I’m killing two birds with one stone here by combining a blog post and a Trip Report for the Tripadvisor community. Full photo albums (read: A LOT of pictures) will be on my Facebook page shortly. Without further ado, here’s my (long) trip report for the family’s first trip to London.
Day 1 – We arrived in LHR without incident and slowly retrieved our car from Avis. We navigated from the airport to Kingston Brook Lodge in Kingston-Upon-Thames, remembering to keep left at every round-about. We dropped our bags, walked to Norbiton Station and caught the next train to Waterloo. There were automated ticket machines, but happily there was also a human. I explained to her our plans for the week (including needing to go to Watford Junction on Thursday) and she, too, suggested a seven day travel card, up to zone 6, with travel before 9:30 am. They do require photos, which happily I had on hand, thanks to the London TripAdvisor Forum (LTAF). It turns out that we still did not have what we needed when we arrived at Watford on Thursday for the Harry Potter event and unexpectedly had to pay an additional nine pounds. We could have saved money by getting tickets for after 9:30am, but there were two days I wanted to get in by 9, and as you couldn’t specify for different days with the 7 day card, I opted to have the most options available to me. In hindsight, traveling with one teenager and one sleepy pre-teen, I should have gone for the off peak times. We only caught the train twice before 9:30, and in truth, we could have waited. Also, worth noting, that our travel cards de-magnetized pretty quickly. One on the first day, the second two days later, and the last on the last day. You’re suppose to keep it away from your phone, magnets, etc, but in reality, it’s pretty hard to do when your phone is part and parcel of your wallet with a magnet clasp. We ended up scanning one card in the extra large stiles and all walking through at the same time. Or when that wasn’t an option, showing our cards to an employee who let us through. You need to remember to scan out, which is not something we were used to, so invariably I was that person always fumbling for our passes. Sorry.
We got into Waterloo at 11am. I didn’t anticipate how hungry the kids would be. I was hoping they could hold off until our 3:30 reservations at Rules, but no such luck. So, after a failed attempt to be adaptable and try to find a TA rated place around Waterloo (Google Maps failed me almost every day in London and most places outside the stations still were not open) we ducked back in to Waterloo and grabbed quick refreshment at Cabins on the second level. That paid off dividends in that we learned of a small WC on the second floor with no lines and no charge. My young daughter made use of that WC almost every time we arrived.
After fortification we went to the London Eye. I had picked up my 2-4-1 vouchers and was prepared to use them for the one attraction where they would actually pay off for us. But when my husband saw the queue (it was pretty immense and he has no tolerance for queues) he opened the purse strings and got Fast Passes, which were not eligible for the 2-4-1. The Eye was everything the kids wanted it to be and it gave them a great literal overview of the city for the first time. After the Eye, we walked around for a bit, passing Big Ben, Whitehall, and ending up at Trafalgar Square. The weather was cool but clear and we enjoyed strolling around. We had about 1.5 hours before our Rules reservation, so we popped into the National Gallery. My daughter loved it there and didn’t want to leave. We walked up to Rules and had a delightful quintessential British Sunday dinner. The kids drank in the atmosphere and the history of the place, and the food and service were both very good. After our relaxing meal, we heading out. It has started raining (Winter Storm Imogen was just starting) so we ducked into the nearest Underground, made our way back to Waterloo, and caught the 6:20 train back to Norbiton. It was rainy and windy and we were all pretty tired so we went back to the hotel and turned in.
Day 2 – The kids and I arrived at Waterloo 9:35. It as no longer raining but it was cold and windy. We took the underground the couple stops to Westminster. The line was long, but it moved pretty quickly. We spent a couple hours at Westminster Abbey. Definitely worth the visit if you enjoy history and architecture. I could have stayed longer, but the kids had their fill after a while. So I searched for a place near the Globe Theatre for good fish and chips at reasonable prices. We made our way to Lord Nelson’s Pub for lunch. The atmosphere was fun, boisterous, and loud, and food and service were both very good. The place was full of artistic and whimsical things to look at (perhaps not all meant for younger kids). We took our time with lunch because the rain had started to come down hard again. It’s worth noting that Lord Nelson offers discounts for kids, even though they receive the same portions as adults. That was certainly a pleasant surprise. The rain paused a bit so we took off on foot for the Globe Theatre. Both kids are fans of the Bard so this was a pretty big deal for them. The tour was informative and interesting, but mostly out-of-doors on a cold, windy, rainy day. Because we were in the neighborhood, we popped into the Tate Modern. I thought we’d be in and out quickly, but I had to drag my son out after two hours. We got some pictures on the Millennial Bridge, but it was too inclement for us to want to walk across it and explore that side of the Thames. So we made our way (again no thanks to Google Maps) to catch a bus to Waterloo. We caught the 17:12 train out, and joined my husband for dinner at Alberts in Kingston, a very nice restaurant just down the road from our hotel.
Day 3 – The kids and I caught the 8:27 to Waterloo. We caught the RV1 bus to the Tower of London, riding over the Tower Bridge. It was another very cold, windy day. Souvenirs were hats and gloves on this morning. Happily, there were no lines to get in. Not too crowded at all that early, midweek, post storm morning. The Tower tour was chock full of interesting facts and history and it was not too crowded. Our guide, Barney, was excellent. He had a great sense of humor that kept everyone engaged. We had reservations at 1:00 for Sky Tower, so we started making our way over. We passed Monument Tower and the kids asked if we could go in. We still had plenty of time, so we did. We climbed the 311 stairs up. I’m glad we did it before Sky Gardens, because the height wouldn’t have been nearly as impressive afterwards. After we climbed the 311 stairs down, we made our way to the queue for Sky Garden. As stated elsewhere, reservations are required, it is exactly like airport level security, and they do require ID. As also stated elsewhere: It is AWESOME! I hadn’t really read much about it, and never would have given it a thought, had it not been for this forum. I now count it high on the Must-Do Lists for anyone visiting London. It was incredible. I had made reservations at Darwins. In hindsight, I would not have eaten there. While the surrounding were fantastic, the food quality was not as high as the prices would indicate. We were also charged improperly and a little misleadingly, but I’ll go into that more when I do a review for the restaurant. Also, I did not realize that the cafe in the center of Sky Gardens was quite excellent. Plenty of quality offerings, full bar, most scenic settings you could ever ask for. The weather had cleared beautifully for us by the time we got up to Sky Garden. Bright sun and blue skies. We could see for miles! After lunch we rode the 15 bus to Charing Cross (passing St. Paul’s,the Houses of Justice, the entrance to the City, and many other sights). We ducked into the with an hour before it closed. We got to see the Rosetta Stone (!) and many incredible pieces of ancient arts and artifacts. On the way home we stopped in an antique bookstore, then made our way back to catch the 17:55 train out. We had dinner at Alberts again. Convenient and tasty.
Day 4 – I let the kids have a bit of a lie in. They were tired after the previous early mornings and full days. Plus I knew we would be out later so we caught the 11:48 train to Waterloo. That morning, I asked the kids if there was anything left on their To Do in London lists, as Day 4 was our last day to wander in London. The boy wanted the Natural History Museum and the girl wanted to have Tea.
So that was our plan. I did some quick TA research and found the Mad Hatter Tea Party at the Sanderson Hotel with some early availability. We arrived (again, no thanks to Google Maps) and were quite impressed with the whole environment. I was so caught up with trying to find tea reservations that I paid little attention to the actual hotel where the tea was held. I will go into details with the specific review, but I will say that the Tea Party was absolutely incredible. In celebration of the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland, the hotel was concocted the most amazingly themed tea. We were all very impressed, but it may have been the absolute highlight of my 11 year old daughter’s time in London. And we were very, very full by the end. After tea as we were making our way to the busses to get to the Natural History Museum, we ran into our collective weakness: A book store (Waterstones, I think, down on Oxford). We inadvertently spent an hour or so there and bought quite a few books). We then made our way to the NHM, and I instantly wished we had skipped the bookstore. The museum is so impressive and so full of amazing things. There just wasn’t enough time. As it was, I opted to be late for our reservation at the Sherlock Holmes Pub. We were still pretty full, and we were enjoying ourselves too much. Eventually we did head out, though. Our reservation was still honored, and the kids got a kick out of all the Sherlock references. We grabbed a small bite and waited for our Ghost Bus Tour. The tour was fine, and exactly what I expected: a chance to get off our feet, a chance to see London at night, and a chance to hear some history and tales. It was cheesy, but I wouldn’t have expected otherwise. The highlight for me for that tour was seeing Crossbones Graveyard. We got off the bus and walked to it. I hadn’t heard of this particular site before and doubt I would have learned about it otherwise. After the tour we made our way back to Kingston, getting in around 10pm.
Day 5 – We caught the 10:40 train to Waterloo. From there we took the Bakerloo line to Kings Cross. We saw platform 9 3/4 there, but had no interest in joining the queue for a staged picture. From there we walked to British Library. We ogled the British treasures and the Alice in Wonderland exhibit for a while. I personally would have stayed in the treasures room for hours. So much to see! But the kids were done with the exhibits and a little disappointed that they couldn’t just go into the shelves and start reading. After about two hours and a hefty bag full of more books from the gift shop we left. We grabbed a small bite at cafe in the courtyard then walked to Euston station to catch the midland train to Watford Junction. At Watford there was the Harry Potter Shuttle service. I had planned our time to arrive at the studio about an hour early from our reservation (in cases we got lost or had unexpected delays), and I found that to be perfect. We had plenty of time to get our tickets, check our coats, browse the gift shop, get our audio tour devices, get another small bite, and use the WC. And even then, the crowds were so light, that they announced that they were allowing all ticket times to join the tour, so we got in about a half hour earlier than expected. The studio tours were absolutely beyond amazing. For me (a huge Harry Potter fan for the last 14 years), it was the capstone on seeing all things Harry Potter. I’ve been to the WB studios in LA; I’ve been to every traveling exhibit that came within a day’s drive of me; we’ve been to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando. This tour beat them all. I’ll go into more detail on that individual review as well. But suffice it to say that hours are needed and it is well worth the time and money if you or your your kids are fans of Harry Potter. After we left (again, I could have spent another couple hours there) we caught the shuttle bus back to Watford > caught a Euston train > underground to Waterloo > train to Norbiton. We met my husband at the Norbiton and Dragon for dinner (excellent service. Delicious Thai food). Then back to the hotel to pack for our early departure. We tried to give ourselves enough time to navigate back to the rental car return, but we still had a little bit of a stressful time. Next time we will give ourselves more time, and try to get a little more familiar with the map of Heathrow.
We had a terrific time. Using public transit in London in easy and very convenient. By the end of our time there, I was very comfortable navigating between busses and trains and the underground. The amount of world-class attractions that are free to the public is amazing. Our kids, in particular, were delighted with everything. They came as Anglophiles in general, but now their love of London is cemented. They are at great ages to take it all in, and I am confident that their memories of their first visit to London will be with them for their entire lives. I think we did everything we intended to do, except maybe take a boat ride on the Thames. Weather and time were never in concert, for that activity, so that will be on the list for next time. Hopefully, we will have a few more opportunities to visit, and now that we got the major big attractions checked off we can spend hours at the Natural History Museum, British Museum, London Museum, National Portrait Gallery, and Sky Garden. As I mentioned to the LTAF, I didn’t expect it, but visiting an English speaking country a little after a month of moving to Europe was delightful. Being able to pick up books and read them was amazing. Understanding signs in a glance was a relief. Being able to express complex ideas or questions was refreshing, and understanding the responses was something we all appreciated.