Updated: Sep 28, 2020
We booked a Scandinavian/Russia Celebrity Cruise* a year in advance, which I highly recommend to take advantage of the two-for-one air or whatever deal the cruise lines are doling out. Having never been, I studied up, including becoming certified in Great Britain, which helped us decide where to go and what to do in the limited time we had.
*Go here for our 14-day Celebrity Cruise to Scandinavia and Russia blog
Oyster Cards, were purchased online, which allowed us to travel via all manner of transportation within the metropolitan area (bus, tube, overground train) and a London Pass, which provides free and discounted admissions to a host of attractions.
Tip: Right now, the London Pass is good for 24 months and they are offering a 20% discount for buying in advance.
Tip: Is the London Pass worth it? Many museums are free and some of the entrances that are included could have limited hours or closed due to a private function. We were hard pressed to make good use of the pass in the time allotted. We were in London for eight days, with two days set aside for a trip to Bath. We purchased a five-day pass and the days must be consecutive. If you plan on spending any amount of time in museums or palaces, plus take into consideration the time to get to each place; it doesn't leave a lot of time to really make use of the card. Worth it? My vote - 50/50.
Pre-purchases done, it was time to think about packing! Most of our cruising has either been cold (Alaska, China) or warm (Mexico/Caribbean), so deciding what to bring for a multitude of climates and possible rain, plus a week touring England on foot and then two weeks aboard a luxury cruise ship, proved challenging.
I found a lot of help on Pinterest and decided to set up my own Travel Pinterest Board. There were hundreds of handy Pins, such as: "How to Pack 30 Outfits in One Carry-on", or "33 Things Most People Forget on their Cruise." I devoured them all and invested in some compression envelopes and packing cubes, which promised I could bring more clothes without my husband suspecting (until he lifted the bag).
With only days to go, we reconfirmed everything, double checked our luggage (umbrellas - check, passports - check) and made sure our WhatsAp was working. We also reminded those who wanted to keep in touch to download the App on their phones as well.
Tip: Go here to watch a six-minute video of our London and Bath travels.
Departure: San Francisco and Arrival: Heathrow
Tip to Sacramento locals: It was cheaper to rent a car one-way from Sacramento to San Francisco, with a drop charge, than to use a Park & Ride or leave our car for 21 days at a long-term lot. The cheapest hotel we could get ($160) was a Travel Lodge, just five minutes from the airport. Sorry, Wyndham, this Travel Lodge hasn't been renovated since the 60s. It was clean and relatively quiet, but desperately in need of attention and upgrade.
After waiting what felt like too long in the Travel Lodge lobby, we opted to UBER to get to the International Terminal instead of the hotel's free shuttle. United check-in and security were a breeze. Kudos to United Airlines for seats with almost an inch of space between in economy, and the unending list of movies (including just released). These and books kept us reasonably entertained for the 9 1/2 hr flight.
Food was "acceptable" and we had a choice of entrees even though we were literally 5 rows from the back of the plane. We departed about 40 minutes late, but they made up the time in air travel and we arrived in Heathrow on time at 6:55 am.
United entree: Smoked Mozzarella and roasted red pepper agnolotti in Vodka sauce.
Departing at 12:20 pm, we arrived in England at about 10:00 pm, California time, so it didn't feel quite as bad as taking a red-eye. However, to attempt to get on local time more quickly, we opted to stay up throughout the day, so by 5:00 pm we were pretty much zombies.
Instead of navigating the unfamiliar train system with luggage, we took UBER from the airport to our Flat in Croydon, which was well worth the $85 US price. Travel time was about 1 hr and 20 minutes. We decided on renting a Flat primarily so we could have a kitchen and washer/dryer. Croydon is only about 20 minutes south of London, as the crow flies, and, we were told, a 20 minute train ride. Unfortunately, this did not take into account the time it takes to walk to the station, navigate between the overground train and the underground tube and find the various platforms. At 4:00 pm, it took us well over an hour to get to our first London stop, Piccadilly Circus.
Tip: Book with me and I'll find you a great hotel in an excellent location, right in the heart of London!
Tourists abound! It was a beautiful, sunny day, and being hot and tired after our rail experience we purchased an ice cream cone (single scoop, soft serve) from the first vendor we saw and paid the price, literally, at $6.00 per cone! We walked to St. James Park, Buckingham Palace and the government offices which houses Winston Churchill's War Museum. It was closed and on Sal's "must see" list. We would return to this area on Sunday, so decided to save our feet and make our way back to Croydon and some long over-due rest. Even though this was a short day, we logged over 15,000 steps, mostly within the airport and transportation terminals.
Tip: No matter where you go in the world, expect something on your 'must see' list to be scaffolded, especially during off-season. If it's a do or die for you the google ahead of time to make sure a renovation isn't in progress. In our case Big Ben was under repair.
Above: Driving on the left, Buses jockey for position in front of the scaffolded Big Ben, lovely St. James Park, navigating the underground (or maybe it's the overground!)
Day 2 - Saturday
We both felt like humans again after sleeping for nearly 11 hours. We jumped on the train at East Croydon and made our way to the London Bridge. It was another beautiful, sunny day and we were to learn that England was experiencing its sixth week of record heat. London Bridge was a little underwhelming (the original having been dismantled and shipped to Lake Havasu, in the late 60s), but we walked along the River Thames to the Tower of London and spent several hours taking a tour to see the Crown Jewels, (no photography allowed!) and exploring the castle. The Tower has served over the centuries as an armory, a treasury, a menagerie, a prison, the home of the Royal Mint, a public record office, and the home of the Crown Jewels of England.
No pictures allowed, so thank you to Flickr, Travel with Riley and Pinterest for the photos of some of the many crowns on display. Current estimated value: 4 Billion.
Photos: The River Thames, location of the Crown Jewels, Jewel House and the line to enter, Tower Bridge, The Shard with the London Bridge on the right, and the King's Armory
Tip: Like Disneyland, if you go early and get there right at opening, the line for your favorite ride will be shorter. Same with the London attractions. Early mornings were relatively quiet with small crowds. But as the day waned, crowds and entrance lines became impacted. Having pre-purchased admissions helped and those on guided tours often were able to bypass the regular admission line.
After departing from the Tower of London we ate a mediocre lunch from a street vendor, then made our way to Tower Hill via the underground to St. Paul's Cathedral. We decided to rest our feet at The Pavilion End Beer Garden (hard to mess up a beer), and then walked over to St. Paul's, which is just one of those places where a picture does not do justice. We were unable to go in, as Mass was in progress, so we planned a return. We thought about taking the underground to one more location, but as we'd already walked over 6 miles (over 13,000 steps) we opted to head back to Croydon and order pizza!
Photos: St. Paul's Cathedral
Day 3 - Sunday
I'd had many suggestions for viewing the Changing of the Guard, but they all said the same thing: get there early and hope for the best. Being height-challenged, I didn't want to just view parade hats marching by, so when I stumbled on a tour that promised something totally different, I decided to take a chance. Fun London Tours ensures you are in the best position to see the Changing of the Guard Ceremony while avoiding the crowds at the gates of Buckingham Palace. Rather than standing still for hours, we dashed about to see various stages of the ceremony, including the inspection, Old Guard, New Guard, Palaces, and even a short stint marching alongside the Guards and Ceremonial Bands! On Sundays, the changing of the Life Guards (the Guards on horseback) were also included so we made sure to book on that day.
To make sure we got to our tour location on time, we left at 6:45 am and it was a good thing we did. With cancelled trains and fewer runs on a Sunday, we got to the St. James area at 8:00 am and then had to walk a mile and a half to Piccadilly. One benefit of our early arrival, was fantastic pictures of Buckingham Palace and the surrounding area with nary a tourist in sight.
Tip: We met Matt, the owner of FLT, and were quickly taken with his knowledge of all things London and friendly personality. Like so many others, his business is suffering from the Covid lockdown but we want to see him succeed and return to his former glory as soon as possible. If you are planning a future trip to London or just want to donate to a great guy trying to keep his business afloat, go here to buy a gift card (good for 24 months) or make a donation!
Photos: Buckingham Palace and the front gate of the palace (sans crowds).
We met our hosts, Fun London Tours, at 9:15 am, and were lucky to score the owner, Matt, as our guide. Our first stop found us in the front row for the Changing of the Life Guards. The horses passed directly in front of us and we got some terrific pictures. He moved us quickly to a new location that positioned us ahead of the crowd and again in the front row, as the marching band and Guards passed literally a few feet away. We marched along with the band before heading to Buckingham Palace where we could see the thousands of tourists sandwiched in like sardines. We had already been at the best places at the best times, to get the best pictures. Highly recommend!
Photos: Changing of the Queen's Life Guards (Horse Guards), best, unobstructed spots for photos, Buckingham Palace where everyone else was standing.
Tip: If you want to see how close we really were, watch these two very short videos!
It continued to be hot and muggy and after two hours of constant movement, we were ready for a pint and cider at a local pub. We made our way to Soho and decided to try the quaint-looking, Glass Blower Pub. The service was friendly, the beer, cold and the food was....meh. Sal had shrimp scampi (deep fried cod?) and I had a stuffed, coleslaw-filled, baked potato (heavy, HEAVY on the mayo). Still finding it difficult to find the appropriate bus/rail/underground stations, we opted to walk back toward St. James Park and visit the Winston Churchill War Museum.
The wait wasn't terribly long, but more standing in the sun on concrete started to take its toll. Once in the museum it was very interesting and included self-guided audio phones, very detailed memorabilia and interactive exhibits. A worthwhile stop.
Photos: Winston Churchill War Memorial Museum
We thought about trying to fit in one more excursion, but complaining feet won out and we navigated our way back to Croydon. Today's step total: 21,023 steps (over 10 miles). I knew my feet were sore for a good reason!
We decided to get smart. This morning we jumped on the local bus that stopped right outside our flat and avoided the first half-mile walk to the train station. Experts now, we made our way to Victoria Station and walked a short distance to the Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus included with our London Pass. After a short wait, we followed one of the routes to St. Paul's Cathedral, complete with narration by a knowledgeable guide. We had two options for Hop-on-Hop-off buses; Big Bus and Golden Tours and we decided on Golden Tours. So far, so good. Mornings were great for light traffic and a reasonable amount of tourists. We arrived at St. Paul's by 10:00 am and gained access immediately.
Scenes from the top of the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus.
Once inside we thought we'd just walk around, but noticed guided tours were offered and joined one. The tour lasted well over an hour and was expertly done by Terry, one of their docents. I took a few pictures inside, which you're not supposed to do (I didn't see the signs) but they cannot possibly do this church justice. It was one of the most elegant churches I've ever seen and that includes the beautiful churches with gold-inlaid walls we saw in Guanajuato, Mexico.
Afterwords, Terry suggested we climb to the top of the dome. We passed the Whispering Gallery, where the acoustics are so good you can hear a whisper all the way around. I stopped after 376 steps at the Stone Gallery. Sal continued up the additional 202 steps to the Golden Gallery at the very top. The views were spectacular and worth the climb.
Photos: St. Paul's Cathedral and the view from the Stone Gallery
We spent over two hours at St. Paul's, then walked down the block to find a pub for lunch. Jaimes (places we really liked get a link!) looked nice and it turned out to be great choice.
From there, we got back on the Golden Hop-On bus and meandered our way back through the city before reaching our destination at King's Cross. By this time of day, it was pretty hot and there was a lot of traffic. At each stop, the bus driver disembarked to let on new passengers, collect money from those getting on for the first time and answer questions from lost tourists. It can take awhile.
At King's Cross, we walked to Camden to check out the street vendors we'd heard about. It's definitely an eclectic place, filled with trinket and tourist shops, tattoo parlors, restaurants and local food vendors. Camden Lock was one of London’s first crafts and antiques markets and retains its original focus as the principal market for crafts. We didn't stay long; just enough to buy a trinket or two, then walked back to the Tube and made our way back to the flat in the rush hour traffic.
Photos: Camden Lock, Camden eclectic art and street performers, commuting with the locals at rush hour.
Tip: We would have had a far more difficult time navigating the transportation system without a wonderful App, CityMapper. This was a lifesaver. Enter your location and destination and it tells you exactly how to reach it (via bus, train or tube or combination thereof), several choices of routes, what platforms you need to get to and the times of each train, allowing for delays and cancellations. And, it clocks your steps. Today's total, even though we spent hours on the bus, over 16,000. We definitely set some new records on this trip!
Another early start. We navigated to Victoria Station again, and found the Golden Bus Tour with no problem. We chose a different route this time and got off at the Tower Bridge. From there we walked to the Pier and took the City Cruises River Boat for a short, but really nice tour on the Thames down the river to Westminster. Since Notting Hill was on my list of places to see, we took the tube to the Notting Hill Gate entrance and stopped at the Prince Albert Pub for a really good lunch. We then meandered down Portobello Road toward the market area. We hoped it would look just a little like the movie, but sadly, no. We did find the 'blue door' which also didn't look anything like the movie, but at least we found it and got the picture. (Maybe the movie was just too long ago. :) I really wanted to bring home a Notting Hill tee, but choices were slim to none.
Photos: The Shard and London Eye from the Thames, Notting Hill Station, Prince Albert Pub, Portobello Road (which does sort of look like the movie), Blue Door disappointment
We wanted to make a final stop at Westminster Abbey, but it was due to close, so we UBERed to Harrods on the recommendation of friends. I wasn't really sure what to expect. I thought Harrods was a typical, but over-sized department store like Bloomingdales and did not expect the sheer magnitude of high-end...everything. Harrods sits on five acres and has over 1 million Sq.Ft. of floor space. They actually have a dress code to enter and I'm sure we passed only marginally. We rubbed elbows with the beautiful people of the world and tried not to feel so grubby in our jeans and tees. Someone said I absolutely had to visit the top floor, which confused me, because the top floor said it only housed the Salon De Parfums. I stepped off the escalator, turned the corner into the Parfum area and stopped short. Two well-dressed ladies greeted me, ready to direct me to my favorite fragrance. I mumbled that I just wanted to take a picture and they were very gracious. As I glanced down the marble corridor I saw individual, chandeliered rooms, each with its own well-dressed lady or gentlemen ready to make my every Parfum dream come true. I unabashedly took my picture and quickly departed. I passed through 'Shoe Heaven' (42,000 Sq. Ft. - the largest in the world) and took a picture for my daughter, who would surely appreciate it. We had logged 18,000 steps by now, and that seemed enough for the day!
Photos: Harrods, Shoe Heaven, the intimidating, 5th Floor Parfum area, had to buy something (one original Peppa Pig direct from England for the granddaughter!)
Wednesday We left Croydon about 8:00 am for our two and a half hour journey to Bath. Once out of Victoria the journey was pleasant in a mostly air-conditioned coach that was nicely uncrowded. The station at Bath was small compared to the crowded, noisy monstrosities we’d been traveling through all week.
Tip: Our Oyster Pass did not cover this journey as it was outside the London City limits. Total fare for two, roundtrip - $120 GBP (About $160 US)
Photos: Westbound toward Bath and Bristol - comfortable coach and scenic views, beautiful train station in Bath
We walked a block from the train and stumbled on their open-air Hop-on-Hop-off buses. We decided to grab lunch at the Ale House, where we tried something other than bar food. Sal had a traditional English Pot Pie, filled with a savory beef stew and I had the Mushroom Stroganoff pasta, plus, of course, a Cider and Ale. All good! We then jumped on the Skyline City bus for a 45 minute tour through the outlying areas of Upper Bath. We chose seats up top but got our first taste of English weather and finished the tour in light rain. Undaunted, we decided to follow this tour with another 45 minute ride that toured closer to the buildings. Both had audio guides and both were well done.
Photos: Open Air bus tour and scenes from the lovely city of Bath, the Bath Abbey Church of St. Peter and Paul, front and side view, the front of the RedCar hotel (looks inviting, doesn't it?), and the actual lobby and room.
When the tour ended, we decided to sit in the courtyard by the Roman Baths and noticed there was no line. Not to let that opportunity go to waste, we completed our day with a tour. Constructed around 70 AD as a grand bathing and socializing complex, the Roman Baths is one of the best preserved Roman remains in the world, where 309,081 gallons of steaming spring water, reaching 114° F, still fills the bathing site every single day.
Photos: Roman Baths and Museum tour
We checked into our hotel, the RedCar, which was on a pleasant street, just a short walk from the historic Bath District. The hotel was clean, quiet and had an excellent location. The accolades pretty much stop there. The RedCar was clearly elegant at one time, but now shabby and unkept, with faulty plumbing, faded and torn carpets, and the barest of necessities. I think we were lucky it had soap. The room was hot and had two windows, both open facing the street with no screens. It did, at least have a working fan, thank goodness. For my husband and I, who don't require much, it was OK for one night. This was definitely a case of "you get what you pay for". When I booked, my options were limited with most of the hotels in the area well over $100 more for the night. I took a chance and we paid the price. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else! Not wanting to walk far or eat more bar food, we decided on Garfunkels. Sal tried the Shrimp Scampi and was disappointed again, but my filleted chicken and jacket potato was quite good. We finished dinner at 9:00 pm and thought about staying out late enough to see the lights of the city come on, but given that darkness would not arrive until after 11:30 pm, we decided to call it a night.
Photos: Minerva's Owls of Bath: The owls were a major public art sculpture trail that totaled over 80 individually decorated, super-sized owl sculptures. They were only on display for a short time, and then go up for auction to benefit four local charities. During our short stay, we only saw seven. They are, from left to right: The Ys (and where 4s, ) Artis, Sea Owl, George, Speculo, J.K. Owling, and Cosmos. Thursday Up early and found a cute place to have a croissant and coffee "al fresco". My first pastry was snatched right off my plate by a brazen seagull obviously accustomed to naive tourists! Stores were not open until 10:00 am, so we waited an hour and decided to take the Skyline Tour again as our ticket was good for 24 hours. It was much nicer without the rain. That done, we headed for the train station and a two-hour ride back to London. We got off at Paddington Station, which is interesting in itself, but our destination was Kensington Palace and Gardens. This was the last day to use our six-day London Pass and we were trying to maximize its use. Kensington Palace is the official residence of Prince William, Kate and their children among others. We didn't see them - they were probably some place with air conditioning. ;) We didn't have to wait to enter and found it interesting, made more so by the "Explainers," who gave brief lectures on some of the history of the Monarchy. It was, however, exceedingly hot and muggy. The locals were complaining even more than the tourists! The gardens were lovely so we sat awhile and had some refreshing drinks at the outside cafe.
Photos: Paddington Station, walking through the Kensington District, pub # lost count - The Leinster Arms, Kensington Palace gates and inside, Princess Diana - Her Fashion Story, exhibit, the lovely, Kensington Gardens.
Our last full day in London! We opted for a late start and headed into London about 10:00 am. We took the train to the Tower Bridge and stopped for lunch at Gail's, a little café off the Thames, then walked to the Globe Theater, passing the Tate Modern Museum along the way. Admission was included with the London Pass (that expired yesterday), but given the sheer size of the museum, there was no way we were going to make a dent in it. We had purchased great seats at the Globe on the 2nd Tier, Upper Gallery. This placed us in the shade for the entire performance unlike those standing or in the West Galley. (Book early)
Photos: The Globe Theater, great seats (not in the sun), Hamlet spoiler - everyone dies ;)
The play lasted three hours with a brief break. The theater, a reconstruction of its original, sported hard, bleacher-like benches but pillows were available for rent, should you so desire. We found it interesting that they chose not to be authentic with the production. Some of the actors wore period clothing, while others wore 21st Century attire, most notably, the Grave Digger, who wore a reflective workman’s vest. Hamlet was played by a woman, Ophelia by a man, with other roles similarly reversed. All-in-all it was a well-acted production.
We decided to take this last opportunity to stay out late to see the lights come up on the Thames. After stopping for ciders at the Byward Kitchen and Bar, we wandered around the Tower of London, and took a last picture with one of the Tower Guards. We ate a pub dinner at The Liberty Bounds, which was crowded with Futball enthusiasts, then made our way along the Thames to catch the sunset. When it still wasn't dark by 10:30 pm and having considered the hour ride back to Croydon, we decided to be satisfied with lingering sunset pictures and headed home.
Photos: Tower of London in the early evening, Tower bridge at dusk and the city at 10:30 pm.
After reviewing options for getting to the ship, I decided that the most direct and economical from Croydon to Southampton, was by paying for a one-day rental car. Sal said the left-side stick shift, plus driving on the left would not be a problem, so we UBERed to Hertz, picked up our car and were on our way by 9:00 am. GPS projection: One hour and 28 minutes. Actual: nearly five hours. The directions and GPS were clear, but we did hit several areas of traffic. We stopped close to the airport, in Eastleigh, and had lunch before attempting to return our rental car. England, avoids traffic signals, and interestingly, employs traffic circles, that are not as clear as we would have liked them to be. Several times, after being told to take the 2nd or 3rd exit, I guessed incorrectly, sending us in the wrong direction and having to reroute. With a sigh of relief, we arrived at the Hertz drop-off at Southampton Airport (a mere 16 minutes to the ship), only to be told there was a closer Hertz drop-off directly across the street from the cruise terminal and we needed to drop the car there. After more navigating and wrong turns, we finally found Hertz, which was well back from the street, difficult to see and unmanned. We also couldn't walk to the terminal due to fences and our luggage, of course. We left the car with the keys under the mat and urgently called for an UBER. The driver also couldn't find this particular Hertz location so we had to walk with our luggage out to the main road to catch him. By the time we arrived at the ship, we were close to the last (2nd to last apparently) to board. The good news is, one, we made it and two, there was no one in line, so check in was a breeze.
Photos: Left to right: Driving on the left, traffic on this street is going which way??, unintended private check-in, muster was held before we arrived so they could let the staff off to watch the World Cub. (So we got a private muster too.)
The funny, weird, interesting, or unique things you can capture with a telephoto that always go into the back of our photo albums.
The Tower of London wire, wild animal sculptures (a nod to the various animals gifted to early kings and queens of the castle), street 'busking' (street artists/vendors/performers etc), Robin Hood and his Merry Men (apparently), gilded weather vane at the Old Billingsgate Fish Market building, the historic Punch Tavern on Fleet Street, the golden grasshopper of the Royal Exchange (188 feet up and 11 feet long), the Slug and Lettuce chain of pubs (which gets great reviews, despite its name), the Rhino in Knightsbridge over Samer Halimeh Jewelers, "Look Right!" reminder to pedestrians that traffic comes at you from the opposite way you are used too. (I'm sure these street markers (which are everywhere) prevent many pedestrian accidents), jeweled crown with gold tassel flagpole on The Mall, "Poet For Hire" (spotted outside the Globe Theater)
Tip: Our London trip took place the last week of June during an excessive (and unusual) heatwave and over the World Cup series while England was still a contender. While traveling during summer generally affords the best weather, it was probably atypically crowded during our stay. Best weather to visit London? March through May and September through October.
I can take you there! Contact me here.