This year’s “Big Trip” was by far the most whirlwind travel experience of my life.
My youngest sister, Emily, and I spent two weeks traveling between our hometown of Portland, London, Kenya, and Paris.
The main “point” of the trip was to go on a photographic safari throughout Kenya.
In order to fly into Nairobi from the West Coast of the U.S., we had to fly through Western Europe both directions. Because of wacky flight schedules, we’d be looking at 12-hour layovers in London on the way there and in Paris on the way back.
I figured that instead of being stuck in an airport for 12 hours as part of a nightmarish 30+ hour travel schedule, we’d be better off if we spent a few days in London on our way to Kenya, and a few days in Paris on our way home.
Our schedule worked out so that we had 4 days in London to see the sights, drink
beer tea, and explore the city.
It’s not always easy to know what to do and what to see on a limited visit such as ours, but luckily I had been to London once before and had a general idea of what Emily and I should do while we were there.
Of course, we didn’t have time to do *everything* we wanted to do. Even some of the things we had planned to do ended up being failures due to issues with our understanding of the public transportation system and a tragic lack of WiFi access.
I’m going to run you through what we did while we were in London, as what we didn’t do but wish we did.
I’ll also share the costs associated with our trip so you can get an idea of what to expect in terms of budgeting for a visit to London.
Lastly, you’ll learn from my mistakes when I share my “what I wish I knew” items.
Here’s What We Did:
Double-decker Bus Tour
Yes, we went on a super cheesy-ridiculous bus tour. BUT, you guys, I’ve never been on one of those super touristy-tours before and I thought it would be a fun and easy way to make sure we took in all the sights.
There are several different bus tour companies in town, but we went with Big Bus Tours.
Tower of London
This is a CAN’T MISS item. I’d recommend going early in the day because it can get really crowded. Guided tours are given every hour or so, and while the groups are usually pretty large you can learn quite a bit about the incredible history of this place if you
shove navigate your way to the front.
The Shard & London Eye
Okay, so we didn’t actually go *inside* of this gigantic building, but it was pretty neat to see it up close. You can see it from pretty much anywhere in the city, and it looks beautiful on those rare days when blue skies are peeking through.
The last time I was in London (ahem, the year 2000), The Eye had opened just 5 months before. I didn’t have time to go up on it the first time, so Emily and I decided it would be worth a laugh and bought our tickets.
I won’t lie, the loading and unloaded process was a little bit terrifying for me as you have to get on and off a moving carriage. Most people would probably be fine, but I get a little nervous around escalators for the same reason so I guess I’m a bit of a freak.
Anyway, the view from the top is pretty incredible.
Parliament / Big Ben
So, there’s not really an easy way to tour the inside of Parliament, and you can forget about any ideas you may have about going up inside the clock tower to see Big Ben.
You can “see” the building from most places in the city, but it’s still fun to get up close and check out the architecture. The Eye is just on the other side of the river, so you can just walk right over the bridge to get a closer look after your ride.
Buckingham Palace & The Changing of The Guard
I’m probably going to have tomatoes thrown at me, but I wasn’t impressed with the Changing of the Guard fifteen years ago, and I wasn’t impressed with it this year, either.
I know it’s on most people’s “must-see” list, but honestly the ceremony is just a bunch of Queen’s Guards marching around really, really slowly. Plus, it’s so completely crowded that you can’t see anything anyway.
Okay, I’m officially ducking under my desk to avoid being hit with rotten produce.
Just go see it for yourself, come back and tell me about it, and I’ll try really hard not to say “I told you so.”
Gain 10 Pounds
Actually, Emily and I ate like complete pigs for the entire trip and didn’t gain an ounce. There’s a LOT of walking to be done when traveling in foreign cities, especially ones with huge Underground systems accessible only by many, many flights of stairs.
We both vowed to stop using the elevators and escalators back home (and not just because I’m still a little afraid of escalators).
Here are some dishes you absolutely have to try while in London:
- Fish & Chips – you can’t visit London without having some fish and chips. Don’t forget to try some malt vinegar on your chips!
- Yorkshire Pudding – contrary to some weird idea I had in my head, this is not in fact some strange type of meat dessert. It’s a lovely, puffy side dish made from eggs, flour, and milk. Almost like a really small, savory puffed pancake.
- Meat Pie – I must have tried different variations of meat pies at at least four different pubs on our trip. SO GOOD.
- Beans on Toast – For whatever reason, beans on toast seems to be a popular topic on Twitter lately. I suck at Twitter, so I’m not really sure what that’s all about, but if you see beans with toast on a menu just order it and give it a try. It’s oddly delicious.
- Tea – We drank SO MUCH TEA. Tea in the morning, tea in the evening, tea at suppertime… oh, crap, that’s the old Bagel Bites jingle. Anyway, I take my tea with two sugars and milk. And biscuits (which are what we call cookies).
Other things we did which deserve mention but I don’t feel like talking about: Sherlock Holmes Museum, Cutty Sark, Scotland Yard Headquarters, and the National Maritime Museum.
Here’s What We Didn’t Do:
When we asked around for places to have “High Tea,” locals looked at us like we were out of our effing minds. I don’t know if maybe we just asked the wrong people, or were in the wrong part of town, or if that really just isn’t something that they do over there anymore. We have at least 4 places to have High Tea in Portland, so I guess we’ll just stick to pretending to be fancy here at home.
Dr. Who Museum
This was something that Emily wanted to go see because she’s a big fan of Dr. Who. I haven’t ever watched the show, but I was keen to accompany her and see what it was all about. Unfortunately, we spent the better part of 5 hours traveling around in circles on the Underground as Google Maps thought it would be a really funny thing for us to do. Maybe next time.
Okay, technically we went and saw the outside of it, but once we learned it was £20 (close to $30 at the time of this writing) for admission, we both decided we didn’t need to see the inside of it *that* bad.
Also, I think I’ve probably already been in there (15 years ago) but don’t remember it. So maybe it wasn’t that awesome anyway?
I REALLY wanted to eat some awesome Indian food while we were in London. Alas, we never quite got around to it. Just thinking about this grave loss nearly brings me to tears.
Cost of The Trip
Here’s what the two of us spent (total) spent on our 4-day London excursion (not including airfare):
- Lodging (Hostel): $187.64 ($62.55 per night for private room + breakfast)
- Public Transportation (Underground): $93.38
- Private Transportation (Taxi): $173.85 (Heathrow to our hostel in Greenwich)
- Food (including drinks and tips): $445.47 (average of $27.84 per meal, per person)
- Admissions & Tours: $184.60 (Big Bus Tour, Tower of London, London Eye)
- TOTAL: $1,084.94 ($542.47 per person)
What I Wish I Knew
Ah, yes. I always come back from these trips with a list of “things I wish I knew before I went.” Here’s what you need to know:
You’ll notice in most pubs and restaurants that they’ll indicate a difference between “Real Ale” (also called Cask Ale) and regular beer. Real Ale is typically unfiltered, unpasteurized and is served without pressure from nitrogen or carbon dioxide (read: carbonation).
For two girls from Portland, AKA Beervana, this was a bit of a surprise. We each had a few pints of Cask Ale before switching back to the ice cold carbonated stuff we know and love.
Ordering in Pubs
In a bar, pub, or restaurant in the U.S., you might order a drink from the bar, but if you are going to sit down to a meal you are typically seated at a table and served by waitstaff.
Our first meal in London, we sat down in a pub, looked over the menus, and waited. And waited. And…. finally got up, walked up to the bar, and asked if we could order some food. The bartender looked at me a little funny, but gladly took my order and handed over the WiFi password.
Emily and I quickly looked up standard food-ordering protocol in London and learned that in bars and pubs, everything is ordered up at the actual bar itself. You pay when you order, food is brought to your table, and when you are done you simply leave. I actually prefer it to the whole waiting-around-for-the-check thing we do back home.
When you order food up at a counter and pay for it at the same time, there’s not a lot “table service” going on and not a lot of opportunity to leave a tip.
After a bit more googling, we found that while tipping is common in full-service restaurants, pubs and bars with pay-at-the-counter type operations don’t typically expect or receive additional tips from patrons.
You should check out this article on tipping in the United Kingdom to get a good run-down of common practices.
This is the Tower Bridge. It goes up and down. Contrary to Fergie-logic, the London Bridge does NOT. Two different bridges, people.
The public transportation system in London is pretty bitchin’. While it was convenient for Emily and me to book a hop-on, hop-off sightseeing tour, there are plenty of public transportation options that are much more cost efficient. With some of the all-day passes, you can hop on and hop off any of the buses, underground and overground trains, and the lightrail, too.
You also may want to check out the Oyster Card system if you’re spending more than a few days in the city.
When Emily and I landed at Heathrow we thought we’d take public transportation to our hostel in Greenwich (which is quite a ways away!), but we were so brain fried that we couldn’t figure it out and just took a taxi instead. Which, you know, cost us $173 freaking dollars.
We took public transportation from Greenwich back to the airport for about $18 per person. It was hotter than hell and we were hauling our luggage, but we saved $137; enough to pay for about 22 pints of beer!
Just so you know, Big Ben is NOT the name of the clock or tower at the Palace of Westminster. It’s actually the name of the BELL inside of it. The tower is known properly as Elizabeth Tower. The more you know!
Phew! That was a lot of knowledge to drop on you all just now. I think it’s about time for me to kick back and enjoy a pint… and none of that cask-style crap! 😉
I’ll be sharing stories and pictures from both Paris and Kenya in the coming weeks!