We arrived in London on the morning of July 1st, 2007, with just 3 days to take in the sights of this beautiful city before heading to Southampton for a cruise of the British Isles.
July 1st – London, Day 1
Our driver (British Airport Cars) picked us up at the Heathrow and whisked us to the Atheneam Hotel. Unfortunately, we had to wait several hours to get into our room because the people in there hadn’t checked out yet. The hotel staff told us to come back later, so we headed out to explore London a bit and then grab some lunch at an Italian restaurant my brother-in-law Angelo recommended.
We walked to the Underground stop at Green Park and hopped on the tube to DaMario’s (www.damario.co.uk), the pizza restaurant that boasts the late-Princess Diana as one of its past customers. There are pictures of her on the walls, and her name is painted on the front steps. We took in the unique murals (depicting the owner in various Italian vignettes) and headed to the dining room downstairs, to feast on a variety of authentic Italian specialties: Gnocchi w/Mascarpone (£9.50 each) for me and my older daughter, Pizza Margherita (£7.50) for my 11-year-old, Pizza Annabella (same as the Margherita, but with ham added, £8.50) for the hubby, and Spaghetti w/Olive Oil (£3.90) for my fussy 7-year-old. We ordered some red wine by the glass and enjoyed the warm ambience and fabulous food. For dessert, the kids had Coconut Sorbet (£5) and Tartufo Nero (hazelnut chocolate ice cream dusted w/crushed hazelnuts and cocoa, £5). A 12.5% service charge was added automatically.
*A note about getting around: by far, the fastest and least expensive way to bop around London was using the Underground rail system. A one-day pass is £5 each (for adults and kids 11 & over—shhhh….my 11-year-old is small so we passed her off as a 10-year-old) and was well worth it. We never waited more than a few seconds for a train throughout the day. The tube is definitely an efficient way to travel, and the color-coded route lines are easy to navigate. Having day passes enabled us to criss-cross our way all around the city quickly and easily, and see everything we wanted to see in a short time.
We made our way over to 221B Baker Street and visited the Sherlock Holmes Museum/gift shop (www.sherlock-holmes.co.uk).
Before you leave the gift shop, grab one of the “Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective” business cards they have out. They’re free, and they make a nice memento for your scrapbook. The museum is small, so they only let a few people in at a time. We purchased our admission tickets at the gift shop, then waited out front for our turn to enter. While we waited, the guard at the door brought out a pipe and a couple of hats for the kids to try on and pose for pictures. Before long, we were inside the museum, being greeted by an actor dressed as “Watson” who shared some history with us regarding the legendary detective, Sherlock Holmes. We took some pictures of the various period vignettes, then headed down the street to Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum.
Unfortunately, the crowds at Madame Tussaud’s were huge, and the lines were very, very long. There were separate lines for ticket holders that seemed to move much faster, and when I asked one of the workers there, she whispered that it was cheaper to pre-purchase a ticket online (£5 less) and come back later to the ticket holders line. (When we got back to the hotel, we had the concierge order the tickets for us, and sure enough, our entrance the next day went very smoothly.)
In the meantime, we hopped back on the Underground and headed to Harrods for some shopping, but since it was Sunday, it was already closed when we got there. Disappointed, we walked back to the hotel, stopping in a coffee shop for some smoothies to perk everyone up.
Back at the hotel, we were told our room STILL wasn’t ready. It was getting very frustrating, but there was nothing we could do but wait. The staff at the hotel didn’t offer us much help, telling us to have a seat in the lobby and then ignoring us for the next hour or so. The kids were exhausted, and somehow managed to fall asleep in the uncomfortable lobby chairs.
Finally, our rooms were ready. Instead of traditional hotel rooms in the main building, we booked a two-bedroom apartment suite. The apartments are located on the side street adjacent to the hotel (Down Street); they were private flats at one time that were eventually purchased by the hotel for use as suites. We were booked into apartments 31 A&B, and they were well worth the wait. The connecting apartments had a huge amount of space, and were poshly decorated with an Old World flair: wood mouldings, fireplace mantles, heavy draperies and fabric wallcoverings. Each apartment had a large bedroom, a sitting room/office area, a living room/TV area with a foldout couch, and a full bathroom. In addition, unit 31A also had a full kitchen, with a small laundry washer/dryer—something I wasn’t expecting, and a great plus.
Our rooms were located directly over El Pirata (www.elpirata.co.uk) , a popular tapas restaurant, with tempting smells wafting up from downstairs in the evenings. One drawback: by early morning (7am), the alley was a bit noisy with garbage trucks and other delivery vehicles barreling through, so if you’re a light sleeper, you’ll hear them. The kids (in unit 31B) weren’t bothered by it at all.
One advantage of the side street location: there’s a small grocery store right across the street from the flats (the Mayfair Mini-Mart), with everything guests might need during their stay, including hot croissants and pastries, milk, juice, groceries, wine, cereal, newspapers, etc. We picked up stuff for breakfast and stocked our kitchen, making morning wake-up easier for everyone.
July 2nd – London, Day 2
Once again, we walked past the Wellington Arch and the stirring war memorials there, then cut through the park and made our way to Buckingham Palace. Lots of armed guards were milling about, but other than that, it was business as usual. After some photos, we walked around the corner, past the upscale Queen’s Gallery museum. We walked in and considered having a look, but the guard there immediately walked over to us, looked disdainfully at the kids and said, “I think you’d be wasting your money, ma’am. This isn’t the place for you. The children will be bored.” At first I thought he was genuinely trying to be helpful, but his continued insistence that “the Royal Mews just down the street would be more appropriate,” I realized that he was probably afraid the kids would be disruptive and break something. Since the admission price for the gallery was a little steep anyway, we made his day by leaving. We didn’t stop at the Royal Mews, either, since they’re nothing more than the Queen’s stables (where you can view her royal coaches) and it wasn’t open for nearly another hour yet, and admission was ridiculously overpriced (£18.50 for 2 adults & 3 children under 17).
Next up: Big Ben, which is the bell in the clock tower located at the Houses of Parliament building and Westminster Abbey.
We took some great exterior shots standing on the Westminster Bridge, which afforded some great views of the London Eye just across the River Thames. It started to rain, so we hurried over to Westminster Abbey and toured the church. (Family admission was £6pp/£24p for 2 adults and up to 4 children).
The younger kids weren’t too thrilled seeing the tombs of Elizabeth I and Mary Tudor, or the tomb of Mary Queen of Scots, but the rest of us found it interesting. They did like seeing the Coronation Chair, and Poet’s Corner was a highlight for me (more than 120 writers, poets, playwrights, actors and musicians are buried or memorialized there).
After having a quick snack at the Tower Café (overpriced, but we needed something to tide the kids over till lunchtime) we headed for Leicester Square to find the half price ticket booth. There were so many of them, it was darn near impossible to tell which one was the “official” one, so we headed right for the Wicked box office instead. The lines were long and the same-day tickets were full price, so we left to get some lunch. Along the way, I noticed that we passed the Tiger Tiger club, where the terrorist car bomb was found a few days earlier; didn’t point that one out to the kids!
We ate at the Planet Hollywood in Leicester Square (clean bathrooms, and good food) and then headed towards Trafalgar Square to met up with my friend Wendy outside of the National Gallery (she’d taken the train down from the Midlands to see us). Admission is free to the general exhibits. The Gallery (www.nationalgallery.org.uk) was huge and had an astonishing number of great works, including Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (one of my all-time favorite paintings), Monet’s Water Lilies, and many works by Dutch Masters (I particularly liked the self-portrait by Rembrandt). There were also great paintings by Botticelli, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Bellini, and Cezanne.
Afterwards, we used our pre-purchased tickets to enter Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum (the girl from yesterday was right: using the ticket holders line was much faster). Even though we got an online discount, I have to say something about the admission price: it was highway robbery!! A Family Ticket (2 adults and up to 3 children) costs £61 ($122 US), which is outrageous, and that’s the discounted price if you order online, 24 hours in advance. Steeper discounts are available if you order online and go to the museum after 5pm (they’re £10 each for adults and children), but then you’ll have to fight the crowds and rush your way through the exhibits (the museum closes at 5:30 pm on weekdays, 6pm on weekends & holidays). We got some nice photos, but I honestly didn’t think it was worth the price of admission. I’d been to Madame Tussaud’s the last time I was in London (15 years ago) and I remember there being far more wax figures than there were this time. If you have to skip something while you’re in town, this would be it. Tussaud’s also offers “discount combo tickets” that give you admisstion to both the Museum and the London Eye, but we decided to skip that. It’s a 45-minute ride all the way ‘round, and we knew we wouldn’t have that kind of time with all of the ground we still had to cover before leaving London.
We took the Underground back to the hotel, where we met up with Wendy & Ashley again. Our hotel steward surprised us by bringing up a snack of milk and cookies for the kids, and after bidding visitors farewell, we had a late dinner at an Italian restaurant just down the block named Prezzo (17 Hertford Street, on the corner of Down Street). The food was good, but like most things in London, a bit on the pricey side. We ordered Pizza Margherita (£5.95), Spinach & Ricotta Ravioli (£7.95) for the older girls, and of course, my picky eater Cathy had a small order of Penne w/butter (£3.90). Rich had Chicken Ravioli (£8.25) and I had the Pollo Gorgonzola (£8.95), which was excellent. A glass of house wine cost £4.30, and was very good; sodas were £1.90 each.
July 3rd – London, Day 3
Once again, we set out for a short walk to the Green Park station, hopped on the Picadilly line one stop to Westminster, then caught the Circle/District Line to the Tower Hill station so that we could get an early start at the Tower of London in the morning. *Note: If you read the informational signs about the Tower as you walk from the train station towards the ticket window, you’ll be able to answer many of the questions posed by the Beefeater once you start your guided tour. Guided tours leave every 20 minutes or so, led by a guide dressed in the traditional Beefeater outfit. He was very funny and informative about the Tower’s history, but the tour crowd was large and the kids were getting restless, so, we bailed after a few minutes and decided to do a self-guided walk instead.
We walked through the castle turrets for a bit, admiring the furnishings and the beauty of the Tower, then headed for the big attraction: The Crown Jewels. As we got close to the Jewel Room, my daughter Amy pointed out the large metal bolts embedded in the stone doorway we were walking through, and we realized that we were actually entering a giant safe. There were two options to see the jewels: first, you go by the display case on a slowly moving conveyor belt, then you can go back on an elevated stationary platform and take as long as you wanted to look at the displays, or even hop back on the conveyor belt. The kids went back at least twice to get a better look at the Koh-i-Noor diamond (the centerpiece of the crown), and the astounding Star of Africa diamond (in the scepter). We did a little shopping in The Jewel House gift shop, and got some nice souvenirs, including an official guidebook that details the history of The Crown Jewels. Since photography is not permitted in the Jewel Room, this was a great way to get some photos that we can scan and scrapbook later.
We walked around the grounds, took pictures of the ravens, and viewed the very moving Prisoner Graffiti exhibits in the Beauchamp Tower. As you walk along the walls of the Tower of London, there are some great views/photo ops of the Tower Bridge in the distance. There are also actors strolling around in period costume, affording another fun photo opportunity.
We left through the side exit and walked over the Tower Bridge to the shops and markets on the other side. We ate at a riverside restaurant named Strada (www.strada.co.uk) , located on a public plaza with water fountains that shot water up from the slate pavers. There was a fun art display there of decorated guitars signed by celebrities, including Ozzy Osbourne, Paul McCartney and many others. The HMS Belfast was docked there as well.
Amy started to feel tired and a little warm (we thought she might have a slight fever, but it turned out to be all the walking making her overheated) so we headed back towards the hotel. Rich took the younger two kids back to the room, while Christina and I headed to Harrods to do a little shopping. We cut through the Hay’s Galleria to get to the tube, and stopped in some of the little shops there so that Cathy & Amy could pick up a souvenir or two. We all caught the tube at the London Bridge station (it’s a bit confusing, because there’s a railway station there as well, on the left as you walk in…be sure to stay to the right for the Underground). We all hopped on the Jubilee line, but while the others got off at Green Park to get to the hotel, Christina and I changed for the Piccadilly line and took it two more stops to Knightsbridge, following the signs for Harrods/Brompton Road, which leaves you right at Door #6 at Harrods. We walked in and immediately got a map from one of the information officers (stationed on every floor, near the escalators) to get our bearings and figure out what sections of the store we wanted to see. There are six levels (Ground floor up to the 5th Floor) so it’s essential to know where you’re going, particularly if you’re pressed for time.
The bottom floor was jam-packed with shoppers sifting through perfumes and cosmetics, so we went up to the higher floors, which were far less crowded. The clothing in the women’s & juniors departments were ridiculously expensive, so we headed into the Children’s Books section to find some more Daisy Meadows books for Cathy. Then we went to the Harrod’s Gifts section, which had the best bargains in the store: lots of Harrod’s brand merchandise, with some great sale prices. Christina found a chic tote bag with the Union Jack on it, along with some keychains for her friends and a purse or two.
There were lots of high priced items in the home furnishings section that were fun to look at: Christina spotted a claw-footed tub for £31,000 ($62,000 US). *Note: Whenever we made a purchase with a credit card, they asked us if we wanted to charge it in dollars or pounds sterling: we always chose sterling, given how badly the dollar is doing right now. You almost always get a better exchange rate from your credit card company.
We ventured back down to the first floor, taking the back escalator so that we could catch a glimpse of the much-maligned Diana & Dodi statue (the late-Princess Diana and her equally ill-fated boyfriend, Dodi Al-Fayed, immortalized in bronze), fought our way through the perfume zoo and landed in the famous Food Hall. Christina purchased a variety of English teas (also on sale) and I bought some Harrod’s coffee for Angelo. The chocolates looked delicious, too, but the lines were long and were ready to back.
When we got to the hotel, Rich was looking to get back outside for a while, so he decided to head back to Leicester Square while the kids took a rest in the room and I did a few loads of laundry. Good idea…or so we thought. He hopped on the Underground and called a few minutes later, his voice drowned out by the high-pitched screams of thousands of preteen girls. I could barely hear him against the blood-curdling roar. Another terrorist attack? Not quite. “Oh my god,” he shouted, “It’s crazy here. It’s the Harry Potter movie premiere, and some red-headed kid just showed up in a limo. They’re going nuts.” We were disappointed that we didn’t go with him and get a glimpse of Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, or Daniel Radcliffe, but we’re glad we avoided the crush of thousands of fans. Rich hightailed it out of there while he still had some of his hearing left.
When he got back, we decided to get some take-out pizza for the kids from the restaurant up the street (Prezzo again—they had a two-for-one takeout special), while we ate at El Pirata (www.elpirata.co.uk) downstairs, and used our walkie-talkies to keep in contact with the kids. We had the Tapas 1 sampler menu (£13.95 each), and the food was fantastic, with ample portions of everything. We finished off with some flan (£3.75) and headed back upstairs, to do some laundry and pack up for our journey to Southampton the next day.
Earlier in the day, the hotel sent up a bottle of champagne (Louis Roederer Brut) and a card in honor of my upcoming birthday, which we enjoyed before turning in for the night.
July 4th—Happy Birthday America!
Time to meet up with our cruise ship and start the next phase of our vacation! I picked up some breakfast at the mini-mart (walked in just as a British woman buying her morning paper was trying to convince the owner that global warming is a big hoax…ugh) and got us all packed. The driver who transported us to the port parked outside the hotel for just a moment or two to ask our doorman a question, and in those few moments, he received a ticket for £60! Poor guy. We’d heard stories from our airport driver about how hated the parking officials are in London, and I can see why: they’re darn quick! Rich went and settled up the bill with the hotel (they tried to charge us an extra £35 per night for the foldout sofabed, which Cathy never used, so we had them credit the account for that) and off we went to board the Grand Princess for our cruise of the British Isles.
Next up: Embarking on our voyage aboard the Grand Princess.