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Family Trip to London, July 2023

(Part 1)
This is long overdue, but I finally have the time/chance to sit down and write a trip report!

Who: Me, Husband, Two Sons (ages 10 (J) and basically 8 (B) )

Where: London, with a day trip to Bath

When: July 7-16, 2023.

We stayed at the Premier Inn London County Hall, on the South Bank right behind the London Eye. As others have mentioned here, this really was an ideal location. We were a short walk from Waterloo and Westminster Tube stations, which gave us access to five different lines. We had a family room, which was a double bed and two single beds (one might have been a cot, but was still comfortable). I was pleasantly surprised at how much room we had! We bought one full breakfast (so the kids could eat free) and one Continental breakfast. However, once you are inside the dining room, all the food is readily available and no one is checking who is eating what. The mini chocolate croissants were a big hit!

We truly made the most of every day, and the boys were real troopers. We averaged 22,000 steps a day and about seven miles walked. This may be too busy for some, but it (mostly!) worked for us.

July 7: We left Boston on an American Airlines flight around 9pm (slightly delayed). B was able to curl up in his seat to sleep, while it was a bit too noisy for J (just normal ambient airplane noise, I think he was just excited).

July 8: We landed at Heathrow around 8:30am. Getting through Immigration was easy and we caught the Piccadilly Line to Acton Town, where we switched to the District Line to Westminster. It took about an hour. Yes, we could have taken Piccadilly to a stop closer to Westminster, but I figured switching earlier would give us a better chance of finding seats. And I was right! It also helped that most of the trip was above ground in the sunlight. My husband dozed a bit, but the boys and I stayed awake.

We came up at Westminster right across the street from Big Ben – amazing! It was a real “We’re in LONDON!” moment. The bridge was a little hectic right at the intersection but thinned out as we crossed. It was too early to check in at the hotel, but they were able to store our bags so we could head out.

Our grand plan was to walk down along the river to Borough Market for lunch. Unfortunately, about a million people (slight exaggeration) also had that plan. It was chaos! We each clung tightly to one kid’s hand and tried not to lose each other. Seriously, this was our first planning mistake and I would not recommend this experience. Our bad for going on a Saturday afternoon! We ended up having lunch at the Anchor, where we learned how to order at a pub – find a table, go to the bar and order with table number, wait for food. J got a hamburger; B, Husband and I were going to split two fish and chips – except we realized too late that he’d only ordered one. The peas were good, though! We tried to go into the Southwark Cathedral, but it was closed for an event (I think a wedding). We did visit the Old Operating Theater, which was small but still pretty interesting, but, it’s important to note, does not have a bathroom. We then took the Tube back to the hotel, where our room was ready and waiting. After a quick break, we had dinner at the nearby Pizza Express, which was actually pretty good. The boys then ran around Jubilee Gardens for a bit before we went in for the night.

I really can’t believe how well they handled the jet lag! They hit the ground running and did not stop. The walk along the Thames was really nice and it kept us moving. We all slept well, but were ready to get up the next morning.

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(Part 2)
July 9: Unbeknownst to us, today was also the day of the London 10K! We saw a few runners but mainly just saw Westminster Bridge partitioned off for the runners.

We started with the 10am London Walks’ Hello London! Tour. I wish I could remember our guide’s name, but he was wonderful. Due to the 10K, we had to slightly change the route and there was no Changing of the Guard, but it was still a great walk and introduction to the city. While at Buckingham Palace, we saw Prince Edward drive himself in through the gate! The boys were more interested in the building which served as the Ministry of Magic in the Harry Potter films, as well as the Lions in Trafalgar Square. Lunch was in the Crypt in St. Martin’s in the Fields. NOTE: This is not a sandwich type place. These were big meals. I got the steak pie. One of the boys got chicken that came with two sides. It was a really cool place to eat lunch, but know that it’s not a quick, light lunch.

We had timed tickets for the National Gallery at 13:30 and 15:00 at the Transport Museum and my timing was PERFECT. The boys lasted exactly an hour in the National Gallery, but I got to see my favorite paintings. If you are rushed for time, it helps to use the Gallery’s website to find the exact locations of whatever you are looking for. This helped us make some targeted strikes. B got to reenact a scene from Rick Steves’ London show: “And then bam! There’s a pickle in your face!” And they got to see a Van Gogh Sunflowers, which their art teacher had shown them in school.

We then walked to the London Transport Museum. You can only buy an annual pass, and then either roll the dice that it isn’t busy, or reserve a time. We’d reserved a time. (I was a little miffed about having to buy an annual pass, but this came in handy a few days later, when we popped in just to use the bathroom!) This really is a fun museum! The boys liked the interactive elements, and I did learn quite a bit about transportation. There are also several bathrooms and places to sit.

Now here is where, each night, the planning failed a bit: Finding dinner. First, we took a double-decker bus from Covent Gardens to Tower Hill. I thought we could get there in time to go up and across Tower Bridge. Nope. The bus was hot and crowded and it took forever (or did it just seem that way?). We got there too late for the Bridge Experience or whatever it’s called. We did get to see the Roman Wall, though, and the statue of Trajan. But now we needed to figure out dinner. We ended up taking the Tube alllllll the way to Bayswater and eating at The Prince Edward. It was – fine. My husband and I each had the Sunday Roast and it was somehow bland and too salty at the same time? But there was no wait and the boys had burgers, and the pub was nice and family-friendly. That area is also very pretty and I wish we could have spent more time there.

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(Part 3)
July 10: North to Bloomsbury! I met a colleague for coffee while the boys went to a park. We met at 11am at the British Museum. It was insanely crowded. We hit the main attractions, but some of the upstairs Egyptian exhibits were so crowded that we could barely make it through the rooms. This is one place that I feel like we HAD to go, but I’m not sure I would go again. Or I would, but when the boys are older and I don’t fear losing them so much. Or maybe go later in the day, closer to closing time? We then took a much less crowded bus to Camden Market, which is another Glad We Went, Wouldn’t Do it Again. The pasta I had was good, though. Then a long walk to the Zoo, which was amazing! We got to see colobus monkeys and lemurs up close; we all agreed that the lemur walk through was the highlight. We were told the lion was in for the day, but then we heard him and even caught a glimpse when he walked by the glass! And of course, we visited the Reptile House of Harry Potter fame. We then headed back “home” and ate the nearby Giraffe restaurant.

July 11: This was our earliest wake-up, as we wanted to be at the Tower of London when it opened. I think we got there around 8:40am and we were far from the first ones. But even MORE people showed up in the next twenty minutes, so I would guess we were among the first 100 or so people to enter. We followed the recommended plan and headed straight to the Crown Jewels. There was no wait and we got to go on the moving walkway several times. When we exited, the line was already all through the turns, and when we left the Tower, it was clear across the courtyard. So yes, definitely get there early and see the Crown Jewels first. We then caught the 10am Yeoman Tour. There were SO MANY people on this tour – I’m not exaggerating when I say over 100 people, because I counted them as we waited. Despite this, we were able to see and hear our Beefeater without any trouble. He was not a fan of Anne Boleyn – or rather, not a fan of all the attention she gets. Instead, he told us the tragic tale of Lady Jane Grey. We then toured the exhibits in the White Tower. I do wish we’d had time to walk along the walls, but we had to get to Greenwich.

We had a quick lunch at the Greenwich Market or Food Hall, I can’t remember it’s exact name. We then entered the Cutty Sark at 13:00 – where we learned that all Greenwich attractions would be closing at 15:30 that day! That definitely hadn’t been on the website when I ordered the tickets! The Cutty Sark was cool, especially the more museum-y exhibits; the game where you follow ocean currents to beat the ship’s record was a lot of fun. The ship itself was interesting, but we live close enough to Mystic Seaport that we’ve seen similar ships. We then hoofed it to the Greenwich Observatory, where our reserved tickets let us skip a sizeable line and get in right before 15:00. We had just enough time to straddle the Meridian and walk through a few exhibits before they closed. By now, the skies were beginning to darken, but we got to the docks just in time to jump on a boat heading back to London. It was a little cold and windy, but it didn’t rain, and the views were really cool.

Here I called an audible and we headed to the British Library, which I knew was open late that day. NOPE. Apparently there was some private event being held there that night, which the guard (finally, rudely) explained. After some wandering, we had a pub dinner (more burgers, more fish and chips) and then headed “home.”

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(Part 4)
July 12: Perhaps our biggest day! We started at Westminster Abbey. Again we got there about half an hour before opening and were among the first 100 or so people in. We opted for the Family Audio Tour and it was really well done. I wasn’t sure how the boys would do, exploring a church, but the guide was fun and interactive. J loved seeing all his science heroes. A very nice docent let them sit in the Choir (I think that’s the term?). The gift shop was also top-notch, if you’re looking for cool souvenirs.

We then headed to the Churchill War Rooms, which I thought were really cool. The set-up is a bit weird, in that you see some rooms, then hit the museum, then see the rest of the rooms. The boys liked the rooms, and there were enough interactive things in the museum to hold their attention. However, while not crowded, the set-up of the museum is such that there are a lot of corners, and it’s a bit dark and B likes to wander off – and yes, we lost a kid for like 10 minutes. But we found him!

We then took a train to the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studios. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect, but it blew my mind. Even my husband, who has no interest in Harry Potter, was impressed just by the sheer size, scale and detail that was involved in making the films. You see the Great Hall and costumes and learn about forced perspective and – really, I would 100% recommend this. Truly one of the highlights of the trip.

Once again, we bumbled dinner. We returned to London and I navigated us to a cute place in Chelsea – only to be told they would have no seats until 9pm. So back to the South Bank we went and ate at a nice Italian place that had wonderful carbonara. For dessert, we got a waffle covered in chocolate and strawberries – Delicious! And then – we saw the Pink Carpet for the Barbie Premiere! It was already pretty late so we didn’t wait around for any celebrities, but it was still fun to see.
July 13: Day Trip to Bath! We bought train tickets well ahead of time to try to save money. We caught the 9:29 out of Paddington and arrive at Bath at 10:43 – just in time for our 11:00 entry to the Baths! J had done a big Greek and Roman Mythology unit in school, so he was really into the ruins and the Gods. I had gone in high school (late 1998), but the museum was a lot more interesting than I remembered. Again, the audio guide for kids was really good, bringing different voices/characters to life. The only downside is the adult and child entries are different lengths, so they would be done with something while we were still listening.

We had bought tickets for the 2043 train back, and if I could do it again, I would have gone back earlier. We had a lovely lunch at the Georgian Tea Room, but after that – there’s not a lot in Bath to hold kids’ attention, and by this time in the trip we were getting tired. We walked up to No. 1 Crescent, which the Rick Steves guide said was a fun place with chatty docents. That needs to be updated. No more docents! Instead, you advance in a group room by room, and listen to a family tell about their lives in the house. The oldest son has gambling debts, the middle son is fighting in the Colonies, the oldest sister HAS to find a husband this season, while the younger one cares not about marriage (spoiler alert: she ends up marrying a wealthy old guy who dies after a few years and spends the rest of her long life a merry, rich widow). Kind of interesting, but not as advertised and the boys were not amused – although they did like the kitchens. But the fun dog in the cage above the rotisserie that they saw in the Rick Steves video? Sadly gone. With several hours to kill, we took a boat ride up the river, which was very peaceful and quiet and let us all relax and rest. Dinner at the Crystal Palace, then train and Tube “home.”

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(Part 5)
July 14: This was the first day we had real rain, and the first day that we were all really tired. We got to the Natural History Museum a few minutes before they opened at 10am, and with our reserved tickets walked right in while a long line of people waited in the rain. The Titanosaur exhibit (which was an extra cost) was very well done, with lots of cool interactive displays. The boys enjoyed the rest of the museum, but to be honest I wasn’t really impressed, especially since we’ve been to the Smithsonian and American Museums here. The dinosaur room was dark and the skeletons were hung from the ceiling, so they were hard to get a good look at. Some other exhibits were in need of an update to get them into this century. After a bit of a bumble for lunch, we went to the Science Museum, where the boys loved the WonderLab. We spent the majority of our time here and would recommend it for families. The room is pretty contained, so you can let them wander and not be too worried about losing them.

July 15: For our last full day, we started at the HMS Belfast, which wasn’t crowded at all and was a very different ship experience than the Cutty Sark. It was a very low-key attraction on which to end the trip. We headed up to Covent Gardens again for lunch, but it was crowded and we ended up just getting bagels (and using the bathrooms at the Transport Museum). We then did a quick walk through Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus, to say we’d been, before heading back to the hotel, grabbing our bags and heading to our airport hotel.

July 16: We flew back to Boston on a morning flight and the boys fell asleep on the T.

Highlights: The Zoo; Harry Potter Studios; London Walks Tour; Tower of London; Westminster Abbey; Roman Baths; WonderLab; Transport Museum.

Would I Do These Again?: The British Museum (feels blasphemous to put this here, but it was just so crowded that it was miserable); No. 1 Crescent (pretty boring); Natural History Museum (again, so crowded and we had seen similar museums); Borough Market (don’t believe the fun food videos; it was insanity). I would still go to Greenwich, but I would go earlier in the day to spend more time there.

Now I Know Better: It is hard to balance downtime/spontaneity when everything almost requires a timed entry ticket. The reserved time saved us at the Natural History Museum, but it also meant we left the Tower of London a bit earlier than we wanted because we had to get to Greenwich for our timed entry to the Cutty Sark. I also don’t think we would have done well without a strong itinerary; it kept us on track and the whining at a minimum because we always had something to do or some place to go. But it meant we were all really tired by the second to last day. So I think building in a buffer day would be good for our next trip.

I’m glad we went to Bath, but I would have had us leave earlier in the day. I didn’t appreciate that, after the Roman Baths, there really wasn’t much for the boys to do. They were troopers and enjoyed it, but I think getting back to London earlier and letting them run around Jubilee Gardens would have been just as enjoyable for them.

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(Final Part)
Dinners were the worst part of the trip. I think I figured it would be easy to just pop into a restaurant. It wasn’t. This was compounded by two picky eaters: J, who has issues trying different foods and can even turn down standards if they taste “different;” and my husband, who wanted to eat “nationally.” I told him that meant chicken tikka masala; he did not appreciate that. Our first night at Pizza Express, I said something about “next time we eat here,” and he said, “We’re not eating here again!” He is largely anti-chain restaurants and wanted to eat at pubs, which we quickly found are not quaint family establishments but largely owned by one or two corporations that serve the same, mediocre food. We went searching for a restaurant in the rain instead of just eating at the café in the Natural History Museum. So, next time we travel, I’m going to insist on more flexibility when it comes to food. We are not there to sample the fine cuisine; food is simply fuel, and if that means Pizza Express for five nights, so be it! That being said, the Top Three Things I Ate were: a Brie, proscuitto and cranberry sandwich on a baguette from the train station; spaghetti carbonara from Strada; and a waffle covered in melted chocolate with strawberries, from a vendor on the South Bank.

Whew! This is quite long, so sorry and thanks if you made it this far. Hopefully it will help some other family planning their trip to London. This was the boys’ first time overseas, and London really was the perfect introduction to travel. The Tube is a marvel and makes zipping around town so easy. We were still in London when B was talking about “next time we come here.” We’re looking forward to our next big adventure!

Thank you for your detailed write up! London is on my list of desired family trips (hopefully in the next year or two), and I have three sons. I enjoyed reading what your family liked and how you spent your time.

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Great trip report! I'm impressed with how well your children handled jet lag on the arrival day in London. The first time I took my kids (1997 - at the time, almost 13 and 10 years old) to Europe (Paris), they were exhausted and we ended up letting them take a nap for an hour or two after we were able to check into our hotel room.

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Lovely honest report / thank you.

Interesting about the dinners. I wondered while reading your report why you were struggling so much, but seeing your last few comments I understand.

Next time, tell your husband that If you want to eat like British families eat, it’s Pizza Express, Nando’s, Wagamama’s etc all the way! That is, decent quality chains where picky children know what they’re going to get (Strada is also a chain!)

I can’t remember the last time I ate dinner in a pub. Occasionally lunch maybe. Some good gastro pubs around, but basically London real estate is so expensive that very few places that aren’t chains can survive. :-(

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Thank you for sharing, Allison. I agree that Pizza Express is quite good for what it is.

I think you've given me the idea to go to the Churchill War Rooms after Westminster Abbey. I was struggling with where to slot that into my plans.

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I also would not eat in a chain pub in London. The food is not great at those type of places. It’s all ordered in and either microwaved or chucked in the deep fat fryer. There are some good quality gastro pubs.

You do need strong dinner plans for London because it is busy and places will be full. When we go as a a family we tend to stick to the chain restaurants because they’re affordable and have good options for children - my kids absolutely love Sticks and Sushi, Honest Burger, Wagamama and Pizza Express. We also go to Flat Iron a lot although they don’t have a kids menu. You get a free ice cream on the way out so that obviously hits the mark.

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In answer to your question about sitting in the Choir- technically the choir sing in the Quire, so you sat in the Quire. But if you want to sit in the Choir then no-one minds. It is just a church peculiarity. Totally not a big thing.