Originally published in July 2010. Now that I have a blog dedicated to travel, the trip is being republished where it belongs.
Don’t miss the beginning of the trip…read about the trip in order.
Even though we ended up going to bed at 3:15 AM last night, we wanted to get an early start. I set my alarm for 7:30 AM, and we managed to step outside in search of breakfast at 9:00 AM. We had no idea where to go, but headed down a small street in the direction of Paddington Station and quickly found Craven Cafe. This tiny restaurant was exactly what I imagined a European cafe would look like. The half dozen tables were in a space smaller than my living room, and everything was made fresh in an open kitchen about the size of a small American kid’s bedroom. I ordered smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, and espresso style Americano coffee. I didn’t ask, but I’m thinking that the free refills that Americans expect on most of their beverages are not a standard in England. Given that the guide books said that bathrooms can be hard to find, sticking to one cup of coffee was probably a good idea anyway.
Breakfast brought us another discovery. Tipping is not standard in England outside of hotels restaurants and bars, and possibly nicer restaurants. The waitress took my credit card, then ran it without giving me the option to add a tip.
After breakfast we found a money exchange storefront so I could turn some of my US dollars into pounds…as I did not plan ahead like Pamela did and have my bank order some money for me. Honestly, I would do it this way in the future since the exchange rate was the going rate…$1.55 = £1.
In Search of a London Pass
During our trip research, we decided that we wanted to buy tickets to one of the hop=on/hop-off bus tours and a London Pass. The bus ticket would allow us to travel on a couple of bus routes, getting off & on as often as we wanted while we got a feel for the city layout. The London Pass included admission to a few dozen sites around town…most of which we didn’t really care about but many that were definitely on our list.
Had we been not been so busy with work in the weeks before the trips, we would have ordered the London Pass before we left. Since we just didn’t get around to it until it was too late to have it delivered to us at home, we headed to nearby Paddington train station since we were pretty sure that they sold the London Passes there.
We were wrong.
After wandering around the train station for a bit and discovering that public toilets cost 30 pence, I finally found a train employee who told me that they didn’t sell the passes at Paddington, but she was pretty sure that we could get them at #1 Regent Street. A quick check of our map showed us that we needed to go to Picadilly Circus, so we headed out and got on our first Big Bus Tour doubledecker bus. After about an 1 1/2 hours sitting in traffic, stopping what seemed like every 10 feet, we arrived at our destination. By this time, it was already noon and we felt like we hadn’t even gotten started.
Picadilly Circus is a busy business district, and it was surprisingly hard to find Regent Street even though we had a couple of maps. The streets aren’t labeled as clearly as we liked, and it appears that we walked right past it the first time.
At this point, I should also throw in that it took most of today to get used to crossing streets filled with heavy traffic and cars coming from the wrong direction. On a few occasions, Pamela stopped me from walking in front of a car even though the London authorities were nice enough to paint “Look Left” or “Look Right” at just about every crosswalk.
We finally decided to look like the tourists that we were, waiting at every intersection until we got the green walk symbol…even when it looked like there were no cars coming (it only took one more day for us to get past this…and on day 3 I didn’t have any brushes with London traffic!).
After walking past the street we needed, we finally found the Visitor Information Center. But by this point, it was almost 2 pm and we started feeling like going to more than a few attractions per day was not feasible. After all the effort we made to find a place to buy the London Passes, we ended up deciding to just pay for admission to the sites individually that we had time to fit in.
With the day half over, we jumped back on the Big Bus Tour and headed to Westminster Abbey. We actually made it there pretty quickly and headed inside without having to wait in a line at all. We were each given an audio handset that you held up to your ear to learn about the Abbey.
Basically, Westminster Abbey was originally a Catholic monastery. At the time of the Reformation, the King Henry VIII dissolved the monastery and the Abbey become part of the Church of England. In the years that followed, the Abbey became the burial ground for centuries of royalty and well-known citizens including Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Darwin and Sir Isaac Newton. Just about every room is now filled with Kings and Queens buried in either above ground tombs or under engraved slabs on the floor.
The Abbey was also the site of Princess Diana’s Memorial Service. Standing only feet from the alter where she lay, visitors wandered around listening to their audio commentary and whispering in reverence.
To this day, the Abbey remains a working church with daily services open to the public. Within a few minutes of our arrival, we heard an announcement that as an active church, they have an hourly minute of prayer and ask all visitors to either pray with them or stay still until the prayer is finished. Once the prayer was over, we continued on our path through the Abbey.
The building is absolutely gorgeous, and I wish we were allowed to take pictures inside. If you ever get to London, this is a must-see stop for your trip. Plan for about an hour once you get there (assuming you don’t have to wait in line either).
River Thames City Cruise
The Big Bus Tour includes a boat cruise down the River Thames (pronounced Tims), so we walked from Westminster Abbey to the Westminster Pier and hopped on a boat after only a short wait.
I’ve been on a lot of vacation boat cruises before, and they usually are a pleasant ride but nothing really special. This one was different. The tour guide (who insisted he was just a lowly sailor and NOT a tour guide) entertained us with his dry humor as we passed under 6 bridges including the famous London Bridge, the Ladies Bridge (built mostly by women during WWII with self-cleaning stone!) and the ultra-modern Millennium Bridge that leads to the Modern Art Museum (apparently one of the free museums in the city). We also passed by the London Eye (a huge Ferris Wheel observation capsule ride), a navy submarine, the Tower of London and Cleopatra’s Needle (with2 lion sphinx statuses that were installed backwards as they are facing Cleopatra instead of facing away to guard her).
We finished up at the Tower Bridge just as it started raining hard.
Unfortunately, in an effort to minimize the stuff we carried with us all day, Pamela checked the weather forecast in the morning and since there was no mention of rain, we both decided to leave our umbrellas at the hotel.
I also failed to understand that even though it is July, with high temperature only in the 70s, it feels more like a chilly spring day than summer. I really should have brought a jacket or raincoat and a long sleeve sweater.
We waited out the rain huddled with other travelers under the covered passage way that led to the street, and managed to avoid getting very wet..though it continued to mist on us for the next few hours.
At this point, we realized that we never at lunch and we couldn’t resist the sign offering traditional Fish & Chips (which is everywhere by the way). Even though it was 4 PM and we still planned to get dinner later, we both grabbed a paper cone of chips (steak fries) and headed back to find a bus back to our hotel.
Even though we were exhausted at this point, we had one more task that we needed to do in order to feel settled in for our vacation. You see, both of us normally use a hair straightener every day, but even with an electric converter, US straighteners can’t handle the UK voltage and get burned up. We had managed to get ready one morning without one, but we were on a quest to buy one before we had to get ready to go back out for dinner.
We knew we could go back to the pharmacy we checked out at Paddington Station that morning, but we luckily spotted another location of the same pharmacy at the Marble Arch bus top. We hopped off the bus and took care of our shopping errand before walking back to the hotel.
After two nights of 4 hours of sleep and all of the walking we did that day, we were absolutely exhausted when we got back to the hotel. We decided a nap would perk us up, so we closed our eyes around 7 pm for a quick snooze.
Another big mistake.
It didn’t occur to us to set an alarm. We woke up at 9:30 PM only to discover that all of the pubs stop serving food at 10 PM. We finally found Garfunkel’s, a casual restaurant that served dinner until 11. We both went for traditional British food, me ordering a beef & portabello mushroom pie with mashed potatoes and veggies, and Pamela going for sausage and mashed potatoes. And of course a couple of beers.
Not ready to call it a night, we tried to go to a nearby pub but found that they were all closed…it was after 11 PM and the guy working at one closed pub explained that of course “this is London and we are all in bed by midnight.” Not willing to give up (we had just woken up 2 hours earlier, we went back to our hotel bar. This time the bar was much more quiet, with only a few of the Opera Theater guests having wandered in and a much less frazzled bartender. I ended up ordering a bitter ale (totally can’t remember the name at the moment) and was surprised that I liked it as much as I did.
One beer was enough, and we headed up to our room to do a little writing. You see, both of us had sworn we were going to chronicle this trip…me in these posts and Pamela in a journal, and we hadn’t even finished writing up Day 1 yet.
Somehow a little bit of writing turned into 3 AM, and we had set ourselves up again for another night with only a few hours of sleep.
- We got caught up in the idea of the London Pass getting us free admission to tons of places…a few of which we cared about and many of which we really didn’t. We also bought into the idea that we needed the pass for the “Fast Track” entry. Wrong. Our Big Bus Tour could also sell us discounted tickets, some of which included the expedited entry. I learned a long time ago on cruises not to give in to the pressure that you need to buy activity passes in advance. I should have remembered that lesson.
- There is a reason that the London public works department paints warnings to pedestrians to look the correct direction. Driving in London would be very scary. The lanes are narrow, they drive VERY fast, and the buses, taxis and cars also share the lanes with bikes and motorcycles. They are not watching for pedestrians that can’t read the simple words painted on the street. Be careful!
- Though the tube (subway) would have certainly gotten us around time much quicker than the Big Bus Tour, and it would have been cheaper too, the hop-on/hop-off bus tour was worth it the first day simply to get a feel for the city…both in the look of the neighborhoods and in getting our bearing in the layout. If we had ridden the underground tube from the start, there are a lot of areas we would have simply never seen.
- If you go to London, plan on doing a ton of walking since every attraction is at least a few blocks away from the nearest bus stop or tube station. Bring very comfortable shoes.
- Regardless of the weather forecast, you should carry your umbrella every day in London. I am using a very small one that folds up to about a half foot which I bought from a street vendor outside a NY subway stop during a downpour. A raincoat, disposable poncho or at least a hooded shirt would be wise too.
- Set your alarm every time you close your eyes. We won’t make this mistake again.
Coming Up: Day 3 in London including Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace and Wellington Museum Park.