LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM
- When: 18 May, 2019 and 3 June 2019.
- Where (accommodations): No hotel on May 18th. Hilton London Heathrow Airport on June 3rd.
- Transportation: British Airways flight from Boston (BOS) to London (LHR). British Airways flight from Johannesburg (JNB), South Africa to London (LHR).
- Sights/attractions: Kensington Gardens and Kensington Palace, Wellington Arch, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Palace of Westminster, Big Ben, Coca-Cola London Eye, Borough Market, South Bank area, The Shard, Tower Bridge, Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral, Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden, Notting Hill, Portobello Market, Kings Cross and the Harry Potter Platform 9 3/4, Piccadilly Circus.
- Food/drinks: Borough Market, South Bank area (The Cheese Iron), Covent Garden (Palm Court Brasserie), Granger and Co, Mr Foggs Tavern (English pub).
I am from Europe and have traveled there quite a bit, but London never really was a vacation destination that I considered. I have friends and family there, so it’s always been one of those places that seemed easily accessible and was sort of in the bottom of my bucket list. However, when we started planning our trip to Africa, the best flight options from Boston were going through London. The layover was already quite long, so we had an idea- why don’t we make it long enough to leave the airport, so we can explore the city and stretch our legs before another long flight?
BUSY 10 HOURS IN LONDON
We flew out on a Friday night to maximize vacation time with the upcoming weekend. The seats were not very spacious on this British Airways flight, but we managed to get a little bit of sleep as it was overnight flight. Saturday morning, bright and early, we’ve landed in London Heathrow airport. I’ve heard how busy and big LHR is, but since we did not check our suitcases and I have EU passport, we got through customs in a breeze! One convenient thing about Heathrow airport- you can store your luggage right before you exit the terminal! We had a small roller bag and a backpack each, so it was a bit pricey- 12 British Pounds per item. However, considering the amount of walking and sightseeing we did in that one day, having no weight to carry around was a life saver!
We have 10 hours on the ground before we need to be back for our flight to Cape Town, so we chose the fastest way to get into the city. Express train gets you from the airport into the Paddington station in 15 minutes and runs also every 15 minutes. Very comfortable ride that is not cheap- 25 pounds per person (in comparison, the underground Tube that takes an hour to the city center is only around 6 pounds per person). On this first layover we wanted to maximize the time and decided to pay the price for the short ride.
At the end, the machine did not work and we never got charged for the tickets! Free fast ride is even better 🙂 ! From here on, our tour on foot continued to the Kensington Gardens and Kensington Palace.
We did not go inside, the Palace was not open yet, but it was nice to walk around the huge gardens and move around after sitting on the plane.
We walked all the way through the park and towards Wellington Arch. It’s a good walk, took us probably over an hour, luckily we both had comfortable shoes on and were enjoying nice weather. There was no rain despite some clouds in the sky. See- it does not ALWAYS rain in London 🙂 !
Obligatory stop- famous Buckingham Palace!
Crowds were gathering, we didn’t stick around much- exploring continued through St. James Park and towards the Westminster Abbey.
If you want to go inside the famous church, make sure to book your tickets in advance. When we decided to see it, there were no tickets left online and there was no way we were getting in just by showing up. Even with the tickets lines were huge, so we only admired it from the outside. Close by, stands Palace of Westminster with the Parliament buildings and the covered up, under construction Big Ben…
The face of the clock is open, but is not visible from the ground looking up. We only saw it from the Coca-Cola London Eye. Talking about the Eye. We were told it’s not worth going up, but decided to be real tourists and take the ride anyway. To minimize the wait we got the tickets online a day prior to our trip- it would be a complete waste if the weather was bad, so don’t buy the tickets too far in advance. Buying a day prior also saves you 3 pounds per ticket. If you are going to do this attraction and are short on time or hate standing in lines like we do- the Fast Track ticket is a way to go. Standard ticket is 10 pounds cheaper, but as I said, you have to choose long lines vs skipping the queue. In this case time was more valuable than the savings.
The ride took about 40 minutes and we got to see some pretty nice views from above. If you are after the views, my honest advice is to skip the London Eye and go to The Shard instead. We did both and in comparison the latter is way better. We also booked the entrance a day prior online and got the Premium ticket with fast track entry and exit. 7 pounds more than the Standard ticket it got us in without any wait.
There is a bar up top and you can enjoy 360 views at your own pace. It is also MUCH higher than the London Eye. This stop gave us a little rest from all the walking and with renewed energy we continued our fast pace London tour.
While you are near The Shard, it’s worth exploring the Borough Market. We only walked through it, but if you are hungry, there are plenty of options for various cuisines!
If we had more time we would have spent an hour there I am sure! We were not hungry, because prior to going to The Shard we stopped for a snack at the Cheese Iron– grilled cheese food truck located in the South Bank – beautiful area along the river booming with vendors, art galleries and different food options.
From the London Eye just follow the path near the water and you won’t miss it.
We walked by the Shakespeare’s Globe, but did not have the time to do the tour- maybe some other time when we are not in a rush.
I did not feel like I was in London until I got to see the Tower Bridge. This is a symbol of London to me and it is even more beautiful than in the pictures.
We took it in and then slowly crossed over to the other side. There stands the Tower of London– a massive castle that I also recommend buying tickets in advance for.
We did not have the time to go inside, but even from the outside it looked impressive. The day is going into the late afternoon, and we have a couple more stops to make. We head over to St Paul’s Cathedral and enjoy the views along the way.
That’s what I like about London- the city is huge, but the center and all the main tourist attractions are easily walkable.
St Paul’s Cathedral is massive and beautiful. I would probably return to check it out from the inside, but for now we are only sampling London, so we are passing by and grabbing a cab to go to Trafalgar Square.
The place is busy, but has a nice European charm and I could see myself sitting near the fountain and listening to the local performers. Well, now it’s officially time for an early dinner- we made 4pm reservations at the French restaurant Palm Court Brasserie located in the charming Covent Garden area. We could not pass up the opportunity to meet up with my little cousin who lives in London and is expecting a baby boy soon! The food at the highly rated French restaurant was a bit of disappointment. Maybe we are spoiled, but it was not up to hype.
We loved seeing the family and the place did not really matter, as long as we got to catch up!
From there on we took Piccadilly underground line (Tube) to the airport, which took about 40 minutes. Grabbed our bags from the storage and so sure that we had plenty of time strolled upstairs in the Terminal 5 to check in for our flight. Well, there was a surprise! Our flight leaves from Terminal 3, which requires to take an airport train…This was complete oversight on our part- we did not check the terminal listed on our tickets. Now we are not so relaxed anymore. Picture us already exhausted after walking ALL DAY in London now SPRINTING through the airport to get on the train, then to get through security only to be stopped and having to rearrange all of our liquids. From Boston we had no issue, but here, the guy handed us a quart size bag and would not let us go through until the bag completely zipped up. It was the only place throughout the whole trip (11 flights total) where it was such tight liquid control, but we made it. We were so tired that we slept through the entire 11 hr flight to Cape Town 🙂 . Maybe a crazy busy layover is the new best way to survive long haul flights 🙂 !
RELAXED LAYOVER OPTION
On the way back from our Africa adventure we had yet another long layover in London. This time we did not have the self induced pressure to see it all 🙂 . It was completely different experience as we took a lot more leisurely pace. This time we actually booked a hotel (Hilton points were about to expire, so we had to use them up). Hilton London Airport hotel is not exactly at the airport as it sounds from their name. You need to take a bus that costs 6 pounds per person and is about 10 min drive. Regardless, it was worth it. The room was ready right at the early hours of arrival, so we took a shower and did not have to pay to store our bags at the airport this time. Unfortunately the cheapest way to get into the city meant taking the same bus to the airport and then the Underground Tube. As we were in no rush, we took an hour long ride and got off in Notting Hill Gate Underground station. I wanted to explore this area and I am glad we did!
First and foremost- we need breakfast. Granger and Co. sounded perfect and we loved everything that we’ve ordered. Especially their fluffy ricotta hot cakes!
Now that we are happily full, we can explore the colorful neighborhood.
It felt a lot less touristy than the main parts of London and a lot more relaxed. We enjoyed strolling along the candy colored houses and checked out the Portobello Market.
Without any rush we got back on the Tube (if you plan on using it a lot- get a day pass. It was worth it for us on this layover, as we were taking the tube several times between longer distances) and went to the King’s Cross train station.
For the Harry Potter fans, as myself, it was fun to check out the Platform 9 3/4 🙂 . And there were A LOT of Harry Potter fans there! There was a long line to take a picture next to the wall with half way disappearing cart.
We did not wait in line- I didn’t have to be in the picture, it was just fun to see the place in person.
Now that this has been checked off the list, we took another tube ride to Piccadilly Circus. It’s sort of like a mini Times Square of London- neon lights, bright screens and theaters.
I am sure it’s a lot more impressive at night, but it was nice during the day as well. We worked up and appetite, so started strolling down the streets looking for a place to grab a snack.
Mr Foggs Tavern caught our eye (because how could it not?!) and we decided to get some English bar food.
Beer, chips and fish for me, sausage and smash for Sean. It was actually REALLY good! And I don’t normally like bar food. Well, now we’ve done it all- even English pub is checked off the list! Time to get back to hotel and relax before our flight back to Boston.
We even had enough time to go to the spa and enjoy some of their strong jacuzzi jets to relax the muscles before the long plane ride!
Everyone has their travel style and pace. I know ours is sometimes quite insane- during the first layover in London we walked over 11 miles and made 28 000 steps according to our phones. That is after an overnight flight from Boston. While second layover was a lot more relaxed and slower paced, we still saw a lot and experienced the city. Neither of the options are better than the other. I just wanted to share that you can have fun both ways as long as you are not stressing too much and enjoying yourself!