London is where we began and ended our trip to the British Isles, and it ended up being where we spent the most time. Admittedly, I wasn’t too keen on London from my impression of it during my first trip there. It was just so big and sprawling, and not to mention dirty (Copenhagen is nearly spotless, and completely spoiled my expectations of what European capitals should look like). But London was a practical place to fly in and out of, since Dulles has a direct flight, and it was a great gateway to the rest of our locations. I obsessed over the underground map, stalked Tripadvisor endlessly, and I think we did London justice, overall. We ended up really liking the city, and managed to make some significant tracks in and around central London.
I chose Notting Hill as our place to stay, since it was reasonably central but tends to be a quieter neighborhood. It was also a good bit cheaper than similar areas of London. Our Airbnb was steps away from the tube station, so equipped with our Oyster cards, we roamed the city under and above ground. Our street was charming and very English, and our Airbnb host was very nice and helpful as far as letting us leave our bags on check in/check out days, and we ended up staying with her at the beginning and at the end of our trip. It was nice to have that sense of familiarity when we returned to London at the end of our trip.
When we first arrived, we dropped our bags at the Airbnb and headed to Tralfagar Square to catch a hop on-hop off bus tour of London. We went with the Original Tour Company and with the online bonus of a free extra day pass, I would recommend it as a way to get your bearings in the city and to get a feel for which sights you might want to spend more time exploring and which you can skim over. It also gave us a chance to rest, since we got next to no sleep on our overnight flight. We hopped off at Buckingham Palace and then walked to Westminster Abbey and the Parliament building. We hopped back on the bus after meandering the Westminster neighborhood, and hopped off again at the Tower of London before walking to St. Katherine’s Docks for dinner at a pub. We avoided the only real downpour that happened on our trip while we were inside for dinner, which was lucky!
The next day we climbed to the top gallery of St. Paul’s Cathedral – this was our favorite thing that we did in London by far. The climb up the 500+ stairs was pretty intense, there’s a set of maybe 175 stairs that’s just spiral staircase after spiral staircase where you’re in the rafters between the inner dome and outer dome and Joe and I were both pretty shaky when we reached the top. Going down wasn’t nearly as bad, but let’s just say this isn’t for the faint of heart! We grabbed (you guessed it) fish and chips for lunch, then hopped on a bus (bonus day pass for the win) over to Marble Arch. We then took our time walking the length of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens as we made our way back to our Airbnb for our bags, then hopped on our train to Cambridge for the weekend!
We returned to London a week later, after a whirlwind visit in Cambridge and some incredible sights in Scotland, and it was great to know that we already had a baseline for the sights of the city. We dropped our bags at the Airbnb and hit up Nando’s for lunch (our food preferences towards the end of the trip really dropped off – we just wanted easy food). We found the TARDIS stationed in London for a quick photo-op (allons-y!) before heading to the Science Museum. Most major London museums are free, with a few special exhibits that you can pay to get into. We couldn’t say no to the Da Vinci exhibit at the Science Museum, so we took our time exploring that before breezing through the rest of the first floor. There were a lot of interesting and interactive exhibits, and would definitely recommend it if you’ve got the spare time. We then headed to a run of the mill movie theater to see The Secret Life of Pets (it came out in the UK before it hit the US!), which made us laugh and miss Luna terribly.
The next morning we went to the British Museum (my top recommendation if you’re only going to one museum in London) and gazed at the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles. My inner art history nerd gave a slight eye-roll to the flyer available in the Parthenon section that states how the British Museum has rightful claim to the marbles and should be praised for housing them, but hey, it was definitely more convenient than Athens currently is, so I’m partly glad that they were there. We went for lunch at a nearby pub before heading to Westminster Abbey for the 3 PM Evensong service, which was so incredible. If you have an extra afternoon, Evensong is offered daily and is such a treat. It’s also a free way to see the Abbey, but be sure to maintain a respectful countenance as it is still a religious service. After the hour-long service we hopped on a water taxi to Greenwich village, where we walked the market and downtown area. Greenwich was super charming, and we walked the main park to find the Prime Meridian line, then grabbed a quick dinner and headed back to Notting Hill.
For our last full day in London, we began with the Tate Modern. It was free, so it made sense to pop in and see some classic works of modern art that I knew of from my art history minor days, but I’m not the biggest fan of modern art, specifically that unsettled feeling some works leave you with. I appreciate that it challenges the mere concept of art, but in terms of personal preference, it’s not very high on my list. I did appreciate seeing Duchamp’s Fountain. From the Tate Modern we walked along the South Bank, stopping for lunch at Gabriel’s Wharf, and then on to the London Eye. Riding the London Eye was not originally on our list, but the giant wheel appealed to Joe and we had the time, so we splurged and decided to hop on. It wasn’t really worth the price tag, but it was a nice view of London. From the Eye we walked over to Tralfagar Square and over to BB Bakery for a cupcake break! I had found this bakery when I was looking for places to do a proper tea, but Joe is not a tea fan so we opted out this time. I’d highly recommend BB Bakery as a spot to do an afternoon tea though, and would definitely go back for that in the future! From there we walked over to the West End to grab some football paraphernalia and a quick dinner before seeing the Book of Mormon at the Prince of Whales Theater! The play was hysterical and sharply sarcastic, and we absolutely loved it. I’m so glad we had the extra time and were able to work that into our itinerary.
The next morning we rounded out our last breakfast in the UK with McDonald’s (total tourist move) before walking and biking our way through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. We spent over two hours meandering the beautiful paths, talking about our trip and our favorite sights and places, and made our way back towards Notting Hill for an easy lunch before headed to Heathrow. It was a nice, relaxing way to end our trip, and while we could have shaved a day or two off of London in favor for more time in Scotland, I’m so glad we were able to do and see so much of the city!
If you’ve made it this far, give yourself a nice pat on the back, because that was a doozy! For the short list version of what to do or see in London, here’s the highlights I would prioritize if I were going again:
- Bus Tour right away to get your bearings of the city – research stops ahead of time to know where you might want to hop on or off (a bike tour would be another good option, but you’d cover less ground that way).
- Climb St. Paul’s – there’s three different galleries to climb to, all stunning.
- The British Museum – well executed and really wonderful selection of classic works there.
- Dinner at St. Katherine’s Docks – feels like a tiny little neighborhood on that end of London with a great variety of dinner spots.
- Walk the South Bank, explore Gabriel’s Wharf, then walk to Tralfagar Square (afternoon tea at BB Bakery if you have time, reservations required).
- Walk or bike in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens – Santander bikes are free to rent for the first 30 minutes.
- If you have the bonus days, a Westminster Abbey service and a play would be excellent additions, along with Greenwich Village (a little out of the way from central London, but a lovely town).
And some additional travel tips:
- Buy an Oyster card ahead of time – you can have it shipped to your home before you leave for your trip, and it works on buses, the Underground, and water taxis! You can reload it at any Underground station if needed.
- For restroom stops, have some change with you for the public toilets (they usually range from 20 pence up to 50), or pop into a cafe or coffee shop to buy a bottle of water and use their bathroom for free (ask if they have one, first!). Also, it’s called a toilet, not a bathroom or restroom. And a bin, not trash can. Chips, not fries. Crisps, not chips.
- Travel like locals and take the Underground – it’s cheap and easy, and they’ve got plenty of maps posted in the stations so you can figure out the necessary route if you don’t know it ahead of time.
- Embrace the pub scene and try local brews – when in doubt, ask your server. And for tipping, almost none of the places we ate had a line to add tip on the receipt, so if you plan on using a card, have some backup change to leave your server (10-15% is appropriate when the service is good, but it’s really up to your discretion – there were times when we didn’t have any change on us, but we tried to tip on most sit down meals).
- Wear shoes you can walk at least 8 miles in comfortably. More on that in our packing post later.
- When flying within the UK or leaving from there, you should actually put your liquids in the separate baggie. They’re super strict about that, but it’s something I never do in America.
- Know the major sights you want to see, but leave room for bonus stops that you can make spur of the moment, you might surprise yourself with what you stumble across!