Friday, October 7, 2016

London, England

Our visit to London happened because my son learned about Stonehenge at summer camp and said he really wanted to see it. My husband and I had never seen it either, so I began planning a London-Paris trip for our next vacation. We started in Paris (here’s my itinerary for that part of the trip), then took the Eurostar to London, only two hours away.

What to Do

We were excited to stay at a hotel with a prime view of Big Ben, which turned out to be very grand in person. Right near Big Ben is the London Eye, the huge Ferris wheel that gives you a bird's eye view of London.  

After visiting the spectacular Luxembourg Garden in Paris, we were eager to check out Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens (the two are attached) in the middle of London. The parks are home to the Peter Pan-themed Diana Memorial Playground and please-touch Diana Memorial Fountain, but our favorite part was actually renting pedal boats on the Serpentine. The Serpentine is filled with ducks, geese and swans, and you can purchase food for them in the gift shop. Be warned, however: Once you've established a relationship with these birds, they'll stalk you for the rest of your time in the water. We had no fewer than four swans and about a dozen ducks trailing our boat at one point, and we couldn't get rid of them.

The kids were excited to see London Bridge, but it turns out that there are actually two famous bridges in the city: London Bridge, which is actually quite modern looking after several recent renovations, and Tower Bridge, which is the iconic Victorian bridge that most people think of when they hear the song "London Bridge is Falling Down." So we visited Tower Bridge, and walked across the bottom level to the other side for free. For a price, you can walk across the glass-bottomed upper level of Tower Bridge, and even watch boats sailing underneath if you time your visit right.

On the last day of our visit, we decided to give the kids a break from the city sights to visit Kidzania, a sort of role-playing amusement park. The kids walk around a town that's set up for them and pop into stores, stations or offices where they can work as firefighters, dentists, pilots and other jobs. In addition to working with the very realistic equipment, they earn play money for each of these experiences, which they can later spend in the department store, at the tattoo parlor, or at the jewelry shop, among other places. We'd experienced a similar amusement park in Taiwan called Baby Boss, and my daughter absolutely loved it at the time. She loved it this time, too. Her favorite job was checkout clerk at the supermarket.

Kidzania is extremely well done. The town and all of the equipment involved all look very realistic, and the people who work there (for real) are very nice and obviously enjoy being with kids. I highly recommend a visit if you're in London with small children. It may not be the quintessential London experience, but it's one they'll never forget.

Where to Eat

So of course we had to have afternoon tea while we were in London. I did plenty of research for kid-friendly experiences, and finally settled on the Afternoon Tea at St. Ermin's Hotel. It was a pleasant day, so we got to eat out on the beautiful stone patio. The place settings and food presentation couldn't have been cuter, and you can have unlimited amounts of everything (although this didn't seem like an appropriate place to break into all-you-can-eat-buffet mode).

What you're really paying for here, though, is the lovely ambiance. We each had about three finger sandwiches, a scone, some tea and hot chocolate, and a variety of desserts, and the meal ran us more than 100£ for two adults and two kids. If you're interested in less fuss, more food, I'd recommend the Afternoon Tea at Harrods, which I experienced the last time I was in London.

After crossing Tower Bridge, we found ourselves at a charming waterfront marina called St. Katharine's Docks. There are many good restaurant options here, including the very kid-friendly and yummy Zizzi Italian eatery, which is where we ended up. The kids' menu is a winner, with decorate-your-own pizzas and mini gelato cones topped with popping candy. Also well-reviewed in the area are The Dickens Inn for pub food and Mala for Indian.

What's Nearby

We took an Evan Evans bus tour from London that went to Windsor Castle, Bath and Stonehenge. Windsor Castle is not far from the city and can be accessed by a 30-minute train ride. But Bath and Stonehenge are much farther  about two hours by car. We figured the tour would be the easiest and most relaxing way to get out to Stonehenge. You don't get much time to spend at each locale, but getting a chance to nap on the bus was priceless. It also turned out to be a fantastic way to see the English countryside, filled with grazing horses, cows, sheep and even pigs.

Windsor Castle, the official home of the Queen, was our first stop. It was amazing and a little surreal to visit an actual working castle. We were fortunate to catch a special exhibition of the Queen's wardrobe through the years, which my daughter absolutely loved. We also enjoyed looking at Queen Mary's Doll House and the armory in St. George's Hall.

On certain days you can view the changing of the guards here, and by all accounts, it's a more intimate experience than the one you'll find at Buckingham Palace.

The next stop on the tour was Bath, a city famous for its ancient Roman baths. At the 2,000-year-old bathhouse, you can ask for the kids' scavenger hunt, which turned out to be an excellent way to engage them. My son said it was his favorite part of the day. I liked that you are offered a sip of the water, which contains 42 minerals and is supposed to have healing powers. It tastes quite awful, though!

And finally, we journeyed out to Stonehenge  the reason we planned this trip in the first place. It didn't disappoint. Even though you can no longer touch the stones, you can get quite close to them, and it feels unreal to finally view this mysterious icon that's been standing for 5,000 years. Grassy fields surround the stones, and the kids loved running around and doing cartwheels. It also happened to be a warm, gorgeous day, which no doubt contributed to our positive experience.