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Trip Report London Family Vacation: 7 days and a million memories

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Our family of 5 took our spring break trip in London this past week, with a lot of planning advice from my Fodorite friends. Our children are ages 8, 10, and 12. A British literature teacher by trade, I have been to England before on a county wide tour. My husband attended college at Oxford for a semester over 25 years ago. We were excited to show our children some of the things we love.

This trip was more challenging with the kids. My husband now has a medical condition that requires rest periods and makes night time sleep very challenging. Our daughter gets abdominal migraines when she is around crowds or anxious conditions. We had an unusually long break from school and may not have the opportunity to do this again, so we tried it anyway. To mitigate our circumstances we stayed in a nice hotel with plenty of space and concierge service so we would have easy access to snacks during rest times and when we didn't want to go out for meals. We planned to do only one or two big things each day, head back to the hotel for rest, and maybe go out to dinner at night, if we felt like it.

I booked our room at the Hilton Park Place for a small fortune. It is hard to find rooms for our 5- person family in the U.S., even harder in London. I really felt like we needed plenty of space and concierge service so I booked it and kept an eye on the rate. The week before we left I saw it go on a flash sale for half price! I called Hilton and they gave me that rate. I was super excited!

Day 1:
We flew at night so we could sleep and take advantage of our first day. We got to the hotel early and just planned to find some lunch, not even expecting to check in yet. The concierge said they had a problem with the party in our room before us. So he upgraded us to a huge huge suite, for the same price. In case you are keeping track, we now got a super room for 25% of the regular price. Great way to start our trip! While we waited for our room we went to the lounge, which was serving tea, much to the delight of my children.

We were definitely feeling the jet lag so we did something easy for our afternoon. I had pre-purchased tickets for a Big Bus Tour, planning to just stay on the bus and get a good overview of the London sights. The audio tour was good and we found that the bus stop right outside our hotel was going to be handy. We did opt to stop off at the National Museum of Art for a quick look at the impressionists and a snack. I am an artist and my girls just studied Van Gogh's Sunflowers at school, so this was something they really wanted to see. The whole tour took about 3 hours, including our stop at the museum, and we were back at the hotel in time for afternoon hors d'oevres - and bed!

Day 2
I'm a huge fan of Canterbury and I wanted my son and husband to see a medieval city. Today was Palm Sunday so we took the early train to Canterbury and attended Palm Sunday service. This was really a special event for our family, to see the processional with live donkeys and sing hymns in the chapter house and take communion there - we all just really loved this and it made for a great start to our week. After church we found lunch along the King Street, which is now way more commercial than I ever remembered. We visited the little museum at the West Gate and headed back to the station at East Gate, through Dane John Garden which is a sweet treasure on the earth. After our train ride back we rested and ate at the hotel again.

Day 3
Today we headed to Westminster Abbey, a place neither my husband nor I visited on earlier trips. We got there just as it opened to avoid the crowds. We took the audio tour and enjoyed seeing where Kate and Wills got married, as well as the chapels of Elizabeth and Mary. I enjoyed Poets Corner. It got a little crowded there towards the end so we were on our way quickly after the Coronation Chair. We walked alongside Big Ben, which our youngest daughter absolutely loved, and headed towards the pier for a boat ride to Greenwich. This was a great suggestion by one of you, so thank you! The River boat had a guide so we knew what we were looking at. It was a good relaxing ride. We ate at the pier at Greenwich and headed up to the Royal Observatory so we could stand on the Prime Meridian. This made for a good picture but I do have to say it was a long trek (with a LOT of uphill walking) for a kind of underwhelming experience. Greenwich is beautiful (loved the painted chapel) and the observatory museum has a highly educational explanation of time and measurement, but it was just a little too involved for us to pay close attention so it kind of went over all the kids' heads. I kind of wish we had made time to ride the sky cars but they were just too far away from the observatory and docks to make that extra trip across Greenwich. This wasn't a bad experience and we enjoyed the river boat, but of all the things we did, this was our least favorite. We ended up taking the clipper express boat with our Oyster cards, so we made it back for some rest time at the hotel. We felt rejuvenated enough to go back out for dinner, so we went to the lively Oxford Circus. We had a quick noodle bowl and went over to do some shopping. My husband and son ended up in Nike Town and my daughters and I went to the salon at Top Shop where I went to the blowdry bar and the girls enjoyed the braid bar, then the tube back home for bed.

Day 4
This was a day of royalty and my favorite day by far. We did the Fun London Tours of the Changing of the Guards, which I highly recommend. Matt is the tour guide who owns the organization and he personally led our tour. This is a very fast paced, adventurous tour that took us from the street with the horse guards to St James palace where the old guard leaves, to Buckingham Palace to see the new guard, and back to St James palace to see a one-to-one change out. At one point we literally marched alongside the guards, and at every point we were literally feet away from the action. My kids loved seeing the guard dog leading the new guard, and we were all so excited to see the extra horsemen and the flag atop the palace to announce the queen in town. Apparently there was a knighting ceremony on this day, as many many people were dressed to the nines for this occasion. Afterwards we visited the Royal Mews, met the Queens horses and stood in awe of the golden carriage.

It was time to eat again, and then we shifted to another palace - Kensington Palace. We used our Royal Palace membership to get in, which really was a great deal for our family of 5 who would visit three palaces during our trip. It also gave us a 10% discount on food and souvenirs, every bit helps! We enjoyed Kensington but mostly the kids liked the gardens so we stayed outside more than inside, until our reservation time for tea at the Orangery. The timing was perfect as we were ready for a break and this was a lovely and delicious place to feel like visitors at a palace. As we left I realized how unbelievably beautiful the gardens would be in a few weeks when everything blooms. It was pretty now, can only imagine the lush splendor then!
This was a fun day and set us up well for day 5.

Day 5
Off to the Tower of London, one of my favorite places from my previous visit. Our youngest daughter was absolutely dying to see the Crown Jewels, and they did not disappoint. We got there early to avoid lines, which was kind of a joke since we had to ride the world's most crowded subway to get there early to avoid the crowds at the Tower....but once there we were able to walk right in. The last time I was there it was very special - I even teared up, thinking about young Elizabeth and how she must have felt, with the enormous responsibility of becoming a queen. (When I was her same age at her coronation, I was doing much different things...) However, I remember feeling very rushed last time, even having to move along the conveyor belt to allow everyone a chance to see. This time we could look at our leisure and stay as long as we wanted in the exhibit. We loved seeing the film, noticing the golden carriage we had seen the day before, and recognizing the coronation chair and different locations in Westminster Abbey, where we had been Monday. It was even special to see the missing plates that are marked by placards that they were gone because they were in use-the queen was using them for Maundy Thursday services. We walked all over the tower, in the prison rooms and along the wall and took in every detail. This had something for all of us for sure. We left to grab lunch and after being on our feet all morning we were glad our next activity as more relaxing. This was the one thing that everyone says was their favorite thing on the trip: we went to see Les Mis at the Queen's Theatre. I have seen three performances of this show and this was by far the best. We had been reading the book as a family since Christmas to prepare for the play so the kids would understand the story. Everyone stayed on the edge of their seat and took in every detail. Our middle daughter cried her eyes out at the end when Cosette read her letter. Everyone sang the songs for days to follow. This was a special and fun experience!


Day 6
We were excited to see where my husband went to school so we took a day in Oxford. The Oxford Tube was reasonable and easy to use with continuous service and several stops in both London and Oxford. In Oxford we bought lots of souvenirs at the Covered Market and the Oxford Blue, and we left the contents of dad's wallet in Blackwell's book store. Our kids are big readers and dad is a sucker for buying books. My son was excited to buy a new JRR Tolkein with a special cover, as well as a series book by a London publisher. My daughters found several Usborne books that we can't get in the U.S., as well as some fun series books for their ages. (Lots of fun later when they recognized English spellings of common words.) We also visited St Johns college, and saw where my husband attended chapel, ate in the dining hall and lodged for school. We saw the garden where he enjoyed live plays and sherries on the lawn. It was funny listening to his stories from when he and his friend acted like general college kids back in the day. Then we headed over to Christ's Cathedral where the kids enjoyed seeing the staircase from the Harry Potter movie and spotting Alice in the stained glass window. At some point during this journey we stopped in to the Bodlean, where we were going to take a tour of the Divinity school and library but we realized it was going to take too long. The librarian mentioned to us that there was a special collection, free to visit, there in the lobby of the "treasures of the library." We got way more than we bargained for when we realized these treasures were not,just library treasures but national treasures of great importance - we saw the Magna Carta and the Gutenberg Bible (!!), and several medieval masterpieces that made my Anglophile heart sing! We made it back to the bus pretty tired. This day we did more than any other day, and the largest factor I forgot to mention: we did it all in the steady drizzle. We'd had beautiful weather on all the other days, so it figured we would have a typical rainy day before the end of the week. Thankfully we were prepared with hooded jackets and umbrellas but it was still a day of adventure that wore us all out!

Day 7
After yesterday's big adventure we slept in - way in! Our daughter got a stomach migraine during the night, which was pretty bad but I had honestly expected it to happen sooner in the week. The wait for the bus in Oxford was crowded and made her very anxious, then the motion from the 3 hour bus ride (extra time with traffic at rush hour in London) while she read her new book made her queasy and set her up for a difficult evening. Therefore we all slept late - almost until lunch! - to recover a bit. Once we got up we rode the train to Hampton Court Palace. A quick note here, the palace website says to take the train from Waterloo but we noticed Vauxhall (same line) was way easier for us to get to, so we took the train from there. Just a word to note your own location instead of following the directions exactly. We would not have taken this trip without the suggestion of Fodorites, so we really thank you for your suggestion! We were totally wowed by the sheer size and beauty of the palace. It was a super crowded day in the magic garden but the kids enjoyed it all the same. My son loved imagining all the ghosts and spooky things that were said to have happened in the palace. We made it to the middle of the maze and even made it back out! It was interesting to think of Henry VIII and how he changed from a young person to King. Also we were glad we went to the Tower earlier in the week to learn about Charles I since we found out he had been kept at Hampton Court. This was a lovely and fun afternoon and a perfect way to spend our last day. We had considered riding back to the British Museum and having dinner closeby as our last London stop, since the museum was open late. But we decided instead to head on back to the hotel and get packed for our trip home.

This was truly a wonderful trip. Our children are experienced travelers who have navigated the bus and subway before and who were prepared for the experiences we would see. But nothing compares to being submersed within the culture of a different land, even if it is similar in many ways to our own. Getting ahead before we left - with pre-purchased tickets for all attractions and the show and Oyster cards really helped control our time and keep anxiety down. It is hard enough to navigate directions and with three i and keeping everyone's belongings and wits about them without having to stop to make a plan all the time. I really appreciate everyone's help with preparations and suggestions for what to do. We totally enjoyed every single thing and we can't wait to make scrapbooks when we get pictures back!

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