Loyal reader Emily mentioned (correctly, I might add) that I have been incredibly lax about posting in our honeymoon series!Â Could it have really been four months since we’ve traveled together, readers?Â To make up for my complete lack of conscientiousness, this post is just for Emily, who is honeymooning in [intlink id=”314″ type=”post”]Paris[/intlink] and London (my two favorite cities in the world)!
There are so many places in London you MUST see that I absolutely recommend at least a week of solid touring – more if you don’t like to pack it in while you’re on vacation.Â Because London is a whale of a city, this is going to be a whale of a post, so you’d better grab something to drink before diving in!
A Few Things To Keep In Mind
- London is the world’s most expensive city, so all of the prices I’m going to give here are going to look ridiculous.Â It’s worth it, I promise.
- Public transit in London is THE way to get around.Â Please don’t wasteÂ your precious poundsÂ on cabs!
- Theatre, theatre, theatre.Â Forget Broadway – the West End is where it’s at.Â In one trip, friends and I managed to see Kim Cattrall, Joshua Jackson, Patrick Stewart, Kevin Spacey, Steven Weber, and Mary Stuart Masterson.Â In one week.Â Without buying tickets in advance.
- Museums areÂ free (yes, FREE!).Â But strangely, you have to pay for entry to churches.Â Go figure.
- Yes, those phone booths and double-decker buses do exist!
Where To Stay
I’ve been to London many many times for personal and business travel and have been lucky enough to stay in many areas of the city.Â Far and away my favorite is the area of South Kensington.
I have stayed in three hotels within a few block radius of each other, two of which I can highlyÂ recommend, the Holiday Inn Kensington Forum and the Holiday Inn Cromwell Road.Â Do not be fooled, Holiday Inns in Europe are the equivalent of Hyatts in the US.Â The best rate I’ve ever seen for a double room in either of these hotels is Â£100.Â That’s if you are incredibly lucky.
BUT, here’s the good news.Â Â Hotels in Europe can be uncomfortable.Â London’s hotels are better than any other city in Europe I have ever visited, but still.Â Many times you don’t receive good pillows.Â Or have air conditioning.Â Or get lucky enough to have a bathtub and a shower.Â Or have adequate power outlets.Â Or have enough space to walk between your bed and the wall.Â Staying in either of these hotels is like staying in a hotel in the States.Â The rooms are spacious.Â You can find a room with two double beds.Â You can get extra pillows!Â AND, best yet, these hotels are located inÂ THEÂ PERFECTÂ location.
There’s a little section of South Kensington where Gloucester Road and Cromwell Road meet.Â Right at that intersection isÂ the Gloucester RoadÂ stop on the Piccadilly tube line (which takes you to Heathrow,Â Buckingham PalaceÂ and Covent Garden) and the Circle/District lines (where you can go to Westminster, Notting Hill, and Tower Hill).Â You can find a Tube map here but we’ll cover this ground a bit later in the post.Â Along with the most convenientÂ tube stop in the city, there is a Starbucks, a Waitrose and a Tesco (grocery stores), two charming pubs, andÂ a Paul patisserie, among other restaurants and hotels.Â What this means for you is thatÂ this area isÂ easier than almost anywhere in town for you to see the sights andÂ to purchase takeaway food items for your room – a BIG way to save money in London.
And not only that, but Cromwell Road is home to the famous Victoria & Albert Museum (did I mention that all of the museums in London are FREE?) and a bit further up the street, Harrods (Cromwell Road merges into Brompton Road in the tres-chic area of Knightsbridge, walking distance from Gloucester Road).
Other than South Kensington, I can also recommend the Four Seasons Hotel in Hyde Park Corner.Â If you have room in your honeymoon budget for the the Â£300 price tag per night, go for it!Â The hotel is luxurious, the service is excellent, and you can’t ask for a more comfortable bed.Â I was very lucky to be able to spend a week at this hotel while traveling for business and trust me, I loved every minute!Â The biggest negative about the 4S is its locationÂ – it is directly between the Green Park and Marble Arch train stations but a relatively far walk from either one (Hyde Park Corner is actually closer but good luck navigating all of the underground corridors running through the park to get to the station, and I wouldn’t ever recommend getting on the tube there because absolutely no one is getting off and the tube is always packed).Â There is also precious little around the hotel other than the Hard Rock Cafe (the very first HRC, actually) and Hyde Park.
Ah the Tube. Youâ€™ll make friends with the Tube while youâ€™re in London. It takes you everywhere youâ€™ll need to go in just a few short minutes. But itâ€™s also *so packed* youâ€™ll be longing for the L in Chicago, the T in Boston, or the Subway in NYC. There are also several service interruptions, delays, or stoppages each day, but donâ€™t let that bother you, youâ€™re sure to either be able to take another line to your destination or wait it out.
First thingâ€™s first, when you arrive (weâ€™ll assume youâ€™re arriving at Heathrow), purchase a ticket that will take you from Zone 6 to Zone 1. Since youâ€™ll very likely not be leaving Zone 1 once you get there, youâ€™ll want to purchase separate tickets to and from the airport. When you arrive in Zone 1, purchase an Oyster card for Zone 1 that youâ€™ll use for the rest of your journey. There are unlimited daily passes that are your best bet since youâ€™ll be out and about on the Tube most days. Oyster cards also work on the buses so this will be your ticket to getting around all of London!
There are three or four lines youâ€™ll be using all of the time. The first is the Piccadilly line â€“ itâ€™s dark blue for those who would rather remember colors. The Piccadilly will not only bring you into the city from Heathrow, but also get you to fabulous places like the West End and Knightsbridge. The Circle (yellow) and District (green) lines run together for most of the routes youâ€™ll be taking. These lines are your ticket to the big attractions, such as Westminster, Big Ben, and the Tower of London. The Central line (red) Jubilee line (gray) are useful because of their placement â€“ the Central runs straight through the Tube map horizontally and the Jubilee vertically. Youâ€™ll use these lines quite a bit for hopping around (for example, heading from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace). Always check your map when hopping on the Tube â€“ there are multiple ways to get pretty much everywhere so make sure youâ€™re using the most efficient one!
The Four Things I’ll Never Forgive You For If You Skip
Westminster Abbey – London’s most famous crypt and the coronation site of the monarchy.
Tube stop: Westminster (Circle/District lines)
Admission fee: Â£10
No visit to London is complete without seeing Westminster Abbey.Â Get there early, as lines are absolutely ridiculously long by lunchtime, and plan to stay around 2 hours after attaining entry.Â You will walk through all of the chapels (housing the bodies of many of England’s most important individuals), Poet’s Corner (pays homage to literary and artistic figures), and the absolutely stunning Nave (pictured above).Â A word to the wise – don’t try to save money by attending a service.Â You won’t get to see the items of historical significance.
The Tower of London – Home of the Beefeaters and the Crown Jewels, a Royal Palace, and a former prison.
Tube stop:Â Tower HillÂ (Circle/District lines)
Admission fee: Â£16.50
It’s always busy at the Tower but I’ve never had to wait to get in for any significant amount of time.Â You MUST take one of the free guided tours with the Beefeaters – they are absolutely hilarious (even if they do all make the same pun-ny jokes).Â You will hear all about the history of the Tower, its famous citizens, and its famous executions.Â And, the best part (for me, at least), a tour through the Crown Jewels, which passes entirely too quick on that people mover, so you must do it twice!
The con: this takes about a half of a day, mostly because it isn’t near anything else you want to do.Â But since I said you COULD NOT miss this, you don’t have much of a choice, do you?
The National Gallery – In my humble opinion, London’s best museum.
Tube stop:Â Leicester SquareÂ (Piccadilly line) orÂ Charing Cross (Bakerloo/Northern lines)
Admission fee: Did I mention all of London’s museums are FREE?!
Some of my favorite paintings in the world are housed here and every single time I’ve been to London I’ve made it a point to spend at least half an hour wandering around this most fantastic museum.Â Some of the works of art you’ll find in the National Gallery:
- Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’
- Seurat’s ‘Bathers’
- Van Eyck’s ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’
- Velazquez’s ‘The Rokeby Venus’
- Cezanne’s ‘Bathers’
Not to mention Monet, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Rubens, and Botticelli.Â It’s not the Louvre (nothing is), but it’s simply a gorgeous collection of work.Â And because it’s also the most *convenient* of the major museums, you have absolutely no excuse for skipping.
Harrods – The world’s most famous department store.
Tube stop:Â Knightsbridge (Piccadilly line).Â But if you stayed where I told you to, you’ll be walking.
Admission fee: That one is up to you!
A department store?Â In myÂ top fourÂ in London list?Â Just trust me when I say, this is no regular department store.Â Three words for you – THE FOOD HALLS.Â Ah, the food halls.Â You absolutely cannot imagine the wealth of goodness in this place.Â Seriously.Â I’ve never seenÂ so many types ofÂ fruit in one place (in fact, I’d never HEARD of some of the fruits).Â There’s an entire section devoted to tea and biscuits.Â Millions of chocolates await you.Â Krispy Kreme donuts beckon.Â Pizza, gelato, sushi, you name it, Harrods has it.Â It’s a gastronomic paradise.
It’s also a great place to have afternoon tea.Â Much easier to get a reservation than in some of the chi-chi hotels and afterwards, you can walk off the clotted cream and scones by wandering the shoe section.
Theatre In London
Each morning, the TKTS booth in Leicester Square opens at 10am to sell day-of matinee and evening show seats. Unless you are interested in seeing a very specific show on a specific night, I wouldnâ€™t bother buying tickets ahead of time â€“ just come here at 10, wait in the very short line (you can pop into Starbuckâ€™s first for a latte), and grab seats to the hottest shows in town! No show is off limits so itâ€™s extremely likely youâ€™ll get what you want, but have a few to choose from just in case. We start every day of our trip (except days we were leaving the city) off at the TKTS booth and usually manage to see the shows weâ€™re longing for. Here are a few of my favorites (most are oldies but goodies).
Les Miserables â€“ What can you say other than amazing? Londonâ€™s production is one of the best â€“ it always draws fantastic musical actors and actresses and even if youâ€™ve seen it before, itâ€™s guaranteed to make you cry, sing along, or give a rousing ovation.
Blood Brothers â€“ If youâ€™ve never been to London, youâ€™ve likely never seen Blood Brothers. This musical portrays the story of two brothers separated at birth and living two very separate lives until they find each other. Itâ€™s emotional, full of British humor, and a show you absolutely must see.
Anything at the Old Vic Theatre â€“ Kevin Spacey runs this first-class theatre (which, by the way, is NOT in the West End â€“ itâ€™s byÂ Waterloo Station) that always produces masterful plays. [Ed. note: thank you to Dan for pointing out that the Old Vic is by Waterloo, not Victoria.]
Places to Wander
One of my favorite things about London is that it’s a walking city.Â Here are some of my favorite places to wander around (yes, most of this centers on shopping.Â I am after all a girl).
Oxford Street & Bond Street – London’s equivalent of 5th Avenue and Madison Avenue.
Tube stop: Oxford Circus, Marble Arch, or Bond Street (Central line).Â Bond Street (JubileeÂ line).
Oxford and Bond are great people watching streets, and lovely places to just wander around, as there are many side streets and alleys with little shops and cafes.Â Department stores abound, including one I always frequent, Marks & Spencer.Â I only buy one thing there – underwear.Â WAY better than Victoria’s Secret.Â Seriously.Â Try it.Â I’ve converted many friends.Â And don’t forget to visit Top Shop for some great affordable fashion!
Leicester Square, Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square, and Piccadilly Circus – Londonâ€™s Times Square and Broadway as well as Chinatown.
Tube stop: Leicester Square, Covent Garden, Piccadilly Circus (Piccadilly line). Piccadilly Circus (Jubilee line). Leicester Square (Northern line).
If you are into theatre, the nightlife, or tourist sights, this area of London will be your most frequent stop.Â As I’ll mention later, the TKTS booth for last-minute theatre tickets is in Leicester Square, soÂ I start my day there each day while visiting London.Â This area is perfect for pub-crawling (there are amazing ones in Covent Garden particularly), hanging out in great book stores, like Waterstone’s, people-watching in Leicester Square, or getting yummmmy food in Chinatown.
Notting Hill – the best area for boutique shopping (and trying to find the infamous blue door from the Notting Hill movie).Â Unfortunately the blue door is now black.Â But trust me, the neighborhood is still worth exploring!Â Check out Lucky Mag’s shopping guide here.Â And don’t forget to visit the Portobello Road Market on Saturday – it’s the world’s largest antique market and you might just find a gem!
Tube stop: Notting Hill GateÂ (Circle/District/Central lines)
Attractions I Haven’t Yet Mentioned
St. Paul’s Cathedral – the site of Charles & Di’s wedding and one of Europe’s most beautifulÂ churches.
Tube stop: St. Paul’s (Central line)
Admission fee: Â£10
The Cathedral itself is beautiful, but take the climb up 530 stairs for this view:
Kensington Palace – a royal residence (including the residence of Diana until 1997) and a lovely museum.
Tube stop: High Street Kensington (Circle/District lines)
Admission fee: Â£12.30
There are quite a few items of interest inside the palace, including an exhibit of Diana’s dresses.Â But don’t forget to spend time in the gardens outside of the Palace as well.Â And if you have the time, why not complete your afternoon with tea at The Orangery?
The London Eye – a gigantic ferris wheel.Â At the top you can see the whole of London.
Tube stop: Westminster (Circle/District lines)
Admission fee: a very steep Â£15.50
In spite of theÂ incredibly ridiculous admission price, IÂ suppose you must do it once – but time it at sunset for the best views.Â The Dali Museum is right next door if you’re a fan!
The British Museum – a vast collection of world artifacts (including the Rosetta Stone).
Tube stop: Russell Square (Piccadilly line), Tottenham Court Road, Holburn (Northern/Central lines), or Goodge Street (Northern line).Â The museum is smack in the middle of the four.
Confession.Â I didnâ€™t love this museum. But most people do, so chances are, you will. Mummies, ancient Grecian and Roman galleries, the famed Rosetta Stone, and Asian artifacts abound at this museum of treasured world objects.
Victoria & Albert Museum – fun cultural museum.
Tube stop: South Kensington (Piccadilly, Circle/District lines)
Great exhibits as well!Â When I was last visiting, there was a Kylie Minogue tribute here.Â There are also dinosaurs and creepy-crawlies.Â This is a super-convenient museum to lots of tourist attractions.
Side Trips I Hope You Have Time To Make
Greenwich – Stand on the Prime Meridian and see how the world tells time.
Getting there: Take the Docklands Light Railway (connections from most tube lines) to Cutty Sark
Attractions: The Royal Observatory, Cutty Sark, Greenwich Market, National Maritime Museum.
You can spend your whole day wandering around this adorable little city, not too far from London. There are loads of great pubs, lots of historical attractions, and best yet â€“ you can take your picture on the Prime Meridian! The Royal Observatory was by far my favorite activity here. I quite enjoyed seeing how time was â€œinventedâ€ and progressed throughout the years.
Stonehenge -Â I know what you’re thinking.Â “It’s just a pile of rocks”.Â And it is.Â But standing out there in the middle of miles of nothing (except the rocks and souvenir shop of course) you want to believe that just maybe it means something.
Getting there: The easiest way by far is to take a tour bus from London.Â You can also take a train from Waterloo to Salisbury and then a bus from Salisbury to Stonehenge (runs every 30 minutes or so).
Windsor – By far my favorite side trip from London.Â Take a day to visit the small town of Windsor and Windsor Castle, a working royal residence.
Getting there: Trains from Waterloo are frequent.
We had a delightful day in Windsor.Â The town is quaint and beautiful, with many tiny restaurants, shops, and pubs to occupy your time (and money!).Â Windsor Castle was enchanting with a true glimpse into the life of royalty.
Tips on the Two Rituals I Know You’ll Do
Afternoon Tea â€“ donâ€™t go if youâ€™re on a diet (or just ignore the diet for the day)! What a treat this is, enjoying tea, scones with clotted cream and jam, finger sandwiches, and petit fours. For those who want to do it up and like to plan ahead, go to a hotel such as the Ritz or the Savoy (reservations definitely required). If youâ€™re just looking for the clotted cream and donâ€™t care for massive amounts of tourists, hit Harrodâ€™s, where youâ€™re likely to get in the day you call. Prepare yourself â€“ tea is ridiculously expensive, somewhere in the neighborhood of Â£30. Yes, youâ€™re spending $60 on afternoon tea. But hey, itâ€™s London, what did you expect?
The Changing of the Guards â€“ what you thought Iâ€™d skip this? I know youâ€™re doing it regardless of what I say so let me give you a few tips. There are NO good places to see this from except for right by the fence. Donâ€™t think that hanging out by the angel statue and climbing will get you better views. It wonâ€™t, Iâ€™ve tried. Get there about 2 hours early and expect to be miserable. Then when it starts, expect to be more miserable while people crowd and bump you to get their pictures. You can leave after about 5 minutes. The marching and changing is all they do, just over and over again. Seen 5 minutes, seen it all!
Green Park, the area around Buckingham Palace, is gorgeous. Spend an afternoon relaxing there if you have time. You can rent lawn chairs for a few pounds and laze the day away.