Contents : Heathrow Airport | Transportation Summary | Detailed Information on Transportation to Downtown | Big Ben | Big Bus Company | Boxing Day | British Airways | British Museum | Charing Cross | Citizen M Hotel | Halepi Restaurant & Kebab House | Hyde Park | Kensington Gardens & Palace | Leinster Terrace | Libations, i.e., Carling Ale and Einstök Icelandic Pale Ale | The London Eye | Machine-A Store | Oyster Visitor Travel Cards | Palace of Westminster | Porchester Terrace | Pret a Manger | Randomness and Fleet Street | The Royal Courts of Justice | The Shard & 62 Buckingham Place | The Thames and London Bridge | The Thistle Hyde Park | Marble Arch Hotel | The Lounge | The Glenn Miller Bar | The Thistle Kensington Gardens | The Tower Bridge | Westminster | Ye Grapes | Zizzi Ristorante
“This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”
― William Shakespeare, King Richard II
One of the benefits of London’s Heathrow Airport, which serves the capital city as well as the greater United Kingdom, is its proximity to the downtown area, slightly more than 20km.
Despite the airport’s huge size, navigating it is easily accomplished as the signage, particularly since graphic design updates were made for the 2012 Summer Olympics, is excellent.
Here is a summary of the transportation options available followed by more detailed information :
― Cabs, for door-to-door service
― Heathrow Connect links the airport to rail stations downtown
― Heathrow Express links the airport to Paddington Station
― Rail-Air Bus Links
― Travel and Oyster Cards
― Map of the Underground in .pdf format
Cabs. London’s famous black taxis are readily available at all of Heathrow’s terminals. Their reputation as reliable is well-earned and the cost is based on the mileage traveled from your arrival terminal to your destination. When you arrive, you will not be presented with hidden fees or taxes, a great source of pride as the city has strict licensing requirements for all its taxi drivers. There are information desks in each Arrival Hall where you can request pick-up but you can also reserve online in advance for a fixed price. If you’re traveling to the neighborhoods of West London, you may want to consider Heathrow Connect, linking the airport to the following local rail stations :
― Ealing / Broadway
― Hayes & Harlington
― West Ealing
The trains are clean and modern, and if your destination is near one of the above-referenced stops, its ideal as the prices are reasonable. Service runs approximately every half hour. If you’re traveling to other parts of the city, however, you may want to consider Heathrow Express which offers train service every 15 minutes from the airport’s Central Station to downtown’s Paddington Station. From there, you can then transfer to the Underground. The modern trains run like clockwork, feature WiFi, are clean and affordable. If you purchase a round trip ticket, there’s also a savings over buying 2 separate ones.
― If you arrive at Terminals 1 or 3, follow the signage for Trains.
― If you arrive at Terminal 4, you need to transfer to Terminals 1 / 3 and follow the signage for the Inter-Terminal Shuttle.
― If you arrive at Terminal 5, use the elevators or escalators in the Arrivals Hall to the Basement Level.
If your destination is near the larger rail stations in London, you may want to use the Rail-Air Bus Link offering bus transport and transfers to the rail systems. You may purchase your ticket at Heathrow, or Reading Rail Station. For faster service, however, consider booking directly online with the transportation provider, Rail Air, via their website. And no trip to London would be complete without using the Underground. Service from the airport to downtown takes just under an hour, much longer than Express, but the trains run every few minutes and costs approximately less than US$ 8.00.
You can also buy a single, one way fare or purchase a 7-day Travel Card or Oyster Visitor Travel Card. With the Travel Card you have unlimited travel on the bus, Tube, tram, DLR, London Overground and National Rail services in London, based on the number of zones for which you have paid. With the Oyster Visitor Travel Card, a pay-as-you-go option, you can travel on the bus, Tube, tram, DLR, London Overground and most National Rail services in London. The cards never expire and you can add funds to it throughout the Tubes, Oyster Ticket Stops or Travel Information Centers.
Ben really is big. The iconic tower, officially known as Elizabeth Tower, is such an integral part of the Palace of Westminster, it sometimes outshines the neo-Gothic building at its base. It’s nickname, Big Ben, interestingly enough, refers not to the tower itself, but its largest bell, Ben, which is rumored to have been named after Sir Benjamin Hall.
I am not a fan of the typical tourist agendas when I am struck by wanderlust. I made an exception, however, when traveling to London recently and using its local franchise of Big Bus, a tour service operating in some of the world’s biggest and most noteworthy cities. The reason was two-fold : first, Big Bus covers almost the entire city, which is huge and nearly impossible to navigate exclusively by foot over a few days. And second, the buses stop at almost every single bus stop already in use by the city’s local and famous double-decker buses. Your options, therefore, for stopping and walking and then boarding another bus a few blocks away are seemingly endless. Here are just some of the major places and sites along its route, in chronological order :
― Kensington Gardens (the stop is directly in front of the Thistle Kensington Gardens Hotel)
― Paddington Station
― Marble Arch neighborhood and Madame Tussaud’s
― BBC, Oxford & Piccadilly Circuses
― National Gallery, Charing Cross and Westminster
― Westminster Bridge, the London Eye, Covent Garden
― London Bridge and the Tower of London
― Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Harrod’s
― Notting Hill
Tickets can be obtained for UK$ 31.00 / person and kiosks are located everywhere; they’re valid for 48 hours from the time they’re purchased and include a complimentary river cruise along the Thames. The buses themselves are clean and run every few minutes. At many stops, there are Big Bus coordinators who are more than happy to answer questions and offer assistance. We toured the entire city more than twice while we were there and recommend it highly.
A holiday celebrated throughout the United Kingdom, Boxing Day is traditionally where employers give their employees Christmas gifts, i.e., boxes. It has been transformed into a day similar to our Black Friday in North America–the day after our Thanksgiving holiday–where shopping rules the day and sales are to be had everywhere. I spent the morning safe and secure on one of London’s iconic double-deckers, warm from the cold and wind and the hundreds of thousands of people who packed the shopping districts of King’s and Oxford’s streets.
British Airways has bragging rights as “the world’s favourite airline” and there is a reason. If it was a mere advertising and PR gimmick, it would be inviting travelers to line the company up in their cross-hairs. But it’s not as the airline has raised the level of customer service to such new heights, it is hard to imagine others keeping up. I enjoyed their business class service from Washington, DC to London and Dublin, an opportunity I seized by redeeming frequent flier miles.
Their business class cabins, i.e., Club World, feature comfortable individual seats with the capability of becoming fully flat beds. Your personal space includes lighting, a privacy screen, a storage locker, a TV screen with substantial entertainment options and work desk. The menu was impressive, too, and rounding out the food was an equally noteworthy wine list which included champagne, and red and white varietals from California and France. The multilingual flight crew was attentive and friendly and they took a great deal of pride in representing not just their airline but their home countries, too.
Update. I recently flew from Washington’s Dulles to London’s Heathrow on British Airway’s (BA) Airbus a380, one of the world’s largest aircraft. The plane is nothing short of a technical marvel, featuring 2 levels and able to accommodate 500 passengers. As the passengers began gathering in the boarding area, I wondered just how the BA gate agents would be able to board the craft with any semblance of order and civility. Two jet ways are involved and 5 separate queues are required. The boarding process was surprisingly a breeze, perhaps due to the holiday spirit shared by so many.
The stars must have aligned in our favor as there was a mix-up with our seats. The solution was a complimentary upgrade to the Club World cabin, a noticeably larger and sleeker area than the one I enjoyed on the airline’s Boeing 747 counterpart. The Airbus’ double-decker plane, by its sheer seize, allows for more room, an improvement that becomes obvious when one stand up from the individual sleeping pods to walk around.
The service, as is typical with BA flights, was excellent and the dinner menu was impressive, featuring antipasti, a choice of beef, cannelloni, grill vegetables on Italian wheat, or salmon. The wine list was extensive, too, as was the aperitifs and liqueurs available on board.
Like New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Paris’ Louvre, the scale of the British Museum can only be appreciated in person as pictures don’t quite capture the building’s size and scope. The famed cultural institution is so large, in fact, it’s best to plan on visiting it over a few days. It’s ground floor, for example, is the location of the world-renowned Ancient Lives, Assyrian, and Egyptian Galleries and it took a full day to experience them–and we arrived, it should be noted–when the museum opened its doors that morning.
Relief of Greek warrior. The serpent at the bases represents the soul of the deceased.
Lely’s Venus (Aphrodite.)
“Here the goddess Venus is surprised as she bathes, her water jar resting under her left thigh. Her beautiful head, with its top-knot hairstyle, is turned nervously to one side, perhaps in the direction of an intruder.” ― from the British Museum’s description.
The great pharaoh Ramesses II guards over the Museum’s Egyptian Sculpture Gallery (Room 4) :
London’s Cockspur, Strand and Whitehall Streets all converge south of Trafalgar Square into a roundabout known as Charing Cross. The irony of the first street cannot be lost on those gathering there as it’s marked by a statue of a large blue rooster (think about it,) sculpted by German artist Katharina Fritsch. You, too, will want to visit as it’s the location of the Statue of Charles I, Nelson’s Column–honoring Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson who died at the Battle of Trafalgar–and most importantly, The National Gallery, one of the greatest art museums in the world. The Gallery houses some of the greatest collections of paintings imaginable, like Sebastiano del Piombo’s, “The Raising of Lazarus,” and expecting to see them all in a single day is an exercise in futility.
You may want to visit the museum’s various wings across a couple of days instead. And make time, depending on the weather, to enjoy sitting outside the Gallery’s entrance, an area characterized by beautiful fountains and cafes.
For those who think London is stodgy, your perception is about to be turned on its head with the opening of the Citizen M Hotel London. Modern, hip and reasonably priced, the hotel is located in the heart of the city near the Tate Museum and perfect for those looking for something above and beyond the bigger hotel chains.
Right around the corner from The Thistle Kensington Gardens Hotel and just beyond Leinster Terrace is Halepi Restaurant & Kebab House, a family owned and operated, authentic Greek restaurant. What an unexpected and fantastic surprise. The dining space is intimate, inviting, and the kitchen is well within view of all the tables. We enjoyed grilled calamari, hummus, lamb kebab w/ chips, peppers and radishes, a bottle of St. Emilion red wine, and steak. The meal was some of the best Greek food we had ever enjoyed and found out, after the fact, Helapi is considered the best Greek restaurant in London.
Jack Woltz had it lucky. Aficionados of cinema will recognize the name instantly as the fictional character from “The Godfather.” Having crossed a member of the Corleone family, Woltz awakens one night–in one of the most famous scenes ever in film history–only to find the head of one his prized horses in his bed. It was, however, nothing like what you will find in London’s Hyde Park. Artist Nic Fiddian-Green’s bronze sculpture, Still Water, dominates the Marble Arch section near Hyde Park.
“Hearts at peace, under an English heaven.” ― Rupert Brooke
Forming a fantastic green space between Kensington and Westminster is Kensington Gardens & Palace, an oasis of calm in the heart of London’s bustling downtown.
The Kensington Gardens Photo Series : Part II
The Leinster Terrace Photo Series :
Libations. While in the city, enjoy the limited edition lager, Carling’s Zest, with a hint of orange spice.
Also look for Einstök Icelandic Pale Ale as London is one of the few places outside of Iceland you can enjoy this beer, brewed in a fishing village 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle and with water from ancient glaciers.
The London Eye was erected for the 2000 Millennium celebration and originally intended as only a temporary installation. It offers one of the highest views of the city, second only to the Shard. Not for the faint of heart, the Ferris wheel stands at 135 meters and is so popular it is now a permanent attraction along the Thames. It takes 40 minutes to complete a full revolution, but for those daring enough to board one of its glass pods, the 360 degree views of London are spectacular.
Machine-A, known for its smart clothing and gallery-style presentation, has reopened. Clothes from established designers are sold-by-side with up and coming talent whose names are not yet global brands. The looks are wearable in a space that’s high concept.
The Palace of Westminster, i.e., the House of Parliament, is the site of the House of Commons and House of Lords, serving as both the political hub of the United Kingdom, and a royal residence. The Gothic building is such an iconic part of the London skyline, it must be seen and experienced in person, and it’s presence on the river Thames, with its Elizabeth Tower–Big Ben–is the very definition of majestic.
We purchased Oyster Visitor Travel Cards directly from http://www.VisitBritainShop.com and they were indispensable. I ordered them with UK$30.00 pre-loaded on them and they were delivered within a week to the States. We used them extensively to travel on the London bus routes (which run like clockwork and maneuver downtown traffic effortlessly.) Not only do they spare you from constantly looking for loose change but use of the cards guarantees the best fares possible.
The Porchester Terrace Photo Series :
Montreal may very well have been check-mated when it comes to croissants. Pret-a-Manger, or ready to eat, has locations throughout China, France, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Although it’s a global brand, it should not be mistaken for a chain food or fast food establishment. On the contrary. The company prides itself on food prepared at each location and only with the freshest and most natural ingredients.
It shows. I had the pleasure of visiting their location on Queensway, off Bayswater Road, in London on a regular basis. All it took was one bite on my first visit of their almond croissant and I was hooked immediately. The pastry was flaky, warm, had generous amounts of slivered almonds on top and the bread melted in my mouth. The chocolate one I tried the next day was as equally seductive and was filled with a delicious chocolate ganache, the taste of which I have yet to shake off. I also sampled their coconut macaroons which were so good I brought some back to the States as gifts to family and friends. The store bustled as regulars placed their orders with purpose, chatting with the staff and then hurrying off to work or for errands. The shelves were stocked frequently with freshly made baguettes, salads, sandwiches and soups and the place itself, although small, was clean and the food was presented with pride. The staff there is extremely friendly, helpful, and immediately welcomed us a regulars.
Randomness and Fleet Street…The Photo Series :
The Victorian Gothic style of the Royal Courts of Justice, designed by George Edmund Street and built in the 1870’s, looms large on the Strand in London :
London fired a shot heard round the world of architecture when it unveiled The Shard, a 95-story modern skyscraper, designed by the renowned Renzo Piano, wrapped in glass and in the shape of a pyramid near London Bridge. In one fell swoop, traditional London transformed itself and demanded to be taken seriously in embracing modernity. Visitors now have the chance to see the entire city and savor the views from high above.
And recently opened on the glass building’s 32nd floor is Oblix, Chef Rainer Becker’s new restaurant and lounge. Having already created note-worthy dining establishments in London, Becker has made The Shard a building with what is undoubtedly destination dining as patrons’ views of the city are unparalleled.
This modern tower was no fluke or one-hit wonder either. Designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects and located along the city’s famed Victoria Street, 62 Buckingham Gate is unlike many buildings in London. Imagine an architect creating glass and steel origami with the ease and angles of that created with scratch paper. The result is startling…and brilliant.
The Thames and London Bridge :
Thistle has a number of properties in London with three of their more noteworthy locations along (or just off of) Bayswater Road. Although I frequently stay at their Kensington Gardens hotel, I stopped in the adjacent one, the Thistle Hyde Park, for after-dinner drinks and to enjoy their lobby and bar which were both decorated for the holidays.
On Bryanston Street near Portman Square and Hyde Park is The Thistle Marble Arch Hotel, a beautiful property in a great location. I was warmly greeted at the front door and impressed upon entering the lobby. The customer service is excellent. I found staff from the front desk, to house-keeping, to restaurant waiters and bartenders extremely friendly. Almost all remembered my name and consistently acknowledged me as I traveled in and out of the hotel. The property’s public areas are immaculate as was my room (the bed was fantastic.) I decided on my first day to check out the Thistle’s Lounge and Glen Miller Bar, both of which provided excellent experiences without the trappings of typical hotel bars–bland drinks, overpriced and served in even blander environs.
The Lounge is located in the main lobby and offers a wonderful afternoon tea service. If you’re at all concerned that the service caters to middle-age matrons, don’t be. It has a light menu if you’re not a big tea fan and the interior definitely has a masculine vibe to it.
The Glenn Miller Bar, named after our very own jazz legend, also has a masculine vibe and great drinks. The bar tenders were affable and offered much-valued advice on bars and restaurants frequented by locals. I also liked the range of customers all enjoying themselves before dinner–business people, a couple of media types, and visitors staying for a few days before traveling onward to Canada.
Room service is available 24 hours and I appreciated the fantastic coffee beverages and morning pastries I had sent to my room every morning. The hotel offers a number of specials / package deals exclusively via its own website. I recommend signing up for its offers via e-mail which may be, in some instances, all you need to prompt you to make the trip to London…even on short notice. When I returned to London several months later, the Marble Arch was fully booked but they gladly referred me to their sister property, The Thistle Kensington Gardens.
When I checked in, I jokingly told the front desk staff they had a lot to live up to as staying at the Marble Arch was one of the finest hotel experiences I had ever enjoyed. The young woman who checked me in winked at me and informed me they would gladly take up the challenge. And they did. Although the lobby area is much smaller than the Marble Arch’s, I appreciated the smaller, more intimate public spaces. My accommodations were spectacular and overlooked Kensington Gardens.
The room was immaculate; featured general closet space; coffee and tea service; a king-size bed; bathrobes and thick cotton towels; excellent amenities; and the bathroom was the epitome of well-thought out design, with modern features. I’m looking forward to returning.
Update. On my recent trip to London, I returned to the Thistle Kensington Gardens which quickly became my home away from home as I would be celebrating the Christmas holiday in London this year.
Just as the Empire State Building defines New York City’s skyline and the Eiffel Tower defines that of Paris, the iconography of London’s Tower Bridge cannot be overstated. Crossing the Thames River, the suspension bridge links Tower Hamlets on the north side to Southwark on the side. The design, by Horace Jones and George D. Stevenson, was not initially greeted with enthusiasm. But, it has stood the test of time and underwent face-lifts for both the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and 2012 Summer Olympics.
Westminster, located in central London, is the very definition of majestic. The Horse Guards Building, House of Parliament, and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office are just a fraction of the spectacular and historic buildings populating the area.
I stumbled upon Ye Grapes on Shepherd Street when I left the Thistle one day and was immediately struck by the pub’s authenticity as it seemed to be from another era entirely and not touristy at all. As it turns out, it has been in existence for decades and the building itself is well over 100 years old. Located just a few blocks from the Underground’s Green park station, via the Jubilee, Piccadilly and Victoria lines, the pub is frequented by locals on a regular basis–always a good sign. The service is friendly and the pints of ale refreshing. On warm days, patrons spill out onto the “ledge” and its well worth the effort.
It’s entirely possible to have a great plate of pasta in London–yes, London. The city has effortlessly shaken off its mantle as a haven for forgettable and bland food and transformed itself into a global, culinary powerhouse, and easily taking on the Capital of the World, New York City, in the process. One can meander throughout a number of neighborhoods and find very good-to-excellent Brazilian, French, Italian, Moroccan and Spanish cuisines, to name just a few. And the city’s pub menus should not be overlooked either or under-estimated as great burgers and chips, and affable company, abound. To wit…We happened to walk past Zizzi Ristorante on Bayswater Road one cold and blustery night and stopped dead in our tracks as the smell of warm bread enticed and seduced us. We didn’t even bother looking in the windows–no, we walked right in and asked for a table.
What a fantastic and unexpected surprised it turned out to be. The charming and family friendly restaurant has a warm and inviting feel. After promptly being seated, we glanced at our menus and were impressed with the variety of dishes and the emphasis on fresh ingredients. After much deliberation, we decided on :
― Arancini. Risotto balls with mozzarella, peas and a breadcrumb coating, and served with a tomato peperonata dip.
― The Skinny Pizza, topped with artichokes, goat cheese, peppers, roasted aubergine, slow roasted tomatoes and olives.
― Spaghetti Carbonara with pancetta, parsley, thyme and wild mushrooms.
― Chocolate Tartufo. A dark chocolate mousse served with crushed hazelnuts, amaretti biscuits and Frangelico liqueur finished off the meal.
― Tiramisu. Espresso and liqueur-soaked sponge cake with layers of Italian mascarpone and cocoa.
The entire meal was very, very good but the spaghetti carbonara was the stand-out. It was, unequivocally, one of the best plates of pasta I have ever enjoyed. And I’m a pasta snob (it’s in my genes.) The service was wonderful, too. We enjoyed the meal so much we returned a couple of days later, on yet another cold and bitter night, only to find our first visit there was clearly no fluke. Our second experience was as enjoyable as the first and we cannot wait to return. I recommend the restaurant highly.