From King Henry the 8th, to Jack the Ripper, London is filled with infamous characters, legends and history….There are castles to explore, museums to enjoy and an entire theatre district (much like New York) where you can catch a show. Although they speak English in England, they use some funny words and phrases that are unique. The subway is known as “the tube”, french fries are called “chips” and they use the words “jolly”, “brilliant” and “bloody” excessively . “That was jolly good fun.” “That is a brilliant idea!” It can get bloody annoying. London is also the birthplace of fictional characters, such as Paddington Bear and Sherlock Holmes, as well as real life legends including Freddie Mercury and Paul McCartney! They also serve baked beans with their breakfast, which is bloody awful… but I’ll forgive them for that one.
Flying from New York City was super easy. Many airlines run non stop flights throughout the day…We flew Virgin Atlantic NYC to Heathrow Airport. The flight was just about 6 hours long and the train from Heathrow Airport to Central London took approximately an hour on the Piccadilly line.
What to See and Do
Spend a few hours at Windsor Castle – The Great Western Railway train goes to Windsor Castle and depending where you stay in London, you can take the main-Paddington line to Slough and then to Windsor Central Station. In my opinion, the town is almost as impressive as the castle itself. If you get to the castle by 11 am, you can catch the changing of the guards before you go inside. Tickets are timed for entry and can be bought online…but after you buy them online, you have to wait ON LINE! When we arrived, the line was so long that I thought we would need our passports for Scotland, where the line seemed to end. But it moved pretty quickly. We spent about an hour or so walking around the inside grounds of the castle and exploring some of the rooms you can enter.
Take a tour of The Tower of London – Buy your ticket online at www.hrp.org.uk for admission to the tower. When you enter the castle, go to your left and sign up for a free guided tour with one of their yeoman, aka “beefeater”. This is the best tour in town! The yeoman are dressed in special uniforms and tell funny jokes (like I do) while they give a fascinating walking tour of the tower. There are legends about kings and queens, tales of murder, torture and beheadings! Did you know that two of England’s queens were actually beheaded at the tower? I don’t think they had a bloody good time. If that isn’t scary enough for you, check out the prices in their gift shop. As an added bonus, if you are lucky enough to score tickets to their “Ceremony of the Keys” in the evening, you will participate in a ritual that has been going on for almost 800 years!!! Imagine this… A yeoman meets you at the gate after the tower is closed for the night and escorts you (and a small group of appx. 50) inside where the very official ceremony of locking up the tower gates and passing over the keys to the night guardsman takes place. I could never do this job because I’m always losing my keys!!! Tickets can be found by going on hop.org.uk months and months and months before your visit. They sell out ($5 each) extremely fast, so it’s a matter of luck and diligence. If you can’t get tickets, don’t lose your head over it……you can always get daytime tickets to visit the tower. One more thing…eat lunch in their cafeteria! It’s one of the nicest I’ve ever seen at a tourist sight and the prices were great!!!
Ride the London Eye – I was a little nervous to do this. When The Eye opened in 2000, it was the highest ferris wheel in the world. Apparently other countries saw this as a competition and began building bigger and bigger ferris wheels…I’m thinking that the biggest carousel would be more my speed. Maybe the world’s longest lazy river? As for The Eye, I was terrified for the first half of the ride, but became ever so brave as we were almost over the top. By ever so brave I mean that I opened one eye. Speaking of eyes… They should have named it the “Lazy Eye” due to the snail like pace. Tickets cost 32 British pounds each. We bought ours online and then waited on a very long line. Be prepared to wait. londoneye.com
Take a Jack the Ripper Tour – As a huge fan of everything scary, I had to take this tour! We bought our tickets online and headed to our meeting point on a sketchier side of London . I wasn’t sure if I was more afraid of the chilling tales told by our guide, or by the fact that we had to walk back to the tube in the dark when it was over. Our tour guide showed up in a strange gothic/witch outfit, an odd top hat and an unnatural obsession with “The Ripper.” During the tour, we visited some of the actual locations where the murders took place. We were shown greusome photos of the bodies and told theories about who Jack the Ripper might have been. A great way to spend an evening if you love all things morbid and creepy. And I’m not just referring to our guide. www.jack-the-ripper-tour.com/
Visit the British Museum – OK…So this one was personal for me. If you have read my Rapa Nui blog post (aka Easter Island), you may know how much I adored the statues (moai) that are the heart and soul of the island. When I was there, I learned about one of the moai that had been taken by British explorers back in 1868 known as “Stolen Friend” to the Rapa Nui. They have been trying desperately to get it back. I went to the museum to view a few really cool items from their collection including The Rosetta Stone and The Lewis Chess Men, but my primary reason for going was to visit “Stolen Friend”. He stares out into the distance as if he’s looking for his way home. He looks lonely. I hope that someday soon the British Museum will come to understand how important he is to the people of Rapa Nui and set him free to return to his true home where he belongs.
Stop 221B Baker Street – My Sherlock Holmes fans will recognize the address.. It’s a quick 20 minute tour of the apartment that Sherlock shared ( fictionally, of course) with Dr, Watson. Don’t visit to be overly impressed. Do visit if you are a big fan and want to feel like you are actually in their apartment. Adults are 16 pounds p/p. Buy tickets online…and then, you guessed it..wait on line!
Catch a Show in Piccadilly Circus – If you love musicals and plays, look on londontheatre.co.uk to see what’s playing in London when you visit. There were so many great shows to choose from, but I chose Moulin Rouge. The performance was magical and the theatre was beautiful. If I had time I would have also seen Agatha Christie’s, The Mousetrap (because I am a nerd). I was disappointed that Rocky Horror Picture Show had just ended before our visit!!!
Go Vertical at the Shard – This was a great way to get a different point of view of London. The Shard is 72 stories high and has outdoor and indoor viewing platforms on floor 72 and 69. The admission is equally high at 32 British pounds per person. The Sky Garden is a little bit lower, but free, however, they were already fully booked when we were there. Be smart and book the Sky Garden instead in advance!!!
Shop at Harrods – I couldn’t afford anything but chapstick at Harrods. I’m not joking, I bought chapstick just so that I could walk around with a Harrod’s bag. The department store is the most famous in London and has super cool Egyptian escators that made me feel like I was shopping in an Indiana Jones movie. With Harrod’s prices I would say, “The Temple of Doom”.
Stroll through Westminster Abbey – Westminster Abbey Is a very large, gothic abbey church founded by monks in 960 AD. Many kings and queens are buried here, coronations take place here and there is beautiful architecture throughout. Don’t miss the Poet’s corner where over 100 poets are remembered or buried. Included in the list are Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens.
Spend Some Time at The National Gallery – First of all, it’s free. Second of all, it houses a great collection of work including Monet’s, Picasso’s, Degas’, Van Gogh’s and Boticelli’s ! I shall say once more… it’s free!
Visit Churchill’s War Rooms – This was way more interesting than I thought it would be. We spent a little under 2 hours walking around and listening to audio guide. I felt like I learned everything there was to know about Winston Churchill personally…even what he ate for dinner, which was a lot.
Where to Stay
The Morton in Russell Square – Great boutique hotel in a good location. Down the block from the “tube”, across from a nice park with a great restaurant and a 3 minute walk to The British Museum. We found a good deal on this room… $175 a night which is cheap for London.
Where to Eat
Franco Manca – This place was down the block from our hotel. THE BEST single pizza pies (loved it with sausage).
Caffe Tropea – Right inside park across from hotel. It’s a family run indoor/outdoor casual place to get anything from bacon egg and cheese sandwiches to delicious coffee and pastries.
The King’s Head – All of the pubs we ate at were fantastic. The bangers and mash here were incredible!
- The London tube is a great way to get anywhere in the city. You can use Apple Pay and just scan your phone at turnstiles.
- There’s actually a TKTS booth to buy discounted theatre tickets right in Leicester Square.
- The UK is not on the Euro…they use the British Pound. Check the exchange rate.
- Everyone drives and walks on the opposite side of the street in the UK…It gets really confusing when walking or crossing the street…and I’m already confused, so this was really really confusing for me. I kept replaying the scene from Trains Planes and Automobiles in my head…”YOU’RE GOING THE WRONG WAY!!!!!” Thank god 2 semi trucks didn’t come straight towards us when we stood on the wrong side of the escalator at Paddington Station.
- Tipping is not like it is in the US. Many places we ate at actually added a 10% service fee, and that is enough. In pubs it is not expected at all. In restaurants with no fee, you can leave about 10% if the service is good.
So….if you make it to London, visit some of the cool sites, say hello to Stolen Friend, eat lunch or dinner at a pub, drink a pint (or 3…. no judging) and go see a show. Don’t eat baked beans with your eggs in the morning, look BOTH ways when crossing the street and don’t go inside the red phone booths for a photo op.(They are used by drunks as urinals in the wee (haha…”wee”) hours of the morning) I promise that you will have a jolly good time!
A Letter in Scarlett – Sherlock Holmes (The first of his books where Sherlock meets Dr Watson) by Sir Conan Doyle.
Jack the Ripper: Letters From Hell – Keith Skinner and Stewart P Evens