We have been traveling with Untours for 26 years. Hard to believe it has been that long! Our most recent Untour was two weeks in London and one in Scotland. If you are interested, I maintained a daily blog with photos for our friends at web.wordpress.com.
Researching and preparing for a trip is part of the anticipatory fun for me. There were some things I did before leaving that I found to be invaluable during our trip and wanted to share them with fellow Untourists.
1. I highly recommend Benton’s London Street Map as one of the best maps of the city. Order it from www.bookdepository.com. This is a UK company, but it had the best price (US$3.83, with free shipping) and didn’t take too long to arrive. With repeated use, the creases tend to tear, so if you buy it, bring along some clear tape.
2. Book (free) tickets for the Sky Garden in advance. Located at 20 Fenchurch St., the open air terrace at the top of this glass skyscraper affords a spectacular view of London, including St. Paul’s, London Tower, and Tower Bridge. The top floor gardens also house a bar and restaurant. However, you do not have to eat or drink to enjoy the view. A limited number of tickets are available and must be booked online. At this point, new blocks of tickets are made available on a weekly basis every Monday for the following week, but this procedure is subject to change. Consult skygarden.london for further booking information. Well worth it if you like bird’s eye views. (Note: Another great bird’s eye view is from the top floor of the Tate Modern).
3. If you plan on visiting at least two of the historic sites overseen by the Historic Royal Palaces Organization (hrp.org.uk), consider buying a membership. The cost of membership for two of us was less than the admission to both Tower of London and Kensington Palace. We also visited Hampton Court Palace and the Banqueting House with our membership. Not only did it save money, it allowed us to skip the ticket queue and proceed directly to the entrance. It also gave us 10% off for food and shopping at its sights. Order as early as possible for your trip as it can take up to 6 weeks for your membership card to be delivered. If you don’t receive it in time, they provide instructions how to pick up your card at one of their locations. There are some other benefits as well as you will find if you explore their website.
4. Visit officiallondontheatre.co.uk for information about all the shows currently playing. When you are in London, remember that the TKTs booth in Leicester Square offers many half-price tickets. Most of the offers are for same day, but some shows are available a day or so in advance. To find out which ones before making the trip to the booth, go to their website, tkts.co.uk, click on “What’s on Sale” and you will see the tickets (and their prices) available for the current day as well as any in advance.
5. If you are interested in art, this website lists all the exhibits around the city: www.artfund.org/what-to-see/exhibitions. You can explore in advance of your trip to determine which ones you might want to see. The National Gallery is a must see in London, but if you are concerned about limited time, or only wanting to see the highlights, visit this site in advance: www.nationalgallery.org.uk/visiting/short-of-time/.
6. Consult an online calendar of events to help plan your itinerary. We weren’t there for the Trooping of the Colours, but by reading about upcoming events, we learned that there would be a rehearsal parade called the Colonial’s Review when we were there. It had all the pageantry of Trooping of the Colours, without the presence of the queen, although Prince William did participate. Two good websites for upcoming events are londondrum.com and timeout.com/London.
7. Download apps and bookmark useful websites. There are a number of London guides, maps, and transit apps available for use on your devices such as iPhone or iPad. If you are going to carry your device with you, search for ones that work offline. The website I found most useful was the one for London transport journey planner, https://tfl.gov.uk/plan-a-journey/. However, it sometimes gave me options I didn’t really like and that is when an app I had downloaded for the London Tube was helpful.
8. The good news is that is that a day trip to get a flavor of the Cotswolds is very doable. The bad news is that unless you have a car (and who would want to drive a car in London?) you really have to book a tour to do this. I investigated various tours and we chose and were happy with the one offered by London walks (walks.com). Although you cannot make reservations, they are only offered a few days a month, so if you are interested, you need to consult the site before your trip so that you can plug the day into your calendar. Another option that intrigued us and was recommended by a fellow traveler is the Secret Cottage tour (cotswoldtourism.co.uk). This is a popular tour which includes coffee, lunch, and a cream tea in the guide’s private home, and it must be booked in advance. There is also a sister company that offers a tour without the food and drink (cotswoldsmysterytour.co.uk).
9. If you are staying at the Peabody apartment in Bloomsbury, there is a lot of history in that neighborhood. You might be interested in a walking tour and there are a number of commercial ones that you can find if you Google “walking tour Bloomsbury.” Or, try a do-it-yourself based on the self guided walk offered by the London Parks & Gardens Trust (www.londongardenstrust.org). If you consult it prior to your trip, you can print out maps and also download mp3s for audio directions.
Enjoy your time in London!
Vickie Kelber was a school psychologist/administrator/consultant. Since retiring, she has reinvented herself a few times as member of her City Council, Artistic Director for a film festival, travel columnist. An avid reader, Vickie maintains a blog with short reviews of books soon to be or recently released at vickieonmarco.blogspot.com/ and Twitter account at @vickieonmarco1.