During my recent Grand Tour of Europe, I spent a whirlwind 3.5-ish days in London. We flew from Salt Lake to London, leaving Utah in the evening of September 2 and arriving in London in the early afternoon of September 3. By the time we took the Heathrow Express into the city and got a cab to our flat (there will be an upcoming post about my Airbnb experiences in Europe!), it was time for us to head to the Houses of Parliament for a tour we had scheduled in the late afternoon.
The Houses of Parliament (The Palace of Westminster)
I had been to London twice before but had never toured the Houses of Parliament. To make it brief, that place has seen some incredible history. I loved seeing the ornate rooms, as well as learning about the immense tradition that informs everything they do in the House of Commons and House of Lords, and how they have interacted with the monarchy throughout history. We opted for a self-guided tour with an audio guide, and we loved it. It let us set our own pace, taking more time where we wanted to, and was very interesting and informative.
After our tour at the Houses of Parliament, we headed to Harrods, mostly because my mom had heard about how fabulous it is. We spent a good hour (at least) wandering through the various levels of the store. I’ll admit we got lost at least once. Thankfully the security guards are happy to help you find an exit!
By the time we finished at Harrods, it was time to head back to our flat — especially since we were quite jet-lagged! We grabbed some Greek-style pitas at a place near the flat, which was in the Notting Hill area.
The Courtauld Gallery
We started our Sunday at the Courtauld Gallery. Because I have what you might call an intense passion for art and art museums, there will be a separate blog post that covers the museums we visited in London. For now, suffice it to say that visiting the Courtauld Gallery was nothing short of awesome.
Buckingham Palace (The home of my future grandmother-in-law)
We left the Courtauld in enough time to make our scheduled tour time at Buckingham Palace. Again, I had seen Buckingham Palace from outside the gates before, but I had never taken a tour. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside, but I’m sure you can imagine the elegance and beauty. They had an exhibition showcasing Queen Elizabeth’s fashion, which was fascinating. I especially loved seeing her coronation gown. I also loved seeing the stunning works of art throughout the palace. We again had an audio guide for our tour, and we found it helpful and interesting. And of course no visit to Buckingham Palace is complete without going around to the front gates for some photos!
The National Gallery
We hadn’t gotten our fill of art yet for the day, so our visit to Buckingham Palace was followed by a trip to the National Gallery. Check out the upcoming London museums post for more details — because the National Gallery holds some of the most iconic pieces in the world!
Don’t worry — we still weren’t done for the day when the National Gallery closed and we had to leave. We decided to take a walk through the city to see Leicester Square and grabbed some dinner at Prêt à Manger. We finished off a very full day by taking a walk through Hyde Park before heading back to our flat. My mom is a big fan of Princess Diana, so she especially loved seeing the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Walk in the Park.
The British Museum
Monday was our last full day in London. Our first stop was the British Museum, which is an amazing museum with some awe-inspiring pieces. I can’t wait to tell you all about it in the museums post!
St. Paul’s Cathedral
Next we headed to St. Paul’s for our scheduled tour. I love the architecture of this cathedral. It has become so iconic in the landscape of London, yet it contrasts greatly with the medieval architecture of other famous churches in the city like Westminster Abbey. Photos aren’t allowed inside the cathedral, and because of the way the streets run in front of the cathedral, it’s a bit difficult to take a good photo of the façade. We opted for the audio tour guide again, which was great because we could just listen to the parts that interested us. My mom was a bit disappointed to not find the bird woman from Mary Poppins at St. Paul’s, but she still loved visiting the cathedral.
The Tower of London
From there we hurried to the Tower of London, where we barely caught the last tour of the day. Unlike our other tours, we had a live tour guide, a Beefeater (more formally known as a Yeoman Warder). He was absolutely fantastic! He somehow managed to balance an impressive amount of information and history with a great sense of humor and entertainment. If you go to the Tower of London, I HIGHLY recommend that you get a Beefeater tour!
When the tour ended, we went to the Crown Jewels exhibit. I think this is one of the things my mom was most excited about in London! It’s a truly stunning exhibit, and I loved seeing the monarchy’s Crown Jewels from throughout the centuries.
We left the Tower of London as it was closing for the evening, and before leaving the area, we got some fish and chips for dinner. You can’t visit London without getting some fish and chips! I may or may not have also indulged in some ice cream as well. We walked along the Thames to get a view of Tower Bridge before heading out…
The West End – Aladdin
…because we got to see Aladdin! We had been debating about which show to see while we were there, and the night before, we found tickets at a good price online for Aladdin, which is one of the hottest new musicals in the West End. It was AMAZING. Great acting, great singing, great music, great costuming and staging. I think my favorite scene was “A Whole New World” — the stage was dark, lit by magical stars, and Aladdin and Jasmine flew through the beautiful starry night on a flying carpet. Simply magical. It was even more than what I could’ve hoped for as a girl who grew up in the ’90s and was raised on the Disney classics like Aladdin.
We sadly left London on Tuesday, but before we did, we had one more stop: Westminster Abbey. We had scheduled a morning tour, which ended up being perfect for our itinerary. We chose the audio-guided tour again, and we especially enjoyed hearing about all of the fascinating people who are buried there. Between coronations, royal weddings, burials, and other events, that building has seen some truly amazing history.
And that ended our time in London! But don’t worry — that doesn’t end my posts about London!
3 Quick Tips for Visiting London
Before we conclude today, here are just a few quick tips for visiting London:
- Book tours in advance. You probably noticed that we scheduled several tours before arriving at those destinations, and that made everything much easier. It helped us create an effective itinerary, plus some places require advance reservations, or they might sell out for the day before you arrive. We booked tours in advance for the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, a visiting exhibition at the British Museum, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey.
- Take the Heathrow Express. This express train runs between London Heathrow Airport and London Paddington Station. This trip takes only 15 minutes on the Heathrow Express, while it’s an average of 51 minutes on the Tube. Book your tickets early to get a discount! And the Heathrow Express does require a specific ticket that is different from other train tickets, so be sure you get the right one.
- See a show in the West End. You can’t miss that opportunity! Check out tickets online or at discount ticket booths to get a good price — often on the day of the performance. And if you’re a student, ask about getting a discount with your student ID.
Tune in again soon for more on London!