The world's finest bus routes for sightseeing

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New York, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Kyoto, London, Paris, Venice and Lisbon,

Fed up with paying $26-$30 for a half-day city tour by escorted motor coach? Tired of those inane anecdotes by the tour guide? Those historically inaccurate fables? The need, in some cities, to translate the commentary into four languages? Take a public bus instead! In nearly every major city of the world, public buses, trolleys, or boats traverse the very same sights for a tenth of the cost. And you enjoy your sightseeing in the company of local residents, not your fellow tourists. For example:

New York

Available at 3,500 locations around the city, including the New York City Visitors Center and major newsstands (call 212/638-7622 for a complete list), a $4 "Fun Pass" lets you ride subways and buses all day, getting on and off as often as you like. Stick to the buses; the subway's faster but hardly scenic. One particularly useful route is the M4, which travels north from East 32nd Street along Madison Avenue all the way up to the Cloisters (a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to medieval Europe) at the northern tip of Manhattan. Along the way, you pass landmarks such as Columbia University. Heading back south, the bus takes Fifth Avenue, passing the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At 42nd Street, you can transfer to the M42; head east for the United Nations or west for the Circle Line harbor cruises. Or walk over to Broadway and catch the M6 south to the World Trade Center and Battery Park City, where at no extra charge you can board the Staten Island Ferry for terrific views of lower Manhattan (as well as, for an extra charge, ferries to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island). You're also within walking distance of South Street Seaport and Wall Street.

San Francisco

Perhaps the most unique form of public transportation in the United States, San Francisco's $2-a-ride cable cars (buy tickets from machines at terminal points or from a conductor on board) provide scenic tours for visitors as well as transportation for residents. Of the three cable car lines still in use, the Powell-Hyde Street line, which takes in Nob Hill, Russian Hill, and Lombard Street (the world's most crooked), and provides views of distant Alcatraz, is arguably the most interesting for visitors. Since these National Historic Landmarks run at a little over nine miles per hour, you'll have plenty of time to see the sights. Tip: Board the cars a few stops away from the end of the line, where the boarding lines can be long; you pay the conductor. Another worthwhile public transit line runs along Market Street, from downtown to the Castro, using historic trolley cars. You can buy a one-day Muni Passport (purchase it at the Visitor Information Center at Powell and Hallidie Plaza, among other places), good for cable cars, buses, and trams, for $6.

Amsterdam

Although it's a bit more touristy than, say, New York's M1, Amsterdam's Circle Tram (line 20) is the ideal example of convenient, cheap city touring. The trams are the same used on other lines, except that you can buy guidebooks and souvenirs on-board and a conductor sells tickets. This line, as its name suggests, travels in a circle around Amsterdam, taking in most of the city's principal sites, including the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House. It makes 31 stops in all, and you can hop on and off all day for about $5. Trams run every ten minutes from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week.

Bangkok Bangkok is best viewed from the water. Not only is it much more pleasant, but you also avoid often maddeningly slow street traffic. The Chao Phraya Express Boat Company operates open-air ferries along the turgid Chao Phraya River from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Take a ferry from the Shangri-La Hotel and cruise the river for a refreshing water-level view of this mesmerizing city. Along the way, as your whims dictate, alight to visit Wat Arun, the Grand Palace, the National Museum, and other cultural and commercial sights. There's no day ticket, but fares are extremely cheap-four to 16 baht (about 10 to 40 cents).

Hong Kong

Trams have operated in Hong Kong since 1904, and because they're double-deckers, sitting up top yields great views of the passing scene, including Central Hong Kong's brilliant neon signs at night. For HK$2 (exact change, about 26 cents, payable each time you get on) you can take the tram from Kennedy Town in the western reaches of Hong Kong Island to Shau Kei Wan at the eastern end, passing through the Western, Central, and Wan Chai districts, Causeway Bay, North Point, and Quarry Bay-about 19 miles in all. A good place to pick up the tram in Central is along Queensway. Two other forms of public transport that show this beautiful city to its best advantage are the Peak Tram round-trip for HK$28 (US$3.59), which scales Victoria Peak with its panoramic views, and the Star Ferries that ply Victoria Harbour between Tsim Sha Tsui on the Kowloon Peninsula and the Central District on Hong Kong Island for HK$2.20 (US28[cents]) if you ride on the top deck.

Kyoto

If the best-selling book (and soon-to-be-movie) Memoirs of a Geisha has Kyoto on your must-see list, then there are two public bus lines that serve tourists. Line 100 goes to Gion, the old Geisha quarter, past Kiyomizu Temple, Yasaka Shrine, Chion-in Temple, Nanzenji Temple, and the Heian shrine. Bus 101 goes to Nijojo-mae and Kinkakuji (the Gold Pavillion), then passes Nijo Castle, Nishijin Textile Center, and the textile district (including the Aizen Kobo Dying studio), as well as the Daitokuji Temple (mentioned in another Kyoto-based novel, Pico Iyer's The Lady and the Monk). There's no day pass, and fares depend on how far you travel but are typically about 220 yen ($1.84).

London

Of all the world's cities, London, with its double-decker buses affording high-up views, offers the best opportunities to see the sights. Try to get a seat up front and up top for the best vantage point. If you do only one bus route, make it route 15, which runs from Paddington Station to Marble Arch, down Oxford Street and Regent Street, through Piccadilly Circus, across Trafalgar Square, continuing down the Strand to Fleet Street and St. Paul's Cathedral, and ending at the Tower of London. Route 11, from King's Road to St. Paul's, covers much of the same territory.

You can buy a one-day pass for central London permitting unlimited trips for [British Pound]3.80 ($6.15) from any London Transport ticket office.

Paris

The City of Light offers dozens of interesting public bus routes that take you past its highlights. The best of the bunch is line 24, which does a circuit around central Paris, mostly hugging the Seine River, from the Gare St. Lazare to the Ecole Veterinaire de Maisons-Alfort. Along the way, you'll cross the Seine six times if you make the complete loop and pass by Place de la Concorde, the Louvre, the Pont-Neuf, Notre-Dame, Ile St-Louis, and Place St-Michel. You'll then head down Boulevard St-Germain and pass the Arab Institute (have lunch here in the top-floor restaurant with its excellent views of Paris) and the Musee D'Orsay. Lines 72 and 82 are also worthwhile. You can buy a one-day pass for FF92 ($15), good for all buses and the Metro subway system; individual tickets are 8FF ($1.30).

Venice

Seeing Venice by vaporetto (water bus) is the only way to go, except for pricey gondolas and water taxis, and the public transit system provides many options. The Line 1 Accelerato (local) makes all the stops along the Grand Canal, then continues on to the Lido. The Line 82 Diretto (express, limited stops) also travels the Grand Canal and stops at Piazza San Marco, the Accademia museum, and Rialto bridges, then circles the Dorsoduro and crosses the lagoon to the Lido (pick up either at the Piazzale Roma; for the best view try to get one of the outside seats at the front or back). Line 52, which locals call the Circolare, circles the perimeter of Venice before crossing the lagoon and calling at Lido and Murano. The biglietto turistico is a buy at [British Pound]18,000 ($9.75), allowing unlimited travel all day, and you could easily spend the entire day (and night, because the city is just as magical after the sun sets) riding the city's waterways. A single ticket, in contrast, costs about L6000 ($3.25).

Lisbon

With their jolts and twisty turns, Libson's antique trams, which date from 1901, feel and look like they belong in a ride at Disney World rather than in a major European city. Line 28 runs from the Basilica da Estrela, skirts the Bairro Alto and the central shopping district, ending up at Largo do Martin Moniz, within walking distance of the castle of Sao Jorge. At times there's just a single track, and the cobblestone streets are so narrow that you can literally touch the sides of the buildings if you lean out of the tram's large windows. Fares are 160 escudos (85 cents) for a single ride if bought from the driver on board, or 450 ($2.40) for a day pass, available from Carris (the city transit) kiosks throughout the city. On San Francisco's cable cars, ride all-day for six bucks/ Jason Grow/Saba//St. John Pope/Katz/Saba

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