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.

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)!

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.

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!