Decided to put a trip report together for our vacation to the UK last week. Since many of our stops are well-covered here I won't go chronological, just give you my impressions of each place and some advice where it is merited. On our way home my husband and I were trading back and forth ideas of advice we would give to tourists travelling to the UK as Americans, and I think I'll start with that.
1. Travel in the winter, if you can bear it. We had the best time travelling in the winter. It was amazing to us to see the kind of infrastructure that some of the major sites have to accomodate summertime visitors. The entrance, for example, to the crown jewels at the Tower of London reminds me of a entrance way for a roller coaster here in the states-- multiple rooms of velvet rope queue lines and videos playing to entertain the bored tourists. Luckily we had no lines anywhere and only stopped to watch a moment of the videos (the coronation of Elizabeth II-- very interesting to see pre-jewels). Same thing at Stonehenge, where we pretty much had the stones to ourselves. Seeing pictures from other friend's vacation I realize how mobbed the stones must be during the summer. HOWEVER, a caveat-- everyone told me that snow would not be a problem during our vacation (the guidebooks all say that snow in London at Christmas is a once-a-century event). Of course we had snow because that's how my luck runs! We had to cancel our plans for Canterbury since that area was the worst affected by the storms. But we had so many options and were excited by so many things that it was no big deal to swap our itineraries and we were no worse for the cancellation. Visiting in the winter is wonderful, but not if you have dealbreaker itinerary plans. If you're flexible, and willing to endure weather-related hangups, it can be very rewarding. For example, although we did have snow most days we had blue skies every day and not a whit of rain any day we were there.
2. Pack dark colors. I know, I know people say not to worry about how you look as a tourist, but really please think to pack dark colors, especially if you're travelling in the winter when everyone is all bundled up. My husband and I both had very bright, athletic outerwear that seemed out of place in some pubs and restaurants, which limited our options. Some places are cheap but have an upscale feeling, ie, places that have a cheap pre-theatre plate, and some of the pubs. Since we only carried on we only had room for one all-purpose coat, and mine was a bright pink Columbia parka. Unfortunately when you're travelling at breakneck pace sometimes you don't have time to run up to the room and freshen up before dinner so you need to pack things that will do double-duty, and dark colors seem to fit the bill nicely for that. Jeans and sneakers are fine, although for winter travelling I would suggest boots anyway, since they are more all-weather, but incidentally they also have a more formal feel.
3. If you have 4 days in London, plan a 3 day itinerary. 5 days, plan for 4. Its just the way it is! We planned on 2 sights a day and it ended up taking one day extra than what we originally planned. First off, guide books seem to plan for the least enthusiastic tourist. They said the TOL would take 2 hours-- no way with my enthusiastic husband who was trying to find a way into even the closed-off towers! It took us 4 hours going at a clipping pace with no break. I don't know how a family, travelling in the summer, could do it in less than 5 hours if they planned to see even the basics. And I could have spent all day at the National Gallery; I feel as if I didn't spend enough time and we must have spent 4 or 5 hours there. Plus you will slow down as your time on vacation wears on-- some days you just won't be able to get out of the room on time, sometimes lunch will take longer, etc. Plan frequent brain-relaxers. I felt very overwhelmed by what I was seeing at many galleries. I finally had to simply stop reading every placard and take the images for their beauty alone. Trying to appreciate the historical, social, and artistic context of every work is exhausting and your brain and body will need coffee breaks every few hours, so work it into your itinerary and budget.
4. GET OUT OF LONDON! London is great, it really is, but the real joys of our trip lay outside the city. It is great to see the history of a place laid out in museums, etc., but it is even better to see the history of a place in the landscape and in its people. Train travelling is as entertaining and edifying as a trip to a museum. Better still when the countryside is blanketed in snow
5. Yes that old stereotype about not having free refills on drinks at restaurants is true. We did find places that gave us refills on water, but on soft drinks it was nonexistent. Not that annoying except that as Americans we feel we have a right to free-flowing soda; we are a particularly thirsty and wasteful bunch it seems. Plus we were walking so much that we needed hydration. My solution-- drink beer. The portions are bigger and it seems less of a bad deal to spend 2.70 pounds on a pint than 2.10 pounds on a 10 oz coke. Not so good for hydration, though, so keep a water bottle with you if you need hydration during the day. If you dearly desire a coke that good-old standby McDonalds does a good big one. You have to go to McDonald's once during your trip, if only to view the spectacle that is Londonders affection for the place, plus the menu is different (Chicken Legend what?).
6. We didn't use this until our very last day, but Boots Pharmacy has a nice selection of takeaway lunch items-- a meal deal is less than 4 pounds. Take away seems pretty popular in London (as evidenced by the fact that every third restaurant is a Pret a Manger, every fourth an Eat, every fifth a Costa, etc. etc.-- the variety of London restaurants dips significantly if you take those out of the equation). Enjoy the humble tradition of London takeaway sandwiches. Everyone seems to eat them!
7. Pack your breakfast (assuming it isn't offered for free at your hotel). We packed cereal bars and drank the free coffee/tea in the room as breakfast and mid-morning snack. This allowed us to eat lunch and dinner without breaking our budget. Neither one of us is big on the "big-breakfast, no lunch" plan (who doesn't get physically run down around 1:00 and need a moment to rest and eat a bit?), plus it allowed us to sample the biggest variety of foods--breakfast in England and in our native Georgia being not so different, while lunch offered better variety. Plus you can take your breakfast with you so you don't have to plan for it in the morning.
8. The part of London that most first-timers will want to see is very, very, small. The boroughs are socially/culturally distinct, but are very close together so that getting from Westminster to Bloomsbury to Covent Garden is no problem at all. We bought 7 day Oystercards presuming that we would want to use the tube to get around, but found ourselves using it very seldomly for walking around London. Plainly put, when deciding whether to suss out the tube map, or the street map, learning London seemed like the best and most enjoyable use of our time, and the walking was no problem (caveat: we are 25, no kids, no health problems known to us). We did use the tube to get to Hampstead and to the various train station we needed for our day trips, and to the airport, so our card came in handy if only for convenience, but otherwise we did rarely use the tube. We do feel like real London champs now, having conquered the streets as much as we could, and on our last night we were even asked for directions from some Britons and were able to give them! I guess our bright parkas didn't give us away completely as Americans
9. London is not a 24 hour city, and by that I mean no offense, but it is true. We stayed at the Swissotel Howard, a stone's throw away from Covent Garden, all the theatres, the Strand, etc. So we were in the hubub. And yet, after 5:30 and especially after 7:00 your options for dining do become more limited. It appears that many of the cheaper eateries are geared toward lunchtime business customers, and close at night. On our last night we were looking for something cheap and light to eat after a week of eating heavy pub and ethnic meals, but none of the cafes that sell light meals were open. Pret a Manger, Costa, even Starbucks-- closed by 8:30 PM. Many grocery stores close at 10:00 weekdays and 11:00 on weekends, even during the holiday rush. Sundays it seemed that many places were closed all day long, and we did walk block and blocks to a fish and chip shop to find it closed. Literally I am telling you in small town Georgia this would be baffling! All our groceries, drug stores are 24 hours and the coffee shops are usually open until midnight. You'd think this would be no problem but of course when you are travelling you may find yourself eating meals later than you expected. Just recall this and try to make it a point to check out the hours or stop by early if there's a place you particularly want to try. All tube stops open no earlier than 5:30 and there are no 24 hour lines. This to me was shocking; I assumed there would be 24 hour service and so didn't even look into it before we left. Imagine running down to a tube stop at 4:50 to catch a 5:30 train and finding no-one but the newspaper man there to greet me! When I asked him where the nearest 24 hour station was, he looked at me like I was crazy. The early closings/late openings did not hamper our trip one bit, but it is good to know in advance. Typical American I suppose, expecting the whole world to be open for business at my discretion!
10. Getting around the UK is quite easy if you allow yourself the time to do so. I am telling you, getting to my inlaw's home for Christmas the day after our trip ended was more difficult than getting around England. They are great about signs and repeating directions in the UK. Getting through customs and from Heathrow to our hotel was a breeze. We also made record time back to the airport and security was downright pleasant. If you stand somewhere long enough, you'll either see a sign, hear an automated voice telling you which way to go, or some lovely Briton will ask you if you're lost and help you out. In America, no way. If you're lost there, you're done for. But remember in London to walk fast! Everyone seem to do this, and I believe that London seemed to me to be a faster-paced city than any I've been in before, including NYC where I lived for a short time. The pace is certainly slower on the outskirts of London. Hampstead, for example, has a far slower pace.
Well, this sums up my "advice" section and I'l start talking about our specific trips and will have pictures up shortly.
Future things to cover:
Tower of London and Henry VIII armour exhibit
Keats House and Hampstead
Dealing with snow
Train travel to Bristol
Bus travel to Glastonbury from Bristol
Salisbury, the Cathedral, and Stonehenge
Tate Modern and the National Gallery
St. Paul's and Westminster Abbey
Restaurants: ethnic stops, Masala Zone, Rock and Sole Plaice, Pizza Express, pasty shops, various pubs, Wagamama-- the usual suspects.
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