London is my favorite city in the world. I don’t say this lightly. It was my destination of choice for multiple vacations, and I also had the privilege of living less than an hour away from the capital of the United Kingdom for two years. I’ve spent weeks wandering its streets, shops, parks, and museums. It’s amazing that there are still things on my list undone, and I would go back at the drop of a hat — London is just that kind of town. If this is your first trip and you also plan to see some of the rest of the country, still budget at least 2-3 days in London. If you have more time you can easily spend a week or even two.
London Highlights for the First Time Visitor: Tower of London. Tower Bridge. Walk around Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace (time it to hit the changing of the guard), St Paul’s Cathedral, and Piccadilly Circus. Take in a show in the West End.
Kid Friendly locations include: The London Eye. Natural History Museum. Science Museum. Madam Tussaud’s. The Zoo.
Niche Opportunities: Sherlock Holmes’ House. Dickens’ House. Harry Potter Tour.
Some of my favorite stops that are a little less well known: Churchill War Rooms. The British Museum (can take 1 hour or all day). Harrods Food Halls. Greenwich. London City Museum. Imperial War Museum. Take time to explore some of the neighborhoods and walk around the parks. If you have time to plan in advance, you can book tours of The Palace of Westminster (where Parliament meets), and Buckingham Palace, but reservations must be made well in advance.
Travel Tips: London is expensive. That is just a fact, not a criticism, but there are things you can do to cut down on the cost. Meals at a pub will be cheaper than those at a restaurant. Likewise, afternoon tea (not to be confused with Afternoon Tea), generally more than tea and cookies, is cheaper than dinner if you’re not hungry enough for a full meal. One of fastest and most frugal options for meals are English grocery stores, who do wonderful prepared food. It is easy to pop in and grab something to take a nearby park or back to your room. When looking at where to stay, take transportation into consideration. London is divided into zones. The city center and most tourist locations are in zone 1. A room or apartment outside zone 1 will almost always be more affordable; however, make sure to consider the extra cost and time it will take to travel before making your final decision if you are thinking of staying outside zone 1. If you stay in an apartment you can significantly cut down on food costs by going to the neighborhood Tesco or Waitrose for breakfast items and snacks. If you are really trying to save money you can also pack a lunch for your daily explorations. London has wonderful parks and green spaces. The aforementioned prepared food options from British grocery stores mean you can buy a dinner or two without having to buy a dozen ingredients or spend precious family time cooking. If eating out in restaurants is part of why you travel then you’ll just have to budget your money appropriately, though I should warn you that, broadly speaking, the UK deserves its reputation for its food.
Put some thought and organization into what you want to see in London. It is a huge, spread out, sprawling city. You don’t want to waste time or money traveling back and forth. Try to plan your days to see everything in one area before moving on to another. Look into the London Pass. It is not always a better deal than paying separately but check the prices of what you know you want to see and compare the cost to the cost of the pass. For flights, check prices for all 3 London airports, and also check into prices into and out of Ireland, or even Germany and France, then hop a regional discount airline to London. The tourist line to enter Westminster Abbey is usually long and entrance is quite expensive. If you just want to go in, skip the line, go to the front and tell the guard you are there to pray/reflect. You can sit in the pews but not walk around the abbey. And finally, walk when you can. London is a wonderful and vibrant city and you will miss a lot of your experience if you spend all of your transit time below ground on The Tube or stuck on a bus.
No blog post about London, or the UK, or basically the Commonwealth, is complete without a discussion of tea. Tea! You must have at least one cup of tea while in London. Preferably at tea time. In fact it may not be possible to avoid it. I was surprised when we lived there how true the tea drinking stereotype was. From 16 year old boys to 80 year old women, it’s not just beverage of choice, it’s the national past time. When our landlord would have his son come over to fix small problems I would offer him soda, water, milk, juice or tea – and nothing was ever more “lovely” than a cup of tea. In my mind there is nothing more quintessentially British. The book “Remember Me?” by Sophie Kinsella opens with one of my favorite scenes in literature. The main character, who is British, wakes up in the hospital with amnesia. Soon after waking, the nurse offers her a cup of tea. The main character starts to rant about how she has lost everything and doesn’t even know who she is, what she does, her family, etc… — but yes, actually, a cup of tea would be lovely!
For those who are not tea drinkers, there are rules, and rules about the rules. Whether you’re making tea with a teabag in a mug, or with loose tea in a teapot, some rules are the same. The teabag or loose tea goes into the mug or pot first, never into the hot water. It wouldn’t steep properly. The water must be “just boiling”. If you take sugar it also goes into the mug before the water, to dissolve faster and more completely when the water hits it. The centuries old debate of “milk first or last” is real and serious but here are some guidelines. First, in the UK its milk, cream in tea is an American innovation, ask for cream and eyebrows will rise. If you’re making tea with a teabag in a mug the milk goes in last out of necessity, putting the milk in first would prevent proper steeping. If you’re making tea in a teapot to be poured out to tea cups, then generally the done thing is “milk first”, as pouring into almost boiling tea scalds the milk, denaturing the milk proteins and likely causing off flavors. In its favor, “milk last” allows the pourer to precisely add exactly the right amount of milk, and historically if there was any question as to the quality of the milk then scalding it in just boiling tea might just be the more prudent option. I recommend trying it both ways to find your personal preference.
There are way too many options to develop a comprehensive list, so I will just share some of my favorites. “The Invisible Wall: A Love Story That Broke Barriers
” which is about the Jewish and Catholic relationships on one street at the turn of the century. “The Cormoran Strike
” books by Robert Galbraith (aka Harry Potter author). While we’re at it, Harry Potter
is a fun English read. “The Report
” is a moving story of an air raid shelter collapse during WWII. “Call the Midwife
” provides a nitty-gritty account of the docklands and conditions of the working class at the turn of the 20th century. Consider a classic by Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, John Galsworthy, or Charles Dickens, with their vivid descriptions of the landscape as well as the customs and language of their day. Or on a lighter note: Paddington Bear! Noting Hill and Bridget Jones are both wonderful movies and for an American nothing is more British than James Bond, Mary Poppins, Sherlock Holmes, or My Fair Lady. Of course, for TV start with Coronation Street and Monty Python, and for historical flavor I recommend the hit series Downton Abbey.