London is a great place. History, style and elegance, great food, and they speak some semblance of English there. They even got a queen.
About 10 years ago, we were lucky enough to live in the UK, although we were up north in Lancashire, about 300 miles from London. None-the-less, we had ample opportunity to visit London both for work and for fun. However, our son, Max was only 4 years old and remembered nothing. When we came back home, I always thought we’d be going back many times, but alas, it was not to be. So earlier this year, when given a chance to go for work, I packed up my family and headed over. This turned into a whirl-wind tour of the UK that saw us spending two packed days touring London, followed by a drive north to our former home base. We then added a trip to Liverpool (the work part) and a side trip to Hadrian’s Wall near the Scottish border which made for quite a good week.
But the first order of business was London. And the challenge was how best to see it in the couple of days that we had to spend there. This post is the first day. The second day can be found here.
The London Pass
One of the problems I’ve always had when trying to see a lot of sights in a city is paying for everything. So every place you want to go has a 20 GBP price tag (per person!), and you wind up skipping things to save cash. The solution is simple. Get the London Pass. It comes in one-day and two-day versions, and since we were going to be there for two days, that’s what we got. It covers admission to virtually everything you want to see (a notable exception being the London Eye), and even includes a boat trip on the Thames. We got them for $99 per person before we left home, and installed an app on our phones. You show up at your attraction, scoff at the people in line to get tickets, then flash your phone and in you go. It turns out the pass has the opposite affect in that instead of missing things, you try to go to everything to get your money’s worth. You have to find a balance.
The pass also allows you unlimited use of the Big Bus, which are sightseeing buses that you see all over the place. As a matter of fact, there are several bus lines, but your pass only allows you access to one. Our first day, we used the bus for transport, but soon realized that this was a limitation. So along with your London Pass, I recommend two days worth of unlimited passes on the London Underground (or Tube) for about 10 GBP per person. A bit pricey, but worth it for the flexibility.
Day Number 1
Upon arrival at our tiny little hotel room in Bayswater just across from Hyde Park, we mapped out a route to take advantage of the Big Bus.
Unfortunately, the bus didn’t come that early in the morning, so we decided to walk along the north edge of the park, and then turned south toward Kensington Palace. This takes you through embassy row, where many of the ambassadors to the UK reside. Passing the palace, we turned westward toward the Royal Albert Hall. The hall was built by Queen Victoria as a memorial to her husband, Prince Albert in the 1800s. It was here that our London Passes were first used. The hall is a fine old building that has been the venue for many, many shows. And we know from the Beatles that it takes 4000 holes from Blackburn, Lancashire to fill it.
Outside the hall, we finally caught up with the Big Bus, which took us eastward toward Buckingham Palace and Westminster. The buses are nice, and have commentary through earphones to inform you while you go. We stopped at the palace, waved at the royals (who I think were in Scotland at the time), then made the short walk to Westminster.
Westminster is a great part of London with a ton of stuff to see and do. Alas, Big Ben was shrouded in scaffolding as it seems to be sinking into the mud along the banks of the Thames. Around the square directly across from Westminster Abbey are statues of great people from the history of the British Empire. You can find Gandhi, Oliver Cromwell, and even Abraham Lincoln. George Washington was notably absent as I guess old grudges die hard. Winston Churchill, who is one of my all-time heroes, is also here. Next, we crossed the street to Westminster Abbey which has been the site of royal wedding, coronations and funerals. On my many trips to London, I have always skipped it due to the pricey entrance fee, but NOT TODAY. I was thwarted, however, since it was closed to the public that day. So my quest remains unfulfilled.
Also in Westminster is the Churchill Museum and Underground Cabinet War Rooms. This was the home of the British government during the Battle of Britain during World War 2. Everything is pretty much as it was at the end of the war with bedrooms, map rooms, bomb shelters, and other necessaries all underground to protect from German bombers. The Churchill museum next door is a fascinating place dedicated to Britain’s greatest statesman. You can stand in certain places and hear Churchill’s most memorable speeches that kept Great Britain fighting at its darkest hour. And, of course, both are included with the London Pass!
A short jaunt from Westminster brought us to Trafalgar Square with it’s high column topped by a statue of Horatio Nelson who won a great victory off the coast of France during the Napoleonic Wars. The column is guarded on four sides by huge granite lions. From here we hopped another bus and crossed to the south shore of the Thames on our way to the Tower of London.
Tower of London and the Tower Bridge
This is another “must see” attraction. The Tower was built in the 1000’s, and has served as the royal palace, the royal prison, and the home of the crown jewels. It is featured in every movie about England/London, and is, of course, part of the London Pass. Denise and I have been here before, but this was Max’s first chance to see the climactic scene from Braveheart, and other classic movies. The first thing you see is the raven house. There are large, black ravens all over the place and it is some poor guys lot in life to care for them. For legend has it, that when the last raven leaves the Tower, the empire will fall. As a Steeler fan, it can’t happen soon enough, but I digress……
You see the Traitor’s Gate where the guilty were rowed downstream to the Tower for eventual execution. And you can visit the armory where all the suits of armor still are kept from the days of heraldry. And finally, you can tour through the Crown Jewels. So the Tower is not to be missed.
Adjacent to the Tower is the Tower Bridge, which is an iconic feature of London. Many mistake it for London Bridge, which did not fall down, but rather was relocated to Arizona. The bridge is an engineering marvel. And although our pass would’ve allowed us to explore the inner workings of the last drawbridge on the Thames, we were eager to cross and get to the pub, called the Anchor Tap on the other side.
So this was a pretty full Day 1, although we were kind of prisoners to the Big Bus. We vowed that tomorrow would be different as we wended our way back to our hotel.
- The London Pass is a great way to see the city without suffering a sudden attack of cheapness when it comes to paying for attractions. After all, you already paid.
- The tour bus that’s included with the pass is ok, but quite limiting. You are much better off getting an unlimited pass on the London Underground even if it costs you a bit more.
- If you have some “must see” sights, check before you go to be sure if they’re open. Sometimes attractions are closed during the week on certain days.
- Bring comfy shoes, and be prepared to walk. A LOT.
- And don’t think you can do it all in one day. Although two days will allow you to see most things you want to see.
- HAVE FUN!!
Check out Day 2 of our London odyssey right here.
Day-tripping with Rick