We had some fellow expats in from Germany this weekend and we decided to spend the day in London. We hadn’t gone with the intention of necessary doing London on the cheap but we ended up spending very little money and we had a great time. So I thought I would share our itinerary and give you a few tips for doing the same trip with kids.
It had been snowing for four days here and we had a day off from work since it was Martin Luther King Day in America. So we decided to go on Monday. After 9:00am train travel is considered off-peak. This means it is quite a bit cheaper. We were traveling into London from Newmarket and our train ended up being delayed by 20 minutes. Here you can buy tickets after you have boarded the train. The train conductor will just come around during the journey and take care of the transaction. For whatever reason he never came by so our tickets were Free.
Once in Cambridge we decided to take the train into London Kings Cross station. Both Kings Cross and Liverpool Station will get you in the proximity of the attractions in London. This train was also delayed by about 25 minutes, just enough time to gobble down a Cornish Pasty.
Cornish Pasty at Cambridge Rail Station
This part of our trip ended up being free as well.
Once in London Kings Cross we needed to purchase a day pass for The Tube. It’s important to stand in line and buy tickets from the agent, rather than buying from the automated machines. The machine tickets will cost about 50% more than ones bought from an agent. There is a reason why but it is a long explanation that makes little sense to Americans so I will skip the explanation. But you can find more than you will ever need to know about this topic at http://www.railforums.co.uk
A tube day pass will cost you between 5 and 10 GBP. With this pass you can travel on as many underground tube journeys as you want until midnight of that same day. I also have a Friend and Family Rail Card that I can use if we are traveling with a child 15 and under. Even though we had a child with us the Group 4 fare was less expensive. Be sure to ask the agent to find you the best fare considering how many of you are traveling and remember that children and seniors get special rates.
The fare for four adults and one child was 25GBP, or about $40 USD. Had we not gone through the counter agent the tickets would have cost 38GBP, or around $60 USD. If we had purchased individual tickets we would have spent well over $200 USD.
So once we had our passes we headed to our first stop, Green Park station. Green Park is adjacent to Buckingham Palace where the very popular Changing of the Guards Ceremony takes place. It is really important for you to check this schedule before you plan your trip, so that you aren’t disappointed.
There will be significant crowds if the Guard Ceremony is taking place that day. So you need to get there early and prepare to stand for several hours. During the tourist season it is obviously most crowded.
Guard Change Times
Buckingham Palace guard change timing:
- 11:15 Guards,with bands, start arriving
- 11:30 Official start time
- 12:00 Guard change ceremony ends
We knew the guards ceremony would not take place while we were there but the great thing about going on an off day is that you can really see the palace up close, without hundreds of people standing in front of you. It’s also far easier to get a picture of the palace, gates, guard shacks, etc. If you look closely you can see that it looks like this guard is sleeping while standing up.
So after we spent some time at the palace we decided to walk through St. James Park. Until our visit I had never heard of Green Park or St. James Park but they are both beautiful. St. James Park is also the location of the Lady Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Walk.
The waterfowl in the park is extraordinarily used to people, so much so that they seem to enjoy the human interaction and posing for pictures. Here’s a picture of one such “proper swan”.
There were Canadian Geese, Mallard Ducks, and other British species of ducks such as the Pochard aShelduck, Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal, Pintail, Shoveler, Common Pochard and Goldeneye, but do also look out for more exotic water birds from the Royal Park collection, such as Black Swans, Red-crested Pochard and others. Our favorites were the three Pelicans, two Great White Pelicans and one South American White Pelicans that seem to share the Swans affinity for having their photographs taken. We were too early for this event but if you time it right you can see the Pelicans being fed from 2:30 – 3:00 each day.
By downloading this guide
you can create a scavenger hunt for yourself or for children that are traveling with you. We all wished we had something like this with us when we were walking the park.
Waterfowl seems to be the main occupant of this park but there are also very friendly squirrels. We complied with the signs asking that they not be fed but it didn’t matter. If you showed interest in them they would come get in your lap.
It should also be noted that rabies and similar diseases do not exist in the UK, so that should not be a concern when these furry guys decide to stop in for a visit.
After spending an hour or so in St. James Park we made our way to Big Ben, which is more beautiful than I expected. And just as we all learned from Chevy Chase in Christmas Vacation, Big Ben is next to the British Parliament building. By this time our Cornish Pasty’s had worn off and we were all very hungry. So we decided to catch the tube at Westminster Station, which is very close to Big Ben, and head to a highly recommended restaurant in SOHO, called Bistro 1.
Like most other big cities, there are good restaurants in London but most are very expensive. There were several places where fish and chips would have cost $35 or more. It’s fried fish and french fries served with some English peas that have been mashed up…not exactly a bargain.
One of the great things about being an expat is that the locals will give you the inside scoop and the recommendation for Bistro 1 was excellent. The five of us each had a 3 course meal and we shared two bottles of good red wine and the total bill was less than $100! The restaurant is quite small. It might only seat 50 people and it is a little bit off the beaten path, while also being right in the heart of SOHO. I’m getting hungry just thinking about this place…Anyway, they have mostly Mediterranean cuisine but they also serve up a great fish and chips so everyone was happy, kids included.
Bistro 1 on Beak Street in SOHO
As we headed out to take in more of SOHO we decided to venture up Lexington Street and we found a great Vintage Magazine shop, http://www.vinmag.com. The collection of American and European magazines and posters, etc was impressive.
Lexington Street sort of merges into the infamous Old Windmill Street, and yes, there was a very large windmill there at one time. However, that is not why it is known around the world. This long standing establishment stayed open throughout the Blitz on London, during WWII, which made all the soldiers quite happy because it is a strip club and has been since 1931. Our bar keep at The Lyric pub, just across the street, let us know that admittance was free into The Windmill International Club if you showed your hotel key at the front door. While this was a great Free tip, a strip club was far from being on our itinerary so I can only pass on this second hand information. The Windmill is apparently well known for it’s Groom Room, where you can pay $30 and get your shoes shined while the girls dance in lingerie…I’m still not sure if “shoes shined” is a metaphor for something else but based on the price I would say it’s probably just about your shoes.
The Windmill International
After having a drink in front of the much needed warmth of The Lyric Pub fireplace, we headed down to Shaftesbury Street and took a left towards Chinatown and Covent Gardens. This part of the West End is much like Broadway in New York city. There is a Best Western on Shaftesbury that has been a topic of much conversation among my fellow expats. Some say it is good and some say it is bad…I will make a point to check this out on a future trip.
All along both sides of the street were first tier production and nice restaurants. As expected, there are plenty of souvenir shops but the largest and cleanest was Cool Britannia. Everything has the Union Jack on it, including the full sized Mini Cooper and these little rubber duckys. And you can find Big Ben and snow globes of all shapes and sizes.
Cool Britannia Shop SOHO District London
- Big Bens and Snow Globes of London
Now that our friends had purchased the requisite souvenirs, we headed east towards Chinatown.
I really think International Town would be a better name because there were establishments from France, Japan, Belgium, etc.
Chinatown in London
The souvenir shops in this area were much smaller and less expensive. If you didn’t want a pair of Union Jack knickers, you could always spend your $20 on some acupuncture or a foot massage at one of the massage kiosks. It is rumored that real Chinatown is on some specific alleyways in the area. Maybe I will check those out with my Chinese friends soon.
If you wanted to splurge you could visit Opium Cocktail & Dim Sum Parlor for a special drink at the not so low, low price of $20.
OPIUM COCKTAIL NO.1
APPLETON VX RUM + WRAY & NEPHEW RUM + ABSINTHE + MANDARIN JUICE + LIME JUICE + KAFFIR LIME SYRUP + CITRUS BITTERS + GINSENG CAPSULE SHAKEN + SERVED BUBBLING
Opium will be on our hit list for Chinese New Year in London, starting February 10, 2013, but we skipped it on this trip.
We were headed towards Covent Gardens to see what types of street performers come out in the snow but we decided to stop in for a pint at De Hems. It is just behind Crispins at Shaftesbury and Dean St. It is a very comfortable, traditional pub and it’s fairly large so it can handle the crowds once theatre is let out. The general rule is that kids under 16 are allowed in pubs until 8:00 or 9:00 pm so there was no problem with taking teenagers in with us.
After a pint we headed towards The Palace Theatre, where Singing with the Rain is playing and then onto Seven Dials for another pint at a pub called The Crown. The Crown is smaller and feels more like a local pub and not so touristy.
Singing in the Rain – Palace Theatre in London
By this point we were pinted out and it was time to head back to Newmarket. We went to Covent Station, having never actually made it to Covent Gardens, and we tubed it back to London King’s Cross. Someone grabbed a bottle of wine and we boarded the 50 minute train to Cambridge. We snacked on what was left of a pasty from earlier in the day, shared the bottle of wine and arrived back out our house by 11:00pm.
Had it not been for a sit down dinner and more than our fair share of pints and wine, we would have had a near Free trip to London, and no hangover the next morning.
Even with the drinks added in, we figured we spent $10 on trains, $30 on food and another $30 on drinks. All things considered, $70 for an entire day in London isn’t too bad. We had a great time and if we had really wanted to save money we could have easily packed a backpack full of sandwiches, grabbed a pint along the way and it would have been London for under $20 a day.
We still have sooooo much to see in London!