In July of 2012 Kate and I were coming up on our 7th anniversary, so we decided to take a 7-year Itch Tour to London. We started looking for plane tickets and found that during the week of Thanksgiving, they were cheaper (apparently because nobody from the US goes to UK during Thanksgiving, because they don’t celebrate it.) Knowing that the trip would be expensive (exchange rate: £1 = $1.61; owie), saving money any way possible was preferable, so Thanksgiving week it is! I had our travel department at work find a good rate at a local hotel and we were ready to go!
A quick note: This is a LONG read, and it includes a lot of pictures, but keep in mind that I took over 300 total, and all of them are available here if interested.
There is so much to see and do in London, we quickly realized that we would have to pick and choose. We made lists of must-see, probably-see, and hopefully-see. We had a full week (landed Monday at 6:30 a.m., left following Monday at 9 a.m.), so lots of time to plan stuff, but we didn’t want to over-plan. Having to run around from place to place and check them off a list wasn’t appealing, so we left a few afternoons open, as well as most of the weekend.
We wouldn’t have been nearly as prepared as we were without the help of the TripAdvisor London Forum. Seriously, if you ever go to London, spend some time there beforehand. Some of the most helpful people I’ve had the pleasure to interact with online.
We landed at Heathrow at 6:30 a.m. on Monday, November 19th. We went through customs (about a half-hour wait) and bought two one-way tickets on the Tube from Heathrow to Green Park (about an hour trip). From a cost perspective, this was easily the least expensive. That being said, it was a Monday morning on the Tube, so it was packed. I ended up standing the entire way while Kate sat, both of us repositioning our luggage as more and more people got on. We got off at Green Park and caught a cab to the hotel.
We stayed at The Langham, mainly because I got a corporate discount from work. It’s across the street from the BBC, and on the north end of the shopping district (corner of Oxford and Regent Streets.) Our room was available so we dropped off our bags and headed to a nearby CarPhone Warehouse to buy a phone. We both have iPhones and weren’t interested in “jail-breaking”, so we bought the cheapest international phone they had (£12) and an International calling card, with a cost of 6p/minute (about 9 cents.) We loaded £20 on the calling card and were in and out of the store in 15 minutes; thanks again TripAdvisor!
Then we caught a bus to Victoria Station to get our 2-4-1 cards. Essentially, there are a number of London attractions that participate in 2-4-1 deals, but you have to buy the pass at a train station. The cost for both of us for two 7-day 2-4-1’s was around £60. The 7-day cards also allow the bearer to ride the Tube or buses all week for no additional cost within Zones 1 & 2 (which is where all the attractions are.) If you ever go, I cannot recommend this enough. We kept track and we ended up saving £90 on entrance fees, and we rode the buses 10 times each (so 20 trips total.) Easily paid for itself, and then some.
We used the restrooms at the train station, which cost us 30p each. It was odd having to pay to use the restroom, but Kate found out that the cost is mainly to keep vagrants out.
We headed back to Regent St. to meet a coworker from the London office for lunch. When I had previously been to London for work, we went to an Indian restaurant called Masala Zone, and it was great, so thought Kate would enjoy it. We got there about noon and I ordered a thali, which includes a bunch of different items. The butter chicken was great!
The jetlag hadn’t kicked in yet, so we went to Fortnum & Mason to poke around (more on F&M later.) After about a half hour we decided to head back to the hotel for a nap. When we woke up, it was about supper time so we walked down Regent St. to a pub (Shakespeare’s Head), where I ordered a venison and blueberry burger and a couple beers (Kate had bangers and mash.) All the Christmas lights were up, so we walked down Carnaby St. to Piccadilly Circus, then back to the hotel. 2012 is the 50th Anniversary of the Rolling Stones, so they highlighted Carnaby St.
Tuesday we started at Le Pain Quotidien, which is a healthy chain restaurant I had been to before. They have great bread, and considering we were eating out every meal for 7 days, thought it made sense to start with something healthy, so we had breakfast here most days. I ordered the prosciutto with organic scrambled eggs.
Our first stop of the day was Westminster Abbey (where Kate and Prince William were married.) We were feeling spry enough to walk (rather than take the bus), so we walked through Piccadilly Circus, past Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery, and past Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Here are some pictures from the walk; all of the wreaths at the foot of some of the statues are from Remembrance Services for lost soldiers, held a week earlier.
We took the Verger Tour which was recommended by the TA London forum, and for £3 extra each, easily worth it. It allowed us to go places most visitors don’t get to see, including sitting in the Choir box, just to the right of the Queen’s seat. You’re not allowed to take pictures within the Abbey (or most other attractions, for that matter.) What I remember most is that Westminster Abbey is full of history (there are roughly 1,300 people buried here) and that it is a working church, with multiple daily services. Also, the coronation chair is here, dating back hundreds of years. Finally, you have the ability to light a candle and say a prayer, which was nice. I’m not going to provide history lessons here, but if you ever go to London, this is clearly on the must-see list.
After making the mandatory stop in the gift shop (bought a bunch of Christmas presents while in London), we walked across the street to St. Stephen’s pub for lunch. I chose St. Stephen’s purely because it’s a Grateful Dead song, of which I have a fond memory. A couple pics from the short walk:
I ordered a couple beers (pretty much required in a pub, amirite?) and a chicken and leek pie. Kate went for the Steak and Tanglefoot pie. Gut bomb!
We then walked back up Whitehall to the National Gallery.
It would be easy to spend hours in the National Gallery; easily the biggest museum I’ve ever been in. We decided we wanted to get some Christmas presents here, and see a few of the more famous paintings. Specifically, we were interested in about a dozen, including works from Monet, Cezanne, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Michalengelo, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Degas and Picasso. My favorite was Picasso’s “Portrait of Bibi la Puree“. Seriously, all heavyweights. I printed off a map of the interior of the museum, and highlighted the rooms (totaling 66+) where the paintings we wanted to see were located. It made for a quicker and more fruitful trip.
On the way back to the hotel we stopped at the Leicester Arms for a few beers. This was probably our favorite pub, not because the interior or ambiance was more impressive, but as is often the case, the person working there was great. Very personable and talkative.
Inside the Leicester Arms pub
On Wednesday our first stop (after breakfast) was the Churchill War Rooms. These were the actual rooms where they lived (worked, ate, and slept) during the war. The most impressive part to me was a cutaway section showing the 10′ of concrete above their heads, and the actual location where Churchill slept. Again, no pictures allowed, but a fascinating look into what it must’ve been like to live underground during the bombings.
We then walked to an adjacent park, where we saw these HUGE birds. Not sure what kind they were, but seriously, HUGE! In the pic, note the size difference between them and the other birds on the rocks. Buckingham Palace is in the background.
It wouldn’t be a trip to London without Afternoon Tea, and we had 1 p.m. reservations at Fortnum and Mason. Most places offer the sweet version of Afternoon Tea, but F & M actually had a savory option, so we decided to try it out. The best part was the mushroom tart, by far; so good we ordered 2 more. Also, the “sweets trolley” at the end had the best chocolate cake I’ve ever had. It was too rich for Kate (two bites and she was done) but was perfect as far as I was concerned.
Afternoon Tea at Fortnum and Mason
After tea we shopped, and bought a lot of tea for Christmas presents (I’ve read that the Queen gets her tea here, so one would think it’s the best.) The lag from the jet had caught up with us, so we took it easy afterwards, having dinner at the hotel. The highlight were the oysters; seriously, I could eat these very day!
Thursday we started at the Tower of London. I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a few pictures taken along the way.
Cool statue, right in the middle of the street
Following suggestions from the TA London forum (thanks again!), we got there when it opened and went straight to the Crown Jewels. No line, no hassle. Again, no pictures allowed, but very impressive; more then I was expecting. We walked around the Tower for awhile, realizing that portions of it are hundreds and hundreds of years old.
After the Tower, we exited and were facing the Thames, so we had a seat on a bench and just enjoyed the weather and surroundings for a bit. Saw a group of uniformed schoolkids entering the Tower:
Then we walked a short ways to get good pictures of Tower Bridge. It was still early, so we needed to get an angle where the sun wasn’t in our face; I think we succeeded:
Looking at the time, we were about 20 minutes away from the next Thames Boat Tour, and only 10 minutes away from the Pier. We also had the 2-4-1′s for the tour, so it was a no-brainer. We decided to take a round trip from Tower Millenium Pier to the London Eye and back. I took a lot of great pics on the tour; here are my favorite four:
We got off at Tower Millenium Pier and went for lunch to a pub called Hung, Drawn and Quartered. Seriously; how do you NOT go to a pub with that name? Kate had an awesome cheeseburger, and I ordered Toad in a Hole (sausages and mashed potatoes served in a Yorkshire pudding.)
We then took the bus back to the hotel. Of course, I took loads of pics but my favorite was this one, which was an African consulate building (or something like that.) If you look close you’ll see three different gazelles, two in stone.
Friday was for St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is where Princess Diana was married. St. Paul’s Cathedral was the highlight of the trip for both of us. Entering the church, and seeing the ornate carvings and the famous dome literally brought tears to our eyes. We’ve both decided we’d rather spend our money on experiences rather than things, and walking through St. Paul’s was one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had.
We both walked the 250 steps up to the Whispering Gallery, and I decided to go the next 150 to the Stone Gallery.
I was able to take some of the best pictures of London from this level. Here are a couple of my favorites:
We had lunch at Madison’s, which is known for it’s proximity to St. Paul’s Cathedral. We had to take an elevator to the 6th floor, and one of my favorite pics of St. Paul’s was taken on that elevator. We’re inside a mall, but can still see the church.
We then walked from Madison’s all the way along the Thames to the London Eye. One of my favorite pics of the trip was taken when we crossed the Millennium Bridge, and looked back at St. Paul’s. The cloud formations were perfect for pictures.
We also had our only celebrity sighting as we exited the Bridge. Malcolm Gladwell walked past us. Maybe not an A-lister, but still a celebrity in my book! During the walk, I stepped out onto a pier to get this shot. Again, clouds were great and you can still see St. Paul’s Cathedral on the right.
The line for the London Eye looked long but it moved much quicker than expected. Once you buy the tickets, then you stand in line again to enter the ride. Thankfully, it went by quick too. The trip on the London Eye takes a half hour all the way around. This is also a great way to see London.
After the London Eye, we were basically exhausted, so it was a room service kind of night, which was fine with both of us.
Saturday was a huge shopping day in London; so much so that they closed down Regent St. to traffic, making it pedestrian only. We spent most of the day aligning presents with people, going to Fortnum & Mason’s one last time for forgotten gifts, and a few other stores. It was a great idea to leave this day completely open; we didn’t feel rushed, we didn’t have to be anywhere at a specific time, etc. A great way to spend the day as the vacation draws to a close.
Sunday (our final day), we decided to go back to St. Paul’s Cathedral for the 10 a.m. service. It included the boys choir, which is basically a waterfall generator. We weren’t too bad until the end of the service. As we exited the church, the bells were ringing and we both lost it. Seriously, one of the most moving experiences of my life. If you go to London, this is my suggested must-see.
We stopped in The George for one last lunch at a pub, and both ordered fish and chips with mushy peas. The trip wouldn’t be complete without it. Here are a few shots form our last pub visit:
Fish and Chips, London
Located next to the pub. The Thames in the background.
On the bus ride back to the hotel I got one more shot, which shows the walkway between Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace.
We then headed back to the hotel, stuffed our already overstuffed luggage, and got ready for the 5 a.m. wake-up call.
This was clearly a trip of a lifetime for us, and if you ever have the opportunity to go, here are my tips:
- Visit the TripAdvisor London Forum, and ask questions. There really is no such thing as a dumb question here; very helpful, patient bunch who saved us time, money and frustration. Do it.
- Learn the buses – We anticipated taking the Tube everywhere, but once we got on our first bus, it was a no-brainer. You get to see so much more of the city. I was a bit hesitant, because sometimes figuring out bus routes, schedules, etc., just seems like a hassle. It’s not. London has it down to a science. Buses are clean, safe and frequent. Do it.
- Spend all your change… almost – If you throw your change into a bucket at the end of the day (like I do), you’re going to end up with a lot of it, especially because they use a one pound coin, so the bills don’t start until 5. Visiting the main attractions (St. Paul’s, National Gallery, Westminster Abbey, etc.) there are plenty of change buckets to donate to, and I suggest you do. I would also suggest keeping a little (less than a pound) in case you need to use a pay toilet, but other than that, give it back.
- Look both way before crossing the street – The traffic goes in the opposite direction then you think it should AND the drivers are some of the most aggressive I’ve seen, and I’ve been to NY. When in doubt, wait.
- Buy the 2-4-1′s – We easily saved over $100 buy purchasing the 2-4-1′s at Victoria Train station. I fyou’ll be attending a bunch of the main attractions, take the time to research it; it’s worth it.
- Try some new food – England used to get a bad rap for having tasteless food; in our experience, that’s not the case anymore. There are so many options regardless of tastes, there’s no reason not to.
- Finally, leave wiggle room – Don’t pack every waking second with an activity. We were exhausted, and we had a pretty mild schedule. Decide what you must-see, and leave cushions of time around it. Also, try to leave a full day at the end of the trip open, to explore the spots you didn’t have time to see earlier. We did this, and the Sunday service at St. Paul’s was the pinnacle of our trip. If we had planned a packed Sunday, we would’ve missed out.
If you made it this far, thank you! And if you ever go, I hope this London trip report helps spawn some ideas for you to make some great memories too.