THE BOE hits a lot of must-see cities, plus a few places we never considered. We also wanted to spend some time in London and Paris. So we planned three and a half days in those cities before joining the tour.
We arrived at Heathrow Airport at 6:30 am, which gave us a full day in London. We took the Tube from Heathrow directly to St. Pancras International - an extremely convenient location. For one, it's the Eurostar Station as well as a major Tube hub. It's connected to our hotel, the Renaissance St. Pancras. And if you plan to travel around England by train, it's across the street from King's Cross Station.
Taking Rick Steves’ advice on battling jet lag, we asked the hotel to hold our bags and got moving. We caught the Big Bus Hop On Hop Off (HOHO) Red Line tour, which comes with a live tour guide and passes by many of the places we wanted to see. Omar bought our tickets from his phone before departing from JFK. Since our time in London was so limited, we figured it was a great way to site-see and get the lay of the land.
We snagged seats on the uncovered portion of the upper deck. The view was great up there. We rode through Soho, Haymarket, and Trafalgar Square.
Background image: view of Tower Bridge from the Tower of London
Video: Big Bus HOHO ride past Trafalgar Square, Nelson's Column, and the National Portrait Gallery
The HOHO tour guide was lively, but it was hard to hear him from where we sat. If you want to hear everything, try to sit closer to the guide, or find a seat on the lower level, where the sound is piped in and isn’t obscured by traffic or wind.
While on the HOHO, it started to sprinkle, then drizzle, and then it started to rain. We moved to the lower level, which turned out to be a great idea, because then it started to pour! That’s about when we began to doze off.
The power of jet lag
We (yes, we) eventually woke up, luckily, just in time for the Tower of London stop. We exchanged our HOHO bus tickets for the free Thames River Cruise. We also bought our Tower of London tickets from Big Bus.
Fortunately, it stopped raining! In fact, except for a sprinkle or two, it stayed dry. The sun even made a brief appearance. So we took a little time exploring the perimeter of the Tower.
After passing through the main gate, we fell in line with other visitors and tagged along for the Yeoman Warder (Beefeater) Tour - a must-do! A bit of history told with a lot of charm and enthusiasm. The tour ended in a beautiful little chapel, where photography is prohibited. So you'll just have to experience it for yourself.
We also went to the Jewel House to see the Crown Jewels. Again, no photography allowed, but wow! Yes, we were impressed by the number and size of the jewels, the intricacy of the carvings, etc. But the one item that impressed the most was the ginormous golden Grand Punch Bowl. It weighs over 500 pounds! It was incredibly detailed and quite stunning.
Image above: The Italian Gardens at Kensington Gardens
Below: Royal Guard at the Tower of London outside the Jewel House
Big Ben Strikes 5 o'clock Over Rush Hour Traffic
After the Tower of London, we took a cruise down the Thames and made our way to Westminster to see a
couple of Omar's must-see sites. The first site: Big Ben, where we took lots of pictures. Unfortunately, it was late in the afternoon, and we didn't have time to go inside. Plus, we wanted to make sure we had plenty of time to visit his second must-see site: The Churchill War Rooms, which was just a few blocks away from Big Ben. If you have time, it's a really good self-guided tour - even if, like me, you aren't a huge WWII buff.
On our way back to the hotel, we took a slightly scenic route by passing through part of Kensington Gardens - a lovely park with lots of wide, open spaces, feature gardens, and fountains.
Jet-lagged and shortly after our arrival in London, we took the Tube to the nearest Big Bus bus stop. Along the way, I found a certain Seattle-based coffee shop just inside a Tube entrance to get my caffeine fix. And yeah, I didn't think my name was that difficult to spell.
Atop the Red Line
Full of bright smiles and excitement, we snagged seats on the upper deck to begin the Big Bus Hop On Hop Off (HOHO) tour. Sometime later, we both were guilty of doing the sleepy, head bob.
The historic grand hotel, spotted along the HOHO tour in the Marylebone district.
All Souls Church on Regent Street
Nespresso on Regent Street
I took a picture of it, because I'd never seen a dedicated store to a coffee machine before.
The National Portrait Gallery
The Gallery features works by Vermeer, Cezanne, Monet, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Michelangelo....
Nelson's Column is off to the right, and the skeletal sculpture is the "Gift Horse" by Hans Haacke.
Tower of London
Yeoman Warder Tour
Yeoman Warder Tour
Our very dynamic and animated "Beefeater" tour guide.
Armories Collection at White Castle
Wall of Armor (top), part of the Royal Armouries' 300-year old armour collection. Closeup details of craftsmanship (bottom).
Another Yeoman Warder
Modern, Iconic Buildings
From left to right: The Walkie-Talkie, The Cheese Grater, and the Gherkin
Thames River Cruise
After going through the Tower of London, we traded in our HOHO bus tickets for the Thames River cruise. We relaxed and floated along until we reached Westminster.
Big Ben and Westminster Abbey
Actually called the Great Bell and Elizabeth Tower of the Palace of Westminster.
London's Iconic Red Telephone Box
The most photographed telephone booth in London is the one at the foot of Big Ben.
The low-key entrance is right behind Omar (top). The bunker has all the rooms needed to plan the war (bottom). Walking through the same halls that Winston Churchill did really brings history to life!
Kensington Palace & Gardens
That's the back of the palace in the background. The garden pictured here is just a sliver of the entire park. We saw plenty of people walking their dogs, running, lounging, biking...
St. Pancras International
When we checked into our hotel at the end of the day, the front desk surprised us with an upgraded room. The unique view was a definite a plus! Our window overlooked the Eurostar station on the second level of St. Pancras.
In addition to the upgraded room, they left a sweet treat as well as a lovely congratulatory note waiting for us.
WITH less than two days in London, to say our time was limited is an understatement. Of course, there were so many more places we wanted to see, experiences we wanted to have, but there simply wasn’t enough time. So if your time is limited at any destination, choose wisely, and don’t beat yourself up, or at least try not to be too disappointed if you miss something on your wish list.
Our goal for Day 2 in London was to go inside Westminster Abbey, see Buckingham Palace and the Changing of the Guard, tour St. Paul’s Cathedral and the British Museum. What really happened - we overslept. After all, we had been up for nearly 36 hours since we first left home. So we whittled our list down to two places and visited St. Paul’s and the British Museum.
Above: My camera didn't capture it, but the artist in the corner had a really impressive drawing of the Assyrian Winged Bulls.
I'm so happy that we went to St. Paul’s Cathedral. It's a beautiful church, rich in history, and one of the largest in the world. We took the self-guided tour and even attended one of its 30-minute services, which is open to all visitors. And if you're game, you can climb 528 steps to the very top and get a fantastic view of the city.
Afterwards, we headed to the British Museum, where we saw the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone, which I thought was pretty cool. Oh, and one thing about the British Museum - like many museums in London, there is no entry fee. However, they charge for maps. We bought one for £2.
Sadly, that was our last major stop in London. We took the Tube back to St. Pancras, grabbed our bags and a quick bite to eat, and headed to the Eurostar Station. We purchased our tickets nearly two months prior. If you plan to take the Eurostar, buying them in advance is highly recommended. They can be purchased through Rick Steves or directly from Eurostar.
Statue of St. Paul outside St. Paul's Cathedral
St. Pancras Hotel
One side of our hotel on a sunny day.
St. Paul's Cathedral
This place is huge! We had no idea it's one of the largest churches in the world, and it features the second largest dome in the world, too!
Front doors of St. Paul's Cathedral
Saint Paul's Cathedral has been the site of many historic state occasions, including Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher's funerals and the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales.
View from top of St. Paul's
We climbed the 257 steps to Whispering Gallery, where Omar tested out its acoustics. Then we climbed 119 more steps to the Stone Gallery, and then climbed the final 152 steps - for a total of 528 - to the Golden Gallery for the jaw-dropping view.
This was the view from the Golden Gallery.
More of the city from the Golden Gallery.
From atop St. Paul's Cathedral you can see people relax, and even play ping pong, in one of the many plazas and squares in London
Down the spiral staircase
It's 528 steps to the top - sometimes in very tight quarters!
It's hard to believe the contrast between the Greek styled southern entrance (top) and the Great Court (bottom) with its modern glass roof.
The British Museum has the largest collection of Egyptian objects outside of Egypt - including the Rosetta Stone (left).
Pieces of the Parthenon
Construction of the Parthenon began in the 440s BC. Pretty amazing to see these impressive sculptures and friezes made thousands of years ago.