Best sites of London & Cambridge Trip Report

We made a 9-day trip to England, Ireland, and Scotland during the last week of July 2008. This was our maiden trip to Europe. Tickets were purchased well ahead in February – bmi (British Midland - operated by United) provided the most economical fare at $2082.07 – round-trip for two including delivery charges through Priceline. The base round-trip ticket cost was $646.80 with taxes and fees accounting for the additional $381.76. Considering July is peak-season in London, the ticket pricing was OK.

There is no denying London is an expensive city and with the dollar having declined drastically against the pound over the previous few years, it was all the more apparent. It was difficult to find accommodation among London Hotels in our price range (under $200, preferably under $150 for a 3-star type hotel with bath attached). We did reserve a standard double room with attached bath at the YMCA Indian Student Hostel for about $135 a night including breakfast and dinner following a recommendation by one of the travel guide books – the name is a misnomer - the place is open to all. We ended up canceling our reservation though, as our close relative graciously insisted on hosting us for all the five nights we were in London. For a real hotel environment & service, the options we found were either below par or well above our price range. One that seemed reasonable was the Hotel Shaftesbury Metropolis London Hyde Park and it is blessed with a great location.

London Underground is a marvelous metro system that epitomizes public transportation at its best. The system is the world’s oldest underground metro system and lines are frequently suspended. Even with the problems, it efficiently transports multitudes of people around London. The system has a tiered pricing system within zones 1 through 9. Most of the London attractions are conveniently located in zones 1 and 2. With an Oyster card that can be purchased from any station, the maximum travel expense per day could vary between $10 and $30 per person depending on whether the travel was made during peak hours and the zones traveled in – expensive by any standards. Alternatively if the hotel is within the Central London area, the itinerary can be planned so as to not use the system all of the days – many of the attractions are within walking distance from each other.

Of the three days spent sightseeing in and around London we used the Oyster card for two days and covered the following attractions:
  1. Westminster Abbey – allow an hour at a minimum once you get to the place by getting out at Westminster using the Tube (London Underground metro system). The Abbey is not open to visitors on Sundays but the rest of the place is open for free that day. Opens at 9:30 and the entrance fee was £10 for adults, £6 for students and children under 18, free for children under 11. The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben are right by Westminster Abbey, but entry into them requires advance planning. An alternative is to visit Jewel Tower across the street instead – they have a virtual tour of both the Houses of Parliament at the top floor. Admission was £2.60 for adults.
  2. No. 10 Downing Street and Trafalgar Square – located walking distance from Westminster Abbey - The official Prime Minister’s residence and London’s most famous Square are both overrated but must be experienced nevertheless. Downing Street itself is closed off by security personnel at the entrance. Crane with the crowd to catch a glimpse of 12 Downing and 10 Downing is further down.
  3. Buckingham Palace, The Mall, and St. James Park – located right by Trafalgar Square – Parts of the Palace are accessible to the public for an eight week period starting in August, for other times the options are to walk around outside the palace/mall and partake in the famous Changing of the Guards scheduled for 11:30 AM. To experience the entire ceremony from the vantage point, it is recommended to be at the square across by 10:30 AM, otherwise it gets cordoned off. There is also the Horse Guard Ceremony which is less crowded. From Buckingham Palace, strolling through St. James Park gets you to Horse Guards, the headquarters of the British Army. The horse guard’s ceremony takes place here every day at 11 AM and Sundays at 10 AM. Both the ceremonies and the stroll through the St. James Park with the beautiful pond in the middle are all advisable. For lunch, we took the tube into Leicester Square where options abound.
  4. London Eye – allow 2 hours at a minimum - exit at Westminster using the tube and walk over the bridge. Tickets were £15.50 and it was advertised as the world’s largest observation wheel. The wheel rotates so very slowly and takes about half an hour for a complete rotation. It has several pods and each pod carries about 15 people. On a clear day, the view is definitely worth the money. The attraction is very popular and lines tend to be long with waiting period upwards of an hour.
  5. Tower Bridge and London Bridge – Tower Bridge is a visual treat while London Bridge is under whelming. If lucky, you might even get to see the majestic Tower Bridge draw up for sail boats to pass through.
  6. Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Princess Diana Memorial, and Harrods’s – Tube to Kensington – all three attractions are walking distance from this station – It is a serene experience and you are limited by your own time. There is a 14-acre lake in the middle where paddle-boats can be rented. Harrods’s only advertised sale of the year runs in July and lot of items are marked down between 10-30%. We found the best value for our money for mementos in the coffee/tea department. Better chocolates marked with the Harrods’s name were tremendously expensive even after discounts.
  7. Tower of London – The giant fortress is well known as the host of the Crown Jewels. While that is a great attraction in itself, the guided tour by the Yeomen Warders known as the “beefeaters” provides entertainment by narrating gory details of its history. Plan at least two to three hours. Ticket pricing was £16.50 for adults, £9 for children under 16, and free for children below 5.

We also spent a day in Cambridge, 60 miles north of Central London. The lovely old university town was teeming with tourists. There are several options for a daylong visit including punting. The city center is crowded and so walking/bicycling are the best options.

Two days is way too little for London. The attractions we missed out include the British Museum, British Library, and Victoria and Albert Museums all of which are free but require a day each at the minimum to give justice to what is on offer, and the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum.




Related Posts:

1. European Vacation – Gotchas to avoid and frugal options for cost conscious American Visitors.
2. Best sites of London & Cambridge - Trip Report.
3. Best sites of Edinburgh - Trip Report.
4. Best sites of Ireland - Trip Report.

Last Updated: 04/2013.

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