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100th (combined) Birthday Week in London March 2018 -- VERY LONG

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Apr 26th, 2018, 02:22 PM
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100th (combined) Birthday Week in London March 2018 -- VERY LONG

This is a report of our mother/daughter trip to London to celebrate our “100th birthday” milestones of 65/35. We visited Amsterdam and Berlin for 60/30. (Where will 70/40 take us?) This was also posted on the Trip Advisor London Forum (TALF) because those contributors were very helpful in planning. Hope this TR helps others.

It was my 3rd trip to London (previous trips 1972 and 1991) and DD’s first. Our choices of where to go and what to see reflected the fact that I had seen many sights previously and that DD isn’t a particular fan of museums, especially art museums, and that we really enjoy seeing the sights but having plenty of time to wander. Your mileage will certainly vary!

We also got VERY lucky with weather for the end of March. It wasn’t until day 7 that I even opened my umbrella! It reached 50 F most days, dipping to about 40 F at night. Mostly clear skies and even some occasional sun. In other words….perfect.

Before I give day-by-day highlights, I would like to address some frequently-asked questions on the TA forum:

--What area to stay? I can’t speak about other areas, but staying on the Strand could not have been more perfect for us. The ME London is very new and trendy (not my usual kind of place to stay) and the location could not be better for walking and buses. The Covent Garden and Temple tube stations are very close by. We happened to get an extremely good rate at an otherwise expensive hotel, but there are other hotels similarly located that may be worth exploring. With the exception of the East End and Harrod’s, it was under a 30-minute walk to all places we visited. And we took buses more than the tube since Aldwych is a major center for bus routes. We loved being so close to so many bridges (and used several) over the Thames, the street energy at night was great and we felt completely safe. Also loved being so close to Chinatown, Leicester Sqaure and Trafalgar Square for restaurants and walking around at night.

--Getting to/from LHR: Since we were right on the Piccadilly line we took the tube from LHR to the hotel – very few steps at Covent Garden tube stop and easy to maneuver small amount of luggage. Because our return flight was early morning ordered Blackberry Car for the trip back to LHR.

--7-day Travelcard: Probably didn’t save us much money to have this on our Oyster card, could have just used PAYG because of our central location. However, it certainly was convenient. Didn’t end up getting paper Travelcard for 2-4-1 because once I factored in my senior rate and the actual attractions we were going to use -- plus some pre-Easter blackout dates -- it didn’t pencil out to a huge cost savings.

--What attractions to book in advance? I bought theatre tickets in advance because there were certain plays we wanted to see and didn’t want to spend time in line at TKTS or going to theatre box offices on the “day of.” Definitely book Sky Garden in advance. It was a highlight! You don’t have to wait until the “free, public” tickets are released on the Monday of the week before. If you don’t want to book a restaurant meal, you can book “Sky Pod Bar/no table” much further in advance and are not obligated to purchase food. They also introduced a very reasonable breakfast offer to book in advance for mornings. Now that Churchill War Rooms has entry slot times, I would definitely suggest booking that a minimum of a day or two in advance (maybe more at peak times). Some other attractions, eg, Tower of London, are cheaper booking online – which I did the night before and had tix printed out by hotel concierge. (As of my visit, ToL was not accepting electronic tickets, only hard copies.)

--Organizing days and how many of them? We had a sketch itinerary that worked very well, organized by geography and what worked on which days of the week, eg, East End more hopping on Sundays. A week worked really well for us. DD spent a day in Paris, so that left 5 full days together which was a perfect amount of time to see many attractions at a comfortable pace. If she hadn’t gone to Paris we probably would have considered one day trip out of the city. Keep in mind that we had full (but not jam-packed and fairly leisurely-paced) days that did not include many of the top museums. Our itinerary reflected our particular interests and may not work as a typical, “first-timer” itinerary for London.

--Print out the London Walks “brochure” (printable online from their website) for the days you will be there. No advance booking for these high quality walking tours.

Day One – Getting Oriented

Customs took a long time, so we didn’t get to hotel on the tube until 3 hours after landing, which meant 4 p.m. We still managed to get a half-day of sightseeing!

After getting settled, took the bus towards Sky Garden (if we’d been earlier we would have walked) where we had a 6:15 p.m. reservation as others had recommended going at sunset to see the view in daylight and as the lights of London started twinkling. (Check sunset times for when you visit if this appeals to you and arrive just before.) This was great, but any time with a clear view would have been wonderful. The bus ride from the Strand down Fleet Street and through the City was slow going, but we saw a lot of landmarks along the way so it was a nice introduction.

LOVED Sky Garden. We probably spent over an hour there seeing the view from all directions and climbing the vertical gardens. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Great way to get oriented to the geography of the sprawling metropolis.

A short walk brought us to Leadenhall Market (14th century) and apparently a Harry Potter site. Crowds of young insurance brokers were gathered for drinks in this beautiful, glass covered “hall” with many upscale restaurants and bars. After snacking on some Catalonian goodies, took the tube to Holborn for dinner at Chicken Shop in the trendy Hoxton Hotel. This basement restaurant had great food and reasonable prices for……chicken. The sweet potato fries were great, too!

Easy walk to our hotel.

Day Two – Both Sides of the Thames, Plus Chinatown

Quick Tube ride to the Tower of London. We had online tickets (cheaper), but no wait at 10 a.m.

Quick trip to see Crown Jewels which underwhelmed me as much as they did the first time I saw them, although definitely fun to see. And I daresay the “conveyor belt” was not there in 1972!

Pro tip: had been cautioned not to take the first Beefeater tour of the day as it’s the most crowded, so waited for 10:30 a.m. tour and -- while large -- it was manageable.

Our guide was great, as I’m sure they all are. Some find this cheesy; we enjoyed the one-hour tour and its “digestible” (and tragic) history. Wandered just a bit more on the vast grounds and then headed across Tower Bridge to the South Bank. VISIT AND BEEFEATER TOUR HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

We had purposely paired ToL with some South Bank sights and on a day when Borough Market was fully open (since we LOVE food markets). While Borough Market was extremely crowded and little or no places to sit, it did not disappoint. Donuts from Bread Ahead? Yes, please. Can’t even recall all the ethnic foods we tried, but they were all delish. Cheese samples at Neal’s Dairy Yard were also a great experience.

Next stop: Crossbones Graveyard, since we happened to make it during their limited volunteer hours which, on that day, were 12 to 2. Someone on TALF had recommended this lovely detour -- you can read about it on TA or google it to learn more about prostitutes and other marginalized people buried there for centuries. We also enjoyed talking to the volunteers about community activism…and they had a LOT of questions for us about our current American ….hmmm….politics.

Followed a bit of the Rick Steves Bankside walk (I know he’s not popular on TALF, but he had a nicely marked walk), stopping to see what we could of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre without taking a tour (would have been interesting, but choices…..). And such beautiful views along the way!

Which brought us to the Tate Modern where they happened to have a temporary installation of adult-sized swings and, as DD described, “other whimsical wonders.” This was an instagrammable moment along with lying on a rug with an optical illusion of stairs facing a mirrored ball swinging pendulum. We skipped the other exhibits and went straight to the 10th floor viewing terrace where you really can look into people’s living rooms! Even if modern art is not your thing, the repurposed building and the viewing terrace, along with possible interesting exhibitions, make this a must-see. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Walked back across the Millennium Bridge (love crossing different bridges for the different views/architecture) and proceeded to Chinatown for our ‘DIY food tour’ that ended up to be only two courses – we were just too full. Chinatown was hopping with red lanterns and pedestrian streets and so fun to sample the hole-in-the-wall Chinese Tapas House for Chinese crepes, the delicious (and cheap) specialty. We had planned to stop next door for Taiwanese popcorn chicken, but moved on to dinner at “Hot Pot” for…..hot pot. It was great; somewhat different from Shabu Shabu. Then tried to get lemon tart at Chinatown Bakery but they were all sold out.

Easy walk back to hotel from Chinatown after a stop at the Leicester Sq Lego Store to pose for pics with the London-themed Lego creations.

Another great day with fantastic food!

Day Three – the Royal Tour and WW2

Decided to do Strawberry Tours “west” walking tour, which takes in many royal and historical sites including Trafalgar Sq, Buckingham Palace, St James Palace, Westminster Abbey, etc. I’d say it’s long on breadth, short on depth – which was just fine. The tour guide did a great 5-minute history of Henry VIII that will be long remembered! Sandemann’s offers a similar tour, but this 10:30 a.m. starting time just happened to work out better for us and both companies had gotten favorable reviews. This was a great overview of the area.

Keep in mind: Big Ben (more correctly called Elizabeth’s Tower, as we learned) is covered with scaffolding for several more years.

Following the tour, walked past 10 Downing Street (way more security than my last visit!) to Trafalgar Square to Café in the Crypt of St. Martins in the Fields. This had been highly touted as a lunch option and we totally agree. Not just fun to eat downstairs in the crypt, but delicious homemade soups (great on a cold day!) and daily specials. The apple cobbler with vanilla custard was great, too. RECOMMENDED.

Then back up to Churchill War Rooms where, even with pre-purchased tickets, we waited 30 minutes to get in. NOTE: Since we were there, they have changed to an entry slot system. I strongly recommend you purchase these expensive tickets in advance to avoid long lines and disappointment. Since “The Darkest Hour” they are more popular than ever and it’s really amazing to see the rooms as they were left the day the war ended except, as DD pointed out, “for the fake people.” We spent over an hour in the war rooms and less time in the Churchill museum. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. See Darkest Hour first.

Our planning paid off as we walked across Westminster Bridge (another bridge, more great views) to the Southbank to catch dinner before our show. This end of Southbank (near London Eye) was teeming with activity – street entertainers and such – with views at every turn. Southbank Centre Market has a weekend outdoor food market that was a great place for dinner. Again, so many ethnic and interesting choices. And this brought us right to the production of “Witness for the Prosecution” at the old London County Hall, a former courthouse now serving as a great venue for the Agatha Christie thriller. Wonderful production! Definitely RECOMMENDED, especially if you are looking for a “different” theater experience.

Quick bus across Waterloo Bridge back to our hotel (we could have easily walked – but may as well use the Travelcard on oyster at the end of a long day).

Day Four - East End

Spent the whole day in the East End. It sure has changed since I visited Petticoat Lane in 1972! We decided to put together another DIY food tour based on googling “Sunday in the East End.” Not only did we walk through Brick Lane, Spitalfields and Truman’s Brewery, but other food halls and places to shop for interesting and vintage items (and people watch!), some of which are clearly only there on Sundays. There’s even Boxpark Shoredich, a group of shops/bars/restaurants in shipping containers.

Our first stop, the infamous 24-hour Beigel Bake, was a bit of a disappointment, although definitely a bargain if you feel like lox, bagel and cream cheese. After that, choosing what to sample was our biggest problem. Everything from more traditional pakora shops (dozens of kinds) to galactic donuts (dozens of kinds) and every possible ethnic food (we settled on Chinese potstickers). A highlight was REAL hot cocoa from fair-trade African chocolate at Dark Sugars (do NOT miss this!) and a bubble waffle cone from a stand, not from Bubblewrap Waffle in Chinatown that is all the rage on Instagram. I must say, our concoction with ice cream, bubble waffle, chocolate candies, marshmallow and raspberries was phenomenally good!

Outside Liverpool Station we stopped to see the moving monument honoring the kindertransport, a poignant reminder of the huge concentration of Jews who had lived in the East End. (I don’t think the family whose kids were enjoying climbing on the statues had any idea what it represented.)

Dinner was at Poppies, a traditional fish ‘n chips restaurant, that didn’t disappoint. That ended the DIY food tour part, but we continued with a London Walks “Jack the Ripper” walk (offered nightly). This had not originally appealed to me, until I read reviews that there was a component about life in this teeming tenement area in the late 19th century. I can’t speak for other companies who offer this tour, but with London Walks we actually learned a lot.

Back to the hotel where we visited the hip and trendy rooftop bar (open without reservation to hotel guests) for yet another fantastic night time view of London.

Day Five – Walking/Shopping Day

Must mention a little breakfast spot in Covent Garden area, Mandira, that reminded us of our mother/daughter trip to Turkey in 2001. Ended up eating breakfast there 3 of 7 days for their fresh-made yogurt bowls, simits and Turkish tea…and lovely people. Reasonable prices and high quality. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Walked thru Covent Garden area where we had so far spent surprisingly little time, given that we were staying on its doorstep.

Took the tube to South Kensington so we could take a lovely walk by the V&A and along the park to Harrod’s where the food hall was absolutely stupendous. Went downstairs to the Princess Diana memorial and had a moment of reflection. Then on to Fortnum & Mason where they were making Scotch eggs fresh on the spot given the Easter season and DD tried one (they were apparently invented there). We really enjoyed walking around these food halls and purchased very reasonable prepared foods including some sort of delicious tart/quiche.

This walk concluded, conveniently, at Oxford Circus area where we walked through Carnaby St., Newburgh Quarter, etc. Lengthy stop at Hamley’s, the biggest, craziest most fun toy store ever, for DD to get just the right presents for her kids.

Walked through a bit of Bloomsbury outside the British Museum and ended up for dinner at a place I had read about on TA that intrigued us. Abeno Okonomi-Yaki restaurant turned out to offer one of the best meals of our lives – a seafood pancake grilled at the table. The dessert pancakes didn’t measure up, but the main course pancakes are life-changing. Tiny place with 2 locations. Reserve or come early. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Day Six – On my Own

While DD spent the day in rainy Paris, I had a lovely day in overcast London.

We had seen Somerset House from our hotel rooftop and I read that there are occasional tours. Since it was across the street from our hotel (and the website wasn’t specific on tours) I checked it out and got a free ticket for an upcoming tour. While waiting, I popped into the Courtald Gallery, which is a bit expensive, but a real gem. (Without DD art museums made the list!)

Then the walking tour of Somerset House with some history that complemented that from the Tower of London, but sadly had to cut it short to get to an afternoon London Walks walking tour of Old Westminster.

You can cut through Somerset House to the embankment and take a wonderful stroll toward Westminster with the Thames on your left and gardens on your right, passing random little parks and statues. Just lovely. And the London Walks Old Westminster Tour was the exact opposite of our orientation royal tour: It had plenty of depth, very little breadth, ie, it covered very little geographic territory in just over two hours, but centuries of really important history and lots about Parliament. I was very glad I took this tour and especially enjoyed the cobblestone street residential area adjacent to Westminster Abbey (guaranteed to be out of the price range of all readers!) that is remarkably peaceful and quiet.

On my way to the West End for theatre, stopped for a quick visit to the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist section of the National Gallery. That’s what’s nice about free admission – you can go for just a half-hour look at what appeals to you.

Then dinner back at the Crypt at St Martin in the Fields since it was convenient, cheap and easy….and another great soup on a cold night.

“The Ferryman” was my play of choice for my evening alone. It got great reviews and “the troubles” have always interested me. I am really glad I saw all 3.5 hours of it, but I must say that American audiences lose a bit from both the accents and the “in-jokes.” It will be interesting to see how it plays on Broadway, where it is coming soon.

Got back to the hotel before DD who had decided to walk from St. Pancras even though she had already walked 16 miles in Paris that day!

Day Seven – Final Day in London

Hopped on the bus (short ride) to visit the Imperial War Museum on the Southbank. Quite an imposing building – the former mental hospital Bedlam. The building itself is interesting, but we were attracted by the Holocaust exhibit reputed to be one of the best. I concur it’s an excellent exhibit and extremely moving, and most appropriate for those who are not that familiar with this tragic history. It’s a very highly recommended introduction to the full ramifications of the Holocaust. TA reviews say the same thing – many people post that they weren’t fully aware, and it’s a very accessible, well done and meaningful exhibit. Kudos to the Imperial War Museum. The World War 1 exhibit is also excellent, and I really tried to understand this conflict that seems to always defy understanding. As others have reported, the WW2 exhibit is weaker than the others.

Back to the Strand for Viennese style afternoon tea at The Delaunay, which was just fine. Nothing fantastic, but the interior is charming and the price is on the moderate side (and they did top off the savories when requested).

After an evening walk, we needed just a snack for dinner and Mamie’s creperie in Covent Garden was the perfect spot to share a Breton crepe. Cute little place, pretty reasonably priced.

Next morning, pre-booked Blackberry Car on time at 5:50 a.m. and we got to LHR in less than an hour, ate breakfast there and had an uneventful flight home. And, as we say in Hollywood, “That’s a wrap.”

We absolutely loved London and were so glad that we had a full week to enjoy it.

Happy to answer any questions.

Tune in for the next mother/daughter adventure in 2023’ish.
alison is offline  
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Apr 26th, 2018, 05:28 PM
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I enjoyed your report very much Alison. I haven't been in London either for work or leisure for a long, long time and your writing brought back many memories. I'm pleased you visited the the Imperial War Museum because each time I was in London I took a trip over. It has always been one of my 'special' places.

Bill
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Apr 27th, 2018, 11:50 AM
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What a precious time and what a treasure trove of memories you have now! Thanks for sharing; lovely report; DD and I have had 4 trips to London, so I know how special that can be. But never thought about a "100th" Birthday trip. Might have to do that in about 4 years!
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Apr 29th, 2018, 06:34 PM
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I really enjoyed your report. We are heading to London in a few weeks and your self guided
walking food tour sounds like fun.
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Apr 30th, 2018, 11:25 AM
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Thanks everyone for your kind words. Happy to answer any questions if anyone has upcoming trips planned. Glad this was helpful.
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May 4th, 2018, 12:08 PM
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What a wonderful trip! Thanks for posting your trip report.

Lee Ann
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May 6th, 2018, 04:35 AM
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Hi Alison,

Wow, what a great report with such detail. I really enjoyed it. You described the locale so well. I have stayed several times at the Strand Palace Hotel, not far from your hotel. Therefore, I appreciate the convenience of the location very well. I second your recommendations for the Imperial War Museum, the Crypt at St. Martins-in-the-Fields, and Courtald Gallery among other venues.

I am glad you enjoyed your jaunt to the East End too. You might want to check out a blog that I follow called spitalsfieldslife.com which is published daily. It has a vast following.

I hope to return to London in June, my favorite month for travel.

Alison, I include the link to my last London trip report from 2014 – now that’s really long! However, I took a breath in between each day and had fun responding to posters.

Thanks again for a most engaging report...

TR: Solo in LONDON for ten days on unfinished business ...

Thanks for sharing your great adventure in London…
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May 6th, 2018, 06:09 AM
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Thanks for the detailed report. Sounds like a great and well-planned trip. I have stayed several times in the LSE student dorm (open to non-students during vacations) on Drury Lane, near where you were and agree that it is very convenient. (I have eaten breakfast, but not tea, at Delauney - I settle for a scone with clotted cream at the V&A.)

i was interested in Abeno. The recipe for okonomiyaki varies depending on where you are in Japan, but they were not actual pancakes or crepes, right?
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May 6th, 2018, 07:49 AM
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Thank you for a great trip report, Alison! London is my favorite place in the world, and you've given me some ideas I didn't know about for my next trip over (ie: Crossbones Graveyard...)

The tips for the SkyPod Bar are great, but I never get to an option that lets me pick "no table." Does that mean they aren't taking any "no table" reservations that day, or am I doing something wrong? When I select a day and time, the only option is "Bar Table," and I have to select that to move forward...
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May 6th, 2018, 08:08 AM
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Really enjoyed your report! We are headed to London for the first time this fall and will be referring back to your post as we plan I'm sure!
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May 7th, 2018, 09:03 AM
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@Latedaytraveler thx for the link to your TR. Amazing there is so much to see in London!
@thursdaysd We were told by the folks at the next table that the "pancakes" at Abeno were Osaka style. I can't confirm that, but yes, they were actual pancakes. And delicious.
@Annettetx Other people on TA have also asked about the "no table" at Sky Pod Bar. That option was there for March but apparently isn't there currently. Maybe it's seasonal? They were also offering a very cheap breakfast option in March -- that's something to ask about. And the public tix do get released the Monday before. I suggest doing a "practice run" to see how many and what days so you're familiar when it's the week before you want tickets. And I also suggest emailing sky pod bar directly from the website. They were great about responding to emails and maybe they have some suggestions for you. And of course the option to wait in the queue! We really did love visiting the Sky Garden.
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May 7th, 2018, 10:16 AM
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@alion - thanks. that's interesting, The okonomiyaki I had in Kyoto was not a pancake, as in something folded around fillings, it was more Kanazawa style, which is a collection of ingredients fried together. Hiroshima style seemed to be different again - too much cabbage.
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