Guide to London Travel

Get ready for an incredible experience, as you visit one of the world's great cities, full of tradition and history.  This is the "old Europe," where history meets the modern world.  It's your opportunity to visit Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, and so much more.  There are so many sights to see, so many things to do, that you can't possibly cover all of them in one visit.  We'll give you our secrets to maximizing your visit, as well as our favorite attractions.

We landed at Gatwick Airport, which is 32 miles from central London.  We had planned on taking the train (the Gatwick Express) into the city.  After collecting our baggage and a quick trip through customs, we walked to the train ticket counter at the airport, and purchased our tickets.  Our first problem was that our baggage cart would not fit through the barriers near the elevators to the train platform.  Off came the suitcases, and we lugged them to the elevator and down to the train.  Travel Tip:  if anyone in your party has a bad back, consider having a private car meet you at the airport.  In addition, if you arrive the same day as your departing cruise (not recommended, in case your flight is delayed or cancelled, or your luggage is lost), your cruise line will probably be able to provide transportation directly to the ship.

Because we had just flown all night from the U.S., we opted to stay up until it was night time in London.  That's generally good advice, and will help you adjust your "internal" clock much quicker.  Our first night in London, we stayed at the Rubens at the Palace Hotel, which is just across the street from the Royal Mews, where the queen's horses and carriages are kept.  Buckingham  Palace is just up the street.  We were so impressed with this hotel that we have included it in our "Top Picks" list.

There is so much to see and do in London that you will need to organize your time carefully.  Review the attractions carefully for those that would interest you, and plan your days.  A good guidebook (or two) certainly helps, and the relatively small amount you will pay for this is almost insignificant compared to the sights you will see (or would have missed otherwise).

Our favorites:

  1. The London Eye -- No, this isn't something you heard about as you were growing up, or have always wanted to see, because it is fairly new.  It's a huge Ferris wheel, about 500 feet high, that was built for the millennium celebration in London, with British Airways as one of the partners. It was due to be dismantled following the millennium, but has been so popular that it will remain in operation indefinitely.  You enter a large plexiglass pod and can stand or sit, with a group of up to 25 other people (although many pods only have two to six people in them).  The Eye turns so s-l-o-w-l-y that it seems you are hardly moving during your 25 minute journey.  This is a great way to have a panoramic view of London, especially Big Ben and Parliament, and everything along the Thames River.   You can very easily walk across the Thames to access it.  This has become one of the top attractions in London, and with good reason. Travel Tip:  schedule your ride just before dusk, and you will see the lights of London coming on as you get to the top of the ride (see photos of our ride).  Don't miss this one.
     

  2. Buckingham Palace -- "I've been to London to see the queen."  No, you won't actually meet her, but if you visit Buckingham Palace from July 30 to September 27 (subject to change, of course), when the royal family vacations outside of London, you do get to go through her house.  This isn't some quick, superficial tour.  You will be given a set of headphones and a pre-recorded room-by-room narrative, and you can wander through the public areas of the palace -- all of them -- at your own pace.  American visitors will be quite surprised at the amount of freedom they have here.  When you are finished, you will exit out the back of the palace into the large, private garden that is surrounded by trees.  This private area is the royal family's recreation spot.  Quite an impressive tour.  Book in advance at the official website.
     

  3. Parliament -- During the months of August and September, Parliament is out of session and is open for public tours.  This is a little-known tour outside of England, but the British government actually wants people to visit this historic site.  We arrived around 8:45am for a 9:30am tour, and proceeded to the small ticket counter across the street.  When we asked if we could join the earlier 9:15am tour, the ticket agent, in true English dry wit, replied that he thought he could "squeeze us in."  We joined only three others for our visit to Parliament, and met our Blue Badge certified guide outside the queen's entrance to Parliament.  Our tour guide led us through the queen's entrance, up the stairs, down the hall, and into the queen's robing room, where she often visits with government representatives when she visits Parliament.  Her "dressing area" is a folding screen in a corner.  From there, we walked into the House of Lords, then crossed through a common lobby area, and entered the House of Commons.  All the while, our guide was telling us the history of the building.  Ever wanted to sit in the House of Lords and imagine you are listening to the queen?  How about standing in House of Commons, where the prime minister stands when he addresses the members of Parliament?  You can on this tour.  This isn't one where you are in a gallery high above the action, or behind a glass wall.  You are there.  Highly recommended.  (Note: no photography is permitted.)  Reserve your tickets in advance here.
    He said -- I stood on the floor of the House of Commons, where the Prime Minister stands, and looked out over the seats, imagining them filled with Members of Parliament.  Awesome.
    She said -- The House of Commons was nice, but was quite plain.  The House of Lords, on the other hand, was very impressive in its architecture and furnishings.  You can really see the tremendous class differences that used to exist in England.
     

  4. Tower of London -- Not at all what we had expected.  This is a fairly large prison, with several buildings, a large courtyard, high walls around it, and a lot of gruesome history.  Here you will discover how prisoners were beheaded, and how the wealthy often paid the executioner a tip to make sure the axe took off their heads with only one blow.  The Beefeaters are there in their traditional costumes, to wander through the crowds and tell you stories of the tower and some of its more notable visitors.  And, you will have the opportunity to see England's crown jewels, up close.
     

  5. Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace -- this is one of those "must sees" that everyone will ask you about when you return.  It's actually not overwhelmingly exciting, but you shouldn't miss it. Note -- the guard only changes every other day.  You can no longer walk up to the palace guards and try to make them smile.  For security reasons, the exterior gates of the palace remain closed.  This also restricts your view of the changing of the guard (we stuck our camera between the bars of the fence for many of our photos).
     

  6. Piccadilly Circus -- London's version of Times Square is worth a visit.  The curved buildings, the shops and the sights, and the busy crowds make this memorable.
     

  7. Westminster Abbey -- the site of the coronation of every English monarch since 1066, this impressive structure literally reeks of history.
    He said -- This is stunning architecture, and the number of royal tombs inside the abbey is impressive. 
    She said -- I had expected a large, very open church.  I was surprised at how much it is chopped up inside, giving a feel of a number of smaller churches that are joined together.
     

  8. River Thames Cruise -- This is not a long cruise, but you do get a good view of London from the water, including a head-on view of the Tower of London bridge.  It's best to take a Thames cruise when it is not raining, and sit on the top deck of the boat, for a 360 degree view of all of the sights.

Travel Tips for London Sightseeing:

  1. Book a tour, through a reputable tour operator, and let them take you around town for the day.  It's well worth the cost.  Find and book London tours and activities on Viator.com. Book direct with the tour company we use!
     

  2. Hang onto your British pounds as you are leaving.  We dumped all of our change into a donation container just outside security at Gatwick airport, and felt very good about our donation.  Then, when we had cleared security and were inside, we discovered a two story open air mall, with many shops and restaurants, all of which wanted British pounds.
     

  3. Watch the traffic.  Many intersections in London have "Look Right" painted on the pavement to alert tourists.  England is one of the few countries in the world where vehicles travel on the left side of the road, so visitors from all over have the same problems we do.  It's easy to get hit by one of the many fast-moving cars.
     

  4. You will hear about the high cost of food and lodging in London, and it's partially true.  Use our tips for booking hotel rooms to get a good price on lodging.  For dining, you will have to decide how important fine dining is to you.  Many of the pubs offer early dinner specials and yes, those golden arches of McDonald's are in London.
     

  5. Ride the "Tube," London's subway system.  It's old, but very clean, and very efficient.  The layout is logical, and the stations and trains are clearly marked.  One tip -- most stations do not have elevators.
     

  6. Watch your use of credit cards with the taxis.  We had a very unpleasant experience (see our write-up in our Security page), and we would recommend using cash whenever possible.
     
  7. Try some traditional English dishes when you dine.  One of our surprises was mashed peas, which look like green mashed potatoes, and taste like them also. 

Cruise Tips:

  1. London is a good distance from the coast, and almost all cruise lines will sell you space on their buses to and from your departure port, even if you made your own flight arrangements and arrived a day or two early.  Your cruise agent can help you with this.
     

  2. Plan on spending one or two nights in London prior to your cruise.  This gives you the chance to adjust to the new time zone, and your London sightseeing will seem like an extra vacation.


 Find and book London tours and activities on Viator.com.
Book ahead to save time and money!

 

 
 

 

Quick Travel Tips for London

London's currency is the pound.  Click here for the XE currency converter. 
London's electricity is 240 volts.  Click here for converters for your appliances.
London is in the Western European time zone, which is 5 hours later than U.S.
Eastern Standard Time.
Interactive Map of London
London Tube Map
Official London Website

 

           
           

 

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