Destination Friday: London, part 2

January 11, 2008 at 3:11 pm 1 comment

My UK series continues with another look at London (part 1, an attempt at London in a day or 2, is here).  Be warned: even a week really isn’t enough time to see everything you’ll want to see!

More Things to Do/See
London Eye: I remember the first time I saw this thing in January 2000 – I was appalled that a giant ferris wheel was marring the historic landscape.  I’m sure it’s how the French felt about the Eiffel Tower at first!  I vowed to boycott it, and boycott it I did, the whole 4 weeks I was there.  It wasn’t hard – the darned thing wasn’t open yet.  lol  When I came back in 2005 with my husband and our friends, I knew we had to take a “flight.”  People recommended we hop on just before sunset so we could see everything during the day and then watch the lights as it grew dark.  The flight lasts 30 minutes, so that’s actually possible.  Honestly, I enjoyed it.  It’s a great spot to get an overview of the city, so I recommend trying to squeeze this in on your first day.  £15 for one adult.

St. Paul’s Cathedral: I love thinking  about all the royals who’ve passed through St. Paul’s.  My dad likes to tell about how he attended a service there with the queen and saw the scepter that was missing from the display at the Tower he’d seen earlier in the day.  Make sure to time your visit so that you can visit the Whispering Gallery and make the climb to the top (they stop allowing this at a certain time in the afternoon); the view is terrific, London’s answer to Notre Dame (oh how I miss the gargoyles though!).  Don’t forget to check out the crypt as well.  If you time things exactly right, you might try to catch the Evensong.  Planning to either arrive at or leave St. Paul’s via the Millennium Bridge is a fun idea.  It’s so striking to compare the classic architecture of the cathedral to the modern architecture of the bridge.  You could potentially leave this way and then walk along the Thames (“temz”) to the Eye.

Cabinet War Rooms: This is my favorite historical museum.  They have the War Rooms set up nicely – easy to do since they apparently just walked out and left everything as it was in August 1945.  It’s especially funny to see a cigarette stash in a drawer!  The Churchill Museum is amazing.  They have a high tech set-up so you can learn even more about Churchill and WWII.  The timing of our 2005 trip was very lucky since they had just finished the exhibit in February.  If you like history, this is a must on your list.

Art: Tate Galleries: There are 2 Tates in London – Tate Britain and Tate Modern.  The Tate Britain is home to British art from 1500 to the present.  The Tate Modern houses international modern and contemporary art.  Other art museums: National Gallery (huuuge collection of Western European art from the middle ages to the 20th century; this is where you go if you like the Impressionists), National Portrait Gallery (exactly what it sounds like, go here if you like British history), Royal Academy (rotating exhibits, check what’s on), Somerset House (all kinds of stuff – Old Masters, Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, special exhibits), Wallace Collection (pre-1900 art in a lovely old home), Hayward Gallery (rotating exhibits), Queen’s Gallery (mainly pre-20th century art inside BP!), Victoria & Albert (2 museums – South Kensington & Museum of Childhood).  Most of these museums are FREE, so don’t be hesitant to go to a bunch of them.

Trafalgar Square:  The square commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar.  This place used to be a great spot to feed pigeons, but that’s been banned.  Now it’s just a fun spot for pictures and learning about history.  Check it out when you visit the National Gallery.  You might also consider dropping by St. Martin-in-the-Fields, a pretty Anglican church.

Kensington Palace: It’s a royal residence set in Kensington Gardens (fun to walk around in – pretty any time of the year).  It’s still home to some royalty and was the official residence of Princess Diana.  You can catch an exhibit about Princess Di and see lots of royal dresses.  Consider having tea at the Orangery; it’s cheaper than the Ritz (but not nearly as good!) and has a lovely atmosphere.

Kew Palace and Gardens: It’s closed right now but will reopen in March.  Honestly, it’s been closed every time I’ve been to London, so I haven’t been.  The gardens are legendary, home to the largest Victorian glasshouse in existence.  I really regret that I missed the Chihuly exhibit there.

Jack the Ripper Walk:  I don’t know exactly what to tell you about this one.  I did this the first time in 2000 with the famous Donald Rumbelow and had a blast.  It was a fairly small group (maybe 30 people?), including an assistant to an MP, and Donald was a terrific storyteller.  I wanted to do this again with my husband and friends in 2005, but the group with Donald was at least 150 people!  We went with a lady in the “small” group (at least 50 people), and the tour seemed very awkward.  She was never telling us the part of the story that happened in the spot where we were; she would tell us about what we’d see next, which wasn’t creepy at all.  I think I’d pass on that experience if I had it to do over.  But going around with a group of 150 wouldn’t be fun either…  I know there are other options (here for example), but I’m not sure how good those are.  You’ll have to make the call for yourself.  It really was fun in a smaller group with Donald…

Haunted London: There are several options for other creepy walks through London – Discovery Walks offers several Ghost Walks; Richard Jones Ghost Walk sounds promising; here is another list of spooky offerings.

Ride a double-decker bus: London is famous for their bright red double-decker buses.  You can either take a city bus or get a guided tour with The Original Tour.

Experience the arts!  Yes, I mentioned that before, but it absolutely bears mention again.  If you want to go to the Globe, get your tickets as far in advance as you can.  And I don’t mean the week before you leave; I mean as soon as you’ve booked your flight.  Since tickets can be expensive, I also highly recommend checking out what’s available at the Tkts booth in Leicester Square.  (For those of you from the Asheville area, it’s pronounced “lester” not “lee-sess-tur.” 😉 )  If you’re riding the train on a particular day, you can also snag 2-for-1 tickets with a coupon from the DaysOutGuide (yes, the train in from Gatwick counts, but you’ll likely be too jetlagged to enjoy a show – unless you take the time to nap (and good luck getting up from the nap if you do)).  If you enjoy the symphony, check out what the London Philharmonic is up to.  There’s also the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet if those are more to your liking.

Where to Eat
The locals love Wagamama (noodle bar) and Pret a Manger (sandwiches).  We thought Wagamama was boring but Pret was good for a quick bite.

Pubs: You must make time for at least one pub visit.  Check out FancyAPint or one of the many other pub search websites for a good one near where you’ll be when you’re ready for a beer.  Be warned – the top rated ones are likely to be a bit crowded.  We thought the Old Swan was cute.

Rules claims to be the oldest restaurant in London, established in 1798!  I thought it was fun to go to just for that.  I thought it was a bit stuffy given the quality of the food (pretty good but not awesome), but still a viable option.

Don’t forget about tea! LondonTown has a good list of the classic places to go, from the Ritz to Brown’s Hotel.  Tea the Ritz is pricey but yummy.  If your budget will allow, go for it!  Otherwise, consider the Orangery or Harrods.

Where to Shop 
Don’t forget to shop!  Harrods is a must, especially if you’re desparate for Krispy Kreme!  Selfridges and House of Fraser are less famous UK department stores but still special in that we don’t have them here.  Ladies, check out Marks and Spencer for underthings (cute and affordable!).  Bravissimo is a good stop for ladies with odd sizes.  Being London, there are also a wealth of designer shops. 

Piccadilly Circus: Five busy streets meet at this traffic circle, and there’s lots of junk (read: souvenir) shopping to be done in this area.

To market! Check out the link to see what’s open when you have time in your schedule that might be of interest.   A market visit provides a fun little shopping break. 

Oxford Street: This is the busiest shopping area with over 300 shops.  Regardless of your price point, this is a good place to do some shopping.  They have the classic British affordable clothing shops there – H&M, Next, and Top Shop.  If you have a teenage girl or are still wearing juniors clothes yourself, head for those.

Buy British Candy
The Brits really know their sweets.  If you haven’t had it before, check out: Cadbury’s line (there are more options available there than in the US), Thorntons (special toffee), mint humbugs, Green & Black’s (chocolate bars, only recently available in the US).

Image of St. Paul’s and Millennium Bridge from SimonHo.

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Entry filed under: CenturyClub, Destinations, Europe, UK.

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