Doing London in Two and a Half Days: Our Itinerary

No, you will not be able to see everything, but you can cover a lot of territory in London in a little more than two days. Here’s how we did it…

Buckingham Palace - St Jame's Park

 

Day One: Arrive London, early afternoon; Check into hotel; Attend the theater

Arrive at Heathrow Airport. Find an ATM machine and withdraw money to cover your expenses for the next day or two. [Click on link above for practical tips.] Grab a cab to your hotel (we always make arrangements ahead of time through the hotel to have a driver meet us at the airport). After checking in, secure your valuables in the room safe and walk to the nearest Tube station to purchase your Oyster card.  If you have time, stroll around and familiarize yourself with the area near your hotel. [I find it is better not to rest and lose my momentum.] Check TripAdvisor or another reputable travel forum ahead of time for restaurant recommendations near your hotel or the theater. [If time is short, order room service, if available, at your hotel.] Take the Tube or a cab to the theater for a 7:30 p.m. show. Be sure to arrive at the theater in plenty of time to be in your seat before the lights go down. After the show, walk around the West End and take in the nightlife before catching the Tube back to your hotel. [We made a habit of popping into a snack/souvenir shop at the entrance of South Kensington Station each evening to pick up snacks and drinks to eat in our room.]

Leicester Square

 

Day Two: Changing of the Guard; St. James’s Park; Thames River Cruise; Tower of London; Tea at The Ritz

After flying in from Ireland the previous day and then staying out fairly late, we decided to forego the planned Open-Top Bus Tour and snooze for an extra hour or two. We ate breakfast in our room, then caught the Tube to Green Park Station, arriving about 10:00 a.m. We approached Buckingham Palace through Green Park and had plenty of time to look around before staking out a spot with a view on the steps of the Victoria Memorial. It became quite crowded by 11:00 a.m. and we were glad we had arrived early. [Several spectators climbed onto the low walls surrounding the monument, but were made to get down, so while that may seem like a fabulous perch, sitting on the wall is not permitted.) After the ceremony, the crowd dispersed fairly quickly and we walked from Buckingham Palace through St. James’s Park where we stopped to eat ice cream and hang out with the pigeons. From there we walked to Trafalgar Square and on toward the Thames. As we ascended the Golden Jubilee pedestrian bridge, we got our first glimpse of Big Ben off to the right. From the bridge we had an excellent view of the London Eye, Big Ben, Parliament, Whitehall Court, and the wide Thames River. On the opposite side, we meandered along the South Bank, a hub for London’s arts and entertainment crowd. We boarded a Thames sightseeing boat next to the London Eye and cruised up to the Tower of London, getting an up-close view of Tower Bridge in the process. [I recommend purchasing tickets for the Tower online ahead of time, though they are available onsite and in other locations around London.] We had to decide whether to head straight for the crown jewels or take the Beefeater tour. We opted for the tour, which leaves the entrance gate every thirty minutes. Our Beefeater (Yeomen Warder) tour guide was super personable—witty and very informative.  The tour lasts about half an hour and then you are free to look around on your own. We went inside Beauchamp Tower, but saw everything else from the outside. The line to see the crown jewels was incredibly long, so we opted to skip that and cover more territory. We hopped on the Tube in time to return to our hotel, change clothes, and take a cab to The Ritz Hotel for Afternoon Tea (even though it was actually evening by then.) I had heard that the British cabbies are quite chatty, but that was not the case with ours. A quick fifteen-minute ride got us from South Kensington to the Ritz in plenty of time for our 7:30 p.m. tea time. Afterward, we caught a cab back to the hotel and got some seriously needed sleep!

Thames River

Day 3: St. Paul’s Cathedral; Open-Top Bus Tour; The City of Westminster; Westminster Abbey; London Eye; Harrod’s

By Day 3, we felt like old hands at navigating the Tube, traveling from South Kensington to St. Paul’s and even changing lines—an accomplishment for two small-town, greenhorns! Again, I had purchased advanced tickets online so we were able to go right in without waiting in line. No photographs are allowed inside, which is always disappointing. You can opt for a guided tour or choose to use an audioguide; both are included in the admission charge. After completing the audio tour we made the climb all the way to the top of the dome, stopping in the Whispering Gallery and the Stone Gallery on our way to the Golden Gallery—a total of 528 steps! The view is well worth the climb, but make sure you are in good shape as there is no elevator to get you up or down. We ate lunch in the Crypt Cafe (good food, reasonably priced) before doing some souvenir shopping in the gift shop, also located in the crypt. When we left St. Paul’s, we hopped on the Open-Top Bus for a guided tour of the city (live guide). [I had pre-purchased those tickets as well, which may or may not be a good idea since we ended up using only one day of a two-day pass…but it did save time standing in a ticket line.) During the tour we crossed Tower Bridge and London Bridge, and saw a number of other significant historical and cultural landmarks. We got off the bus near Westminster Bridge and crossed over to the Houses of Parliament. We walked around and looked at the enormous building from the outside, stopping to take a few pics with Big Ben, which is actually not the name of the clock (or the tower). From there we went to Westminster Abbey, which we toured; it is extensive and magnificent. We crossed back over Westminster Bridge and walked along the South Bank to the London Eye. I had purchased a fast pass ticket online ahead of time, which moved us along to a certain point, but we still had to stand in line for quite awhile before boarding our capsule. The thirty-minute rotation above London was well worth the money and the wait; the view was fantastic! [The capsule was fairly crowded, but not as bad as I feared it might be.] No trip to London is complete without a visit to Harrod’s, so we penciled that in as our last stop of the day. We took the Tube to Knightsbridge and walked from there to Harrod’s, which was a little confusing despite our map and mapping app. We eventually located the store right at dusk, but were disappointed to discover the restaurant we hoped to eat at was not open. Nor was our second choice, and our third choice was about to close. After a quick sprint through the store, we ended up at The Tea Room where we were served a tolerable meal by a less-than-attentive waitress who was more concerned with closing than with serving us dessert. But, that is another story… We took our last journey on the Tube back to our hotel where we packed and fell into bed, quite worn out but happy.

IMG_6168

Of course, there is MUCH more than this to see and do in London—palaces, parks, museums, galleries, libraries, cathedrals—but we covered a lot of ground in a little over two days and felt that we got a good overview of the city. We spent three and a half days in England, but chose to devote one full day to touring Bath, which I do not regret at all!

I highly recommend purchasing Rick Steve’s Pocket London as it includes tons of information, recommendations, and traveler tips as well as a foldout map and several walking tours. His accompanying podcasts are great as well.

Rick Steves' Pocket London

London is an exciting place to visit and, with careful planning, you can see a lot of it in a short time. Happy travels!

Related Posts:

Where to Stay in London: The Ampersand Hotel

Mind the Gap: Navigating the London Tube

When In London, Afternoon Tea at The Ritz…

A Stroll in St. James’s Park

Big Ben…or whatever it’s called!

Paris vs. London…What say you? (Part 1)

 

Advertisements

Where to Stay in London: The Ampersand Hotel

Ampersand Hotel

I feel that if I am going to take the time to plan an international trip, save the money to make it happen, and fully enjoy the experience once I arrive, fabulous accommodations are a must. I adore boutique hotels and have stayed in some lovely ones across the United States and Europe!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Ampersand Hotel in South Kensington is no exception, offering affordable luxury in a prime location. The hotel’s main areas are elegantly decorated in pristine whites and grays with pops of bold color in the drawing rooms and guest rooms. A soaring tree of white lights forms a central pillar for the beautiful curving staircase. Guest rooms are decorated according to five themes: botany, music, geometry, ornithology, and astronomy. Fittingly, ampersands are seen throughout the hotel, from an intricately carved wall piece to the rubber ducky in our bathroom. We stayed in a Deluxe room which was gorgeous as well as spacious. Our room had a full bath with a bath/shower combo and also a small balcony which was not actually accessible beyond being able to open the French doors a bit.

The hotel offers many amenities, comforts, and conveniences.

I found the concierge to be more than helpful in arranging our visit beforehand, scheduling transportation to and from the airport, acquiring theater tickets to a show of our choice, and emailing me regularly with information and updates. The desk staff were helpful if a bit remote; the bellmen, on the other hand, were extremely helpful and friendly.

In 2015, The Ampersand Hotel was named by TripAdvisor as the second-best new hotel in Europe and the eighth most-highly rated in the world. I concur and would readily stay there again should my travels take me back to London.

Related posts:

Mind the Gap: Navigating the London Tube

When In London, Afternoon Tea at The Ritz…

A Stroll in St. James’s Park

Big Ben…or whatever it’s called!

Paris vs. London…What say you? (Part 1)

Mind the Gap: Navigating the London Tube

Oyster Card

First and foremost, I recommend purchasing an Oyster card if you intend to use public transportation while in London. This travelcard gives you access to all London Transport Networks (Tube, bus, and rail) and allows you to easily negotiate your way around central London. Though fairly pricey, there is a daily charge limit which means you can travel as much as you like within 24 hours for a set fee. It is possible to purchase an Oyster card online, but I found it simple and convenient to purchase mine at the ticket window at South Kensington Station upon arrival. The card is easy to use…just tap in and out of the ticket barriers to validate each time you ride the Tube. [Be sure to tap in and out.] You rarely have to break stride as you pass through the ticket barriers; just make sure you enter where there is a green arrow and not a red X. The card reader is typically on the right side as you approach the ticket barrier. [Once, the automated reader would not acknowledge my card, but I went to the ticket window and the agent quickly resolved the issue.] There is a base charge for the card and you can top up at the station or several other locations (Visitor CentresOyster Ticket Stops, Emirates Air Line terminals, the Tramlink Shop in Croydon). At the end of your visit, you can receive a refund for the balance on your card, minus the base charge. Be sure to treat your Oyster card like you would cash, credit cards, and other valuables as pickpockets and thieves will happily relieve you of it! Click here for more information and frequently asked questions about Visitor Oyster cards.

London TubeNow, about the Tube itself. As a suburban gal from the southern U.S., I had no experience with public transportation and was more than a little intimidated at the thought of navigating the Underground. [I was relieved to find it virtually painless, and even fun!] Before we arrived in London, I researched various apps to help us find our way around and settled on London Tube Free – Map and Route Planner by Zuti.

London Tube AppIt made our life so much easier with routing capabilities that do not require internet connectivity. We relied heavily on the app throughout our stay in London. I usually researched our route ahead of time and took a screenshot of the map, but also used the app on the fly.

London Tube
Finding our way around on the Tube was not stressful at all. The signage at each station is prominently displayed and very informative.  All lines are clearly marked and color coded. We were never far from a station and had no trouble hopping on the Tube whenever we needed to. I will admit I prefer seeing London above ground, but it is not always practical or time efficient to travel that way and the Tube is the perfect means of getting from one location to another quickly and easily.

Incidentally, our favorite part of the whole experience had to be “Mind the Gap!”

Related Posts:

When In London, Afternoon Tea at The Ritz…

A Stroll in St. James’s Park

Big Ben…or whatever it’s called!

Paris vs. London…What say you? (Part 1)

 

When In London, Afternoon Tea at The Ritz…

Afternoon Tea at the Ritz

One thing we wanted to do for sure while in London was indulge in a traditional English Afternoon Tea. The big question was, where?? After doing our research we settled on Tea at The Ritz Hotel. I would have preferred a true “afternoon” Tea, but that was not possible for two reasons: 1) I made the reservation two weeks before our visit and all afternoon time slots were filled, and 2) it would have been difficult to pause our sightseeing mid-day, change clothes for Tea, and resume our sightseeing afterward without losing precious time.  (We were in London for only two full days). Sooo, we made reservations for 7:30 p.m. We took a fifteen minute cab ride from our South Kensington hotel to The Ritz, arriving a few minutes before our scheduled time, as instructed. While waiting, we enjoyed the music of a string quintet situated just outside The Palm Court. Once seated, we were attended by a rather haughty, but efficient, black-tailed server. The table was beautifully laid out with pristine linens, delicate china, and gleaming silver. We made our tea selections from an extensive array of loose leaf teas—18 to be precise—and were served an assortment of sandwiches with various fillings, freshly baked scones with strawberry preserve and clotted Devonshire cream (to die for), and a sumptuous variety of afternoon tea cakes and pastries. Honestly, I think the tea and scones were my favorite part of our London visit! [Access the full menu here.] Tea lasted one hour and forty-five minutes and was quite an elegant affair. Because of the hour, this served as our evening meal and there was more than enough food for that. The Palm Court itself is magnificent with its gilded ceiling, massive mirrors, amazing chandeliers, and towering fresh floral arrangement. This was such a fun cultural experience and I highly recommend adding it to your London itinerary!

Afternoon Tea at the Ritz

Here are a few pointers to help you plan for and schedule Tea at The Ritz:

  • Daily Tea times are: 11.30 a.m., 1.30 p.m., 3.30 p.m., 5.30 p.m., and 7.30 p.m..
  • There is a dress code: “Gentlemen are required to wear a jacket and tie (jeans and sportswear are not permitted for either ladies or gentlemen) for afternoon tea in The Palm Court.”
  • There are several Afternoon Tea options to choose from—Traditional, Epicurean, Celebration, Champagne, and Seasonal. For more information, click here.
  • The current prices start from £52 per adult and from £30 for children. Click here for up-to-date cost information.
  • You can book your reservation via the booking widget on the Ritz website.
  • Reservations require a credit card guarantee. If you fail to honor your reservation, cancel, amend or reduce the amount of guests within 48 hours, your card will be charged the full price per guest. Reservations for 6 and more guests require a full non-refundable pre-payment seven days in advance of your booking. Cancellations without charge can be made up to 7 days in advance only.

Incidentally, our hotel offered a scaled-down version of Afternoon Tea, but we wanted to experience the “real thing,” and the price difference between the two was not significant enough to deter us from booking at The Ritz.

Related Posts:

A Stroll in St. James’s Park

Big Ben…or whatever it’s called!

Paris vs. London…What say you? (Part 1)

 

A Stroll Through St. James’s Park, London

St. James's Park - London

Given the current exchange rates, now is a good time to plan a visit to London!

A ramble through St. James’s Park, the oldest of London’s eight Royal Parks, should be on your list of things to do while visiting the British capital. Encompassed within the heart of the city, this sprawling park is beautifully laid out and meticulously maintained. It is situated in close proximity to two royal palaces:  Buckingham Palace and St. James’s Palace. A brief history of the park will enable you to better visualize its storied past and appreciate its continued prominence and appeal. Originally, this property was home to a leper’s hospital for women, named for James the Less (thought by some to be James, the brother of Jesus; by others to be James the son of Alphaeus, one of Jesus’ disciples). The property was later purchased by Henry VIII who erected St. James Palace and converted the swampy land into hunting grounds. During the 17th century reign of King James I, the marshland was drained and landscaped and became home to his exotic menagerie which included an elephant, crocodiles, camels, and exotic birds. Later that century, Charles II had the gardens redeveloped to resemble those he had seen at Versailles during the time of his exile in France.  Today, St. James’s Park is a reflection of a modernization project carried out by John Nash in 1828 and includes a Chinese-style bridge, extensive lawns and gardens, paved walking paths, a small lake, and several monuments.  There are also swans, ducks, geese, and plenty of pigeons in the park as well. (The pigeons are not shy and will land on you without batting an eye if you are eating or have food in your hands.) Ice cream vendors sell their sticky treats to the millions of tourists who descend on St. James’s Park in the summertime. Deck chairs are scattered invitingly across the green expanse from March to October but beware, fellow Americans…there is a charge for sitting in them, a fact we were unaware of until already seated and licking away on our ice cream cones. The park attendant was forgiving of our ignorance, however, and cheerfully collected £1.60 from each of us and allowed us to remain in our chairs. (That is the cost for one hour.  Sadly, we did not have anywhere close to an hour to loll about in the park.) For more information on Deck Chair Pricing, click here. If you visit Buckingham Palace, be sure to stroll on over to nearby St. James’s Park!

Big Ben…or whatever it’s called!

Optimized-IMG_6169

As a long-time Disney devotee (the early movies, anyway), it is not surprising that my initial perception of London was pretty heavily influenced by such classics as Mary Poppins and Peter Pan. And, since Big Ben plays a prominent role in the opening scenes of both of those movies, it stands to reason that the illustrious clock tower would be at the top of my London landmarks bucket list!

Big Ben, as you may know, is actually the name of the bell within the tower and—here is a little-known trivia fact for you—that isn’t even its official name! Big Ben’s moniker (talking about the bell itself) is The Great Bell. The tower that is usually referred to as Big Ben is actually called the Elizabeth Tower. Formerly referred to simply as the Clock Tower, it was renamed in 2012 to honor Queen Elizabeth II on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee (sixty years on the throne). For ease of reference, in this post I will refer to the tower and its clock as Big Ben. Situated  at the north end of the Palace of Westminster in London, Big Ben chimes every fifteen minutes. It is likely the most recognizable landmark in London and quite possibly the most photographed. Sadly, overseas visitors cannot tour Big Ben, and residents of the UK must contact their local MP or a Member of the House of Lords to arrange for a visit. After climbing to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Duomo in Florence, and St. Paul’s Cathedral, I was pretty bummed not to get to climb to the top of the tower. But, I did get to hear the chimes and I managed to get a photo in a phone booth with Big Ben in the background…sort of. All in all, I was pumped to actually see the famous fellow!

A few fun Big Ben facts for you…

  • Each dial is seven meters (just short of twenty-three feet) in diameter.
  • The minute hands are 4.2 meters (13′ 9″) long and weigh about 100kg (about 220 lbs.), including counterweights.
  • The numbers are approximately 60cm (just short of two feet) long.
  • There are 312 pieces of glass in each clock dial.
  • A special light above the clock’s faces is illuminated when parliament is in session.
  • Big Ben’s timekeeping is strictly regulated by a stack of coins placed on the huge pendulum.
  • Big Ben has rarely stopped. Even after a bomb destroyed the Commons chamber during the Second World War, the clock tower survived and Big Ben continued to strike the hours.
  • The chimes of Big Ben were first broadcast by the BBC on 31 December 1923, a tradition that continues to this day.
  • The latin words under the clock face read DOMINE SALVAM FAC REGINAM NOSTRAM VICTORIAM PRIMAM, which means “O Lord, keep safe our Queen Victoria the First.”

 

Paris or London…What Say You? (Part 4)

(See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 for infographic and backstory.)

The Tower of London vs. Les Invalides

The Tower of London and Les Invalides, Paris

The Tower of London and Les Invalides, Paris

  • Palace, fortress, prison…tourist attraction.  The Tower of London, with its rich and bloody history, is one of the most intriguing landmarks in London.  Dating back to William the Conqueror and built in 1078, the Tower has figured largely in the city’s history.  Probably best known as the site where Anne Boleyn parted company with her head, it was also the temporary “home” of Queen (then Princess) Elizabeth I when she was imprisoned by her sister, Queen Mary I.  The list of names of those imprisoned in the Tower at one time or another is lengthy indeed—dating to as recently as World War II.  It is one of the most popular tourist spots in London and houses the crown jewels.  It is operated by an independent charity called Historic Royal Palaces and is not funded by the Government or the Royal Family.  Tours are given by Yeoman Warders—better known as “Beefeaters”—who live onsite with their families. These tours are informative as well as entertaining.  The Tower is a huge facility, so it is best to arrive early in the day and beat the crowd; there is much to see.  The crown jewels are housed in the Waterloo Barracks and the line tends to be very long, so either plan to arrive when the Tower opens and see the jewels before embarking on a Beefeater tour, or brace yourself and get ready to wait awhile.   888,246 ceramic red poppies have been installed in the moat to commemorate the centennial of the beginning of World War I.  The memorial is entitled, “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red,” with each flower representing a British or Colonial serviceman who was killed in the War.  It is a striking sight and quite impactful. We had a couple of hours to spend at the Tower, which was barely enough time to scratch the surface.  I hope to go back and explore the site more thoroughly in the near future.
  • Hospital and retirement home for war veterans, museum of weaponry and military history, final resting place of Napoleon Bonaparte.  Les Invalides is a sprawling complex in the 7th arrondissement of Paris that faces Esplande des Invalides and the gilded Pont Alexandre III (Bridge of Golden Statues).  It is an imposing, beautifully symmetrical structure that was commissioned by Louis XIV in 1670.  Everything about Les Invalides is impressive—from Bruant’s arched pediment on the north side of the building to Mansart’s gilded dome on the south side.  Its military museums contain artifacts dating from the Middle Ages through the Second World War—uniforms, maps, flags, scale models, weapons, armor, and such.  By far the most interesting thing to me was the Royal Chapel (Eglise duDôme des Invalides) where Napoleon is entombed.  His mammoth sarcophagus contains a nest of six coffins and stands directly under a dome emblazoned with De La Fosse’s allegories.  I was interested to learn that Napoleon actually visited wounded soldiers at Les Invalides during his time in Paris.  Outside the domed chapel is a lovely sculptured garden (Jardin de l’Intendant) with a fountain, flowers, and neatly trimmed hedges. Anyone interested in carefully perusing the Army Museum should allow several hours for a visit; we saw everything of interest to us in about an hour and a half.  Incidentally, we used our Museum Pass and walked right into Les Invalides for a self-guided tour.

My pick:  The Tower of London (Quite possibly my top pick for London, overall!)

Soooo… Paris-2, London-2.  As you can see, it is no easy task to choose a favorite between these two cities.  Each has its own unique personality and much to offer.  Personally, I love them both and hope to have more time to devote to each!

Feel free to share any thoughts you have about Paris, London, a comparison of the two, attractions/landmarks worth seeing—or not.  I always look forward to hearing the opinions and experiences of fellow travelers!  Thanks for tagging along on this four day “Paris vs. London” journey!  Happy Trails to you…