Right now I’m a bit sad, because it’s already been 4 weeks since I got back from our tiny vacay in London. Now let me preface this by saying that Japan, Hong Kong, Taipei, and Paris will always hold a special place in my heart, but there’s just something about London that somehow got my juices flowing…. maybe because everything was in English?
After browsing through Skyscanner for the best prices in airfare (Skyscanner should pay me for that plug), we decided to give Turkish Airlines a try, especially because its one of the best airlines in the world and cheaper than our local PAL. Upon further research, I found that Turkish Air offered FREE day tours in Istanbul, especially designed for layovers. They even offered free in breakfast and lunch, so I set it up so we had a longer layover.
We arrived in Istanbul on a Friday, so the tour included a river cruise. I don’t understand why many people asked about the security sitch in Turkey, but we found it to be a very pleasant and convenient experience (see my wife’s review here). I guess we don’t watch the news much.
I originally planned to take the London Underground from the airport to our hotel since the Picadilly line took us to our hotel station without any transfers, but our flight got delayed so we missed the last train. Good thing free wifi is standard in most airports now, so we just Uber-ed out of there. It’s about 2x more expensive than the train, but worth it if you had 3 suitcases and a child to lug around. Our Uber driver arrived in a big sedan whose brand I wasn’t familiar with. He was a nice Kenyan man, though the combination of his african and english accent made it challenging for me to understand. It took us about an hour to get to the hotel from Heathrow, and we were intrigued that a lot of restaurants aside from pubs were still open at midnight. Then again, we’re rarely out past 9, so I wouldn’t really know if this was normal.
A quaint and cozy hotel
After a few hours research in Agoda.com, we finally settled with United Lodge Hotel and used our rewards points. We arrived at a little past midnight. We should’ve requested for a room on the ground floor… this hotel doesn’t have elevators (it is a converted aprtment/house). Aside from the double-bed and extra bed for Brie, our room also had a fully-furnished kitchen (stove, oven, microwave, utensils, sink). Despite the cold-ish weather (around 10 C at night), the room was warm enough not to use the heater.
I planned our itinerary a week before, so we scheduled our Saturday to be as loose as possible. We all woke up around 9am. Our hotel was in a nice area. It had a mini-mall nearby with a Costa Coffee, McDonald’s, a couple of shops, a £1 store (which Anj loves). More importantly, it had a Sainsbury’s, a 24-hour supermarket chain with a money changer. Which is important because all I had on the first day were old British pounds that my mom gave me. As I was paying for our breakfast at Costa Coffee, the cashier gave me a weird look and asked me if I was trying to pay with Monopoly money. Thank god for credit cards.
Upon the recommendation of the concierge, we bought 2 Oyster Cards with the one week unlimited load (Oyster is London’s universal transportation access card). We took the tube to Covent Garden, a tourist/shopping area near the theater district. It’s basically an outdoor Metro Manila mall (Mark & Spencer’s, Aldo, Geox, Apple store, restaurants) but with British people, old architecture, and red telephone boxes. We walked around till we reached the theater area, where we found our theater for the Wednesday Matilda show. We even stumbled upon the theater for the upcoming “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”.
It was on this day that we found our greatest treasure: Primark. Upon the “recommendation” of niece Sophia (translation: Sophia wants pasalubong), we looked for this treasure trove of cheap clothes. It was comparable to an H&M or Uniqlo, only really, really, cheap (like £2.50 for shirts, £8.00 for pants). We had to control ourselves from spending our budget…it was only the first day after all. We then took a bus home, as the bus stop was just outside the store (and with 0 transfers, brought us down right in front of the hotel). Gotta love London’s public transportation system.
One of the reasons I picked our hotel were the number of cafes nearby, particularly the Park View Cafe beside the nearby Underground station. It was run by, I’m assuming, a Turkish family. Turns out there were a lot of Turks living in London and running small business. Man, their breakfast was awesome and relatively affordable. Big servings all around, but we still ordered a plate each, with a banana Nutella pancake for sharing, and continued to do so during the next 2 or 3 breakfasts we spent here.
I pre-ordered a London Pass and used their mobile app instead of the physical pass and decided to use it on Sunday. All our tours I scheduled for the next 2 days were prepaid through the London Pass. After attending mass in a depressing chapel behind the Shard/London Bridge station, we proceeded to go on a hop-on/hop-off bus tour.. This was our first hiccup: some roads were closed, so we had to walk around and even call the bus company to find our pickup point. We ended up walking across Tower Bridge to find our pickup point.
Is the London Pass worth it? In our case, I don’t think so. For the London Pass to be worth it, you would have to visit at least 3 spots to take advantage of the discounted rates. And we never found the need to get in front of the line, as the places we went to had manageable lines. The places are so nice and interesting, you’d have to spend a whole day to really appreciate it. So unless you get bored easily, you wouldn’t need a London pass.
After a couple of hours going around London, we took our late lunch at an Italian restaurant near our next stop, Shakespeare’s Globe. Before joining the guided tour, you can take a look at the exhibits featuring the various props used during Shakespeare’s time. There were even videos showing how the special effects like blood and decapitations were done during that time.
It was getting late, but we decided to run next door to the Tate Modern, a modern art museum. Since we only had 30 minutes before closing, we only got to see a few exhibits, but needless to say, they were too modern for our tastes (aka weird-ass-shit).
Aside from Google Maps and the London Underground app to guide us around, another free useful app is the London Bus by Zuti. It showed us nearby bus stops and bus numbers after you input your destination. It works offline, so no cellular data is needed.
For our 2nd day with the London Pass, we went to the Tower of London, The London Bridge Experience, and Westminster Abbey. You can spend an entire day at the Tower of London, but we decided to just attend a portion of the guided tour and check out the family jewels. We took a quick look at the armory, but didn’t get too far due to the abundance of stairs (Anj opted out due to her recent operation). Luckily, they were also having a Tudors Fair at the grounds, where a number of activities (mostly geared for kids) simulated life during King Henry’s time. Brie enjoyed making a candle, shooting a crossbow, and dressing up while collecting stickers to get a free button.
We skipped lunch (we were still full from our heavy breakfast at Park View Cafe) and went to the London Bridge Experience next. It’s basically an educational horror maze, literally under the London Bridge. Anj had her eyes closed most of the time, but there were interesting exhibits and guided tours that tries to give you the feel of how life was in the 1600s.
There was a slight drizzle today, but not really enough to stop anybody from walking under the rain. We went Westminster Abbey but missed the visiting times, so we just took a couple of pictures before heading home.
Today was dedicated to the Warner Bros. Harry Potter tour. You have to pre-order your tickets online to get in. It was an hour’s train ride north of London. We had to add some change to our Oyster card as our weekly unlimited pass didn’t cover that part of London.
While not as interactive as Universal Studios’ World of Harry Potter, it was still a very interesting experience going through the actual sets and props of the movies. I was even “forced” (Imperio!) to buy 2 full video/photo packages of the broomstick section where you ride a broomstick against a green screen (check our videos here!).
The whole tour took about 4 hours to get through. You can buy your lunch there and have butterbeer and butterbeer ice cream. Before heading back to the city, we stopped by one station to check out Craft World, a huge craft store ala US’s Michaels, in a small compound that also had a Toys R Us. We decided to utilize the hotels’ kitchen for dinner, so we bought a pizza from Mark’s and Spencer and chicken fillet from the nearby Sainsbury.
We pre-ordered matinee tickets to Matilda, a play in Cambridge Theater, since Brie is a huge Roald Dahl fan. In the morning, we took time to visit the Bank of London to exchange my mom’s monopoly money for real British Pound notes. The nice guards at the door suggested that we visit their free museum just around the corner. Nice! Spent a little time there before meeting up with Anj’s aunt at Leicester Square station. Even managed to baptize the museum’s bathroom…with my poop.
Leicester Square, aside from having the Leicester Square Garden, has a number of big and small movie theaters as well as cafes and restaurants around. You can also buy discounted and last-minute theater tickets at the park. It’s a short walk to Covent Garden and West End, so it’s a perfect place to have lunch before watching Matilda. After eating at an italian restaurant (we seem to eat at a lot of Italian restos in the UK, sorry but British food generally sucks), we dropped Anj’s aunt off at the nearby Chinatown. It’s amazing how you can just turn the corner and find yourself in a place almost completely out of Asians, with Chatime and Asian groceries around.
Matilda was awesome! Cambridge Theater was tiny, so you could probably buy the cheapest seats and still be in a great spot. The cast was made mostly of children, and they were all so talented. A definite must watch, and London has no shortage of plays to choose from. Too bad we didn’t know there was a run of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe for only £5, it sold out during our stay (we should’ve stayed for at least 2 weeks).
We took an early dinner at a Japanese place in Chinatown. They take their Japanese seriously there: no tips, the menu says they speak Japanese, and they won’t take sushi suggestions. It was a nice break to be able to eat rice again.
We took a walk to Piccadilly Circus and went to Waterstones, a huge bookstore. God, I love London. I really prefer using the bus to the Underground because you can see London, and it’s really just a few minutes slower than the train, so I checked my bus app to make sure we can take 1 bus straight to our hotel. Most of the time, we could.
We planned going to Westminster today, and since Buckingham Palace was on the way, decided to stop by as well. Brie wanted to baptize Green Park station’s bathroom…with her poop… and we were close enough to the time of the changing of the guards at the Palace. The tourists were gathered around like pigeons in a park full of crumbs. We saw the horse parade and the troops filing in, but for about 45 minutes of waiting and nothing much going on, we would’ve been better off snapping a few selfies and watching the change on Youtube instead.
Westminster Abbey was awesome. We took advantage of the audio-guided tour narrated by Jeremy Irons and spent a few hours in the Cathedral. We took our lunch in their cafe, which I don’t recommend unless you want overpriced bland food. Better to buy the cheaper hotdogs right outside the Abbey.
We then proceeded to the museum compound that had the Natural History Museum, Science Museum, and V&A museums (all free to enter, £5 donation optional). Brie opted for the Science Museum, where we only had 45 minutes to spend as we also wanted to check out the V&A before closing time. We spent most of our time in the home exhibit, where you learned about the first versions of the home appliances we take for granted (washing machines, toilets, refrigerators). Riveting stuff. My recommendation: if you only had time for 1 museum, spend it in the Natural History Museum (more on that on Day 7).
We went back to Covent Garden for some last minute shopping and dinner. We decided on Greek, and it was awesome. Managed to get a shoe on sale and spent our last few hours at Primark.
Last day…sad. We decided to spend some time at the Natural History Museum for Brie, but made a few stops before that. We went to Abbey Road to take a few pictures of me crossing it. Of course, there’s a Beatles coffee shop right outside the Underground station, where I HAD to buy a cup of coffee and a coffee shop guitar pick. And of course, a newly opened Abbey Road store made spend a few more pounds on a guitar strap. I don’t know what it was, but somehow it felt like I was walking on hallowed ground outside that studio. But really, it was just an ordinary street where ordinary people get annoyed by tourists continuously walking back and forth on their sidewalk that caused daily minor traffic jams.
We then took a bus to Baker Street station to check out the Sherlock Holmes Museum. We didn’t get in due to the line (our flight leaves in the afternoon!), but hung out in the shop to buy a few small items.
Finally, we spent about 30 minutes (I know, right? Should’ve extended to another week) at the Natural History Museum. It as huge, interactive, and had great architecture.
We went back to our hotel and ordered our Uber to the airport. We could’ve used the tube to go straight to the airport, but we were lugging 4 bags. It took us almost 2 hours to get there, so allot some time for that.
I shall meet you again London. I even teased Brie that she’ll be the only one going back to the Philippines because she has school. Who knows, maybe we’ll live here for a while.