London: Tips and advice to make the most of your adventure

I’m baaack!
Sort of.
I’m actually writing this high above the Atlantic as we hurtle through the air toward Boston.
Yes, Boston.
Not Minneapolis as the DIRECT FLIGHT TICKETS we bought state, but Boston.

APPARENTLY we’re down a pilot who became violently ill last night and since THE LAW says we can’t make it all the way to Minneapolis with only three we have to make a quick pit stop in Boston to pick another one up.
Something about “legal hours of flight time” and the pilots “not getting too tired.”
Fine.
I mean, I’m all for safety first, but to be honest, the thought that the violently ill pilot SHARED A COCKPIT — just yesterday — with the other three WHO ARE CURRENTLY COMMANDEERING THIS PLANE isn’t a very comforting thought.

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Since by the time we’ll now get home I’ll have been up for around 20 hours you can imagine how happy this fun little diversion is making me.

And I actually just let the drink cart pass me by without ordering a glass of wine.
Which are free.
I hate myself.

Clearly the anticipated lack of sleep is already making me loopy.

The 8-day London takeover is over, and you guys, I’m exhausted.
My feet are numb.
My mind is reeling.
I’ve been overwhelmed, mesmerized, and stunned.
My head — and my phone’s camera storage — is full of some of the most beautiful and magnificent images I’ve ever seen.

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8 days.
3 Palaces.
63 tube stops.
112,000 steps.
51 miles walked.
1 heat wave.
0 days of rain.
100s of tombs of various Kings, Queens, Dukes, Sirs, poets, and politicians.
400+ photos.
And Countless memories of days full of history, stories, sights, silliness, laughter, and family time that we’ll never forget.

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This being our first trip to London we kept busy touring and visiting the typical touristy places, and because we were there for eight days we had time to spread it all out (even so — exhausting — did I mention that?). Here’s a list of most of the sights we saw in order of my favorites. Because if you ask my kids, the Harry Potter tour would be up at the top.

Buckingham Palace
St. James’ Park
Tower of London
Windsor
Westminster Abbey
Big Ben/Houses of Parliament
The Royal Mews
Churchill War Rooms
Kensington Palace
Harrods
Carnaby Street/Oxford Street/Soho
Tower Bridge Exhibition
Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studio Tour
Promenade/Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
London Eye
Blackfriar’s Bridge/Millennium Bridge
Piccadilly Circus
Victoria and Albert Museum

But instead of sharing our trip through the meticulous, brilliant, detailed itinerary I’d worked on for three months THAT GOT THROWN OUT the very first day we were there because of the effing heat wave and the fact that walking miles around London every day makes your feet feel like agony – no matter how athletic your athletic shoes claim to be – I thought I’d share my trip through a few of the things I learned along the way. 

No, not the fact that Winston Churchill made his staff use silent typewriters because he hated noise or that there’s a secret door behind a giant mirror in Buckingham Palace that’s only used by the Royal Family (which isn’t really a secret anymore, now is it?) — real tips those of you who might never have been to London can use if you should ever hop across the pond — which you should if you’ve been to New York City and want basically the same experience but with much, much more beautiful buildings, cleaner streets and A FREAKING QUEEN.

If you’re there for a shorter time you’ll obviously have to pick and choose what things to see and do. And for those of you who’ve made the journey, I’m sure you have your own tips and experiences you’ll want to interject. Please do so in the comments below! 

But for those of you who disagree with me and want to rip this post apart? Suck it. Keep in mind these are simply my opinions. I know and respect that everyone needs to choose their own adventure when traveling.
This just happens to be mine.

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Where to stay

Obviously, where you stay depends on your situation, preferences, taste, and how much of a damn you give about things like that.
We give a lot.

Because we’re homebodies and happily trade fancy dinners out and nightlife in lieu of grocery store fare and a nice place to unwind, we chose to rent a flat for the week so we had not only the space to relax but a place where we could settle in and really feel like Londoners.
Londoners who smile and are happy.

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Walking to pick up groceries (more baguettes and wine, please) and meandering back through the lovely streets of South Kensington each evening was one of my favorite things to do, no matter how tired my legs were.

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Our lovely, charming flat was located in South Kensington (steps away from the tube station, restaurants, gelato shops, and groceries) on the fifth floor of a beautiful stretch of buildings in Oxford Square, and despite not having air conditioning IN THE MIDDLE OF A HEAT WAVE, was delightful.

The sunny kitchen that opened to the balcony overlooking the London rooftops was the perfect place to enjoy morning coffee.

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The private gated park was our favorite place to unwind with a glass – or three – of wine after a hectic day.

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Spending an hour rehashing our day together while sitting in the quiet park under the shade of the beautiful trees is something I don’t think any of us will ever forget.

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TIPS FOR THE MUST-SEE SIGHTS

Tower of London

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Tip #1: GET YOUR TICKETS AHEAD OF TIME AND GET THERE WHEN IT OPENS.

If there’s one thing you should listen to me about, this is the one.
(I’m totally lying, you should listen to me about ALL THE THINGS.)

But really, we somehow managed to drag ourselves out of bed, get ready, catch the tube, and get to the Tower by 9 a.m. – which, if you knew my crew, is nothing short of remarkable – and we were so thankful we managed to do it.

Have you ever made it to early-entry to Disneyworld when Main Street is virtually empty and like an hour later it’s a mosh-pit of sweaty disaster?
That.

Tip #2: GO STRAIGHT TO THE CROWN JEWELS.

Pretend I’m yelling that to you, because it’s that important.
The display is incredible, if not a bit anti-climactic (I thought I was going to get to see the tiara Kate wore at her wedding so all the other 500 carat diamonds were totally disappointing – kiddingnotkidding) but the line gets crazy super fast. We walked right in. Why? BECAUSE WE GOT THERE WHEN IT OPENED.

Tip #3: After you tour the Crown Jewels go back to the entrance and wait  for a Yeoman Warbler tour.

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That’s Kevin. He was awesome, even if we couldn’t understand much of what he was saying.

They’re witty and funny, and the information they give – while spoken at rapid-fire pace in a thick accent of which you’ll only catch about 60% of – is super interesting.

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Expect to spend three or four hours at The Tower (we spent four), but if you get here mid-day that might increase — along with the limit of your patience at the crowds.
 
Tower Bridge
Seriously huge and impressive, make sure to allow time after your Tower of London tour to take it all in from the cobblestone waterfront. And to take 73 pictures from the same angle.

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We also did the exhibition tour of the bridge where we got to walk across the two top supports, each of which have a glass section.

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It’s a cool experience if you have the time. You can also go down into the engine rooms and see how the drawbridge works, but we skipped that part. By that time our brains were fried and had reached their limit for new information.
Plus, it was time for beer.

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Windsor Castle

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Tip #1: SLEEP IN and GO AFTER LUNCH.

No, really.
We’d planned to catch the tube to the train bright and early so we could be at Windsor Castle when it opened, but since Thing 2 was having a spell of 4-day delayed jet-lag (i.e., couldn’t sleep and was watching YouTube videos until 5:30 a.m. when we were getting up at 7:00 a.m.) we had to adjust the schedule (which by this time we were getting used to) and didn’t even get to Windsor until after noon.

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But it all worked out perfectly.
We were rested (except for Thing 2 who was still existing on four hours of sleep, but which was a hell of a lot better than one) and even took some time to wander the quaint streets of Windsor before making our way to the castle.

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By the time we toured the magnificent St. George’s Chapel (which is astonishing and breathtaking) the line to get into the State Rooms was nonexistent. We got to sleep in and didn’t have to wait in long lines? Winners.

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Tip #2: LISTEN to the audio tour narration. Really. Listen. 

You might be tempted to fast forward, but don’t.
What you’ll learn in the extraordinary chapel and in the castle itself is mind-boggling.
YOU ARE STANDING ON HUNDREDS OF YEARS OF HISTORY. Take the time to absorb it.
Then you can get a beer at the cute pub across the street.

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Hell, after all that learning, you’ve more than earned it.

Buckingham Palace/Changing of the Guards
If you’re like us, you’ll want to go see the Changing of the Guards right away and you’ll go on a day where it’s a bright and humid 86° with no wind and you’ll think you’ll die from sweat and heat exhaustion standing shoulder to shoulder in a crowd of 600 people waiting for half an hour.
So check weather.com and go on a cool day if you must see it. However…

Best experience if you couldn’t stand the heat and had to abort your Changing of the Guards experience and go back a different day—

Walk down The Mall at about 11:45 a.m. and wait for the marching band to lead the tired guards back to their barracks. Since everyone is crowded up in front of the Palace gates to see the guards changing, The Mall is empty. You won’t see the actual changing (snore) but you’ll get some unobstructed video and an emotional experience that will make you inexplicably burst into tears.


And one that also might make you run — full speed — ahead of the band so you can watch it all over again.
And take a selfie because you’re so happy, obviously.

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And when you do go to the front of Buckingham Palace to look at it through the back of your iPhone, don’t forget to get a close up of the Palace gates. They’re seriously impressive, as are the dudes packing assault rifles on the other side. But don’t try to make eye contact and smile. Oddly enough, they aren’t super friendly.

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Buckingham Palace State Room Tour
If you’re lucky enough to visit London during the two months when the Queen is summering in Scotland, which we were (although she was in the Palace the first day of our trip as the Royal flag was flying above), TAKE THE STATE ROOM TOUR.

You’ll get to tour the rooms the Royals currently use to welcome dignitaries and hold receptions as well as see the famous picture gallery, Throne Room where the Royal Wedding Photographs are taken, visit the Music Room where the Queen as well as Prince William were baptized, and stroll in the Queen’s private gardens. It’s unbelievable to be inside that Palace, and something you won’t forget.

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Big Ben/Houses of Parliament

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By far one of the most breathtaking and iconic buildings in London.

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You’ll be tempted to snap photos at first sighting of it but you’ll get the best ones if you take them from the grassy park across the street. (It’s easy to find — it’s the grassy spot where everyone else is taking pictures and acting like fools.) And don’t forget to use that panorama feature on your camera!

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Harry Potter Tour

IMG_2205If you have Harry Potter fans in the family, the trip out to the Warner Brothers Tour of the studios is well worth half a day. Make sure and get your tickets online before you go — like two months before you go. They sell out very quickly. It’s an awesome tour with almost all of the sets, props, and other secrets and inside information from all of the HP movies. My girls’ minds were blown.

If you can’t get to the tour (or, if you’re like us, even if you can), go to King’s Cross Station and get a picture at Platform 9 3/4. But be warned, there’s a long line. We waited about 20 minutes for this picture (and yes, they have a photographer and a shop that sells merch — of course they do).

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HIDDEN GEMS

The Royal Mews
Right to the side of Buckingham Palace is The Royal Mews, which a self-guided audio tour of the horse stables, Royal carriages and other means of transportation.

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We were driven in by the heat and since it was on our London Pass were so happy to have experienced it.

Highlights:
The Glass Carriage that is used in Royal Weddings –

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And the ornate gold carriage used in all Royal Coronations –

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You’ll also see the stables and some of the Queen’s horses, plus learn about the people who’ve worked in the Queen’s guard for generations. It’s a cool tour and worth checking out if you’re in London for more than a few days.

St. James’ Park
The park that stretches in front of Buckingham Palace was by far our favorite place to wander, and we went back twice to stroll the tree-covered paths along the beautiful canal.

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Plan to spend a few hours here, especially if it’s a nice day, and don’t miss the old water-bird caretakers cottage at the end of the park which is surrounded by a beautiful English garden.

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There’s a restaurant in the park as well as various stands selling ice-cream and other refreshments. It’s a wonderful place to escape the hectic city streets, especially if it isn’t raining.

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Churchill War Rooms
Right next to 10 Downing Street are the underground bunkers that Winston Churchill used to commandeer strategies for World War II. I’ll admit, I was skeptical, but since the rooms are virtually unchanged from the 40’s (the map room alone is an incredible glimpse into a pre-technological world) it’s an impressive and unbelievable sight and exhibition.

If you’re around St. James’ Park, stop in. You’ll be glad you did, if for nothing else, to pick up some quirky prints like this for your kitchen.

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THINGS THAT MADE US GO MEH

Hyde Park and Kensington Palace Tour
Maybe it was the heat or maybe we were already mesmerized by the beauty of St. James’ Park, but the part of Hyde Park around Kensington Palace was kind of scrubby and bare. We’d planned to wander the paths but opted out after our tour of Kensington, which is gorgeous, but if you’ve seen other palaces isn’t necessarily worth the time to go inside to tour (except for the Queen Victoria rooms, which are phenomenal and so interesting) – but do still go to see the outside and the gorgeous sunken garden — and look for Kate, William, and Harry, of course.

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London Eye
A cool thing to experience and one that was at the top of our list, but we all agree that it wasn’t really worth the exorbitant price and time in line.

Piccadilly Circus
Something most everyone wants to see, but if you’ve been to Times Square you’ve been to a bigger, better version of Piccadilly Circus. And if you go after 10 p.m. (which we did), hold onto your purses, walk fast, and pray you all make it out together.

Globe Theatre
Squashed between some other buildings, it’s not much to see from the outside. I wish we could’ve gone in, but there was a play going on (TIP: If you want to see a play at The Globe, get your tickets well in advance — like months).

Shopping
Maybe it’s because most of the famous shopping streets had the same stores we have in our malls (for the most part), maybe it’s because we never made it out to one of the fun flea markets I had on our itinerary (due to heat and travel times … and sheer exhaustion), but we were a bit underwhelmed by most of the actual stores. Most of our souvenirs came from the gift shops that every Palace and Cathedral spits you out into which is a bit obnoxious, and very Disney.

However, if you find yourself around Oxford Street (which is worth seeing for the Union Jack banners alone), go to Carnaby Street.

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It’s darling, there are a TON of sidewalk restaurants as well as many quaint, adorable side alleys to explore.

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TIPS FOR THE TUBE

IMG_6853 Traveling around London by Underground is really the fastest, easiest way to get around once you’ve deciphered the crazy, colorful map (which you should not try to do after two glasses of wine).
Make sure to get an Oyster Card which you’ll use to easily tap in and out of each station (it electronically deducts the fare of your ride, which is different depending on how far your trip was). You can also use your Oyster Card to take one of the many, many, many darling red double-decker buses around, but since we didn’t know the routes we opted to stick to the tube which we actually enjoyed. While just as frantic, the trains and stations were actually much cleaner and more pleasant than the NYC subway.

Tip: If your station is waaaay underground and you have to emerge via a long escalator, STAND ON THE RIGHT FOR GOD’S SAKE or else you’ll get pummeled by a VERY IMPATIENT Londoner who uses the left side to show everyone else how fast they can climb or descend stairs.

And don’t forget — MIND THE GAP BETWEEN THE TRAIN AND THE PLATFORM.

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Got all of that?
Good.
Because there’s no way I could say it all again.
I’m certain I’ve left out some important nuggets of knowledge, but damn ya’ll, I’m even more exhausted now than I was two hours ago. So if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go track down that flight attendant and her drink cart. With over 5 hours until we get to Boston, I think it’s time to cash in on the free wine.

 

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London tips and advice



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