London/Belgium planning - July/Aug

I've read lots of great tips on this website, and I'm sure I'll love your feedback!

I am making my first trip to London (with no kids or spouse!) I have only been to Europe one time (Paris/Nice in 1994!) An ex-pat friend has a flat in Notting Hill where I will stay. She is working much of my visit but will join me for outings on weekends.

Please share ideas about this tentative trip plan! I am an obsessive planner and have ready too many guide books from the library. Rick's book was amazing and I actually bought it (will be receiving soon!!!) I also ordered his Brussels/Bruges book. I already bought a London pass with travelcard and the Eurostar tickets to Brussels. So we'll see how that goes! I am a museum/history/Impressionist art freak which is why solo trip is great for me. No whining kids (or spouse) to hurry me!

Wed, Day 1 - arrive Heathrow 9am after overnight flight from east coast USA. Piccadilly line to meet friend at her workplace. I know I'll be tired but no naps! Highlights: National Gallery/National Portrait Gallery. Just generally walking around this part of the city until my friend is done with work! Will buy oyster card at Heathrow but then use travelcard. I could have had it shipped, but that cost more than the fare from Heathrow!

Thurs, Day 2 - London #2: AM: Westminstery Abbey, Banqueting House, Jewel Tower. PM: Kensington Palace with other nearby sites if time permits. Victoria & Albert Museum top of this list.

Fri, Day 3 - Day trip #1: Windsor Castle. PM - shopping in Soho

Sat, Day 4 - London #3: The City -- highlights: St Paul's Cathedral, Museum of London, Tower of London. May do hop-on, hop-off Thames cruise since this came with London Pass and I don't know where else I can fit it in.

Sun, Day 5 - Day trip #2 with friend - Tour to Oxford/Cotswold/Stratford on Avon. Some tour companies also include Warwick Castle. Welcome recommendations on this and particular companies to use!

Mon, Day 6 - London #4: AM - Buckingham Palace, changing of guard, Queen's Gallery, Royal Mew, Guard Museum (this is why I got the London Pass!!). Westminster Evensong arrival by 4:30

Tues, Day 7 - London #5: London Eye, Imperial War Museum, Garden Museum, Tate Britain, Tate to Tate ferry, Tate Modern, Shakespeare's Globe, Bankside Gallery.

Wed, Day 8 - Day trip #3 - love suggestions! Was considering tours: Leeds Castle/Canterbury/Dover or Hampton Palace. Another friend who grew up in Brighton recommends this city.

Thurs, Day 9 - London #6: whatever I missed that I really want to see!

Fri, Day 10 - Eurostar to Brussels with friend. Check-in hotel near Grand-Place and then explore all day

Sat, Day 11 - day trip to Bruges/Ghent. We're discussing other tours - but unlikely - day trip to Amsterdam OR Luxembourg

Sun, Day 12 -- fly home from Brussels at 10am to east coast USA and collapse with exhaustion!

Thanks for the feedback!

Posted by Wonderful
619 posts

No naps...we will see ;-)
I feel exhausted just reading this. I advise you to slow down and allow London to breath and you will take in more I know that for sure.

Posted by Nancy
12 posts

I agree this is too much, but there are 20 other things I want to see, and I can't decide what to cutout from each day!

I am coming up with plan B, which looks like above but only has the top 2-3 for AM tour only, and then no structure in the afternoons. Then I can decide the night before what to do!


Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
13915 posts

on each of the days are the named things all things you intend to do or will you be picking 2 or 3 from each list? Most people find planning for 1 big attraction each morning and one in the afternoon is about the right speed, and then add 1 or 2 small things after that depending on location and energy levels at the end of the day.

On day 10, be very sure to arrive at St Pancras International in plenty of time. Queues have been longer than normal. You MUST be checked in - not in the queue to check in - 30 minutes ahead. The very minimum time is 30 minutes prior to departure, and it is very strictly enforced - if you miss it you don't go. I have recently been recommending 50 to 60 minutes.

Posted by Nancy
12 posts

I'd LIKE to do it all but only intend to do 2-3 things on the daily list. I did some walking maps so I can at least look at these other things!

Thanks a lot for the tip for St Pancras. My train leaves at 6:50am and I thought getting there by 6 am was sufficient. I will plan to arrive by 5:30 and not worry about missing it!


Posted by dgnagle4
77 posts

Nancy, I've seen/done almost everything here in my various trips (#11 is tomorrow!). I think your Day 2 is light (esp since Jewel Tower is virtually nothing, and Kens Palace gets poor reviews so I've never bothered), and Your Days 4 and 7 could be heavy. Check my thoughts on TripAdvisor (I'm nagled), especially about the Evan Evans tours. The Windsor/Bath/Stonehenge is great. I spent four hours at the Tower of London my first trip and it remains the best thing I've done. I spent a day on Hampton Court including travel and it was great! Loved the Imperial War Museum, St. Pauls, the Royal Mews and Westminster Abbey. If you want insights on restaurants in the South Kensington and Earls Court areas, I have plenty on TA.

(and fyi, by coincidence, after exploring greater London, this year I'm going to Belgium...first time on the continent besides a Evan Evans daytrip to Paris last year. Bruges and Brussels!)


Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
13915 posts

for the 6:50, 6;00 should be fine,or a touch earlier. An extra half hour is likely unnecessary.

Posted by mincepie
Paddington and Canary Wharf, London
122 posts

As you're staying in Notting Hill, you may enjoy an early morning walk through Portobello Market on Saturday Day 4. Get started about 9/9:30 and enjoy the atmosphere before moving on to The City. If you want a behind the scenes experience at St Pauls, book the Triforium tour. You get to go into some very unique areas - the library with some incredibly rare books, the geometric staircase (it was featured in Harry Potter), and the great model room, where you can see Wren's original giant scale model of St Pauls plus some of the original drawings of how the design evolved.

What's the garden museum on day 7? (edit - I googled it...looks lovely! For a couple of other atmospheric experiences, look at the Dennis Severs House, and the Old Operating Theatre)

Hampton Court is spectacular - that would be my vote for Day 8.

As you love history, you might enjoy a walking tour one day. There are so many topics, and its a great way to put things in context.

You don't have the British Museum/British Library on your list. Maybe you're holding those for day 9?

While you're shopping in Soho on day 3, make sure to stop and see Liberty's. Lovely building.

Posted by Pam
Troy, Idaho, USA
2671 posts

Do you have lodging in Brussels yet? I'm sitting in the Ibis near the Grand Place right now! Not sure what your budget is but this is an awesome location. Just steps away from the Grand Place and hundreds of sidewalk restaurants. Very close to the Central station like maybe a 7 minute walk if you are not sure where you are headed and a 5 minute walk if you figure out how to go out thru Plaza Espagna!

Posted by Tim
Wyckoff, NJ, USA
1400 posts

I wish your signature had your home city- you are perhaps neglecting public transporation time and traffic in London, which is substantial. Be sure to check the Tube website for stations under construction.

I would comment that there is more to Belgium than Brussels and Bruges. London is good for many days, but would you be interested in Antwerp or Ghent? Even one of them would add a lot to your trip, and can be done with cheap, fast rail for the day,not a hotel change. Many Americans favor England because they speak something like English there. But tourist Belgium has no language problems to speak of. Because Ghent and Bruges have some similarities, my vote is for Antwerp, which has more than you can see in one day. If you are a museum art fan, there are unique things in each city.

Posted by Nancy
12 posts

Thanks for all the great tips! I've scaled back the plans to focus on 2-3 attractions per day. With a walk by other places - if I am motivated I'll go inside!
Already bought Eurostar tickets and friend could only take off Friday from work. So only 2 days in Belgium. Maybe next year will be longer! I am leaning towards a bus trip on Day 11 that stops in Ghent in the AM/ Bruges PM and then back to hotel by 7pm.
Home city is Cleveland, Ohio. So only limited use of public transportation to downtown. Rode bus a lot in college but that was a LONG time ago. I'm hoping the times on the tfl website are close to accurate!

Posted by Pam
Troy, Idaho, USA
2671 posts

Rick's got a pretty good walking tour beginning in the Grand Place and looping out and around in several directions. Get his book that covers Brussels.

If you wind up staying near Grand Place, opt out of your hotel breakfast and eat in the Galeries St Hubert at Le Pain Quotidien. They open at 7 but that may not be early enough to make your bus tour. Service is not speedy.

Posted by Laura
Rick Steves' Europe
9964 posts

For every day where you sightseeing list is too long, start with your first priorities first and the acknowledgement that you won't get to everything. I think that daytrips outside of London on day 8 are not your top priority, so that's a second day that could be dedicated to completing whatever is still top of your list. You will enjoy everything you do see and you will still have lots to look forward to on your next visit.

Posted by littlegreycat
1 posts

Hi Nancy, I was excited to see your post and the very helpful tips from the forum. I too am traveling SOLO to England & Belgium, but in September. I hope you check back when you return and let us know how your trip went!

Posted by Dick
Olympia, WA, USA
1626 posts

A whirlwind of activity, you must be full of energy! Some thoughts:

  • Day 4 -- Visit the Tower first, as soon as it opens, for less crowding. If you want to see the crown jewels, go there first, otherwise (or after) take the Beefeater tour.
  • Day 5 -- You might want to stop short of Warwick Castle, just because you have a very full day already. There's a lot to see in Oxford, and you want to have time to appreciate the Cotswold landscape and villages. Stratford wouldn't appeal that much to me but maybe does to you.
  • Day 7 looks very full, four museums and more. Hard to do justice to them all in just a day. Save some of this for later.
  • Day 8 -- Best "value" for time would be Hampton Court Palace, which would take at least half a day. You don't really need a tour for it, the train from Waterloo Station puts you right nearby and you can see the palace on your own. The Tudor kitchens were the most interesting for us. The gardens very nice too if the weather's good.
  • You'll welcome Day 9 for the places you didn't get to before.
Posted by Nancy
12 posts

Great tips everyone! I tried to simplify the agenda but ended up with a busy itinerary. I am shooting for one must-do AM/PM and the other nice to haves that are nearby. I already bought the London Pass before coming across the forum, so will see how that turns out.

New schedule. I look forward to the travel veterans telling me if I am still way overdoing it!

Day 1 (Wed) - 9am arrival. Tube to Leicester square to pick up London Pass, then hang out at National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery until friend gets off work at 4pm. Collapse in exhaustion at her flat in Notting Hill.

Day 2 (solo) - AM: Westminster Abbey, then Rick's walk; PM: Kensington Palace and afternoon tea at Orangery

Day 3 (solo) - Windsor Castle. 4PM (est): hang out at Victoria and Albert Museum until dinner reservations at Foxtrot Oscar (got a Gordon Ramsey gift card!)

Day 4 (Saturday with friend!) - AM: Portobello Market; 2pm tickets for Buckingham Palace State Rooms then stroll around the area. Considering two evening options -- Tate Modern or Mozart by Candlelight at St Martin-in-the-Fields

Day 5 (with friend) - Hampton Palace. Tate Britain in late afternoon (on her wish list)

Day 6 (solo) - AM: Tower of London; PM - Stroll from Tower Bridge to Shakespeare's Globe, using London Pass to browse various sites along the way. Or else just enjoy the walk until friend gets off work. Tate Modern or choral concert at St Martin (depends on day 4 choice!)

Day 7 (solo) -AM: Courthauld Gallery; PM: Covent Garden and Soho shopping

Day 8 (solo) - Day trip to Oxford/Cotswold/Stratford OR Leeds Castle/Dover OR just hang out in the City seeing whatever interests me. But I might be sick of museums and art by now. May leave it up to fate and see if a tour is available to buy on Day 6.

Day 9 (solo) - St Paul's Cathedral, British Museum. May add Tates if not done other days

Day 10 - Eurostar to Brussels

Day 11 - day trip to Bruges

Day 12 - fly home!!!

Posted by Kent
Pacific Northwest
9302 posts

Something to remember about London is that most of the sights (that require admissions, not outdoor parks, obviously) are 10am to 6pm. A 6pm closing time, for example in a museum, means they stop admitting visitors some time after 5pm. There is a short list of attractions that are open after 6pm, maybe one night. Allowing for a lunch break means that, even with the long days of summer, your inside sight-seeing time is down to something less than 7 hours.

Posted by Nancy
12 posts

Many thanks to the amazing people on the England board who were very helpful in trip planning. Here's a LONG recap of what I actually did. I hope the regulars aren't offended by lengthy posts but when I was planning I loved these type of recaps.

Unfortunately I developed plantar fasciitis around end of June which meant more hobbling around London than I planned. I still kept a busy schedule and took of lots of rest breaks. Some lessons learned:
1) London tube stations are immense! Sometimes it took 10 minutes to exit the station. I'm sure bad foot was main culprit.
2) Read the street map immediately upon exiting the tube station and not 15 minutes later. Although I did have some pleasant unplanned detours! Locals will scratch their heads on how I got to Fleet street when I was looking for Tate Modern.
3) Impressionism REALLY is my favorite type of art.
4) I hate modern art, which for me was about 95% of all artwork post-1910 that I viewed. It was a challenge walking through the entire Tate Modern to find 10 things I liked. I actually only found 3!
5) Double the Google Maps walking times. Add 10 minutes whenever taking the tube to get in and out of the station.

Day 1 (wed) - arrived Heathrow around 9am. The sleeping pill I took at the JFK airport the "night before" was a good call. I woke up "refreshed" at 8am London time, which was 4am in Ohio. Amazing lack of jet lag made my friend extremely jealous. Took 3x as long to walk to Customs/Immigration than the time to pass through. Bought oyster card and tubed to Bond St where I met friend at her work place. Walked around a bit with her and ate lunch. She went back to work and I walked to Leicester Square to pick up travelcard and London Pass. I have seen pros and cons of that but I definitely got my money's worth! Toured National Portrait Gallery for an hour and then National Gallery over an hour. Used RS guidebook as tour guide! Sat at Trafalgar Square until about 7pm and then took tube to friends flat in Notting Hill.

Day 2 (thurs) - Hampton Court Palace. Loved it! The tapestries are beautiful. Loved the gardens too. Tubed back to city and had first cream tea at Tate Britain. Beautiful artwork and liked all rooms until I hit 1910. Spent 1-1/2 hours here then back to Notting Hill.

Day 3 (fri) - Westminster Abbey - 1 hour, very busy. Stained glass windows and the naves were beautiful. #2 - Churchill War Rooms. Spent a lot of time here. Was nice break to sit in the room between the bunker and Churchill display room and listen to the inspiring war speeches. Kids would have loved this place (husband too!) #3: ate lunch in St James Park and just rested long time. Light rain, which was the ONLY time it appeared during my trip. #4: Guards Museum - 30m visit mostly to get out of rain. But it was interesting. #5: Queens Gallery (at this point was 1:30pm). Lovely! Every room was exquisite. #6: quick walk through the Science Museum mostly to enjoy free wifi anddo quick comparison to the 3 I've seen in the US. Comparable. Liked the Neil Armstrong exhibit. 30 mins. #7: Victoria & Albert (I did come back later to enjoy this more!) Arrived at 4pm. Open late which was why I was here after such a busy day. Best cream tea of my visit. Which to the locals means I didn't go to the right places. But way better than any scone I've had in the US. Left here at 6:30 and splurged on cab to #8 Foxtrot Oscar.

Pause to acknowledge that seems like extreme sightseeing, but I really did ENJOY everything and I went back to WM Abbey and V&A on other days for a longer visit. The rest of my trip was not this extreme!

Will post part 2, taking too long to summarize trip. Sorry! The first draft actually said in the opening line "here's a short recap of what I actually did." Corrected that!

Posted by Nancy
12 posts

Lengthy trip recap, part 2.

Day 4 (sat): Slept in. A little. Around 9am we walked to Portobello Market, about 5 mins from her flat. Bought trinkets for kids and a new suitcase to replace the one I busted. Had nice lunch and hung out at flat. Arrived Buckingham Palace around 1:30 for 2pm timed ticket entry. First day state rooms were open. We really liked this. There is a special children's exhibit that was fantastic. Friend went back to flat and I was on my own. Just wandered around city and then to Tate Modern since it was late close. See lessons learned on previous post.

Day 5 (sun): Friend slept in but I was at Kensington Palace at opening time. Before that took brief stroll through Hyde Park. Great concert at 11am with violin, cello, lute/guitar and soprano. Just sat 1/2 hour enjoying it. Really liked the Queen Victoria exhibit. The royal dresses were amazing. Another lesson learned: I love palaces and history. Much more than I thought I did. Started to use bus system more. Met friend at 1pm at Southwark Cathedral. Another lovely place to just sit and meditate. Had 2pm reservations at Vinopolis. Interesting but would probably not do it for full price. We found good deal on website night before. Had dinner back in Notting Hill around 9pm (feeling like a local!) Great tapas bar "Tapas Brindisa" - would eat there all the time if we had something comparable here!

Day 6 (mon): First starbucks of the trip (had a groupon in pounds!) Days 1-5 tried my skim mocha at a different place every day, but none were comparable. Arrived Tower of London about 10:30am. Top 3 attraction for this trip! Especially liked Jewel Tower and Crown Jewels. Tubed to Somerset House and just sat in courtyard awhile before entering Courthauld Gallery. Spent a lot of time in this little art gallery just staring at all the priceless artwork. Many impressionist pieces here. Next to London Transport Museum. I did browse the two local markets first. Really only came here because part of London Pass and I used free wifi to Skype with husband and kids for an hour. Took bus to Royal Albert Hall and met friend at restaurant there for quick dinner before the BBC proms - Mozart.

Day 7 (tues): Early start to Paddington Rail Station for Windsor trip. Top 3 attraction for me! Arrived at 9am and left around 1pm. This is a fantastic place that even my kids would enjoy. Cool dollhouse! Sat in the chapel for awhile for some prayer time. Then back to the city. Saw the Virginia Woolf exhibit at National Portrait Gallery, and then first Afternoon tea at National Cafe. Strolled through National Gallery for visit #2 just because it is an awesome place. Then off to Westminster Pier for Thames Cruise to Greenwich. Walked around a bit and then took DLR back to city.

Day 8 (wed): Late start. Foot throbbing. Arrived Museum of London about 11am. London Pass expired so days 8 and 9 were planned free sites. Really liked this museum. Went to noon mass at St Paul's Cathedral (top 3 site). Free. I really did enjoy the mass though, and the priest's sermon. Had lunch at a cute little café outside British Museum. Arrived 2:30 and stayed until close. Top 3 site for me. Used Rick Steve's tour guide.

Day 9 (thurs). Last day in London! Went to Natural History Museum. 3-1/2 hours here! Which surprised me but this place is just immense and fascinating. Great lunch. Signed up on website for free Dinosaur exhibit ticket. Best dinosaur collection I've seen. Then went to Victoria and Albert for visit #2 about 2:30pm and followed rest of Rick Steves guided tour. Didn't stay as long because I wanted to see 5pm Westminster Abbey evensong. Not the regular choir, and the overall service was disappointing. Mass at St Paul's was much more inspiring.

Day 10 and 11 were in Brussels/Bruge and I will eventually post that recap on the Belgium board.

THANK-YOU again to all the wonderful people here that post advice!

Posted by harleydonski
Hampshire, England.
369 posts

"Unfortunately I developed plantar fasciitis around end of June"

You have my sympathy as I also suffer from "policeman's heel".

Posted by Pam
Troy, Idaho, USA
2671 posts

Re: plantar fasciitis. I am going to sound like a shill but really I am just a satisfied customer. Try The M.E.L.TMethod by Sue Hitzman. Get the hand and foot treatment dvd set. Got rid of the pain I had had for 6 months in 3 sessions.

Thanks for the report!