London 2016

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge

My design student daughter and I planned a European trip to experience the art and culture of Paris paired with visits with relatives in Britain. We turned a 48 hour layover in London into a whirlwind tour to sample the major attractions and culture of London. I had traveled to both cities but it was my daughters first visit to Europe.  In order to be efficient with such limited time, I applied a couple of my important rules when making a short visit to a big city! These can be helpful for anyone with a short layover, business trip or pre cruise stay in a major city. To read our short stay city visit tips, click HERE.

Photo notes: Our regular and superb photographer Jeff Klofft was not on this trip, so the photos are by Kathy Klofft.  I did purchase a new Iphone 6S before the trip and was pleased with the additional storage and the quality of the camera especially in low light situations.  Any deficiencies in the photos are all due to the operator!!

Day One: Arrival and Hop On Hop Off Bus tour

Norwegian Air

We decided to fly one of the "no frills" airlines that recently opened up for business in our home town.  With direct flights into Gatwick from our home town, and at half the price of the "legacy" carriers (we paid about 2/3 of the legacy fares once we added fees for things like selecting seats and checking a bag) the experience was good enough in a brand new Dreamliner that I would gladly repeat the journey! See my post HERE about the Dreamliner and our experience on Norwegian Air (page still under construction)  

We arrived in Gatwick in the morning after our overnight flight.  We made our way through Immigration and Customs and then made our way to the line of ticket machines to buy a ticket into London.  There is an express train, and the machines are easy to use by searching your destination, they take credit cards or cash, and there is usually an attendant nearby if you have any questions.

Gatwick Express ticket line

We took a train into St Pancras International, and because our hotel was located there, we could drop our bags and spend the day touring.  As it turned out we were able to check in, rest for an hour and then around 2 PM we headed out to spend the afternoon taking a hop on hop off bus tour of the city.  

St Pancras Hotel

Our choice of hotel was driven by location, near a transportation hub, and our short stay, since this is ordinarily not a budget option, we selected one of the least rooms at one of the best located properties. But there are a variety of options for every budget in this location too. The service and atmosphere was definitely five star, with it's location in the historic St Pancras Station.  The lobby and hip looking Booking Office Bar are steps from the international train platforms. An upscale mall and the Underground and British rail platforms live below the hotel. There a public bus stops for both the HOHO buses and city buses just outside the building on nearly every corner.  

Our room was huge by European hotel standards,  with large double beds, a shower and tub, and a dining table area and desk. Also, our room had all the comforts of home including a refrigerator, safe, slippers and robes.  What we didn't get was a view, because one way we save a few pence is to select one of the "worst" rooms in the best locations, we had a view of a brick wall of the building next to us! But as is oft repeated by busy travelers everywhere, (say it with me...) we didn't spend much time in our room when our eyes were open anyway!

The dramatic entrance to the rail station and hotel lobby

The dramatic entrance to the rail station and hotel lobby

The St Pancras International Rail platforms with an interesting statue by Paul Day with detailed reliefs carved in the base of the train station's role through the history since the age of rail in Britain.                                                                                                  The Booking Office Bar at St Pancras

The Hop On Hop Off Bus

After a quick rest in our fancy 5 star room, we were refreshed enough to enjoy an afternoon on the Hop On Hop Off bus (we chose Big Bus London), but all of them run similar itineraries and almost all have friendly staff to sell a ticket or help with routing at major stops. You can buy a ticket from the driver at the stops or buy one ahead and print it before you leave.  There are usually free headsets and options to select recorded commentary in a half dozen languages, there are also buses with live commentary in English. The quality and focus of this commentary varies by individual, but if you get a clunker or a focus that doesn't interest you, you can hop off and take the next bus. We didn't plan to take the whole "loop" so we rode the bus to get oriented and drive by all the major sites in the West End and then hopped off for closer looks Westminster Abbey, Buckingham palace and to ride the London Eye for a birds eye view of the city. As the day got late, we took the Tube back to our hotel, because the HOHO buses stop their routes around 5 PM, unless your ticket includes a limited Evening Tour service (ours did, but it was still more efficient to take the Tube) 

The open topped HOHO buses allow a clear view of the Thames. 

The open topped HOHO buses allow a clear view of the Thames. 

The live guides offer narration and answer questions, on board near the Houses of Parliament 

The live guides offer narration and answer questions, on board near the Houses of Parliament 

The London Eye

We had purchased a flexi fast track pass for the London Eye.  On a trip you can save time or you can save's hard to do both!  The cheapest tickets bought on standby require a long wait or a very early start to beat the lines. The lines for this popular attraction can put a dent in your time budget, so my time saving advice is to spend the extra money on the fast track passes, and pre purchase options which allow you to bypass the standby lines. You can select a half hour window, chose a day and have flexibility with the time of day (which we did), or select a completely flexible ticket for any day or time during your visit (in Britain, this idea would allow you to pick the day with the best weather for your ride) . Each is a few pounds more than the next, and choosing depends on your balance sheet of time vs money!

The London Eye is a nice way to get a birds eye orientation of the city.  In a clear capsule with about 28 people, you spend about 30 minutes going all the way around with occasional stops for loading and unloading other capsules.  The views are incredible and there are lots of photos opportunities and space for everyone to get great pictures, as well as a few bench seats if you get tired standing. 

The crowds in the standby line/                                                         a capsule                                                              The view from the EYE                        the flex line was walk on when we used it.

The Millennium Bridge from the London Eye

Houses of Parliament and "Big Ben" the clock tower and Westminster Abbey from the London Eye

Hopped back on the bus, and made our way to Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

Another short bus ride to Buckinham Palace and Queens Garden's and the Mall

Buckingham Palace

Victoria Monument

The Mall

Day 2 City of London and Southwark

Tower of London with Context Tours

We began our day with a Context Tour of the Tower of London.  I found this tour company through Wendy Perrins WOW list, which is one of my go to places for specialists now since she also lists people I've worked with and loved before I found her list.   I intended to book a couple of tours in London and Paris.  It was my hope that contacting the company through Wendy's website I could work with someone to plan a very special event at one of the Paris museums for my 21 year old design student daughter. The last time I had been to Paris I was six months pregnant with her.  I was willing to spend to get a really unique experience that we could remember forever. I did get a personal email from a representative at Context.  I shared that information with her and she responded by listing several of their stock tours that met our interests and directed me to call or go to the website to book them.  I was hoping they would suggest something special I wouldn't have thought of for our time in Paris.  I just went ahead and booked their standard tours online, which is easily done.  We registered for the Tower of London Tour online and paid for a "guaranteed" departure by paying the third person price. (We would receive a refund if more people join the tour at the last minute.) The whole operation was excellent, with communication about whether the tour would be a guaranteed departure or need to be paid to guarantee and a detailed information about who and where to meet about a week before departure. This is not the cheapest option for touring, but with excellent guiding by the docents and a guarantee of a small group, we found out Context Tours well worth the prices. 

The White Tower and a piece of the original wall

The White Tower and a piece of the original wall

Our Context tour guide in London was excellent.  In our case, no one else joined, so we had a private tour for the price of three spaces. Our docent, Emma Matthews met us at an overlook to the Tower of London right near the Tower Hill Tube Station near a piece of public art designed around a sundial. Emma took a few minutes to learn about us and what we were interested in.  She introduced herself and her qualifications.  When she learned that both us were not really British history experts. We very lazily depend on Jeff and our younger daughter who are huge history buffs to fill in the details when we travel as a family! On our own we were fuzzy, there's a King Henry?  He beheaded a bunch of wives? Fortunately, Emma was not at all judgmental and extremely well versed in British history.  We had explained Sarah's interest in art and design, and Emma used the relief sculptures around the base of the sundial depicting the history of transportation in Britain to give us thumbnail history of England from the beginning of human civilization to current days. It was an absolutely brilliant way to bring an artist and designer up to speed visually, and an example of how a great guide can make your experience perfectly tailored to your interests!

Waiting at the Viewpoint near the Tower Hill Station and views of the Tower of London

Guards getting orders at the Jewels House

Guards getting orders at the Jewels House

Queen's House on the Tower Green

Queen's House on the Tower Green

One of the resident ravens in front of the Beauchamp Tower, where the most famous prisoners made their marks, often bringing in their own stone cutters to leave their messages on the wall.

One of the resident ravens in front of the Beauchamp Tower, where the most famous prisoners made their marks, often bringing in their own stone cutters to leave their messages on the wall.

Thomas Peverel left his family crest on the walls of Beauchamp Tower.

Thomas Peverel left his family crest on the walls of Beauchamp Tower.

The Crown Jewels

As you can see from the queuing rails, the lines at the Jewel House can grow long very quickly!   Our guide encouraged us to go through the Jewel house early in our tour and it was very good advice!  Our guide discussed what we would see and then she was required to move us through the Jewel House without formally "guiding". but we could spend all the time we needed to see the spectacular jewels.

Later, Emma took us to see the Armor Gallery in the White Tower, and knowing our interest in design over military history, she customized her presentation to focus on the incredible detail in the design and metal work on the armor, including Henry VIII's ceremonial wedding armor featuring symbols of King and Queen.  She was able to point out which armor was engraved (a more artistic process) and where it was simply stamped. This unique focus on art, design and architecture made the history at the Tower of London come alive for us. 

Tower Bridge

After thanking Emma for her excellent walk around the Tower of London, we went off on our own for a walk across the Tower Bridge and along the Queens walk in the Southwark area of London. This is an area that I hadn't visited before because during my last visit these areas were still rough and tumble working dock areas. Now the Queens Walk is a beautiful pedestrian way that stretches all the way past the Millennium Pedestrian Bridge to the South Bank and the London Eye. Leaving the Queens Walk to explore a little deeper in Southwark, we found the Borough Market and Southwark Cathedral. Closer to the Millennium Bridge, we walked past Shakespeare's Globe theater and the Tate Modern. Having already toured the South Bank, we crossed the Millennium Bridge and headed towards St Paul's Cathedral. Although the whole walk is only a couple of miles, we enjoyed an entire afternoon touring in this area. 

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge

The Queens Walk

The building affectionately known as the "walkie talkie" (on the right side) can be seen from the Queens Walk

Borough Market

The Borough Covered Food market is an excellent place to source a walking lunch or pick up a picnic and eat on the wall at the Queens Walk. There are also lots of atmospheric pubs surrounding this area for a sit down meal or drink.

A large covered food market in the Southwark Area, sits under another modern building known as the "Shard"

The Borough Market also sits in the shadow of the Southwark Cathedral which retains medieval architecture, along with some modern 1970's style additions. 

Shakespeare's Globe Theater


The views across the Millennium Bridge is pretty incredible, and unlike other bridges, making stops for photos doesn't "hold up" traffic.  Below is  time lapse video of our crossing!

St Paul's Cathedral

Eschewing our own advice to only do one climb (mostly because this was my daughters trip and she wanted to do the climb) we did ascend to the Whispering Gallery and dome of St Paul's.  We also took in all of the architecture of the Nave and the mosaics on the ceiling. 

The South Porch, as seen from the approach from the Millennium Bridge

The South Porch, as seen from the approach from the Millennium Bridge

Views from St Pauls                                                                                                                and a view down to the floor of the cathedral from the dome

After our walk from the City through Southwark to St Paul's we headed back to get ready for dinner and a night of West End theater. 

West End

I offered my daughter her choice of shows, and she chose Book Of Mormon, an irreverent and often profane take on organized religion and missionary work.  We decided to purchase tickets ahead, but there are usually tickets to be had at the last minute at nearly all theaters. In the interest of saving time, we wanted to spend less time wandering from theater to theater of standing in line at the last minute ticket booths. That allowed us enough time to wander around looking for dinner and taking in the atmosphere.  We chose Morada Brindisa, because the open kitchen and tapas dishes appealed to us and would fit with our short dining time before our show. The traditional Spanish food was excellent and served, as tapas is, as it was ready from the grill.

Morada Brindisa, menu and a cold grilled vegetable dish

Picadilly Circus

After the show, we decided to walk around Picadilly Circus to enjoy the atmosphere there in the evening and grab a coffee and dessert. We were surprised to find so many cafes closing at 10 pm on a Friday night, But we enjoyed the lights and activity of the area.

The M&M store and other bright retail "attractions" in the West End.

Day 3: Eurostar to Gare Du Nord for St Pancras Station

It could not have been easier to get into Paris on the Eurostar train.  Go down the escalator from the St Pancras hotel, walk through the shopping mall (stock up on water and snacks- you CAN bring them through security and it's cheaper than the cafe on the train) scan our tickets, pass through security (shoes on, toiletries stay in the bag and full water bottle is welcome), walk 10 steps to show our passports to the immigration officials from France, get our passport stamped and board the train.  About 2 hours later, we were in the heart of Paris, free to leave the train station with no further lines or waiting! Of course when you get your luggage jammed in the turns style at the Metro, during an historic thunderstorm that sent every Parisian down to the Metro for cover after a beautiful Saturday morning in the parks,  well, then you might get held up a bit! 

Onboard the  Eurostar 

To read more about our Paris trip, see our trip report HERE. For more humiliating travel mistakes we made in Europe see our blog post HERE. For more on our travels in Britain click HERE.