Every city has them – big, double-decker buses that take tourists around, showing them the sights and illuminating aspects of the neighborhoods that they might not hear otherwise. Of course, most cities aren’t Chicago. And most buses don’t belong to Chicago Trolley and Double Decker Bus Co.
This tour is special because Chicago, named after “stinky onions” (a fact you may learn from the tour guides on board), is special. And Chicago Trolley’s Hop On Hop Off Tour is a Chicago standard for seeing and experiencing our kind of town.
How The Hop On Hop Off Tour Works
Buying Tickets: Basically, you buy tickets, either online or at any of the 13 downtown Chicago Trolley stops. You can even ask the drivers to help. But if you purchase on the website, you get a slight discount. Then you can take your voucher to a stop, and use your receipt to get on and off the buses and trolleys for the time allotted. You can purchase one-day tickets, two-day tickets, and three-day tickets. This means you can get unlimited rides anywhere along the line for 24, 48, or 72 hours from the time you get your receipt. Each bus features a driver and a tour guide, who will point out interesting sites and tell you about history, culture, and other aspects about Chicago as you ride.
The Downtown Tour: The double decker buses do a loop that includes 13 total stops. These include the Art Institute, the John Hancock Center, Water Tower Place, a number of hotels, Navy Pier, Wacker Dr./Michigan Ave, the Chicago Skydeck, Millennium Park and Museum Campus. The route is separated into the Red Tour, which covers River North and Streeterville locations, and the Green Tour, which focuses more on the Loop and more southerly downtown spots. At any stop, you can get off, go visit the attraction, and get back on again on a later bus. Buses run every 15-20 minutes (can be a bit later in the fall and winter), and you are welcome to stay on or get off, based on your personal itinerary.
The Neighborhood Tours: As part of your Hop On Hop Off ticket, you get access to two neighborhood trolley routes that start at the Sheraton Hotel & Towers (so, if you’re not starting there, you’ll have to get there). The Wrigley Field/Lincoln Park North Route takes you through the Gold Coast, Lincoln Park, and Lakeview. The Museum of Science and Industry/Chinatown Route goes south on Lake Shore Drive to make stops in the Hyde Park neighborhood (including President Barack Obama’s neighborhood). Now, you’ll have to plan carefully because these trolleys don’t run nearly as often as the downtown trains, and the routes end mid-afternoon. If you want to have dim sum in Chinatown or visit the MSI, you’ll have to take a morning trolley and plan to be back in time for one of the afternoon trolleys. Same for if you want to have lunch in in Wrigleyville or walk around Lincoln Park Zoo. Take note of the last stops of the day (around 3-4:30 p.m.) so you can be at the stop in time to return to downtown.
The Night Tour: Although technically the double decker bus runs through 5 p.m., the night tour begins at 6:30. And if you start your ride before 5 p.m., you can start riding it, then keep going for the night tour. The bus guides and drivers are good about letting you know when things switch over. The night tour goes on the Red and Green routes, but with abbreviated stops – there are nine instead of 13. However, the narration continues, so you’ll still learn about Chicago as you travel.
Things to Know and Helpful Tips
The top of the double decker bus provides better views, and the tour guide is usually stationed up there. It fills up quickly, and the bottom part tends to be quieter and more private.
Have small bills on hand for tipping your guides. Ask the guides questions – they’ve got some great experiences from their years with the company, and some are opinionated about anything from Lollapalooza and the Willis Tower’s correct name to the best pizza places in town.
Often the neighborhood tours feature just the driver, who will narrate as he or she goes, and that driver will be the same one who picks you up later. At Wrigley Field (and possibly other locations) at the end of the day, the driver may hang out for about 10 minutes so you can get out and take pictures without leaving the trolley route.
If you want to take the entire tour without getting off, it should take about two hours and 15 minutes. Be sure to factor in traffic, though! The buses do what they can to stay on schedule, but they do have to get through crowded downtown streets teeming with pedestrians.
Other Tours from Chicago Trolley
Chicago Trolley and Double Decker Bus Tour offers a Land, Lake, and River Tour that includes a two-day Hop On Hop Off pass, paired with a Mercury Cruises foray – either the Urban Adventure or a Chicago By Night Cruise, which go along the Chicago River and into Lake Michigan.
In the winter, you can also experience the Holiday Lights Tour, starting 11/25. This tour takes place at night when Chicago is bright with holiday cheer, and begins and ends at the John Hancock Center. Two stops are built in to let you explore the city. You’ll get a free Sprinkles cupcake on the Gold Coast, then stop at the Christkindlmarket to do a bit of shopping. At Lincoln Park Zoo, you’ll get to leave and walk through ZooLights for a bit.
One-day tickets for the Hop On Hop Off tour are $39 for adults and $19 for kids up to 15 (4 and under ride free). For more information on Chicago Trolley and Double Decker Bus Co. and what they offer, visit www.chicagotrolley.com.