This trip wasn’t my first time visiting London, but by far the longest time that I will have spent there, three and a half days. But more importantly it was a trip that my husband and I were taking with my parents! I haven’t done much traveling with my parents since family summer vacations as a kid. We would either visit them, or they would visit us, but we were invariably always in one of our homes, with access to all our creature comforts.
The trips got off to a little bit of a rocky start, when we learned online. about an hour before we were planning to leave, that our high speed to from Leeds to London had been straight up cancelled (which we only learned because my husband checked the train schedule, we received no email notification about the cancellation). Fortunately, our tickets to London were still valid, but we needed to find a different route and we would no longer have reserved seats, which meant there was the potential we could stand the for the trip. In the end we wound up going to Leeds, to Manchester, to London, taking three different train companies in the process (Northern, Trans-Pennine, & Virgin) and didn’t have to stand for any portion of it. One thing that struck me as different than airline travel is that if you have a ticket for a specific train that gets cancelled other train lines will honor it; but also you are left much more on your own to come up with an alternate route (you can talk to a ticket agent who will give you options, but they are just that options).
In London we rented a two bedroom apartment in Soho. Pros: it was very conveniently located, so during our trip we didn’t spend much time commuting to our destinations; it was much more affordable than two hotel rooms in the same area. Cons: it was a 5th floor walk up (which we knew going in); the beds weren’t that comfortable; the bathroom and bed linens were clean, but a better vacuuming job could have been done. Neutrals: there were a few peep shows, nude reviews, and sex shops in the area (but those activities didn’t really spill out onto the street).
London has a lot of activities available (despite being my third trip, I still feel like I could go back and not be repeating activities), and we packed a lot of things into our three and a half days. There is also a healthy mix of free and pay activities, that make the city flexible for various budgets. (Food is also available for a wide variety of budgets; so generally speaking it is sleeping accommodations that are the hardest to budget, but there is still a diversity of options). The up-side of staying busy is the weight gain associated with constantly eating out didn’t occur.
After getting into our apartment we dropped off our backpacks and decided to do a little sightseeing before dinner. Since most museums & venues were closed, we decided to walk up Oxford St to visit Selfridges & Co (of Masterpiece Theater & ITV mini-series fame). For a show that featured window displays as a major component of the plot line, I was disappointed that the windows were blocked out by posters advertising famous people who have worn a Rolex. I’m going to assume they were planning something fabulous behind those posters.
It was about two hours before closing and the store was fairly busy. As a department store Selfridges is on the more expensive side, so we amused ourselves in the food hall. Were in the ‘American’ aisle featured highlights like: Fluff, Pop Tarts, and jarred hot dogs in some sort of brine (think full sized vienna sausages). All that time in the food hall made us hungry and we made our way back to Soho and had dinner at a small Korean restaurant.
This was our main ‘sightseeing’ day and we kicked things off at the British Museum. The British Museum has a fantastic collection of antiquities from all around the world that the British have stolen – I mean assembled – and put conveniently in one place for the benefit of vacationers.
After the British Museum we walked down to Trafalgar Square. It was lunch time and we were hungry, but didn’t want to take a lot of time out of the day for a restaurant. We stopped at a Tesco express (along with about half of Trafalgar Square) and took advantage of their 3 pound meal deal: a sandwich, drink, and chips or a sweet. We then took advantage of the gorgeous day and ate on the steps of the of the National Gallery.
Following a quick tour of the National Galleries, we caught our Big Bus Tour to see more of the city. The Big Bus Tour allows you to buy a ticket that is valid for 24 or 48 hours, which lets you get on and off as much as you like. The tickets allows you to use any of their three routes, take a walking tour, and take a boat ride up a portion of the Thames. We didn’t pay enough attention to the route we hopped on and it was just an audio recording in several languages of the sites (and there was no room up top). So we got off a few stops later and to catch the live commentary bus, with a seat on the top deck. The tour enabled us to a wide array of the city (including fans waiting outside a hotel for Lady Gaga who was performing in London that weekend) and provided our legs with a mid-day rest.
We got off the bus and walked along the Thames in Southwark, where they were holding a mini festival with shows that had previously been up at the Fringe in Edinburgh (see Edinburgh post) on our way to the London Eye. We had pre-purchased our tickets online, and chose the option that would let us skip a majority of the line and not have to arrive at the Eye at a specific time. It ended up being a little bit more expensive to get the flexibility that we wanted, but the discount we got for pre-booking the bus tour online made it come out neutral. If you are willing to wait in the regular line (it looked long, but I really have no way of knowing how long it took) and pick a time to go pre-booking online can save up a decent amount than the day of price.
The view from the Eye is amazing, and just like on the bus tour, the weather was in our favor. A full rotation of the Eye takes about 30 minutes, and there is a point right at the end where you can pose for a picture that they will try to sell you when you get off (just like on a roller coaster).
Following the Eye it was about dinner time and we started walking in the general direction of Soho looking for a place. It was a Friday night, during prime diner location, so places were pretty busy. We started to search out a carvery that was in a hotel, but when we got there it was a sad looking buffet, rather than an actual restaurant, so we continued on. We eventually settled on a place called the Wellington Pub, where the food was affordable, but nothing special. My husband was unimpressed with the beer, but that is less a commentary on the pub than his general opinion of beer in ‘the South.’
In the morning we decided to do some sightseeing outside of the city and took a train to Hampton Court Palace. The train ride was about 35 minutes out of the city from Waterloo Station, and then a 5 minute walk from the platform. As far as touring a royal palace, Hampton Court is one of the few that gives the visitor fairly extensive access to the building and grounds (not just a few staterooms), but that is probably because it is no longer an official residence for the royal family.
Hampton Court was originally built by the English Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, one of Henry VIII’s principal advisers. The Cardinal fell out of favor in 1529 when we was unable to obtain an annulment for Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon, so he was stripped of his government office and Henry VIII took his house.
The palace has a very good museum set up for detailing Henry VIII’s young adulthood, his marriage to his first wife, and his relationship with Cardinal Wolsey. The other parts of the palace exhibit staterooms that detail how it was used & and partially rebuilt by William & Mary, who became English monarchs following the Glorious Revolution. This part of the palace is fairly standard of British ‘stately homes’ showing the furniture and describing how the room would have been used.
That afternoon we split up for a bit of shopping. Mom & Dad braved the trip to Harrods, where they mainly enjoyed watching other people shop; and we walked into a few of the clothing stores on Oxford St. We met up in the evening at the apartment where we planned our search for fish & chips in London and finally settled on a place in Notting Hill. No family vacation dinner would be complete without ice cream. We found a gelato place back in Soho and as we stood outside our apartment eating it, the rumor on the street was that Harry Styles (from 1 Direction) was at the restaurant on the ground floor of the apartment, though we never got any proof of that.
Normally check out from hotels and apartments is at 11am, but when renting a flat from an individual there is room for more flexibility. Our land lord was kind enough to let us leave our belongings in the room until the afternoon, so we wouldn’t have to carry them to long in the city before our train (which is part of why we packed in backpacks).
In the morning we went to the Churchill War rooms. This was a place that my husband and I had considered visiting the last time we were in London about two years ago; however, we were stuck by the admission cost. But on this trip with my mother, who had several family members serve in World War II, we decided to go. Even better is that no that we live in the UK we have joined English Heritage, which gives us free access to several sites across England. We don’t get into the war rooms for free, but we did get a two for one discount, which translated to a 4 for 2 discount.
The rooms are the underground facilities used by Winston Churchill and other members of the government for the planning of World War II. At one point the Churchill’s lived in the rooms full time after 10 Downing St was damaged due to bombing. The rooms are underground giving the facilities added protection, but it was not a purpose built bomb shelter, so it only afforded a certain amount of protection. While the rooms served a purpose Churchill didn’t like them very much, preferring to keep a high profile around London during the war to boost morale. Always the risk takers, he would occasionally watch bombings from the roof top of the building.
The museum has kept true to the original layout of the rooms and has the original cabinet’s conference room table and Churchill’s chair. They also show the communications facilities for the war rooms and the map room, where the major military lines were laid out. People worked around the clock in the map room to the point that the lights were never once turned off. All in all, I was very impressed with the exhibit and would recommend it.
Since we were already in Westminster we walked up to Buckingham Palace, because we had some time and it seems like something you have to do when in London. After that we headed back to the apartment to get our bags. On the way back to the apartment we had lunch in Piccadilly Square at Jamie’s Diner. It is a pop-up diner from Jamie Oliver (though things looks fairly permanent). Mom and I had chili cheese dogs, which were good, but were not American-style hot dogs, smoked with a thicker skin. My husband and father had the pulled pork & waffle, which they said was good, but not quite like fried chicken & waffles.
Our final stop before the train station was the Tate Modern Art Museum, which is going through quite an expansion (it will probably double its size). As a modern art museum it has some great pieces, but also has a handful of pieces that make you wonder why? The view from their top floor restaurant is excellent if you want to stop in for a soda.
After that it was time to begin our journey back to Yorkshire (which was fortunately uneventful & without transfers). We bought some sandwiches for dinner on the train and settled in, happy to be off our feet and too have our packs off our backs.
Would I got back to London absolutely! But it still isn’t a city that I would visit every free weekend I had. I still haven’t seen the Tower of London, and would like to take a cruise down the Thames to Greenwich and stand on the prime meridian, and there is always more to see in the museums.