Hello! I hope everyone is well and enjoying the “June-in-October” weather we’ve been having. I just spent more than two weeks in Cape May, house and cat sitting. At least four days out of the last week there were sunny and in the ‘70s. Unexpected but enjoyable. I actually sat on the beach several times.
I am writing today, for the last time probably (unless someone asks a question or something else comes up), about the trip we took to London this past summer. I wanted to do an entry that hopefully will include some basic helpful information for anyone who might be considering such a trip. Alternatively, for anyone simply interested in the mechanics of European travel. While this post is dedicated to London, where we spent five days, I’ll shortly be doing a similar post about the eight days in Paris that followed.
There are several reasons that we scheduled our trip for the end of July into August. While there is no doubt that we had a great time, and were grateful to be able to take the trip, we would not go again at the height of the summer tourist season! Without beating the topic up too much – it was crowded there! Crowded to the point that many of the places we wanted to go or see were crossed off our list after the briefest of visits. I’ll elaborate on some of them below.
Also, I have posted a slide show of the London trip on YouTube. You can see that here.
We used VRBO to find an apartment to rent for our five nights. It was in the Southwark part of town (pronounced like “suth-uck”). That proved to be a great area to be based in – quiet and residential but close to retail and dining options along with a tube stop within a few blocks.
The Tube (subway) was easy to learn and use. The London Tube system is known as one of the best in the world, if not the best. We had come prepared with Oyster Cards, which are a pre-loaded fare card meant for visitors. They give a substantial discount and are simple to reload. You can take the tube all over the city, with numerous transfers throughout the day, for less than seven pounds. Google “Oyster Card” or just “how to use the London Tube”. I bought ours ahead of time so we had them on arrival at Heathrow. This proved to be a good move because we used our cards for the train ride to Central London, and I’m not sure we would have been able to buy them at the airport.
Money. When we were there, the British Pound was worth about $1.25. We used our ATM card for local cash just as we do at home. As a matter of fact, in the airport, as well as around the city, we found numerous ATM machines that advertised “Free” cash withdrawals. And they were. We used the ATM twice in London and four times in Paris and never had an ATM charge. Small change perhaps, but every little bit helps!
Aside from cash, we used a Visa card several times for meals or purchases. We had come prepared with one that we knew did not charge a foreign transaction fee (important, because those fees can add up fast), and we stuck with that card. Ours was a PNC Bank card but there are other good cards. Just google “best credit cards for foreign travel” or something like that. I should add that, though we used one ATM card for cash withdrawals and one Visa card for credit card purchases, we had come prepared with several backup options for each situation. You should too.
Note that Europe is ahead of the US as far as using “chip & pin” cards. I know that the US has been gradually converting over to that system, and I think all of our cards are chip & pin at this point. If you do any research at all, you will hear and read that merchants and machines in Europe are going to ask you for your pin. We came prepared – making sure that we knew all our pins (call your bank if you don’t) – BUT, nobody ever asked us for a pin! We were just asked to sign on the line. My suggestion is to be prepared and know your pin because eventually you will need it.
A few quick thoughts –
London has a big river running right through it (The Thames, which is pronounced “tems”), and there are numerous options to take boat trips east or west to different day-trip destinations. We chose the trip east to Greenwich, home of the prime meridian (the line of zero longitude and the point from which world time is measured). Greenwich was, no surprise, crowded, but was still a lovely and historic town to wander around and have a nice lunch. The boat ride itself, just about 40 minutes, was part of the whole fun experience. The boats from Central London to Greenwich leave regularly from numerous locations and don’t cost much more than a tube ride. Highly recommended!
We took the tube one day to the Westminster area, which is the seat of the British government. It was so “times-square” crowded when we came out of the station that we took a few quick snaps of Big Ben and high-tailed through the throngs to get out of there. We walked past Downing Street and up to Trafalgar Square where we looked at Nelson’s column in the rain and then ducked into a pub for a hearty lunch.
It was very pleasant to stroll around the Covent Garden area for window shopping and lunch at a sidewalk café. From there, it was just a short walk to Soho and Piccadilly Circus and the theater district.
The only museum we made it to was the Tate Modern, which was about a fifteen-minute walk from our flat on Great Southwark Street. The Tate Modern is in the old Bankside power station, and it is a really cool building from the outside and in the inside. It is a modern art collection, and as far as most of the art inside the building, well… what did I say? Oh yes – it is a really cool building. Enjoy and see for yourself!
From our flat, it was an easy walk north towards the river and London Bridge. Right nearby, on the south bank, is the sprawling Borough Market, more a gathering of farm-market type food stands and shops than one distinct market. It was fun to walk through and get a pastry here, a piece of cheese there, and then pick up a bottle of wine and other stuff for dinner.
We didn’t bother with the London Eye (enormous Ferris wheel). We had read that it can have long lines, and the city in general was so crowded that we didn’t need to find out for ourselves. Expensive too. Instead, we had a drink at a fantastic bar on the 38th floor of The Shard skyscraper. The Shard was a ten-minute walk from our flat and while the drinks were expensive, there was no admission charge and no line. The view was spectacular.
Tipping. Yikes! For Americans, who are known world-wide as generous or “over” tippers, this is certainly one of the most discussed and debated topics in terms of European travel. I have read and read and read on the subject, and found many different opinions. One truth is that in both London and Paris, tipping simply is not as expected or “required” as it is here.
There is generally a service charge of about 10% included in the food bill and that should be clearly visible. Locals in London told us that if it is there, there is no need to add anything additional. If you are sure it is not included (which would be unusual), 10% would be good. Tipping is not expected at all if just getting a drink at the bar. We found in London that it was common in pubs that serve food to order from the bartender, then pick up your food when they call you and take it over to your table. We learned that was a non-tipping situation, as it was not really table service. We found that the hardest thing for us was to just get past the feeling that we were being stingy and not leaving enough! It just really is not as much of a thing over there.
Dining. As anyone who knows us is aware, we are very plain eaters. We do not need exotic seafood dishes in fine sauces or $40 steaks. We generally do well in any big city and London was no exception. Pubs are everywhere and have plenty of basic comfort food items, such as burgers, chicken sandwiches, Shepard’s pie, and fish & chips. Pizza is also readily available. All the ethnic restaurants are there and generally offer what you would expect in New York. For example, it is easy to find a penne Bolognese or fettuccini alfredo in the many Italian places.
I mentioned above that the only museum we made it to was the Tate Modern, but that isn’t entirely true. We also got to the London Film Museum in the Covent Garden area. They had a special and extensive James Bond exhibit going on that The Working Stiff had to see! The very professional show was put together in cooperation with the Bond production company and focused on the vehicles used in the movies. The “Little Nellie” mini-copter, Goldfinger’s Rolls, several Aston Martins, and the Lotus Esprit that drove into the water and became a submarine were all there. You can see a few pics in my YouTube slideshow that I have linked to above.
Lastly, I’ll once more plug the Rick Steve’s London book that was my main book to carry with me while a pile of others stayed home. It’s a really good little book. Rick Steve’s Pocket London.
That’s about it for now. Keep watch for a similar entry for Paris in the next day or so, and please do leave a comment or ask a question!
The Working Stiff