a little randomness in their tour guides’ narration.
More adventures with the Staycationer