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.
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