Those famous red buses are more than a London icon. Not only are they useful, you get to love the ones that provide the best sightseeing from a front row seat on the top deck.
For anyone who likes panoramic people–watching combined with historic buildings, the London bus offers a window on some of the best free activities in the capital – Westminster Abbey, Covent Garden, St Paul’s Cathedral, the museums, the shops.
Two of the most enjoyable must be the No 11 and the No 9. They also happen to be a couple of the most historic routes, first appearing in the 1850s. And they come in handy for tourists, too.
The No 11 and the No 9 bus routes take you through the centre of town from West to East and back again, and that’s hard to beat.
But if a North–South slice through Pimlico, Victoria, St James’s Park, Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, Camden Town and even Hampstead Heath is your bag, then the long reach of the No 24 offers just as many fun things to do in London.
Below is a guide to a few London buses and their attractions. At the end of each section is a list of the sights mentioned, with hyperlinks.
Before you travel, always check with any venue for the need to pre book tickets (including the free ones, for social distancing reasons), also for possible covid compliant requirements (e.g. proof of vaccination or a negative LFT). Not to rain on your parade, but nobody likes to be turned away for avoidable reasons.
For information about visitor Oyster Cards, follow this link: https://tfl.gov.uk/travel-information/visiting-london/visitor-oyster-card
And masks are required for indoor public places and on public transport at the time of writing.
ALL ABOARD: THE NO 11 BUS
Starting at Fulham Town Hall in the West and ending up at Liverpool Street Station, this Grande dame of London buses takes you through Sloane Square before calling at Victoria Underground Station – by which time you are just a few minutes’ ride from Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.
Hint: only get off at the stop called “Westminster Cathedral” if you specifically want to the see that handsome, red and white Catholic holy of holies… but it is rather beautiful and Byzantine. Mass throughout the day.
Wait for the announcement/display that says “Westminster Abbey” if you want the UK’s ancient (Anglican) burial place of kings and poets.
Next comes Westminster Station/Parliament Square, the bus stop for both the Houses of Parliament and (close by) St James’s Park.
Alternatively, you can stay on the No 11 as it journeys up Whitehall and stops at Horse Guards Parade. Here you can stroll up to Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery. Or turn left and walk down The Mall to Buckingham Palace to see the Changing of the Guard.
Then the No 11 scoots around Nelson’s Column and stops beside Southampton Street (on the Strand). From there you’re just a whisker away from Covent Garden.
However, if you choose to travel onwards, something magical happens. As the bus ventures past Aldwych and into Fleet Street, the city reverts to its old medieval road layout, and the change in atmosphere is palpable.
But the No 11 hasn’t finished with us.
Past the Royal Courts of Justice, past Fetter Lane and Ludgate Circus, you come to St Paul’s Cathedral (and the Museum of London), followed by Bank Station, where the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street (the Bank of England) sits at the centre of a web of six roads. From here you can walk to stunning Leadenhall Market.
After that it’s King William Street and Monument Station (your stop for leafy St Dunstan’s in the East); not forgetting Fenchurch Street where you can visit the Sky Garden, or Liverpool Street and the Barbican Conservatory.
It’s a remarkable route through the heart of the metropolis.
No 11 places of interest, bus stop names in brackets:
Westminster Cathedral (Westminster Cathedral bus stop)
Byzantine-influenced building designed by John Francis Bentley for the Catholic Church in the United Kingdom. A functioning place of worship.
Westminster Abbey (Westminster Abbey bus stop)
No charge for attending a service, sitting in the nave of this thousand year–old site. Impressive from the outside. From the Abbey you can find your way into a tranquil courtyard called Dean’s Yard, via a street named, appropriately enough, The Sanctuary.
Houses of Parliament (Westminster Station/Parliament Square bus stop)
The building where Parliament sits. Big Ben, the Thames and the Embankment beckon. Nearby is the Supreme Court, the final court of appeal for criminal and civil cases, and where constitutional questions are decided.
St James’s Park (Westminster Station/Parliament Square)
Four hundred years ago the Russian ambassador gave King Charles II some pelicans – and this species of bird has been there ever since. A pretty lake, lots more birds, bordering The Mall by Buckingham Palace.
National Gallery (Horse Guards Parade bus stop)
From Horse Guards Parade you can walk up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery art collection. Excellent view of London from the gallery steps, too.
Buckingham Palace (Horse Guards Parade bus stop)
Again walk up Whitehall, but instead turn left at the top and through Admiralty Arch onto The Mall for St James’s Park, Buckingham Palace and the Changing of the Guard.
Covent Garden (Southampton Street bus stop on Strand)
A lovely market building and lots of sightseeing, from St Martin’s Lane to Drury Lane; a must see, including instagrammable Neal’s Yard with its colourful buildings and alternative shops (runs between Monmouth Street and Shorts Gardens).
St Paul’s Cathedral (St Paul’s bus stop)
St Paul’s was designed by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666. During the 1940s firemen fought for hours to save the cathedral from a wartime firestorm. Everything around it was ashes and rubble, but St Paul’s survived. (Evensong suspended until January 15, check for details).
Museum of London (St Paul’s bus stop)
Social history of London from prehistory to present day, and the largest urban history collection the world. From St Paul’s walk up St Martin’s Le Grand then turn right onto London Wall. The Museum is at 150 London Wall (remains of the Roman wall can be seen outside).
Bank of England (Bank bus stop)
The Bank of England Museum is closed until Spring 2022. The old lady of Threadneedle Street has been sited here since 1734. Her former HQ was excavated in the 1950s when a Roman temple of Mithras (god of contracts) was found.
Guildhall Art Gallery and Roman Amphitheatre (Bank bus stop)
Closed for maintenance until April 2022. Houses the art collection of the City of London, plus Roman archeology. From Bank walk up Princes Street then left onto Gresham Street.
Leadenhall Market (Bank bus stop)
Beautiful historic covered market with restaurants, shops and glorious ornate roofs. So photogenic it featured in the Harry Potter films. A big tourist attraction in its own right, the main, double height entrance is on Gracechurch Street. From Bank walk up Lombard Street. Gracechurch Street at the top.
St Dunstan’s in the East (King William St/Monument bus stop)
Walk down Eastcheap and Great Tower Street, and right into Idol Lane or St Dunstan’s Hill. Glorious ruined Christopher Wren church that is now a public garden, halfway between London Bridge and the Tower of London.
Sky Garden (Fenchurch Street bus stop)
The highest public garden in London. Located in the Fenchurch Building, on the 43rd floor of 20 Fenchurch Street EC3M 8AF. Great views of London, wonderful sunsets, especially during Winter when sundown comes early. Instagram hot-spot.
Barbican Conservatory (Liverpool St bus stop)
The second largest botanical conservatory in London (only Kew is bigger). A well kept (and rather big) secret, featuring a tropical house and an arid house. The Conservatory (on the 3rd Level) can be accessed via the Barbican Arts Centre. Most easily accessed from Liverpool Street: walk to Finsbury Circus, up Moorgate to Finsbury Square, left onto Chiswell St, left onto Moor Lane and right onto Silk Street (EC2V 5AE). Labyrinthine but rewarding.
ALL ABOARD: THE NO 9 BUS
The No 9 bus route is comparatively small, but perfectly formed. It starts at Aldwych in the centre of town, then stops close to Trafalgar Square, outside Charing Cross Station.
From there you motor around Nelson’s Column and into the lower section of Regent Street/St James’s; then through Piccadilly Circus and on past the Royal Academy (that has to be prime sightseeing territory).
After that the bus travels to Green Park, Hyde Park Corner, and Knightsbridge/Harrods.
A couple of stops later you find yourself in Exhibition Road with three of the best known museums in the world – the most beautiful of which has to be the Natural History Museum. The Science Museum is made for fidgety youngsters, while the Victoria and Albert Museum has aesthetic excellence covered.
Beyond the museums there is the Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Palace and Kensington Gardens. The bus terminates in Hammersmith.
No 9 places of interest:
Regent Street and St James’s
Delightful, historic part of central London that includes elegant covered streets like Princes Arcade (connecting Piccadilly with Jermyn St) and Burlington Arcade. Take a peek at the links provided.
Lying between Hyde Park and St James’s Park, Green Park is integral to the continuous swathe of greenery that stretches all the way to Kensington Gardens, full of mature trees, naturalised flowers, borders and birds.
The largest of the Royal Parks that join Kensington Palace to Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park was established in 1536 and it features the Serpentine and the Long Water lakes. Free speech has been a feature since the 19th century thanks to Speakers Corner. Also rock concerts and the annual Hyde Park Winter Wonderland events!
Natural History Museum (Exhibition Road)
The Natural History Museum, plus the Victoria and Albert and the Science Museum are three exceptional visitor attractions, all thanks to the vision of Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert. Entrance to all main galleries is free (but not special exhibitions).
Kensington Palace and Kensington Gardens
The prettiest of the Royal Parks, Kensington Gardens contains the Peter Pan statue to the west of the Long Water.
ALL ABOARD: THE NO 24 BUS
This route goes from Pimlico to Hampstead Heath in the North, taking in Victoria, Westminster, Big Ben, the West End and Camden Town; if you include the journey to Hampstead Heath, it has to be the Odyssey of red bus routes. It’s made for the intrepid.
This bus starts by the River, near to Tate Britain (which houses works by Turner, Blake, Rothko and Constable among other artists). From there it heads up to Victoria (past the Victoria Palace Theatre and up to Victoria Station). Then on to St James’s Park Station, after which you soon get a glimpse of Westminster Abbey and Big Ben. In pretty short order you find yourself at Westminster Station, bordering Parliament Square, then on to Whitehall and Trafalgar Square.
After circling Nelson’s Column, the No 24 sails up to Leicester Square Station and Cambridge Circus, both of which are convenient for China Town, Soho and Theatreland.
Over Cambridge Circus and up Charing Cross Road you reach the intersection of Oxford Street with Tottenham Court Road (think mega shopping). Ten or 15 minutes later you find yourself in Camden Town with its famous market and the Grand Union Canal.
Twenty minutes beyond that (depending on traffic) you reach Hampstead and its Heath.
No 24 places of interest, bus stops in brackets
Timed tickets are required, so advance booking is recommended. Entry to the collection is free (e.g. the Turner paintings and Rothko’s Seagram murals). Tate Britain is on Milbank by the Thames.
If you are feeling very energetic you could walk up Milbank, across Lambeth Bridge and along Lambeth Road to the excellent Imperial War Museum housed in the old Bethlehem Hospital (aka Bedlam).
St James’s Park (St James’s Park Station)
An attractive lake, lots of birds to feed, an oasis surrounded by historic buildings including Buckingham Palace.
Westminster Abbey and Big Ben (Westminster Station)
The place where poets and kings are buried, plus Parliament’s iconic clock tower.
P.S. After years under wraps, Big Ben's new face has finally been unveiled. The scaffolding has been stripped away from the Palace of Westminster clock tower and has revealed the landmark's bolder look.
Whitehall and Trafalgar Square (Horse Guards Parade bus stop)
From here walk to Nelson’s column and the National Gallery.
Leicester Square (Leicester Square Station)
Gateway to China Town, Soho and Theatreland. Also a stroll away from Oxford Street.
British Museum (Tottenham Court Road)
Antiquities galore. Free timed tickets (see website for details). Walk up Tottenham Court Road and then turn right onto Great Russell Street. Awesome.
Camden Market (Camden Town bus stop)
Camden Town is colourful and in your face. Also full of vintage clothes, antiques, bric a brac and food. And THAT market, still going strong.
North London’s premier open space, famous for open air bathing in all seasons, and made memorable by John Le Carre’s TV spies leaving yellow chalk marks all over the place.
HONOURABLE MENTION: THE NO 8 BUS
One last London bus route, the No 8. Very useful for Brick Lane Market and Shoreditch Street Art. The bus starts in New Oxford Street (on corner of Tottenham Court Road) and runs parallel with Great Russell St and the British Museum. From there it continues East (St Paul’s, Bank, Monument, Fenchurch St and Liverpool St) and on to Shoreditch High Street and the top of Brick Lane. You have reached your destination…
Street Art in Shoreditch (Brick Lane bus stop)
This has to be one of the most photographed bits of London, and with good reason. Murals everywhere. Lots of colour. Lots of impact. Instagram heaven. Start with a wander down Brick Lane and explore the alleys branching off on either side. Finish off with a bagel or a curry. Job done.