LondonExploring London by bus

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London is a great city that is best seen from the top deck of a red double-decker London bus. You have a choice of one of three companies that run hop-on-hop-off sightseeing tour buses or much cheaper regular London buses.

My recommendation is to ride the proper red London buses but to give you the full picture I will give you a brief overview of the hop-on-hop-off sightseeing tour buses.

Hop-on hop-off sightseeing tour buses

There are several tour companies that operate hop-on-hop-off double-decker bus tours around London. Generally, these are overpriced tourist traps that are best avoided.

The three main hop-on-hop-off sightseeing bus operators are:

Big Bus

The Big Bus tour runs a hop-on-hop-off tour with four routes in Central London that take in most sights. A one-day ticket costs £37 (£33.30 if you book online) and lets you hop on and off any of the buses operated by the Big Bus company. Tickets also let you hop on a Thames river cruise between Westminster Pier and the Tower of London and follow along with four different walking tours. Big Buses run approximately every 10–20 minutes.

Big Bus Company London sightseeing bus
Big Bus Company London sightseeing bus (Photo: Oxyman [CC BY-SA 2.5], from Wikipedia)

Golden Tours

The Golden Tours hop-on-hop-off bus tour operates on three different routes in central London. A one-day ticket costs £28 (£25 if you book online) and lets you hop on and off the buses operated by Golden Tours. Tickets also include a River Thames cruise and let you tag along with a walking tour. Golden Tours buses run approximately every 5–20 minutes.

Original Tour

The Original Tour company runs a hop-on-hop-off bus tour around London with three sightseeing routes that take in most sights (plus another three train station connector services). A one-day ticket costs £32 (£30.50 if you book online) and lets you hop on and off any of the buses operated by The Original Tour company. Tickets also let you hop on a Thames river cruise and follow along with three different walking tours. The Original Tour buses run approximately every 15–20 minutes.

The Original Tour hop-on-hop-off sightseeing bus
The Original Tour hop-on-hop-off sightseeing bus

Advantages and disadvantages of sightseeing tour buses

Disadvantages of sightseeing tour buses:

  • None of the above hop-on-hop-off bus services allows you to visit the Camden Markets, Imperial War Museum or the London Zoo, although most other attractions in London are served by these companies.
  • Sightseeing hop-on-hop-off tour buses generally run between 9am and 6pm. Outside these hours you won’t be able to ride these buses.
  • The hop-on-hop-off sightseeing tour buses are very expensive.

Advantages of sightseeing tour buses:

  • These buses have an open-top which may be pleasant on a sunny day giving you a unique perspective so you can take photos without any glass between your camera lens and the view outside.
  • These bus tours also include several other benefits such as walking tours, river cruises and discounted entry to tourist attractions.

If you decide to take one of these bus tours, our recommendation is to only buy a one-day pass, go on a sunny day and start early so you can take full advantage of any included extras (like river cruises and walking tours). Once you get the tour bus out of your system, ride the local buses for the rest of your time in London. Regular local buses are much cheaper, they give you a more authentic London experience and if you choose the right routes they give you a ride just as scenic as the expensive tour buses.

Sightseeing tours where you can’t hop on or off

The Megasightseeing bus is a cheaper alternative to the hop-on-hop-off sightseeing buses mentioned above. Like these buses, it is an open-top double-decker bus with a commentary telling you about places you pass en route,  the two main differences being that this bus is much cheaper than the hop-on-hop-off buses but you can’t hop on or off en route.

Megasightseeing is run by Megabus, which operates cheap coach services throughout the United Kingdom and, like their coaches, tickets are priced according to a yield-management model where prices are cheaper when you book in advance and more expensive when left to the last minute. If you book in advance you can score a seat on the Megasightseeing bus for as little as £1 (plus a booking fee) and it is usually easy to find a £5 ticket when you book a ticket for the same day.

It is important to know that this is a non-stop tour. You can’t hop-on or off like the more expensive sightseeing tours mentioned earlier. Since you’re onboard the bus for two hours, make sure that you go to the toilet before hopping on and definitely avoid taking this tour after a long session at the pub (after five pints, you’re not going to hold on for two hours).

The tour takes two hours and passes the following points of interest: Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, the Monument, Victoria Embankment, Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, Marble Arch, St James’s Palace, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Horse Guards Parade, the London Eye, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Bank of England, the Shard and HMS Belfast.

You have a choice of starting and finishing your tour at three bus stops:

  • The London Eye
  • Tower of London
  • Park Lane

The Megasightsing tour has a lot going for it including:

  • It is cheap. Prices start at just £1 (plus a booking fee) making it London’s best value sightseeing tour.
  • It offers a great introduction to London and it is ideal if your time in the city is limited.
  • The open top deck of the bus offers brilliant photo opportunities that you simply can’t get walking around London or from a regular bus where there is an often dirty glass window between your camera lens and the scenery.
  • All tickets give you access to the top deck as long as seats are available (although wheelchairs can only go on the lower deck).
  • There are lots of departure times to choose from with hourly bus departures 10am–5pm daily.
  • Your choice of starting and ending your tour at either: the London Eye, the Tower of London or Park Lane.

Disadvantages of the Megasightseeing tour are:

  • It is a non-stop tour and you can’t hop on or off the bus.
  • You’re stuck on the bus for two hours with no toilet break. If you have to get off the bus earlier than your finishing stop you can’t simply hop on another bus unless you book another ticket.
  • You have to take the exact bus departure that you have pre-booked. You can’t simply hop on an earlier or later bus without buying another ticket.

If you only have a short time in London (for instance if you only have a day in town before taking a train up north) then the Megasightseeing bus will give you the most bang for your buck.

While we generally favour independent travel over a tour, we highly recommend taking this bus on your first day in London to give you a good quick introduction to the city, along with a nice vantage point for some photos from the open top deck of the bus.

Follow this up with a visit to the Museum of London on your first day for the perfect introduction to the city. Getting a good introduction to London when you first arrive means that you will get more out of your visit as you may see sights you want to come back to visit in more detail when you’re on the tour and what you learn at the Museum of London will give you a greater understanding of other sights you see in the city.

Once you get the sightseeing tour out of your system, we recommend using regular London buses for the remainder of your stay in London.

Proper London buses

In our opinion, it is totally unreasonable to pay up to £30 for one day on a bus when £1.50 will let you ride on a regular red double-decker London bus.

There are several other advantages to riding regular London buses:

  • London’s iconic buses are one of the city’s main attractions. Get the full experience by riding London’s famous buses.
  • Because you’re riding on a bus full of locals (rather than other tourists) you get a more authentic London experience.
  • Local buses run more frequently than tour buses. In most instances, you need not wait any longer than five minutes.

Regular buses start earlier and finish later than tourist buses. If you’re eager you can hop on a bus around 5am and keep riding till after midnight. If you’re really keen you can even ride one of the all-night night bus routes.

New Routemaster buses operate on many London bus routes including routes 8, 9, 11, 24 and 74
New Routemaster buses operate on many London bus routes including routes 8, 9, 11, 24 and 74

London’s top seven scenic bus routes

I have combed through more than 500 local bus routes to pick London’s top seven scenic bus routes. These are the most scenic routes that give the tour buses a run for their money (for a lot less money) while also connecting London’s top tourist attractions.

  • Route 8 (Bethnal Green–Tottenham Court Road)
  • Route 9 (Aldwych–Hammersmith)
  • Route 11 (Chelsea–Liverpool Street Station)
  • Route 15 (Heritage) (Trafalgar Square–Tower Hill)
  • Route 24 (Pimlico–Hampstead Heath)
  • Route 74 (Putney–Baker Street)
  • Route RV1 (Covent Garden–Tower Gateway)
Map of London's most scenic bus routes
Map of London’s most scenic bus routes

Route 8 (Bethnal Green–Tottenham Court Road)

London bus route 8 runs from Bow Church to Tottenham Court Road, but I suggest starting at Bethnal Green tube station (Central line) to ride the more interesting portion of the route.

Starting at Bethnal Green tube station (on the Central line, which is in a different location to the Bethnal Green Overground train station) get bus route 8 in the direction of Tottenham Court Road. This will take you through the more interesting parts of the East End, including Brick Lane (noted for its curry restaurants) and Shoreditch High Street (the epicentre of London’s hipster culture) and then through The City stopping at Liverpool Street Station, Bank Station, St Paul’s Cathedral, City Thameslink Station and then via Holborn Circus and Chancery Lane to Tottenham Court Road Station on Oxford Street.

New Routemaster double-decker buses operate on this route.

Map of London bus route 8

Route 9 (Aldwych–Hammersmith)

Route 9 runs from Aldwych to Hammersmith in west London, although you may want to take this bus between High Street Kensington and Aldwych to ride the more interesting portion of the route.

Starting outside Somerset House on Aldwych, bus route 9 will take you past Charing Cross Station and Trafalgar Square, down Pall Mall (in London’s Clubland) to St James Palace, past Green Park station and Hyde Park Corner, down Knightsbridge (for Harrods), past Royal Albert Hall and Kensington Palace to Kensington High Street.

New Routemaster double-decker buses operate on this route.

Map of London bus route 9

Route 11 (Chelsea–Liverpool Street Station)

Route 11 runs from Fulham Town Hall (outside Fulham Broadway tube station) to All Hallows Church near Liverpool Street Station. This bus route runs up the Kings Road in Chelsea to Sloane Square, to Victoria Station, through Westminster passing Westminster Cathedral, Westminster City Hall, New Scotland Yard, Westminster Abbey, Parliament Square and Horse Guards Parade, past Trafalgar Square and Charing Cross Station, past Covent Garden, Aldwych and the Royal Courts of Justice and through The City stopping at Old Bailey, St Paul’s Cathedral, Mansion House, Bank and terminating near Liverpool Street Station.

New Routemaster double-decker buses operate on this route.

Map of London bus route 11

Route 15 (Heritage) (Trafalgar Square–Tower Hill)

Route 15 (Heritage), also known as route 15H, is a shortened version of bus route 15, running between Tower Hill and Trafalgar Square.

Bus route 15 (Heritage) is a short route in Central London. From Trafalgar Square it runs past Charing Cross railway station, then along the Strand, past Aldwych to City Thameslink station, St Paul’s Churchyard, Mansion House, Cannon Street station, Monument and Tower Hill station.

Map of London bus route 15H

What makes this bus route unique is that it is the only remaining bus route in London running original Routemaster buses, which are over 40 years old. Recent legislation requires all London bus routes to be fully wheelchair-accessible, however, an exception was made for Route 15 (Heritage) which gives you the opportunity to ride one of the city’s few remaining original Routemaster buses.

Routemaster bus on route 15H in London
The original Routemaster bus operates on route 15 (Heritage) (Photo: Au Morandarte [CC BY-SA 2.0])
Most other London bus routes are served by the New Routemaster (originally called the New Bus for London), a more modern hybrid diesel-electric double-decker bus that was first entered service in February 2012. The New Routemaster maintains many of the design features of the original Routemaster bus, but unlike the original bus, it is wheelchair-accessible.

Route 24 (Pimlico–Hampstead Heath)

Route 24 runs from Grosvenor Road in Pimlico to the Royal Free Hospital near Hampstead Heath.

This bus route starts at Grosvenor Road on the northern bank of the River Thames in Pimlico and goes past Victoria railway station, through Westminster passing Westminster Cathedral, Westminster City Hall, New Scotland Yard, Westminster Abbey, Parliament Square and Horse Guards Parade, then it passes Trafalgar Square and Charing Cross railway station, Leicester Square, Cambridge Circus and heads north through Camden Town (allowing you to get off to look around Camden Markets) before finishing near Hampstead Heath.

Map of London bus route 24

If you are riding the southbound route you can take the London Overground train service to Hampstead Heath and walk down South End Road to the Royal Free Hospital on Pond Street.

New Routemaster double-decker buses operate on this route.

Route 74 (Putney–Baker Street)

Route 74 runs from Putney Exchange (on Putney High Street between Putney train station and Putney Bridge tube station) to Baker Street tube station.

After leaving Putney High Street, the bus crosses Putney Bridge stopping at Putney Bridge tube station, goes up Fulham High Street and past Fulham Cemetery, then up Lillie Road and through Earls Court, past the South Kensington museums (including the Natural History Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum), through Knightsbridge (stopping outside Harrods), along Park Lane to Marble Arch, past Selfridges and up to Baker Street tube station.

Map of London bus route 74

Route RV1 (Covent Garden–Tower Gateway)

Route RV1 is unique among this list as it is operated by single-level buses and a large portion of the route takes place south of the River Thames.

The bus route runs from Catherine Street in Covent Garden to Tower Gateway DLR station with stops at Aldwych, Waterloo Bridge, Waterloo station, the London Eye, Royal Festival Hall, Oxo Tower, Blackfriars Road, Lavington Street, Southwark Bridge Road, the Hop Exchange (near Borough Market), London Bridge, Monument and the Tower of London.

Map of London bus route RV1

This route is run by conventional single-level buses so it may not be at the top of your list but it is a scenic bus route that is well worth the ride.

Single-level buses are used for London bus route RV1, but don’t let that discourage you from a scenic bus ride
Single-level buses are used for London bus route RV1, but don’t let that discourage you from a scenic bus ride

Paying your bus fare

A standard bus fare is £1.50 if paying by Oyster card, Apple Pay or contactless credit/debit card (you cannot use cash to pay your bus fare). There is a daily cap of £4.50 so that is the most you will pay (the daily cap in zones one and two is £6.80 if you also ride the tube or train that day). You need to touch on with your Oyster card (or Apple Pay/credit/debit card) when you board the bus, but don’t need to touch off when you get off.

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