Questions about London trip in January

Old Dec 13th, 2001, 06:41 AM
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Questions about London trip in January

My husband and I, forty-somethings, are going to London in January for 6 days. I know, I know, that's not the best time, but we got a good deal. We'll be staying at the Inverness Court Hotel in Bayswater. Our definite sightseeing destinations are (in no particular order-except the river cruise will be one of the first things): the Tower of London, St. Paul's, changing of the guard, the Globe, the British Museum, Westminster Abbey, the Lion King, Big Ben, Kensington Palace, and a river cruise. I've been researching on the web and watching this board for about a couple of months now and there has been a wealth of information here. There are some wonderfully helpful people out there. But I still have some questions. Keep in mind-we find anything historical fascinating, we're not shoppers or partyers, we won't be driving, and we'd like some unplanned time for problems or opportunities.
1) Since we only have 6 days, and there is so much to see in London, we are not planning a day trip outside of London. I would love to, and hope I'll get a chance to someday. Is this a huge mistake?
2) I've already found that three of the things we had wanted to do will be closed at that time. Will any of the above-mentioned places be closed, and I just haven't read about it anywhere yet?
3) I've been reading that tube strikes are fairly common. Just how different will it make sightseeing using buses and taxis? Where we live we don't have a lot of experience with subway strikes, or subways for that matter.
4) I've read it here several times that after seeing several cathedrals and palaces in Europe, they all start running together. Since we are staying so close to Kensington Palace, we were planning on seeing it. Would it be a mistake to not tour any other palaces?
5) Several people here have mentioned seeing the changing of the guard at a different place than Buckingham Palace because they're not as crowded. Should we do that instead? Is it still that crowded in January?
6) Do people usually bother to get their VAT back? Or is it such a hassle they don't even bother?
7) Several people thought Sir John Soane's Museum was very interesting and worth fitting in. Is it?
8) I've been reading about ghost tours, medieval dinner/shows, and dinner cruises. Since we have most of our evenings free--any suggestions?
9) I thought a carriage ride would be nice, but I can't find any information. Do they not do that in London?
10) I've read a couple of places that the restaurants in the museums have good food that's not expensive. Has this been the experience of anyone out there? It would sure be nice to be able to eat at a place we plan on staying all day.
11) We were planning on walking from St. Paul's to the Globe over the Millennium Bridge. We heard it is re-opening in December. Is that still on schedule? Or would it be too cold for that?
12) If we have time to work in an art museum, which one should it be?
Sorry this is so long. Thanks for your help!
Old Dec 13th, 2001, 07:21 AM
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Pearce - you certainly have been doing your research! I'm not sure I can answer all your questions but here goes from the point of view of someone who lives in London

1) Don't worry too much about a day trip outside London - there's more than enough to keep you going in the city for 6 days. Many may disagree but I don't think January is ideal to make a trip to Bath/Cotswolds/Warwick Castle or wherever

2) You should be fine to see all the attractions you've listed - yes the London Eye is closed for maintenance (I'm sure that's one of the things you wanted to do)

3) Tube strikes are rare and usually buses run anyway (especially tourist buses like the Big Bus tour). I'm not aware of any scheduled in January but maybe other Londoners can assist

4) Kensington Palace is a big house really with beautiful gardens and the newly created children's garden in memory of Princess Diana. If you really want to visit a proper palace try Hampton Court which is almost outside London and reached from London Waterloo station (about 50 minutes)

5) Changing of the Guard is overrated in my honest opinion - I believe they do the same at St James Palace which is not too far away. I'm sure crowds will not be too much of a problem at either in January

6) Sorry you'll need a visitor to help

7) Personally I'd go and see the Victoria and Albert museum in South Kensington

8) You've probably read many times on this forum about the Jack the Ripper walk. Also you may be a bit late but you could ask about the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London

9) Not sure Jan is ideal for a carriage ride. For an alternative try riding the top of a double decker bus - the No. 15 is one of the best in town passing the tourist sites. Unless you plan going on one of the tourist buses like the Big Bus tour

10) Cafes in the museums e.g Pret a Manger in the National Gallery are fine but not very leisurely - more buffet style service but do you live to eat or eat to live?

11) Definitely do the walk on the south side of the Thames - yes it will be cold but you get a great view of a really interesting area. I think the "wobbly bridge" will be open then.

12) Definitely go to the Tate Modern during your walk on the south side of the Thames (it's free) and also the National Gallery for more traditional art (it's also free)

Enjoy your stay - phew I'm worn out now!

Old Dec 13th, 2001, 08:20 AM
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Whew, your itinerary wears me out!! I would say be flexible with your itinerary. Jet lag may hit you and you may find yourself slowing down. Don't worry about hitting all the sights, they will be there the next time you visit (and yes there will be a next time). Make a list of "absolutely must-do" and "secondary choices".

When you arrive, get a copy of the events magazine "Time Out". They have some wonderful suggestions about what to do with your nights. They also list the opening/closing times of most major tourist events as well as the admission.

I wouldn't worry about traveling outside of London. While the rest of Britain has some wonderful places to visit, I would concentrate just on London for this trip.

I personally don't collect the VAT tax back because I find it too difficult. You have to have the "goods" in your hands to show the inspector and that always messes up my suitcase/packing system.

Try to get as much information about museums before you go and know what you definitely want to see in each museum. You can waste a lot of time in The British Museum just trying to find your way from one exhibit to another. (Not all staircases lead to where you want to go).

For every castle & church, I buy the booklet that is sold in the gift shop. Yes, some things run together, but when I get home and read the booklet, it all separates in my mind.

Concerning ghost tours, etc. I always suggest London Walks ( While the Jack The Ripper tour is one of the most popular (and exciting), their other tours are equally interesting. You may want to take one prior to seeing some of the churches and get the background information before you tour them independently.

Have a good trip and post a trip report when you return.
Old Dec 13th, 2001, 08:40 AM
beth anderson
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here's my stab at it:

1. I agree with other posters - you will have more than enough to do in London, so don't feel bad if you don't get out of the city. It would be a very worthwhile trip of course, but, you won't be bored, believe me! For all my times there, I always INTEND to take a day trip on the train, but never seem to get around to it as there is so much to do in London itself.

If you do decide to take a day trip, and think you will be back in the next year, you can get a discount card for 20 pounds - 30% off all train travel in the south. (not tube)

2. I don't know, but I can check.

3. see andrew's answer...

4. I enjoyed Kensington Palace, and I like the High Street area too. v. good restaurants - try out Wok Wok if you get a chance (close to the Palace).

5. I too thought it was over-rated. but still, I did do it once...

6. sad to say, I usually don't bother with it, but then again I fly overseas just about every other month it seems and don't have frequent flyer miles stacked up so I am not a good one to ask.

7. have not been, it is on the list!

8. the London walks pub crawl was fun, as was the Jack the Ripper one...

9. see other posters...

10. I agree - Pret a Manger, found nearly everywhere, is good cheap food, made that day.

11. I don't know... I hope to find out though!

12. oooooh, a toughy! How about the National Gallery? what are your tastes?

I also try to make a special trip to the Imperial War Museum every time I visit... and I love the Somerset House/Courtauld Gallery. at a minimum, go walk around the courtyard. the fountains are beautiful!!

have fun, who knows maybe I'll see you there (a face in the crowd...)

Old Dec 13th, 2001, 09:15 AM
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Hello Pearce,
I'll try to answer as many questions as I can. I have been to London many times and lived there for 6 months so I'm not an expert but I know a thing or two.
1.I don't think that it is a mistake to just stay in London. There is so much to see and do there that you won't be disappointed with not leaving the city.
2.The only thing that you listed that I would be worried about is the river cruise being closed. But it maybe fine. I have never been on one because I always find the walk along the Thames to be lovely. If it is open maybe you could the cruise to Greenwich...its really not a real daytrip because its so close but it could give you a small chance to get beyond just London without taking up a lot of time.
3.The Tube in London is great. I think its the best subway I have ever been on. See about buying a week'll save you a lot of money. The lines are designated by different names and labled in different colors. You navigate by knowing if you are going east vs. west or north vs. south and just check out a Tube map to see that the final destination of the train is the direction that you want to go in. Its a bit intimidating at first but its really quite simple. Keep a Tube map with you and you can get anywhere. As for strikes Every time I've been there and lived there I never had a problem. The city could never function if the tube just that would never happen. Taxi's can be expensive...if you do take one make sure to take the classic looking black cabs...there are a lot of rip off cabs that are not backed by the city. Buses I always find to be confusing but you have to have at least one ride on the classic double deckers!
4. I think its a good idea to stick to one castle unless you are a real castle buff/freak.
5. I don't know about seeing it other places but I do know that weekends are a bad idea for seeing the changing of the guards. This is a must see (just to say that you saw it) but its a bit over-rated so don't get all hyped up about it.
6.I don't know about this one. I never bother.
7.Never went there.
8.I always found the walking tours interesting. They tend to take you to parts of the city that you may not explore otherwise. And it'll give you fun trivia. Go to as many shows that you can!! My personal favorites that I have seen a couple of times, are not the big broadway shows and HIGHLY recommend are: Mousetrap (a playful murder mystery...who-done-it) and The lady in Black (cool little theater, only three actors, wonderfully told and suspenseful!). Both are less expensive then the big broadway hits but maybe even better!
9.I don't remember seeing many carriage rides. And I agree its not a good time of year for it anyway.
10. Pret a Manger is a good way to grab a bite and keep moving but make sure to hit up a pub sometime in your trip for some good pub food for lunch (not all pubs serve food). The UK is not known for their food but I feel like I can't leave without having at least one jacket potato!
11. I don't know anything about that. The only bridge I ever found worth walking across or even onto is the Tower Bridge. Otherwise stay out of the rain and take the tube!
12.The National Gallery...yeah its free! This is the best hands down! You could be in there for hours.

I hope I've been helpful.
If you want to email me directly I'll give advice anyway I can:
[email protected]
Have a wonderful time!!
Old Dec 13th, 2001, 09:27 AM
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One last thought.
There is a chain of restaurants called Wagamama's....GO THERE!!!
Check it out:
Old Dec 13th, 2001, 09:42 AM
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Well, I'm worn out from your schedule! Being a regular visitor to London I can only say relax and don't overdo it. You will no doubt have some weather constraints to content with so changing the schedule in mid-stream maybe in order. Remember Changing of the Guard is outdoors (=cold) & standing around for ages can be time consuming if you have other things to see/do. Kensington Palace is nice, but for a real castle a 1/2 trip to Windsor would be good, or else Hampton Court (my personal preference). You can get there in about 35 minutes from Waterloo Station, trains run very regularly all day & the castle is a 5 min. walk from the train station.
Don't take the river cruise if it is horribly cold because you will want to be on deck to take pictures and the Thames can be really bitter cold. Inside most boats people smoke so it can be really uncomfortable if you are not a smoker too. We took a cruise in April once and nearly froze to death outside but it was better then cigerette smoke inside.

6 days is very litte to see London, but you can make a start Remember it gets dark VERY early in the winter (like 4 p.m.) so it cuts down on sightseeing some. I've only been there once in the winter and it was dark in the a.m. too until about 8 a.m.

Museums all have cafes, etc. We've eaten at the British Museum twice, the Gallery Cafe I think it is called. It was quite decent (they also have a much more expensive place there too). Also ate at the V&A, which was OK too. I don't think you would want to spend all day at a museum, no matter how great they are (and they are good!!) because you can get "museumed out" after awhile. A couple hrs. at a time is good for most people.

My biggest piece of advice is do not over plan .. just go with the flow. Sure, you can incorporate your must sees in, but allow some time to walk down a side street, turn a corner or just sit in the park and people watch (even in t he winter people use the parks!).
Enjoy London ... I always do.
Old Dec 13th, 2001, 09:46 AM
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I meant to say you could take a 1/2 day trip to Windsor - it's doable quite easily.
Old Dec 13th, 2001, 09:53 AM
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We did all the things you mentioned, except Big Ben, Lion King, and the changing of the guard.

1. It is NOT a huge mistake to not do a trip out of London, especially in mid-winter.

2. For the absolute final word on whether an attraction is open, do go to its own web site or phone them after you get there. Some of the summary or tourist overview sites don't get updated frequently.

4. Kensington Palace wasn't all that special, and we were there during the summer, when the grounds are gorgeous. Unless you're particularly a Diana fan, Hampton would probably be a better use of your time.

7. I loved Soane's home, because I'm a fan of the classic British eccentric -- Sir John showed the Victorians, who followed, how it's done. Although technically it's a museum, it felt like a home (albeit a very large and eccentric one) and we really got a feel for this character.

8. I don't think they do dinner cruises in the winter. For your river cruise, I recommend taking the Catamaran Cruisers hop-on-hop-off tour from near Westminster to the Tower of London, or even all the way to Greenwich.

We enjoyed the medieval banquet offered at Hatfield House, but partly because we had a super Tudor fanatic with us, as well as a car for getting out there (the packages are pretty expensive). The food and entertainment were very good.

You could spend a week in the British Museum. Read up ahead, get a good floor plan, and think selectively and strategically.

11. The exhibits at the Globe are extensive, and we wished we had allowed more time there.
Old Dec 13th, 2001, 09:26 PM
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Wow, tons of good info here. I will add my 2 pence worth. I stayed down the street from the Inverness Court in April. It is directly across the street from Kensington & Hyde Parks. Great for walks. One block from Bayswater tube station and two blocks from Queensway tube station. Bayswater is easier access. Since you are staying in London the whole time, look into getting a tube pass (must purchase in the US). Here is their website:
Or buy daily tourist pass (after 9.30 only, 4.50 pounds), good for both tube and city buses. My first day in London there WAS a tube strike! No problem, I took one of the sightseeing buses and hopped on/off all day. The city buses were running as well. Lots of good restaurants in Bayswater area too, mostly ethnic. If you are interested in military history, the Imperial War Museum is a must, also the Jewel Tower has good exhibit on the evolution of democracy and the Parliament in England. Yes, it is worthwhile to buy the guidebooks at the museums/churches is good. The British Museum is overwhelming, you could spend your whole week there. Agree that the VAT refund is not worth the effort. The Queen's art gallery was being renovated for the Golden Jubilee in 2002, check to see if it is open yet. Also the Royal Mews behind Buckingham Palace is where you can see HM coaches, horses, and cars. Limited hours, check ahead. Have fun, by the way, do you need someone to help carry your bags, I will volunteer!
Old Dec 14th, 2001, 02:27 AM
Ben Haines
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I agree with Andrew and indeed with almost everybody. So my replies are theseBR>You have no need of a day trip out of London
Tube strikes are unlikely
The changing of the guard is cold and dull. You don't have to be able to say you've seen it - who cares ?
To avoids mushy memories, you can choose cathedrals of different periods, for example St Paul's (seventeenth century) and Southwark (fourteenth century) and museums of different periods, eg Kensington (nineteenth century) and Hampton Court (Tudor)
As people have said, Sir John Soane's Museum is quirky.
In the evening I think you first choice might be a theatre and your second a guided tour. Time Out lists both.
River cruises to the Tower and to Greenwich run in December, do I expect they do in January. They start at the Embankment. They are indeed cold outside: the trip to the Tower might be quite long enough.
I don't know a carriage ride, and it's jolly cold. If you wrap up well you could hire a cycle rickshaw.
Museum restaurants are reasonable. But now that museums are free I'd go along the road to a pub or other lunch place. From the British Museum, through the north door to the Senate house of the University, and in that building to MacMillan's. From the Globe or the Tate modern to the Founder's Arms, just downstream. From the Tower (but the Tower is not free) over Tower Bridge to the Anchor Tap half way along the eastern side of Horselydown, just east of the Tower Bridge Road, which runs south from the Bridge. Marked in summer by fine hanging baskets of flowers. The landlord is American. Open twelve to nine Mondays to Saturdays. After the changing of the guard to the Two Chairmen, corner of Queen Anne's Gate and Dartmouth Street, 100 yards from St James' Park tube station.
The millennium bridge is still closed, and I've seen no notices of opening. N o matter. From St Paul's, ask for Carter lane, and drop down that to the end, turn left (south) drop again, and cross Blackfriars Bridge.
Probably the best art museums are the National Gallery, for great classic painting, and the Tate Modern, for contemporary, in your eye, stuff. You'd choose according to your taste.

You'll get most out of your time if you go each day to things that are near each other. Groupings are
British Museum and Sir John Soane's Museum
National Gallery, Westminster Abbey, Changing of the Guard
St Paul's, Tate Modern, Globe
River trip, Tower, Southwark Cathedral
And standing alone are Kensington Palace and Hampton Court

Dusk at 3.30pm is no problem for indoor places, which means most places you have in mind. It affects only the river trip, and perhaps the Tower.

Please write if I can help further. Welcome to London.

Ben Haines
Old Dec 14th, 2001, 03:03 AM
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If you want to do a dinner cruise, I recommend the Bateaux London one

It's not cheap when compared to a restaurant of similar quality - but then you don't get the boat trip in a restaurant! When I went the food was excellent and the ever changing view definitely added to the occasion.

I'm pretty sure Bateaux London run their cruises year round.
Old Dec 14th, 2001, 11:59 PM
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Hello, Pearce - My husband and I went to London for 9 nights in Dec 98 when United Airlines offered a very, very cheap airfare. I agree with everyone who says you don't need to daytrip during your 6 days. Also, we wasted half a day on the Changing of the Guard because "how can you go to London and not see it." Well, Ben Haines is so right - who cares!!

Loved the Courtauld Gallery, and also the Wallace Collection. Tower of London, especially the Crown Jewels, are a must. And at least a couple of stage shows.

For a more village-ish experience, we enjoyed the walking tour of Hampstead (met the guide at the Hampstead station), and we followed a magazine article and did our own walking tour of the Chelsea part of London.

We bought our tube passes at the Euston Station in London. A weekend pass, then a 1-week - if I recall correctly. I'm pretty sure that was the best combination for our circumstances, but maybe someone else knows better. By the way, for the one week pass, which requires an ID picture, we brought along passport size headshots from our extra family snapshots so we didn't have the extra hassle/expense of taking those pictures in London. Although we walked a lot during our visit, it was winter so we still tended to use the tube a lot - sometimes because we got lost, had to backtrack, etc. We calculated our overall use and came out way ahead with the passes.

May you have the relatively good weather we had! (Umbrella needed only two days.)

Old Dec 15th, 2001, 03:46 PM
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Pearce: I was in London in March and had never done the British Museum. I took a group for a long weekend, so our time was even more limited than yours. We used the London Walks for the British Museum, and it turned out to be a great idea. We saw the "must see" items and got excellent background information from our guide. After I was in there, I was even more glad that I had not wandered around aimlessly on my own for that same two hours!
Old Dec 15th, 2001, 04:15 PM
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You do have to purchase a certain amount of merchandise to be able to recoup the VAT, but I didn't find it to be any trouble. I had packed my purchases in a collapsible bag brought for that purpose, but no one asked to see them. You just take the papers the stores give you, have them stamped at the airport, and drop them in the mail slot provided.
Old Dec 17th, 2001, 04:25 PM
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Tube is convenient, but,taking bus is more fun,you would be able to see all different areas and street sights.Especially in the winter,with all the lights on very early,it is a real trest to ride buses in the night.

If you like classic music, South bank centre offers best and cheapest night entertainments.They have all kinds of excellent programs nightly, and ticket prices are much cheaper.Besides, the nigth view of london from their balconies is absolutely breathtaking.
Old Dec 18th, 2001, 08:13 AM
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Everyone else has pretty much covered the questions. Just two additions -- For a neat museum restaurant try the new one on the top floor of the National Portrait Gallery (around the corner from the Nat'l Gallery). It has wondergul views across the rooftops of London and Big Ben.

As for VAT - a good thing to do if you purchase anything expensive and bulky is to have the shop send it to your home. They will take the VAT off the top and it will usually pay the postage charges. That way you don't have to stand in line at the airport to get the VAT forms stamped, the shop insures the package, and you don't have to carry it home.
Old Dec 19th, 2001, 03:49 PM
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I just returned from London yesterday and the Millenium Bridget is NOT open. I did not inquire as to when it will open, but there was quite a lot of construction equipment on the bridge.
Old Dec 19th, 2001, 04:52 PM
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Pearce, everyone else seems to have covered your questions very well, but I wanted to throw in my thumbs up to John Soane's house. It's definitely "quirky," as has been said, and Joanne's comments capture the sense of the place. It's amazing to see what this eccentric, visionary man was able to assemble in one house. (Well, actually two; he knocked out a wall to join two buildings.) Anyway, it's always been one of my favorite little London treasures and I recommend it highly.
Old Dec 20th, 2001, 08:19 AM
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Thank you, thank you, thank you all! I guess I'm a cynic, but I'm always amazed at how really nice and helpful people can be. You all have made me feel much better about not taking a day trip. The weather will probably determine if we see the changing of the guard. They will only have it 3 of the 6 days we'll be there anyway.

A couple more questions:
We've ordered the London Visitor Travel Card. There are actually several of us going-I just didn't mention that before because I wanted information about what the two of us were interested in. If they want to do what we want to, fine. Otherwise, there're lots of other things they can see, right? Anyway, can one person take all of the vouchers to the appropriate station to trade them in, or do we each have to be there? I asked the girl when I called, and she thought we could, but she acted like she'd never been asked the question before.

Ben, I love the phrase "mushy memories". That's so appropriate! Also, grouping the sites was great. It was kind of what I had figured, but I like the confirmation from an expert. The information you emailed me from a question I asked in another post has been helpful as well.

Gary, you shouldn't volunteer unless you're willing! We'd just love to have you as our own personal bellboy!

Your idea is great, Philip and Joanne, about having a plan of attack at the British Museum. We're planning a full day there, but I know that won't be enough for me without a plan! I know how I am in museums.

Lori, thanks for the heads up about the smoking inside during the boat trip. I've read about it being in all the restaurants, but inside on the boat is something I wouldn't even have thought about. I know I'm definitely packing my Febreeze!

Once again, you all have been so helpful. Have a wonderful Christmas and New Year!


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