Our First Family Trip To London!

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Note:  This presentation on London will differ from how I have written here in the past.  In lieu of giving a minute by minute account of our days, I will simply provide an overview of the locale, give our thoughts and impressions of specific sites, offer any tips and other relevant information and sum up our conclusions.  I feel this is the best way to offer precise information on traveling to each locale as a family.

Arrival:

Our plane landed in London around 1:30pm and we were able to head straight to the hotel via London’s underground.  It took around 90 minutes to reach the hotel which is almost double what it would have normally been.  Construction work and closed stations made us take a longer route than normal.  Despite these obstacles and the cold weather and snow, the journey was pretty easy and relatively cheap at a cost of around 5 GBP.   Compare this to the cost of a taxi or even a shuttle and you can see traveling our way is a big winner.

Hyde Park
Hyde Park

One note about transport in London is the Oyster Card.  This card is sold at most stations and is a must for using public transport in London.  Without it the cash fares can be double.  To buy one you simply go to a machine or a ticket counter at most stations.  They will charge a 5 GBP deposit, but this will be returned at your last station when you surrender the card before leaving the country.  The Oyster Card also makes going in and out of stations easy as you simply tap it and the fare is deducted.  Also, it tracks your daily spend and when you reach 8 GBP which is the cost of a daily pass, it stops charging.

Accommodation:

Given that hotels in London are on the ultra-expensive side, we opted to stay a little out of the center.  After doing quite a lot of research and finding it difficult to find hotels that accommodate three people in a room, I found the Holiday Inn

View of Olympic Stadium from our hotel in London.
View of Olympic Stadium from our hotel in London.

Stratford City.  The hotel’s location is incredible as it sits just outside Britain’s largest shopping mall and on the doorsteps of the new Olympic Village.  Additionally, we found it only a 15-20 minute tube journey to the center and the hotel went for half of the price of similar accommodations in the city center.

Always be flexible with your hotel choice.  As a long term independent traveler it is more important to stay within budget than to stay in that fancy hotel in the city center.  For us, traveling less than 20 minutes on the subway opened up the city to us.  We also had a stunning view of Olympic Stadium from our room and a mall with dozens of dining choices a simple five minute walk away!

Sites:

London’s main sites are pretty easily reachable in a day.  We spent one day with my friend Ben as a tour guide and another on our own crisscrossing London.  I should mention that one of my favorite things to do in a city is walk and take in the locals going about their business.  We did a fair amount of this in London which ate up chunks of time.

Shawn Reece in front of the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum.
Shawn Reece in front of the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum.

If you are on a budget then London can tax the wallet pretty quickly.  Fortunately many of the sites that tourists frequent in the city are free of charge.  During our time there we saw mainstays like Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, Big Ben, The Parliament Building, London’s Tower Bridge, The British Museum and something called the Rain Room.  All of the places held Shawn Reece’s attention, offered historical significance and did not cost a penny!

While many of the sights I mentioned are simply landmarks, getting to and from them offers spectacular scenery.  This is especially the case when you factor in the snow covered cityscape we were lucky enough to enjoy during our visit.  In other words, London is charming normally, but with a layer of white on top it is breathtaking.  I won’t review the landmarks much here as there is not much to say other than for me to urge you to see them, but I will mention Shawn Reece was disappointed that the guards at Buckingham Palace are positioned so far away from the outside gate.  Having visited previously, I was aware of this and to be honest it isn’t a big deal in my opinion.  On the other hand he cared since it made his dream of harassing the guards in the hopes of getting them to move or giggle impossible!

The three sites I want to review a little more in depth here are the Science Museum, British Museum and The Rain Room.  First off, I want to say that the Science Museum while free is not something I would put high on my list of places to return.  The displays were scattered at best and there simply wasn’t much information that I felt had significant educational value.  Google has setup a new interesting exhibit in the basement which we were not able to visit, so perhaps that will add to the museum’s value.  On the other hand, we did enjoy the museum’s free Wifi for what it is worth!

London - January 2013 (167)While the Science Museum is a little on the light side, the British Museum overwhelms with its vastness and historical artifacts like the Rosetta Stone.  In a museum such as this or ones like the Louvre in Paris, I recommend picking and choosing which parts of the museum to visit.  Children only have so much of an attention span and sticking around too long can become a big mistake.  I would recommend no more than one hour with small children and perhaps up to two with older ones.  My favorite parts of the museum’s collections are the sections containing artifacts from the Ancient Egyptian and Greek cultures, but to be honest you really can’t go wrong no matter which part of the museum you choose to visit.  Our strategy was to visit all sections, but to skim through some and take our time with others.

The final site worth mentioning is The Rain Room which is a temporary art exhibit set up at the Barbicon Museum in London.  If Ben had not mentioned this place then we would never have even heard of it.  This shows how valuable having a local friend can be.  The Rain Room is as the title states.  It is a room full of rain.  The trick is the floor and ceiling contains sensors which stop the rain above you.  This creates a situation where you are surrounded by rain but stay completely dry.  The project works as describes and provides a unique experience which is something I am always looking for!  The Rain Room is something I would definitely recommend if you are in London before it closes.  Perhaps the only downside of this

A guard outside of Buckingham Palace.
A guard outside of Buckingham Palace.

attraction is the almost constant two hour wait which we were unable to avoid.

Food:

We rarely eat in fancy restaurants when traveling because they suck up the budget quicker than just about anything else.   Our day with Ben did include a trip to London’s Chinatown and a nice lunch that only cost around 5 GBP per person.  Other than our Chinatown experience, we ate at the mall food court adjacent to our hotel, made our own sandwiches and even ate a 3 GBP meal deal from a convenience store in the city.  (It consisted of a premade sandwich, potato chips and a bottle of soda.)

I want to elaborate on the self-made sandwiches for a bit.  We have never been afraid to visit supermarkets to feed ourselves.  We have found that Europe often provides us with better meats and cheeses than at home.  In London, 6 GBP bought us fresh sourdough bread combined with delicious meats and cheeses that were more than enough for the three of us!  Given that British food is not significantly different than what we have had before, we didn’t want to spend a lot.  Staying on a tight budget is easy if you are willing to do it.  We probably spent less on food during our two and half days in London than most visitors spend on one fancy meal in the city.

London - January 2013 (52)Conclusions:

I would be lying to say that I really know London.  In the end, I have visited most of the key sites of the city a couple of times now, but there is so much left to see.  There is no doubt that I will return with an itinerary designed to enable a deeper understanding of the city.  There are only so many of these legendary places on Earth and I now have an understanding that my current visit will not be my last.

When I hear that this is a, “Once in a lifetime visit” or something similar, I cringe.  I have no knowledge that I will live another forty or fifty years or will die tomorrow, but I will always plan to come back.  This previous visit to London was designed for me to do my best given the time.  If I don’t return then nothing will have been lost, but I yearn for another go around at really discovering London’s history.  Take yourself and your children there.  London ranks up with Hong Kong, Paris, New York and other legendary cities as one to visit now and think later!

Takeaways:

  • Make sure to hit up the main sites.  They are iconic for a reason.
  • To save money skip the London Eye and ride the Emirates Air Line for a fraction of the price.  The Emirates Air Line is brand new and provides wonderful views of the city. (See photos.)
  • Be prepared to have your children show disappointment when they cannot walk up to the guards at Buckingham Palace.
  • Do not be afraid to utilize independent eating options.  A simple sandwich made up of meats and cheeses from Europe can be delicious.
  • Most of London’s sites are free and educational for children!
  • London’s Underground or Tube is useful.  Get an Oyster Card and enjoy the savings and added convenience of simply tapping in lieu of buying a ticket at every station.
  • Don’t consider a winter visit as a bad thing.  The snow added a level of charm that we had not imagined!

More Photos From London:


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