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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)!

7 London Experiences for a First-Time Visit

Most of these probably won’t come as a surprise (we’ve even written about some of them extensively), but I’ve compiled my list of the top 7 things to do and see in London for a first-time visit.  It wasn’t easy and I’m sure not everyone would agree with all of the items, but here is what I would recommend for a first trip to London:

1. Tower of London

Crown Jewels, Tower of London

It may be expensive and crowded, but the Tower of London is worth a few hours of your time.  The Crown Jewels are a must-see and do be sure to take a (free!) tour with one of the Yeoman Warders (Beefeaters).  The tours are popular and may be large, but our Yeoman Warder had a booming voice and was full of stories and jokes about the Tower of London.  Other than that, see anything that sounds interesting – we visited the White Tower (it houses the Royal Armories’ collections), walked a portion of the wall surrounding the Tower of London, and spent some time looking at torture devices in the Lower Wakefield Tower.  Don’t forget: depending on when (time of year) you’re visiting, you may be able to take advantage of the 2-for-1 tickets – we only paid £20.90 for the two of us.

2. British Museum

An extensive collection of artifacts spanning human civilization, the British Museum is a perfect escape from a dreary London day (and it’s free!).  For a quick trip, I recommend following Rick Steves’ guide (found in his London book or here, where you can download an audio version).  He goes through the essentials – Egypt, Assyria, and Greece – and provides information about the key items in each section.  With more time, explore exhibits focusing on cultures from all over the world: Ancient and Imperial China, Ancient Rome, Incas, and Aztecs, to name a few.  In addition to the permanent exhibits, the museum has temporary exhibitions that may be worth a visit (flowers and plants from North America were being featured while we were there). 

3. Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral

College Garden, Westminster Abbey, LondonThe entrance fee (£18) to Westminster Abbey includes an audioguide with 20 listening points throughout the interior.  As you walk in through the north transept, you have a view of the breathtaking nave – the ornate vaulted ceiling was the show-stealer of Westminster Abbey. It was very impressive and something that has to be seen in person (the pictures don’t do it justice).  A substantial portion of the tour took us to various tombs, including that of Queen Elizabeth I and Kind Edward the Confessor (he built the original Westminster Abbey).  We finished our visit outside in the Cloisters, and then continued to the Little Cloister and College Garden (pictured above – according to Rick Steves it is only open Tuesday-Thursday).  

The entrance fee (£15) to St. Paul’s Cathedral also includes a free audioguide and access to both the dome and the crypt.  We started out in the nave, made our way around the spacious church, and then started up the stairs leading to the dome.  If you are physically able, there are about 500 or so stairs that lead up to the top of the dome and I highly recommend the trip.  The first level (about 250 steps up) brings you to a walkway around the inside of the dome, overlooking the church interior.  The second and third stops are outside of the dome, with sweeping (and windy) views of London.  We finished our visit down in the crypt.  We started in a room with the Oculus, 270° film that shows the history of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and finished by admiring the numerous tombs of famous people.  A visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral is definitely worth 1.5 hours during your trip!

4. Borough Market and Portobello Market

I wrote about the markets in more detail here, but they were so enjoyable that they deserve another mention.  Even if you don’t plan to purchase any souvenirs, bring your appetite and plan to have lunch or a snack while browsing the offerings.  Remember to visit Borough Market on Thursday-Saturday and Portobello Market on a Saturday to enjoy the full-blown markets.

5. Indian Food

Ryan wrote aboutvegetable masala, Woodlands Restaurant, London the two Indian restaurants we tried in London and I think it’s safe to say I wouldn’t have minded trying more.  I wasn’t familiar with the vegetarian dishes found in southern India, so I welcomed the chance to taste something new (the picture to the right shows my appetizer from the dinner – vegetable masala idli: steamed rice and lentils with mixed vegetables) .  Next time I visit, I plan to expand my palate even more – either by choosing more adventurous dishes from the menu or trying a new cuisine (such as Pakistani).  Don’t miss a spicy meal in the land known for bland food!

6. Afternoon Tea

Cream Tea, The Wolseley, LondonWhether it’s cream tea (just tea and scones) or a full-blown afternoon tea (tea, scones, pastries, sandwiches, and champagne, if you wish), an afternoon tea break to unwind is a must! Not only is it fun to take part in an English tradition, but sitting down to tea is a great break from walking around and serves as a snack to tide you over until dinner.  The picture on the left is from our cream tea at The Wolseley.  Some of the well-known tea rooms include those at The Ritz, Fortnum & Mason, and Claridge’s, but tea rooms can be found almost anywhere (including department stores and book stores), ranging in prices.

7. See a show

Along with Broadway shows in New York, musicals in London are another must-see. Known for it’s great theater district, London has several famous shows to choose from each night.  We planned to see Les Misérables and purchased tickets ahead of time, but for another trip I would consider getting half-price tickets the day of the show.  Ryan provided information for anyone considering a show (whether you choose to book ahead or try out the half-price tickets, his post will be helpful).  Plan a fancy night out, with a pre-show drink and a late-night post-show dinner!

This list is a great start for a first visit to London.  And the good news is, these can all be done on a short 3-4 day trip!  The days will be long, but a sample plan could go as follows:

Day 1 – Borough Market (plan to eat lunch there!), Westminster Abbey (1.5-2 hours), and Indian food for dinner (if your first day is a full day, the morning will be clear for any other must-see sites on your list!)

Day 2 – The Tower of London (3-4 hours), lunch break, St. Paul’s Cathedral (1.5-2 hours), a show in London’s West End (with dinner either before or after)

Day 3 – Portobello Market in the morning (eat an early snack/lunch there), British Museum in the early afternoon (~2 hours), and an afternoon tea break to rejuvenate before the rest of the night

This plan leaves some time to wander around, stop at a pub or two, and add extra sites as you see fit.  Enjoy your trip to London!

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.

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.

Afternoon Tea in London

Afternoon tea is everywhere in London and it’s something I’ve dreamed about ever since we planned our trip.If you are an avid tea lover like me, you can also taste varieties of tea from Atlas Tea Club because they create an experience with each cup you sip. What could be more “London” than sitting in a warm dining room, drinking tea and eating scones, while the wind and rain pound against the building?

It is so common in London and we easily took part in the ritual two times during our weeklong stay.  However, I didn’t know anything about the history of afternoon tea until after we returned.  I found this site, which gives a brief history lesson:  In the nineteenth century, Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, started the tradition of afternoon tea as a late afternoon snack between breakfast and dinner.  She eventually started to invite friends to tea and the practice caught on among society.  Afternoon tea is generally served around 4pm and is not to be confused with “high tea” – this was traditionally served to the middle and lower classes and it consists of a heavier meal served later in the day (5 or 6pm) as a substitute for dinner.

Even without the above history lesson, we were able to enjoy our afternoon tea.  Our hotel was just down the street and across the way from The Ritz, but we opted for the cheaper and still opulent dining room of The Wolseley for tea-time experience.

I must apologize for the pictures – some are from my iPhone and the room was dimly lit, resulting in less-than-stellar pictures.  But I can assure you that the experience was first class, and I would highly recommend this to anyone visiting London.  It’s a great way to unwind and refuel after a long day of exploring.

We tried the champagne tea the first time around, which includes a glass of champagne (before the tea) and extra treats to eat with the tea.  In addition to the fruit scones, clotted cream, and strawberry jam, the champagne tea comes with an assortment of pastries and sandwiches.

The patries included a coffee eclair, cheesecake, chocolate cake, a lemon tart with burnt sugar on top, a pink & yellow checkered cake with fondant (or something like that) around the outside, and a pistachio and cherry “cookie sandwich” – it had pistachio cookies or pastries on the top or bottom and a cream or mousse in the middle.

The sandwiches came out crustless (just as I had imagined!), cut into dainty rectangles.  There were five sandwiches, each with two rectangles so we didn’t have to worry about sharing.  We had the following: smoked salmon, cucumber, celery & cream cheese, chicken & tarragon, and egg salad.  My favorites were the smoked salmon and the celery & cream cheese, but they were all delicious (we ate the sandwiches with our champagne while we waited for our pot of cream tea to come out).

We ordered the Wolseley Afternoon Blend, which I had with cream and sugar.  The homemade fruit scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam were the perfect complement to the tea.  We opted for the cream tea on our second visit and we were rewarded with a total of 6 fruit scones.  I did not miss the pastries and sandwiches and left without feeling stuffed.

Unless you are looking for a substantial amount of food, I would recommend the cream tea.  Not only can you save money, but the scones are the star of the show and plenty of food for a snack to hold you over until dinner.  And you will get the same great service and sit in the same fancy dining room.

While I can’t comment on the hundreds of other tea places around town, I imagine that the experience is similar (though the prices can get much higher).  The prices at the Wolseley were £9.75 per person for the cream tea (tea and scones), £22.50 per person for the afternoon tea (which added the pastries and sandwiches), and £32.50 per person for the champagne tea (afternoon tea + champagne). It’s served from about 3:00pm to 6:00pm, depending on the day of the week, and reservations are accepted but not required.  We walked in both times – the first day we were seated right away, and the second we waited in the bar area for about 5-10 minutes.

I’m not sure how often those living in London can actually enjoy afternoon tea, but I highly recommend it as a tourist!  It was definitely a highlight of the trip and a way to take a breather from our busy day and be spoiled for an hour.