Guide to the Top-Down Narrows in Zion National Park for First Time Backpackers

The Narrows is the centerpiece of Zion National Park.  The mystery of sun rays filtering through the constricted slot canyons of the Narrows captivate visitors like few other natural wonders.  The surreal photographs of the Narrow ultimately inspired us to embark on our first ever backpacking trip, despite its length, logistical complexity, danger, and technical elements.  The top-down Narrows trail is not a beginning backpacker’s route, but it is very possible for first timers to enjoy and safely complete, especially after reading this guide!  The award is unforgettable vistas, numerous adventures to share with others, and a tremendous sense of accomplishment.

The Narrows - Wall Street

When to Go?

Deciding when to visit Zion National Park to backpack the Narrows is tricky.  The National Park Service will not issue backpacking permits unless the flow rate of the Virgin River North Fork is below 120 cubic feet per second.  On average, spring runoff keeps flow rates above this level into May.  In the summer, starting in July, the risk of flash floods picks-up.  And after this risk subsides in late September, water temperatures have dropped to the point where wetsuits are recommended.  The graph below, constructed using historical USGS river data and NOAA temperature data, presents these trade-offs throughout the year.  We decided to go on the July 4 weekend, just after flow rates have dropped and water temperatures have risen, but before flash flood risk picks-up.  Unfortunately, we had to endure high daily temperatures, but the water and the shade in the canyon generally kept us cool.

Virgin River Conditions for Hiking the Narrows Graph

Graph Details: Flow rates are measured for the North Fork of the Virgin River, and represent average values going back to 1963 (data source: USGS).  Water temperatures are measured downstream in Virgin, UT, and are likely several degrees warmer than the water temperature in the Narrows (data source: USGS).  Flash flood risk is constructed by tracking the number of days where > 500% average flow was observed historically by week.  Average daily high temperatures are measured in St. George, UT (data source: NOAA) and are likely 10 degrees or so warmer than what would be experienced in the Narrows.


The National Park Service only allows twelve groups of backpackers to stay in the Narrows each night.  Prospective hikers have two options: commit two months ahead of time and try and reserve one of six campsites online or try your luck  to get one of the other six campsites made available the day before at the Zion Canyon Wilderness Desk.

We opted for the former, and logged-in to the Wilderness Reservation System the minute reservations became available for July at 10am MDT on May 5 (see complete calendar).  We sweated for fifteen long minutes as the successive confirmation pages took forever to load.  Our patience paid off (we didn’t act on our temptation to refresh), and we were rewarded with a reservation for a campsite (#9) and hiking date of choice.  I don’t believe there would have been any time for considering our choices, so I recommend researching the campgrounds on the Zion National Park website first and being ready to act as soon as reservations become available at 10am.  Make sure the campground you select can accommodate your group size.  Also note that you will be the only one at a particular campsite.  The National Park Service does not combine groups at campsites, so even if you reserve a campsite with room for twelve, and you only have two people, you’ll have the campsite to yourselves.

During the hike, we ran into a couple of groups that obtained their permits the day before the Wilderness Desk.  The Wilderness Desk does not open until 7am (8am in Winter), but the groups we talked to were waiting outside before 5am.  I can’t guarantee that arriving at 5am will guarantee you one of the six spots available, but it’s a data point.

In addition to the backpacking permit, the other logistical item that must be addressed beforehand is transportation to the trailhead.  The Narrows Top-Down hike begins at Chamberlin’s Ranch, which is 32 miles from Springdale, over half of which are on slow, winding dirt roads (trip time is about 90 minutes).  There is limited parking at the trailhead that would allow a group with multiple vehicles to park overnight and return the next day, but we opted to pay for a ride through Zion Adventure Company.  They offer daily shuttles arriving at the trailhead at 7:45am or 11:00am for $37/person.  As discussed later on, with the amount of time it takes to traverse the Narrows, we were glad we took the earlier option, even though we were staying overnight.  There are other outfits that offer shuttles, but it is definitely a good idea to book early, because you’ll be competing with both backpackers and people attempting to do the Top-Down hike in one day.


ZionEquipmentAs first time backpackers, understanding the equipment needs for the hike was a chief concern for us, especially with the unique conditions of the Narrows.  We were fortunate to have a friend with a lot of backpacking gear we could borrow.  However, the Narrows present the unique challenge of keeping equipment dry when being completely submerged in water.  Accordingly, we purchased a few dry bags online.  Here is what we brought for our excursion in July:

  • Backpack: Our friend let us borrow 2 backpacks with about 4500 cubic inches of space.  As a novice packer, we needed every spare cubic inch of that space for our equipment.  Both backpacks were also equipped with a Camelback-style water storage system.  On the second day of the hike, we received the tip that the backpacks should be tightened so that they stay high up on your back.  We wished we would have known this early, as we found our backs were far less sore on the second day.
  • Tent: A small 2-person backpackers tent was a good compromise between comfort and weight and space requirements in our packs.
  • Sleeping Bags: We brought two synthetic sleeping bags also borrowed from a friend.  Synthetic was a good choice, instead of wool, because if they did get wet, it would be far less devastating.  We also didn’t need the superior insulation qualities of wool in July.  Along with the sleeping bags, we brought two lightweight sleeping pads we strapped to the back of our backs to provide a bit of padding on the hard ground.
  • Shoes & Socks: We rented the warm water package from Zion Adventure Company that included neoprene socks, Cannoneer-2 water shoes, and a hiking pole for $35 for the two day hike.  The shoes provide great traction and are probably reasonably comfortable considering all the rock hopping we did in them.  However, my wife was disappointed that they are not particularly stylish.  The neoprene socks did keep our feet dry and warm, and were not too uncomfortable.
  • Dry Sacks: We bought dry sacks in a variety of sizes for our hike to keep our equipment dry, including two bags large enough to contain our sleeping bag (20 liter), and small ones for our camera and phones (3 liter).  These proved essential, as we went through several chest deep areas and would have had to live with wet sleeping bags or malfunctioning electronics without the protection.
  • Sustenance: For the one night, we decided to survive on cold food instead of packing a stove.  Beef jerky, dried fruit, granola bars, cheeze-its, and turkey sandwiches provided plenty of variety and were easy to pack and carry.  We also brought along a water filter to re-fill our camelbacks.  We passed another group that was using a UV light, but they mentioned it isn’t effective if the water isn’t clear (which it wasn’t on our first day).

The Hike

After arriving at the trailhead by shuttle and getting our gear ready, we started our hike just before 8am.  During the hike, we compared our times to the timetable provided on the map provided by the Wilderness Desk.  We’ve provided a comparison of our actual achieved times against the time guidelines in the table below for day one:

Landmark Official Time Our Time
Bulloch’s Cabin 1 hour 50 minutes
First Narrows 3 hours, 30 minutes 3 hours, 50 minutes
Waterfall 4 hours, 15 minutes 5 hours, 30 minutes
Deep Creek 5 hours 6 hours, 15 minutes
Campsite #9 6 hours, 15 minutes 7 hours, 45 minutes

To our distress, we found ourselves quickly running increasingly behind the time guidance after we entered the water, even though we were outpacing other hikers.  This especially proved unnerving after lunch when it began to rain and we heard thunder, potentially indicating a risk for flash floods.  We believe a big reason for our slow pace is that at first, we spent a lot of time hiking in the water.  We later discovered that trails have been cleared along most of the route, and that there are only small portions of the river that need to be transversed directly.  Traveling in the river is generally slower, due to unexpected rocks and occasionally strong currents.  In retrospect, we wished we would have not stressed too much about keeping to the official timeline, and took more time to enjoy the scenery.  The Upper Narrows (see snapshot bellow) between Bullock’s Cabin and the waterfall offer views that rival those in Wall Street (the famous narrows closer to Zion Canyon), but with complete solitude.  It is really a spiritual experience.

Upper NarrowsDespite our back aches from our heavy packs, we were very pleased we opted to stay overnight.  Our feet were extremely sore by the time we reached campsite #9 and I couldn’t imagine going much further.  We were also very happy we started on the early shuttle, as it was already 3:45pm.  With just enough energy to change into more comfortable camp clothing and eat our packed supper, we went to bed fairly early.

We had a slower start than we would have liked the next day.  We didn’t leave camp until around 8am.  Originally, we wanted an earlier start to beat the crowds in Wall Street hiking up the river.  Unlike our experience on the first day, we were able to mostly keep up with the time guidelines provided by the Wilderness Desk.  Here is a table with travel time on day two from Campground #9:

Landmark Official Time Our Time
Big Spring 1 hour, 5 minutes 1 hour, 15 minutes
Orderville Canyon 3 hours, 45 minutes 4 hours, 30 minutes
Riverside Walk 5 hours, 35 minutes 5 hours, 45 minutes
Temple of Sinawava 6 hours, 5 minutes 6 hours, 5 minutes

By the time we reached Wall Street, which starts just beyond Big Spring, we did start seeing day hikers.  Luckily, even with our late start, the crowds were pretty thin until we reached Orderville Canyon.  After Orderville Canyon, however, it became a zoo.  The crowds really tainted the experience, and probably sped us up to get the hike over as soon as possible.  We would definitely recommend getting an earlier start to avoid this experience.

We were extremely thankful that the last mile of the hike was paved.  We actually found ourselves walking very quickly and passing the day hikers.  Walking on level ground just seemed so easy after the rock hopping we had been doing for most of the last two days.  After getting to the trailhead, we were able to get on the second shuttle departure and recuperate back in Springdale.  We arrived safe and extremely tired, but very proud of what we had achieved!

Swiss Rail Pass Evaluation: Extensive Benefits Justify Price

Swiss PassOur upcoming journey to Switzerland will be our first Europe trip since our first international trip together in 2009 in which buying a rail pass makes sense relative to purchasing individual tickets.  In our last train-intensive trip to Europe (Portugal/Spain 2012), we actually determined that planning ahead and buying tickets directly from the operator lead to greater savings than a rail pass.  This same rule applies to our planned travel in Germany and Austria during this trip, however the comprehensive benefits of the Swiss Rail Pass make it the clear choice for funding our transit within Switzerland.

The Swiss Pass is different from the passes offered by Eurail that are the standard in most countries.  Although Eurail offers regional or global passes that include Switzerland, the Swiss Pass, with its associated benefits, is only available from Swiss Travel System.  Also unlike the Eurail passes, the Swiss Pass offers free fare on local transit options, free admission to many of Switzerland’s best museums and attractions (link to master list), and free rides on many of the mountain cablecars and railroads.  Our first analysis, without considering these benefits, indicated individual tickets would actually be very comparable to a pass at around 305 CHF for our total train travel cost in Switzerland (cost of a 3-day flexi pass, 20 CHF shipping, and one ticket not included on the pass vs. 5 individual rail tickets and Mt. Rigi Majestic Round Trip).

Once we started looking at are other planned activities in Switzerland, however, we began to realize the benefit of the Swiss Pass.  The “flexi pass” we originally evaluated (which does not require the pass days to be consecutive), only offers the benefits on travel days.  Most of our planned activities will not occur on the same days we travel, so to take advantage of the Swiss Pass benefits, we needed to instead evaluate buying a normal 8-day Swiss Pass, which would cover travel and activities for our entire stay in Switzerland.  For a couple, this pass costs 365 CHF per traveler (including the 10% saver discount and 20 CHF total shipping for 2 passes).  Here are the expected benefits we expect to accrue with the pass per person (organized from largest value to smallest):

With this list, we value the Swiss Pass at 437.90 CHF, giving us 73 CHF relative to the individual cost.  Not spectacular savings, but combined with the convenience of avoiding ticket lines, it is a clear choice for us.  We really like how Swiss Travel Systems has put together a product that integrates sightseeing priorities, train travel, and local transit.

For others, its important to do an analysis to understand the value of a pass, and perhaps more importantly, whether a flexi pass or regular pass works best for their situation.  It is possible a multi-country Eurail pass makes more sense, if the sightseeing priorities don’t provide enough savings, and there are also other passes available that give you half price on train travel that may be worth consideration.

High Priority New York City Tourism Sights & Experiences

On our trip to New York City, we purposefully wanted to plan a “non-touristy” itinerary.  We specifically chose a location away from Times Square, and searched for unique and local eateries for our meals.  However, we ultimately realized it would be impossible to completely avoid visiting some of New York’s top tourist attractions.  Below are some of the select experiences we chose to visit during our trip:

September 11 Memorial

9/11 Memorial

The September 11 Memorial was a clear must-see for us as members of Generation Y, with childhoods undoubtedly shaped by the tragic events of that day.  The newly-opened memorial is a fitting tribute to the heroes and lives lost that day.  At the time of our visit, construction was still progressing on a permanent museum and the dramatic Freedom Tower adjacent to the memorial.  The waterfalls and pools in the footprint of the 2 former towers are magnificent in both scale and beauty.  The sound of the moving water is soothing amidst the clammer of a bustling city.

We utilized the advanced reservation system offered on the 9/11 Memorial website, which allows you to select an entry time and skip an entry line for $2 per pass.  If you have a printer, you can report directly to the memorial site.  Unfortunately, we made our reservation after leaving on our trip and needed to pick-up our reservation pass at the “Preview Site”, which is quite a detour and required waiting in a queue that was longer than the non-reservation line at the site that day.  Make sure an look for the brochure guide after entering the site, which provides good background information on the memorial (we missed it at first in anticipation of checking-out the pools).

 The Met 

Metropolitan Museum of ArtWe wanted to visit at least one museum on our NYC trip, and after reviewing our options, the Met (short for Metropolitan Museum of Art) seemed like the obvious choice.  The size, variety, and significance of the Met’s collections astounded us.  Having visited the Louvre, the Prado, and other famous European art museums, we decided to focus our tour on American art.  The museum’s American Wing features gorgeous landscapes (our favorite was one of the Andes), prime examples of American impressionism, and even stained glass pieces by Louis Tiffany.  In addition, they have amazing artifacts from Greece, Asia, and an impressive European art collection of their own.  We finished our visit with a stop at the rooftop bar, which offers excellent panoramic views of Central Park.

The Met offers “pay as you wish” admission, with a suggested donation of $25.  Although expensive, the comprehensive exhibits at the Met may warrant the high price tag.  Our ticket agent was very forward with allowing us to pay an amount we deemed appropriate.  Since we weren’t spending the whole day at the Met, we decided $12 each would be sufficient.  We definitely plan on returning on our next visit.  During our half-day visit, we didn’t cover more than 5% of what the museum had to offer.

 Empire State Building Observation Deck

Empire State Building Observation Deck


The Empire State Building wasn’t on our original itinerary.  The high cost ($27/person to the 86th floor) and long lines deterred us.  However, after a broadway show, an excellent peruvian dinner, and many glasses of wine, it somehow seemed like a good idea for us to walk 2 miles across Manhattan to catch the last elevator up the Empire State Building at 1:30am!  I’m glad we did!  Remarkably, the observation deck at the Empire State Building is open until 2am every night, with the last elevator leaving around 1:30am.  Not surprisingly, we found absolutely no lines and were virtually alone on the observation deck.  I had previously viewed NYC from the Top of the Rock observation deck, but the vantage point is really no comparison to what is offered at the top of the Empire State Building.  For $44/person, visitors are offered a view from the 102nd floor, but I would doubt that the extra 16 floors is worth the expense.

Venice in November – Acqua Alta Risk?

Acqua Alta

We are visiting the end of November, which is at the height of the Acqua Alta (or high water) season.  A last-minute change in our trip plans this year and work schedule conflicts led to us scheduling our Italy trip later than we’d normally go.  Despite the weather risk, we are confident we’ll still have a great trip after doing some research.  Let me explain…

Acqua Alta

Graph created using data from City of Venice

The graph above is scary for a November Venice visitor.  Since 1872, one third of all Acqua Alta events (defined as tides 110 cm above sea level, effectively flooding 14% of the city, and most visibly, St. Mark’s Square) have occurred in the month of November.  Over time, due to subsidence and human modifications to the natural environment, the frequency of events has increased.  In recent history (since 1966), Acqua Alta events occur about 4 times each year.  What the graph and pictures don’t show you, however, is that Acqua Alta events are actually fairly short in duration.  A similar graph to the one above on the City of Venice website shows that Acqua Alta events occur predominately in the morning, between 8am and noon.  The actual time where flooding occurs is driven by the tide cycles.  As seen in the graph below, showing the tide cycles over 3 days, the peaks span at most 4 hours.  So, at worst, an aqua alta event will impact a morning.  It’s also important to remember that the Acqua Alta events are driven by astronomical reasons, not meteorological.  Just because the water is high, doesn’t mean it’s raining.

Venice Tide ChartThe final thing we uncovered in our research that made us comfortable visiting Venice in November is the amount of resources the city invests in preparing for Acqua Alta.  In addition to a dedicated monitoring and warning department, the city also erects elevated platforms along main streets to allow people to walk above the water.  The vaporetto water buses continue to operate and many hotels we looked at provide water boots for guests.

In addition to reading about Acqua Alta, we also took a look at the historic weather trends for late November. is a great resource for pulling weather statistics by date.  For this trip, I built a quick Excel spreadsheet to summarize the temperature trends, chance of precipitation, and chance of “heavy rain”.  For our time period of interest, I obtained the following results:

Avg. Low Avg. High Any Precipitation “Rain”/”Heavy Rain”
40 51 17% 2%

We felt very comfortable with the results.  We can mitigate cold temperatures with warmer clothing, and a 2% chance of heavy precipitation doesn’t seem unreasonable compared to what we’d expect at any place anytime of the year.

After addressing the weather risk, we became extremely excited to visit in the off-season.  Visitors are often turned-off by the extreme crowds in Venice.  We last visited in early September, and although very crowded, we still enjoyed ourselves and found seclusion in the city late at night.  However, in late November, we are expecting solitude even in the daylight hours.  According to statistics from the Veneto Region government used to construct the graph below, November is nearly tied with December and January for the lowest nights spent by tourists in Venice per month.  Relative to when we last visited September, there will be almost as little as a third of the people visiting Venice.  Meanwhile, unlike more rural destinations or seasonal destinations, Venice will be completely open for business in November.  All of the hotel and restaurant options we’ve looked at are open.

Nights Spent in Veneto by Month

We were able to use online resources to effectively address our concerns about weather in Venice in November.  We are looking forward to a very romantic visit and an opportunity to see one of our favorite cities with far fewer crowds.

Planning a Machu Picchu Day Trip from Ollantaytambo

For us, Machu Picchu was the catalyst for planning a trip to Peru.  Although we later learned of Lima’s revered cuisine and the spectacular views in the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu is still the most important stop on our itinerary.  Accordingly, a lot of research and thought went into our ultimate plan for a day trip to visit Machu Picchu from Ollantaytambo.

Seeing Machu Picchu at sunrise was an important consideration in our planning.  Many visitors accomplish this by staying the night at Aguas Calientes (the town right below) the night before and catching the first 5:30am bus up to the site.  However, most of the lodging in Aguas Calientes is very expensive, and the town itself is described as run-down and devoid of character.  This realization, combined with reports of extensive fog in the morning and the discovery that trains from Ollantaytambo leave as early as 5:07am (arriving in Aguas Calientes at 6:34am), led to our decision to do a day trip from the Sacred Valley, as opposed to doing an overnight stay at Aguas Calientes.

Trip reports from others stress the importance of planning ahead of time.  There are a limited number of trains that run to Aguas Calientes, and it is sometimes impossible to make plans once arriving.  Even over 2 months ahead of our trip, we found that several train options (including one we figured would be the most convenient were already booked).  Additionally, the park itself limits the number of visitors to 2500 per day, and only 400 per day (in 2 time slots) for climbing Huaynapicchu (a popular hike within the park).  Two months ahead, there were still 167 slots in the later afternoon climb and 2450 for general admission, but I did notice that in the current month, several days had no availability.

Luckily, both train and park tickets can be obtained online.  Although visitors can also go through tours or travel agencies, it is usually more affordable (and I think more fun) to plan independently.

Train tickets are available through 2 companies: Peru Rail and Inca Rail.  Most trains leave from Ollantaytambo, which is a great base for exploring the Sacred Valley.  Four trains per day (including the luxurious Hiram Bingham train) leave from Poroy near Cusco, traveling through Ollantaytambo on the way.  We decided to take the earliest train, the 5:07am from Ollantaytambo, to enable to us to get as early of a start as possible.  We selected the 6:22pm return train, given that it wasn’t long after the 5:30pm closing time for the park.  Besides the Hiram Bingham, Peru Rail has two different classes of train: the Expedition and Vistadome, but we paid more attention to the times than the type of train.

Booking on the Peru Rail website is fairly straightforward.  As with train operators in Europe, Peru Rail recommends you use a Visa card registered in the Verified by Visa program.  Unfortunately, fewer and fewer cards are participating in this program (I just read confirmations that Chase cards dropped out of this program).  We decided to try our luck with our United Mileage Plus Explorer Card from Chase, even though it’s not in the Verified for Visa program, because it now has no foreign exchange transaction fees.  To our surprise, it worked!  However, we later learned that because it was not a Verified by Visa card, we need to pick-up paper tickets at a Peru Rail office when we arrive in the country.  Verified by Visa transactions can get e-Tickets.  We are going to try and contact Peru Rail to see if there is a way around this limitation, because the hours and locations of their offices are not the most convenient.

Tickets to the Machu Picchu park are available on the website administered by the Ministerio de Cultura.  Despite frustrating lag time, Flash, and unreliable language selection, we were able to secure our tickets.  The first step is to select “MACHUPICCHU” in the left drop down and the desired admission (general or a Huaynapicchu time slot) and then you can view availability on different dates.  This is all done with the “Reservas” or “Reservation” tab selected on the top.  After inputing information for participants, you are actually granted a reservation without paying.  The next step is to select the “Pagos” or “Payments” tab to use pay for your reservation.  You’ll need the reservation code from the first step.  Unlike Peru Rail, cards with Verified for Visa registration appear to be mandatory on this site.  We were unable to get our Chase card to work.  After paying, the last step is to use the “Check-in” tab to enter the reservation code one last time to retrieve e-tickets that can be printed-out and used for entrance.  

Expect to pay a lot for the Machu Picchu experience.  The combined cost of the train tickets and site admission cost us $368 ($184/person). That price does not include the cost we expect to pay for a bus fare once in Aguas Calientes ($12 R/T).  However, it is nice to have the peace of mind that our transportation and admission are guaranteed before leaving.

7 London Experiences for a Return Visit

I’ve now been to London 3 times: first with a middle school group, next with my mother, and just recently with my wife.  Each trip offered something new and enjoyable, and London, more than anywhere I’ve visited, is a place to return again and again.  In reflecting on this last trip, I thought of a list of seven highlights for a return visit (in no particular order):

1. The Strand

Fleet Street London

The walk along The Strand and Fleet Street from Trafalgar Square up Ludgate Hill to St. Paul’s Cathedral goes through my favorite part of London. It follows a historic route used in the Middle Ages to connect the City of London with Westminster.  Along the way, it’s a thrill to peek into Temple Inns of Court (all lawyers must live here during their internship), admire the wedding cake steeple at St. Bride’s Church, and peek into the historic taverns that still line the road. To really appreciate this part of London, it’s also rewarding to wander the narrow lanes and alleys.  On this last visit, we used Rick Steves’ guided walk through this area (link to map and audioguide).  On previous trips, I’d seen this part of London, but reading about the historic roots of the neighborhood and venturing off the main drag really made this walk a memorable experience and ultimately a trip highlight.

2. Tower of London

The Tower of London is on nearly everyone’s itinerary on a short trip to London, and it should stay on itineraries for return trips.  There is a lot to see at the Tower, and even after three visits, I still haven’t seen it all.  This last visit was probably the most rewarding, because of the planning we did ahead of time to avoid crowds.  We benefited from visiting London in the off-season (late November), but even then, we went out of our way to arrive at the Tower exactly at opening time on its first early day of the week (9am on Tuesday).  We literally had the crown jewels to ourselves and circled the conveyor belts at least five times.  It was also refreshing to find that our Yeoman’s tour was completely different than the one I went on during my last visit.  Not only did we visit different sites, but the Yeoman had completely different stories to share and his own unique personality. 

 3. Pub Grub

Pub Grub

For those who are returning to London after a long hiatus (my hiatus was 9 years, 2003-2012), the food scene in London has changedand for the better (although my opinion may be influenced by the fact that I am now of drinking age).  Many pubs now strive to serve innovative and quality cuisine along with great English beer.  Meanwhile, I’ve also became more adventurous.  In addition to fish & chips (a standard go-to for Americans at London pubs), I sampled roasts, meat pies, and burgers.  One pub we visited even offered a quality pâté for an appetizer.  After returning from previous trips, I always had to qualify my adoration for London with a disclaimer that the cuisine is lacking.  Now, I will actually look forward to eating in London, and am actually already missing pub grub!

 4.  London Docklands

On previous trips to London, I’ve always confined my sightseeing within Zone 1 of the London Underground.  However, to see the real modern-day London, visitors need to travel further east, to the London Docklands.  The best time to visit during the work week, when the 5 square blocks surrounding the Canary Wharf Underground Station are a hubbub of activity.  We had a fun time wandering through the underground shopping mall and watching London’s workforce (which is much better dressed than America’s, save DC and New York) rushing from work to lunch.  The futuristic self-driven Docklands Light Rail (DLR) connects the Canary Wharf area with Greenwich to the south and the new olympic facilities to the north.  Visiting the Docklands is probably not a priority for first time visitors with limited time in London, but for a return visit, it is interesting to see this new part of the city.

 5. Holiday Season

Covent Garden during the holidays

My past two trips to London occurred during summer, with plenty of large crowds and hot weather.  This trip, we visited in Late November, at the beginning of the holiday season in London.  In planning our trip, we were excited to see that decorations would be up and several Christmas markets running.  Our expectations on London’s holiday cheer were more than surpassed.  The decorations at Covent Garden (above) and beautiful Christmas lights on Regent Street were spectacular.  A favorite was the Southbank Christmas Market, a Bavarian-style Christmas market with fun handicrafts, German food, and hot chocolate! More details can be found in Kristin’s post on Christmas in London.  We were lucky with the weather (cold, but little precipitation), but I found myself enjoying winter in London much more than the summer.  We are already planning on returning to London at the same time on our next trip!  For those who have only experienced London in the summer, I certainly recommend trying a visit during the holidays.

6. Churchill War Rooms

I first visited the Churchill War Rooms on my second trip to London.  As a World War II buff, getting a glimpse of the UK headquarters during the war is fascinating and I didn’t mind sharing the experience again with my wife on our recent trip.  I was excited to find that since my second visit, there is also now a Churchill Museum co-located with the War Rooms (since 2005).  The museum provides a very comprehensive overview of the life of Winston Churchill.  We found the material so fascinating that we spent over an hour exploring the audiovisual experiences.  If it weren’t for our tired feet, we could have stayed much longer!  If your last visit to the War Rooms occurred prior to 2005, or if you just ran out of time exploring the museum, it’s certainly worth a visit on a return trip to London.

7. Parliament

Westminster Hall

Government and politics have always been an interest of mine, and unfortunately my trips to London and my only trip to Washington D.C. occurred during legislative recesses.  I was thrilled when I realized it was a possibility to see the UK Parliament in action on this last trip.  Given that it was off-season and a weekday, the lines to gain admission were very reasonable, although it isn’t hard to imagine that they could quickly become unmanageable with larger crowds.  After clearing security and getting a close-up view of Big Ben, we saw historic Westminster Hall (picture above).  We then climbed a maze of stairs to the House of Commons viewing gallery, and listened to a committee debate (more details in my specific post on this subject).  In future trips, I want to try and see the House of Lords and attend when it is in full session.  Even in committee, however, I found it fascinating.

It’s remarkable how much London has to offer visitors.  Not only is there so much to see that there are new places to visit each trip, but the places visited in past trips are so interesting that they warrant a revisit.  I’ve found each sequential trip to London more rewarding and can’t wait to visit again (in fact, we both wish we could find a way to live there)!

LAX to London on Air New Zealand’s Sky Couch

There are no shortage of options for flying between LAX and London.  We always focus our search on direct flights offered by Star Alliance carriers, given our membership in United’s Mileage Plus.  We were intrigued when Air New Zealand (a Star Alliance member) offered the cheapest fare for our trip to London, and also offered a reasonably priced upgrade option to their economy “Sky Couch“, a block of 3 seats that include footrests that fold up for a bed.  Although we’ve flown together to Europe 3 times, we have always arrived in the evening.  For our London trip, we were arriving in the morning with a full day ahead of us.  We figured the extra investment for the Sky Couch to improve our chances of sleeping would be a good investment.

Air New Zealand’s Sky Couch.  Photo courtesy Air New Zealand.

We were very impressed with Air New Zealand from the moment we boarded.  Air New Zealand operated their London-LAX-Auckland route with brand new 777s with very sleek interiors.  The personal televisions (PTVs) in economy class are the most sophisticated we’ve seen, with extraordinary entertainment selection (literally hundreds of shows/movies) and the ability to order snacks and drinks.  We even enjoyed the safety video, which was filmed using Lord of the Rings characters.  Before takeoff, the flight attendants demonstrated how we could raise the footrests and use the special “Sky Couch” safety belt, which would allow us to lay across the seats securely.

The meals offered in flight were surprisingly unique.  Instead of the usual fare of fettuccine alfredo and meatloaf, we were offered things like provencal beef with white bean salad and beef madras curry.  And they weren’t bad!  Like many European carriers, Air New Zealand offers free wine in economy class, before, during, and after the meal (and available through the PTV order system!).

The “Sky Couch” itself was not as comfortable as our bed at home, but definitely an improvement over a standard economy seat.  I’m convinced that we squeezed in at least 2 more hours of sleep then we would have without the upgrade, and it was also nice not worrying about sharing a row of seats with a third person (e.g. asking to go to the restroom in the middle of the flight).  After we arrived in London, we actually had plenty of energy for an ambitious day of adventure, including our first pub grub lunch, a ride on the London Eye, and an Indian dinner–all manageable with just a short cat nap in the early evening.

Our only real disappointment with Air New Zealand was the revelation a month later that we did not earn the 10,000+ United Mileage Plus miles we expected from the trip.  Even though our airfare was not “killer”, we found that we were booked with booking class “K”, which is not eligible for United mileage accrual (see reference here, just one code up, “T”, earns 100%).  Although we have always chosen a Star Alliance carrier for our trips to Europe, at least partly due to incentive of earning United miles, I’m not absolutely certain our decision would have been different if we had known.  At least now, we are aware that mileage accrual through Star Alliance is often dependent on booking class.  In planning future trips, I have been checking the booking class associated with the fare and researched the mileage eligibility on United’s website.

We’ve already discussed using Air New Zealand again on our next trip to London, and I expect we will get the “Sky Couch” again if it remains a good value.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to book in a class that earns United mileage.

Navigating Heathrow’s Transit Options

Connecting from airports to city centers is always an adventure (one of the reasons we like train travel in Europe, which always drops you in the center of town).  Heathrow Airport is as far as any other European airport from the city, and its size can be quite intimidating.  However, it also offers several convenient transit options by train for getting to Central London, all enumerated below (ordered with most affordable first):

1.  London Underground: £5.50 per person / 1 Hour

We took the London Underground from Heathrow to Central London on our trip.  The Piccadilly Line leaves directly from the Heathrow Terminal, and stops at many locations in London proximal to hotels, including Green Park (our stop, near Buckingham Palace), Piccadilly Circus, Covent Garden, and King’s Cross.  At £5.50 per person, the London Underground is likely the cheapest option, but it is also the slowest, taking approximately one hour.  Train cars on the Piccadilly Line all contain a useful luggage area near the doors, but once inside Central London, the large crowds do make it a bit awkward.  It’s much easier traveling from Heathrow, where the cars start empty.  Starting in London towards Heathrow with a full car can be difficult.  If you are not traveling light, the Underground might not be the best choice.  We were lucky that our hotel was right off the Piccadilly Line, as the Underground stations aren’t necessarily built for easy transfers with luggage.  If you do need to make a transfer, it may be worthwhile to look at the “Avoiding stairs tube guide” from the London Underground, which details which stations have elevators.

 2.  Heathrow Connect: £9.50 per person / 30 Minutes 

There are also conventional rail connections to London, all of which run from the Heathrow Central station at Terminal 1 and Terminal 3 to Paddington Station in Northwest London (which may or may not be convenient for travelers).  Paddington Station does offer direct connections to the Circle, Hammersmith, Bakerloo, and District Underground lines.  For us, we figured the time for a connection to Green Park (our destination) via the Bakerloo line would take longer than the time savings by riding the Heathrow Connect (about 30 minutes).  At £9.50 per person, Heathrow Connect is still a very affordable option for getting to the city.  For travelers actually staying near Paddington Station, it’s an excellent option.  Another plus is that the trains have significantly more room for luggage than the Piccadilly Line.

 3.  Heathrow Express: £20 per person / 15 Minutes

Heathrow Express is the fastest connection option, but also fairly pricey at £20 per person.  In 15 minutes, it zips you from Heathrow to Paddington Station.  Riders are treated to onboard TVs, modern furnishings, and lots of luggage space.  At twice the price as Heathrow Connect, riders are asked to pay a premium to save 15 minutes of time.

Other Options

Heathrow also has bus and taxi options, both of which take approximately an hour to reach central London.  Bus options range in price from £5 to £20 and you expect to pay £40 for a taxi ride.


Indian Food in Central London

Many of London’s Indian communities lie on the outskirts (particularly Southall near Heathrow Airport), but we found it very easy to find authentic Indian cuisine in Central London.  We regularly eat Indian food in California, and I spent a month in India during a college summer, so we thought we knew what to expectbut our expectations were surpassed in both of our Indian dinners in every way (and at a fairly reasonable value given London’s high dining prices).

We were so excited about Indian food in London (or maybe it was we were so not excited about British food), that we ate Indian food our first night.  After doing some background online research from our hotel, we decided to try Punjab near Covent Garden.  Although the restaurant was extremely crowded upon arrival, the wait staff found us a table for 2 very quickly.  Punjab specializes in North Indian food (which is mainly what is found in the United States).  Their menu offered some of our favorites (all of which we ordered): samosas, chicken tikka masala, saag panner, and naan.  Ironically, we enjoyed the food with a California Chardonnay, which paired excellently.  Despite being in Central London, many of the other clientele were British Indians (which is a good sign).  Our bill for £47 was probably one of our lowest in London.

Several nights later, we were again hungry for Indian.  We decided to be more adventurous, and selected a South Indian restaurant in the West End called Woodlands, this time found using a Rick Steves’ guide.  South Indian food is not nearly as common place in the United States (most of what they offered, Kristin had never tried).  A common menu item in South Indian restaurants is thali, a complete meal including a variety of dishes, traditionally served on a platter with metal bowls (picture above).  The Woodlands menu was completely vegetarian, and our thali included many tasty items, including the following:

  1. IdlIdlii: A pillow of rice and lentils, often served with chutney (coconut and vegetable at the Woodlands).  In India, idli is actually often served as a breakfast dish.  It is a very traditional South Indian dish and can probably be found in many different restaurants in London.  Our idli was served as an appetizer, before the actual thali platter.  We found it extremely satisfying!
  2. BhajjiaBhajjia: Fried onion fritters, also served with chutney (coconut in our case).  Bhajjia can also be made with carrots, peppers, and potatoes.  We found that it was a decent substitute for the samosas we usually order at North Indian restaurants.  The portion size at the Woodlands is just perfect, and the fried onions paired very well with our white wine.
  3. DosaDosa: A crepe made with a batter of lentils and rice (again served with a selection of chutneys).  It’s hard to find anything tastier than good dosa when cooked perfectly.  In America, probably the closest thing you can find to it is a pancake.  It is common to find a variety of dosa on a menu.  Although we had potato dosa with our thali, Woodlands also offered spicy, mushroom, and onion.Korma
  4. Korma: When the thali tray comes out, one of the best things to do is mix up the various curries with the rice.  One of our favorites to mix was korma, a mix of vegetables cooked in a creamy yogurt nut sauce.  The korma at Woodlands was made with a cashew sauce and included green beans, sweet potatoes, and peas.

We enjoyed it all, except for the dessert, which was a little exotic, and again selected a white wine, which paired excellently with the food. We found ourselves sitting next to many locals and, although our bill was slightly higher, it was reasonable for London.  All in all, the dinner was a very unique experience.

Our two Indian meals ended up being a trip highlight, and we look forward to finding delicious Indian food next time we visit London.  Given the limited allure of British food, visitors should certainly try and include at least one Indian meal on their London itinerary.

Exploring London Through a Historical Lens

Although cultural experiences and scenery often shape my most memorable travel experiences, I find that in London, understanding the historical context of the places and buildings can turn typical sightseeing into an exciting adventure.  During our past trip, I read Edward Rutherford’s London prior to our departure, but just a quick peek at the Wikipedia article can provide enough information to enrich your visit.  In this post, I decided to provide a quick run-down of 3 important historical events, and explain how they have shaped today’s London:

December 25, 1066 – William the Conqueror Crowned King of England

Westminster AbbeyIn December of 1066, after invading England and defeating King Harold II, William the Conqueror of Normandy is crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey.  The Gothic building so famous today was built by Henry III 100 years later, but the location of William’s coronation occurred in an abbey on the exact same spot.  The arrival of William and Normans in London brought tremendous influences to architecture, government, and even language.

White Tower at Tower of LondonOne of the best examples of Norman architecture during this time is the White Tower at the Tower of London. William commissioned the building of the White Tower in 1078.  When built, the White Tower was one of the largest fortifications in the world.  Inside, the unquestionable highlight is St. John’s Chapel, which feels like it hasn’t changed a bit since the 11th century (and it really hasn’t).

I like to imagine what Norman London was like between these 2 landmarks.  The Strand, the road that starts near Trafalgar Square and heads towards St. Paul’s, was the historic thoroughfare connecting the principal City of London with Westminster.  Remarkably, the area between Westminster and the City of London was rural until the 19th century.  The City of London began just beyond the Fleet River (namesake for Fleet Street, which The Strand turns into), at Ludgate.  The actual gate to the City of London no longer exists, but there is a plaque right near St. Martin Church (40 Ludgate Hill) to commemorate the original location of the gate.

September 2, 1666 – Great Fire of London

St. Bride'sAfter the Norman conquest, as London continued to grow, wood was the predominant building material.   The largest structure in the city was the original St. Paul’s, constructed on the same site as today’s church.  At 585 feet in length, 100 feet in width, and with a spire of 489 feet, it was a marvel for its time.  In 1666, the original St. Paul’s, along with homes of almost 90% of the cities inhabitants, were destroyed in the Great Fire of London.  The fire originated from a bakery on the infamous Pudding Lane, now recognized with a grand monument.

Although devastating, the fire cleared the way for the grand stone structures and Baroque architecture found throughout London today.  The city commissioned Christopher Wren to rebuild much of London, including St. Paul’s and 50 other churches.  His characteristic style is very recognizable, such as in the spire of St. Bride’s church (pictured above).  Almost all wooden buildings were replaced with stone as a precaution against future fires.  Remarkably, much of the same street plan survives, due to complications with determining property ownership after the fire.

It’s difficult to comprehend the destruction of the fire when surveying Central London.  The fire literally gutted the city from the Tower of London nearly to Westminster.  Remarkably, there are only a few buildings in Central London that survived and provide an example of pre-1666 Tudor architecture (such as the Staple Inn and Prince Henry’s Room).  It certainly takes a lot of imagination to imagine a whole city filled with similar buildings in the time of Shakespeare. 

September 7, 1940 – The Blitz

St. Paul's Cathedral from across the Thames

Prior to 1940, the last foreign invasion of Britain occurred in 1719, when Spanish forces arrived in Scotland in retaliation for the destruction of a Spanish fleet by the Royal Navy.  The Spaniards were quickly vanquished in the Battle of Glen Shiel.  Thereafter, thanks to British military might, the isle remained safe from foreign brutality.  With the advent of modern warfare, however, England became susceptible to aerial bombardment.

On September 7, 1940, the Nazi Luftwaffe bombed London to start what became to be known as The Blitz.  Ordinary English citizens, spared from war in their homeland for so long, were now forced into a constant state of worry.  London was bombed on 57 consecutive nights, and a total of 71 times over eight months.  One million homes were damaged and nearly 20,000 Londoners lost their lives.  A humbling graphic of the extreme extent of the bombing can be seen on Bomb Sight, where a web map depicts all the bombs dropped during The Blitz.  Miraculously, most of London’s historic buildings survived the air raids, including St. Paul’s, which supported the morale of London citizens (the photo I took on our trip above reminds me of the famous “St. Paul’s Survives” photo published in London newspapers to inspire Londoners).

When visiting London sites, it’s impossible to miss references to The Blitz.  Audioguides at St. Paul’s describe how volunteer fire brigades stayed on call to protect the church (and in fact might have saved it when they heroically removed an unexploded bomb from the roof).  London at war can perhaps be most directly experienced at the Churchill War Rooms near Westminster.  Visitors are allowed to visit the hideout of UK leadership during the war, including the map room where troop movement around the world was tracked.


London is rich in history, and understanding important events can add a lot of meaning to a visit.  One fun experience that ties it all together is the Oculus in the crypt at St. Paul’s, a panoramic audiovisual experience that recaps 1400 years of London history in four minutes.  Otherwise, the best historical background can be obtained through online resources, audioguides, and books.

West End Shows: Discounts, Seats, and Dinner

Seeing a show in London’s West End was near the top of our list of things to do on our visit.  Originally, we planned on getting tickets from Leicester Square’s Half Price Ticket Booth.  We even started planning our sightseeing itinerary around being able to be near Leicester Square when the booth opened at 9am.  I had a great memory of snagging front row tickets to Les Misérables for half price when visiting in 2003, and wanted to relive the experience with my wife.  Luckily, I did enough research before leaving to know that half-price tickets for Les Mis are no longer easy to come by.

For visitors to London less particular about the show they see, the Half Price booth is a great option.  The booth now posts the list of most of it’s offerings online, including shows available for the next 2 days.  Not all of the shows are “half price”, but decent discounts are sometimes available for even popular shows (tickets to Jersey Boys 33% off at the time of writing this post).  The seats available at Leicester Square are likely less desirable, but many of the theaters in the West End are fairly small with very few bad seats.

If you do buy ahead, however, do some quick research to try and get the best seat possible.  Similar to popular website Seat Guru (used for selecting airline seats), Theatre Monkey provides information on the best seats for many of London’s theaters.  We ultimately decided to buy Les Mis tickets in the Orchestra section and Theatre Monkey was a great resource for choosing our seats.  It’s surprising how different pricing can be for seats that appear to be the same on a map, often due to an obstructed view that may not otherwise be intuitive.  We decided to be close to the action, so we bought tickets for the front row, but avoided the ends of the row since Theatre Monkey identified them as bad seats.  Interestingly, front row seats are often significantly cheaper than seats a few rows back in the Orchestra section, due to the view being less than ideal.  We had absolutely no issues with our view, however, and I believe we enjoyed the show much more than we would have from the Upper Circle and we were able to save a bit of money.

We decided to follow Les Mis with dinner at YO! Sushi (a franchise restaurant in the UK), because of a happy hour on Monday nights discounting all sushi to £2.49 and their 11pm closing time.  We were dismayed to find the restaurant totally empty upon arrival after the show.  We were informed the kitchen was closed and we were relegated to eating whatever was leftover on the sushi belt.  After sampling what was available, we were very disappointed in the quality (on par with supermarket sushi in California) and we cut our losses and quickly left.  Back out on the main streets, we explored for an alternative but didn’t find anything that fit the bill.

Later on in our trip, we realized we just didn’t look hard enough that night, as there are actually plenty of options for late night dining in the West End, including some that actually offer a “Theatre Menu”.  Several nights later we enjoyed one of our best italian meals ever (especially outside Italy), at Bocca Di Lupo, which does offer post-theatre dining.  This restaurant, like many other good ones, is just not on the main streets we explored that night.  With a little research and patience, we learned, it would be possible to enjoy a nice dinner after the theatre.

For a successful West End experience, either book ahead for a specific show or wait until the last minute and choose from the available shows at the half-price ticket booth.  Even though we booked ahead for Les Mis, it is certainly possible to see shows on the West End with much less planning.  Next time, we might try getting half price tickets the same day and use the savings for a fancy post-theatre dinner!

Observing History in Action: A Visit to Parliament in London

The United Kingdom is surprisingly liberal in allowing the public to view Parliament, which is a great thrill for visitors with an interest in government and politics.  All debates and many committee meetings can be observed for free.  Those interested simply queue at the security line off Cromwell Green (directly across Westminster Abbey on the west side of Parliament).  Although the queue may be long (ours wasn’t, given that we visited in late November), the line moves fast.

After passing through the security line, and passing by a very unique vantage point of Big Ben (an excellent photo opportunity), the next stop is the impressive Westminster Hall.  This room is the only remnant of the original Westiminster Palace.  Built in 1097, it is clearly an engineering marvel for the time.  Westminster Hall has been the location for coronation banquets, and historically housed several important courts.

Past Westminster Hall, visitors are ushered into either the House of Lords or the House of Commons.  We went to the House of Commons, which required navigating through a maze of staircases and narrow hallways.  Just before the gallery, visitors are required to check all cameras and phones.  The public gallery we arrived in was perched above the debating floor and separated by a large shield of glass.  Televisions and paper programs provided details on the agenda for the proceedings.  On our particular day, the Parliament was discussing disability benefits.

Both the tradition and organization of the Parliament were fascinating.  While I knew that parties worked together to form coalition governments, I had no idea that the losing coalition formed their own “shadow government”, complete with a Shadow Cabinet with their own Secretary of State, Secretary of Health, etc.  During our visit, we saw members of both the prevailing Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet speak.

Thirty minutes was enough to experience Parliament.  With more time, I may have ventured into the House of Lords as well to compare to the two.  The most exciting time is supposed to be the “Question Time” held each week, where the prime minister is interrogated by the Members of Parliament.  However, it sounds like crowds make it difficult to get a seat.

We were very impressed with the efficient and open system the UK has created for viewing their government in action.  I fully recommend the experience for any visitors to London interested in politics.

Day Trip to Brussels from London: Too Ambitious?

I’ve always wanted to ride the Eurostar through the Chunnel Tunnel, but never had a good opportunity.  On our recent trip to London, I convinced Kristin to agree to a day trip on Eurostar to Brussels.  In addition to the train ride (which was exciting enough to justify the trip for me), we also planned on seeking out three Brussels experiences: 1) mussels, 2) Trappist beer, and 3) chocolate.  We actually accomplished our goal, but in the end, the trip was way more stress and hassle than it was worth.

We didn’t finalize our decision to go to Brussels until just several weeks before our trip.  Unfortunately, by this time, fares crept up and we ultimately needed to consider price in our train selection.  We opted for the 10:57am departure from London, putting us in Brussels at 2:05p (2 hour train + 1 hour loss due to time zone change) and the 6:56pm departure from Brussels, putting us in London at 7:57pm (2 hour train ride – 1 hour gain due to time zone change).  Ideally, we would have chosen an earlier departure, but it was too expensive at the time of booking.  We ended up paying £89 per person round trip for the train trip.

Grand PalaceUpon arrival in Brussels, we set out for the center of town, which surrounds the picturesque Grand Palace (photo on the left).  Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that the Eurostar drops travelers at the Brussels Midi station, well outside the center of town, until we were nearly halfway there.  We spent about 25 minutes walking in the rain to traverse the distance to the Grand Palace.  We later realized that this journey is much more efficient by a train transfer to Brussels Central, which is included in the price of the Eurostar ticket and takes less than 5 minutes (with frequent trains).

After taking in the Grand Palace, we opted to dine at Chez Leon, well regarded for their mussels.  On the way, we passed through Restaurant Row, with overzealous restaurateurs chasing us away from our restaurants.  After sitting down at Chez Leon, we ordered a starter of escargot in addition to individual orders of moules-frites (mussels & french fries).  Although we always like mussels, we were a little disappointed that Chez Leon’s food was not spectacular, and Kristin actually disliked the celery included in the preparation of the mussels.

Our next stop was the Delirium Cafe, which happened to be a block away, in search of a Trappist beer.  After entering the cafe, we were informed that many of the specialty beers, including the much sought-after Rocheford beers, were only available downstairs.  Upstairs, they have a great selection of beers on tap.  We really liked the atmosphere upstairs, so we decided to sample what they had to offer on tap.  

The upstairs of Delirium Cafe, with many beers on tap!

 I still managed to try a Trappist beer, the Chimay Triple, which they offered on tap.  Meanwhile, Kristin tried a very unique green, wheat beer, called Floris Cactus.  We finished with a special Christmas beer, the Delirium Noel, which despite being very alcoholic (10% ABV), was extremely drinkable.  We could have stayed for a while (and in fact this experience was probably the highlight of Brussels), but we still had one more priority to check-off before our train departure: chocolate!

Saint HubertMany of the chocolate shops in Brussels are concentrated near Les Galeries Saint Hubert (see photo to the right), the covered mall near the center of town.  After checking out several of the famous shops (we eliminated Godiva since it is so ubiquitous in the USA), we decided to taste some chocolates at Neuhaus.  We were blown-away by several of the chocolates, including those flavored with hazelnut.  We ultimately took home 2 boxes, which we have been slowly eating since our return home.  We also found a small independent chocolate shop to grab a Belgian waffle with chocolate, and it was delicious!  

The quick train transfer from the much-closer Brussels Central train station to Brussels Midi was very slick, and we arrived with plenty of time to go through immigration (with a new passport stamp!) and board our train home.  We slept nearly the entire way, arriving in London with an appetite for dinner on the way home.

Ultimately, it was an interesting experience.  However, London has so much to offer and we found ourselves wishing we hadn’t spent the time or money to go to Brussels.  Most guidebooks recommend Bruges over Brussels as the place to visit in Belguim, but it’s just not feasible to make it that far on a day trip.  Even with our regret, we can now say we’ve seen the capital of Europe, and I can check off my lifetime ambition of taking the Eurostar through the Chunnel.

Insights on a Last Minute Plan to Observe Changing of the Guard

The Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace is one of the most popular attractions in London.  The large crowds described in guidebooks initially turned us off to the experience, but with some time to kill before our flight home on Sunday morning, we decided to check it out.  With no prior planning (we were actually reading tips while walking towards the palace), we managed to appreciate the experience and get some good photographs.

We did find crowds when we arrived at 10:00 am on Sunday, however they were small enough to potentially allow us a second row view.  However, we weren’t dedicated enough to wait against the fence for over an hour.  Soon thereafter, we noticed commotion associated with a horse guard marching past the grounds.  We later realized this was the horse guard changing at Whitehall, which happens 1 hour early on Sundays.

At 10am, the crowd at Buckingham Palace would have allowed us to get a second row seat (left), but right before the ceremony, we needed to get perched on a wall to get any viewpoint at all (right). 

With limited patience for waiting over an hour for the ceremony, we explored St. James’s Park, all the way to Horse Guard Parade. We snapped some excellent photos of the London skyline en route.  With around 30 minutes to spare, we headed back towards Buckingham Palace.  On the way, along The Mall, we noticed some activity at Stable Yard Road.  To our delight, we ended up with last minute front row seats to the Old Guard marching out from Friary Court towards the ceremony.  After the entire troupe marched by, we scrambled to the Victoria Memorial and climbed atop one of the walls.  We were not able to see any of the traditional procedures carried out directly in front of the palace, but still saw several marching troupes and enjoyed the band music.

Old Guard marching from Friary Court on Stable Yard Road.

We recommend this strategy for any other London visitors with limited time and an aversion to large crowds.  We certainly got the feel of the tradition, but instead of waiting hours crowded against the Buckingham Palace fence, we explored the scenic St. James’ Park.

Affordable Transit & Sightseeing in London: National Rail’s 2FOR1 with Travelcard

Sightseeing in London is expensive.  A day full of admissions to London’s top sights will quickly eat through even generous travel budgets.  Luckily, for those traveling with a companion and interested in travelcards for London’s transit system (including unlimited access to the Underground), National Rail offers a program that allows 2 travelcards to be used for 2-for-1 admission at many of London’s attractions, marketed as “2FOR1 London”.  The list of participating attractions includes many must-see sites, including the Churchill War Rooms, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the Tower of London (excluding July through September).  It’s worth checking back often before a trip because the list frequently changes.

Normally, 2FOR1 is designed as a perk for British visiting London who decide to travel by rail.  For a one-way ticket to London, 2FOR1 discounts are valid on the same day as the ticket.  For return tickets to London, discounts are valid through the duration of the visit to London.  Many foreign travelers are not buying rail tickets to London, but National Rail extends eligibility to travelcards for travel within London.  The catch is that the travelcard must be purchased from National Rail, in a paper ticket format, as opposed to the Oyster Card version sold in Underground stations.  The popular Zone 1-2 travelcard sold by National Rail only costs £8.80 for unlimited travel for 1 day or £30.40 for 7 days.  2FOR1 discounts are valid during the entire eligibility of the travelcard.

Buying a National Rail paper travelcard is less convenient than purchasing an Oyster Card at an Underground station, but the extra hassle is well worth the savings.  We bought our travelcard at Charing Cross Station in central London.  A new rule requires a photo ID card to accompany 7 day paper travelcards.  For the clerk to create a photo ID card, you need to provide a passport size photo when buying the card (note that UK passport photo size is 45mm x 35mm vs. the 2″ x 2″ standard in the USA).  We took a digitial photo before leaving, cropped it to the correct size, and printed it on photo paper.  Our amateur versions worked just fine.  After arriving at Charring Cross, the entire process of paying and obtaining a travelcard took less than 10 minutes.

For each attraction, 2 travelcards (or rail tickets) and a voucher must be provided.  Vouchers are available in a booklet provided when buying the travelcard, or can be printed out ahead of time from the National Rail website.  We had no problems with any attractions honoring the discount.

In the end,  the 2FOR1 promotion saved us £73.65 (or £36 per person) on our recent trip to London:

  • Churchill War Rooms: £16.50
  • London Eye:  £18.90
  • St. Paul’s Cathedral: £15
  • Tower of London: £20.90

The nice part is that we wanted to buy a 7-day travelcard anyway!  The only added cost was the small hassle of finding a National Rail station to make the transaction, which was more than worth the trouble.