Organized bus tours have never really been my thing. In fact, I generally avoid them like the plague. The few times that I've succumbed to one have been because someone I was travelling with insisted or because in a moment of weakness after weeks of backpacking I thought it would be nice to have a rest and let someone else do the work. At any rate, I've never really been impressed and always left the bus feeling as though I'd just thrown away money for quick glimpses of things I could have paid much less to see and enjoy on my own. Imagine my surprise, then, when a bus tour in Lisbon was not only my idea, but that I liked it a lot and that I would recommend it. Highly.
When travelling alone, you can always push yourself to do that one last visit or grab a quick bite to energize before heading off to one more sight or event for the day. Travelling with a family, however, as I was, means making more concessions than you normally might and knowing when to call it a day. We arrived in Lisbon later than expected thanks to a 'cancelled flight+wonky re-routing' combo and, with a long list of things to see and do, it seemed there just wouldn't be enough time. The looks on my children's faces let me know there might not be enough energy, either.
This low time and energy factor turned out to be one of the three components in a 'perfect storm' that made a bus tour a no-brainier for our time here. The two other factors were a sale on the tickets - which is always hard to pass up - and added benefits that made them that much more worth the sacrifice. There are a number of bus tours available in Lisbon; this article is about my experiences with the YellowBus Tour Company but other companies had similar programs available as well. The company offered several tour options that included bus or tram trips covering different routes and sights throughout the city, with a range of ticket prices for adults and children. We ended up taking the 'Lisbon 4-in-1' tour for a number of reasons.
First of all, it combined the company's four main city tours, including one on the historic tram system, and it included nearly everything I'd hoped to see along the routes, as well as a few things I hadn't thought of. Some of the highlights included the usual suspects of the Jerónimos Monastery, the Belem Tower, the Cathedral and the Castle of São Jorge, among others, as well as a few surprises such as the modern and attractive Parque das Nações and the Vasco de Gama bridge.
The second reason we opted for the 4-in-1 was the price. Naturally, the cost of the combo tour package was more than for the other tours, but it was only marginally so for the adult tickets. The most expensive of the tickets for the single city tours was about 18€, while the price for the 4-in-1 combo was 25€ (with a 10% discount for all online purchases of adult tickets). The extra 7€ would have been worth it anyway considering you get three more tours for it, but the real benefit - at least for us and families like ours - was that tickets for kids 12 and under were free. The other tours the company had did offer reduced prices for children, usually about half the cost of adult fare, but only one other offered a free ride. A few quick calculations over a cup of legendary, strong Portuguese coffee and we realized that the 4-in-1 was the most financially sound investment in the Lisbon sightseeing business!
Making up the third factor in our trifecta of testimony for the Lisbon bus tour were the added benefits that came along with the price of the adult tickets. The first of the benefits was the nature of the tour package itself. It is a true 'hop on, hop off' tour throughout the circuit. You can use it to get off and see what you want or stay on and sail right past what you don't. With the premium 4-in-1 ticket, you can weave your way on and off different parts of each tour, which means you can use the circuits and their stops as stepping stones to other things you want to see and do nearby, even if it's something like picking up a few groceries or train tickets. And, if you regret missing or dismissing something along the way, you can always hop on and go back. This is a nice point in the true hop/hop off circuit that not all tours can claim to have; some don't let you backtrack, so always be sure to ask.
Another of these added benefits, in addition to the less-than-substantial discounts for museums and pricier restaurants that frequently come with tour tickets, is a free ride on almost all of the city's public transport - except the metro - for adults. Children who are getting free tours will still have to pay for city busses and the like but, for travelling families, the benefit can cut urban travel costs in half when the tour bus circuit doesn't get you close enough to where you want to be.
And if all that weren't enough to sway even the staunchest of tour opponents, the tickets - and their benefits - are valid for 48 hours. Again, this is specific to the 4-in-1 tour we chose, but a number of the company's other tickets, as well as the tours offered by the various companies in town, are valid from anywhere between 12 and 48 hours, so keep that in mind when you're shopping around and planning your trip.
These kinds of tours may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it really was a good choice for us in Lisbon. At a quick glance, this doesn't seem like the easiest city to walk around in, and driving might not be that fun either. Many of the cobblestone streets, while charming, are very narrow in a lot of places and pedestrians and drivers alike compete with each other, as well as with busses and trams, for limited space. The streets in many neighbourhoods also run every which way and are laced with alleys and walkways, so getting lost is practically a certainty. That can be a fun adventure at times, but not necessarily so when the streets are very hilly and you're short on time.
Even if time hadn't been a factor during our trip, the tour still would have been a great idea for its ease and added benefits. The costs we would have incurred on city transport travelling to and from all of the places we wanted to see, as well as to run errands, would have far outweighed the price for the two-day tour tickets. It also gave us the chance to do so much in two days that we could take time out on other days just to sit in a park and read or enjoy the fresh mist of a giant fountain on a hot day without feeling that we were wasting valuable time.
Though I'm not yet what you might call a convert, I will no longer automatically snort at the idea of taking a city tour, and not just in instances of being short on time and energy. They would have to offer up some great benefits of course, like this one did, but it's definitely something I will investigate on future trips.
(Editor's note: YellowBus Tours offered no concessions in exchange for this article and was unaware that I was on board to write it.)