Last month, we spent a long weekend in London celebrating my husband’s birthday. It wasn’t something that we planned at all, in fact, if you follow me on instagram, you’ll know that we planned it in about 4 hours. We had been kicking around a few ideas (Dove Mountain? Supposed to rain. LA? My best friend was busy. Half Moon Bay? Too expensive. NYC? Too humid. Anywhere in Texas? Too hot. East Coast? Too much like work.) My husband brought up London (probably as a joke)… and well, hello MilesAAver award! We booked the 10:10pm direct to Heathrow, threw a few things in a suitcase, and away we went.
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Where We Stayed in London
I thought about staying at the Marriott County Hall, but I have only stayed at the JW Marriott Grosvenor House in the past. For a long weekend in London, I decided to stay with what I know. I know where the closest tube stops are. I know how to get there from Paddington Station. And, honestly, I really love the rooms. We used Marriott points since London hotel rooms are pretty pricey in the summer. Since I’m Marriott titanium, we had lounge access, which helped with food costs. We had breakfast in the morning, afternoon treats (cookies, snacks, and scones) in the early evening, and sweet and savory treats in the evenings.
Staying Connected While Traveling Abroad
On our last few international trips, we’ve used TEP wireless hotspots to stay connected and save on internet. I reserved a TEP device from the airport, but when we got to Heathrow, our device hadn’t made it yet! Thankfully, TEP has a few contracted locations, so when we arrived at London Paddington, we were able to pick up a device there. (We also dropped off at Paddington before heading back to the airport. So convenient!) Since I hadn’t activated the international plan on our cell phones, we couldn’t access email, voicemail, or text messages until we picked up TEP (and even then, my voicemail was unavailable all weekend – best ever!).
Getting Around London
I booked our Heathrow Express tickets online. We wasted a bit of time trying to figure out how to get the tickets from a machine (you can just use the email on your phone), but it’s the fastest way into London. Booking online ahead of time will save you some money and there’s free wi-fi onboard.
Since we didn’t have enough warning to order a travelcard, we opted for Tube passes. We used day passes. They were a fantastic value for getting around, and we would not have covered as much ground as we did without them, particularly after walking over 15 miles on our first day! We also encountered a fair amount of rain, so it was nice to be able to avoid it when we could.
Best Tours for a First Trip to London
I think by now you know that my husband is a tour junkie. In addition to downloading the Rick Steves audio walking tours, I booked a few tours while we waited for our flight.
Changing of the Guard Small Group Tour
I’ve tried more than a few times to see the Changing of the Guard, and it’s never worked out all that well. Our tour guide, Meesha, studied history at the University of London, and she was fantastic! Our group was really small (10 or so), so we could ask questions without any trouble. As we walked from the Duke of York column down to the best vantage points to see the changing of the guard, she gave us a brief history of all the royals.
Instead of finding ourselves in the throngs of people around Buckingham Palace, she took us to the barracks, St. James Park, and Clarence House to see the different vantage points. The tour lasted about an hour and a half and we finished up around noon.
Guided Visit of Westminster Abbey
On previous trips to London, I never visited the inside of Westminster Abbey (so expensive!) but the audio tour makes it worth it! We saved a couple bucks by booking online, but this was not a skip the line tour. The line only took approximately 20 minutes around noon though. There is no photography allowed inside. I LOVED the Henry VII fan vaulted chapel; I don’t know if I have ever seen anything more beautiful.
Tower of London with a Yeoman Warder Tour
We arrived at the Tower of London when it opened on Sunday, and the lines were long. (Definitely should have booked online.) The next Yeoman Warder tour was scheduled for 11:00 (free!), and it was a great overview of the Tower. The guides are loud, irreverent, and hilarious… so totally my kind of tour. It was easy to hear the guide and to follow the tour, and I think you have to do it. (One, the Tower is expensive. Two, I don’t know if you would get as much out of your visit if you didn’t do the tour.)
After the tour (around 11:45am), we were able to see the Crown Jewels without too much of a wait. It took approximately 15-20 minutes to make it through the exhibit. Again, no photography was allowed, but it was worth seeing. There are a number of videos and exhibits to view before you board a moving sidewalk to see the jewels.
British Museum Guided Tour
The one thing that was at the top of my husband’s list was going to the British Museum to see the Rosetta Stone. I was so excited when I found this tour. Our guide, Maria, grew up in Spain and grew up Catholic before becoming a Jehovah’s Witness. This tour was focused on the Egyptian and Syrian rooms of the British Museums, so there were a lot of religious overtones. I really enjoyed it, and it raised more questions in my mind about how we are more alike than different. (Side note – I still really wish my dad was here to discuss these questions.)
The museum was very crowded (Sunday afternoon), and when we arrived, the line was down the block! Fortunately, we had read that the entrance on the back of the museum rarely has a line, and we were able to make our tour with minutes to spare.
If you’ve been to the British Museum, is the Reading Room not the most beautiful place you’ve ever been? Obsessed.
Churchill War Rooms with Audioguide
This is one of my favorite museums in London. Maybe I’m just saying that because it helped me start to sort out my head. Or maybe I’m just saying that because of the glowworm quote. Perhaps it’s because I’m a history nerd and love learning more about World War II. Either way, visiting the strategic nerve center of the British war efforts was totally my cup of tea. At times I felt a little claustrophobic, but I would keep walking until I felt better.
The many quotes by Winston Churchill gave me life. I expect people will have to hear them for awhile. #SorryNotSorry.
My Most Nostalgic Meal in London
London is a funny place for meals. I’ve yet to find many restaurants that I absolutely love. Plenty are good, but I’ve not had anything great yet. I wanted to take my husband to Bella Italia, a restaurant that I visited often on my past trips to London. I was nervous that it wouldn’t be as good now that I’m older and more experienced, but it didn’t disappoint. Everything tastes so fresh, and the prices are still good (but not as cheap as they used to be). They’ve done an overhaul of the restaurants and they seem much more upscale now.
We liked the house Barbera more than the Solandia Rosso (too many competing flavors). The garlic bread is the perfect starter and best enjoyed when piping hot. I liked the beef and red wine ravioli, but the traditional lasagna was good, too. The margarita pizza is a safe bet if you aren’t feeling adventurous. I wish I had skipped the cookie dessert and focused on the gelato milkshake – or just drank more red wine.
More Ideas for What to Do in London
This is just the high points of our trip. If you’re looking for other ways to fill a long weekend in London (I used to do this all the time), here are some of my favorite experiences:
Grab half-price theater tickets at the TKTS booth in Leicester Square
Watch the world go by on the Thames. I love the south bank from blue hour to nightfall.
Hit up the Tate Modern, the National Gallery, or the British Library
Enjoy St. Paul’s Cathedral and make your way to the Millennium Bridge, marveling at two different types of architecture
People watch in Trafalgar Square
See the Princess of Wales Memorial in Hyde Park
Visit Harrod’s food hall
Tour one of the many palaces when the royal family isn’t in residence
What are some of your favorite London moments that we missed?! Would you ever book a long weekend in London with 4 hours notice? Are we totally crazy?