This is our 3rd trip overall but definitely our longest stay. We visited friends in Windsor for 3 days in 2009 (only 1 day in London) and spent 3 nights in the Mayfair area last February (blog link). As such, we didn't have to run around and see all the "must sees" because we had already been to Westminster, St. Paul's, etc. previously. (Besides, there so much to see in London you can't fit it in a 1-2 weeks anyway).
We stayed in a nice 3BR/2BA apartment ("flat") in the Fitzrovia area for about the price of a single hotel room. It was very centrally located with many groceries and restaurants close by. Our nearest Tube station was Warren Street (Northern and Victoria lines) but we were a 10-15 minute walk to 4 other lines and stations -- very convenient. We enjoyed the extra space and the ability to eat breakfast (and some dinners) in.
I'll have some other travel tips at the end for those interested.
Day 1 (Friday) -- Meeting Up, Settling In, British Library & Museum
The Kims' flight into Heathrow arrived at 7 a.m. Knowing that it would take some time to get through Immigration, Customs and London traffic I decided to use a pick-up service (Just Airports) to bring them close to the apartment. We took a 7:30 train down to St. Pancras and planned to get there at 9:30 or so. Perfect plan, though I realized that I didn't have a very good back-up plan since they didn't have a mobile phone that would work.
Fortunately, a back up plan wasn't needed and it all worked well. We cooled our heels at a cafe until we could drop off our bags at 11 a.m.
travelcards were only good for 7-days so I targeted walkable sites on the first day. I also thought a little walking would help with our visitors' jetlag.
First stop was the British Library. This was a great stop. We toured the "Treasures" area (no photos) and saw an original copy of the Magna Carta, early maps and religious documents, original Shakespeare, the score for Handel's Messiah and more contemporary pieces like Paul McCartney's handwritten lyrics for Yesterday. Really enjoyed it.
There were also some nice East meets West ancient Oriental documents that were particularly interesting to the grandparents.
Interestingly, they also had the "On The Road" scroll by Jack Kerouac on loan from none other than our hometown's Jim Irsay (owner of the Indianapolis Colts).
We dashed up to the top floor (which we didn't see before). This also had an Asian theme. Here's a Samurai suit from long ago.
"Queen of the Night" -- ancient Mesopotamian goddess. Made during the time of Hummurabi about 3800 years ago.
Nicole and a sphinx
photo from inside the British Museum Courtyard
the famous Rosetta Stone (also seen back in February)
3 generations chilling in the apartment after our successful first day
Day 2 (Saturday) -- Science Museum
Tongue Scrappers (1790) were often used to remove "fur" from the tongue after meals. Yum.
Lithotomy Instruments -- used to remove urinary calculi or stones (1775). Yikes.
Edward Jenner (smallpox vaccine guy) lancet (early 1800's) -- glad we've progressed to small needles
scene from a naval surgery in 1800 -- there goes the leg
moving ahead quite a few years, but we got a chuckle out of this one (sorry to the kiddies in the audience)
Lots more interactive things but I don't have any more photos.
link): " a series of interactive Chrome Experiments made by Google that bring the extraordinary workings of the internet to life". One of the activities was to have your photo taken and then watch it be drawn out in the sand. That's Alex above (believe it or not). Pretty cool stuff but I will say that we were pretty wiped out by this point. Back to the apartment for a well deserved rest before dinner.
Day 3 (Sunday) -- Greenwich
We are pictured in front of the restored Cutty Sark above (more on that later).
Nice one with me in it this time. My father-in-law is always complaining that I'm not in enough of them.
Royal Observatory on the top of the hill. On the way we passed the National Maritime Museum and this huge ship in a bottle. It's Horatio Nelson's HMS Victory and was purchased for the tidy sum of £362,500 (!) according to this press release. The bottle is 4.7m long and 2.8m in diameter. That's roughly 15' and 9' for the metrically challenged.
The Royal Observatory was established to tackle the "longitude problem". Seafarers had reasonable methods for establishing their latitude (angle of the sun/stars above the horizon, etc.) they had no way of determining their longitude (east/west position). A prize of £20,000 (millions today) was establish for whomever could solve the problem and the observatory was built as a start (for all of £500).
The difference in longitude is "simply" the difference in local time between two locations (imagine the earth as 360 degrees therefore 1 hour is 15 degrees; 1 minute is 1/4 degree, etc.). Two main methods exist for figuring this out. One is to have an accurate map of the night sky over the course of a year (and where the Observatory comes in) and the other is to build an accurate time piece to keep "home" time while on a ship.
I did not appreciate how time and astronomy where so closely related and that all of this started so that safer (and let's not forget more lucrative) sailing could occur.
Here are the kids straddling the Prime Meridian (0 degrees)
We also took in a show at the Planetarium. It was fine but nothing spectuclar. Can be skipped in my opinion.
This is an early (or perhaps not so early) political cartoon of King George III.
kids shot outside the museum -- I took this one because it reminded me of . . .
. . . . this one -- 4.5 years earlier in Pearl Harbor (aw, cute huh?)
walking tour from the Visitor's Center. It was okay but not fabulous. We were the only ones on the tour and the retired fella giving the tour had to go backwards from his usual plan due to an activity in the chapel and that threw him off. We had a really good tour in Bath and that has set the bar pretty high.
Old Royal Navy buildings above. Chapel on left and Painted Hall on right.
Early royal connections from Greenwich (I didn't realize that before hand).
inside the chapel
and the Painted Hall
Funny aside: there was a model of the Painted Hall down in the basement. The guide couldn't get it to turn on. Having been fooled by the outlets here on occasion, I checked the plug in the floor to make sure it was switched on. It wasn't even plugged in. Ta da.
and eventually back around to the Cutty Sark mast head
The Cutty Sark was a clipper sailing ship built in Scotland in 1869. The best price for tea went to the fastest ship who could get back first. However, shortly after the ship was built, the Suez Canal was opened up which turned the advantage to steam ships so it was short lived. It then turned it's trade to wool from Australia. It was badly damage during restoration (2007) and just opened back up in April 2012. We did not have time to tour the inside.
The ship was named after Cutty Sark, the nickname of the witch Nannie Dee in Robert Burns' 1791 poem "Tam o' Shanter." The ship's figurehead, the original carved by Robert Hellyer of Blackwall, shows Nannie Dee in a stark white carving of a bare-breasted woman with long black hair holding a grey horse's tail in her hand. In the poem she wore a linen sark (Scots: a short chemise or undergarment), that she had been given as a child, which explains why it was cutty, or in other words far too short. The erotic sight of her dancing in such a short undergarment caused Tam to cry out "Weel done, Cutty-sark", which subsequently became a well known catchphrase. [She gave chase and he narrowly escaped on his horse though she did just grab the tail.]
Really enjoyed our day in Greenwich. Still more to see so perhaps we'll make it back another day.
Day 4 (Monday) -- Tower of London
Note: The Tower of London isn't cheap but it is a 2for1 if you have train tickets (see tips below).
required photo in front on guard outside the Crown Jewels
and with kids
and the trip down memory lane (though at Windsor Castle) 3.5 years ago (Nicole is still growing in to that sweatshirt)
Wiki: The ravens of the Tower of London are a group of captive Common Ravens which live in the Tower of London. The group of ravens at the Tower comprises at least seven individuals (six required, with a seventh in reserve). The presence of the ravens is traditionally believed to protect the Crown and the Tower; a superstition holds that "If the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it."
Though a fortress/castle, the Tower is most famous for its executions. Most occurred out on Tower Hill though the most famous (like two of King Henry VIII's wives) were inside the grounds. Denoted here with the pillow to catch the lopped off head.
interesting dragon artwork comprised of various weapons, etc.
chopping block from last beheading (I believe)
and the opposite: stretching on the rack
Tower Bridge Shot (same as the leading photo)
A shot of the "Gherkin" (British for pickle) from the Tower walls
The Tube is great though. Very easy to figure out (the kids were getting into it). The Kims were a little overwhelmed at first but even they got the hang of it by the end of the week. Alex was sure to tell them when we were getting off at the next stop though.
Day 5 (Tuesday) -- US Embassy and the Churchill War Rooms, Covent Garden & Lion King
It took about 30 minutes to get there and about 75 minutes of waiting/processing. Very strict orders on who could enter (grandparents could not) and what to bring (no electronics -- phone, camera, etc.). The photo above is from the internet as I didn't take my camera.
Given the early appointment, we let the grandparents sleep in and rest up. We then spent the afternoon at . . .
wiki: The museum comprises the Cabinet War Rooms, a historic underground complex that housed a British government command centre throughout the Second World War, and the Churchill Museum, a biographical museum exploring the life of British statesman Winston Churchill.
This was very interesting (though my photos were largely crap). I didn't get much history on Churchill stateside so I learned quite a bit. I was surprised to learn of his political failures prior to WWII and the fact that he actually lost the election in 1945 as well.
man in a tutu juggling
and a magician (sorry for the photo quality) -- notice Alex up front in the crowd
The girls got some shopping done and then we grabbed dinner at a chain restaurant. Then we set off for . . .
pre-show shot #1
pre-show shot #2
Turns out, she was at the Royal Opera which had just let out. News story here.
Day 6 (Wednesday) -- The Zoo
The Zoo? Why go to the zoo when we are in one of the greatest cities in Europe with oodles of free museums? Well, one can only do so many museums and this was a welcomed break. We spent the day here and really enjoyed ourselves (another 2for1 too--good thing).
The zoo is slightly to the north of "center" of the city in Regent's Park. We took the Tube to Camden Town and then walked 15-20 minutes from there. It's not unlimited space, but it's more than you might expect in such a large city. We thought it was well done.
As we learned at the Tower of London, they used to house all sorts of exotic animals there. They finally realized it would be better/safer to have them elsewhere in a purpose-built facility so that's what started the London Zoo. Established in 1828, it's the oldest scientific zoo in the world. Enjoy the photos below.
Nicole's favorite: the burrowing owl (he did some running across the stage as well)
meerkats (the ones at Twycross were actually better)
aardvark -- a first for me I believe
albino porcupine (the handler was actually inside feeding them) -- she mentioned that more lions die from porcupine wounds than from any other animal
yellow monkey of some sort -- we were actually walking among them at this point
tiger quickly coming at us (it was hard to get a decent photo)
our only group photo of the week -- our little zoo
Day 7 (Thursday) -- Oxford
We decided to take a day trip to Oxford for one of the days. It's an hour train ride from Paddington. To get the cheap fairs we needed to travel off-peak which meant taking the 9:21 train. With a brisk walk to the Visitor's Centre we could just make the 10:45 walking tour. Unfortunately this tour was very disappointing. It didn't cover as great an area as I expected (that's my fault) and the guide was not very good (that's not). He was not very dynamic and stammered quite a bit. This was our biggest "miss" of the trip. Don't know if all of the tours are this disappointing or not but ours certainly was.
Our tour started off at the Jesus College. The college was founded by Elizabeth I on 27 June 1571 for the education of clergy, though students now study a broad range of secular subjects.
Inside the Dining Room with Queen Elizabeth I front and center.
side view of the Sheldonian Theatre
Hertford Bridge, the Oxford version of the Bridge of Sighs (Venice)
Radcliffe Camera, home to the Science Library
All Souls College courtyard
University Church of St Mary the Virgin
interesting building near the Divinity School -- sorry I missed the name
inside the Divinity School
Ashmolean Museum (Art & Archeology), apparently the world's first university museum. We just went for a "taster" tour of sorts as we walked through.
this monkey with a dragonfly on a stick and a large Buddha caught my eye
and another Samurai
china as far as the eye can see
Sir Anthony van Dyck's painting of John, Count of Nassau-Seigen, and family
interesting decoration of an entryway
back to All Soul's (I believe)
looking back down High Street and St. Mary the Virgin
Finally Christ Church College
a poster board view
and one more looking back
We decided to also make one last stop in the History of Science Museum. Quite a few interesting items including these slide rules
and the super computer version
on the way home on the Tube
Day 8 (Friday) -- Imperial War Museum and Borough Market
Our last day before heading back. Off to the Imperial War Museum. This one didn't quite live up to expectations but I think we were starting to suffer a little museum fatigue by this point and that had something to do with it. Two of the main exhibits (Holocaust and War Crimes) were not suitable for children so we missed out on those as well.
Note that the museum will be closed for 6 months for renovation starting in January.
They also had a Blitz Experience that was pretty lame. I can't believe folks were waiting in a long queue for this. Perhaps it's because we heard some of it before during our travels.
various war time aircraft in the main hall
German tank destroyer
check out this range finder
For our last activity, we made our way to the Borough Market for a late lunch and some shopping. Food stalls of all sorts. Too bad we couldn't come here earlier in the week to pick up some tasty treats (but it's not open early in the week). I was a little concerned about transporting the food home so we didn't buy much but it was fun to look around.
Phew. Quite a week. It's not easy touring but I think we did pretty well. The general favorites were the Lion King, Greenwich, the Tower of London and the Zoo. Kuk liked the Science Museum. Alex liked Covent Garden. The Kims liked the British Library. And Nicole liked the Zoo and the Tower.
No food photos this time. In general the meals were good though few were outstanding. Other than the one night in Covent Garden, we walked to each from our flat. We tried
Le Pain Quotidien
and surprisingly we ate in 3 nights using prepared meals from Marks and Spencers. That not only saved a little money but it was also good to just sit back and relax in the apartment and not worry about going back out.
Toptable was helpful to sort by area and cuisine. Tripadvisor is nearly worthless for a city the size of London in my opinion.
As promised, I thought I would give a few travel tips for anyone interested. London is a big place but easy to get around. I'd recommend getting a decent map (I like the one from the Rick Steve's Great Britain book) and the Tube map. Remember that the Tube map isn't necessarily to scale so you need both. Group activities by location so you aren't zipping back and forth across town.
Never pay cash for the Tube. The system encourages you to get an Oyster Card and/or a travel card. If you are there for 5+ days, it will likely pay off to get a 7-day Zone 1-2 travelcard.
Tube Travel Planner
One wrinkle in the Oyster Card decision is the availability of 2for1 offers. These are set up to encourage people to take the train into town. If you have a round trip ticket AND print off the voucher you can get the 2for1 deals (for families that means not paying for the kids). So, our round trip tickets from Derby qualify.
What if you don't take the train in? Well, there's a back door. You can buy a travel card (1-day or 7-day) from a National Rail Train station (not the London Underground) and that qualifies. That's what we did for the Kims. They had to bring a passport size photo and have the slight hassle of using the paper card instead of the Oyster Card but we saved oodles at the Zoo, Tower of London, Greenwich Walks and Churchill War Rooms. Well worth the hassle!
One more tip for day trips. We were able to get "Groupsave" tickets for Oxford with 4 adults and would have for Dover as well. That allowed us to wait until the last minute to decide without incurring extra cost. That may be dependent on the particular operator though so do check.
For off-peak return tickets, I found it helpful to print out a timetable that showed all the options for the trains (some fast, some not).
National Rail "Pocket" Timetable
My general advice which worked well is to have a good plan but be flexible! It worked for us.
Thanks for reading and have a good week everyone.