London trip report
Family Trip Report to London, England. April 98
This is our family trip report to London a week in April. Our party consisted of 2 adults and 11 year old (Michael). George (my husband) and I been in Europe many times, but Michael traveled with us only in USA, Canada and Caribbean. This was kid’s first trip to Europe. We felt that London is a good place and being 11 year old is a good time to be introduced to Europe. Of course, the trip, unlike our other European trips was tailored to his needs and interests. We rented a flat in a St. James area - very central - Duke Street behind Fortnum and Mason. We felt it was a great value and much better deal and convenience for a family.
We flew on Friday night on AA from JFK. Uneventful flight, everything was good, on schedule. I cannot sleep very well on planes. Mike slept almost 5 hours. Arrived to LHR, took a tube to our flat - Picadilly Line. On arrival at LHR we bought weekly family visitor travelcards (see report under transportation if interested). To get to the flat by tube was the best and the cheapest way providing you don’t have a lot’s of luggage. Again, having a flat with washer/dryer minimizes your packing. The flat is located in area with many galleries and auctioneers. In fact, we picked up our key at Christie’s auctioneers and walked to the flat, unpacked. I took a little nap, Mike watched TV and then we went to Picadilly which is one block away from us. It was raining and was cold, but the city was exciting. We had lunch at nice Criterion restaurant (French) which turned out an "in" place in London J . The service was a little snobbish but the food was excellent. Details about all our meals can be seen in the food section (if interested). Then we walked on Picadilly, Mayfair, to St. James Palace where Queen’s Mother lives, saw the guard (could not figure out at first if it was real or not!). The light dinner was at a tea room on Picadiily, Richoux. Early to bed.
Slept all night. Next morning, Sunday, I woke up at my regular time, 6am. George and Mike slept until 10am. I went out. On Sunday, most eateries are closed. I did find out deli and bought croissants and baguettes and coffee. Brought back to the flat. We had breakfast and went to explore. We walked towards to Buckingham Palace and arrived just on time to see the changing of the guard. Impressive, but I would not wait for it for half an hour. We walked with guards for a while to the main entrance, then went to Trafalgar square on Pall Mall, down to Westminster, saw Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey from outside (everything was closed on Sunday), saw more guards, Downing street, listened to Big Ben. Then we took the Tube to Leicester Square (pronounced Lester). The lines were not large on Sunday, so we took advantage of it and bought tickets on Tuesday Phantom of the Opera (no discount on this one, since it is the number one show in West End and Chicago (no discount because we were not buying at the same day). Then we walked through Chinatown, had Dim Sum in Harbor City and walked to Picadilly. We also visited an Russian Icons exhibit in Royal Academy of Arts. About 5 pm we went back to the flat and rested before dinner. Dinner was at restaurant in Atheneaum (sp?) hotel on Picadilly - Bullochs. Continental, excellent food and service. Mike spoke French to the waiter and had quite a conversation.
I reserved a tour with private London Tour guide
- Harry Norman. A colleague - a travel agent recommended him highly, I
corresponded with Harry online for a while, and we were impressed with his
knowledge of London and personality. We took a day tour to Hampton Court and I
think this was the money was well spent for a price. Harry picked us in
the morning and he showed us Richmond park in South London first (need car to
see it). We had a lovely walk and took some pictures with great views and then
drove to Hampton Court. Spent a day there with Harry guiding us through, and
also listening to costumed guides - excellent. Had lunch in cafeteria, then
walked in maze (took us a little bit more to get out, then we expected, but
Mike found the way out
Took tube to Tower Hill. It was light rain, but it did not deter our tour with Beefeaters. They are quite humorous performers. A lot’s of sinister history. Walked to a chapel. Then to see crown jewels and movies about royals and their coronation. Very interesting. You can spend easily half a day there, and walk on a walls. Nearby is also dungeon. Then we walked to the bridge, looked at it. The weather imrpoved a little. We also visited Docklands - St. Katherine Marina nearby which is a new development project to rejuvenated London docklands. It is under construction now, but the views and the old ships are really cool. We had lunch in a pub - Dickens Inn. We returned to the tower just on time to see gun shots in honor of Queen’s birthday. We did not plan it, but since the road was blocked, we participated in her birthday as well. Afterwards, when the road opened up and beefeaters let us through, we took the tube to St. Paul Cathedral. It is very impressive, but Mike got tired and we did not spend much time there. We returned to Picadilly, walked to Burlington arcade. These are unique very exclusive shops and proper behavour and clothes is required to enter it. It is guarded by uniformed beadlies. You will never see anything like that! Chewing gum, singing and ‘hurrying’ is not allowd and enforced by beadlies. After visiting these proper English stores, we went to Fortnum and Mason for afternoon tea. It is very formal, with the live music and we highly recommend to go there (or to Harrods) just to see that there are really in the world things like that! Then we walked to the flat and rested before theater. This evening we walked to HRM Theater to see Phantom of the Opera. We liked it a lot. The seat were not bad in the upper circle. We saw Harry and his wife Pat and agreed to go for dinner afterwards, but Mike wanted to sleep after performance so we canceled our dinner plans, said goodbye to Harry and Pat and had snacks in the flat. It is a great convenience that the theaters were in walking distance from the flat.
I gave George and Mike ½ a day off since on Wednesday I was ‘doing business’. I’ve met a lady through which I booked flats for ourselves and our clients and she showed me some properties, her office and how she operates and also gave me her materials. Read here if you are interested in apartments. When I got back, the sun was shining. We took a tube to Westminster and took advantage of good weather - went to Greenwich by boat. It took us about hour to get there with commentary on the way and it was nice to see all famous buildings and the ships from the water. In Greenwich, we had sandwiches in a nice shopping arcade and then walked to the Royal Observatory through the beautiful park. However, it is located on the pretty steep hill. We took obligatory pictures standing at the Greenwich Meridian which divides Eastern and Western Hemishpere. Mike bought certificate. The museum about time (this is also official countdown site for year 2000) was very interesting. There is also Naval Museum and other interesting sites in Greenwich but we did not visit it. As in London, there is a hop on/off trolley which takes you to all sites. We walked back to the Pier and took pedestrian tunnel to the cross the Thames and then boarded DLR train back to London. Very fulfilling sightseeings day with great weather. After resting a bit before dinner, we walked to Mayfair (I checked out Green Park Hotel where I booked my clients in May, it proved satisfactory). Then we went to Shepherd Market which is a cute shopping area with pubs, restaurants and little stores. We had a nice dinner at French Bistro. Michael used his French to order for us. The waiters were impressed.
The weather was so-so, so we dedicated the day to the museums. We went to National Gallery first and spent about 2 hours exploring the art from early medieval times to Renaissance and realism and impressionists. Now, when we go just two of us, we spend more time, but this time it was done carefully. Michael did not have audio equipment this time, but I showed him all important pictures. Of course, he was impressed but different things, but nevertheless found familiar kings and queens at the portrait. He knew about Van Gogh and Rembrandt, so it was easy. I could say it was a success.. Then, to break the learning process, we went to extremes and visited Madame Tussaud’s museum. Mike and George liked it a lot, we took many pictures and even managed to get London part twice in a cabs. We had lunch as snacks in the museum cafeteria, and upon returning to the flat area, had now High Tea at F&M (you can tell we love tea!). We were seeing that night Chicago at Adelphi theater on the Strand. The musical was OK, Mike related to it very well. But, unfortunately, the seats were high and it was very hot there and uncomfortable. We survived it nevertheless. On a way back the weather was nice and clear, the Trafalgar square was full with people and pigeons and we spent some time there at night. Michael climbed the lions.
Went to the British Museum. Unfortunately, we were not prepared very well and went through only Egyptian and Greek Periods. It is huge and you need to be prepared to know what you are interested unless you take a tour . By exception of mummies, I can say it was a failure and my men started to rebel. J . We left museum and took tube to Westminster. It was raining and very crowded at lunch time there. We finally had a good lunch, but in a very crowded café Metro. After that we spend the rest of the afternoon in Westminster Abbey and and was just awesome. Mike enjoyed it but after a while, he wanted ‘to get away from so many dead people’. On next day, our travelcards were to expire and we secured 24 hour pass for London Pride sightseeing bus. We got discount 50% with London for less coupons. The weather improved so we just sat on the upper deck and did 2 full loops of East and West London - to review what we saw for last 4 days. It was nice and relaxing. You can also hop on/off when you like. We finished the ride at Picadiily Circus and went to the flat. After resting, we went to Covent Garden to see entertainers. It was very crowded. We had a nice dinner at The Palace Jardin (French Seafood). After dinner, we wanted to see entertainers but somehow we walked out to Trafalgar square. Oh well..
It was raining so we went to Tate Gallery. True, I had to overcame resistance of younger generation, but the bribe (ride in a taxi) did it. This museum is smaller and easier to walk through. We looked at contemporary art for an hour and left. Our tube passes expired, so we walked to Westminster and got the next London Pride bus to Picadilly. Grabbed sandwiches at the stop and went on a ‘green route’ to Kensington Palace and gardens. Actually, this last day the sightseeing program was finished, so it was ‘free time’. The weather was so nice, so we spent the rest of the day in the parks. We walked to Kensigton Palace (there are still flowers at the gate for Diana, believe it or not), looked at Peter Pan and other statues, sat by the pond, and just relaxed. We saw tourists and the locals with their kids and dogs. We took pictures where fell like it, walked towards Hyde Park and then to Green Park and to the Buckingham Palace. Then we bought obligatory souvenirs (for good behavoir) and went back to the flat. My suggestion to go for dinner was rejected, so George and I went out and bought ‘designer sandwiches’ at Pret at Manger. That was our last day in London.
Had breakfast at the flat, took tube to LHR (another £8.60) and boarded our flight home.
I must confess, we are serious about food. We are always looking for gourmet restaurant to eat and when we travel, we like to sample best local foods. However, when we travel with our kids (our oldest is now 20 and in college), we need to adjust a bit to their tastes. However, we were pleasantly surprised that Michael ate well and did not ask (not that he would get it! J ) McDonalds and other junk food. First of all, let me tell that London food is interesting, sophisticated and reflects a large cosmopolitan city, contrary to general belief that British food is boring. I must add, it is expensive as well. I included prices where I had them just for comparison.
Although we ate British breakfasts before and I don’t complain, this time we lived in a flat and we ate there all the time. However, the café’s have wonderful croissants and baguettes (called rolls). The British have their rolls with chicken salad, bacon, and other fillings. There are also pasties for breakfast as well. Pastries, and not only for breakfast were terrific. We mostly ate croissants. Michael like bacon roll. However, you have to specify that you want your bacon fried. First time he asked for bacon and got boiled. Coffee is Ok but not as good as in France. There is always fruit and yogurt available. I liked greek style yogurt with muesli and also creme fraiche with fruit. There was a very good bakery/coffee/sandwich chain - Richoux where we had excellent pastires and sandwiches. About 7-10 pounds for three of us for average breakfast.
Were mostly sandwiches grabbed to take away. Two nice sandwich bar chains come to mind: Pret at Manger and Richoux. Pret at Manger are everywhere and they have designer sandwiches, sushi, desserts packed and ready to go. I sampled many breads and all of them were wonderful. The sandwiches always were fresh and not soggy. Eat in 50p more then take away. There were also other Delis with the same name (Pontff or something like that) everywhere and they had huge rolls. Mike ate the huge sandwiches there and finished it later at the day. Very tasty and good for quick grab. Most museums and Hampton courts had very good cafeterias except Mm Tussauds - did not care for that one.
Restaurants meal lunches: Criterion on Picadilly Circus. Impressive decor inside, mosaic ceilings. We were there on Saturday and there was mostly local clientele, that’s a good sign. Restaurant is upscale but not stuffy, waiters French and British. Food was excellent. George and I had fish, Mike had roasted baby chicken - so little that I was afraid it might be pigeon. But it was very tender. My soup listed on the menu as mushroom with a poached egg was tasty but it did not have mushroom flavor in it. Strange. Overall, rated good to excellent. Service was very prompt. For some reason they do not give you plates for bread. It was our first day in London, so we thought it was a norm. Later on I’ve read a review that the chef is the famous Marco Pierre White and this is the "in" place to be. OK, been there. Price 58.59 without wine, menu dejour.
Harbor City in Chinatown near Leicester Square. We had dim sum there. Unlike other dim sum we had in NYC and San Francisco, this one 1) was translated into English - great help for us since I always end up choosing one or two dishes wrong. 2) they do not have carts, probably because the restaurant is small. You order dishes (we choose 10) and they deliver them as they appear from the kitchen. So, there is no visual presentation. Food was good, waiters very friendly and spoke good English. Mike is not into chinese, so he had noodle soup - large bowl. He liked it. Price - can't find receipt, but was not more then £20.
Hampton Court cafeteria - very decent, I had Ploughman Lunch (salad, bread and Stilton cheese). George and Mike had sandwiches. Interesting, for kids there is special self-serve station where sandwiches are smaller and the kind kids like plus other hot dishes. You can also choose something like a happy meal which includes sandwich, drink and fruit or dessert.
Dickens Inn - pub. This one is located at Dockland Marina with a nice view. If you are near Tower, this is a good break for lunch. It is the only pub we tried and we liked it. All other attempts for a pub did not work out because some of them do not let kids close to the bar, only in restaurant. But to get to the restaurant, you need to take a food in the bar, so… Plus many pubs have heavy smoke.. Dickens Inn has two rooms and the restaurant is very nice and at least nobody smoked at lunch time there. We got ourselves bangers and mash (sausage was good, but mash lumpy, George had fish and chips and rated it excellent. Mike got huge ham and cheese sandwich. Tea and cokes. Friendly service (no waiters, but at the counter), interesting decor and it was not crowded. Price about £15
Café Metro near Trafalgar square. Very crowded at lunch time and uncomfortable small round café tables. Service was prompt and adequate, though. I had pasta with smoked salmon and cheese sauces - huge. George had sandwich and finished my pasta. Mike ordered Croque Monsieur and did not like it - he did not expect Bechamel Sauce. They did pack his meal to go, which I don’t think they do in European restaurant. If you can get better table at the end, it is a good place for lunch. Total £18.21
First night we wanted light dinner before early going to bed. We went to Richoux on Picadilly next where our flat was. It is a combination of French bistro with a tea house. (There is also Richoux bakery/coffee bar next to it where we were buying our breakfasts). We had onion soups (very good), smoked salmon salad, club sandwich and deserts and tea. Total for 3 - no wine £33.60.
Next night we went to Bullochs in Athenaeum hotel on Picadilly. I’ve read about in one of the dining guides for London on the internet. It was rated as the best kept secret. It was really one of the best meals we had. The waiter Pasquale was very attentive and chatted with us often. Mike spoke French with him. The restaurant room is small and intimate, there were not too many people there. It is continental cuisine. We skipped appetizers. I had calf liver on a mashed potatoes and some vegetable, it was excellent. George had duck. He liked it. Mike had grilled chicken - they put sauce on a side, how we requested. Creme Brulee for desert and Mike had chocolate truffles - they brought a full plate, we did not finish it and Pasquale wrapped it for us to go. Expensive. We talked to an American couple there and the woman said there is a nice Shepherd Market around a corner - little shopping area with nice restaurants and stores. We planned to go there next time. Price with a half bottle of wine £93.70.
On Monday we went for dinner to Rainforest café on Shaftsbury next to Picadilly Circus. It was meant to give Mike a break from formal dinners. It is an American chain themed café (coming soon to NYC Times Square). Environmental theme, jungle/rainforest decorations (I mean real jungle, not just wall decorations on a wall). There are alligators, live parrots, huge aquariums with fish. It is very loud with nature sounds. Plus every 20 minutes there is a lighting and thunder. Store with their merchandise downstairs. Each table has theme (elephant, etc.). The bathrooms marked Tarzan and Jane. That kind of thing. Kid enjoyed it, of course. The menu has regular American items with wacky names, but has translations.. Hamburgers and fries were huge. George liked them. They did not ask if you want medium or rare. Mike had pizza which came with fries. (Special kids menu) but it was not good. I had their signature dish - marinated grilled chicken with some kind of Caribbean salsa - that was very good. Portions are very large, so appetizers are not necessary, although I saw interesting quesadias, chicken wings and other little things. Dessert was a shared key lime pie. Interesting place and food for a family or just a casual meal. Prompt service with many American waiters. If you don’t like noise, do not go there. Total for 3 with wine, dessert 50.75.
Shepherd Market - Le Boudin Blanc - French Bistro. Very good bistro food. I had fish soup, George had onion soup and pronounced it excellent. I had rack of lamb - excellents. George had salmon - also very good. Mike had chicken in poached white sauce. Price - I think it was about £50.
Palace du Jardin. Hip, cool restaurant at Covent Garden. French/Seafood. You have to walk thru the bar and it was very crowded on Friday night. But, once behind bar, it’s OK. Service was great. Food was delivered fast (it is theater district, after all). Good white wine. I had langoustines, George had fish - excellent. Mike had a steak. Price 55.20 with wine, no dessert.
Highlight of our stay. One just must to have this civilized affair while in London. We did it twice at Fortnum and Mason. This is on the par with Harrods, Ritz and other upscale hotels. With live piano music. Waitresses are in maid outfits and waiters in tails. Very relaxing. Great service. They bring you a pot of tea and a three tier stand (at least you don’t have to go and load up buffet style). First tier had small sandwiches - cucumber, watercress, salmon, roast beef, turkey. Next tier had scones with clotted cream, lemon curd (I think) and a jam. 3rd tier had pastries. It replaced our dinner. This is a regular tea and costs £13.50 per person. Next time we had high tea which in addition to items above had a dish. I had Welch rarebit (something like cheese toast) and George had scrambled eggs on a toast. The experience of a lifetime. I even asked for a menu to take home. I will scan it soon. High tea £17 per person.
We often book apartments for our clients especially with families snce it is good value for the money and also gives you more space. For exampe, 1br flat we stayed at was 650 pounds per week. (See description with pictures of it - flat #9) It translates into $148 US per night. For this price, in St. James Area off Picadilly (close to Fortnum and Mason, Ritz hotel) you cannot get one hotel room less then $250.
The flat had 1 bedroom with very comfortable twin pulled together beds, living room with pull-down couch, a good-size bathroom with a bath/shower/toilet and a fully equipped kitchen. The flat was immaculately clean. There was washer/dryer - we used it a couple of time - this let us to minimize our packing. We only had 2 average size bags for 3 of us plus each a small backpack. Dishwasher - we did not use it. There was even trouser press - we mastered it, too. Plenty of closet space. There were even ironing board and iron, umbrellas and books/magazines to read. Kitchen has good quality silverware and dishes - looked like new (I hate chipped plates!).
Of course, there was a fridge and a cooker (stove in American). No microwave, though, but stove was sufficient. We did not really cook, only boiled some frankfurters and cooked eggs, since there are so many wonderful places to eat and grab food to go nearby, but for a travelers on budget or on diet it is a great help. The apartment was cleaned up once.
But other times you live on your own, there is no concierge (also there is was a phone number for person to help us if we needed). It is a great way t olive in London as local and wee enjoyed it. Michael every morning went downstairs to café next door to get breakfast and it was great experience for him as well. I also visited other flat with a lady I work with in London and there are some buildings where the manager lives on site. I particulary liked a building Clifton Lodge in Knightsbridge 5 min walk from Harrods. The manager lady is very nice and really cares about guests. She is available all the time.
It is actually set up as hotel, with her office downstairs and a little couch at the stairway and a stand with tourist info. Some apartments could be cleaned every day for extra price (serviced apartments), but generally the cleaning is done once a week. Another building with manager during the week I saw in Belgravia - Chesham Place it is also very nice and clean and very centrally located, but it is quiet and distinguished neighborhood. As for apartment like ours, without manager on-site I saw also a flat in High Kensington - it was bright and clean and even had a little stone walled patio for kids to play. And it is located in the heart of Kensighton - close to V&A museum. I was very impressed with a quality of the flats and the genuine concern of flat rental managers for guests.)
On arrival at LHR we bought weekly family visitor travelcards (required photo, we brought with us photo cut out from regular pictures, otw spend money in a nearby photo machine in the tube). The weekly Zone 1 travelcard plus one way LHR-center cost us £37.60. It covers zone 1 tube and busses. We used mostly tube. It was good deal and we highly recommend it. Plus, you don’t have to stay in line for tickets and figure out how to use those ticket machines. If you need to go outside of zone one, you have to pay extra or buy zone 1,2 card. We only had to pay extra 3 pounds only once when we took DLR (Docklands light Railway) from Greenwich. On the way back to airport we had to buy tube tickets for 8 pounds for all three of us.
The weekly card expired on next Saturday, and
then we took 24 hour sightseeing bus London Pride. It allows you to hop on/off
and gets you to all attractions using different routes uses recoded commentary.
With London for less coupons we got it for ½ price. Good deal. Other companies
which provide sightseeing tours are Original London Sightseeing Tour and I
believe they match competitors coupons, because the salesmen are located at the
same stops and they practically fought about us.
There are a lot’s of sightseeing day and half-a-day tours in London and we’ve sent many clients on them. The most popular ar Frames Rickards and Evans and Evans. There are also two hour taxi cab tours which I was told are top notch since London cabbies are great. I had brochure which said 2 hour tour (day or nigttime) was 60 pounds per cab. We did not have chance to do it. There are also walking tours - London Walks which I’ve heard raving reviews. The guides are actors and specialists in what they tell you. They explore small areas by foot. They are not expensive. Meet at metro station. About 4 pounds per person and last for 2 hours. Unfortunately, we could not fit it into our schedule. They have themed walks like pubs, or about Beatles, or Jack the Ripper, Ghosts tours at night.
However, this time because we had Michael with us and I was concerned that he will not do well with a crowd, I booked a private tour with London Tours. The owner/operator is Harry Norman. Myself and other colleagues travel agents use him for upscale clients and also when people have short time in London (plane layover or a cruise) and he is highly regarded in travel community. He is very personable, relates well to children (Mike liked him a lot). His motto is "Where clients arrive as strangers and leave as friends" and it is true. We took a day tour to Hampton Court and I think this was the money was well spent for a price. Harry picked us in the morning and he showed us Richmond park in South London first (need car to get there). We had a lovely walk and took some pictures with great views and then continued to Hampton Court. Spent a day there with Harry guiding us through. We arrived a bit early and had a nice walk through gardens When the palace opened, we bought tickets and took audio guides (included with your price) and went thru Tudor period kitchens. Whatever was not in the audio, Harry explained to Michael. Some audio guides were bad quality. Make sure you check them before you start your audio tour.
Then, Harry knew the times costumed guides
conduct the tour and we had two tours - one in the morning and another one after
lunch. The costumed guides were great. Had lunch in cafeteria, then walked in
maze (took us a little bit more to get out, then we expected, but Mike found
the way out
London for Less
Before we left, we bought London for Less guide. This is a well designed guide with a map and it also has discount coupons - something like Entertainment book. It has coupons for 10% off to the most attractions, 50% off London pride bus - this paid off right away - £30 savings. They also have theater discounts 25% off - but only if you buy them at the theater. Leicester square booth already discounts tickets, so this coupon would not apply. We did not use it for restaurants, but it lists many restaurants and our friends who went to London, used it for meals and said that all restaurants were very good. We highly recommend it.
If you have questions, feel free to Email, will be happy to reply.
Disclaimer: this report presents just an opinion of individuals who's been there.... Tastes Differ...
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