London calling

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As part of our new ‘Staycation’ series, which will be looking at open-top bus tours and services around the UK, Richard Sharman takes a tour with City Sightseeing London

As far as staycations go, London is top of many people’s list, especially for couples and families. There is so much going on there that you would need more than a few days to see and experience it all by foot, but this is where the open-top tour bus comes into its own. Whether you want to see everything London has to offer in just a few hours, or you want to experience and visit every attraction stop by stop, City Sightseeing London allows you to do it in a way that suits your preference.

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[/wlm_nonmember] [wlm_ismember] Previous operations

You may be thinking that the City Sightseeing London and Julià brands are no stranger to the capital, and you would be right, however 2021 has brought some changes and a new operator. The previous operator of the City Sightseeing London brand was the Original London Sightseeing Tour (OLST), which has now re-branded as Toot Bus. It operated several Ayats Bravo City-bodied Volvo B7TLs and Plaxton President-bodied DAF DB250s on the tour until early 2018, when OLST switched to the Union Jack livery and ended City Sightseeing operations.

The Julià name first appeared in the capital in 2015 when it started the London City Tour using Y-registered Plaxton President-bodied Volvo B7TLs and later added newer 02-plate Alexander ALX400-bodied Dennis Tridents and 60-plate Wrightbus Gemini 2-bodied Volvo B9TLs. In August 2018, after four seasons of operation, OLST and Julià jointly announced that operations would be merged. OLST did not take on the London City Tour fleet and instead repainted a number of its vehicles in the City Tour livery. The global pandemic brought all operators of open-top tour buses some harsh realities that the market had changed, and the City Tour livery and arrangement with Julià ended in December 2020.


Customers are greeted by welcoming vinyls and hand sanitiser. RICHARD SHARMAN

Surprise partner

Amongst the many emails we receive daily at CBW, the one from Stagecoach on 10 May took me somewhat by surprise. It was the announcement that “The UK’s biggest bus and coach operator, Stagecoach, and the world’s leading open-top bus brand, City Sightseeing, have joined forces with Grupo Julià, a specialist in global tourism and mobility services, to launch a brand new sightseeing service for London”.

This press release was a surprise because Stagecoach already had an established sightseeing tour in London under the megasightseeing brand. Operated by Stagecoach London, it launched on 23 April 2018 with a fleet of nine Alexander ALX400-bodied Dennis Tridents which were converted to a high standard by Alexander Dennis at Harlow and Anston. The original fleet only lasted a year before being upgraded to newer Alexander Dennis Enviro400s from within Stagecoach London’s fleet. The ALX400s were initially spread far and wide within the group, with one even being sold to First Bus’s Bright Bus Tour. The largest concentration has now ended up with Stagecoach in Warwickshire for the City Sightseeing Stratford-upon-Avon tour.

So with a newer fleet of buses for the 2019 season, megasightseeing continued. Its unique selling point was that it offers a two hour non-stop tour of the capital, with booking only available on its website. (A full review of that tour can be found in issue 1363 dated 09/10/18)
Tours were busy, however, 2020 saw the onslaught of the worldwide pandemic. Tours did operate in the early part of the year, but as the pandemic spread the tour was suspended, the buses were being used as driver rest rooms on various Stagecoach London-operated Transport for London routes to allow for social distancing.

My initial expectations before this press release were that the megasightseeing tour would resume this summer, however, this was not to be the case as Stagecoach confirmed to me that operations of this tour and the brand had ended and that the fleet was being prepared for use on the City Sightseeing London tour.



City Sightseeing is present in more than 100 destinations in 6 continents and Grupo Julià operates sightseeing buses across 10 cities worldwide. Enrique Ybarra, CEO of City Sightseeing explained: “Since we founded City Sightseeing, London has always been an inspiration. After developing the hop-on hop-off service around the world through more than 100 cities on 6 continents, I am very happy to see City Sightseeing at the cradle of the hop on-hop off business. Together with renowned partners Stagecoach and Grupo Julià, we want to provide the best experience to the city’s visitors, as we put all the experience gained and our industry network to make City Sightseeing London the leading operator.”

Paul Lynch, Regional Director for Stagecoach, said: “Buses will play a crucial role in the recovery of the country and of course, our capital city. Boosting domestic tourism is a key priority and as people now start to plan the return to doing the things they enjoy doing, such as day trips and staycations, the launch of this new open-top tour bus service will provide an easy, convenient and environmentally friendly way for people to tour the great sights of London.
“London is well-renowned all over the world for being an exciting and historic city that people want to visit, and by joining forces with City Sightseeing and Grupo Julià, we also have a great opportunity to encourage overseas visitors back as soon as we are able.”
Jose Adell, CEO of Grupo Julià said: “Offer the best hop-on hop-off service available in London. This is going to be the objective of Stagecoach Group, Grupo Julià and City Sightseeing in this new stage. Three operators, experts in our respective fields of activity and who share the vocation of service, quality and safety as three fundamental areas of our action.”

Cushioned vinyl seating is used rather than hard plastic, which is welcome on a tour of over two hours. RICHARD SHARMAN

Sampling the tour

Having given operations a full seven days to bed in from the start date of 20 May, I made the long trip to the capital from the West Midlands. Arriving at London Victoria station, it was a short walk across the road to stop one at Grosvenor Gardens. This stop has been a mainstay of the capital’s open-top buses for many years, although I remember it being on the opposite side of the road in the 1990s.

I could see the bus parked on the stand from the station: there is no mistaking a Pedro Cabañas-designed livery, it has been a staple of the City Sightseeing brand since 1998, with buses carrying location-specific graphics on the red and yellow colours worldwide. The London fleet looks particularly bright, having only just been painted, although it is a shame that the side and rear destination displays are not in use. The front display uses non-standard Stagecoach destination equipment in the form of a Aesys DC600 multi-coloured display, which is bright and does stand out.

By this time it was late afternoon on a Thursday, so I opted to take the 1640hrs tour. Boarding the tour I was greeted by Danny Dudziec, a friendly and welcoming driver from Stagecoach London’s Bow depot, where ADL Enviro400s 19131-6 are allocated. He informed me that the last full tour had already departed at 1610hrs and that this tour would be terminating at Tower Bridge stop 14 before the bus ran out of service to the depot. I thought I may as well do the majority of the route and then finish the next day.

The cab door was adorned with bright vinyl shouting that ‘We show you London!’ whilst hand sanitiser was provided in a holder by the staircase. I was quite surprised to see a large Stagecoach ‘beachball era’ vinyl emblazoned over the glass panel for the staircase. I would have thought that this would have been changed to the new style during the vehicle’s makeover. However, general impressions of the vehicle were excellent. The interior was clean and looked well cared-for. The lower deck had standard beachball moquette whilst the upper deck had soft blue vinyl seating. 19132 was to be the bus for this tour, and it was in half-top configuration, although fully open-top examples are also on the fleet.

Rush hour traffic

I took a seat upstairs in the open section and plugged my free earphones in to listen to the commentary. At this point there were five other passengers on the upper deck. The couple who sat at the front were from America, by the sound of it, and had been using the bus to hop on and hop off at the various attractions on the route. They seemed happy with the tour and also mentioned that they were planning to use the bus again in the morning as the ticket was valid for 24hrs.

Departing Grovesnor Gardens I suspected it was going to be a slow crawl to start with, as the rush hour took hold. Heading up to Hyde Park Corner was slow going, but Danny was playing the extra commentary blocks so there was always some interesting facts being told. The slow traffic allowed for a good look at Wellington Arch.

Stop two is just beyond Hyde Park Corner on Park Lane. This stop is by the Queen Elizabeth Gate and opposite the Achilles Statue, and as I recall it is always a busy one during the height of the summer. There is a bus lane from here down to Marble Arch, so no traffic but Danny was taking it nice and easy so the commentary matched the location. As we travelled along Park Lane I remember thinking to myself ‘where are the coaches going to park’. This is because the Mayor of London decided to turn that whole parking area into a cycle path- which was empty during the rush hour!

Pulling up at stop three and the Marble Arch area was not looking its normal pretty self. There was scaffolding everywhere for seating in preparation for an event of some kind. The American couple left the bus and we departed and looped around Marble Arch, passing the entry to Oxford Street, and back down Park Lane, past The Dorchester Hotel which had its normal array of expensive cars on display.

By this point, I had moved to the front seat in the covered section between stops. The top windscreen had been adorned with City Sightseeing London and Julià Travel names: luckily these had been done in Contra Vision and didn’t impede forward vision. It is also interesting to note that prominent megabus advertising features on the roof panels on the upper deck, and that it also advertised in the City Sightseeing London brochure.

A view of the Royal Exchange by Bank Station. RICHARD SHARMAN

The main attractions

Having travelled back down Park Lane, we then headed along Piccadilly, where we joined two lanes of traffic. Surprisingly there are no bus lanes on this busy section, but the traffic did give me chance to have a good look at some of the more expensive establishments on this section of the route, such as The Ritz Hotel, Fortnum & Mason, The Dilly and many more. The female-voiced commentary had been good so far. There is currently no option for a live guided tour, but I was quite happy with the recorded commentary as it pointed out some of the architecture above the shop fronts, which is fascinating and something you can only really view at close quarters from an open-top bus.

Arriving into the iconic Piccadilly Circus is always a highlight of my London trips, and it was looking a lot busier than on my last two trips to the capital to cover Honk for Hope events. The Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain had a reasonable number of people sat taking in the atmosphere. Piccadilly Circus marked the end of our traffic problems on this tour as we pulled up at the Leicester Square stop. This area was also fairly busy with people taking in the sights or looking for somewhere to eat, as there is a good concentration of restaurants in the area.

The next stop was Pall Mall East, accessed by using Haymarket. This is the stop for The National Gallery, Nelson’s Column and Trafalgar Square. There is quite a lot to see in this area, and I would assume it would be one of the main stops at the height of the season.
For those who don’t have the time to get off here, the tour does pause for a few minutes and explains what you can see before you in the commentary, before moving off and slowly travelling alongside Trafalgar Square before exiting onto Whitehall. As the bus takes the roundabout you get a superb view of the Admiralty Arch on The Mall to the right.

Travelling down Whitehall you get a great view of Horse Guards Parade and No 10 Downing Street to the right, as well as the various monuments that line the centre of the road. Danny was driving slowly along this road, perfectly matching up to the commentary and allowing photograph opportunities.

Over the River Thames

Perhaps, one of the most enjoyable points on the tour is where it criss-crosses the River Thames, firstly crossing over on Westminster Bridge and stopping to the side of the London Eye. Again, this is a busy area for tourists and City Sightseeing London have a ticket seller deployed here.
This is where another couple, Wayne and Nia from Wales left the tour to catch the train back to the hotel. A quick chat with them revealed that they had previously taken City Sightseeing tours in Glasgow and Cardiff. They had been using the tour all day and were very happy with it, they liked the commentary but were not so keen on the jazz music between blocks!

Moving off, the tour then heads past Waterloo Station and back over the River Thames using the Waterloo Bridge and along Fleet Street, with St.Paul’s Cathedral and Bank to the front of the bus. The tour then crosses the River Thames again using London Bridge with views of the Shard and City Hall. Passing London Bridge Station revealed a scene of some normality, noisy pub goers enjoying a cold drink with their friends in the heat of the capital.

The tour then makes its final trip over the River Thames by using Tower Bridge. Sadly the tour ended at stop 14 and the bus returned to the depot. It had taken just under two hours to get to this point of the route. I managed to complete the tour the following day and the return trip to Grosvenor Gardens is a pleasant one, with a slow drive alongside the River Thames, ending up at Embankment before travelling between Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. Arriving back in the Victoria area, the final highlight on the tour, if you are an express coach service enthusiast, is a trip through the Green Line coach station on Bulleid Way to get the bus facing the right way to access Grosvenor Gardens.

A nice view of the London Eye features on the route. RICHARD SHARMAN

Ticket prices and conclusion

A full tour will easily take you just under 2hrs 30mins if you stay on the bus, and that will cost £22 for one adult or £66 for a family of four. There are options to increase the ticket validity period to 24, 48 or 72hrs. For 24hrs it costs one adult £32, or £89 for a family of four. These extended options also offer a free Thames River Cruise. A full 72hrs of validity will cost a family £109, which if you are staying in London for a few days and are travelling around is reasonable. Buses currently operate from 0840hrs to 1710hrs daily with a frequency of every 30mins, although I can see the frequency needing to be increased at the height of summer.

In conclusion, I think that the joint partnership between the three companies offers a comprehensive tour of the capital at a cost which, for London, is good value. The ADL Enviro400s used on the service have comfortable cushioned seats, rather than hard plastic seats, the Cummins engine is quiet and smooth in operation and if all the drivers are as friendly and well trained as Danny, then they are onto a winner with City Sightseeing London.