Wednesday, March 16, 2016

London: The City and Sights

London is a very interesting place. 

It's beautiful, with a mix of old and modern, clean and dodgy, quiet and crazy.

When we returned from our first trip in 2012, there was a lot about London that we hadn't liked. The rush. The rude people. The occasional feel of being in "just any" big city.
It occurred to us later that that's maybe just one of our issues with travel in general. We tend to prefer more remote "off the beaten path" types of places - case in point: liking the west coast of Ireland more than we liked Dublin. Both of us having grown up in Los Angeles, we're used to big cities with lots of multicultural people - when we travel, we like to see the culture of the place we're in. 

Anyway, back to London. 

I originally struggled with how I wanted to talk about our trips - should I do what I'd done in other cases, and just describe what we did each day? There were days where we didn't actually DO very much, so that didn't really seem to fit... so instead I went with topics. Here, I'll touch on our experience of the city itself and the tourist sights we checked out! 


The city is big, sprawling, and really quite lovely. We both really loved the areas by the river best - all the river walks and roads with pubs and museums and sights.  

On our first trip, in 2012, we received a free London Pass with our airfare through Air New Zealand. It ended up being something that came in handy to check out some of the things we wanted to see, but might not have otherwise if we'd had to pay for them individually. 

TRAVEL TIP: You can definitely save money on entrance fees by having a London Pass, but if you have to pay for the pass, you should try to calculate what you want to see to make sure it's worthwhile. If many of the places you want to check out cost a bunch to get into (Westminster Abbey, Windsor Castle, etc), it's likely worthwhile to get the pass. It looks like there's now a hop on hop off bus included with the pass. I love those buses because they give you a really nice overview of a new city. Also important to remember, London is pretty spread out, and there will be some transport time between places, plus time to see everything! We planned on seeing 4-5 things/day for the three days that we had the pass, and never got more than 3 in. And, a lot of museums in London are free, so do your research before you buy! (The London Pass website lists the normal entrance fees for most attractions!)

Here are some of the bigger things we've done in London over the course of our trips, and a couple things we didn't get a chance to do. 


HMS Belfast
London Pass: Yes
Entry fee without London Pass: £16
Would we have gone: Yes
We loved this stop - particularly because it's so much different than something similar in the US would be. You can adventure all over the nine decks of the ship, including climbing in and out of areas that would definitely be off limits for safety reasons in the US. There were weird mannequins set up all over the ship to display what various rooms and areas were used for, and you were allowed to touch things, push buttons, and even sit in the captain's chair! It was really cool, and I'd definitely go back, especially with kids.  

The HMS Belfast

Hubby checking things out from the captain's seat!

Strange mannequins performing surgery.

Tower Bridge
London Pass: Yes
Entry fee without London Pass: £9
Would we have gone: Maybe
This was a fun thing to check out, but I don't have a ton of memories about how it was. It was very cool to walk from one tower on the bridge to the other - and the mechanics of how the bridge works were also neat

Westminster Abbey
London Pass: Yes
Entry fee without London Pass: £20
Would we have gone: No
It was cool to see inside, and if you like churches, this is a must-see. The quick tour was good, and it boggles the mind a bit that Westminster Abbey has been around for more than 1,000 years. But it was really expensive if you don't have the London Pass, and we aren't super into religious sites. If this hadn't been free, we probably would have skipped it. That's not to say you should, but it didn't "wow" us! 

The side of Westminster Abbey

London Pass: Yes
Entry fee without London Pass: £20
Would we have gone: No
This one is a bit outside of London - you can get there by train, boat, or car, like we did. We went with SD and her family. It was interesting to walk around, but it was a lot more like an art museum than a "castle." The grounds were gorgeous and impressive, and it's fun that the royal family actually lives there sometimes! It's also near the river, where it's nice to stroll and see all the willow trees and swans. But, it's also right under the air traffic path for Heathrow, and it was a sort of funny detail to see jets flying above all the time! It's a nice way to spend a morning or afternoon if you have the time!  

 The grounds of Windsor Castle and part of the castle. 

London Pass: Yes
Entry fee without London Pass: £4.50
Would we have gone: Maybe
This was one we stopped by as we had a bit of time between checking out the Notting Hill market and meeting SD for afternoon tea! It's a monument to the great fire of London, and celebrates the rebuilding of the city. The stairs to the top were crazy and the view was really cool, even though there was chain link fence all the away around to prevent people from falling (jumping? apparently there have been "incidents") off the top. It was worth the view, but I'd recommend going when it's not crowded, as it got a bit claustrophobic at the top!

Hard to believe you can go up to the top!

 The stairs! 

Entry fee: Free! 
The first time we were in London, we didn't make it to Greenwich early enough in the day to see the Cutty Sark or the Royal Observatory, so we instead spent an hour or so at the Maritime Museum. It was a fun place, though probably geared a bit more for kids than adults. Still, it was a good place to spend a (free) hour hanging out and learning about boats, plus there were fun displays to play with! 

 It was hot in there!

The Royal Artillery Museum (now closed)
London Pass: Yes
Entry fee without London Pass: £5.30
Would we have gone: Maybe
This was a quick stop, partially to duck out of some rain, and I'm not sure we'd have gone if we hadn't stumbled upon it (plus it was included in the London Pass!). But if you're into military and history, it was a fun place to spend about 45 minutes! 

Notting Hill and Portobello Road Market
Entry fee: Free 
This was a  lovely place to wander through for a while! They had all sorts of things - from fruits, veggies, and other foods, to prepared foods, to books and clothes and cameras. It was sort of like a farmer's market meets a swap market! It was pretty packed when we went, but it was still a great place to visit. 

Delicious fresh bruscetta from one of the vendors!

 I love cameras and would have gotten one if it would have fit in my suitcase!

Entry fee: Free
This was a funny little place. Sir John Soane was a famous architect and his house has remaining untouched since he died 180 years ago! He collected all sorts of incredible and weird things. You have to surrender your bags and cameras before you go in, and the house is positively packed with artifacts, artwork, and STUFF. It was pretty interesting, especially the Egyptian and Roman artifacts, and there were walls that rotated so they could hold art on both sides! 

Entry fee: Free
It's a giant shopping store, but it's kind of amazing and overwhelming to check out! Make sure you check the hours they're open before you head out - we actually arrived over an hour before they opened one morning, so when we finally made it back we were rushed. The chocolate, tea, and sweets department is outstanding and was by far my favorite part!

 The lights are pretty, too!

Meantime Brewing Company
Entry fee: £20 for the tour
This brewery is located in Greenwich (though not in the "main" part near the museums and the Cutty Sark, so mind the address when you're visiting!), and the tour was super awesome. Completely worth the cost of the tour, and delicious beers to taste! We sampled 5-6 beers, and the tour was entertaining, informative, and generally awesome. I would love to go back, and our tour guide was hilarious! The best brewery tour we've ever gone on, and one I highly recommend if you're into brewing and beer. We ate lunch in their pub afterwards, and got some neat glassware to bring home with us. 

Update: We loved Meantime Brewing Company so much that they now have their very own post!  

My favorite was the London Lager.

Sample one of six, along with samples of the different roasts of barley!

London Pass: Yes
Entry fee without London Pass: £9.50
Would we have gone: Yes
We didn't actually make it to the observatory the year we had our London Passes, but it definitely was on our list. The museum closes every day at 5pm, so plan ahead! Instead, we finally made it when we visited London in 2015, and it was pretty cool. Hubby was SUPER stoked on it, and we would have spent hours there if we hadn't (again) gotten there late in the day. We also got to walk along the Prime Meridian and check out all sorts of clocks and sextants!

 Standing on the Prime Meridian!

There were a ton of other things we saw along the way - Big Ben, Parliament, The Tower of London, the London Eye, the Globe Theater. I highly recommend a walk along the south bank of the Thames - if you've got the energy, try starting at the Tower Bridge and walk down to Big Ben! You see so much of the city on that route! 

The London Eye, with Big Ben and Parliament across the river in the background.

The Globe Theater

Other things we did, and that I'd highly recommend? At least one ride on the top floor of a double decker bus, and popping into a pub for a meal and a beer... There are so many good places that it's impossible to list them all! My favorite places seemed to be off the the main roads a little bit, they tended to be slightly cheaper and less touristy, which we like.  

 A photo of one of the many beers we tried!

Here are some things we didn't get a chance to check out that we'd have liked to!

Cutty Sark
London Pass: Yes
Entry fee without London Pass: £12.15
We were bummed to have missed this one! We have passed it a couple times in Greenwich, but the only time we saw that it was open was when we were headed to a beer tasting tour!

The Cutty Sark in Greenwich

London Pass: Yes
Entry fee without London Pass: £15
We saw the Globe from the outside and saw some of it's inside lobby areas, but we didn't do the full tour - it would definitely be cool to check out!
London Pass: Yes
Entry fee without London Pass: £17
We're pretty fascinated with transportation - I love trains, cable cars, red buses, the Tube, all types, so we were bummed we missed this museum as well!
London Pass: Yes
Entry fee without London Pass: £6
Another place we didn't make it to - this one is also a bit outside London. You can apparently get there easily enough, but we just ran out of time and energy! Maybe next time!

So, what did we miss? What other awesome things are there to do in London that we've not made it to yet?

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