Thanks for reading my posts! My two week vacation to England and Scotland was one I will definitely never forget. I traveled in April and May of 2016 with my best friend Cassandra, and although we almost killed each other a few times, we had an awesome vacation! We spent an entire week in London, which included tours to many neighboring cities and towns in England. We also stayed with family friends just north of London, and we ended our two week trip with a three day stay in Edinburgh, Scotland. Aaaand best of all, we did it all in CARRY-ONS! Check out my post on packing for long trips in carry-on luggage…I’ll never travel international any other way because it’s so easy! Travel with me to England in this first blog post and discover what to do in the city of London. All photos were taken by yours truly!
What to do in London…It really depends on what you enjoy doing on your vacations…are you really into museums? city tours? interactive sites? Even though I can appreciate art and history, I can only handle so many museums before I go a little insane. Since my best friend is an Interior Designer, she was super into the architecture and museums, something that can get a little (or a LOT) boring to me. We compromised to make sure that we visited sites that were important to each of us, and we actually worked pretty well together for people who are so different. If you travel with someone, make sure you are on the same page about what you want to see and do. I would say we ended up doing about half museums (history & art) and half tours/interactive sites!
Everything was super easy with the London Pass! It is a prepaid card you order (visit site here) which includes free admission to almost everything you will want to visit in the city of London, except St. Paul’s Cathedral and the London Eye. You can also add an Oyster Card (for travel) when you order your pass. At least half of the sites even let you have fast track entry, so you can bypass the hour long wait lines. Everything was so convenient because all you needed was your London Pass & Oyster Card when you went out for the day. During our 8 day stay with the London Pass, we visited/toured the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Thames River Cruise, Westminster Abbey, Windsor Castle, Kensington Palace, Churchill War Rooms, Victoria & Albert Museum, Old Operating Theatre Museum, and Benjamin Franklin House. All these along with about 50 other places are included in the Pass, so it’s an extremely good deal if you’re staying in the city for a few days.
We also took a trip on The London Eye, but missed our scheduled tour of St. Paul’s because of a sucky dining experience…but don’t get me started on that! Other places we passed for photo opps included Buckingham Palace, Big Ben/Parliament, and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. We also toured a variety of museums including The British Museum, National Gallery, and Tate Modern (very brief) and even got to see The Phantom of the Opera Broadway Musical.
Tower of London & Tower Bridge
The Tower of London is easily one of London’s most iconic sites. We visited the Tower first thing in the morning and caught a free tour with an official Neoman Warder/ Beefeater, the Queen’s bodyguards and keepers of the Tower grounds. They give very entertaining tours (about every 30 minutes) and are very knowledgeable about English history and recommending what to do while inside the Tower. While in the Tower complex, we visited the beautiful Crown Jewels and the White Tower, which houses a variety of old weapons and armor suits. No cameras allowed in the Jewels! Then we made our way to the Tower Bridge, where we walked 138 feet up (eek!) on the glass floors above the Thames River. You can also visit the pump rooms, that show you how the bridge is raised and lowered for tall boats to pass through. This was one of the top sites for me, but my poor bestie almost passed out over the glass…she’s so scared of heights…so yeah I kinda felt bad after that…but not really because we got her to conquer her fear for about 5 seconds!
I recommend visiting Tower of London at the beginning of the day because it can get very busy in the afternoon. Spend a couple hours at the Tower, have lunch, and then head to the Tower Bridge. Make sure to get pics on the glass bottom floors above the Thames! Both are included in the London Pass with fast track entry.
Buckingham Palace & Westminster Area
Buckingham Palace/Westminster area is also another full day out, and all the sites are within easy walking distance of each other. Buckingham Palace changing of the guards, which occurs daily at 11AM, is great to pair with Westminster Abbey and The London Eye, especially since the London Eye is open late. The Changing of the Guards was really a bunch of hype to me-way too crowded and hard to see anything! I can appreciate the history and tradition behind it, but if you decide to go, legit get there about an hour before. Otherwise, you won’t be able to see anything! Right around the corner from the Palace is also The Imperial War Museum-Churchill War Rooms, the underground bunker used by Winston Churchill and his cabinet members during WWII. Across the river is the London Eye, which is Europe’s largest ferris wheel! You get to hang out for about half an hour above the city in enclosed capsules getting one of a kind views of the city.
I recommend visiting the Palace, walking through Green Park or St. James’ Park (surrounding Buckingham Palace) on your way to the Churchill War Rooms, taking a visit to Westminster Abbey, and then ending the day with an afternoon or night ride on the London Eye. The only thing I would have changed was to spend more time inside the War Rooms (if you like that sort of thing)…you could easily spend hours there! Parliament & Big Ben are also right next door to Westminster Abbey, so you can get your pics in here too! We had tea at Westminster Abbey on this day and actually visited the Abbey on a different day because it was closed early. I don’t have pics of the inside of the Abbey because again cameras were not allowed. The Abbey has a neat little cafe called the Cellarium Cafe, and we sat on the glass top roof terrace and had afternoon tea. Everything except the tea (although you still get a discount) and London Eye ride was included in the London Pass. The London Eye was also one of my favorite sites for the stunning views of the city, but again not for Cassandra…but like an awesome friend, she was a trooper and went for me!
Kensington Palace & Hyde Park
Kensington Palace is within/on the edge of Hyde Park, London’s biggest park. We actually stayed in Paddington, which is a neighborhood next to Hyde Park, and since it was so close to our flat, we visited this area on our first day out. We walked through beautiful Hyde Park to the Palace…London is the best city to visit if you love parks and outdoor spaces, and Hype Park was full of dog-walkers and bike-riders. When we went (end of May), it was still very cold, so I’d recommend going at a warmer time to enjoy all the outdoor spaces!
Kensington Palace has been home to royalty for over 300 years, so you get a chance to explore the King’s and Queen’s State Apartments (do your history research, so you aren’t lost in the lineages) and visit where Queen Victoria spent her childhood. The Palace contained a big tribute exhibition to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and included a lot of the Queen’s old writings and dresses, not to mention the big statue in front of the Palace of her. A lot of places around the city paid tribute to Queen Victoria I noticed…apparently everyone loved her. Also inside the palace was an exhibition containing the dresses of The Queen, Princess Margaret, and Princess Diana…can you say gorgeous!
I recommend walking through the park to the Palace and spending the afternoon here and hanging out around the park. And again, Kensington Palace was included in our London Pass. They also had a cool cafe to get a snack and chill overlooking the park, which was nice considering it starting raining…which it did…every. day.
London History & Art Museums
Like I said before…too many museums will make me go insane…but they were a really big deal to Cassandra. Even if you aren’t a huge fan of museums, there are some artifacts in a lot of the London museums that you can not see anywhere else in the world. The more well known museums we visited were the Victoria and Albert Museum, British Museum, and National Gallery. If you really love museums, you could easily spend a full day (or more) in each of these. We spent a good half day in each, and I would highly recommend all 3 of them if you have time! Like a lot of other major museums, the British Museum and National Gallery had free entrance; they just want a donation for the museum maps.
First, I’ll start with the British Museum, which is home to the Rosetta Stone, Parthenon sculptures, Lewis Chessman, Portland Vase, and others. the Rosetta Stone! I enjoyed this museum the most because it included a lot of ancient Greek, Roman, & Egyptian artifacts.
Later that day we visited The National Gallery, which contains works of art by di Vinci, Raphael, Rembrandt, Monet, Michelango, Velazquez, Van Gogh, etc. I would recommend skipping the National Gallery, unless you just LOVE classical European paintings. However, it was cool to see some paintings that I was familiar with like Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” but other than that it was all running together… The Gallery is located in Trafalgar Square (known for it’s large lion statues), and it’s a cool area to catch street performers!
The biggest and most impressive museum we visited was the Victoria & Albert Museum…all 6 stories! It houses the largest collection of Victorian artifacts in the world, and you can find everything from statues to furniture to clothes. Check out the HUGE blown glass chandelier by American artist Dale Chihuly at the center of the entrance! The museum has a huge cafe across the courtyard that is great for lunch too.
River Cruise & Other Museums
Our first afternoon in the city, we took a ride on the Thames River Cruise (pronounced “Tims River”) with our London Pass. The boat will actually travel all the way to Greenwich, but we stayed in London city. It was a good tour to take to get familiar with the city built around the Thames and get a great look at all the big sites from the river. The cruise departed opposite the London Eye and traveled down the river passing the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Millennium Bridge, St. Paul’s, Shakespeare’s Globe, etc. Like I said, you get a better idea of where all the sites are in relation to each other, so if you have time I definitely recommend it.
During our stay, we toured some lesser known museums too. Per Cassandra, we visited the Sherlock Holmes’ Museum early in the week, which was a walk through tour of “Sherlock’s apartment” at 22B Baker Street filled with a lot of memorabilia and movie reference items…and obviously I’m a weirdo and have never seen any of the movies, so I was completely lost! I would recommend it if you are into Sherlock, but it was definitely not my thing, although Cass loved it! It is NOT included in the London Pass.
On the other hand, our visit to the Old Operating Theatre Museum was my absolute favorite part of our London stay! The museum (which was up a tiny spiral staircase in the attic of an old church) was filled with turn of the century medical equipment, so all pre-antiseptic and pre-anesthesia tools. It had an awesome old operating theatre from 1822, where doctors watched and learned medical procedures. I probably spent a good half hour chatting with the medical historians who ran the museum….my bestie thought it was gross, but I thought it was awesome! I would definitely recommend it to anyone how loves medical science, and best of all, it was included in the London Pass.
One museum we visited that I would not recommend, is the Benjamin Franklin House. It sounded really cool, especially since it is the last remaining residence of Franklin’s in the world still standing. The house was very well preserved, but the tour consisted of a walk-through monologue with an actress playing his family friend….meehhh. Zzzzz. I would have been fine just snapping a pic of the outside of the house. It was included in the London Pass, so at least we weren’t out any money (yes, always staying on that budget!)
Catching a Broadway
Because, let’s be honest, you can’t go to London and not go to a play or musical in the West End. We were traveling on Cassandra’s birthday, so I decided to get us tickets to Phantom of the Opera in London as her present. It was at Her Majesty’s Theatre in the West End of London, which is an area known for broadway musicals…and OHMYGOSH it was beautiful! The building is over 100 years old and covered in gold and red velvet…you can see a picture of it below (some crazy English lady was yelling at me, but how could you not try to sneak a pic!). They have so many other famous shows and theatres around the West End, so catch a show or two if you have time; you won’t regret it!
So that’s London city in a nutshell! I wouldn’t have changed anything except maybe leaving some more time to hang out in the gorgeous parks, but it was so cold (and rainy a lot of times) that it was hard to stay out for too long. I wished we had gotten the opportunity to see the inside of St. Paul’s Cathedral and a play at Shakespeare’s Globe. Even though we spent over a week there, we could have easily spent another in the city! Stay tuned for my next post which will include Windsor Castle and our day tours with The English Bus Tour Company out to Stonehenge & Bath and Stratford, Oxford University, & the Cotswolds cottages.