Trip Report London 7/15-7/22 Family of 4, w/13 yr old twins
I will also post a link to this in the trip report thread.
This is long. You’ve been warned.
We flew nonstop from Orlando, Florida. We live in Tampa and thought we would fly nonstop from Tampa on American Airlines. In fact, the availability of a nonstop flight from Tampa was one of the many factors we considered in choosing London for our summer vacation. When we actually went to make our travel arrangements ( with enough miles for two of the four tickets) we discovered that the taxes on the two “free” tickets was more than four tickets from Orlando with no miles! I won’t dwell on the travel to London from the U.S. except to say that I was shocked at how chaotic and disorganized the security process in Orlando was especially since it is such a tourist destination.
So we flew British Airways to Gatwick and it was completely uneventful. My son and I don’t eat meat, and asked for vegetarian meals so if anyone has questions about that I am happy to answer them.
I am going to review all the sites and restaurants individually in reviews and just give an overview of our itinerary and impressions here. Of course if you have any questions about the places I mention, by all means, ask me.
When we landed in Gatwick I headed to the train counter near the arrivals area to purchase train tickets to Victoria station. We each had a piece of carry on luggage and nothing else so nothing held us up at the airport and we would be able to easily make our way to and from the airport.
I bought roundtrip train tickets so that I would be able to take advantage of the 2for1 offers through national rail. As it turned out quite a few of the offers were not valid during our visit presumably because summer is high season, however we used a few to places we were going to go anyway, and we needed rail tickets regardless. I remembered from the forum posts to hang on to our tickets and not stick them in the machine to get out. We went through the wheelchair/stroller/ luggage exit and just showed our tickets to a station employee.
We were not going to be able to get into our rented flat that I found through Homeaway until 2pm and we landed at 7am so I had arranged to take a Sandeman’s walking tour at 11 to fill the time. The tour started in Covenant Garden and ended near Westminster which is why we chose Victoria Station even though our flat was much closer to King’s Cross and Euston Stations.
From the forum I learned about a company called CityStashers. We used them to store our luggage near Victoria Station while we went on the tour. The company allows local business to use their extra storage space to store luggage so our place was a gift shop called Union Gifts. There were some other locations closer to the end point of the tour, but they aren’t all open on Saturdays which is when we landed and they don’t all open early and I didn’t want to have the luggage with us, waiting for a place to open. We showed up earlier than expected and it was no problem. I had packed so that we could easily pull out our rain jackets which we needed because it was drizzling and just take a small pocketbook and we were ready to go.
We met up with the tour and got a good overview of London, both from a geographic perspective and of it’s history which was helpful for everyone to get oriented. Plus Sandeman is free and you tip what you want so there wasn’t much risk if our flight was delayed or the weather was really bad.
After the tour, we walked to a Carphone Warehouse so I could get a SIM card for my iPhone. I got 3GB of data and unlimited calls and texts for 7 pounds. It was with O2. They employee at the store set it all for me, I was in and out in about 10 minutes and I thought it was a good deal. I used my phone so much during the trip. It was valid for a month but I didn’t need it that long.
After the phone was set up we got our luggage and we decided to Uber the short distance to our flat, since it wasn’t very much money and easier with the luggage.
The flat was on Fitzroy street near Euston/Warren/Goodge stations and very close to the British Museum and tons of bus stops. The exact address is King Regent’s Place at 12-16 Fitzroy Street. Two bedrooms, washer and dryer (although I just hung the stuff to dry near an open window) Wi fi, great restaurants, groceries, coffee shops etc. I am going to review it separately in another post. It worked out great. The washer allowed us to pack very light which I liked. As in most London flats the washer was small and the dryer didn’t really dry a big load so instead of doing one big wash midway, I just washed every morning when I got up and hung things to dry on a rack by the window and they were dry by the time we got home at night. We always had clean clothes and it was easier then losing time on one day doing a big load that wouldn’t all dry in time.
After we unpacked, we headed to the grocery store to buy a few basics. We planned to eat breakfast at home every morning and then head out for the day.
Then we had dinner at Gig’s for Fish and Chips which was a few blocks from the flat. We got our oyster cards after dinner. My husband and I got an oyster card with a 7 day travel card loaded on ( forgive me if I am not using the right terms) but it was 7 days and then we could add PAYG for longer trips/ trains etc. The kids got oyster cards with the young visitor discount on it. We didn’t do it ourselves, an employee in the station had to enter her code and swipe her card etc to work out the kids’ discounts and then we were good to go.
After dinner we headed to the Tate Modern that has late hours on Saturday and was a way for us to optimize our time and also stay awake late enough to hopefully reset our clocks. Besides the exhibits at the Tate we really enjoyed the great view from the balcony on the top floor and got to test out our knowledge London’s skyline. It was still light out because it was summer so that was a plus.
We Ubered from the Tate because the kids were fried by then.
The next morning, using a great app called City Mapper, we took a bus to the Jewish Museum.I can’t say enough about this app. I had such confidence getting everywhere we wanted to go. I could chose from various routes. I generally preferred bus routes to tube and the app tells you how long each route will take depending on the time of day. You can set it for now, or in the future. So if I want to know what time to leave in the morning to be somewhere at 9:15 I can tell the app what time I want to arrive and it tells me what time to leave and all the possible ways. I like buses better because we can see the city as we go and sometimes the tube isn’t any faster than the bus. Sometimes walking is the fastest way although I needed to decide when to conserve our energy and when to walk. I learned about the app and lots of other things I found useful from a youtube channel called LoveandLondon. Even the video that shows how to tap in and out of the tube was helpful, just to see it and know what I am looking for so that things felt familiar when we arrived. It helped me be able to concentrate what was around me and enjoy myself more and keep an eye on my kids.
Getting back to the Jewish Museum. I know it isn’t a major attraction but it is near Camden Market and I really wanted to do the market on a weekend so I was looking for something else to do that made sense and it was on our list so we did it then. We used our 2for1 voucher there. It is a nice little museum and they had a very interesting Amy Winehouse exhibit that my kids really enjoyed. From there we took another bus up to Camden Market. The day was beautiful, the locks were super interesting for my son to watch, the market was lively and we all got to eat what we wanted. I had a cauliflower Roti, my son had mac and cheese, my daughter had pad thai and my husband had something with steak.
From there we headed to the Science Museum. I know it wasn’t nearby but again, it was on our list ( really on my son’s list) and we had time. Plus we only had a few hours so I was able to limit my son, because if we went in the morning we would never get out. It was easier to be kicked out by the security guards than try to drag my son out in the middle of the day.
We had dinner plans with friends that evening at Southbank Center and we had some time to kill after the museum closed so we took a tube from Camden to Tower of London and then we took a Thames Clipper to London Eye and walked to dinner at Giraffe at Southbank Center.
We specifically took the slower boat and not the express since we weren’t in a hurry and got to have view of the city from the water. We ate at Giraffe (it was perfect for us) and then took a bus back to the flat. We really enjoyed the scene along the water near the London Eye. We very specifically chose not to do the London Eye because we decided it wasn’t a good use of our time and money and we were concerned about bad weather and figured we could get good views from the Tate, SkyGarden and St. Paul’s. No one regretted the decisions, especially when we saw the long lines. When we were in Seattle we did the Space Needle and we all agreed we wouldn’t recommend it and this felt like a similar attraction to us.
Monday morning we headed to Marble Arch on foot because it was early and I was concerned about peak tube hours and because it was the same amount of time by tube as on foot. We rented Boris Bikes (Santander Cycles) and rode them through Hyde Park. I had the plan to ride them through Kensington Gardens and then back around and through to the Horse Guard Parade grounds and drop them off near there and then watch the changing of the guards at the Horse Guards not Buckingham Palace. However, I soon discovered that there are many areas in the park where you can’t ride a bike so we were walking them for long stretches which took longer and felt just silly so we got to Kensington Gardens and then returned the bikes and took the tube to Westminster and watched the changing of the guards. It wasn’t very crowded there and we had a good viewing spot. From there we headed to Euston station to catch a train to Harry Potter Studios. We had lunch at Leon in the station which was good spot for us because of their non-meat options for myself and my son. My husband and daughter had plenty of meat options to chose from as well. We had 3pm tickets for the Studios and arrived in time to walk through the gift shop, have a coffee and then it was our time. We spent about 4 hours there and then headed back to London and had a good dinner and great service at Kua 'Aina (Goodge Street).
Tuesday morning we walked to the British Museum and did their 1 hour fast track which was a bit more than an hour because the bathrooms are not well located to the exhibit so we had to schlep around a bit, plus we all love gift shops because it is hilarious to see how many different things you can put a rosetta stone on. From the British Museum we headed over to One Aldwych for their Charlie and the Chocolate Factory themed Afternoon Tea which I had reserved for 12:30. At this point I should mention that I had imported a Harry Potter google map that I found online into my google map app so that that I could see if we were walking past anything that was either in the films or served as inspiration for the books so we made slight detours here and there to see these sites. For example near the Horse Guard grounds we went to Old Scotland Yard that was used as an entrance for the Ministry of Magic in one of the films. I also learned how to import maps into google maps that I could view even if I was offline just in case my SIM card didn’t work. I also downloaded an app called map.me where you can save locations and use the map offline. This is how I found the nearest Carphone Warehouse prior to getting a SIM card. I picked up both of these tips from the LoveandLondon youtube channel.
The tea was fabulous! It was exactly what I wanted which was something special and whimsical and kid/teen friendly while also fancy but not stuffy. Our server was great, the food was delicious and generous and the desserts were beautiful and tasty. I was worried about how to dress but when we got there, there were families dressed VERY casually so I guess I had nothing to worry about.We had theater tickets later that day so it was fine in the end to look a bit nicer.
From there we headed to the Churchill War Rooms. There was a bit of a line and because I wanted to use the vouchers I couldn’t by the tickets online which would have allowed us to go right in and not wait on the ticket line. However it was a nice savings, the weather was nice and the wait wasn’t bad at all. We loved, loved, loved, the War Rooms. Especially my son. It reminded us of the Underground Bullet Factory near Tel Aviv in the way that it is frozen in time. We definitely could have spent so much more time in the museum section. We left there right around closing time because we had tickets for The Tempest at the Barbican. The challenge here was that we didn’t really have time to eat so we ended up eating snacks at the theater. I wanted the kids to see Shakespeare in London and they were familiar with The Tempest and it was a very high tech production which kept them entertained. It was pouring when we got out and ran to the tube. By the time we got out the rain had stopped and we grabbed some sandwiches at a Tesco and called it a day.
Wednesday we got up early to get to Westminster Abbey because I really wanted to get a Verger tour and I knew they were limited in size and filled up. I had a voucher for tickets but when I read the fine print it wasn’t valid so I got in the ticket holder line and purchased the tickets online so by the time they let us in I had tickets and got on the the second tour at 10:30. The first tour was at 10. We headed to the cafe and had some hot chocolate and tea/ coffee to wait for our slot. Our tour guide Andrew and the tour itself was a highlight. It is a fantastic tour, we go to see and learn so much and all four of us thought it was great!
From Westminster Abbey we headed to Borough Market for lunch. Again, we all had what we wanted for lunch and saw some sites that inspired some Harry Potter scenes.
After that we took a bus to the Imperial War Museum and spent about four hours there and could have spent so much more! It was really great. My son especially loved it. They did a nice job with their Holocaust section and they had a spy exhibit that was really good too.
From the IWM we went to Southbank center and had dinner at Wagamama and then we walked across the bridge and headed to the Adephi to see Kinky Boots. I chose Kinky Boots because I wanted to see a show in London that was set in England which this was. We all thought it was so well done, the story is a great message for the kids, the music makes you want to dance and the set design and choreography was very creative. We had some gelato and walked back to the apartment. I will add that I went back and forth in my mind about buying tickets in advance and locking us in to a date and time or waiting and buying twofers. I decided that in this instance I had more money than time and didn’t want to spend time waiting in line smack in the middle of a day where I could be seeing a site so I got the tickets for all of our shows in advance. The Tempest seats were the cheapest ones because I just wanted the kids to see a Shakespeare play in London, it didn’t need to be first class. Kinky Boots we got lucky because a friend’s roommate is an usher at the theater and was able to get us a good discount and great seats.
Thursday morning we got up and headed to the Tower of London. I had vouchers so I had to buy the tickets there. The booth wasn’t open yet and I saw people with tickets lining up at the entrance. Someone told me I could buy the tickets at the information desk so I went there while my family got in the ticket holder line. Divide and Conquer is our mantra. We may not have our tickets yet but we will before the line starts moving so I stick my husband in line and I get tickets and it usually all works out. I got my tickets and we were all set. I wanted to see the Crown Jewels before the first Beef Eaters tour to make the best use of our time. We had no line or crowd for the Jewels which was great and the Beef Eaters tour was very entertaining and we all enjoyed it and thought it was worth it. We walked around bit more ourselves, up on the ramparts etc and then we headed out.
We went to Leadenhall Market for lunch ( is it obvious that I love markets?) and then I had a 1:15 reservation at the SkyGarden. It was a bit drizzly so the outdoor area was closed which was shame however the views were great and it is a very impressive space. Great free views! It was worth setting a calendar appointment with myself three weeks prior to book the reservation.
From there we walked to St. Paul’s cathedral and did the audio tour and we did brave the stairs and headed all the way to the top. There were some moments when I regretted the decision although I am glad to have been up there and see the views AND I don’t every have to do it again. From there, we walked to Poppies and had fish and chips ( what else?). This may also have been the night we went to Udderlicious for ice cream. It was really good. There seems to be more gelato than ice cream in London but the kids really wanted ice cream.
On Friday, we decided to go to Hampton Court Palace. I had purposely left Friday open to give us some flexibility in case things hadn’t gone as planned up until then and I need to play catchup. Things had gone well, except for wishing I had seen more of Kensington Gardens, but I was alone in that opinion so we never went back. We took the train from Waterloo, grabbing some food to take with us to picnic in the gardens. It was so easy to get the palace from the train station. I had vouchers for 2for1. The audio tour was so well done. Top notch. We did all three tour options and then headed out to the various gardens for lunch and more walking. We spent most of the day there and then headed back to town. We took advantage of the late hours at the National Gallery and we hit what were the highlights for us here- Cezanne, Monet, Matisse, Van Gogh etc. These are all spelled out and highlighted on the map and it was very manageable. We also took some time to enjoy the scene in Trafalgar Square. That night we ate at MOC kitchen near embankment. The food was delicious and the service was very attentive. We headed back to the flat after that.
On Saturday I had booked a tour of Parliament for the morning. I had booked the tour on my phone but they need a print out ( which seems silly since many travelers book online from their phone and don’t have printers.) That slowed us down a bit but, we still made it to our tour on time. Our tour guide was informative but not that engaging so the kids lost interest but my husband and I both learned a lot despite the guide’s limitations.
After the tour, we grabbed lunch and headed to The Palace Theater for Part One of Harry Potter and the Curse Child. I didn’t know what to expect and I wasn’t that sure about sitting through 5 hours of theater in one day all about Harry Potter, however it was an excellent production. The kids were over the moon and my husband and I also thought it was so well done, and we were very impressed with how they succeeded in creating magic on stage.
Between Part One and Part Two we ate at another Wagamama. Asian food in general suits all of our needs in terms of meat/no meat and healthy, low fat fare.
After Part Two we went to have dessert for our last night in London and I wanted to have sticky toffee pudding before we left.
We took an Uber back after a long day.
The next morning we took the tube to Victoria and the train back to Gatwick.
It was a fantastic family trip. We saw so many things, enjoyed staying in a flat, grocery shopping, managing the public transport, comparing the differences between the US and London, discovering the history overlaid with cutting edge architecture and technology. We loved taking the bus, tapping in and out of the tube, remembering to look right or left to cross the street. The variety of people and food choice and old and new was invigorating. It was a great choice for our summer vacation.