London captured my heart long ago. Being a big Harry Potter fan, it's always been one of my favorite cities to visit since the books are primarily set there. The city is a perfect mix of old and new, traditional and modern. I love the British culture and customs, as well as the history of the largest city in Europe.
This was my second time in London after visiting back in 2009. One of the reasons I was looking forward to coming back was to visit the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studio, where they filmed the movies. I know...I'm a dork. 🙂
I planned to spend my 30th birthday in Paris, so I figured I might as well visit London since the two are so close. London ended up being a 3-day stop on our 10-day travels to Iceland and Europe (Iceland post here). My friends and I flew Icelandair from Chicago to Reykjavik (3-day stopover) and then from Reykjavik to London. It's about a 3-hour direct flight into Heathrow on a typical day; however, our flight got delayed by a few hours pushing our arrival later than we had planned.
While staying in London we booked an awesome Airbnb located in the Pimlico neighborhood, with stunning views of the city and of the London Eye. There were 6 of us traveling and this place had 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a large living room and a full kitchen. It ended up being cheaper for our group to book the Airbnb than 3 hotel rooms, so we were happy with the find. The Airbnb was close to the underground and walking distance to some major sights.
Flying into London
City views from our Airbnb
City views from our Airbnb
Top attractions to see in London:
St Paul’s Cathedral
Our first day in London was a quick one. We spent some time exploring the city before heading to our scheduled Dinner Sightseeing Cruise on the River Thames, that I found through Viator. The cruise featured a multiple course dinner and musical performances, all while taking in some gorgeous views of the city at night, including the London Eye, Big Ben, Tower Bridge, the Shard and the O2.
Big Ben & Parliament
Our second day in London was full of sightseeing and discovering. I found a company called Strawberry Tours that offers free walking tours throughout the city (they also operate throughout other major cities in Europe). We booked the “London Landmarks West Tour” that ran about 2 and a half hours and stopped at some major landmarks including: Big Ben & House of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, St. James’s Palace, St. James’s Park and Leicester Square. The concept is pretty cool, with the tour being free you just tip at the end. Our tour guide was knowledgeable and gave us some great information about the city. The tour ended at a traditional London Pub, where we had fish and chips with our group.
St James's Park
After lunch, we walked over to our scheduled tour of Buckingham Palace. One of the nice things about traveling to London in late July is that the Queen leaves on holiday for a few weeks and they open Buckingham Palace to the public. You have to get tickets well in advance for this and they are available on the main Buckingham Palace site.
Our group ended up booking the full package called The Royal Day Out, which included admission to The Queen’s Gallery, the Royal Mews, and the State Rooms all for about $50 per person. To be honest, we would have been fine just doing the State Rooms tour as this was really the only part of the tour that we actually got to go inside of the palace.
The Queen’s Gallery was a tour around Her Majesty’s private art gallery. I’m not a big art person, so it wasn’t something that I found to be interesting, nor did I need the allocated 1.5 hours of time.
The Royal Mews venue was fine; we got a tour around the stables as well as a chance to see the actual carriages that the royal family use for transportation during events.
Finally, the State Rooms tour took us inside the palace to explore some of the main rooms. Again, this was really the only part of the tour that I was excited to see. Last time I was in London, I was only able to stand in front of Buckingham Palace. It was quite an experience to see the palace from another perspective, especially since it is still occupied by the Queen the majority of the year.
The State Room tour did not disappoint. We were able to see several rooms and areas throughout the palace that are actively used by the Queen, the Royal Family and guests. It was fascinating to be able to walk into the palace and see the tourists outside at the front gate, which was something that I did several years back. Unfortunately for security purposes, we were not allowed to take pictures inside the palace.
The palace itself is magnificent, a lot of colors and bright décor, along with beautiful statues and details. After the tour, we got to exit from the back of the palace and into the royal garden, where the Queen hosts her garden parties. The garden is beautiful! For a second, I completely forgot that I was in the heart of London. The garden occupies over 40 acres of land in the middle of the city, with several varieties of exotic plants and trees, along with a lake and a helicopter pad. Overall, the experience was long but interesting! We got some great views of the palace both inside and out, as well as some great insight into palace life.
Back of Buckingham Palace
On our last day in London, Eugene and I ventured to the Warner Brothers Studio. The studio itself is about 40 minutes outside of the city in Leavesden. We didn’t rent a car in London and an Uber would have been expensive, so we ended up booking transportation along with tickets through Viator. We took a double-decker bus from the city to the studio and they even played a Harry Potter movie during the drive.
We had a blast at the studio, spending about 2.5 hours walking around and exploring the actual sets, props, and wardrobes used during the making of all of the movies. Before the studio tour, I had just assumed that most of the sets/props in the movie were CGI, but they were, in fact, real! I was so surprised! The sets were gorgeous and the costumes, specifically on display this quarter, were nice to see.
Harry Potter Double Decker
Cupboard Under the Stairs
Harry's School Letters
Gryffindor Common Room
Fat Lady Portrait
Dumbledore's Office Entry
After the tour, Eugene and I explored Notting Hill. It’s a quaint area in London, with vibrant houses, markets, and adorable little shops. We spent some time perusing the vintage stores and bakeries before heading to high tea at the Ritz Carlton.
I booked tea at the Ritz months in advance, as it books up very quickly. I knew we wanted to experience a British tea sitting and the Ritz has one of the best in town. While we had an overall amazing time at tea, we did encounter a pretty frustrating situation. The guys in our group were wearing jeans and button up shirts and the host refused to seat us until the men changed. Apparently the policy was that gentlemen had to wear suit jackets and slacks. Had we known this detail in advance, we would have been prepared, but nowhere did it mention this. I received 2-3 emails confirming my reservation and nothing was specified about the “dress code”. I explained this to the host and showed him my communications with the hotel and he ended up lending the guys jackets and slacks to wear from the hotel concierge. We received a complimentary bottle of champagne for our troubles.
Afternoon Tea at the Ritz Carlton
Spread at the Ritz Carlton
Afternoon Tea at the Ritz Carlton
We had also booked the London Eye VIP Champagne Experience. This whole setup was a pretty big fail. Although we had pre-ordered our tickets, they required a call to confirm the VIP experience 5 days prior. We were in Iceland during this time and the only number we were provided was an international number that we couldn’t call due to roaming. There was no email address on the reservation, so I had to drop a note on their site, which they didn’t end up receiving. When we showed up for our tour experience they were already full, even though we booked a spot for that day. We still ended up on the London Eye, but we didn’t get to partake in the VIP experience that we paid for. We didn’t let this ruin our night. The views from the London Eye were stunning, especially at sunset and this was definitely a worthy experience.
Our final night in London was rounded out with a dinner at the famous Sketch restaurant. This restaurant definitely lived up to the hype. Sketch is broken into 4 rooms, each with absolutely stunning storybook décor. The main dining room is covered in light pink from wall to ceiling, with pink velvet chairs and booths. Dinner was phenomenal, but also pretty expensive. Believe it or not, one of the most interesting parts of Sketch is the bathroom area, which has several unique private restroom pods on display. From the décor to the food to the bathrooms, the experience we had at Sketch was fantastic.
Dinner at Sketch
Menu at Sketch
Bathroom at Sketch
Throughout our stay in London, we did quite a bit of walking, especially to the main sites like Big Ben and the London Eye. The other times we took the underground tube, which was really easy to figure out thanks to Google maps. I had downloaded an offline version of the London maps, so we could navigate around the city without an Internet connection. The times that we had longer commutes and Internet we used Uber as well. We didn’t have many issues finding free WIFI, which was really nice. Most of the restaurants and coffee shops had WIFI available, so we would usually be able to pick some up just walking down a city street.
Overall we had a great stay in London, even though the weather stayed pretty wet and chilly. The city has changed so much since I was first there about 10 years ago, so I can’t wait to see what happens on my next visit back!
Thanks for reading!