My London To-Do List

Before the trip, we made a list of things do and it was extremely difficult to cut some of the activities from the itinerary.  Instead of cramming in every single item on my original list, I adopted the mentality that there is always going to be another trip (and there will be).  Therefore, I already have a list of going of activities to include on the next trip.

In the city of London, I would add more museum time.  This includes visiting those that didn’t make the cut and also adding time to museums we’ve already visited.  The former includes the following top (free) choices:

  • Tate Modern – we walked past the outside after our stroll on Millenium Bridge, but Tate Modern, New Design, London, UKwe never made it inside Tate Modern (see the modern planned addition in the picture to the right, from the museum website).  In addition to enticing temporary exhibits, the museum houses permanent collections of Monet, Matisse, and Picasso (and more!), which I thoroughly enjoy.  
  • Victoria and Albert Museum – a museum different from the others, featuring decorative arts of all types from all over the world.  It isn’t one of those museums that screams “London,” so it didn’t make the cut for my first trip, but it’s something different and I plan to visit it on the next trip!  Some of the items include jewelry, furniture, clothes, glass and much more.    
  • British Library – I will admit, I just really want to see the Magna Carta after learning about it year after year in history class.  We didn’t make time for it this trip, but it’s something I can look forward to for a future trip.  Luckily, it’s free so I won’t feel obligated to stay too long.

As for museums we’ve already visited, I would love to spend more time at the British Museum and the National Gallery.  They are both so different: the British Museum with the history of mankind and the National Gallery with an extensive collection of paintings.  We actually visited both on the same rainy day, so I’m sure they were a bit busier than normal.  That being said, the crowds were manageable and we just waited our turn for some of the important artifacts at the British Museum (like the Rosetta Stone) and the more popular paintings at the National Gallery (my favorites were the variations of the lily pad painting by Monet).  And now, a little bit about what we were able to see at each, and what I’d like to do next time:  

  • National Gallery – We each paid £4 for the “Manet to Picasso” audioguide, with about 20 or so paintings selected in a brochure (spread out among 5 rooms).  There were about 6 options for audioguides.  The device itself was the same for each one; what differentiated the guides was the brochure that came with it – it helps the user focus on specific paintings (and lets you know which room they’re in!) and provides the audioguide code for some of the popular paintings (the codes were not available for all paintings).  That being said, the majority of the audio files were accessible to anyone that paid for an audioguide.  Next time we will plan to do two different “tours” (the other one that tempted me was a “best of”-type guide) so that we can take advantage of two sets of the carefully selected paintings.Nereid Monument, British Museum, London, England, UK, Europe
  • British Museum – we did the Rick Steves audio tour (they are entertaining and include a lot of information – download them on your phone before you travel), which brought us through the Egyptian exhibit (including animal statues, slabs with hieroglyphics, and mummies), the Assyrian exhibit (the Nimrud Gallery stole the show), and finally ending up in the Greece exhibit, which houses the Nereid Monument (pictured above) and the Elgin Marbles (originally on the exterior of the Parthenon).  The room (separated into three parts) with the Parthenon remains was very spacious and the crowds were no issue. We covered the highlights, but there is so much more to the museum that I hope to explore on the next trip. 

Outside of the heart of London, these are several places I would love to visit on a return trip:

  • Kew Gardens – a 300-acre botanical garden, just outside of the city of London.  It’s right off of the River Thames, so you can actually take a boat there from London.  I can’t imagine a better way to escape the city than admiring a beautiful garden!  There are even free tours of the gardens offered daily.  Also, with some extra time, I would visit the nearby Hampton Court Palace.  
  • Windsor Castle – it’s Queen Elizabeth II’s primary residence and it’s open for tours!Windsor Castle, London, UK  The ticket price includes an audioguide and admission into the State Apartments, Queen Mary’s Dollhouse (a miniature version of the palace), the Drawings Gallery, and St. George’s Chapel.  You can also take a free tour of the grounds (that lasts 30 minutes) that depart twice an hour.  It’s also very easy to get to Windsor Castle – either a 30 minute ride from the Paddington tube station (with one easy change) or a 50 minute ride from the Waterloo tube station (direct).  The picture to the left is one of Windsor Castle that Ryan took on a trip he took 10 years ago.
  • Stonehenge – if we visit London in a month other than November, we already have a plan for our visit to Stonehenge.  Instead of visiting Stonehenge during normal operating hours, we would book ahead for the Stonehenge Stone Circle Access tour (the tour was not offered in November – I am assuming this is an annual closure). This allows a limited number of visitors access to the inner circle of the stones, either before or after the site is open to the public.  There is not a tour guide or audioguide, so bringing a book with information is a must.  We would also book a taxi service instead of taking a train plus a bus to Stonehenge, which would save some time and also allow us to possibly add another site to the itinerary for the day!

After writing all of that out, it seems like our next trip is practically planned.  There is just so much to see, do, eat, and enjoy in London.  It’s one of the cities that we plan to return to many times, maybe even as soon as two years from now!  

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!

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.

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.