European Adventure #1 - London, England with kids

What do you get when you mix two kids, three weeks, two European countries, four trains, seven cities, and too many gelato ice creams to count? You get an incredible family vacation to London and Italy. This summer we ventured to Europe with the kids and had a great time. We spent one week in London and two weeks in Italy. Here are the highlights of the trip. I’ve broken it up into London and another blog will be devoted to Italy.

London Highlights

Day 1 – We arrived at 11:30 a.m. and didn’t have any specific plans for the day because we wanted to give ourselves time to recover and adjust to the time change. We took carry on luggage (one bag and one light backpack each) so we got through border control and customs quickly. Then we stopped to get a week pass for the London Underground (subway) and tickets for the Heathrow Express into town. (The Heathrow Express was a little pricey- about $75 total to save about 20 minutes in travel time). In hindsight, we probably would have spent $16 total for the regular subway. Kids 10 and under ride free on the subway.

We arrived in one piece to our hotel our eyes red from being tired but wide with excitement. I carefully pre-planned and wrote put all of our directions and tube stops needed for each hotel on a list, so we would know how to get where we were going. We still got lost as the directions weren’t entirely clear and wondered around for about 20 minutes until we finally found our hotel, The London House Hotel. After checking in, we took a walk around the Bayswater neighborhood. It was a bustling area with a small mall and lots of shops and restaurants. When I was growing up, my mom brought my sister and I to live in London for three months and the hotel was in the same neighborhood where we lived, so I felt right at home. At the end of the street was Kensington Gardens Park and the Princess Diana Memorial Park, a lovely park with a huge pirate ships, see-saw, swings, and meandering paths and wooden play structures.

We were all tired and ready for bed around 6:00 and wanted to keep the kids up, but stopped fighting it. Luckily, the slept until 7:00 the next morning.

Day 2 – London Tower, River Boat ride, Parliament and Big Ben

This is a great place for the whole family. The Tower of London has played a prominent role in England's history. It was used as a place of refuge for unpopular monarchs and at times a centre of government. The Tower has served variously as an armoury, a treasury, menagerie, the Royal Mint, a public records office, and the home of the Crown Jewels.

Free tours are offered every ½ hour with a Beefeater (guard) with personality plus. They are funny and give facts about the cruel and unusual history of the tower. After the tour you are free to roam the various towers such as the Bloody and White Towers and view various torture devices and suits of armor. The Crown Jewels are housed here as well and are a must see. To see the whole thing took up a good four hours.

Afterwards, we walked down to the river and hopped on one of the river boat taxis and took it to the Parliament and Big Ben. We just viewed these from the outside.

Day 3 - Buckingham Palace - Changing of the Guard and British Museum

Buckingham Palace - Guard Change is every day at 11:30. Get there early (by 11:00) and for a better stand on the Victoria Memorial (in front of the palace) on the raised gardens. For a more interesting view of the change and what we did is we watched the detachment of the old guard and followed them to the new guard. This begins at 11:10 at St James Palace at Marlborough Road towards Buck Palace. It is best to stand on The MALL at the end of
Marlborough road by St James Park (there are free toilets just inside the gate.). As the band and guard March past, march down with them as far as Victoria Memorial and then cut through St James Park. Look out for other guides in the know, eg, Big Bus Co, follow them. Once on other side of Park. On bird Cage walk, you will see the Wellington Barracks. In front of the building will be the New Guard ready to leave. Turn right out of park and find a position on Spur Road, At Approx 11.25, the new guard with band leave
the barracks and Head To Buck Palace. After that, you can find a place with the masses to watch through the gate the rest of the guard change or try to find a spot towards the Victoria Memorial. At approx 12.05 the Old Guard with band leave Buckingham palace to the Wellington Barracks and the detachment of New Guard leave for St James Palace So, essentially, the reverse of what happened at 11.10 happens. If it is raining at about 10.50am, then guard change may be cancelled (although no announcement is made) you will only know if you are standing around at 11.20 and nothing has happened.

British Museum – This is probably my favorite museum in the world. It has the Rosetta Stone, tons of Egyptian statues, artifacts (mummies and cat mummies too) and the Elgin Marbles (Greek statues from the Parthenon). Museums in London are free, so even if you just go in for a peek, you won’t be disappointed. We found a great Italian restaurant right down the street called Bush and Fields at 49 Museum Street.

Day 4 – London Eye, Westminster Abbey and Stonehenge

The London Eye is a giant 443 ft tall Ferris Wheel situated on the banks of the Thames River in Central London. This was one of the kids favorite activities. You ride in pods with a seat in the middle. I’d heard it gets crowded, so we purchased our tickets on-line and avoided a long ticket line and got right on. We had an early reservation (10:00), so there were only two other people in our compartment which made the viewing great. We were able to see the city below us and got great views of Big Ben, the Parliament, and Westminster Abbey. We saw afterwards, that you could purchase books with maps of what you were seeing from above that we wished we’d had while on the eye.

Westminster Abbey – a short walk from the Eye we went on a quick tour of Westminster Abbey before meeting our tour to Stonehenge. The kids didn’t get much out of it, but it’s a must see while in London. The best part for them was seeing the coronation chair where the kings and queens are crowned.

Stonehenge – Stonehenge is located an hour and a half outside of London, so I booked a half-day tour to see it through Evans and Evans Tour company. The bus took us out to the site and we had an hour and a half to roam the site with audio tours. My husband and I were awed at the magnificent rock structures built so long ago and perfectly aligned with the sun’s solstices. The kids however, didn’t quite get the marvels of ancient engineering and when I asked twelve-year-old Jake what he thought he said, “It’s just a bunch of rocks.” (I just know someday he’ll appreciate all this!).

Day 5 – British War Museum, Double decker Bus ride, Trafalgar Square, and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

We left this day open and decided to go the British War Museum because my son loves everything war. There, the kids got to go in a pretend submarine, peer at guided missiles of all shapes and sized, and walk on real tanks. My husband and I took turns taking quick visits into the Holocaust section (not recommended for children under 14).

No trip to London is complete without a ride in a double-decker bus (or a London taxi which we did the day before), so we found a bus line going in our direction and hopped on for a ride to Trafalgar Square. The Square was alive with people, fountains, and four very large lion statues. The National Gallery is located on the stairs so we took a peek inside admist protests of “I’m tired!” and went straight to the Van Gogh section for a view at his famous Sunflowers painting. I could have stared at it all day, but was pulled away. We made a quick stop downstairs where a bank of computers let you look up the paintings the gallery housed and information on them.

Quick tips on London:

London is a great starter country to visit with children. It’s easy and they speak our language! My kids loved it there. For planning purposes, I found it helpful to plan only two things to do a day as the kids get tired easily and you don't want to overdo it.

Use public transportation. The underground is extremely easy and safe. The double decker buses are easy too. You can buy an oyster card that will save you money on the tube and buses for the week or for a few days. Kids ten and under are free.

Hotel: The London House in Bayswater, London.
I choose hotels that are in good locations (close to public transportation and restaurants), clean, and affordable. Most hotels in Europe are for two people, so for a family of four you have to book “Quad” rooms. They charge for each extra bed whether for a kid or an adult so it can get expensive. We stayed at the London House. It’s no frills, but was clean and in a GREAT Location. I highly recommend it. It was about $180 a night for the four of us. Breakfast was extra and we did not get it because it was cheaper to just get something light in the neighborhood. There is a mini- mall about 5 minutes walking about with a Spencer’s Market where we picked up muffins and juice inexpensively. You need to book this hotel early as it does fill up. We had the Lower Family Room and it was great.

Food: There were tons of small places and pubs to eat near our hotel. I’d hear food was really expensive, but as long as you don’t eat in a real touristy place, it was fine. Sodas are expensive, so once we figured out we were spending $4-$5 per drink, we started drinking water. We also picked up snacks and breakfast nearby. Our room had a refrigerator which was helpful and we would even pick up pasta salads and French bread at the local grocery stores for lunch ( a great cost saver). The Prince Edward Pub a few blocks from the hotel at 43 Princes Square was good.

Rick Steve’s Guidebooks are really helpful and I swear by them.

Packing – bring carry on luggage and a light backpack for each person. Pack light. You don’t need much and can wash small amounts of clothes along the way. See Rick Steve’s packing guide. http://www.ricksteves.com/plan/tips/packlist.htm 
Carry money and passports in a money belt.