So for the first time in a while, I went somewhere new! Yep, my first trip to London. The way the trip evolved was a little strange - my husband's parents were meeting his aunt in Dublin, where her son is doing a year abroad, and wanted us to meet them. I'd been looking into purchasing an "Aston Martin driving experience" in England for my husband's birthday, and we decided to combine the two. In retrospect this was a mistake - getting in and out of London via air is so time consuming that we would have been better off saving it for another trip. Unfortunately due to the fact that Europe is still in the ice grip of winter, the Aston Martin experience wasn't available, but figured two days in London would give us a tiny taste of the city. We took an evening Germanwings flight from Stuttgart to Stanstead, London, delayed by an hour, which had us panicking a little as we had a reservation (procured online) with EasyBus to transport us. It wasn't a problem, and the EastBus transporation was fine and was the cheapest I found. The downside is they make just one stop in Central London from the airport, so we had to take the Tube from Baker St. to our hotel. The location ended up being really convienent, on two Tube lines and right between the hotel and the station were a ton of food options, both chain and fast food (which I normally eschew but found handy in super-expensive London) and stores and pubs. I would stay in the area again, but not the hotel (more on that later)
Unfortunately we arrived at Earl's Court around 11pm, so our only food options were fast food, and we were glad to have the option. For all those who bemoan the presence of US chain restaurants, I have to say, everywhere I go in Europe they seem pretty popular with the locals. The next day we got up early (for us) and tried to catch the Blue Badge overview of London walking tour that RS describes in his London Book. Unfortunately we were just about 5 minutes late and missed them entirely. I then had hoped to use one of the self-guided tours in my e-book version of the RS book, but found it incredibly frustrating to navigate to a specific section and gave up on that, instead I was able to find the first self-guided walk he describes that ends at Trafalgar, so we walked ourselves to Trafalgar Sq. and did the walk in reverse. We arrived at the Horse Guards just in time to watch the changing of the guard, and felt smug that we now had no need to deal with seeing a similar show at Buckingham Palace (we just didn't care that much.) We finished the walk before lunch, seeing Westminster Abbey from the outside but not paying the now £18 to go inside, because we were trying to keep costs down. Next time. I did happen upon my beloved MapGuides at the Parliment shop and fed up with the navigation of the RS ebook, happily purchased it. (Used to be Knopf Mapguides, now Everyman Manguipdes) we took the tube back to Leicester Sq and had a great dim sum lunch at Young Heung, very efficent (if not friendly) service. By this point we'd been in London for 14 hours and hadn't had any beer, so upon the recommendation of the Mapguide we went to the nearby Lamb & Flag, the oldest pub in Covent Garden. It was brilliant and the beer was delicious!
It was time then for my husband's chosen activity, the Imperial War Museum. We made it all the way to the Lambert North tube stop only to find a sign that it's under renovation til July. It was the only free museum we'd had planned and we were so, so sad. Husband is a Sherlock Holmes fan so we went to 221B Baker Street instead. A little cheesy and not cheap for what you get, but kind of a must-see for every fan, yeah? Cold and in need of refreshment, we found a pub not too far away called the Barley Mow. We were well out of any tourist area and it was a real cozy local place with friendly people. We had a pint and decided to catch the "Ancient City at Night" tour, because The City is the most historical part of London yet on the surface, it's really difficult to see that history. We weren't disappointed with our choice, even though the cool but mild weather that we'd experienced so far changed early on the tour as a literal arctic cold front moved in that would plague the rest of our trip. The guide, Peter, was entertaining. We're not normally tour people, as I tend to do my own extensive research ahead of time and then do self-guided tours, but I didn't get the chance to do that much with London and the sheer size of the city made a tour of even a small part seem like a good idea, and it really, really was. Highly recommended. I will be taking another London Walks tour when I return. I love that there's so many to choose from and some are very specialized and specific. The walk ended at Dirty Dick's pub, but we were starving, so we ran over to Brick Lane for a curry. Cold and hungry, we made a quick choice once a hawker threw in a free drink on top of the standard 20% discount, but the prices were high enough that the 20% didn't matter much. I should have pre-researched restaurants on Brick Lane for a better deal. Live and learn.
At the very least, our Bangladeshi curry was spicy and tasty, but I suspect there are better options on Brick Lane so I can't really recommend the restaurant. Oh, I forgot to mention that while we were waiting for the tour, we popped into one of the great "bank pubs" in The City, called "The Counting House" for a pint. It was stuffed to the gills with, well, bankers getting a drink after work, and totally gorgeous inside. An interesting slice of "working" London, or as my husband remarked "This entire pub will be first against the wall when the revolution comes!" After dinner we went back to where our tour concluded, at the somewhat historic "Dirty Dick's" pub. Listened to some obnoxious Europeans loudly complain about American hedgemony, yawn. Ended up talking to some young bankers in the smoking area of a fancy cigar bar, on the other side of the political spectrum. We were exhausted so we headed back to our hotel to get some much-needed sleep. Day 2 was a little less frantic as we weren't trying to catch a tour. We had to move rooms at our hotel (ugh) and then tried to get an early lunch, but nobody was serving for another half-hour, so we grabbed a hot cheese croissant from one of the chain coffee-and-sandwhich places that are all over, and ate it on the tube on our way to the Tower of London, which I'd been obsessed with visiting since I was a young girl obsessed with both ghosts and Tudor England (I was a weird kid, OK?)
The Tower did not disappoint. We spent 5 hours there but managed to see literally everything there was to see. It was crowded despite it being a VERY cold and rainy Friday in March. I'd hate to be there in the summer. We did the crown jewels towards the end though, and it was quite empty by then, so we rode around a few times. Despite the high admission price (we did as RS recommended and bought the $19 tickets at the gift shop by the tube station) the value for time was pretty good, all told. It was absolutely freezing and raining by the time we finished, and we ran over to the closest pub we could find for a pie and a pint. It ended up being the "Drawn, Hung, and Quartered" which was another "bank pub". We were there in time for the 10 pound deal for the two, which is as good a food deal as you're going to get in London, and available at all the "chain" pubs (i.e. the ones owned by the various breweries that sell the beer they have - as far as I can tell, I noticed the exact same menus at different pubs based on the different beer brand they carried, i.e. fullers) We'd intended the pie as a snack but it ended up being a very filling early dinner, and was the first stop on our impromptu historic pub crawl, that took us to the Old Bell Tavern, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, and finally Ye Olde Mitre. They were all interesting and fun but Ye Olde Mitre is a real hidden gem, despite being one of the oldest pubs in London with a unique and fascinating history (that you can learn about if you go there!) I got to try real Scotch Eggs and we socialized with a bunch of locals, Canadians, Austrians, and Spanish (expats, not tourists). It was really delightful. Great beer selection at all 3 pubs (then again finding good beer was NOT an issue in London!) We caught the very last Tube back to our hotel and prepared for a very early departure the next morning.
The hotel we stayed was awful though, that's two lodgings in a row that were bad! I knew the place would be a little shady going in based on reviews, but the price and location was right for us. Unfortunately the cleanliness and staff were not. The rooms were dirty. The second room we ended up in was in the basement and was full of mildew and possibly mold, with no way to open the windows. The beds were hard and gross. (I stay in budget European hotels all the time, so I'm not coming at this with "American" hotel expectations). It was cheap, 57 euro on weeknights and 80 otherwise - yep, that's cheap for London! We literally saw a mouse in the first room we were in. It was 2am when it happened and the hotel was full so I saw no reason to complain to the staff at that time, because what could they do? There were mousetraps under the wardrobes, so they were obviously aware of the problem. I told them the next morning and got lectured that I should have said something the night before. We had to move rooms which was due a booking error on my part but even though I informed them when we checked in, I had to remind them before we left for the day to find out if we did have to switch - who knows what would have happened otherwise, with all our belongings unpacked and us not returning til late? My biggest gripe though was our last night, I asked for a taxi to be called for the morning. I was assured it would be there. When we checked out, there was no knowledge of a taxi, but we were called one. When it showed up, it was a private car hire, not a taxi, and they charged us 15 pounds for a trip of maybe half a mile. I was livid, but we literally had no time to fight it as our connection to the airport was waiting. Avoid the St. Mark's hotel.
Despite the hotel being awful, and the weather, we had a fantastic time in London. It was really, really expensive, but we knew that going in - and it's still possible to eat well for - well, not cheap exactly - but reasonably, particularly if you like ethnic food or pub food. I was surprised by the friendliness of the English (maybe I've just been in Germany too long and travel to France too often, lol) and just overwhelmed by the hugeness of London. I love big cities, so I found that aspect exciting and awesome. The Tube was great to get around on, and we used Oyster cards, but even so, it was expensive. Way more so because of an issue my husband faced - either his Oyster card was malfunctioning or he was swiping it incorrectly, repeatedly, but he ended up going through his balance half as fast as me, and we were always together. His card would blink red when swiped, and when he swiped it again it would let him go through - meaning I think an excursion fare was being added to his balance each time. We should have dealt with the problem immediately, but we were always in a rush so didn't try until our last night, and the Tube worker was really unhelpful and insinuated my husband was jumping the gate or something ridiculous like that. It did sour his experience a bit. The Tube is expensive enough without that crap. We to Dublin on Ryanair out of Gatwick - not a great airport. We were delayed by an hour on this flight as well, although they took great pains to remind us it was Gatwick's fault, not theirs. Otherwise Ryanair was acceptable, as we knew the rules. I can't wait to go back, hopefully when it's a little warmer and for longer, and maybe I can even figure out a budget place to stay that isn't a rat trap!
Interesting, thank you. " I suspect there are better options on Brick Lane". That's possible, but for your next trip you might want to avoid Brick Lane entirely, it has become a bit of a dated tourist/curry tour destination (with some exceptions). There are better places these days, both in Whitechapel and elsewhere. Plenty of guides on the web for when you are next planning, and the main newspapers often run "top ten" articles. Your husband's oyster card may have been malfunctioning, though that is relatively rare. I suspect the problem was that, by oversight, he failed to properly touch in or out at some point(s) and got charged the top fare(s).
Sarah - Thank you for another informative and entertaining report. You could give RS a run for his travel-writing money!
hi, i find that London is sooo cool and fun to travel around. Yes the tube is expensive, but it gets you there. When i go back this Sept, i will try some surface transportation and maybe one of those funky taxis. I found that food is not an issue there. If you want to spend some $$, there are places that will make that happen. I usually find some small shops to try something different like Pasties. I did try some pub food like Fish n chips. The fish was so large i couldnt finish it. But for the $$ it was an great deal. the next time im going for some steak pie. thank you for the Dim Sum place your tried. I googled for some in London, but didnt realize there was another and will have to make a point of trying it this Sept. whenever i travel i avoid USA chains since to me it a shame to use them. I will use them for one thing though. Coffee to go. In Paris i couldnt find a coffee shop that had lids since everyone sits for their coffee, so i had to settle for Starbucks. If your interested, check out the Eesyhotel in london. They are inexepnsive. clean and several of them are around London. just a note, they arent fancy. A bed or beds and a bathroom pod. but it works. Happy trails.
I agree with Ray that inexpensive eats aren't impossible to find in London. We had dim sim there at a place in Chinatown. I don't remember the name of the place. I'll make a note of where you went. I love me some dim sum. :-) I too enjoy your trip reports. You have a way with words.
Sarah I too find Tudor history interesting, the whole era also, suggest next time you visit the Victoria And Albert museum , free and filled with amazing exhibits , much from that era also. I am surprised by hotel prices in Europe, here where I live getting a hotel under 100 dollars a night in our city center likely means its a dump( and I too have stayed in enough Europeon hotels that I know not to compare them to our North American standards) .. so this is why I probably find hotel prices in London and Paris not too unreasonable.. mind you, I do find it a bit harder to find a nice budget-moderate hotel in London then I do Paris, not sure why..
I think part of the hotel thing is that I've become quite used to the relatively good deals in Germany - honestly, aside from maybe Munich (and even there, there are decent budget hotel options) and a generally high standard of cleanliness in German hotels. It's really not difficult to get a decent place to stay in Germany for 50 euro a night. So by comparison, Paris and especially London seem really high. I am sure I could find a better option in London though, like I said, I didn't have that much time to do research in London and we'd based our stay on location. Next time I'll look into an apartment, I think. Thanks for the feedback everyone!
Hi Sarah, I've enjoyed your trip reports. I always love reports with a bit of a food focus. If you go back to London, I think Priceline using the "Name your own price" option might work well for you. I've used it several times in London and always gotten very nice 4* rooms for under $100 (yes, that is dollars not pounds). Taxes and fees are added onto your bid, so take that into account when you bid. I've gotten rooms at Millennium Baileys, Harrington Hall, and Park Plaza Westminster. You can check biddingfortravel.com (they've got a board specifically devoted to London) or betterbidding.com to see recent wins for hotels. I've also booked "top secret" hotels on lastminute.com, but I haven't found any really good deals there recently. Another place to check is Premier Inn. I got two nights in May at the Earls Court PI on Knaresborough Place for 45 GBP a night. I've never found a price this low before on my date of travel, but sometimes they have very good advance rates. Check "my dates are flexible" and just use London as your location and they will show you a week's worth of rates at a time.