Sunday, April 17, 2016

London, United Kingdom

Sleachmour Adventures: How we spent 6 days in London, saw the queen at Trooping the Colours and 2for1 sight-seeing options

It's a dreary, rainy day, typical of early spring in Zurich, and I can think of no better way to fight the gloom than recapping more of our summer 2015 adventures. Let's begin with London.

Sleachmour Adventures: How we spent 6 days in London, saw the queen at Trooping the Colours and 2for1 sight-seeing options
HRH at Trooping the Colour
The joy and ease of traveling where they speak English! An expat dream holiday.

Last June, we enjoyed five nights and six days of big-city, English-speaking fun. London is chock-full of interesting things to see and do, tasty restaurants, kitschy pubs, impressive architecture, fantastic theater and interesting museums. We were overwhelmed by possibilities and wore down the soles of our shoes trying to squeeze in every last bit. Here's what we did and how we attempted to keep ourselves from blowing all our money in this pricey city.

The Highlights

Sleachmour Adventures: How we spent 6 days in London, saw Book of Mormon in the West End and 2for1 sight-seeing options
Pre-show drinks and box seats to Book of Mormon

Waving to the Queen at Trooping the Colour
Want to see the royal family while you're in London? Then plan your trip around Trooping the Colourthe annual celebration of the Queen's Official Birthday (which is, oddly, not her actual birthday). An impressive parade of guards and royals march from Buckingham Palace to Whitehall and back. The streets were lined with people, but arriving 30 minutes before step off gave us plenty of time to find a spot with a decent view. In addition to Her Royal Highness, we saw Princes Philip, Charles, William and Harry, Kate Middleton and Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie.

Seeing a Show in the West End
Sleachmour Adventures: How we spent 6 days in London, Hampstead Heath Pub Tour and 2for1 sight-seeing options
Old Hampstead Village Pub Walk & our new friends
showing off our Rick Steves!!
Booking tickets ahead to see Book of Mormon in the West End was a splurge, but well-worth the cost. Matt and I both enjoy musicals and have wanted to see Book of Mormon for years. It's been such a hit, that getting tickets in the US was nearly impossible until recently. Book of Mormon did not disappoint. It was incredibly funny and smart. I highly recommend it! But not for children. Or the easily offended.

The Old Hampstead Village Pub Walk
Richard III led a tour filled with captivating stories and tasty beers. Unsurprisingly, we were in fantastic company! The highlight of the tour was getting to know fellow travelers over our pints and sticking around for dinner after at one of the pubs. Thanks to our friend and former expat in London, Amanda, for the recommendation!

The Original Tour (hop-on/hop-off bus tour)
We rarely use hop-on/hop-off bus tours when we travel, preferring to walk from sight to sight at our own pace, exploring cute neighborhoods, popping in shops and bakeries for treats along the way. But London is large and our time was limited. In order to maximize our time and ensure we caught at least a glimpse of the highlight, we splurged on a two day bus tour pass. The Original Tour has tons of routes, including a museum route that was very helpful in getting to some of the further flung museums and a Thames River Cruise, which was short, but offered a unique view of the city.

Sleachmour Adventures: How we spent 6 days in London, Hop-on/Hop-off and Thames River Boat tours and 2for1 sight-seeing options
Views from the Thames River Cruise

Museums & Historic Buildings
Sleachmour Adventures: How we spent 6 days in London
Sleachmour selfie at Kensington Palace

The Sleachmours are HUGE fans of Rick Steves whose books guide most of our trips. If you're planning a trip to London, you should know that admission to museums and historic buildings is either free or PAINFULLY EXPENSIVE. Luckily, Mr. Steves had our back with a fantastic tip:

2 for 1 admission to 150 London attractions through the National Rail

There are a few hoops to jump through in order to qualify: you must buy National Rail tickets on the day you visit the attraction AND you must print and bring a 2 for 1 voucher from the website. Oyster cards do not count. BUT, you can buy Travel Cards through National Rail train stations for the London underground and bus network. They work exactly the same as an Oyster card. Details can be found here. We used the 2 for 1 deals for the Tower of London (£24.50pp), Kensington Palace (£18pp), and the Churchill War Rooms (£18pp), which saved us over £60! 

Here's a fairly comprehensive list of the museums and historic buildings we visited, with our favorites* marked.

Tower of London*  (£24.50pp, National Rail 2 for 1)
I am huge fan of historical fiction novels based on British royalty and aristocracy and the Tower of London played a key role in many of my favorites. I definitely wanted to see the place where so many kings, queens, princes and princesses lived and tragically died. Plus, lots of sparkling jewels! The Tower of London did not disappoint. Yeoman Warder (Beefeaters) guided tours are included in the ticket price and worth fighting the crowds for. We also followed the walking tour in Rick Steves London, which covered more ground. Kids will love the huge display of armor and special kids exhibits. 
Sleachmour Adventures: How we spent 6 days in London, Tower of London and 2for1 sight-seeing options
Tower of London
Victoria & Albert Museum* (Free)
Sleachmour Adventures: How we spent 6 days in London, British Museum and 2for1 sight-seeing options
British Museum
Hands-down favorite museum of the trip. We made the mistake of visiting Victoria & Albert Museum when we were tight on time and were deeply disappointed to leave after seeing only a small fraction of exhibits. The collection is expansive, but I particularly enjoyed fashion and textiles exhibits. Also, we had a quick snack in the stunningly beautiful V & A Cafe. Next visit, we'll make time for high tea. 

British Museum* (Free)
Another stop without nearly enough time! We sped through the two hour walking tour in our Rick Steves London book, which covered the highlights: Rosetta Stone, Egyptian sphinx & mummies, Ancient Assyrian artifacts and the frieze and sculptures removed from the Parthenon in the 1800s (especially interesting after our visit to Athens a few years ago). Be ready to fight deep crowds of school field trips and tourists. Worth spending at least half a day.

Sleachmour Adventures: How we spent 6 days in London, Houses of Parliament and 2for1 sight-seeing options
Matt sporting his visitor pass to Parliament
Houses of Parliament (£18.50pp or free)
For £18.50 per person, you can tour the Houses of Parliament with an audio guide or during official
"Sitting Times" you can watch a live debate for FREE! It's wasn't the most exciting half hour of our trip, but my political junky husband enjoyed witnessing government in action.

National Portrait Gallery* (Free)
A manageable collection of some of the most famous portraits in the world. I was surprised by how many we recognized - not just from the famous face depicted, but because these are the images most closely associated with their history. 

Westminster Abbey* (£20pp, National Rail 2 for 1)
We see many beautiful churches, cathedrals and crypts on our travels. Westminster is no exception, but what made it uniquely memorable for me was the Poets' Corner
full of the tombs, monuments and memorials of some of my favorite authors - Jane Austen, Robert Burns, Charles Dickens, the Brontes, William Blake, Rudyard Kipling.  It was truly amazing.
Sleachmour Adventures: How we spent 6 days in London, Westminster Abbey and 2for1 sight-seeing options
Westminster Abbey, exterior and Poets' Corner
Poets corner photo courtesy of Westminster Abbey
Kensington Palace (£18.00, National Rail 2 for 1)
An interesting peek into the lives of King William III, Queen Mary II and Queen Victoria. I enjoyed the small exhibit of fashion worn by Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Margaret and Diana, Princess of Wales. The 2 for 1 deal made it worthwhile, but for full price, I would skip it.

Sleachmour Adventures: How we spent 6 days in London and 2for1 sight-seeing options

Churchill War Rooms (£18pp, National Rail 2 for 1)
Super interesting look into how Churchill ran Britain's government from an underground bunker during WWII. We most enjoyed walking through the recreated bunker. The museum is a wealth of information about Churchill's life from birth to death, the personal and the political. The presentation is engaging and interactive, but a bit overwhelming in breadth and depth.

Sleachmour Adventures: How we spent 6 days in London and 2for1 sight-seeing optionsShopping

Camden Lock Market
I highly recommend checking out the unique shopping available at Camden Market. The market is bigger than I expected, spanning several buildings and outdoor spaces. There were tons of interesting vendors and food stalls. After the Lock,  explore the surrounding neighborhood which has even more cute shops, restaurants and cafes.

Fortnum & Mason
A visit to Fortnum & Mason is a tourist must. The store is gorgeous and full of the posh souvenirs like silver plated tea spoons, delicate porcelain cups and a huge selection of loose and bagged teas. Next visit I will definitely make a reservation for high tea!

Sleachmour Adventures: How we spent 6 days in London and 2for1 sight-seeing options

What We Ate
There are so many fantastic food options in London. We were overwhelmed with choices. Here are a few of the places we tried:

  • The Wolseley for High Tea on our first day and breakfast on our last. With reservations for High Tea, we were seated in the center of the gorgeous main dining room. The Wolseley was built in 1921 as a luxury car show room and is full of authentic Artdeco charm. The Cream Tea and Fruit Scones were delicious. When we returned for breakfast without reservations on a Tuesday morning, we were seated immediately in a side dining room. The eggs benedict were excellent.
  • Dirty Bones serves burgers, hot dogs, ribs, chicken, cheesy fries and creative cocktails. It was all super tasty. The Sleachmours recommend it, especially for American expats who share our struggle to find a decent burger. 
    Sleachmour Adventures: How we spent 6 days in London and 2for1 sight-seeing options
    Scotch eggs, burgers, pizza and burritos!!
  • Marks & Spencer Simply Food was our stop for a delicious, inexpensive take away picnic which, at the recommendation of a friend, we ate in beautiful Hampstead Heath overlooking downtown London. 
  • Pizza Hut for an after show treat in the West End. It was everything an American expat could want: greasy, gooey cheese, a thick, chewy crust and REAL pepperoni. Yum.
  • Benitos Hat was mediocre mexican. Certainly better than Swissified Mexican food, but it did not live up to our hopes and dreams.
Sleachmour Adventures: How we spent 6 days in London and 2for1 sight-seeing options
Underground Signage
  • Brick Lane for Indian was a very tasty lunch, although which restaurant we chose escapes me. It felt like New York's Little Italy, with men standing on the street waving menus and offering complimentary drinks.
How We Traveled
EasyJet offers inexpensive, direct flights between Zurich and London Gatwick. There are several options for traveling from Gatwick to central London, but the cheapest option we found was the EasyBus, pre-booked at £20 per person round trip to Victoria Station. The bus into town was on time and took the promised 40 minutes, however the trip back to Gatwick was 45 minutes late picking us up, overbooked and we arrived at Gatwick an hour and a half late. Our nerves were shot and we would have almost missed our flight had it not been delayed. Next time, we'll chip in the extra pounds and take the (regular, reliable & fast) train.

Where We Stayed
Park Plaza Riverbank South, great location, terrible hotel! Hotels in London are expensive. We were thrilled to find a deal at Park Plaza Riverbank South. It was obvious from recent reviews on Trip Advisor that the special prices were due to nearby construction and we were happy to risk the noise (we travel with earplugs!) for a well-located hotel. What we didn't expect were rude staff and no available rooms until well after our check-in time. The hotel itself was cheaply furnished and the relatively new furniture was already shabby with scrapes and nicks. All-in-all, we were thrilled with the location, but for the other issues, we do not recommend the hotel.

Sleachmour Adventures: How we spent 6 days in London and 2for1 sight-seeing options
Whitehall Palace and the London Eye

No comments:

Post a Comment