Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What to See and Do in London

What to See and Do

Tower of London

Oh how naïve I was, thinking we would be walking up a tower, having a look and leaving. Mind you, that was when we first started researching our trip, but Tower of London is awesome. Built as a Royal Residence and later used as a Prison, it also acted as a weapons store and housed the Royal Menagerie – gifts of wild animals from around the world that later because the London Zoo.

Once inside, join a free guided tour by a Yeoman Warder and then keep exploring on your own. We were there for 3 or 4 hours and while utterly exhausted at the end, we never got bored, and there’s something for everyone. The website gives examples of 1, 2 and 3 hour itineraries and while we didn’t follow any of them, they give you an idea of what to expect. There are a lot of interactive kid-friendly exhibitions without the kid-friendly stuff getting in the way of an adult enjoying themselves. View medieval torture devices, ancient suits of armour, medieval living quarters, or even the Crown Jewels – which are very very impressive but be warned that the long queue outside the jewel house is only the start of the queue on the inside.

Interesting factoid – the Yeoman Warders are not tour guides in costumes, they’re actual Yeoman Warders. They live on site just as their predessors did for hundreds of years, and they have to have done a full term of service in the armed forces, been recognized for their achievements and have achieved a certain rank before they can apply to be a Yeoman Warder.

Walk from Trafalgar square past Downing street to Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey

We had planned to see Big Ben and Westminster Abbey on a different day entirely but on our first afternoon we decided to catch the first bus we saw and see where it took us. We got off at Trafalgar Square to see the Lion sculptures mentioned by the Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London. The Lions are awesome, and Trafalgar Square looks like a nice place to have a coffee in the sun, but we didn’t realize when we started walking around, just how close it is to everything. We accidentally stumbled across Downing St completely by accident and Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey are a stones throw away, essentially occupying 3 corners of an intersection, although the Abbey is a couple hundred metres down from the instersection itself. Nice easy walk with good pubs for dinner afterwards or you can snack on hot candied peanuts from the vendors on Westminster Bridge – spanning the River Thames just behind Big Ben.

Changing of the Guards

I had no idea there was so much pomp and ceremony involved! If you go, the best position is high on the steps of what I think is called the Queen Victoria monument from memory – the roundabout in front of the palace. While some of the action happens inside the gates, a lot of it happens around the roundabout as well and from this vantage point you can see everything. Marching bands, horse, royal trumpeters – and if you’re lucky, as we were – the Queen may just drive out the drive way with her 30-car entourage.

Visit Hyde park

Aside from our obsession with squirrels, Hyde Park can fill a day easily. We only visited 2 of the four Royal Parks, this and Regents Park but it just felt open and relaxing. Yes, you can see foxes, squirrels and countless types of bird life but there are also several cafes and restaurants, lots of statues and monuments (including a bronze of Peter Pan which is quite cool), a swimming hole called the Lido, and opportunities to hire paddle boats or bicycles. My favourite place was the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, and if you make a wrong turn you could end up in her old backyard – Kensington Palace backs onto Hyde Park.

Go to London Dungeon

London Dungeon is not a preserved historical building, it’s just an attraction. It does however use actors, sets and occasionally visitors (Courtney got burnt at the stake. Erm) to tell you the historically accurate stories of some of the scarier times in London’s history. Jack the Ripper, Sweeney Todd, Guy Fawkes and the Plague are among the 14 tales told. It’s spooky but I hate scary things, won’t watch horror movies and have never been to Spookers (a horror park in Auckland) and I still enjoyed it. Granted I wouldn’t let Courtney drag me to the front of our group to be the first ones scared but he enjoyed it all the same. The 14 rooms include 3 rides – a log flume, a motion master and a freefall – and are explored in order, guided by ghosts and zombie-like creatures in groups of about 20. Well worth it.

Ride the London Eye

It’s quite expensive but we loved the London Eye. The whole ride takes half an hour and the view from the top is amazing. You can sit or stand in the capsule you share with approximately 12 other people and walk around and get photos from all sides. One of my favourite photos from the trip so far is me and Courtney with Big Ben in the background, taken from the top.

See a show on the West End

We saw two and we’re seeing another when we get back! Courtney was a theatre and musical virgin when we decided on a whim to see We Will Rock You but he left loving it and we were both blown away the next night by Wicked. We booked our Wicked tickets in advance because it often sells out, as you would want to do with many of the award winning or highly recommended shows, but if you’re not fussy about what you see you can get some awesome last minute deals. The theatres release the last seats for that nights shows to a couple of discount retailers around the West End each day. We turned up to the booth at Leicester Square station around 5pm and saw We Will Rock You at 7.30pm that night, with awesome seats in the Circle Balcony, for half the face value (We paid 30 pounds each). If you’re going to see a show, we can highly recommend both shows, but Wicked was out of this world.

Go to the Science Museum

We only went to a couple, but the Science Museum was probably the museum I’d recommend the most. We went for Courtney’s interest in Science but even I could find the first ever computers interesting. They have a space section including a real capsule off an Apollo flight, as well as sections of transport, energy, biology – everything. And the gift shop is a lot of fun too, even if you only play with the toys!

Take a Bus
Like I’ve said before, public transport in London is awesome. It’s also a great way to see London and link the suburbs together. We could have paid for a Hop-on-Hop-off tour and seen it all in one go, but I think we got all the benefits of the tour by doing it ourselves. I feel like I know London a little bit, we figured out the best ways to get home, the most interesting routes, and the suburbs we definitely didn’t want to check out. We also would never have seen St Pauls Cathedral, Oxford Circus or Trafalgar Square if it weren’t for the buses we were on at the time.

Go to Hard Rock Café

It took us ages to find but when we eventually did, we discovered the gift shop does free tours of the memorabilia vault downstairs. This restaurant is the original, and they have a bank vault filled with the treasures of musical history. It’s kind of cool to note it’s an actual bank vault, from the buildings previous life when it even housed Princess Diana’s dress the night before her wedding. The vault’s not huge but it’s free and a short walk from Hyde Park Corner.  

What Not To Do

Go to Notting Hill during the week

There are a few market stalls that run down Portobello Road all week long and we thought we would go and check them out, see where the movie was made and just generally go exploring. I didn’t love it.  Notting Hill, despite the modern price tags, feels like it must have in its younger days of being a low income area. Without the presumed atmosphere of the market in full swing (which happens on weekends) it just feels a bit dirty and has little to offer. The highlight of our exploration was finding a One Pound Store that outdid anything our $2 Shop has to offer at home.

Go to the Natural History Museum on a school day

We went especially to see the Dinosaurs, and most of the Dinosaur exhibits were closed. The special exhibit featuring life-size animatronic dinosaurs was very cool (although quite short for the 10 pound price) but the main dinosaur hall with the fossils was closed for maintenance. Add to that about a million chattering school children on daytrips and it wasn’t a London highlight. We have nothing against kids in general, but there were so many! I don’t know how teachers do it, because we couldn’t even keep track of the ones walking circles around us. We’re considering going back to the NHM on our way home in September when the Dinosaurs will be back on display, because the kids will be on holidays then (or so I believe).

Make a special trip for Borough Market

Borough Market is cool, but it’s not as cool as the guide books would have you believe. Queen Victoria Markets in Melbourne still reign supreme for me, and I get a better vibe from many of the markets back home. Lot’s of yummy food here but many repeat stalls. I’d go back if I were in the area (and it was a Thursday Friday or Saturday when they’re open) but I wouldn’t make a special trip for it again.

What I Wish I Did

Go on a River Cruise or Duck Boat tour

I wanted to go on a Duck Boat Tour in Dublin and we saw them in London too. At 21 pounds each though, it wasn’t feasible, or good value. Next time I visit London, I’d like to at least do a River Cruise, which is much cheaper.

Hire a Paddle Boat in a Royal Park

I can only speak for Hyde Park and Regents Park but both had Paddle and Row Boats for hire. Just for kicks, I’d love to take one out on the lake on a lazy Summer’s afternoon and get even closer to the birds and even further away from the hustle and bustle.

Rent a Bicycle

All over the city there are stands filled with bikes that you can hire. You pay a one time access fee and then a secondary per hour rate and you can take them anywhere you want in the city as long as they end up back in a stand at some point. It doesn’t have to be the stand you took it from, but it doesnt have to be on time or you get stung with massive late fees. Rather than seeing the city, we’d like to use them just to see more of the parks.

Shop at Oxford Circus

I didn’t even know what Oxford Circus was until we went through it on a bus but it’s basically a shopping district with a lot of ‘Sale!’ signs. It houses Top Shop and most of the other big name brands and if I weren’t on so tight a budget, I’d love to have a browse.

Visit Selfridges or Harrods

I didn’t really care about the big name department stores until I saw the windows of Selfridges in Oxford Circus. Now I’d like to have a look.

Penelope_nz's London photoset Penelope_nz's London photoset