Back in September, my dad and I flew to London, UK for one week. The main purpose of the trip was to learn more about our family’s history by visiting the Society of Genealogy and some locations from my great-grandfather’s stories. But since we’re both so into history and architecture, we went full tourist mode the whole time we were there. Here is our one-week itinerary with a much needed popover to Amsterdam for a couple of days.
Day One: Sunday Sept. 16, 2018
My dad and I wanted to save money on our flights and accommodations so that we could splurge a little on things like food and tourism. After landing, we checked into Wombat’s London Hostel right around the corner from the Tower of London. This was a really cool experience that you can read more about on my Sleeping with the Wombats post. Considering we were staying right by the Tower of London, we wanted to take it easy and explore the area for our first day. We strolled around the tower and decided to take a return boat cruise along the River Thames with City Cruises (tickets were about £15 each). This turned out to be a great decision. My dad had never been to London before so it was really awesome to get a glance of all the different things we would be checking out that week. If you have no plans of walking along the River Thames, I really suggest taking one of these boat tours to learn more about the city of London’s rich history and to see it first-hand.
We tried to find a place that was serving Sunday roast (for whatever reason, I’ve never had any luck finding Sunday roasts on all the Sundays I’ve ever been in England), but opted for a local brewery for some beer and food. BrewDog is a huge Scottish-based brewery with a location near the Tower of London. It has 25 beers on tap with a large selection of beers to take home. The service is great and so is the seating as you can come in on an afternoon to do some work on your computer (dogs encouraged) or book a table for a large party, games included. This became our go-to spot for us to grab a beer after a long day of walking around before heading back to the hostel.
Day Two: Monday Sept. 17, 2018
Our first stop of the day was Buckingham Palace, which is open to visitors for only 10 weeks each summer. Not only did we get to see the Picture Gallery, Throne Room, and Ballroom, but 2018 was the year of Prince Charles’ 70th birthday. For this occasion, there was a special exhibit displaying art from all over the world, curated by Prince Charles himself. It felt pretty surreal to be walking through this famous building and I felt pretty fortunate to have experienced it with my dad. We finished the tour off by devouring passion fruit custard tarts and cappuccinos in the Queen’s garden and taking our tourist photos in front of the palace. Best. Monday. Ever.
Ticket prices vary as do opening times, so visit the palace’s website for more information when planning your trip.
Next up was Westminster Abbey. The architecture of this building is amazing, but if you’re a history buff, this is a necessary stop when visiting London. The abbey is home to hundreds of burials and memorials for royals and people of importance such as Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, and most recently, Stephen Hawking. To see these as well as the coronation chair and walk along the aisle where so many royal weddings have taken place is pretty incredible. Tickets are £22 but you can purchase them online to save a couple pounds and get fast track entry.
We ended our day with a stop at Peggy Porschen Cakes and Harrod’s, finishing it with some Fish & Chips recommended to us by two rowdy (but very friendly) British men outside of the Churchill Arms.
Day Three and Four: Tues-Wed Sept. 18-19, 2018
On Tuesday, we woke up at an ungodly hour to catch a quick flight to Amsterdam for a couple of days. Amsterdam is pretty amazing and quickly became a special place for me. My dad and I went with no plans, but if you want to know more about this quick but memorable part of the trip, you can read my post 36 Hours in Amsterdam here.
Day Five: Thursday Sept. 20, 2018
This was a special day. According to my great-grandfather’s autobiography, we are related to Sir Christopher Wren, an architectural legend. He designed over 50 churches in London, including the magnificent St. Paul’s Cathedral. The first time I visited the cathedral was in 2016, but it was even more special this time around taking my dad here to see it for himself. When travelling, cathedrals can be something quick to admire from the outside, but St. Paul’s is one you have to go inside of. Seeing the beauty of the design as well as the genius behind the physics of the architecture, can undeniably be a spiritual experience.
After the Great Fire of London, which destroyed the building, Wren was tasked with designing the new cathedral along with many other churches throughout London that were also destroyed. It’s wild to wrap your head around how someone in the 1600’s could design such an extravagant structure…the dome itself is overwhelming to look up at. If you’re able, climb to the very top and take in the 360º view of London. It’s a rough climb, but worth it. “If you seek his memorial, look around you.”
The tickets to visit St. Paul’s Cathedral are now £20 per person, which gives you access to the cathedral floor, crypt and the three galleries in the dome. This admission price includes an informative audio guide that you can carry with you throughout the tour.
After St. Paul’s, we had some dinner close by and ended our day with a nice walk along the River Thames.
Day Six: Friday Sept. 21, 2018
Tourist Day. The day before, we walked to the Tower of London and purchased a 3-day Deluxe ticket with Big Bus Tours. This is something we should’ve inquired about on Day One considering this ticket included a return River Boat Cruise, so keep this in mind when creating your London itinerary. Big Bus Tours has 4 different routes throughout the city, so the £45 Deluxe ticket is well worth the money (purchase online to save £5). *More about how we navigated London at the end of this post.
We had a delicious breakfast at a restaurant we stumbled upon called The Drift, where I might’ve had the best Eggs Benny of my life.
From there, we headed back to the Tower where we hopped on the bus and began our tour. We took the Red Route, which drives through Central London stopping in popular landmarks such as Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus and Regent Street.
My great-grandfather was part of the Military Intelligence in England during World War 2 and in his autobiography, he wrote about how one day he was in Waterloo Station (along the Red Route) and was approached by Nazis who began questioning him. To see this in person brought on a real feeling of connection to my family and to history in general. You can read more about this and discovering my ancestry by reading my previous post, Researching my Family Tree.
Day Seven: Saturday Sept. 22, 2018
With one full day left, my dad and I wasted no time. We started with visiting the Churchill War Rooms, which takes you underground into the bunkers which housed the British government command centre during World War 2. This is where Winston Churchill and his cabinet orchestrated Britain’s role during the war while being protected from the German bombing raids.
The entire operation was top secret. Not only do you get to see the rooms as they would’ve looked during the war, but you also get to learn more about this period of time and how Churchill led Britain to victory. Tickets are £21, but purchase them online to save a couple pounds.
Next up was our appointment with the Society of Genealogy. Their library of records is impressive, I was seeing ones that went as far back as the 1300’s. I wasn’t prepared to go that far back, nor did I give myself enough time to dig through all of the records available. Nonetheless, it was exciting and motivated me to continue my research into my genealogy.
The big finale of my dad and I’s trip to London was a visit to Kensington Palace. The night before, I came across an ad for the exhibit Diana: Her Fashion Story. I purchased our tickets right away. I admired Princess Diana when I was a little girl and remember her lavish outfits and how many of her fashion choices were making statements. One I vividly remember was the one she wore in 1997 while walking through landmine fields in Angola. Seeing this in person was pretty special to me, as was the entire exhibit.
A ticket to Kensington Palace ranges from £16-£19.50 depending on what time of the day you’re visiting. This ticket is what gives you admission to the Diana: Her Fashion Story exhibit as well as the State Apartments. Members of the royal family who have resided here include King William III, Queen Mary II, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and is currently the home to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as well as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
I don’t know what I expected of Kensington Palace, but I was in awe of the design of the apartments and how beautiful it was. I actually enjoyed it more than Buckingham Palace not just because of the decor, but because of the history that has taken place there. There was a big focus on Queen Victoria and her upbringing in the palace. It was pretty amazing to walk around the room she was born in and to learn more about the love her and Prince Albert had for each other. Queen Victoria reigned for 63 years, the second-longest serving British monarch in England behind Queen Elizabeth II.
The Sunken Garden is on the palace grounds and is where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced their engagement. It was pouring rain and the palace was closing up, but an employee kindly showed me where to find the garden. Lucky for us, we had it all to ourselves…
Day Eight: Sunday Sept. 23, 2018
I wasn’t leaving England without getting a Sunday roast. And for whatever reason, it took me forever to find a place that was serving it. We walked over to The Dickens Inn from the hostel, ended up waiting almost 2 hours for the restaurant to open despite what the website listed. We sat down only to find out their ovens were broken so I settled for Bangers and Mash and a large beer.
We arrived at the airport and my dad forked out a couple hundred pounds for us to fly first class. This was my first time flying first class and a perfect way to end the trip. We flew with Primera Air, which oddly enough, went out of business just a few days after we arrived back in Toronto.
My dad and I are two very different people and disagree on most things. Although we work together, it’s not very often that we get to spend time with each other one-on-one. This was a trip that I’ll always remember and I’m so happy we got to create these special memories. I know one day we’ll be back in England to work solely on our genealogy research, so that gives me something to look forward to.
I live in Toronto, the land of terrible public transit that for whatever reason, people of authority can’t seem to admit but rather, praise. We have two underground lines, so navigating the underground of other cities and seeing how intricate and effective their systems are, is a little exciting. If you are spending more than a day in London, purchase an Oyster card in the underground. You can refill as much or as little as you need. The subway system in London is incredible. It’s easy to navigate and fast, so you can get anywhere in about 20 minutes. If you are planning on visiting the tourist attractions, this is the best option for travel. However, if you do want to learn more about London’s history and its landmarks, I really recommend purchasing a 24-hour hop-on, hop-off bus tour, on top of getting yourself an Oyster card for public transit. They’re incredibly informative and have stops at all the popular sites.
I don’t use data when I travel, so download a map of where you’re travelling on Google Maps and screenshot the map of your route, including the written directions. Little preparations like this will alleviate a lot of stress and ensure you make the most of your time.