Europe’s City Buses: Ride Like a Local

By Rick Steves

Getting around town on city buses is a little more complicated than using the subway, but has its advantages. Since you’re not underground, it’s easier to stay oriented, see the landmarks, and enjoy the vibrant street life out the window. In fact, some public bus routes are downright scenic — Paris’ bus #69 gives you a great sightseeing introduction for just the cost of a transit ticket. Bus stops are more closely spaced than subway stops — meaning the bus is useful even for short hops and usually gets you closer to where you need to go. Some buses go where the subway can’t, such as the top of Castle Hill in Budapest.

Like subways, city buses run frequently, especially during peak hours (if a bus is packed, wait for the next one). Although night buses run less frequently and follow limited routes, they’re useful for night owls who don’t want to spring for a taxi. The main disadvantage of buses is that they’re slowed down by traffic, so try to avoid taking them during rush hour.

(In many cities, hop-on, hop-off tourist buses connect the major sights; these are generally privately operated and usually a bad option for actually getting around town.)

To travel smartly by bus, follow these tips:

Plan your route. You can usually get a bus map and schedule from local tourist or transit offices, print them off the bus system’s website, or use a public-transit app. Many bus stops have their routes and timetables posted, and some have electronic signs noting how many minutes until the next bus arrives.

Confirm the essentials before you board. Find out if you need to have a ticket in advance or if you can buy it on the bus. Make sure you’re getting on the right bus going in the right direction. Before you get on, mention your destination to a local or the driver. Smile and ask, for example, “Vaticano?”

Validate your ticket. Usually you enter at the front of the bus and show your ticket to the driver, or validate it by inserting it into an automated time-stamp box. Observe and imitate what the locals do.

Get off at the right stop. Bus stops, like subway stops, are named (usually for a cross street or nearby landmark), but their names are often difficult to see from a moving bus. It can be tricky to get off where you intend, so it pays to stay alert: Have a sense of how long a ride is going to take, and know the names of the stops coming up right before yours (and the one right after yours, so you’ll know if you’ve gone too far). If possible, sit near the door, so you can hop out easily. On a cross-town trip, you’ll have time to enjoy the sights. As you ride, follow along the route on your map, looking for landmarks along the way: monuments, bridges, major cross streets, and so on. If you’re uncertain about your stop, get the attention of the driver or another passenger and ask, “Prado?” (For extra credit, preface your request with the local word for please.) Then wait for them to signal to you when the bus reaches the Prado.

In bike-friendly cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, buses often let you off directly into busy bicycle lanes. Look carefully, in both directions, as you exit.

Signal for your stop. Some buses pull over at every stop, while others only stop by request; this means you can’t necessarily navigate by counting stops. If in doubt, look for a pull cord or a button with the local word for “stop,” and use it to signal that you want to get off at the next stop.