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.

Christmas in November

I have to admit that one of the reasons I wanted to visit London in late November was to enjoy the Christmas scene.  I have always loved Christmas (who doesn’t?) so anytime I have an excuse to admire pretty lights and decorated trees, I gladly take part.  Luckily, our trip to London provided ample opportunity to celebrate Christmas in November!

Southbank Christmas Market – just past the London Eye, this relatively small market was frequented by us often.  There were stalls lined up on both sides of the walkway and Christmas lights hanging everywhere.  While the market opens up in the morning, it’s best to visit at night – browsing the stalls selling knick-knacks under the Christmas lights while sipping on Bailey’s hot chocolate was a highlight of the trip.  There are also food stalls if you’re looking for a quick and cheap meal.  It opened up in mid-November, so we were able to stop by at the beginning of our trip!

Hyde Park Winter Wonderland – it opened on November 23 this year, which was just two days before we left London.  We decided to go on opening night because rain was in the forecast for the next day (and it did rain all day).  It was huge compared to the Southbank Market and reminded me of a county fair – rides, games, an ice skating rink, food stalls, and souvenirs.  But Winter Wonderland was far superior because of the Christmas lights and holiday stalls.  It was packed full of people (and a lot of families with young children).  We spent about an hour there, walking past all of the stalls (many sold similar items – ornaments, hats, jewelry, etc.) and listening to live music in the German-themed pavilion (the entrance is pictured below). 

In addition to the putting on Christmas markets, London decorates streets and alleyways with Christmas lights.  Some of the bigger areas include Regent Street, Covent Garden, and Oxford Street (lights go up sometime in early-to-mid November and remain lit until early January). 

The  Christmas spirit throughout the city more than makes up for the cold and wet weather in November.  I highly recommend a visit to London in late November or early December – especially over the American Thanksgiving, so that you can take advantage of the extra days away from work!  It’s such a magical city and I can only imagine that this sense was increased due to the pre-Christmas celebrations.

Markets in London

Visiting markets is always a fun way to mix in with locals and tourists alike.  We tried to visit a few during our stay in London, but with so many other attractions on our list, we barely made a dent.  Time Out London has information about many of the markets – check it out before your visit!

The Borough Market is open for lunch Monday-Wednesday, but the market is in full force on Thursday-Saturday (we visited on a Thursday).  We took the tube to the London Bridge station and walked around the area before entering the nearby market.  Unfortunately we ate lunch before we got there – the sausage stall near one of the entrances of the market smelled delicious.  Definitely plan on buying food from one of the many stalls and eating lunch there.  The only negative is that there wasn’t much seating, but with something like a sausage, you can walk around while you eat.  We did manage to save room for a blueberry tart – one of the dessert stalls was handing out samples and we needed more than that small taste.  

Dessert stall at Borough Market

The majority of the stalls were occupied by food vendors.  Aside from lunch and dessert foods, we saw cheeses, spices, meats, seafood, veggies, fruits, nuts, and more.  Before we left, we were tempted by the caramel, cinnamon-apple smell of hot mulled cider.  We each ordered the drink and we were surprised at how strong (alcoholic) it was.  It was still good, especially after the initial sip, but the sweet smell threw us off.  Do visit the Borough Market, do plan to eat lunch (and dessert) while you’re there, and do shop around and enjoy the stalls!  You will not regret it. 









Portobello Market, Notting Hill

Portobello Road Market is another one not to miss.  It’s located in the colorful Notting Hill neighborhood and the line of stalls seems endless.  While the market is open Monday-Saturday, Saturday is the full market day, with antique stalls and other stalls selling a 

variety of goods.  Unfortunately for us, it was raining all day Saturday, but we didn’t want to miss the excitement.  We browsed through stalls and stores and managed to ignore the rain until the food stalls opened around 10am (we got there early to try to avoid the crowds, but it was still crowded).  We tried a hodgepodge of food – greek appetizers, bruschetta, and a warm cheddar & leek quiche.  The food was cheap and quick, and we quickly snacked while trying to stay dry.  The Portobello Market is huge compared to Borough Market, so if you have time, plan to spend at least a few hours browsing the shops and stalls.  Arrive early (to beat some of the crowds) and stay for an early lunch to get the most out of your visit. 

I wish we had been able to spend more time at both markets (and even better – if we had been able to use some of the fresh food to cook our own meal!), but it’s something to look forward to on our next trip to London.  Definitely plan a visit to at least one of the markets.  It’s a great way to spend time between museums, enjoy a tasty snack, and maybe find a souvenir or two!

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. On the other hand, the rehab for alcoholics is available for those who want to stay out of alcohol forever. 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.