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Trip Report: Best of London, February 19 - 25, 2023

Note: I'm still playing catch-up, but I think I can sneak in some time to report on our recent trip. I'm not going to be able to post it all in one go, but I'll add on as I can. I will post the remaining sections as posts on this thread, so you won't have to go searching the Forum for them.

Best of London, February 19 – 25, 2023

We recently returned from a trip to Amsterdam and London; in Amsterdam we spent 2 nights, spending several hours of the intervening day at the Vermeer Exhibit at the Rijksmuseum. We then spent three full days in London before joining the Rick Steves Best of London tour.

I will post elsewhere about our adventures before the tour, but here I will concentrate on the Best of London tour itself.

Transportation: keeping it simple here, we flew British Airways from Tulsa to Amsterdam, then took the Thalys and Eurostar from Amsterdam to London. Neither trip was smooth and uneventful, but I’ll post details in our “pre-tour” report later.

Packing: This was our 17th (!) RS tour, so we’ve gotten pretty good at packing light. We both carry Appenzell backpacks; the Appenzell is considered a day pack, measuring 18” x 13’ x 6 ½”, 23 liters. My personal item is a canvas bag with shoulder strap that I got as a premium for renewing our Sierra Club membership. It measures about 8” x 13 1/2” x 3”, with a number of useful pockets. Stan’s personal item is a laptop case, without the laptop.

My loaded backpack weighed in at about 10 ½ lbs, my shoulder bag about 5 lbs. Stan’s backpack weighed 11 pounds, and his shoulder bag just under 5.

Here’s what clothing I took, including what I wore on the plane:

• 2 pair of pants, one black cotton slacks, the other dark green stretch corduroy jeans
• 5 long sleeved tops, including one light-weight yellow scoop-necked tee, one tan mock turtle medium weight tee, one burgundy longer and heavier turtle neck top, one black henley type waffle knit, and one heavier aqua and white striped boat neck. The henley and boat necked were meant to be worn over the other three.

• One set of “comfy clothes” for lounging in the room or sleeping; this was a loose but fairly heavy tee, and stretchy loose flannel pants
• 2 pairs of shoes: SAS antique wine “Take Time” lace-up loafer, and SAS black “Alpine” ankle boots.
• 3 pair of socks
• 2 bras
• 3 pair of underpants
• 1 set Land’s End silk long underwear
• 1 nylon pullover windbreaker, sprayed with waterproofing
• 1 pair cheap knit gloves
• 1 modified bucket hat
• 1 long cashmere scarf, shades of blue
• 1 flannel lined waterproof hooded rain jacket

As you can see, I was worried about the weather. As it happened, I never wore the long undies, hat, gloves, or windbreaker, and I could have done fine with only 4 tops. I did like having the variety, though..

Non-clothing items included my tablet, a blue tooth keyboard, my iphone, chargers for the tablet and phone, a small notepad, a plastic pouch big enough to carry all our paperwork (schedule, tickets, itinerary – the kinds of things most of you keep on your phone. I’ll get there someday. Maybe.)

I also had a box of Covid tests; 3 extra KN-95 masks; our 311 bag; a bagof OTC medications and useful grooming tools; my supplements, decanted into small plastic bags; and other assorted odds and ends that I tossed into the bags “just in case.” I also had a 9” x 6” x 2 ½” crossbody bag with lots of pockets and compartments, and a much smaller tapestry fabric bag, about 3 ½” x 4” that I carried when we were just going out in the evening to dinner, say, when I wasn’t going to need a lot of stuff. It’s big enough to hold a small money and credit card pouch, as well as a fold-up shopping bag. Not quite big enough for my phone, though. I bought it years ago, long before I even knew about cell phones.

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Stan packed similarly, with 2 pairs of slacks; 3 long sleeved shirts; 3 heavy overshirts; his comfy clothes; two pairs of shoes, (SAS oxfords;) socks and underwear; 2 caps and one heavy hat for outdoors; one knit nightcap; and a water resistant jacket. He also carried his own supplements and the guidebook and maps. He packed a RS Civita backpag as his daybag. He never wore the heaviest hat.

On the trip home, he carried the gifts and souvenirs, and I carried the dirty clothes.

This was the first time I took a jacket on one of these trips. Usually I have the windbreaker, a cardigan, and then layers of tops. I bought this rain jacket in France on a tour in 2019, and it worked out very well. I appreciated its being windproof, and the pockets were very handy. There is an inside pocket perfect for phone and passport, and the outside pockets were useful for Oyster card, room key, and tissues. I could have managed with the windbreaker and an extra layer instead, but I was glad I had the jacket. Should I take it again, I’ll leave the windbreaker at home.

Tour Specifics

Hotel: The tour stayed at the Washington Mayfair, a nice business class hotel. The public areas are many and spacious, and the décor modern. The staff was very helpful, the breakfast room staff being especially attentive.

Our room was on the third floor up (our 4th floor,) and was very nice. It wasn’t as big as our room at the pre-tour Celtic, but was fine. There was a queen sized bed, 2 small nightstands, an occasional table by the window, a small desk, two chairs, and a bench. There was also a tiny fridge tucked into a corner; we didn’t even see it for a day or two. There was a large-enough closet with hangers and some cubby-type shelves.

The window was large and double paned, and could be opened, but only a couple of inches. We opened it at night for ventilation, but usually closed it again about 5 or 6 in the morning, when it did get cold.

The bathroom was large enough, with a tub and shower combo. There were several lotions, shampoos, and body gels offered, and plenty of towels and wash cloths.

We did have two complaints: the room was dark! Even with all the available lights on, it was difficult to read. It would have been impossible to read at the desk, except during the brightest part of the day. I moved my bedside lamp to the table near the window, and was able to read and write that way. The only other problem as the door from the hallway to the room slammed very loudly, sounding like a gunshot. We soon learned to grab it as it closed, to not frighten the neighbors.

Breakfast was a generous buffet, offering juices, cold cereals, yogurt, fresh fruit, hot sausages and bacon, scrambled eggs, beans, grilled tomatoes, a small selection of cold cuts, and several kinds of bread and rolls. Hot tea and coffee were served by the attentive staff. Oh, a minor bone to pick: specialty coffees such as espresso and cappuccino were available, but with an extra charge of £5.60. For some reason, I found that excessive, so we had regular tea and coffee.

The location of the hotel was good. It’s just a block north of Picadilly road, an easy walk to Hyde Park, Park Lane, a useful tube stop, and several bus stops. There are a number of eateries within a couple of blocks as well, ranging from Pret a Manger to very high end restaurants. I’ll mention our favorites as I go on.

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Day 1, Sunday: We checked out of our pre-tour hotel, and took the tube to the Green Park station, a short walk from the Washington Mayfair. We were delighted to find our room was ready, even though it wasn’t even noon yet. We went ahead and unpacked, since we’re here for 6 nights, then headed out to explore the neighborhood. It’s definitely Mayfair, with expensive shops and luxury automobiles lining the streets. Not our usual, for sure. The streets curve and intertwine, and we managed to get totally lost. We did have a map, fortunately, and were able to get back to Cuzon St, where we eventually found our hotel. Note: The numbers go up as you walk east to west, and down west to east across the street.

We stopped for lunch in a Lebanese deli just catty-corner from the hotel, the Beiteddine Express. It looks like most of their business is carry-out, but there are a few tables for those who choose to eat in. The food was quite good. I had lamb kibbeh, Stan had a chicken liver saute, and we shared some excellent hummus. (I later looked the place up on the web, and the reviews are all over the place, awful to wonderful. We ate there twice, and enjoyed the food both times. Upscale it isn’t, but it was tasty and convenient.)

We were to meet our guide in the breakfast area of the hotel between 2:30 and 3:00 to show our CDC cards. Covid tests aren’t required this year, at least not yet, but we did have to show proof of vaccination. 3:00, the first meeting! Time to get to know our guide and our fellow travelers.

Tour guide: Our guide was Jeanie Carmichael, and she was delightful. She’s a longtime Blue Badge Guide, so she knows her stuff, and has guided Rick’s tours for a number of years, as well. She’s very funny, keeping us in stitches, and not shy about sharing her (many) opinions. She kept an eye on us, but always treated us as responsible adults. In fact, she mentioned at the first group meeting that the reason she likes RS tours is that they treat tour members like grown-ups.

The group: We had 24 people on the tour, and it was an interesting breakdown. There were 5 couples, two mother-daughter pairs, one pair of sisters, one pair of female friends, 5 single women, and one single man. One couple was celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary; two couples were recent retirees.

As is becoming more common, Stan and I seemed to be the oldest people on the tour. There was one of the single women who was in our age bracket, but other than her, we were a good 10 years older than the next oldest set. What was unusual was how many young people there were. I’d say the two sisters, the two daughters, and one of the singles were all in their 20s. One woman was approaching retirement age, one couple was about 35, but the rest were probably clustered around 40 – 45. It made for a very interesting group dynamic, but kept those of us who were older (I guess 7 of us retirement ago or 10 – 12 years older) on our toes, trying to keep up.

Most of the group had been on previous RS tours, so they knew the ropes (buddy checks, etc.) but there were a few newbies.

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After Jeanie had laid out the plans for the week and we had all introduced ourselves and chosen “buddies,” we had a few minutes to get our things and head out on our orientation walk.

N.B. A quick note about “buddies” for those of you who have not yet been on a RS tour. Every tour member chooses a buddy, someone you don’t already know. This is not forced intimacy, it is a very smart safety and time-saving device. The idea is, when the group is gathering to leave, or moving from place to place, the guide (or sometimes one of the group) will call out “Buddy check!” At that point, you are to look for your buddy and make “meaningful eye contact.” That’s it. If your buddy isn’t there, you alert the guide. If you aren’t there, you hope your buddy is paying attention. The guide doesn’t have to count people or call roll to assure everyone is there, which makes his/her life easier, and speeds things up.

We have been on at least one tour where the guide had us choose buddies, but almost never called for a buddy check. After a couple people almost got left behind a time or two, those of us who were familiar with the system made a point of calling for buddy checks. Oh, and Jeanie never said “Buddy check;” she would just say “Is everybody here?” and we’d look for our buddies.

After a brief walk around the neighborhood, and an even briefer chance to clean up, we headed out to our first group dinner, at the Market Tavern. This pub is in Shepherd’s Market, less than a block from the hotel. Our group took over the upstairs section, where we were served by a Polish friend of our guide. The food was good, and typical of “pub grub” in today’s England. I had a chicken and leek pie, and Stan had fish and chips, a huge piece of haddock on a mountain of fries. Soft drinks were available, and I think we each were treated to one glass of wine or beer. This was our first chance to socialize, and was very pleasant.

We were on our own after dinner; Stan and I popped into the Tesco Express across from the hotel for some wine, then headed back to the hotel. A very long day, but a good one.

Day 2, Monday: After breakfast in the hotel, we gathered at the civilized hour of 9:00 a.m. for our first Tube lesson. Oyster cards were distributed (a nice touch; thanks, Rick) and Jeanie led us at a fairly rapid clip to the nearest tube station, Green Park, just a couple of blocks from the hotel. The lesson included how to read the tube maps, how to tap in and out, and how to get on and off the trains. A most important part was heading to the wall after getting off the train, to make sure everyone was there.

This sounds silly, perhaps, but it’s another safety move. The guide I mentioned earlier who didn’t call for buddy checks? She didn’t have people stop and gather after getting off the Metro or train, either, and we lost two people at Versailles for several hours. That not only distressed the tour members, worried about their friends, but caused us to miss a previously arranged private tour of Versailles.

Back to our current tour: After our inaugural tube ride, we walked to Buckingham Palace, with Jeanie talking about the royal family and its various residences. We strolled through St James Park, and ended up at Westminster Abbey, where we were split into two groups, each assigned to a different local guide for a closer look. Stan and I were in Bryan’s group. He was very good, pointing out many of the important and interesting features of the Abbey. He spent quite a bit of time describing what will be happening there on May 6 when Charles and Camilla will be crowned. It’s quite the ritual, with elements dating back centuries.

Oh, I see I didn't explain Oyster cards. They're cards that you can use to pay for public transport in London. They look like debit cards, and you can load any amount of money on them you might want. Ours came with ₤50!

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After our tours of the Abbey, we were off to Trafalgar Square, then the Montague Hotel for afternoon tea. Afternoon tea is what most of us call “high tea.” You are served any number of kinds of tea, sandwiches, scones (with strawberry jam and clotted cream,) and cakes. The food is presented on a device rather like a cake plate, but smaller, and with three layers. The bottom layer is for sandwiches (crustless, cut into small pieces, with fillings such as egg salad, tuna or chicken salad, and smoked salmon.) The middle layer is for scones, rather like our biscuits, but often sweet, perhaps containing dried fruits, and sprinkled with powdered sugar. The top layer is for a number of tiny, fancy cakes.

People love this, and it’s fun to try the different kinds of tea, sandwiches, and cakes. Evidently the staff will keep bringing out food and tea, as long as you’re willing to sit there and enjoy it. Because there is so much food involved, we didn’t have a lunch break that day.

Just as an aside, I don’t care for afternoon tea. I don’t eat sweets, and don’t care much for the sandwiches on offer. This is the third tour I’ve been on that offered afternoon tea, and it’s pretty much wasted on me. I should probably have made arrangements to meet the group later, and spent some time on my own instead. Why don’t I think of this at the time?

When everyone was done, we waddled out and headed to our last stop of the day, the British Museum.

By the way, don’t think we’re just trundling along wondering about the things we’re passing. Jeanie kept up an almost constant commentary, usually full of wickedly funny comments. She did manage to cover a lot of history as we passed Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, and other famous (and some not-so-famous) sights.

The British Museum is justly famous (and also infamous,) with one of the largest collections in the world. It is huge. And like most museums in London, there is no charge to enter! Most museums will ask for a donation, of perhaps £5 or so, but that’s optional.

Jeanie zipped us through a few of her favorite sections of the museum, and spent a fair amount of time explaining the controversies today about whether or not items should be repatriated, returned to the countries or areas from which they came. She was not timid about expressing her opinion, and gave thoughtful explanations for them.

We were then let loose for the day, to spend as much time as we wanted in the Museum, and then find our own way home. Stan and I headed for the basement to see the Benin Bronzes, treasures that had been taken from what is now Nigeria in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We had recently read a book that talked about the taking of these items, among other topics, and we wanted to see them for ourselves.

We then took the tube back to the hotel, where we cleaned up a bit and headed out to dinner. Jeanie had told us about a Polish/Mexican restaurant next door to the pub at which we had had our group dinner the previous evening. Who could resist that? Certainly not us!

L’Autre (Shepherd St, 5B) does indeed serve Mexican and Polish food. It’s tiny, with tables for about 24 people wedged in tightly. We didn’t have a reservation, but the place was almost empty at that point, so we were seated. We didn’t try any of the Mexican offerings, but the Polish food was fantastic. I had wild boar sausages with mashed potatoes and sautéed vegetables; Stan had a delicious goulash. He also enjoyed a Polish beer; I had a glass of Italian white wine. He also managed down a big dish of ice cream with black currants and chocolate sauce.

The restaurant began to fill up quickly, and the tables were so close together that there was no way not to interact with your neighbor. We were next to two young women, one from Australia and the other from the States, who, I must say, lead much more interesting lives than I do. Or ever did.

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We enjoyed the meal so much that we made reservations for the following evening, then went back to the hotel. This was a very long, very full day.

Day 3, Tuesday. Ugh, so much for civilized start times. Early start today to get to the Tower of London before it opened. Jeanie wanted us to see the opening ceremony, with a surprisingly young Beefeater as what we can only call the Master of Ceremonies. There were two groups allowed in, and the MC told us what would happen, making hilarious commentary as he did so. Then during the ceremony itself, he snapped back into military precision; we kept expecting him to wink at us, or pull out a whoopie cushion or something, but he was ramrod straight, literally and figuratively. After the gate was ceremoniously opened, Jeanie led us inside and gave us an overview of the entire enclosure.

The first time I went to the Tower of London I was confused; it’s not a tower, it’s a village, with a number of structures scattered about, all encompassed by a wall. The original tower part was built by William the Conquerer (also known as William the Bastard, as Jeanie delighted in telling us) to convince the locals it was no use to rise up against him, in spite of their superior numbers. Subsequent rulers added on bits here and there, and today the Tower complex covers 18 acres.

The main attraction in the Tower is the Crown Jewels, and we got there early enough to see them before that section was too crowded. Several of the most spectacular pieces were not there, however; they’re being cleaned up, polished, and resized for the upcoming coronation. We also spent quite a bit of time in the White Tower, which now houses a wonderful museum of armor and armaments.

After a few hours, we regrouped and walked to the City of London, the one square mile that is the historic heart of London, and has for many years been the economic heart, as well. It is also well known for its innovative architecture, with skyscrapers of all shapes and configurations.

Things are changing, though, and Brexit is taking its toll. Many of the buildings are having trouble finding tenants, and some of the iconic enterprises, including banks and insurance companies, are leaving. In fact, Jeanie intimated that Lloyd’s of London itself is leaving.

The high point (heh, heh) of this City walk was going up to the top of the 120 Tower, or the Garden at 120, a beautifully landscaped rooftop space on the 15th floor of the tower. The views are spectacular.

It was then lunch time, and we were on our own. Stan and I returned to a pub Jeanie had recommended, and shared a huge portion of fish and chips. And of course we sampled some of the extensive beer offerings.

Back to join the group, where we met our local guide Mary, who shepherded us around St Paul’s Cathedral. This is, of course, one of the most famous and recognizable buildings it London. Jeanie had told us a touching story of the St Paul’s Watch, a group of volunteers who spent night after night on the dome of the cathedral during The Blitz, retrieving fire bombs and burying them in buckets of sand to extinguish them. One of those who managed to help extinguish 28 firebombs in one night was her father.

Mary gave us a fine tour of the interior, and then left us on our own to explore further. The group dispersed from there.

Stan and I wandered around the City for a while, just taking it all in. We had recently read Helen Hanff’s delightful “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street,” which made me realize that what I really wanted to do in London was walk. Just walk the streets, with no particular aim in mind. And so we did, at least for a while. After the early start that morning and the busy day sightseeing, we were beginning to flag, so we walked down to Blackfriars to catch a tube back to the hotel.

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Jane!!! I hate to break up your TR but just wanted to thank you so much! What a fun time so far! I love the whole Polish/Mexican restaurant thing. That’s hilarious and I know you have a good grasp on excellent Polish food!

Jeannie sounds like an excellent and interesting guide and that she’s bringing things to life for the group.

Sounds like a great start!

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Pam, don't worry about breaking up the report. There's no way I'm going to finish it tonight anyway. I am hopeful of tomorrow, however.

And you are absolutely right about Jeanie; "bringing things to life for the group" is exactly right. She was simply delightful. We've had a lot of guides in our Rick Steves experience, but she is truly special. I'll have some more comments about her later, but her including personal stories, such as her dad's having been one of the people who helped save St Paul's, or her knowing one of the archeologists who excavated areas now immortalized in the British Museum, truly adds multiple dimensions to our experience. What a lovely time we had.

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As I book a sunrise kayak tour for Sorrento in April, I have to laugh at your definition of a "civilized" start time. My knees will be shaking and my toes will be tapping impatiently all morning as I wait for you to resume your Trip Report.

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I will say walking along the River Thames has to be one of best River Walks. We walked from the Fullers Brewery to Hammersmith station and it was lovely even in March. A close second is the Highgate/Hampstead walk.

While I have taken afternoon tea in London, it's never really been a highlight. I'm much more the "Betty's tea and scones" person. But the could be because I grew up in Chicago and on special "girl-time" occasions, my mom would take us to the 100 year old Drake Hotel for tea with harp accompaniment.

I think the best part about London is still the theatre. Having been to NYC-nothing beats the West End and having a nice cup of ice cream during the intermission. I think I've seen more Broadway shows in London than NYC, including Evita, The Producers(excellent) and My Fair Lady.

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Tammy, no, we had been here before. In fact, we had taken this tour before, in 2014 or thereabouts. It was a totally different experience for several reasons. A different guide - the great Roy Nicholls; a very different group, comprised of a family of four which included two pre-teens; a sixties-ish couple who got together once a year to travel; a young Iranian woman who worked in the States; and me and Stan. That was it! Talk about a different group vibe! We palled up with the Iranian woman pretty much; the other two groups were pretty much self-contained.

Oh, and the tour hotel was rather inconveniently located in Chelsea, and I got sick. About halfway through the tour I came down with what we thought was a cold, but turned out to be what a doctor in Palermo (long story) called "A really ugly case of bronchitis." So it's hard to make comparisons.

We returned to London for several days in 2016, before and after the Best of South England tour. We had a wonderful time then, and were glad to return this year.

Heather, I agree about the River Walk. We spent some time this year in that area, several times, in fact.

Allan, I love early mornings, but in the summer. Not so much in the winter; I do not like getting up in the dark. I love the idea of a kayak tour in Sorrento, however. We love that area.

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Day 3, Tuesday, continued:
After a bit of a rest, we went back across the street to L’Autre, our new favorite Polish/Mexican restaurant. I know it sounds funny, but the place is actually quite charming, the food is delicious, and the service warm and friendly. We’re planning a couple of nights in London this coming August, and I’m hoping we can squeeze in an evening here.

The restaurant was more crowded tonight, and we were glad we had booked ahead. The staff recognized us from the night before, and apologized for not being able to give us our “usual table.” Once again, although the food shone, the setting and near neighbors added the seasoning. I ordered pierogi, which were perfectly prepared, swimming in butter and served with barszcz. Barszcz is the Polish version of borscht, and is beautifully simple. Stan ordered the wild boar sausages I had had the previous evening, and they were again excellent, served with very good mashed potatoes and red cabbage. Beer for him, (he loves Polish beer, and for some reason we can’t get it here) and white wine for met.

We were between two other tables this time, with a family of four on my left, and a young couple to my right. The family ordered nachos and pierogi, and while the kids enjoyed the nachos, they balked at the pierogi. Szkoda, as the Poles would say. (“Too bad!”) The couple on my right was much more interesting. They were both students, she an American just finishing up an advanced degree, and he from Africa. It appeared, from their conversation which I could not help but overhear, to be their first date (and I predict many more to come.) At one point the young man turned to me to include us in the conversation; it’s that kind of place.

Stan decided he could do without dessert that time (the huge plate of sausages and veggies had a lot to do with that) so we left, stopping by Tesco again to replenish our wine supply. By this time we had discovered the tiny fridge in our room, so could get a full bottle of white, instead of the tiny mini-bottles we had been buying.

Another wonderful day.

Day 4, Wednesday: This was one of my two favorite days on the tour, perhaps my overall favorite, but it will forever be remembered by me as the day I couldn’t enjoy as much as I wanted. Today would be touring the Spitalfields Market and taking an Eating Europe food tour, both as part of our group activities. Note to self: Next time you book a tour, check the dates of the food activities, nitwit! It’s Ash Wednesday, a day of fast and abstinence for practicing Catholics.

Once again the group gathered at a civilized time, and were off to the tube station to get to Covent Garden. We spent a little time here, with Jeanie explaining the history and current status of it. It’s a great place to waste time, with lots of shops, many small stalls, and street performers. But we were off to the East End by bus. Jeanie said Rick doesn’t like her to take groups on the bus, preferring they walk everywhere, but she considers this part of the London experience. I agree, and it helps to know how to use the different modes of transportation; they’re all different in how and when you present your payment card, where you board and get off, etc.

Our first stop was Spitalfields Market, for a brief tour and orientation. Here we were split into two groups for the Eating Europe part of the tour. (We were too many for one tour, even though four of our group had decamped to Cambridge for the day.) Those of us in group B had about 30 minutes or so to spend in the market before meeting our local guide. What a fascinating place this is! It is huge, and unlike other markets we’ve seen, opens rather late in the day. In fact, most booths were just setting up when we arrived. But we enjoyed seeing that part of the process, as well.

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Our local guide was Nile, and he was excellent. Although the food tour started there at the market, we spent most of the time wandering the East End, an area of London that was new to me and Stan. What a fascinating part of the city! This is definitely on my “return” list.

But the food on the tour: it started with dessert, generous portions of apple crumble. Niles kept pushing food on me, and I had to take him aside to explain I couldn’t eat sweets, and that day no meat or poultry, and not more than tiny bits of anything else. I had hoped to be discreet about this, but Niles was not exactly a discreet kind of guy, booming out at various points: “And what about you, love, what can you eat here?” Oh, well.

As we wandered the streets, Nile would talk about the history of the area, a Mecca for immigrants over the centuries. Each group left its mark, in décor, trades, and food. Our walk down Brick Lane was the high point for me. The history, the street art, the friendliness of the locals.. I can’t wait to go back.

Oh yes, the food: I think the next stop was a curry restaurant, where we were served three kinds of curry, accompanied by excellent rice. (I know the rice was excellent, it and a bit of a vegetable curry were all I could eat!) Jeanie had asked everyone to please try the curry; she said most Americans in her experience shied away from it, but our group seem eager to try it. I will say that the bit I had was absolutely delicious, and tour members were scarfing it all down joyfully.

And then it was back out through the neighborhood for more lessons in history and culture. People thought the food was done, but no, fish and chips at an iconic “chippie” up next! Luckily for everyone, the portions were small, but still most people couldn’t finish theirs. Nile showed us a different way to eat mushy peas, common in the north of England, where he is from. The peas came in a cup; he poured in a huge amount of salt, then drowned the mess in malt vinegar. “Try it!” he urged. I took a taste and must say it was better than any other mushy peas we had had.

Are we done yet? Nope, now on to a famous bagel shop, where the group enjoyed freshly made bagels split and filled with salt beef, which some people said tasted very similar to corned beef, but much more tender. Stan said it was the best bagel he had ever had, which pleased Nile.

Done yet? Almost. Back to the Spitalfield Market for the last course: cheese. We were served I think 4 kinds of local cheeses: goat, sheep, a cheddar, and a brie-like. I took a nibble of each, and they were excellent. Stan and I bought a carafe of wine for our group, and beer for the beer lover. This was our last stop, and we could sit back and relax, and spend more time getting to know our tour mates.

The day was not yet over, however. Jeanie gathered us all up again, and we took the tube back to the center of town, to visit the Churchill War Museum. Anyone who hasn’t been here needs to go. This is the place from which Churchill oversaw the direction of British (and indeed Allied) participation in World War II. It was shut down after the war, and left untampered with. Years later it was reopened as a museum, and is fascinating. In addition to seeing how the War Rooms were laid out and used, there is also in-depth information about Churchill himself, from his days as a small child until the massive state funeral after his death.

Our visit here got cut short, though. About an hour before closing, an alarm came on and we were ordered to evacuate the building because of an unexpected emergency. At first I thought it was part of the show, but no, evidently there was a fire in the upper part of the building. Stan and I found each other outside the building, and we all wandered off in different directions. We didn’t know until the next day what had happened.

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The trick to mushy peas is to make sure that they are homemade. Many chippies use the neon green canned variety which are nasty. I can't remember the chippie shop and it might be long since gone but it was a place where everything was made onsite and fresh. The mushy peas were excellent even if they looked a bit well like mushed up peas.

And I always encourage people to take a London bus at least once.

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Wow, that food tour sounds fantastic! Bummer that you could not fully enjoy ( but understandable) Is there a link you could share for his tour that we might be able to do this tour with Niles when we will be in London for 11 days this fall?

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6372 posts

Day 4, Wednesday, continued:
We walked around the neighborhood for a while, but as it was getting dark we took the tube back to our neighborhood. We stopped for a light meal at the Lebanese deli near the hotel, where I enjoyed some falafel and a wonderful starter, moujadara (Pam, I found the name!): lentils and rice with olive oil, topped with crispy fried onions. Very good. Poor Stan thought he ordered a lamb wrap, but was presented with a huge plate of meat, rice, and veggies that he couldn’t begin to finish. He said the lamb was excellent, though.

Back to the room, finally. Another wonderful day.

Day 5, Thursday: After breakfast (where I finally found the plain yogurt,) the group took the tube to Waterloo Station to catch the train to Windsor. We arrived in time to see the changing of the guard, an inspiring sight. Jeanie gave us a quick overview of the history of the palace (this one is both a castle and a palace), laced with pithy comments about various members of the royal family, and asked a friendly passerby to take a photo of the group. (We just got our copy; everyone looks happy except me; I look cold. That was one of the days I should have worn the long undies.)

We were then turned loose for the rest of the day, free to explore the castle and town, or make our way back to London.

Stan and I had been here before, but he didn’t remember that we had seen St George’s Chapel. That’s where we spent most of our time, and it was indeed time well spent. It’s a lovely structure, beautiful and loaded with history.

For lunch we headed down into town, where we were able to be seated at The Ivy, restaurant Jeanie had recommended. She said it was pricey, but we didn’t pay any more there than we had been paying at London pubs. She had recommended the shepherd’s pie, and it was indeed delicious. And we were delighted that the portions were not huge; big enough, but not huge. We enjoyed some local craft beer, as well.

We took the train back to London, Jeanie having given us all the return portion of our tickets, but got off one stop early, at Vauxhall. I have been wanting to see Tate Britain for years. Every trip we make to London, it’s at the top of my list, but we’ve never managed to make it there. This year, finally! And it was well worth the wait. We spent a couple of hours there, enjoying Hogarth, Gainsborough, the Pre-Rafaelites, and many many other artists, many of whom were new to us.

We were flagging by now, though, and went back to the hotel to rest a bit. We did go out again to find something light for dinner, ending up at the neighborhood Pret a Manger. I don’t much care for Pret, but it’s everywhere, and the salads aren’t bad. And we were too tired to keep looking for something else.

Day 6, Friday: Our last full day! This was another of my two favorite days on the tour. After breakfast we took the tube back to the St Paul’s area, from which we walked across the Millennium bridge to Southwark. We walked a bit, Jeanie again entertaining and enlightening us with her colorful stories about the history of the area. Our immediate goal was the Globe Theatre, where we were treated to a private tour led by one of the artistic staff, a director. I’m sorry, but I didn’t write down his name. He was excellent, though, and gave us a wonderful tour of Shakespeare’s Globe. He was delighted to hear that Stan and I had attended their current offering the previous week (more on that when I get to the pre-tour trip report.)

Posted by
14247 posts

Oh Jeannie's Dad being one of the fire monitors at St Pauls! I did a London Walks tour about the Blitz a few years ago which was excellent and highlighted the work of these amazing folks.

Too bad about Ash Wednesday! I'm glad you had an interesting time anyway. You can Stan can do your own food tasting next time on a non-fasting day.

I love that she took you on the bus. My bus skills are non-existent. I am fine on Tube/Metro systems but the buses leave me flummoxed.

Carry on!

Editing to add: Cross posting with you! Moujadara duly noted as well as just made myself a note about the Ivy as I'm spending my last nights in Windsor prior to my flight back home! Thank you!

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6372 posts

Day 6, Friday, continued:
Then the group was off to the Borough Market, a veritable zoo of food stands. Jeanie left us here to find lunch and enjoy the rest of the afternoon as we pleased. She did make some lunch recommendations, but Stan and I hunted down a seafood stand we had noticed the preceding week, where we had lovely grilled shrimp and fish with fries, with Cajun seasoning. And of course white wine to accompany it.

After lunch we wandered a bit, but the market is too crowded for me to enjoy it for long, so we took the tube to Westminster Abbey, where I wanted to buy some gifts to take home. From there we walked back to the hotel, enjoying a wonderful sunny day.

At 5:30 we all regrouped for our Final Dinner. We took the bus (don’t tell Rick!) to the Victoria area, then walked to About Thyme, 82 Wilton Road. We once again took over the upper room, and had a great evening. The food was good; Stan and I had prawn starters that were excellent, drenched in olive oil and seasoned with loads of garlic and chilies that would take the top of your head off. But wonderful. Stan’s main was a good grilled sea bass; I had an outstanding risotto loaded with wild mushrooms. Risotto is hard to get right, but this was perfect. I notices later that all the people who were raving about their dinner had had the risotto. The desserts were a hit as well; Stan had ice cream, but others were on offer.

And of course toasts were offered (wine was included!) and a modest gift was given to Jeanie. We lingered longer than usual, and many of us sat with people we hadn’t spent much time with on the tour. It was a very pleasant evening.

Not quite over yet, though; back to the hotel we went, and some people met up again in the hotel bar. Not me; the noise level at the restaurant had left me reeling, but Stan joined them for a while.

A super day, and we’re too tired to pack; we’ll do that in the morning.

Day 7, Saturday. As most of you know, the last day breakfast is included, but there are no other group activities. We did manage to share some goodbyes and final thoughts with Jeanie and some tour members that morning.

Then back up to the room to pack. We’re staying in London one more night, but moving to an airport hotel to make our Sunday morning departure a little less fraught.

After packing, we checked out, but left our bags in the hotel’s care. A free day for us, with no plans. I suggested returning to Covent Garden, which we did enjoy. At some point we remembered that we had hoped to return to Portobello Road Market, which we had enjoyed when we were here in 2016. So we headed off that way, but were stymied by tube disruptions. Two of the main lines were closed completely, and several others had major delays.

We finally made it to Notting Hill, but when we arrived at the market realized that a sunny Saturday afternoon is not the best time to enjoy the market. Seeing the solid mass of humanity ahead of us was enough to turn us around. We did stop for lunch at a pub along the way, The Sun in Splendour, 7 Portobello Road, where we still had to battle our way through the crowd. It was well worth it, however, as we had what was probably the best meal of the entire trip, for me at least. We had planned on fish and chips at a real chippie, rather than a pub, but couldn’t get through the crowds.

At The Sun, Stan did order fish and chips, and it was very good. I ordered the grilled sea bass, and it was remarkable. Steamed potatoes, and the side was peas (not mushy!) sauteed with leek and chorizo. It made an amazing sauce, which was good on the fish as well as the perfectly cooked potatoes. I had white wine, and Stan tried a cider.

The service was great – table service, we didn’t need to order at the bar, and the staff was delighted when Stan told them how much I had enjoyed my meal.

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6372 posts

Day 7, Saturday, continued:
We took the tube back to the hotel, still battling crowds. Given the conditions on the tube, we decided to spring for a taxi to Paddington, from which we had bought tickets to Heathrow online. The hotel concierge called a cab for us, which arrived in a matter of minutes. I do want to emphasize the quality of the service at out tour hotel. It was first rate in every way.

The taxi dropped us off at Paddington, leaving us as close as possible to the entry door for the Heathrow Express. A train was waiting, so we hopped on. On the journey, I was telling Stan what I had figured out from CityMapper and Google Maps about how we needed to get to our hotel at terminal 4. A fellow passenger sat down by us and said there was a much easier way, and he would show us. And so he did! We took the Express as far as terminal 5, then the friendly helper led us directly to the bus stop which would take us to the hotels at terminal 4. He then left us to complete his own journey.

We found the bus route less than illuminating, and at one point Stan started to get off at what looked like a barren wasteland, but when I asked the driver, he told us exactly where to descend. And again, a fellow passenger offered to help us find our way. We could see our hotel, though, and figured out how to get there on foot.

Our hotel was the Holiday Inn Express, and we were very impressed. The hotel is fairly new, and big. It’s an airport hotel, of course, so it’s designed for people passing through. Our double room (£115, including breakfast) was very clean, with plenty of room and a good shower. There were also some surprising amenities: coffee and tea makings, of course, but also an iron and even an ironing board! Our only negative was that the window couldn’t be opened, but we could live with that for a night. It was very quiet, even though we could watch planes landing and taking off through our window.

Day 8, Sunday: Even though we weren’t very hungry, we went down to check out the breakfast, which was a generous buffet. It had all the makings for a “full English,” as well as fresh fruit and cold cereals. We ate lightly, knowing we’d be able to have more at the airport.

When we checked out I asked the clerk for explicit directions for the easiest way to get to terminal 3 for our departure. “Very easy, “ he replied, “you can’t go wrong from here.” “Oh yes we can!” was my answer. He laughed and gave us step by step instructions to get to the free train to terminal 3. It turned out to be the relatively new Elizabeth line; we were pleased to have a chance to ride it. And the instructions were spot on. Stan tends to panic in unfamiliar but stressful situation, but oddly enough, I don’t. We made it to our terminal and check-in area easily and quickly.

We were flying business class this leg, so check in and security were a breeze. We were then directed to a lounge where we could wait in comfort, and finish our breakfast while we waited.

A good end to a wonderful stay in London.

This is a pretty good stopping place; I do have some final thoughts I'd like to share, but I've been standing here at the computer all morning, I'm still in my comfy clothes, bare feet, unbrushed hair... It's time to take a break.

I'll be back later today with some final observations, and the hope to post the pre-tour trip report soon. Probably not today; we're booked this evening.

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6372 posts

OK, a few general thoughts and comments. I left out one activity on the first night of the tour. After the neighborhood stroll, but before the first group dinner, we had a bus tour of the Kensington, Chelsea, and Picadilly areas in a chartered classic Routemaster open top bus. I wasn't that impressed with the tour itself, but it was the first chance for us to begin to appreciate Jeanie's knowledge of and affection for London, as well as her wicked sense of humor. Her personality just radiated. I got off that bus thinking, "We're going to love this woman, and this tour."

Correct on both counts.

I've been thinking about our overall impression of London and Londoners, and I must say I don't know when we've met more helpful and welcoming people. If you ever get lonely in London, just stop and look lost. Or pull out a map or guidebook. Someone will instantly stop to offer help, advice, and probably a recommendation of their favorite pub.

The level of service in various establishments is remarkably high. Hotels, restaurants, pubs, markets ... everywhere we went we were stunned at the level and quality of service. What a wonderful way to welcome guests.

Our overall experience then, both on the tour and in our free time, was wonderful. I am so glad we made the late decision to join this tour.

I'll be delighted to answer any questions, and would love to hear your own experiences.

And I will post a (shorter!) report about our pre-tour experiences in Amsterdam and London soon. Maybe tomorrow, since it looks like I'm going to have to break my "no computer on Sunday" rule for another project I'm working on.

Thank you for sticking with me on this.

And happy travels.

Posted by
4292 posts

I've been thinking about our overall impression of London and
Londoners, and I must say I don't know when we've met more helpful and
welcoming people.

The RS no grumps policy must be in effect for all of London. We've only been once, but our reaction was the same. Whenever we looked lost or confused, there was someone coming to our rescue. At the time I was travelling with my wife and Mother-in-Law, and everytime we were on a crowded Tube, someone would pop up and offer their seats to them....everytime. So far, the only place in my travels that may be friendlier than London, is the entire country of Scotland.

One other comment, I'm really surprised that a bus ride isn't a standard part of an RS tour. Those double decker buses are so London. Has anyone whose been there not ridden one, or at least taken a photo of one?

Posted by
3353 posts

Bravo, Bravo for this TR! I appreciate you taking the time to share, we are even more excited to visit London this fall!

Posted by
3334 posts

Now I am really hungry! And really looking forward to the England portion of our September trip - even though we're not spending any real time in London.

This report was so good, and you described things so clearly that it felt like a scrapbook!

Posted by
128 posts

Jane, thank you for writing this wonderfully detailed trip report. I felt like I was there with you. And now I’m inspired to start thinking about a trip back to London - I was last there in 2016. I haven’t really been feeling the travel bug since the covid shutdowns, but I’m starting to get that itch again. = ) Thank you!

Posted by
33299 posts

what a wonderful report, I was with you all the way, but need to go back and read in detail again.

Time for feet up and relax. Thanks...

Posted by
2495 posts

Great report, Jane! It was a fun read of your experiences in my favorite city in the world. I am impressed with your packing. Well done. And I agree that Londoners are very helpful. We had the same experience in London when we stopped to look at our map and a young gent in a suit and bowler hat stopped to ask if we needed directions. Allan, you can’t beat the Scots for friendliness and great humor. How was the weather, Jane? I am looking forward to the rest of your report.

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2016 posts

I am surprised the RS tours don't take people on the bus since in the London episode Rick makes a big deal about the buses. Perhaps the size of the tour groups might be a factor.

That said, your trip brought back fond memories of my years trips to London. I've since branched out and now visit EU countries but as an Anglophile, London holds a special place in my heart. Thanks for taking us along for the ride.

Posted by
2488 posts

Thank you for taking the time to share this trip report. I'm really hoping to get to London soon...

Posted by
9856 posts

What a fabulous trip report, Jane, but of course that's no surprise ! Thank you for writing such a detailed report with such lively perceptions.

I am another one who feels that buses are absolutely essential to the London experience. They are so useful so often - so I am surprised that she said Rick doesn't really want you riding the bus on the tour. It's also teaching a traveling skill that almost anyone will find useful in their future trips.

I am so glad you had a great time ! And sorry that the food tour fell on Ash Wednesday. I stayed in the Hub hotel on Brick Lane last time I was in London and agree that it was a fascinating and fun area.

Posted by
7447 posts

Jane, I love your trip report!

First, your details for packing are much appreciated! Although I pack light, I really want to drop off a couple more pounds - both me and my suitcase! LOL! before my month long trip.

I heard Jeanie on one of Rick’s livestream/Zoom evening events, and she is impressive! What a wonderful guide, and she shared about her father & St. Paul’s Cathedral.

My husband and I will be finishing our time in Wales & England at London and have several things booked that you mentioned, including that food tour. I really enjoyed your details of it, and agree, what a date to have you attend! Oops!

Thanks so much! I’m bookmarking this one!

Posted by
2252 posts

Nicely done, Jane. When I took this tour, Roy was our guide. I learned so much from him. Whenever we would take a trip to Europe, we would start and end with a few days in London. Our home base was the Union Jack Club, a couple of blocks from the Waterloo Station. London has always felt like home. Thank you for taking the time to post your report. I enjoyed it very much.

Posted by
594 posts

As always, I loved your trip report. I feel like I’m right there with you. You really write an entertaining one, Jane. Kudos to you for all the time and effort this took! Bookmarking for sure.

Posted by
6372 posts

Thanks, everyone for your comments and support. I do love writing the trip reports; they help remind me of what we've done and what a good time we had.

I'm still planning to do a report on our pre-tour activities, but life got in the way today. Maybe tomorrow?

Posted by
93 posts

Looking forward to reading your pre tour report, especially for the extra early days in London..

Posted by
6372 posts

Galliegirlie, I think I can get to it today... I hope so.

Posted by
33299 posts

that would be great if you do - but no rush

Posted by
1019 posts

Jane glad you enjoyed Jeanie. We thoroughly loved her on our 2019 london trip. I still email her once in awhile. Hope, david and I can meet up with her when we will be there mid June for two weeks on our own. I need to start a list of sites that I have missed in my past three trips.

See ya in a few weeks.

Made me relive our trip!


Posted by
8865 posts

Brilliant report about my favorite city on the planet.

So pleased to know you had such a lovely time.

Posted by
6372 posts

Kim, Jeanie remembered you and David fondly; hope your get-together works out.

Just two weeks until our meeting; I can't wait!

Claudia, we had a wonderful time. I'm considering changing my vote from Paris to London for favorite city!

Posted by
323 posts

Wonderful! I loved your report, thank you!
I loved all of the details and your bright sense of humour and wonderful writing style. thank you so much for all of the details- I felt I was right there with you! You brightened up my day with this- thank you SO much for spending the time writing it! Your advice is so helpful!

Posted by
6372 posts

Lisa g, thank you! I'm just about to post my report of our pre-tour experiences. (About time, some folks will say.) Give me about 15 more minutes...

Posted by
6372 posts

You're welcome, Nigel. Glad to oblige. I do enjoy writing these reports, which definitely seem to get longer and longer over time, and I love the feedback I get.

Posted by
489 posts

Jane, I loved your trip report, it made me want to go back to London. How did you like being there in winter with fewer tourists? I did a big solo trip to in February to March in 2019 for 3 plus weeks to Edinburgh and parts of England, ending with London. I remember appreciating St Paul’s with very few fellow tourists. I thought I’d been there done that when it comes to London but after reading your great report I will be looking for this tour in winter of ‘24. I loved the restaurant reviews. Thanks for sharing so much great information.

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6372 posts

Lyndash, it was nice that there were fewer tourists, but as it happened, we were there during "half term" holidays. We kept meeting people who said "Sorry you're here during half term; it's not usually this crowded!" Some venues though, such as St Paul's, were almost empty. Also St George's Chapel in Windsor. That was nice.

Posted by
2232 posts

You do such a great job with the trip reports and giving such detailed info on the RS tours. We don’t have London on the radar in the near future, but I’m bookmarking your report for when we do. I’ve made the mistake in the past of not bookmarking your reports and then I have trouble finding them again! I love that not only do you include the names of restaurants, but what you ate as well. We’ve been to London enough that we’ve never considered the city tour, but you certainly made it sound very attractive with unique experiences.

Do you travel with a corkscrew for the wine?

Posted by
6372 posts

Patty, thank you for your kind comments.

No, we used to pack a corkscrew, until we had one taken away from us at an airport.

We will often pick one up at a grocery store, especially if we’re going to be someplace for a while. Most hotels will be glad to open a bottle for you, and quite a few will provide one in the rooms or commons area. And screw caps are much more common than they used to be. The advantage of screw caps is you can transport opened bottles, or fit an opened bottle into the tiniest of mini-fridges.

Posted by
78 posts

Hi Jane, Read through all of your trip installments in London. You are a wonderful writer- lots of interesting details and restaurant tips! I am looking forward to my “Best of England” tour in July! You mentioned that you will be back in London for a few days in August- any chance it will be in the beginning of the month. My tour ends in London, so I will be there Aug. 3-5. If coincidentally you are there at the same time, would love to see you both- dinner, perhaps? Hope to see you then! Debbie

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6372 posts

Debbie! No, we're going to be there at the end of the month, before heading to Lisbon for the Best of Portugal tour.

Darn! We'd love to see you again. Maybe hook up on a tour again next year? And I can't wait to hear how you like the Best of England. We're thinking about taking that one, but no time left this year.

We're tossing a number of ideas around for 2024; maybe we should talk.

Posted by
78 posts

Hi Jane,

Yes, darn indeed! You will love Portugal- I went there with a friend for 3 weeks a year ago and found it to be a fascinating country. We can definitely talk about taking another RS tour together in the future! You’ve been on 15 tours- soon Rick Steves will pay for your entire tour with your alumni discounts! Debbie

Posted by
31 posts

Late to the party, but just wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading this trip report. I am booked on this tour next April, and reading this report has me very excited for the trip. What a descriptive writer you are, Jane. I could almost smell the curry!