After almost a quarter of a century, it sometimes feels as if I’m personally acquainted with every lamp post, traffic light and newsagent. How wrong I was! Covering Yonda, London’s new innovative sight-seeing tour, for smart magazine I gleaned all manner of interesting nuggets on our fair city – and fell in love all over again.
The start-up Yonda offers unique city tours in London – in a smart cabrio, we explore the city’s world-famous landmarks and little secrets, led by a charming audio guide. Before hopping in ourselves, we talked to Yonda co-founder James Kafton.
Recently, London gained another attraction. The city’s West End now hosts a tiny fleet of smart fortwo and smart forfour emblazoned with the characteristic Yonda logo on white finish. The cars can be driven by urban explorers eager to discover the metropolises’ sights on their own.
First stop: Yonda’s HQ near Hyde Park
It’s a gloriously sunny day in fall. Not far from London’s famous Hyde Park, at Yonda’s HQ on chic Park Lane, Yonda employee Daniel Cousins scans my driver’s license and confirms that my selected route doesn’t have any active roadworks. “We can modify the route to allow for roadworks by setting diversions,” he explains. “You will still get commentary and the same experience on the new route.” I’m suitably impressed, but Daniel tops this flexibility with another revelation – the guide even takes driving speed into account. “That’s essential for the experience: If you are driving quickly, you get an introduction, but if you take it more slowly, which we absolutely recommend, then you get a lot more information.”
What sparked the idea behind it all was a holiday trip, where co-founder James Kafton booked a self-driven city tour with his son. “The overall experience of exploring a city by yourself was one of the highlights of our holiday,” James remembers. “But they only gave us a paper map and I thought I could make the whole thing a lot more engaging.”
No sooner said than done. After a phase of intense planning, Yonda was ready to go: Urban explorers were invited to head out in a quick, yet comfortable smart. “smart was the perfect choice from the start since it’s a real city car and represents urban joy of life,” James continues. “Unlike alternative sightseeing tours, it’s very maneuverable and small enough for even the tiniest alleyways of London. Also: The smart fortwo cabrio and the smart forfour with its panoramic roof give people the unfiltered experience of urban architecture that truly shines when you look up.”
Open-top weather in London
We can’t wait to try this out, so we opt for a smart fortwo cabrio. The moment the tablet on the dashboard is activated, a friendly voice greets us and gives us a quick overview of how the smart works. Okay, we’re all set to go! Our virtual city guide takes us into Mayfair’s narrow alleyways – the British capital’s most prestigious patch.
Our virtual storyteller is likeable enough, but just how much new stuff can he show the seasoned traveler? Quite a bit, as it turns out. His fount of amusing anecdotes, historical scandals, fun facts, and juicy secrets seems inexhaustible, skipping between vivid events from the age of horsehair wigs and more recent, world-shattering events and revelations.
The guide itself is always up-to-date: Driving past Piccadilly Circus, it tells us that the world-famous neon signs are currently switched off for maintenance – a sight rarely seen at one of London’s busiest thoroughfares.
The Yonda audio guide: like a good friend
The longer we navigate our smart through the thronging West End bustle, the more enthusiastic we feel about the British metropolis. Approaching Trafalgar Square, we spot the silhouette of Big Ben, currently wrapped in scaffolding. Maybe, it wouldn’t be the worst idea if locals took a Yonda tour?
“My Partner Joe Bitran and I wanted to create the best possible sightseeing experience,” adds James. “So, we wanted the commentary to be as good as it can be and did the research ourselves. It should feel like being shown around London by a good friend.”
It’s certainly working – so what’s next on their agenda? “Once it has properly taken off in London, the plan is to launch Yonda tours in other major cities around the world.”
Until then, feel free to enjoy the Yonda experience in London. Online booking takes just few steps – a 90-minute tour in a smart fortwo is £60 (78 US$). If you prefer to get chauffeured around, professional drivers are also available for the small surcharge of £25 (33 US$).