Do you know the Lockkeeper’s House? It’s a tiny, 185-year-old stone house, which was recently moved to a new location on the Mall after undergoing extensive renovations. It may also be haunted.
I could go on and on about it. That’s because I went on every hop-on, hop-off bus tour I could find in Washington, where it was always identified. (And every single tourist gasped after hearing that 13 children once lived inside.)
I’ve lived in the area for decades, but I had never heard about the house, or learned about the many statues I’ve passed dozens of times. Sure, these bus tours are made for out-of-towners. But even locals can discover interesting tidbits about the city they call home.
Here’s a rundown of the options, rated on a scale from 1 to 5 (1 being the most perfunctory and 5 being the best). One tip that rings true for all: Whatever you do, don’t ride these buses during rush hour.
Price: 24-hour pass for adults, $42, and ages 5-15, $23.
Route: 20 stops around the Mall, Tidal Basin, downtown and Penn Quarter.
Point of origin: L’Enfant Plaza.
Rating: 2 out of 5.
The ride got off to a great start when I was inexplicably charged the children’s price. I put on my nifty orange D.C. Trails bracelet and boarded the top level with a handful of tourists. As we got rolling, the guide seemed bored as he pointed out each building with a one-sentence description and lots of dead air. He became more animated when reciting the safety spiel about staying in your seat while the bus is in motion and keeping your hands and arms inside, which he repeated every time we stopped — even if no one new had boarded. Another rider caught my eye after the umpteenth time we’d heard it. But maybe I should’ve listened more carefully: I was hit by a tree branch from my seat as we pulled away from a stop.
I got out at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. Big mistake: It was 4 p.m. on a Friday with standstill traffic, and I waited 45 minutes for the next bus to arrive as other buses passed by. The next guide joked around with kids on the tour and pointed out necessities like restrooms on the Mall. But he also spent more time than required talking into the microphone about his upcoming day off.
This bus tour is a bit cheaper than the rest, and it gets you to all the tourist attractions. But I wanted an in-depth history of Washington. Instead, I found myself scratching my head during my guide’s lengthy soliloquy about Robert S. Mueller III.
Price: 24-hour pass for adults, $49, and ages 5-15, $35.
Route: Big Bus goes all over. There’s a Red Loop that traverses the Mall, a Yellow Loop that goes up to the National Zoo and around to Georgetown, and a Blue Loop that goes into Virginia, around Arlington National Cemetery.
Point of origin: Union Station.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
Not only does the Big Bus cover a lot of ground, it also feels the most plugged-in. I connected to free WiFi during my rides for Insta-Storying, and the company is rolling out all-electric, zero-emission double-decker buses. There’s a prerecorded audio tour on the Red and Yellow loops in eight languages with cheerful marching music in the background, and you can listen to the in-person tour guide through your headphones if you aren’t on the same bus level as the guide.
When I hopped on the Yellow Loop from downtown to head into D.C.’s more residential areas, all I had was a recorded audio tour calling neighborhoods like Adams Morgan “colorful and eclectic.” Although it did delve into some history and political trivia, I wondered about the authenticity of some of the facts, like when the recording claimed Chelsea Clinton had her first date ever at the Italian bistro La Tomate. (Jonathan ten Hoopen, who’s worked at La Tomate for over 25 years, said that factoid is true: “She had capellini with tomato sauce, and her date had spaghetti Bolognese.” Not true? According to ten Hoopen, there were only four Secret Service officers tagging along that night, not 15.)
Live tour guides are in place on the Red and Blue loop buses that swoop around the Mall.
There’s so much to see on Big Bus’s three routes that I spread it over two days, thanks to the long pass, and I only waited between 15 and 30 minutes to transfer among the routes. There were some mishaps: Water poured down the stairs into the lower level when it was raining, and at one point, the bus started to drive away without its tour guide. But the live guides themselves provided a great overview of the city, whether talking about Crystal City’s underground offices, Signers Island in Constitution Gardens or how D.C. squirrels aren’t afraid of people.
Price: Adults, $46.95, and ages 4-12, $29.95.
Route: 25 stops from Union Station to Arlington National Cemetery.
Point of origin: Near Ford’s Theatre.
Rating: 5 out of 5.
On a rainy Sunday afternoon downtown, an Old Town Trolley bus driver simultaneously navigated roundabouts and rattled off factoids into a microphone about the landmarks we passed (National Theatre’s gone up in flames five times! There’s no mortar holding the Washington Monument together; the weight of the stones sustains it, just like the pyramids!) If that multitasking wasn’t impressive enough, drivers even answered my fellow riders’ questions on the fly. This bus felt like a rolling episode of the History Channel, and one driver even mentioned she was a librarian in her full-time job.
If your heart is set on a double-decker, the downside is that this bus (while spacious) is just one level. But you’ll get to switch buses and transfer inside Arlington National Cemetery, where your ticket gets you a spot aboard the cemetery’s people-mover, usually priced at $13.50 (it’s the only hop-on, hop-off bus tour with this guided Arlington National Cemetery option). The open-air tram covered more ground in 45 to 60 minutes than you could walking, with 10 stops from Arlington House to the Iwo Jima Memorial. Even as a local, I learned interesting facts about the city, and I took the better part of a day doing it (I waited about 12 minutes when I switched buses). This is the bus tour I would recommend for history-minded tourists — and Washingtonians, too.