As a treat for our family this holiday season, my husband and I decided to dramatically dial down the usual Christmas gift-giving (both to each other as well as the kiddies’) in exchange for a family trip to London and Rome. While Santa still managed to find our place with a slimmed-down assortment of boxes and cards, the main event would be an overnight flight from JFK to London arriving on December 26th, also known as “Boxing Day.”
While Dave and I have each been to London countless times on business trips, it’s never felt that we ever really visited the glorious city. The kids, now all safely past travel-disaster age, have yet to see some of the great cities and school studies have focused them on the allure of these historically important spots. We’ve done the Florida/Caribbean and Ski Trips and all felt we were more than ready for an intense site-seeing/exploratory journey. That there’d be great food and shopping, truth be told, only added to the enthusiasm.
Here’s an FO40 recap of the journey to London. Part II on Rome to follow…
We arrived into Heathrow Airport on “Boxing Day”, an important UK holiday which like those in the States, has essentially morphed into a day off to shop. (Click here (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boxing_Day) for the history of Boxing Day). Arriving at our West-End hotel (the sleek and renovated Berkeley) well before check-in time, we took in a quick breakfast and caffeinated at their signature Koffmann’s restaurant and then headed out for some site-seeing.
The London Eye: A must see. Magnificent 360 degree views of London, close by Parliament Square just across the Thames. It’s high at the peak-over 400 feet- though slow moving enough that even those who aren’t good with elevation should enjoy the half hour revolution inside the sleek pods within which about 20 people can comfortably stand and move about. FO40 Tip: arrange “fast pass” entry as the regular “queue” (= “line”- get used to the local lingo!) can easily top an hour.
Walk to Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, and Regent Street- Back on terra firma after the London Eye, we crossed Waterloo Bridge on foot as we meandered through some of the well-known tourist spots of London. Have your camera, and iPhones ready as you’ll want a picture of the iconic statue of Lord Nelson and in front of the imposing National Gallery museum.
Piccadilly, to be honest, could have been a “pass”, as it’s jammed with tourists and Times Square-esq souvenir shops. Regent Street- one of the main shopping concourses of London, was no less teeming with bargain-hunting shoppers from near and far. We toured through the iconic Liberty store and found funky stationary and fashion for women and men.
Harrods– A “one and done” wonder to behold, the fairy castle fortress in Knightsbridge was heaving with bargain-mad Boxing Day patrons. Dylan and Dave made the journey (short walk from the Berkeley) and, while they returned empty handed, were amazing at the breadth of wares and eats for purchase. Hopefully you can visit on a less raucous day- it’s 7 floors are a throwback to department store opulence fast fading to upstart boutiques and web shopping.
Dinner at Berners Tavern (The Edition Hotel)– We connected with our dear friends and travel companions Claudia and Steve and their son Cameron who had preceded us to London by a few days- at Berners Tavern. A converted ballroom-cum-upscale parlor setting, Berners has a quintessentially modern London vibe and a Supper Menu with updated English classics: Pork Pie, Dover Sole, Steak Au Poivre, and Macaroni & Cheese all left bellies full as sleep beckoned from the long first day. Great room and wine list – make this a stop on your trip.
After dinner we had a quick drink back at the hotel at the unforgettable Blue Bar. Recently renovated to make this popular spot more spacious, it is a beautiful place to sip a glass of Champagne or have a Calvados. A must do, pre or post dinner whether you are staying in this hotel or not.
Harrison’s 11th birthday! An active day and a few surprises were planned for my not-so-little-anymore youngest child. I think (hope!) he had a great day!
Breakfast at The Wolseley– Adjacent to the Ritz London, The Wolseley is a great spot to fuel up for a day of sightseeing. The birthday boy indulged in Eggy Bread (French Toast) while big sister and brother are huge fans of the hearty English Breakfast. This iconic spot is a winner.
Buckingham Palace and The Mall– From breakfast, we walked through Green Park and took in the majestic Buckingham Palace and surrounding promenade. Thankfully iPhones have unlimited photo capacity (remember having to ration our shots with actual film?!?) as we captured tons of must-have photos near and around this legendary spot. (I think we already have NEXT year’s holiday card shot). The impressive boulevard that is The Mall (NB- rhymes with “gal”) and St. James Park (both just east of the Palace) are well-worth a visit, and took us on foot to our next destination.
Churchill War Rooms and Churchill Museum- Arrive early as this popular stop is a must-see destination. Never sure of the kids’ appetite for history/museums, but they loved it. This secret underground lair is no Austin Powers bachelor pad… this is the command center where much of Britain’s World War II effort was planned and executed as a safeguard from relentless German bombing of London. A fascinating journey back in time and glimpse into the actual cramped rooms were leadership met and the great man famously napped daily (though himself rarely stayed overnight). The connected Churchill Museum is an event unto itself. Plan at least an hour here (and up to 2 or more depending on your crew’s attention span, history bug, and hunger factor). I think Dave could have spent the entire day here (not sure he would have been able to fulfill his goal of a nap in Churchill’s bed). I loved the audio devices and well-produced explanations of the various rooms, staff, and memorabilia.
Tour Guide, Lunch, Driving Tour, and The Wallace Collection– Briefly back at The Berkeley, we connected with the estimable and rakishly dapper Paddy Renouf – who would serve as our tour guide/concierge for the next 36 hours. Off we went in our 8-seater Viano (aside, kids LOVED this as well as London Black cabs. FO40 management is resisting their aggressive lobbying for this as the next family vehicle!). Paddy pointed out notable sights and neighborhood secrets as we made our way to Notting Hill’s Electric House for lunch. Part of the Soho House collection of clubs, this private dining spot exudes an ultra-cool, inside-the-velvet ropes vibe where jeans, designer sneakers, and your killer waist length fur will make you seem like a well-heeled regular. The French-American cuisine, living room decor, and a well-chilled Sancerre made this one of the highlights of the trip.
From here we made our way to the Wallace Collection, “a national museum in an historic London Town house” located just north of Mayfair. This well-preserved residence (modest castle in its own right) showcased 18th century aristocratic life and reflected the strong love-hate ties (love on display here) between the British and French upper crust. Paintings, elaborate chandeliers, and an impressive gallery of armor and armaments are the highlights. While not a top 5 must-see in London, it was impressive nonetheless and probably in the top 20 of attractions. Free admission means more (British) pounds for afternoon tea.
Sushi Samba!– The grand finale of Prince Harrison’s birthday was at this unforgettable hotspot perched high atop Heron Tower in “The City.” Accessed via a glass elevator rivaling that of Willy Wonka, Sushi samba’s winning Japanese-Brazilian-Peruvian cuisine and hothouse setting made for grand and celebratory coda to Harry’s day. This hotspot is as good as ever, delivering in a Nobu “never less than fully satisfying” fashion. Gonna be hard to top this in 2018!
At last, properly rested and filled up by another tasty breakfast at Koffmann’s, Paddy had a full day planned for us which started with the legendary Tower of London and The Crown Jewels.
Don’t miss this historic landmark! The Tower complex dates to 1066 (!), and it’s main building sports an impressive array of armaments, uniforms, and records while service as the site of many battles and legendary imprisonments. No matter the wait (ours was about 45 minutes), DO NOT SKIP the Crown Jewels exhibit. Cramped with fellow-tourists speaking in a myriad of tongues, the Jewels are the actual crowns and other adornments worn through the centuries – and to this day- by British monarchs and other Royals. Impressive and moving to see these ancient baubles worked by both Elizabeth I in 1600 and Elizabeth II in 2016, as well as “Cullinan I”, the largest clear cut diamond in the world. All of us were impressed and awed.
Covent Garden– From the Tower, we made our way to the Covent Garden area for some much-needed fueling at Balthazar (London outpost of the Soho NY classic). We wandered amongst the outdoor vendors of t-shirts and other novelties, grabbed a coffee, and found our way back to the warmth of the beloved Viano for our next (to last) stop of the day.
Westminster Abbey– Wow. This was surprisingly everyone’s favorite tourist stop. Paddy had ventured ahead while we lunched and secured a no-wait entrance into the mammoth cathedral. To stand where 38 monarchs have been enthroned and where innumerable royal weddings (Elizabeth and Philip; Charles and Diana; William and Kate) and funerals have been officiated was truly moving. My Step-daughter Hallie and son Harry attended a prayer service in the sequestered Shrine of St. Edward the Confessor, and we all walked in wonder of the kings, queens, and notable leaders of the arts, sciences, and humanities who are buried in the Abbey (of note, Sir Isaac Newton Ned Charles Darwin). Here again, audio devices are extremely helpful in navigating the enormous facility, it’s historic, and its inhabitants at eternal rest. (No photos allowed inside)
Chiltern Firehouse– With (again) the connections of our man Paddy, we dined at the ultra-fashionable hotspot Chiltern Firehouse. As-named housed in a former firehouse, this modern fave features an inventive menu, open kitchen, and an updated-rustic decor. A few menu items which went back as empty plates: The Fried Chicken “snack” (which we ordered x2); Firehouse Caesar; and “Mains” Cod, Sea Bass, Peat Smoked Short Rib, and Fillet. Absolutely no hesitation in crowning this gem as our favorite meal in London. Thanks Chiltern and especially to Paddy for the great reservation and table.
Phew. Did we really cover all this in 2 1/2 days in London? It was uber-active and worth every minute on our feet. While we wish we had another day to relax and shop, Rome beckoned and our Rome feature will follow shortly. Thanks Paddy Renouf, thanks to The Berkeley, and thanks to all that is London. FO40 will be back!
To book a tour with Paddy, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org and tell him that Tonia Steck of FO40 sent you!