London Calling

IMG_1198This show focuses on Nancy’s recent trip with her kids to London.  Listen to hear the amazing experiences they had.  Since there could never be enough time to discuss it in one podcast, here are more details to consider (some will also be covered in more detail in later shows).

NOTE: For more personal reflections, see this post (no podcast). 

Rent a Flat! London hotels are incredibly expensive and rooms are very small.  You can rent a flat for the same or less money.  We paid about $190 a night for a 2 bedroom flat near a Tube stop.  Having a kitchen allowed us to skip eating out for breakfast and gave us the option to take lunch with us.  It also got us to go into the local grocery store to try different British foods (do not miss Cadbury Chocolate or Hob Nobs–chocolate covered oatmeal cookies).

To locate a flat, check out HomeAway.com but make sure you check the source.  I filtered through about 40 different flats and about 9 different companies.  Some companies/flat owners did not reply, others were just sketchy.  I googled each company and checked reviews on Trip Advisor. I finally went with Ivy Lettings.  They had a story written about them in the London Times, good reviews on Trip Advisor, and they had a phone number on their site as well as a live chat.  The person I chatted with was able to help me find the best flat for our family.   There were a few problems when we got to the flat and Ivy Lettings was good to fix them quickly.  I’d rent from them again.


IMG_1534Ride the Tube!
One of the amazing thing about London is watching the people from all over the world.  There is no better place to have that cultural experience than public transportation such as the London Underground.  You don’t have to worry about sticking out as an American because you will probably be a minority speaking English.  I heard Russian five times a day, Italian, French, German, and a slew of different languages from the African continent.  It was so much fun to try and guess the languages.

You can just purchase a one-way ticket each time you use the Tube or a bus but if you plan to use public transport as your mode of transportation, there are ways to save money.  Thanks to Bob Hanford, a dedicated blogger whose site–London Toolkit–focuses on everything London, I was able to figure out the best option for my family.   Check out his blog on Oyster vs. Travelcard.  For us, it was better to Get a 7-Day Oyster and a Youth Oyster.  Bob patiently answered all my questions and even gave me suggestions of things to see near our flat and around London.  Thanks Bob for the great advice–even advice on getting to Heathrow early in the morning.

Take a Bus Tour to Orient Yourself  London is a huge city but the main tourist area isn’t that big.  Things are quite close together.  Taking a hop-on-hop off tour or another type of tour is a great way to get your bearings.  We took the Big Bus Tour and loved it.  Opt for the tour with the live guide.  It was so much fun and the one time we got on a bus with the taped guide, we switched to a different bus after one stop.  Big Bus Tour included a 48-hour ticket, a night tour, and a river cruise.  We were too tired for the night tour but we loved taking the river cruise.  Actually, the kids asked to take the tour a second time toward the end of our time in London.
IMG_1139One of the fun things about a hop-on-hop-off bus is the ability to get off when you see the unexpected.  A friend had suggested going to Hamley’s toy store so when we saw it on the tour, we jumped off and spent an enjoyable 45 minutes in the store.  Alex also wanted to take a picture at a certain Piccadilly Circus Underground sign and we saw it on our tour and jumped off to capture his photo.

Suggestion:From th  If you are in London on the weekend and can schedule your bus tour on Saturday or Sunday, do so because the traffic during the week really slows down the tour.  We were on the tour on a Friday and getting through the financial district was like watching paint dry (except for the great scenery). On Saturday and Sunday, the roads were clear and the tour would have been much quicker.


Get Down Under in London
 One of the newer museums in London is the Churchill War Rooms.  These are the actual rooms where the British Empire strategized its moves against the Nazis in World War II.  Nothing like being in the actual Map Room to bring history to life.  The tourChurchillWarRooms

includes an audio guide to help you get a feeling for what was happening below ground complete with stories told by the people who lived and worked in the rooms.  The impact of seeing the table where Churchill sat to give his address to London and the World during the war while hearing the actual speech was very impactful for my 14-year old.  His world history class will have a very special feeling when they discuss the war.

IMG_1581Lay Siege to the Tower One of the kids’ favorite day was spent at the Tower of London and Tower Bridge.  It’s not everyday you get to walk in the courtyard where queens lost their heads and see the crown that sits on the pretty head of the current queen.  Tip:  Get there early–even before they open because the line to get in is long.  Then, when you enter, head right to the Crown Jewels before anything else.  The line to get into the Jewels can be so long that the interior of the Jewel House is more like the line labyrinth that snakes up to a Disney ride complete with pictures of what you are going to see and history tidbits to keep you interested while you wait 45 minutes to see a few rocks.  Since we were first in the Tower and first in the Jewel house, we were out in about 10 minutes.  That is enough for kids.

IMG_1619Make sure you take the Yeoman Warders’ Tour.  They do an excellent job and give a glimpse back into the gorey pass of the Tower mixed in with humor and facts about the buildings.  Not to be Missed.

Tower Bridge is easily the most famous bridge in London. Now you can experience the Bridge in a startling way–a glass floor that looks down on the traffic below.  Having walked on the glass bridge at the Grand Canyon, I thought I was prepared for the experience, but it was a bit more intense for me.  The kids loved it.

Ho Wench! One of the most fun experiences I had as a teen when I toured the UK was to go to a Medieval Feast.  There is nothing like pounding your fits on the table and saying Hey Nonny Noony  or yelling Ho Wench to get more mead (aka apple juice for those of us not imbibing).  The Medieval Banquet in London was fabulous! The food was plentiful andIMG_1512 the entertainment excellent–think court entertainment like singers, acrobats, jugglers and jousting.  We were each assigned to a House to which we pledged our allegiance and cheered for our knight in battle.  The kids loved every minute of it.  It isn’t cheap but if you have a London Pass, there is a discount.  And you have to remember that you get a great meal and entertainment.  It is cheaper than theater tickets and more fun for the family.

Get Bawdy with the Bard  We attended Shakespeare’s Globe and saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Before we went to London, I had my kids watch the Kevin Kline and Michelle Pfeiffer version so they would know the play.  There is nothing like sitting Globe–nothing.  And I have never seen a version of Midsummer like that one.  It was a modern interpretation wiIMG_1504th an Indian flare.  Think Shakespeare meets Cell Phones meets the Sitar and Rap Music.  I can’t even begin to explain how the song Major Tom ends up in a Shakespeare play but it WORKED!  The way the language and mood was interpreted (there are tons of ways to interpret Shakespeare) made the text and the concepts very accessible to my kids.  I had to cover my 10 year old’s eyes a few times and happily she doesn’t understand the sexual references in Shakespeare, but other than that, the play was a great experience (even with a pole in my way).  If you can go to a play, do so.  It is worth the cost.

GIMG_1251o Back in Time A bit off the beaten path, Greenwich is a great opportunity for sightseers interested in science.  Greenwich is the place where the Prime Meridian that divides the East and the West is located.

The site also hosts several amazing museums that cover topics like the history of how time was agreed upon (you might have heard of Greenwich Mean Time—yep it is that Greenwich), British Maritime history and so much more.  The views of London are also great from here.  You can see the huge size of the city from One Tree Hill (I can hear U2 singing).

IMG_1289Greenwich has so much to see that it would take a full day to see even a part of it.  For us, the Royal Observatory and The Cutty Sark were the two best museums.  Be warned that the Royal Observatory is up on One Tree Hill and there is no bus to get to the top so you need to walk it.  But you will be walking in the footsteps of amazing scientists like Sir Isaaic Newton.  Just about everything in our modern life works because of the men who worked at the Royal Observatory (clocks, calendars, map coordinates, and so forth that make travel and cell phones and just about everything possible).  The Cutty Sark is an amazing museum that allows you to see one of the great sailing vessels ever built.  The museum has interactive opportunities for kids and parents to learn more.

IMG_1326Cruise the Thames  One of the best ways to see the city’s most famous sites is to take a Thames River Cruise.  We took the cruise from Greenwich to Westminster Abbey.  It was a bit rainy and blustery, but the cruise offered some needed relaxation for tired toes and the first mate gave a great tour of the sites.  Not sure it was all true, but it was very entertaining.  The descriptions of the different bridges along with his comments on politics and history had us all laughing.  Remember that if you take Big Bus or get the London Pass, the cruise is included.

 

We Will Rock You IMG_1705
Stonehenge is less than 2 hours from London.  There are dozens of tour companies that can take you there.  But I wanted the experience to be something the kids would remember and learn from.  So, we went on a tour with an Archeologist who actually works on digs at and near Stonehenge and other prehistoric sites around London.
This isn’t aIMG_1707 tour for little kids but it worked for my 10-year old and my 14-year old learned a lot. If your kids are interested in archeology and history, this is a great option that gives them amazing access to information and insight into the pre-historic cultures that created the henges (no Druids or Aliens needed).

Our guide Edward was so excited to share his knowledge that it was infectious.  Being able to ask questions of an expert was also great.  Check out Tours from Antiquity for various tours.  We chose the Stonehenge, Avebury, Salisbury tour.

Sing with the Angels It can be quite expensive to enter St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. However, they are working churchesIMG_1495 and have services at specific times of day and on Sundays.  These are times when you can get into the churches for free.  The bonus to this is that you often get to hear an amazing choir and a beautiful sermon.  The minus is that there are areas of the church that are off limits and “touring” the church is not allowed.  However, if you want to sit and stare up at the beautiful surroundings and listen to angelic choirs, this is a superb experience.  Sometimes, you can even sing with the choir.

We attended St. Paul’s on Sunday and arrived a few minutes before the service started.  We found great seats and while we waited, I explained the history of the Cathedral and why old churches were decorated the way they were as well as the significance of various parts of the church and what would happen in the service.  We are Christian but not Anglican so the experience was very different from our church experience and was an amazing cultural opportunity for the kids.  During our service, we sang along with the choir as we read the liturgy.  It was a chance of a lifetime to lift our voices with the St. Pauls boys choir.

IMG_1479Check out the Markets for Lunch London has several food markets that offer both fresh vegetables and hot food.  These are great places for families with diverse tastes because you can each find something you like.  We ate at Greenwich Market, Borough Market, and Kerb at Southbank.  The food was quick, excellent and not too expensive.  We were each able to get something we liked and share with each other without the time and expense of a restaurant.  The only drawback is limited seating.

IMG_1483Kerb was the best market with all sorts of middle eastern dishes and picnic tables.  Alex had a lamb curry burger and I had the most amazing kebabs. You will have to plan your schedule so you end up at the markets at the right time of day. Some of them are only open at lunchtime, others are only open at night.  Then, each of them have a day in the week when they are not open.  It would be horrible to have hungry mouths looking for food when the market is closed.  Camden Market is supposed to be great but it’s a bit off the main tourist map.

Give Me a Break!  This should have been obvious but it took us more time to get going when we got up the first day.  We landed at 1pm and stayed up until 9pm to adjust to the time in London.  But, it still took us more time to get going in the morning.  So, cut yourself some slack the first day and don’t plan anything with a specific timetable.  Everything we had planned for the first day was flexible within a few hours of time.  Having an Oyster Travel Pass also added to the flexibility because we could get off the bus tour and take the Tube to the location we wanted to be.

Consider a City Pass In the past, we have suggested purchasing city passes. These are tickets that give you entry into multiple museums, tour options and so forth.  The London Pass also includes Fast Pass entry into some of the most popular attractions.  We used this to get right into the Tower of London without the line.  It saved us a few hours time. The London Pass isn’t for people sightseeing for one day unless you are a crazy power-sightseer.  You can’t see enough in one day to make it worth the cost. If you have multiple days to see the city, check out the site and see if the museums and other sites you want to see are listed.

IMG_1554The Fast Pass for Westminster Abbey, Tower of London and Tower Bridge, along with the bus tour and river cruise make it a good deal if you are there in the height of tourist season. The cost of getting in to places like Westminster Abbey also makes the card a good possibility.  And if you want to go to Windsor Castle or Hampton Court, there are travel benefits in addition to the admission and Fast Pass.

If you are in London in the off peak season, Fast Pass probably isn’t important.  And, if you know the dates you are going to different locations, you can purchase tickets online for a discount. Do some calculating before you go. If you want flexibility, then the London Pass works well but may cost more.

Note:  The London Pass includes a different hop-on-hop-off tour that we did not take.IMG_1247

Make Time for Personal Interests One of the benefits of travel is seeing how something you love to do is done in another country.  Alex loves
skateboarding so we spent time at a few skateboarding venues.  It gave the rest of us time to rest our toes.  Anna wanted to ride double-decker busses so whenever we rode a bus, we went up to the top.  A few times, she got the front seat and was able to see out the window.

Plan Purchases Before You Leave Home  Instead of spending our money and time shopping for souvenirs, we planned what we wanted to buy before we left. Of course that was easier since I lived in London a bazillion years ago.  But you can still decide if you want to get t-shirts or teddyIMG_1681 bears.  Harrods is a must stop for teddy bears so we bought these for friends.  I had been wanting a Union Jack pillow for my couch and I found a fabulous one at Harrods.

We also shopped Primark–a H&M type store that has a larger variety of goods (not just clothes).  This was on my shopping plan because I had heard they had great UK themed goods.  My kids got  underwear with the Union Jack, journals with the flag, and t-shirts for $2.  Planning helped us save money and spend less time shopping and more time sightseeing.

Plan Your Expenses You no longer have to go to a money exchange bureau to get cash in London.  Check out your bank and credit card companies to see if they allow you to withdraw from ATMs in London.  We found that Barclay’s Bank allowed us to withdraw for a very small fee and our bank at home did not charge fees.  Also, using Visa cards with chips is very convenient.  I love my Capital One Venture Card because it allows me to pay for trip expenses with the miles I have saved on the card and it is easily used all over Europe. Plan your expenses and know which things you will need cash for (street markets and quick treats) and which things you will use the card for.  When all else fails and you have too much cash at the end, buy chocolate to bring home!

Give Up! Give In! Give Yourself Over Really, there is no way to see everything in a city like London.  Some of the things you want to do will be closed the days you want to see them (we learned that the hard way);  you may encounter long lines (like at the Platform 9 3/4 photo site); or you may be just too tired to see that site (the British Museum fell victim to our tired feet and we spent less than 2 hours there). Give up trying to get to everything.  Give in to whatever falls in front of you–especially if it is delicious food.  Give yourself over to the experience of being in the city and spend time talking to people rather than seeing dead people.  One of the most delightful experiences was speaking to the guard at the British Museum.  Our 30-minute conversation gave my kids a glimpse into the life of a Londoner.

IMG_1697
Kids asleep on my during the ride to Stonehenge. Can’t get any closer.

Get Closer My goal for this trip was to get closer to my children.  I think I achieved that in more ways than one.  You be the judge!

 

 

 

 

Itinerary  Here is the itinerary we followed in case you are planning 6 days in London:

Thursday

  • Arrive in Heathrow
  • Take Heathrow Express to Paddington Station
  • Buy the Oyster Card 7-Day and Oyster Youth 7-Day
  • Take the Tube to Ladbroke Grove
  • Get Money at the ATM
  • Eat Fish and Chips at the place across the street
  • Take a Tour or Go Shopping for groceries
  • Bed at 9pm

Friday

  • Take lunch with us
  • Big Bus Tour Hop on Hop Off Bus
  • Churchill War Rooms
  • Eat Lunch in St James Park
  • British Museum (open til 8pm on Fridays)
  • Platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross Station (the lines are long–take time)
  • Kebabs and Fish and Chips

Saturday

  • GreenwichRoyal Observatory 
  • Greenwich Market for Lunch
  • The Cutty Sark
  • Thames River Cruise to Westminster
  • Walk Houses of Parliment
  • Attend Westminster Abbey at 5 for Evensong (you get free entry)
  • KERB food market at Southbank for dinner

Sunday

  • Church at the Hyde Park Ward
  • Church at St. Paul’s Cathedral (listen to choir)
  • Shakespeare’s Globe Play
  • Medieval Banquet (Opens at 5:15 and closes at 9:30)

Monday

  • Tower of London (it opens at 10 on Mondays–we were first in line because we arrived at 9–oops)
    • Tower Jewels first
    • Yeoman Warder tour
  • Tower Bridge and Tower Bridge Experience
  • Borough Market for lunch (seating is very limited)
  • Free time and shopping (skate shops and Harrods)

Tuesday