Take Off for London

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Posted by Cheryl-Anne Millsap on Aug. 1, 2018, 6 a.m.

If you’ve ever wanted to visit London, or make a return visit to the city, now is the time to do it. Norwegian Airlines (norwegian.com/us) has launched direct service to Gatwick Airport (a short train ride from the city) from Seattle. For under $500 (depending on the date) you can get away to one of the most beautiful and historic cities in the world.

I couldn’t resist and we spent a week in London this spring. There are plenty of guidebooks and websites with tips for things to do and see, but here are a few special spots you won’t want to miss and some tips for getting around.

Big Ben and roses in London

Mind the Gap

The London Tube system is the tourist’s friend. Comprehensive, easy to use, and always convenient, the underground rail system is the perfect way to get around the sprawling city. While convenient, a day’s fares can add up, so the simplest and most cost-efficient way to use the underground system is to purchase an Oyster Card, the pay-as-you-go smartcard for travel by bus, Tube, tram, London Overground, River Bus services and most National Rail services in London. It caps fares at a daily limit and can be refilled at kiosks at most Tube stations.

Skip the Long Lines with a London Pass

While most of the major museums are free to the public (although one is encouraged to make a donation) many of the major points of interest have an admission fee and during peak tourist season can come with long lines. Purchasing a London Pass allows you to bypass the ticket line and join the shorter Pass line. It’s an especially good value if you plan to see a number of popular attractions during your visit.

Lose Yourself in a Museum

London’s museums are the city’s crown jewels (besides the actual Crown Jewels in the Tower of London). With free admission to many and all offering access to outstanding collections of priceless art and artifacts, the great museums scattered around England’s capital city are not to be missed.

On our most recent trip our hotel was located on Russell Square and we were just a short walk from the British Museum so we dropped by several times. Others that should be on your list are the sprawling National Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the National History Museum, the Science Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

It’s possible to spend an entire day in each of these museums so you should make a plan before you go. Morning at the National History Museum and then an afternoon (with tea) across the street at the V&A is one option. Or, morning at the National Museum and an afternoon at National Portrait Gallery might be another choice.

The Victoria and Albert Museum

Relive History in the Churchill War Rooms

As you make a list of the sites you don’t want to miss – Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London – make sure you add the Churchill War Rooms. You’ll get an intimate look at the underground bunker beneath the streets of Westminster where Winston Churchill and his inner circle directed strategic movements and defense during the Second World War.

The Academy Award Winning movie, Darkest Hour, has only increased interest in the historic site so this is one spot you’ll want to book ahead. The exhibit begins with a guided tour of the rooms, but you can linger in the museum for as long as you want.

Indulge in a Cream Tea

Henry James was right when he wrote, “Under certain circumstances, there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”

Meant to fill the gap between lunch and the evening meal, afternoon tea is more than just a cup and a nibble. It’s an opportunity to sit and revive, and it’s always delicious.

We were determined to spend as much time as possible in the great museums – hours each day – so we took advantage of the cafeterias and tea rooms in the museums to enjoy a cream tea each afternoon. Whenever we began to feel tired and a little hungry we would order a pot of tea and scones to share, accompanied by the little pots of clotted cream and traditional strawberry jam that make up what is known as a cream tea. It was just right and just enough.

English scones are not the heavy glazed confections we see in the states. They are tall, light and only slightly sweet. When paired with fresh clotted cream and sweet strawberry jam, they became a heavenly treat. Of all the museums, the historic tea rooms at the exquisitely beautiful Victoria and Albert Museum were our favorite spot. Said to be the world’s first Museum cafe, the Gamble, Poynter and Morris Rooms opened in 1868 and are elaborately decorated with colorful tiles and William Morris wallpapers; they are as beautiful to look at as they are to dine in. 

Lake in St. James's Park

Take a Stroll in St. James Park

London is filled with green spaces. Elegant squares dot terraced neighborhoods and broad parks provide green vistas and room to stroll, lounge or meet a friend for coffee.

One of my favorites is St. James Park. One of London’s eight royal parks and flanked by both Buckingham Palace and Clarence House, home to Prince Charles, the 57-acre park is an oasis in the center of the city. Filled with flowers, a beautiful pond – where you’ll find the St. James’s pelicans that have called the park home for 400 years – the park is a lovely place to spend a quiet moment during a hectic day of touring London. It’s also a great place for bird watching. Look for Blue Tits, the iconic English Robin and the flocks of brilliant green parrots that call the park home.