My cousin George was in town for a week back in February and I got to play London tourist, something I haven’t done in quite some time. We hit a bunch of museums, a West End Show, ate out a lot, and did a little bit of shopping. This is going to sound pretty crazy to Londoners because maybe it’s obvious but guys, there are A LOT of tourists in London. I mean, a lot a lot. One afternoon, we walked over Waterloo Bridge and the number of people on the bridge taking selfies was completely completely OTT. I sort of knew going in that being a tourist would be hard and was thus glad I planned way in advance for stuff, but we still ran into some problems here and there. So my main advice for anyone planning a trip to London is PLAN IN ADVANCE!
What struck me most as a tourist is what a great city London is for walking — IF you are used to walking. To me, crossing Hyde Park by walking from Kensington High Street to Queensway was not a big deal. But for my cousin, maybe it was. Likewise, St. Paul’s to the Tate Modern to Tower Bridge is not a big deal for me, but it totally is for someone who lives in a city where they just don’t have to walk. He was practically dead by the time we go to to Tower Bridge and I had to put him in a taxi and take him home. (To be fair, jet lag was also a factor here.)
Here’s what worked and didn’t work during my cousin’s visit…
Tower Hill Tour with Beefeater Dave: This was seriously the highlight of George’s trip. Beefeater Dave was funny AND informative. Amazing given that I think there were 200 people in our tour group?? 200 people! In February! It was a bit crazy but Dave managed it with aplomb. I’ve sent other London guests off to Tower Hill without me, but I enjoyed this so much that I will definitely go back. (This was my first Tower Hill tour since 2001!)
Harrods: I didn’t want George to like Harrods. I wanted him to like Liberty. But he loved Harrods and the food hall. (What he didn’t like was fish & chips for $45 USD.) I can see the appeal of Harrods — the food hall is truly fab — but it’s also such a touristy thing to do! But seriously, he could have spent hours here and was maybe a little miffed that I rushed him out.
The London Eye: We had a hard time getting onto the London Eye — stay away during half term when all of London’s kids are off from school — but once we made it, we were very happy. The London Eye never gets boring for me and I highly recommend it for you and all your guests.
Boat Ride along The Thames: This was included in our Hop On Hop Off bus tickets (keep reading for more on that) and it was the perfect way to get from Tower Bridge to the London Eye. In hindsight, we should have done the full route to Greenwich. It’s a great way for a tourist to see the city.
Book of Mormon in the West End: It was just really fun to be out with the theatre crowd, and Book of Mormon delivered some really good laughs to a packed house. I don’t think I need to see this again, but if you haven’t seen Book of Mormon yet, do it!
Brasserie Zedel for dinner before Book of Mormon: Dinner here pre-theatre worked out great. What I love about Zedel is that the menu has something for everyone, both food-wise and price-wise. George couldn’t stop talking about how good the coffee was either. (I tried some. It was so strong, my eyes crossed.)
Lunch at German Gymnasium in Kings Cross: My cousin has a thing for spaces so I knew he’d like German Gymnasium and I was so so right. He could not stop looking at everything and taking pictures. I am pretty sure Dominic West (aka McNulty) was there during our visit?!! So this was a win for me too. The food at Germany Gymnasium is hearty and filling so it’s great after a long day of walking.
Wandering Kings Cross Station and the St. Pancras Grand Renaissance Hotel: After lunch at German Gymnasium, I took my cousin over to the hotel and into Kings Cross Station. Given his reaction to German Gymnasium, I knew he’d love these too and I was so so right. The staircase at the St. Pancras Grand is lovely and so are the public spaces. For the next visitor, I will factor in a drink at the St. Pancras Grand at some point.
Pret a Manger: Amazingly, Pret a Manger always worked. For a tourist, it’s cheap and they have free wifi. (Essential for most Americans who aren’t on T-mobile.) I got my cousin a bit addicted to Pret’s “Sweet and Salty” popcorn and Pret became a regular afternoon stop whenever he was a little peckish.
The Members Bar at the Tate Modern: I recently purchased a membership to the Tate Modern just so I could use the bar with its views along the Thames. We picked a perfect day to visit and got a prime window seat. I was very pleased with this and think it’s a great treat for tourists.
Apulia by Smithfield Market: One night my cousin said he felt like Italian but he was very specific and wanted something casual. I took him to Apullia and he told me afterwards that he could eat there every day. I like Apulia. It’s a friendly neighborhood Italian if you’re around Clerkenwell and Smithfield Market. Is it the best food you’ll ever have in your entire life? Probably not. But it’s priced right and they’re nice.
The National Gallery: We popped in here before tea at The Haymarket Hotel and did a quick spin around the Impressionists. It’s free! Amazing. And the tilework in the lobby! Also amazing!
Tea at The Haymarket Hotel: I tried booking tea for a Sunday afternoon and man let me tell you — don’t leave this to the last minute like I did. The Haymarket was one of the few places that could take us, but it worked out perfectly because my cousin loved the decor and it was super convenient to The National Gallery.
London Black Cabs: They were surprisingly always there when we needed one. (Most of the time, I feel like they’re not.) All our drivers were chatty and nice and no one complained about immigrants (“But I don’t mean you, love”) or Remainers.
The Tube: Seriously if there’s anything that struck me after this week was the greatness, the amazingness, of London public transport. I think George got a little annoyed with changing trains at times and he thought Queensway to Chancery Lane was a “long ride” (“Are we there yet?”) but seriously we are so so lucky to live in a city with such amazing public transportation. The Tube is amazing. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.
Spuntino: We stopped in here for a snack after our Hop On Hop Off bus tour. George loved the fried chicken although he said the staff looked like they smoked a lot of weed. LOL.
Fish & Chips: I think George had fish & chips at least three times. It never got boring for him. The $45 fish and chips lunch at Harrods was his least favorite and the £12.99 fish and chips from the slightly dodgy yet surprisingly friendly pub by Farringdon Station was his most favorite.
What Didn’t Work
The Tate Modern: The exhibitions here when we visited were really really weird. There was one room full of what looked like giant potatoes. And another room full of weird animal people. I normally like contemporary art but this was just a little too weird for us.
David Hockney at The Tate Britain: I was pretty excited for this but it was pretty crowded and the queues were long (even with advance tickets) and by the time we got into the exhibit, we were both crotchety and tired. Also, while I knew a little bit about David Hockney, George didn’t so he just wasn’t into it.
Princess Diana’s Dresses: I thought we could kill two birds with one stone and visit Kensington Palace AND see the new exhibit of Princess Diana’s dresses. Again, the queuing — even with advance tickets — got the best of both of us. And then the exhibition itself was pretty small. Also, Kensington Palace itself is a lot of empty rooms.
The Hop On Hop Off Bus: I bought tickets for this because I have great memories of doing the same with one of my other cousin’s Jen many years ago. We had one live guide who was so entertaining that we actually stayed on the bus and didn’t get off. George and I weren’t as lucky this time around and the two different guides we had were rather dry. Also, in February, there can be long waits in between buses. (In the summer, their goal is that you never don’t see a bus…as soon as one bus leaves, you can see the next one arriving.) I wanted to show George all of London above ground so I achieved my goal…but we just weren’t very entertained.
Changing of The Guard: Included in our Hop On Hop Off bus tour was a changing of the guard walking tour. Our tour guide walked way too fast and also was pretty boring and factual. More importantly though, the Changing of the Guard — even in February — was totally packed with people. We just couldn’t take the crowds. Honestly…the crowds! I can only imagine what it’s like in June.
Nando’s: I thought everyone liked Nando’s but I was wrong. George didn’t. It took forever to order our food and forever for our food to arrive. The service was just really off the day we visited which ruined it for the both of us. If you’re wondering why Nando’s was even on the list, as a tourist, it’s hard to spend £20+ on food every night. So I tried to factor in some cheaper options.
The Singing Leon on Shaftsbury Avenue: I built in a cheap lunch stop one afternoon and thought it would be fun to visit the Leon on Shaftsbury Avenue where some of the staff perform. My cousin just didn’t understand the brown rice and cabbage at Leon and while some singers were good, others were not so good.
Liberty: If you’ve been reading this blog long enough, you know that Liberty is one of my favorite places in the entire world. George thought it was just okay in comparison to Harrods. I couldn’t believe it, personally, because he’s totally into home decor and stuff.
Drinks at The Shard: Rather than pay to go to the viewing deck at The Shard, I took my cousin to Aqua. In hindsight, he probably would have liked the viewing platform better because of the 360 views and wall of glass. (I’m more of a cocktail and views kind of gal.)
Suffice it to say, it was a pretty eventful week and after George left, I went into hibernation mode. (20,000 steps per day!) Where are your favorite places to take London visitors? What do you like to feed them? What have I forgotten?