A Splash of tartan and gin on Edinburgh’s latest bus tour

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243 enters the Leith Harbour Gateway via Ocean Way on the Regal Tour. RICHARD WALTER

Edinburgh Bus Tours is part of the Lothian Group and has had a revamp for the 2024 summer season in the Scottish capital. Richard Walter speaks to the management team to find out why, and tries out the new Regal Tour which offers some alternative attractions to the Castle and Old Town.

Lothian’s City Sightseeing Edinburgh tour recently received the Best Tour Operator Worldwide award from City Sightseeing. With the Scottish capital having always excelled in providing quality open-top bus tours, I wondered just what winning this accolade had meant. Sarah Taylor, Communications Manager for Lothian, explained that the tour’s operation is a team effort.

“David Cameron is our Head of Operations, Dylan Dastey is our Chief Engineer, Elaine Green is the Sales Manager, Paul Baxter is our Depot Engineer at Marine garage (where buses are kept), David Spalding is the Traffic Manager and we also have a General Manager who is off on maternity leave until June,” she explained. “The marketing and new liveries for this season were all done by my team and I am very proud of them. Our Director team is also heavily involved in Edinburgh Bus Tours’ summer plans too.

“We were absolutely thrilled to have been named Best Tour Operator Worldwide by City Sightseeing. City Sightseeing Edinburgh has been part of the city’s tourism fabric for the past two decades. The brand is the benchmark for quality open-top bus tours around the world. We’re so incredibly proud of the entire Edinburgh Bus Tours team. It means the world to them; our team works tirelessly with passion and dedication to deliver five-star customer service each and every day.”

Tour changes

2024 has seen a revamp of Edinburgh Bus Tours’ three principal routes and the loss of the Bus & Boat Tour taking in the three Forth bridges. The company now offers the City Sightseeing Edinburgh Tour (including multi-lingual audio guide, also featuring a ‘Horrible Histories’ children’s commentary), the Edinburgh Tour (live guided in English and covering both the Old Town and Georgian New Town) and the multi-lingual Regal Tour which takes in the city’s Botanic Garden and the Royal Yacht Britannia.

I asked what the reasons were for the changes and how they would benefit passengers? “Last year we retained our five-star Quality Assurance status from Visit Scotland,” Sarah explained. “We strive for continual improvement by assessing our offering and seeing where improvements can be made to enhance our customers’ experience on our services. For 2024 this meant revamping our three signature city centre tours with eye-catching branding to inspire a fresh perspective of our tours and capture the imagination of returning and first-time visitors to our city.”


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I pointed out that the new Regal Tour (which replaced the Majestic Tour) now does a loop down the Royal Mile making Holyrood the first main stop. Is there a reason for having the Palace first on the route before it heads to Leith? “Our new Regal Tour brings to life the city’s royal connections and Edinburgh’s rich history with our royal family. It makes sense to begin with a loop of Holyrood to serve the Palace of Holyroodhouse. It is the Monarchy’s Scottish residence and offers tourists an authentic, royal experience,” Sarah said. “It means that combined with our two city centre tours, customers have a choice of which Royal attraction to visit first.”

I noted that there are always new attractions becoming available in the capital. The free map given out to ticket holders offers many visitor discounts to such attractions. I wondered if the collaboration with local museums, distilleries, shops, pubs and restaurants promoting attractions to passengers was considered to be an important part of the tour experience which benefited both Edinburgh Bus Tours and the businesses? “We are very proud to work with partners and attractions in the city to offer even more for our customers,” Sarah explained. “A lot of our customers are first-time visitors to Edinburgh and are excited to see the city, so if we can offer even more added value for them, it makes their first impression of our city even more memorable. We see our role as distributing visitors throughout the city and our extensive discount list helps us do this. Many of our Tripadvisor reviewers say that they find hidden gems through taking a tour – we see that as a huge success.”

Given the extension of trams to Newhaven and the developments of houses in the Leith area, I asked how this had impacted on the tour. “The Royal Yacht Britannia will always be a popular stop for our customers. With the developments in the area, there is a new, vibrant, growing community which can only be a good thing for the city. The extension of our Regal Tour into Leith means we can also promote many local businesses there and show off that bustling part of the city,” she added.

Edinburgh Bus Tours just about covers all the history, scenic locations and treasures that the city has on offer. Looking to the future I wondered if there was anything else that might be included on the tours or new areas to explore? “We are very proud that our three city centre tours cater to the needs of our customers and take them to the must-see tourist attractions in our city. We are constantly developing ideas on how to enhance our offering to customers, whether it be added value with their tour ticket or another attraction to offer on our routes,” Sarah said.

Zero-emission repowers

I referred to the company’s recent partnership with Kleanbus which would see the repowering and up-cycling of 18 of the existing open-top mid-life diesel vehicles to electric drive. “We are excited to partner with Kleanbus and the process of repowering our existing open-top mid-life diesel vehicles to electric could be transformational for our tour offering,” Sarah said. “We already enjoy gold status from Green Tourism, with all of our tour buses operating on Euro VI diesel engines, making them among the cleanest tour fleets in the UK.”

In addition to making the tours more environmentally friendly, I mentioned the frequent road closures, protest marches and the sheer volume of people and cars in the city, especially during the Edinburgh Festivals, and asked how the team copes with such operational problems, especially with keeping the tours to time. “Adapting at short notice is one of the things we do best at Edinburgh Bus Tours,” Sarah said. “We have an incredibly experienced team who have seen it all during their time at the company. Our five-star status from Visit Scotland is testament to our excellent customer service, which our customers have come to expect from us. Adapting at short notice, but continuing to provide a five-star, quality experience for our customers is part of this. With our website and app we can easily keep customers informed of any changes to routes.”

Going that bit further

I asked about the little extras that Edinburgh Bus Tours provided to make the tours that little bit special. In addition to the usual type of multi-language audio commentaries, the City Sightseeing Edinburgh tour offers younger passengers an alternative commentary to listen to. “Our Horrible Histories commentary, voiced by Terry Deary, is extremely popular with our younger customers,” explained Sarah, adding that children travel for free. “Edinburgh has a long history and not all of it is pleasant. Our Horrible Histories commentary makes light of some of the more gory, gruesome details and makes it fun for children which enhances their experience of the tour. We’ve also heard that adults enjoy Terry’s horrible take on Edinburgh’s history too!”

The Edinburgh Tour buses have a live commentary. “Our live guides do a fantastic job on our Edinburgh Tour, bringing to life the history of our city, along with the iconic landmarks tourists have come to learn more about,” Sarah enthused. “Our guide training course focuses on the basic tour and allows each guide to research their own additions which adds authenticity and a uniqueness to each tour. We are proud of our team of guides for their hard work which is a huge hit with our customers. Our Tripadvisor reviews confirm that our customers really appreciate the Edinburgh Tour.

“All of our Edinburgh Bus Tours colleagues are on the front-line for our customer service. Our ticket sellers meet people on the streets and engage with them to attract them onto our tours, but also get the best value for them and a ticket that suits their needs best. They are also on hand for more general information about the city and get asked all sorts of questions. Our drivers do an amazing job from start to finish, welcoming people on board with a friendly smile as well as driving expertly around our streets in a way that allows people to take in each and every attraction we pass along our routes. On our Edinburgh Tour, there is an evident, strong relationship with our driver and guide to bring the city to life in a way that our customers wouldn’t experience if they were to travel the city by foot.

“Our colleagues’ local knowledge is second to none, with many commendations of our people noting that they went above and beyond their duty to recommend a restaurant or an attraction to experience for first-time visitors to our city. It’s all part of the added value that we provide customers to Edinburgh Bus Tours, which goes far beyond our value-for-money tours.”

A new green and tartan livery has been introduced to the Edinburgh Tour which, unlike the other two tours, includes a live commentary. 233 was pictured at Holyrood Park in the heart of Edinburgh. RICHARD WALTER

’Blowing a Hoolie’

Edinburgh is notorious for its very windy weather and the distinctly Scottish phrase ‘it’s blowing a hoolie’ is regularly used by locals. I deliberately waited for a calm and dry morning in April to sample the new Regal Tour shortly after its introduction. Not easy given the unpredictable spring weather but I struck lucky.

I joined the first tour of the day at Waterloo Place where all the Edinburgh Bus Tours and competing Bright Bus open-top tours depart from. It’s a short walk from Waverley railway station and a line of tour vehicles was visible from the foot of North Bridge. Ideally for my trip, blue Regal Tour-liveried 246 was at the head of queue and I was one of the first passengers on board so nabbed one of the upper deck front window seats which not only gave a great view, but also offered some cover under the semi open-top roof should the dreaded rain come on.

All of the Edinburgh Bus Tours fleet are Wright Eclipse Gemini 3 Volvo B5TLs bought new in 2016 in semi-open top form and are in immaculate condition. With five minutes to spare before the tour departure, I started the challenge of the day – uncoiling the headphones and trying to get them to fit my ears without falling out. Now I should make it clear that this is not an issue specifically with Edinburgh Bus Tours as I have it everywhere in the world where I have taken an open top tour. I guess that I have odd shaped ears! After a fashion I got the left one to fit comfortably but throughout the journey had to keep the right one in place with a finger.

English commentary was selected just as the bus pulled way from the stop. I noted that there weren’t many passengers on board but it was before 9am although even when it’s not the height of the summer season, tour buses can fill up very quickly early in the morning.


Leaving Waterloo Place, the bus turned the sharp corner onto North Bridge. Unfortunately for tourists, the fine views across Edinburgh from an open-top bus usually on offer are limited at the moment as long-term work on refurbishing and restoration of the Edinburgh World Heritage Site that is the North Bridge continues, with completion not expected until spring of 2025. You do however get a good view of the Scotsman Hotel – named after the national newspaper that used to own the beautiful Baroque buildings.

The Scotsman of today is a luxury hotel and bar offering unrivalled views of the Mound, Calton Hill and Princes Street Gardens. The bus soon arrives at the junction of the High Street and Royal Mile turning left towards the Palace of Holyroodhouse and passing many places worth getting off the bus to explore including John Knox House, Museum of Childhood, Tolbooth Tavern and the fine Chocolatarium (too many temptations there I think). At the foot of the Royal Mile the bus pulls in to allow those who wish to do so to visit the Palace of Holyroodhouse or Scottish Parliament. It then takes quite a tight turning at the foot of the Royal Mile before retracing its steps back to North Bridge where it turns right and back down towards the East End of Princes Street.

I paused to adjust my headphones’ right ear piece. As a resident of Edinburgh I am embarrassed to say that there are things in the commentary that I am not that aware of and tend to miss on regular trips into the city centre. Just past the Waverley Market, the bus heads up to St Andrew Square with the commentary very appropriately referring to the departure point of Lothian’s Airlink airport service and giving some facts about the busy Edinburgh Airport.

Pay attention after this and you will find out more about the history of the Haggis beastie – no spoilers! The garden square is a cornerstone of Edinburgh’s New Town and is a bustling hub not just for Edinburgh Bus Tours where all three routes serve but also for business, dining and cultural activities. Circling the square the bus joins George Street briefly before turning right down Dundas Street which slopes steeply north from the city centre towards the Firth of Forth and offers some fine views from the upper deck. The next stop of interest at Arboretum Place is for the Royal Botanic Garden, one of the world’s leading botanic gardens where visitors can discover a history dating back over 350 years, learn about its plantings and walk around 70 acres of beautiful landscape.

Roadworks and potholes

Sadly Edinburgh, as many other UK cities and destinations, suffers from frequent roadworks and our tour had to perform a short diversion to get onto Ferry Road. It was interesting that even a double-deck bus can feel the effect of the numerous pot holes in the road surfaces in this particular part of the city. Nothing too bad but something that drivers have to be aware of in addition to the other traffic conditions such as inconsiderate parking that are experienced on the route.

246 passing the Fingal, a luxury floating hotel and restaurant, which is permanently berthed at Alexandra Dock, Leith. RICHARD WALTER

Gin and more gin

Arriving at Newhaven Harbour, which dates back to the 1480s, it’s easy to overlook what was once a busy local fishing community. Sadly it lost its distinct identity with the construction of Leith’s Western Harbour between 1936 and 1943. The present Western Harbour has become home to major shopping and residential developments.

The bus stops close to the Lind & Lime gin distillery where you can book a tour to discover how the gin is made and enjoy a few cocktails in the process. As the distillery tour and tasting takes 75 minutes, it’s probably wise to take an early Regal Tour to fully enjoy the experience!

Driving through the Prince of Wales

Dock, the bus shares space with the frequent Edinburgh Trams that serve Newhaven. Sights include the Victoria Swing Bridge (currently being restored), the Fingal, a luxury floating hotel and restaurant and the Port of Leith Distillery, Scotland’s first vertical distillery, a remarkable new nine-storey building. Ninety-minute tours are on offer or you can pop in for a drink or bite to eat at the bar on the top floor. I’m not sure that tours of both distilleries on the same day is a good idea but it could well be a reason for investing in either the Grand 24 ticket, Grand 48 ticket or the Royal Edinburgh ticket options available from Edinburgh Bus Tours! On this occasion I resisted the strong temptation to visit either.

The Royal Yacht

Arriving at Ocean Terminal, there is the opportunity to leave the bus to explore each of the five decks at this top Edinburgh attraction and discover what life was like on board the late Queen Elizabeth II’s former floating palace. I have taken the Britannia tour and would highly recommend it.

Having finally abandoned my headphones’ right ear piece as a lost cause, I sat back to enjoy the journey as the bus headed back into the city centre via the residential Bonnington Road and Broughton Road, back up Dundas Street before turning into York Place, along London Road and Abbeyhill onto Regent Road and the departure point for the tour. At a little over the scheduled 80 minutes, I found this to be a most interesting tour.

Whilst I suspect many people will have a preference to using the other two tours which focus more on the historic Old Town and Georgian New Town, the Regal Tour covers some of the places a little further afield with plenty of variety, good views and worthwhile stopping places. And the good news was that the rain stayed off and it wasn’t blowing a hoolie.