New York is a fantastic city, the capital of the world, the center of the universe, right?
And sometimes you don’t have a lot of time for your vacation so you start to ponder whether it’ll be possible to get a sense of the city, how it’s laid out, how big it is and what its best attractions are.
In other words, how to avoid getting a fragmented impression of a city instead of a more holistic, 30.000 feet view (or as close to is as possible).
And one of the things I’ve found really work for me during my cultural travel are city tours, especially double decker bus city tours.
Yes, I know it’s such a cliche
Sure, we all want our trips to be life changing experiences and see the most important sites, but also walk away from the beaten path and see things that people don’t normally see, the tour buses kind of contradict that purpose.
However, in my experience hopping on and off from these double decker buses is not only fun, but it can give you a great sense of what a city is all about!
In the end there are sights that you don’t want to miss, even if they’re what everybody does and having an easy, fun and convenient way to visit them while getting a sense of place, is a double win in my opinion.
I highly recommend them, I take these kinds of buses every time I visit a new city and I believe it’s a good value for my money.
First things first
The first thing I do whenever I’m going to visit a major city is get online and find out if they have double decker tour buses and in New York the go-to company is Gray Line which is actually a transportation company that also provides bus rides to other cities in the United States.
Gray Line offers a wide variety of tours in New York, including escorted tours, helicopter tours (which I highly recommend), cruises, walking tours, day trips from New York and VIP tours along with their renowned double decker bus tours.
Get on the upper deck!
Gray Line has a really good two-day package called the All Loops Tour (48 Hours) (which can be upgraded to 72 hours) which sells for $49 and includes the Downtown Loop, Uptown Loop, Brooklyn Loop and Night/Holiday Lights Tour (Brooklyn and Night/Holiday tours are not Hop-On, Hop-Off).
All the buses are double decked, but I can tell you straight up, you have got to go on the upper deck because that’s the best experience. You have no roof over your head which allows you to take great pictures and watch people over the railings below.
Of course, being on the top deck means you have to be prepared for the weather, if it’s hot, it can get really hot and you can get sunburned. If it’s cold, it’s super chilly because of the wind when the bus is traveling. If it rains, all the seats will be wet and you will get soaked even though Gray Line offers free plastic ponchos. So plan accordingly.
The lower deck is warmer but you can’t open the windows to take pictures and I’m not sure they have air conditioning during the summer.
It is called Hop-On, Hop-Off because people can get on or get off the bus at each of these stops and go visit the attractions nearby for as long as they want.
Buses usually come by each stop roughly every 15 minutes, but be sure to ask at the office which stops take longer. For instance stop 29 in the Uptown Loop is the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine and buses can take up to 45 minutes to come by again to this stop.
There’s a live tour guide on board telling you about the history of the different places. Some tour guides are a hoot, so take the opportunity to interact with them and ask questions!
You can buy the All Loops Tour (48 Hours) from my affiliate link and help me promote this blog!
The Downtown Loop (green route in the map) departs from Gray Line offices in Times Square and covers from south Central Park, to Battery Park where you can take the ferry to visit the Statue of Liberty, so this is roughly from mid Manhattan toward the south.
It covers landmarks such as the Empire State Building (get on the observation deck to see amazing views of the city), Union Square, Soho (the trendy neighborhood and its wonderful shops), Chinatown (learn to haggle for your purchases), World Trade Center (see the new memorial and Visitors Center) and Battery Park.
The Uptown Loop (purple route in the map) covers Central Park and Harlem so this is from mid Manhattan toward the north and you can visit such landmarks as The Met (the Louvre of America, art from every corner of the world), The Guggenheim Museum (incredible architecture and an impressive collection of modern art), the American Museum of Natural History (THE place to see dinosaurs in New York) and the Apollo Theater (feel the spirit of Black music).
The Brooklyn Loop (red route on the map) is a great way to see charming Brooklyn and its landmarks, my favorite is the fantastic architecture of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, which I highly recommend you visit later on, it’s my absolute number one museum in New York (Hmm, material for a later post, huh?).
The Night/Holiday Lights Tour (yellow route on the map) is amazing to see New York at night, looking at the Manhattan skyline from Brooklyn, jaw dropping Times Square and all its billboards, beautifully lit Empire State Building, Greenwich Village, Little Italy and many other places. Do bring a jacket because it is going to get chilly!
Double decker tips
• The pass activates with the first ride, so try to get on the bus first thing in the morning, to make the most of your 48 hours.
• Plan carefully how you’re going to ride the buses and decide beforehand, which attractions you will be hoping-off for so that you can allocate enough time to see everything you intend to see. Remember, the purpose of the bus tour is to get a general sense of the city, you can always come back to the attractions later on by metro or simply walking. Many of these can be reached on foot in New York City.
• Beware that once you’ve purchased a 48 hour ticket, it cannot be upgraded to 72 hours.
• Be sure to confirm the tours hours, they end rather early in the afternoon, the last one being at 5 pm but for instance the Brooklyn tour ends at 3 pm. The night tour runs after 6 pm. Click here for more details.
• Be patient, sometimes there are waiting times both at the office to redeem your purchase or waiting for the next bus to pass by. It’s all part of the fun, right?
• Also be patient with the sound quality of the tour guide’s mic, sometimes it’s not so good, but you can always ask questions!
• Click here to see the interactive map.
• Or click here to download it in PDF.
Even if it is a cliche and the “touristy” thing to do, I always enjoy these tours, getting to know other people who are doing the “touristy” thing and acquiring a general idea of what a city is about, making my way easier to explore it further during the rest of my trip.
Have you taken the double-decker tour bus in New York? What was your experience?
I will be posting about such tour buses in other cities in future posts, so watch out for those.
What’s your opinion about these buses? Is it a waste of time and money or do you enjoy seeing the city from a higher altitude?
Let us know in the comments field!
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Update: The links in this article were valid at the time of publication. I highly suggest you go to the All Loops website to find the latest tour information.