Europe trip with stop in London - travel tips + the London Pass
After a whirlwind of fun in Paris, we were off to our next destination of London in the United Kingdom. Despite some rain, I was really loving our visit to this beautiful little city full of history and gorgeous sights.
It's unfortunate that we can't warp around using red telephone booths but we've got you covered below with other transportation options.
Transportation in London
St. Pancras International is the train station in London and a major transportation hub including the airport. The grey, blue and yellow colored high speed train (Eurostar) took a little over an hour to travel between Paris du Nord station and St. Pancras International station. I believe travelers can use the inner city train if traveling from the airport or to/from England cities. At the boarding platforms, train systems had different colors and displayed the train system on the side of the train. Each train boxcar had a number which matched with the carriage number on your train ticket and the seats were numbered inside. I booked my train tickets on B-Europe (using a credit card with no transaction fees). If traveling between countries, book high speed trains as soon as your travel dates are confirmed. Early on, tickets are cheaper but are non-flexible, while later tickets are more flexible but prices increase as more tickets are sold! Inner city tickets seem to be set prices and can be used anytime during the day listed on your train ticket. My favorite resource for European trains was Seat61.
Subways (The Tube)
London had one of the best priced transportation systems of our Europe trip. We took public transportation the majority of the time and it was easy to find subways with the iconic red circle. There was a big line at the information center and self checkout machines were quicker to purchase transportation passes. A Oystercard was required, which costed 5 pounds but could be refunded when the card was returned. The card must be pre-loaded and one was required for each person (except children?). The best part was the daily max cap, equal to a little over 2 rides on the subway! First, tap your Oyster card on the reader to enter the subway. Once inside, you could transfer between multiple subways until you exited the one-way turn style to the surface. Make sure to tap out or you may have issues getting back onto the next subway! Google maps was our resource for selecting which trains to take. In the subways, we referred to the train number and end stop to head in the right direction. The trains were fine most of the time but extra crowded during rush hour. Often, passing on boarding the very first train was the difference between super crowded and one with breathing room.
Public Buses / Tour Buses
Buses give the scenic view that you can't see from underground while in the Subway. Of course, these buses are also affected by street traffic so take more time. The public buses accept the Oyster card as well and adhere to the same daily max cap (mix and match is ok). As a visitor, the tour buses are the easiest way to explore the city because it will introduce you to all the major attractions of the city and usually include hop-on hop-off stops. Some tour buses even have live tour guides but all should provide headphones to listen to a pre-recorded set. We used Golden Tours during our trip because it was included with the London Pass. There is also the Big Bus Tour company which is found in multiple popular European cities. Since the tour bus routes are set, this is perfect for leisurely exploring the city. If you planned to hit destination after destination, it would be more efficient to take the subway to get around quickly.
Dennis is a cyclist (will bike for food) and we found the Santander biking system in London, which was very similar to the system in Paris! There are many stations around the city where you can pick up or drop off a bike. First, you select a rental period (i.e. 24 hours is £2), enter your bike's station number, then pull out that bike. The first 30 minutes are free but if time goes over, it's £2 for each additional half hour. You can continually rent and return a bike for free during your rental period as long as each separate trip is under 30 minutes. When returning your bike, make sure your bike station light turns green and beeps to signal that it was properly returned. You do have to wait 5 minutes before you can grab a bike again. Also, if a bike has an issue, return it to the station with the seat facing backwards to indicate repair is needed. We did not use this system due to the rain but may consider for a future visit in good weather.
The default is walking. It's free but you should wear comfortable walking shoes.
Lodging in London
Through my travel agent, we stayed in a cushy hotel near Kensington Gardens. It was conveniently within 2 blocks of the subway which made it easy to go from place to place. We had to call the front desk to find out why our lights weren't working in the room. Apparently, next to the door was a electronic sleeve which required the hotel key card to be inserted! Not sure if this is a England thing or just a fancy hotel thing! Depending on what you prefer, you can also pick your hotel close to all the popular attractions at a higher cost but closer to the comforts of your lodging.
Sightseeing in London
London Itinerary Day 1 (half day)
We hit London around 10:40 am. After checking into the hotel and dropping off luggage, we went out again (using the Tube) to grab lunch and explore London.
Our first tourist stop was The National Museum. In London, most museums were free other than a suggested donation.
Plenty of gorgeous paintings throughout!
Cool mosaic floor art
This beautiful woven tapestry was part of a special exhibit by Chris Ofili.
Guess what we thought of the museum?
I decided to follow suggestions from a London walking tour and hopped on public buses to save some walking. We passed by James House and found a mini guard walk! This location is actually a part of the famous "changing of the guards" ceremony. We also took pictures of other landmarks in the area though we were less familiar with their details.
It sprinkled on and off throughout the day. This yellow umbrella outside of James House caught my eye.
With the rainy nature of London, I couldn't help capturing a few vivid night shots. I held quite a fascination for rainy paintings due to Leonid Afremov. We were still a little tired from traveling so called it a night after dinner. The rains lulled us into a deep slumber.
Total steps at the end of day 1 - 18806
London Itinerary Day 2 (London Pass)
Most of the attractions had admission costs, some as high as £30 for the well known landmarks so I figured the London Pass would give us flexibility as well as small cost savings to use for the day. It was £62 per person for the pass.
The London Pass included the Golden Tours hop on, hop off bus service which conveniently stopped right in front of our hotel! Normally admission is £26. Some buses had live tour guides but all had the headphone jacks so you could listen along as the bus. We really lucked out because this was the clearest day with little to no rain!
Hello dragon! Do you start thinking about Harry Potter or something like that? I'm not sure what this is but we passed by while riding the tour bus.
St. Paul's Cathedral
Our first hop off was the famous St. Paul's Cathedral. Admission was £18 normally but included with the London Pass. Inside it was absolutely stunning, filled with the ornate statues and tombs of important people. 258 steps up the stairs led to the Whispering Gallery. In this area, you could speak into the walls and a person farther along could hear you. It didn't seem to work as well with lots of people around making their own noise! There was a view of the church downstairs too but since pictures weren't allowed in the church, we didn't want to break rules to capture one.
As we were closing in on the exit, I asked the workers at the cafe if we could take pictures. Since she said yes, this is the only pic I have from inside!
Tower of London
Our second stop was the Tower of London, officially Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress. The fee of 30£ was waived with the London Pass!
This was my favorite spot because there were towers and medival actors galore to take pictures of! They even had an exhibit with the crown jewels so the giddy girl in me was curious about the crown and gems! We spent close to 2 hours exploring this massive castle before hopping on the tour bus to the next destination.
The third stop was Westminister Abbey, usually £20 for adults. Here you were given headphones for free which allowed you to learn about each of the numbered tombs and special attractions within the church. No pictures were allowed here either! It must be a church thing in London.
Our last stop was Kensington Palace which was the residence of the British Royal Family since the 17th century. We barely managed to slip in before closing (actually a few minutes past) and the ready to go London Pass helped us get in. Normally, adult admission is £17. One cool thing I noticed is that you can buy a membership to Historic Royal Palaces which allows you into all six historical palaces for a whole year. The six destinations are Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Banqueting House, Kensington Palace, Kew Palace, Hillsborough Castle. The prices start at £50 for one adult, £77 for two adults as well as two more options for families. If we had more time in London, I would have loved to get this!
It was amazing how practically empty Kensington Palace was at closing time! We were able to get in plenty of clear pictures including this beautiful stairwell, a royal chair, and a special exhibit "Diana: Her Fashion Story"!
That day had a jam-packed schedule filled with higher cost attractions to make the best use of the London Pass. In total we could have paid £111 per person but reduced it to almost half at £62. The savings would have been even better if we had purchased a multiday pass, but our stay wasn't long enough to warrant that!
Total steps at the end of day 2 - 18980
Additional London Tips
Check the season when you go because you can visit Buckingham Palace while the queen is on vacation. Also, the changing of the guard ceremony is every other day so plan ahead and get there early for the best views.
In the evenings, try catching a show at the Shakespear Globe. The standing only admission is quite cheap at £5. Otherwise, real seats would cost you between £20 - £45.
Much too quickly, we ran out of time for London. Our train departed in the early afternoon we missed the changing of the guards due to us still packing. As an alternative, we left our luggage with the hotel front desk and headed out for one last meal. Goodbye London!