Saturday, April 11, 2015

First Time in London! Lots of practical details if you are planning your own trip...

Our trip to London!

 Sunday-Friday, Spring Break 2015


I’m sharing details I don’t normally, in case it helps anyone else plan their trip.  We were pretty pleased with how our trip turned out and we planned it ourselves.  We didn't go for the cheapest trip possible, so if you are on a tight budget, you may need to substitute some things, because we really wanted to do two things that weren't inexpensive, but were on our big to-do list, so we saved and splurged on those.

HOTEL

Premier Inn, Blackfriars (Fleet Street).  Great access to the tube, easy walking distance to St. Paul’s, good food around there within easy walking.  Not so crowded as some tube locations.  And the price was good. It was a bit tricky to find—very close to the Blackfriars tube stop, not really ON Fleet street, at least it doesn't look like it.  I think the address is 1-2 Dorset Rise.  But once you find it, you’ll be fine. We just asked someone in a little coffee shop after wandering for a bit.  We got the family room that had a full or queen, and two twin beds, one on either side.  The water can become VERY hot, so be watchful with young children.  It'll melt your face off.   Our room was in the basement, half below level, so it had central air because the windows wouldn't open, which means nice air conditioning in the summer months and good heating in the winter.  We were very comfortable there and would definitely stay there again.  The one downside is that our room didn't have a mini-fridge, so if you like to stock up on foods and eat in your room to cut costs, that will be harder for you here.  There is, though, a little mini-mart just around the corner that could be used if you were so inclined, I think.  One of my favorite parts about traveling is the food, so we just plan accordingly in our budget.

We paid for the full breakfast (kids eat free) and I’d do it again.  FULL buffet and you can order special items from the kitchen directly, such as omelets or porridge.  The buffet includes  sausage, “bacon” (breakfast ham to Americans), sunny side up eggs (you could order them from the kitchen poached or hard or soft boiled or whatever), scrambled eggs, hash browns, grilled mushrooms and grilled tomatoes (my favorites.)  Yogurts, cereal, muffins, croissants, toast, fruit salad…coffee, juices, and tea.  SO filling.  The line gets insanely long by about 8:15, or at least during our stay, which admittedly, was during Spring Break, so it might not be as busy at other times.  We got there by 7:45 each morning and had no problems getting a seat.  You can also buy breakfast as part of your dinner deal or just the continental breakfast, but you’ll be sad as you walk past the little grilled mushrooms and the truly delicious sausage.  I don’t even like sausage, but theirs was fabulous.

Porridge, requested from the kitchen.  I added the honey. :)


TRAVEL:
Upon arrival, we had been given two Oyster cards with a bit of money left on them from a friend, so we asked at the tube station about what to do and they refunded the money left on them, and sold us their week Central London pass, which doesn't charge per use, but is for the whole week, anywhere in central London: bus or train or tube.  Children 11 and under are free, so score for us, because we have two kids that fit the bill.  You just walk through the bigger entrance/exit that is at every station, with your child with you.  They are located at either end of the line of entrance stalls to the station.  

GETTING THERE
Sunday:  2:30 wake up and drive to airport.  Flying out of Frankfort Hahn on Ryan Air may not cost as much in dollars ,but there is a cost associated in exhaustion and inconvenience.  It wasn't just the time to drive there—it was that the drive is all in the dark, through windy two-lane roads.  We chose the special parking option when reserving our tickets, which meant actually driving to a hotel about 10 minutes away from the airport and parking there and taking their shuttle, which dropped us off at the front door.  That was 40 euro for the week, which is like 8 euro per day.  The least expensive lots at the airport were totally full, so the next option would have been double that price, so this was a good investment for us, though I’m glad my husband drove up there to see where we had to go, because that hotel is out in the middle of a field and you’ll think your GPS is fooling with you.

Ryan Air is also notorious about the bag size they allow.  As in: small.  We bought one suitcase to check, size small, and then we each brought one backpack.  Ladies can also carry a purse in addition to your backpack.  I used my smallest purse because I was so paranoid about being told it was too big, but I didn't need to worry.  Plenty of other ladies had much bigger purses.  Here are the backpacks for me and my daughters.  My husband had one backpack and then we had one rolling small suitcase that held overflow items and our tourist purchases for the way back.  I think in the future, we'll be able to do just backpacks for a five day trip.  Feeling pretty cool about that.
Three ladies going to London from Sunday to Friday...

The one good thing about flying in on that early morning flight (the only morning option from our location) is that we essentially got two more days out of our trip, since we weren’t going to be driving all day for two days.  Also, we are SO THANKFUL we didn't drive.  A lot of friends have driven and survived (more power to them!  I applaud them!), but having seen the London traffic, I wouldn't want to drive in that if they drove on the normal side of the road for me.  Driving on the opposite side of the road and turning into the “wrong” lanes (for me, how it felt) would have freaked me out.  Not to mention it costs a fortune to park in London and it was cheaper for us to fly in and take the Stansted Express in.  



It was also far easier to buy our train tickets when we got there.  I tried to buy ahead of time and it was so confusing. But when you are there, go in to the airport terminal, you’ll see the place for the Stansted Express (not the little kiosk—go to the actual little storefront at the end of the airport terminal area) and they got us a good deal on round-trip tickets for a family of four.  I don’t remember the amount, but it was better than the prices available elsewhere.   (Note—the way back to the aiport was far more crowded and we ended up sitting on the floor of the train at the end of one of the cars, so arrive early if you can.)

We did also buy train tickets to go to the Harry Potter tour, because it was outside the range of our Oyster Cards, like going to Versailles in Paris.  We bought them the day of our trip out there.

ITINERARY and MEALS

SUNDAY, arrival day
This was Easter Sunday, as it happened, and I was pleased that the National Gallery was open at 10 am.  AND FREE.  So we saw one of my favorite paintings I’ve ever studied, which was The Marriage of Arnolfini, by Van Eyck.  Here’s me being excited about it!  
Thanks Mr. Minette and Mr. Brunner for teaching me about this painting years ago in your Humanities class!

We ate a delicious lunch at the museum and continued to the other half of the museum.  It took us at least 4 hours and we were practically running through the place.

Dinner we just ate at the hotel, and I've got to say, it was the best meal I had the entire week.  Because it was AWESOME.  Just about everything we ate all week was fabulous, but I've missed salmon cooked this way.   The chefs at the Premier Inn at Blackfriars can COOK.  Blackened Cajun salmon.  Done perfectly.  They have a meal deal thingy where you can get two adult entrees, and each get either an appetizer or dessert, with a drink, for a reasonable price, so we did that.  They have kids’ meal prices, too (5 pounds for a meal and either an appetizer and dessert, with a drink.)  Super nice service.  And we were exhausted, so we ate early and crashed.  If you eat like normal grown ups do in Europe (7pm or later) then you’ll need a reservation. Since we eat at 5-6, we never needed one.  Also, their grilled salmon with BĂ©arnaise sauce was delicious. 

MONDAY:
Was our huge tourist day.  We had purchased a hop-on, hop-off bus tour from Golden Tours.  The blue line is the best tour line of their buses.  Make sure you print and bring your passes, although if you forget, you can go to their center near Victoria Station (and they have a couple of other places)  and they will reprint for you.  But save yourself time and bring them.  The passes work easily and have frequent buses. We bought Tower of London tickets as part of our deal, and skipped the line that didn't exist yet, ha.  
Our tour guide was awesome.  He also could not accept the tip we tried to give.

We ate lunch at a place right around the Tower of London with a whole plate of roasted chicken that was okay, but not something I’d repeat or recommend.  Sorry I can’t remember the name.   We enjoyed the Beefeater tour, but I will warn you that the tour is GRUESOME.  Lots of stories of heads getting chopped off and at one point, near the end, the very good storyteller who is your guide tells you how they eviscerated traitors in fine, dramatic detail.  I saw one mom covering the ears of her 6 year old.  I mean, really gross.  SO…not super child friendly, as far as tours go.  Ours are 9 and 11, so I was okay with it, but had they been 4 or 6, I’d be concerned.  But as it was, he was hilarious and entertaining and we saw the crown jewels, which is not part of the Beefeater tour, so you have to queue up again for that, and if you love jewels, you’ll love this, but for me, it was a bunch of insanely overwrought items kept in a vault.  I don’t really get it, but that’s okay.  You get to see all the crowns and that was my favorite part of the crown jewels tour itself.  They very smartly put you on a conveyor belt that makes you move past them—it made me laugh.  Someone was very clever at making sure there wasn’t a huge hoard just standing in front of the crowns. The gift shop had some really lovely things instead of the usual tourist junk and was one of my favorite little shops in all of London that we saw.  Lots of very expensive items in there, but some surprisingly good deals on some items.

"Look kids!  It's Big Ben!"

We also hopped at Westminster Abby and paid (at the gate, no line) to do a tour and got the audio tour you walk around with, wearing headphones.  I like these for me, but it makes it hard to share stuff with your family because you might all hit start at different times, or one kid has taken off the headphones or one is listening to the next one because they are bored, etc.  But it was an impressive sight and lots of dead people are buried there and even more are honored/commemorated there.  I wish my kids could appreciate all the names, but maybe one day they will.  I thought it was kind of mean that they buried Elizabeth I and her half-sister Mary together, given that Mary had imprisoned Elizabeth…I guess they figured that it was balanced out by having Mary facing down on the bottom and Elizabeth facing up on the top, as a symbol that the Church of England would always prevail.  Nothing like playing politics even in burial choices.


Westminster Abbey

We also thought, “Hey, let’s go see London through sitting on top of the Hop-On, Hop-Off Tour” so we got on at Westminster Abby and rode the thing all the way back around until we reached St. Paul’s again.  DO NOT DO THIS. It takes FOREVER and EVER and London isn't as pretty to look at as Paris is on these buses.  Mostly, you just see old buildings that all look alike, with lots of traffic and many  stops and plenty of exhaust fumes. This is, of course, just my opinion.  But still. Time is money on a trip like this.  Every minute is precious in a city as full of stuff as London.  Save yourself two hours.  Use the bus to get to where you want to go and then get off and go see it.  Don’t try to sit on the bus for the whole round trip.  Deadly boring to children.  Yes, you have ear phones to listen to comments, but mostly it’s just classical music playing because there are whole stretches of London that apparently they have nothing to say about.

So we finally stumbled off the longest bus ride ever and just ate at the hotel again because we were starving and exhausted.  And I had another salmon dish and again, it was DELICIOUS.  With the bĂ©arnaise sauce.  Oh yes.  I’d eat that every week if I could.

We also had “a free river boat cruise” with our Golden Tour.  Let me tell you now—use this like a river taxi service, not a cruise like experience.  If you need to be ferried from the London Bridge to the Eye, it’ll work great.  If you think you’ll be getting the same experience as a river cruise in Paris where everything is beautiful (it was our favorite thing) you will be quite disappointed.  It wasn’t worth the trip or the time and with Golden Tours, the only outside part of the boat is by the motors in the back.  Skip this unless you are truly using it as transportation.
The one cool river scene at night...and you could see this without the rest of the ride.


TUESDAY

The Harry Potter Warner Brother Studios tour.  This was something we all were looking forward to, and it was great!

Smallest set in Harry Potter-- The Cupboard Under the Stairs

See ya!
  It is, though, an ALL DAY TRIP.  They say it’s 3 hours for the tour, but that doesn’t include travel time and eating time and shopping time.  We had tickets at 1:30 for the tour.  We left the hotel around 10 so we could travel up there and eat when we got there.  I’m paranoid about ever missing a train or a tour time.  We had to buy train tickets to get us out past central London, and then the studio has a shuttle bus that meets you at the train station (Watford Junction) and it costs 8 pounds sterling for a family of four round trip.  Not bad.  And there is an EXPRESS train to Watford Junction that you want instead of the regular one.  Much faster.  In fact, we got there so early (20 Minute trip) that it wasn’t even time to eat yet and we asked and they let us go ahead of schedule because they weren’t too busy. I’m SO GLAD WE DID.
Diagon Alley, one of my favorite parts.

If you are going, I’d recommend you go in the morning or late morning.  We did the 11:30 tour, ate in the middle of it where they have a little food court (butterbeer is served along with typical kid food and burgers—nothing super exciting, but not awful) and then we did the other half of the tour.  My husband is the kind who likes to read every single thing on the wall and I’m more of a walk by and get a good view person, so we sort of compromised.  The ending is a surprise I won’t ruin for you, but was my favorite part.  This was an expensive treat for us, but we all love Harry Potter and it was one of the highlights of our trip for our children, so we are glad we did it.  If your kid will be disappointed to see that magic has an explanation, maybe skip it.  But honestly, the process of making these movies is magical in its own right.

For dinner, we ate at a nearby   Indian restaurant named Indian City, which was fancier than we expected, but tasty.  The food was unusually sweet for Indian food, so my husband was a bit taken aback, but I like sweet foods, so I didn't mind the hint of sweetness in my dish.  Not inexpensive, either, but the hotel recommended it, so we tried it.  We would probably try another place before returning there, but it isn't something I’d steer someone away from.

WEDNESDAY
We went to the British Museum in the morning, with a focus on Greece and Roman Britannica.  This museum is also free and they have kid trails and backpacks you can check out that have hands-on activities related to the exhibits.  This is the home of the Rosetta Stone, so stop by to see it while you are there. 
My kids both love Greek and Roman history now thanks to the Percy Jackson and Heroes of Olympus books by Rick Riordan

We had lunch at Coventry Garden, at Jubilee Market at http://www.lepainquotidien.co.uk/ that was good and hippie-feeling.  Lots of organic stuff, veggie options.  If you want green juice, here you go.  In fact, all over London, I was surprised by the focus on healthy eating.  LOTS of organic and healthy eating places.  Very cool.

Avocado toast with "super seeds"

A tartine is a Belgium open-faced sandwich...this had chicken, feta and avocado and more.  GOOD.

That afternoon, we did our other big expense, which was to see The Lion King at the Lyceum.  We were in row Q in the stalls, on the first four seats in the middle section (you get to choose the seats when you preorder, which we did) and this was a great location.  When you check in, you can rent a little booster seat for small children at the cloak room for only 1 pound.  They also sell drinks and snacks that they will bring to your seat.  I cried my way through the whole production because excellent music and moving scenes always make me cry.  No one else in my family cried, but everyone loved it.  I was worried about how my 9 year old would handle the death of a character (I suspect you all know the one I mean, but I’ll be coy just in case) and I shouldn't have feared.  It was handled very tastefully and artistically and my kid was totally unfazed.  Neither of my children have ever watched the cartoon in full because they've always refused.  They have a thing about movies with tension.  They don’t like them.  But they loved Lion King and I was glad this was their first exposure to theatre.  The actors were amazing and their voices—and the amazing way they brought the cartoon to life on stage….just brilliant. 


Dinner, we ate at this little fast food place that had healthy, organic Asian kind of food, to include sushi.  It’s called Itsu, and is everywhere.  Much less expensive than a restaurant and fast.  Their classic chicken soup is yummy.  And both girls enjoyed their sushi.

THURSDAY:

Now my 11 year old wants to watch Jurassic Park. 
A more leisurely day spent at the Museum of National Science.  Okay, big tip:  this is also free, but people start to queue (British for LINE UP) before it opens.  We waited maybe 15 minutes in line to get in, and then went straight to the dinosaur exhibit because they warned us that you have to queue there, too.  And you did!  But we were inside there by 10:30 and finished with the dinosaurs by 11:30 and when we left, the line was incredibly long.  If you do get there late, don’t wait in line for the dino exhibit.  If you've ever gone to a museum that has a big dino skeleton in it, you've pretty much seen this one and there is one animatronic T-Rex as the end that is cool, but we have seen an entire grouping of animatronic  dinos in San Antonio at our local museum (The Witte—shout out to the Witte!).

The queue actually goes along the top of the dino exhibit, so you can view some cool things as you wait.
So I’m thrilled we didn't wait in line for an extra hour.  It was pretty quick to get through that early.  Then we raced through the mammals and this really cool area that shows comparative sizes of animals like the Blue whale and elephants and so on…my favorite room in the whole place.   They have tons of rooms, with gemstones and earthquakes and volcanoes and so much it made me want to fall asleep immediately, but the kids loved it.  11-3 there. 
They no longer collect animal skins for taxidermy purposes, so some of these animals are worn and faded, but they are kept out for viewing anyway.  I love that they are using what they already have so as not to waste them, but aren't seeking any more, to protect the animals.  They had little notices about it in the mammals area, which had a large number of  animals like this one.
My FAVORITE room-- life-sized comparison of the blue whale with other whales and big land animals.
We spent probably 4 hours there—ate there, too—at the restaurant, which I don’t really recommend if you are on a time table.  The food was okay, but it was expensive as is to be expected in a museum and we found out later you could bring your own food and eat in an area in the lowest level.  Would have done that had we known.    Would have saved us some time.  But I did really enjoy my falafel plate.
At the Science Museum
Then one hour at the Science Museum next door, which was far less interesting to me, but my husband loved the full-sized lunar module model.  Then the sweet guy actually tried to get our girls interested in looking at the old computers on the top story.  The girls couldn’t care less.  And I was sitting every chance I could by this point.  But it was free, so it was worth a look.  No line at that point, either.  Home again to the hotel and ate at the famous Blackfriars pub, which was loud and had tons of well-dressed business people standing around outside drinking a pint or a glass of wine.  I was actually intimidated to go in there.  I think our girls were the only children in the entire place, but they did great.  Jonathan and I had the required fish and chips and the girls had, no kidding, nachos.  And I will tell you, Texas people, that the guacamole there was the best I've had since leaving Texas. The salsa, no.  It was more like sweet tomato sauce.  But the guacamole was a taste sensation that reminded me of home.  If I were to go back there, I’d get the nachos and tell them to just give me chips and guacamole, please.  And then I’d lick the plate.

FRIDAY
We walked along the Millennium Bridge, which has been repaired since the attack of the Death Eaters from Harry Potter.  J  We toured the Globe Theater (the reconstructed version—the original and the second version both burned down a long time ago) and it was AMAZING.  




Well worth the reasonable cost of admission and it was super educational.  We thought they didn't open until 10, but when we arrived early on accident (because I’m chronically early), the first tour was starting in 10 minutes at 9:30.  Sweet!  So we had a reasonable size tour group and had the theater all to ourselves for a bit and stood down by the stage and then sat up in the box seats and learned a lot.  Fabulous.   The exhibition was boring to me and the children, but my husband liked it and was included in the cost of our tour tickets.  The shop has some neat things, but we managed to get away unscathed there.

We had some free time and decided to go take a closer look at Buckingham Palace.  Buses can’t drive in front of it, so you sort of drive by the side of it in the tour.  So we got there just as the changing of the guard was happening.  TONS of people and we didn't realize that they actually march out like a marching band, playing music, over to the palace, and change the guards there. 

We had no idea what was happening.  They change guard every day at 11:30 in the summer and every other day at 11:30 in winter.  We got super lucky and stumbled across it.

LOTS of people.  Panoramic picture courtesy of my husband.


So while we didn’t see much of the actual guard change, because of the crowds, we saw the guards march right by us, to music and drums, which was excellent.  Then we ate the worst food we had the whole week at this little standing food cart place in the garden—waffles and hot dogs that were pretty yucky.  Not horribly expensive, but it frustrates me to have any food on a trip that is gross.  This was gross.  So don’t eat there.    

A black carriage with some gold on top.
So we left and went to the other biggest waste of time and money (specifically 23.45 lbs for all four of us, which my husband points out isn't atrocious, but still!  Why waste any money?!) which was the Royal Mews.  This is named such because there used to be royal falcons and those are kept in mews, but now there are just two horses kept in there.  And you can’t really see them.  What you are really paying to see are the royal carriages.  

A black carriage without gold on top.

Now, if you love the royal family and anything to do with them, you’ll enjoy this.  I don’t care much about that part of the London experience and find the whole love of royalty to be baffling, honestly, so we were disappointed.  We thought the girls would get to see more of the horses, which is the only reason we paid to get in and the two horses were both eating with their heads down in the stalls and you could sort of see the face of one through the crack by the door.  The carriages all pretty much looked alike to me—black with the crest on the door and various levels of overwrought gold along the top or edges.  Yawn.  Skip this unless you really love the royal family.

We ate at another fast food place by the same company that does Itsu…the parent company, in fact, called Pret A Manger.  Imagine a Jason’s Deli where you walk up and pick your food out of a shelf on the wall and they reheat it for you.  Sort of like that.  Organic, healthy kind of choices.  I had a tasty but spicy falafel roll.  Girls had a ham and cheese and tomato soup.  Much more affordable than a pub or restaurant, and fast.  Several locations throughout the city.

GOING HOME
Then we were off to the airport.  We had left our bags at the hotel both upon arrival before check-in and after check-out until we picked up the bags with our ticket stubs.  We did have a bit of an adventure getting to the proper stop for the train to the Stansted Airport,  because one of the tube lines had a problem, and we had to do some walking and hopping off and of several trains, but we got there with plenty of time.  They have a huge duty-free shopping zone, so be warned.  Again with the super hot water in the bathrooms-- watch young ones, because it really can hurt if you aren't careful.  Also, they have you wait in this big food court until the last minute.  Also, make sure they check your passport at baggage check in, even if you don’t have bags to check.  They do have a place further inside to check your passport with your printed out boarding pass, but they will scold you a bit for it.  Don’t ask me how I know that. 

So we flew home, got picked up immediately by the hotel people along with another family, dropped off in the parking lot in the pitch blackness, then realized we weren't sure where our Garmin/GPS is…which is a big deal, since this is out in the boonies.  But we found it along with our keys (know where you put these things, people!  You’ll forget in a week unless you are purposeful about it) and drove the hour and a half back home.  The kids fell asleep immediately, and slept a long time, for which we are thankful.

Thanks for reading!  I hope some of this is helpful to any of you planning a trip to London!  The one thing we wished we had one more day for was Stonehinge, but given the other expenditures on the trip, we decided to maybe try to go back on a later trip for an English countryside visit next year and visit Stonehinge then.  We LOVED London and were very pleased with the pacing of our trip and what all we accomplished.