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!

LAX to London on Air New Zealand’s Sky Couch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Navigating Heathrow’s Transit Options

Thankfully, it’s a nice and easy airport to use, thanks to the proper markings provided by sites like Connecting from airports to city centers is always an adventure (one of the reasons we like train travel in Europe, which always drops you in the center of town).  Heathrow Airport is as far as any other European airport from the city, and its size can be quite intimidating, there’s a reason why they so so much advertisement with  However, it also offers several convenient transit options by train for getting to Central London, all enumerated below (ordered with most affordable first):

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Options

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