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Monday, January 5, 2009

Top Ten Things to See and Do in London

Our recent winter holiday vacation to London was fantastic. Having spent 5 days there, here are my suggestions on the top 10 things to see and do in and around London with children under 17:
  1. Experience the public transportation, including a double decker bus and the Underground. Children especially love riding on a double decker while viewing the sites outside. Whether it is daylight or nighttime, it is so much fun to climb those narrow steps to the top deck and see the sights of London. The bus routes are plenty and you're sure to find a bus route that will take you to most of the major attractions. Be sure to get an Oyster card to hop on and off the public transportation system in London. This includes the double decker and Underground (subway) system in London. You purchse the Oyster card and load it up with British pounds and can more conveniently pay for your fare and get a discount. Children under 11 are free - don't forget that!
  2. If you have 2 months before your visit, write to the Ceremony of Keys office to request tickets to see this fascinating ceremony that's been conducted for over 700 years. The tower guards lock up the crown jewels while explaining the history of the Tower of London, where such notable and infamous people including two of King Henry the VIIIs wives were beheaded. NOTE: during certain high peak times, tickets are limited to groups of 6 of less. Also, be sure to include a self-addressed envelop with UK stamps which can be purchased over the counter from most US Post Offices.
  3. Harrods - this is purportedly one of the most famous department stores in the world. We went on December 28th, which was just one day into their busiest and biggest sale during the year. It was jammed packed with people who just had to spend their pounds! If you know you will spend a good deal here, be sure to join their free Rewards Club. For every 500 points you will receive £5 to spend however you like.
  4. The British Museum - This is one of the most immense museums in the world. Comparable to the Lourve in terms of important relics, this is a must see museum. There's something for everyone. It is a very family friendly museum (there's no fee, and there is a designated area called the Ford Centre for Young Visitors during weekends and during school holidays where you can find a picnic-style eating area. There are high chairs, water fountains and vending machines for treats. The cafe also serves children-friendly selections. Be sure to check out the mummified cat, and the very interesting section on time pieces.
  5. Oxford - while you may only be in London for a few days, your children may opt to take a 1 hour train ride to Oxford rather than see some of the touristy sights like Buckingham Palace in favor of this very quaint and interesting town. For Harry Potter fans, many sections of this town, such as Christ Church, were used in the filming of several of the movies. Die-hard fans will recognize those locations very quickly. In the summer, beware of long lines, we were fortunate during the winter months that the lines were not long and we got to languish in the areas to take photos undisturbed by others. Several of the ticket takers told us that the lines are tremendous in the summer. The town itself is very quaint and several sections of the town do not allow cars to travel making it easy to wander the streets of the town. We picked up the train at Paddington Station in London, hopped on a train that took under an hour, and from the Oxford train station it is an easy 10 minute stroll to the center of town. There are many tour companies that will ask you to join, some are worthwhile if your time is limited.
  6. Tower Bridge - the Tower Bridge is easily walked across by foot. It is often confused as being the London Bridge, but it's proximity to the Tower of London is what gives it its name. You can take a paid tour inside, or just walk across it and see many great London sights. You can purchase tickets on line, or buy them on the spot.
  7. Enjoy fish and chips in an English Pub. Be adventurous and find a local neighborhood pub where they serve families - and hopefully fish and chips. We found two great pubs; in the city we were directed by a resident to try The Two Brewers on 40 Monmouth Street, which is near the theater district. It was a great place to get out from the cold December air and warm up to a cozy fire and relish in the greasy fish and chips (and mushy peas) they served. Yummy! Great ale too! They do accept credit cards.
  8. Parks - Regents and Kensington Parks are two of the most famous parks in London. Regents Park covers over 400 acres, and is home to the famous London Zoo (where scenes from the first Harry Potter movie were filmed). Originally the grounds were appropriated by King Henry the VIII as a hunting field. Kensington Park, while smaller than Regents Park, is home to Kensington Palace where Princess Diana lived. The Princess of Wales' Memorial Playground is a nice place for a visit with the children.
  9. Buckingham Palace - Changing the Guards or Guard Mounting is a must see. From May through June, peak tourist time, the changing takes place daily at 11:00 am, and on alternate days the rest of the year. Check out this site for more details. When the queen is in residence, you will know because there will be four sentries in the front of the building. When she is away there are two. There are other opportunities to see Changing the Guard including the Tower of London, Window Castle, and Horse Guards Arch.

  10. This tenth must see is a toss up. Our kids might say Madame Tussauds wax museum, or St. Paul's cathedral. What is your top "must see" in London?

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