My son, Seth, 12, has developed a fascination with all things British. I'm not quite sure where this ardent interest came from, but we used it as impetus to plan a family trip this past August. My husband was unable to take the time off from work, so it became a mommy and me overseas adventure... our first together.
I had been to London twice before... the first time ironically on a singles trip where I met my husband. So, this felt somewhat like coming full circle... my now traveling there with my son.
I did not use a travel agent or book a package. I've become quite good at online research and spent considerable time poking around the web, in particular to find some off-the-beaten track experiences we might pursue.
As walkable as sections of London are, some of the destinations are quite spread out. We became adept at taking the Underground, which was impressive... speedy, clean and easy to navigate. Some of the tube escalators are the deepest I've ever seen, and they move very quickly. A good way to save money is to purchase an Oyster card at one of the stations.
I'm a huge theatre fan, as is Seth, so we took in three shows. MISS SAIGON, THRILLER LIVE and CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. All were terrific and so well done. London is a virtual feast for theatre-lovers, and there's something for every taste. We purchased tickets online in advance from the U.S. since we wanted to lock in certain dates. Fortunately, the time period we were vacationing was when children go free on participating show, with the purchase of a regular priced ticket, so we were able to save money.
We spent eight nights at the lovely Rosewood London on High Holborn. It's a classy hotel with an arty flair, and the location is a short walk to an Underground station, a drug store, supermarket, and casual restaurants. The hotel, itself, has two restaurants, and we had lunch at SCARFES. Seth and I love Indian food, and London is known for that.
SCARFES BAR is an excellent choice for Indian, and the decor is striking, with much colorful, whimsical and detailed artwork by Gerald Scarfe. Scarfe was born in London. After a brief period at the Royal College of Art in London, he established himself as a satirical cartoonist, working for Punch magazine and Private Eye during the early sixties, and in 1967 he began a long association with the Sunday Times as their political cartoonist.
The bed at the Rosewood was comfortable, and the room was a good size. My son loved the hotel dog mascot, and I loved the parakeets in a large cage in the lobby. They also put out candy bar treats and apples daily, and there is a small gym. The Rosewood is set back from the street, so you walk through an arch and small courtyard area to get there On the weekend, there is a small food market in the courtyard. The staff is attentive, and WiFi is included, though at times it wasn't the best. We felt welcome and would definitely stay again.
We had very full days and covered a ton of ground. I highly recommend purchasing THE LONDON PASS. You will save time and money. It includes free entry to over 60 of the most sought after attractions, and some attractions come with fast track entry included. Using the Pass, we visited many worthwhile and interesting destinations free of charge including the Household Cavalry Museum, Churchill War Rooms, London Transport Museum and ZSL London Zoo. And, we took London RIB Voyages, London Duck Tours and Fun London Tours (not using The London Pass) , which I highly recommend to see the Changing of the Guard.
In addition to popular sights like St. Paul's Cathedral, Big Ben and Parliament, the following reflects the key sights and unique experiences we had.
CEREMONY OF THE KEYS
According to their website, "the Ceremony of the Keys is the traditional locking up of the Tower of London and has taken place on each and every night, without fail, for at least 700 years. The importance of securing this fortress for the night is still very relevant because, although the Monarch no longer resides at this royal palace, the Crown Jewels and many other valuables still do."
Tickets are issued free of charge but, due to the popularity of the ceremony, it is necessary to book online as far in advance as is possible. We were fortunate enough to participate in this one evening, and it was such a unique experience. Just to be at the Tower at night when it is closed to all but Ceremony participants, was very cool. And, to witness what they have done night for hundreds of years is somewhat surreal. The Ceremony itself is fairly short, but the memory will linger.
You must arrive by 9:30pm, and later comers will not be admitted. Photography is not permitted, but we were kindly allowed afterwards to take the pictured photo.
TOWER OF LONDON
The Tower of London, a 900-year-old castle and fortress, has served many purposes, including royal residence, barracks, armory, prison and museum. It is an imposing structure with various buildings and sprawling grounds and a vibe seeped in history, intrigue and murder. You could spend hours here, and it can get very crowded, with lines to enter some of the key sights. But, it's an exciting must do in London, whether you walk it on your own or tour with one of the Yeomans on the premises. We visited the Crown Jewels, saw the famous ravens, and visited the White Tower, built by William the Conqueror, which today houses displays from the Royal Armouries' collection.
TOUR OF BUCKINGHAM PALACE
We were fortunate that during our vacation, the Palace Staterooms were available for touring. Taken from their website, "Last year the Royal Family welcomed around 62,000 guests to Buckingham Palace, at State Visits, receptions, Garden Parties, Investitures and private audiences. This year, at the Summer Opening of the Palace, displays throughout the State Rooms will recreate the settings for these occasions, and will show the detailed preparations that go into each one, whether a private audience with Her Majesty The Queen or a Garden Party for thousands.
For the first time ever, visitors to the Summer Opening will enter the State Rooms through the Grand Entrance, used by those who come to the Palace at the invitation of The Queen, including Heads of State and Prime Ministers. The Australian State Coach will go on display at the Grand Entrance portico, from where Her Majesty departs and returns to Buckingham Palace by carriage for ceremonial processions.
The knighting stool and a sword used to confer knighthoods will go on display alongside a number of Orders and Decorations, and displays will recreate some of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into preparing for a State Visit - from the food and selection of wine to the choice of Her Majesty's outfits. Several dresses and items of personal jewellery worn by The Queen at State Banquets and a number of gifts presented to Her Majesty by visiting Heads of State will be shown.
The Palace's Ballroom will be set up for a State Banquet and the table dressed with silver-gilt centerpieces and candelabra from the magnificent Grand Service in the Royal Collection. The detailed preparations required to create such a spectacle have been captured in specially commissioned time-lapse film."
It was a treat to have the opportunity visit the Palace from the inside out. As we walked around, taking in all the grandeur, to imagine that it's in active use and is visited by so many, made it all the more exciting. And, the gift shops sell lovely items that make for special gifts, including for kids, such as the Royal Corgi super soft, adorable plush (Seth had to buy one for his dog collection).
THE ROYAL MEWS
Near Buckingham Palace, this is the royal collections of historic coaches and carriages. In all their opulent splendor, they are a sight to behold. Horses are also kept here, and my son enjoyed seeing them.
SMALL CAR BIG CITY
We took the private London's Best Bits tour, were picked up at our hotel and got driven around for two hours in a Mini Cooper. We did this our first day in London, and it was a great way to get the lay of the land and learn from a local. Our guide was very accommodating if there was an area we particularly wanted to see. And, it was fun tooling around London in a small vehicle that could easily navigate the busy streets. It's no great surprise this company is highly rated on TripAdvisor. It was a safe, fun experience, and my son has always had a thing for Mini Coopers.
GOLDEN TOURS -- WINDSOR, STONEHENGE, BATH
This was a full day tour, and we had a great time....a very welcome break from all the running around in London proper. The bus was comfortable -- we had to meet it at a given location and be dropped off there versus our hotel. We were provided with a box lunch, and though there were many people, it was well-organized, and our guide was well-informed.
Windsor Castle is Queen's favorite weekend residence and te largest and oldest occupied castle in the world. It was been a royal home for over 900 years and overlooks historic Windsor town. We got to see the ornate State Apartments and works of art by celebrated painters Rembrandt and Leonardo da Vinci. We walked through St George's Chapel and got to see a number of royal memorials - this chapel is the serene final resting place of Henry VII and his wife Jane Seymour, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. We also timed it right, and were able to witness the Changing of the Guard.
It was exciting to see these iconic and mysterious stones. While more of a photo opp than anything and not requiring much time to visit, there was something very cool about it....as they have stood on Salisbury Plain for over 5,000 years and still baffle people today as to how they got there.
The first city in England to be designated a UNESCO Word Heritage site, Bath has beautiful Roman architecture and natural hot springs that were once used for public bathing. It's a lovely, quaint town to explore that features many shops and eating establishments.
You can't have a soak in them anymore, but the Roman Baths are still a charming historic attraction and gave the city its name. We visited the Pump Room, and it was a really interesting throw back in time.
Aside from the sights, we enjoyed walking the streets, shopping around and people watching. Some of our favorite areas included Camden Market, Covent Garden, Jubilee Market, Spitafields Market, and Carnaby Street.
Some of our favorite shopping spots included Hamley's (amazing, large toy store), Primark (fun, well-priced, very popular/crowded department store), Harrod's -- their toy department is something to be seen, Kiko - for hip, affordable makeup and Caith Kitson (bags, etc.).
Food-wise, we enjoyed sampling different meat pies, eating at outdoor markets, and two standout restaurants/dishes were the cerviche at Senor Cerviche, and the duck at Balthazar.
We also visited some off the beaten track spots, taking into account my son's interests, including the Police Museum and The Fire Brigade Museum.
Though this was my third time to London, seeing it through my son's eyes was hugely memorable, and I'm grateful to have shared the experience with him. There is plenty of territory we have yet to explore there. We look forward to hopefully returning one day, and highly recommend it as a family destination.