Return to London, England

Between the Easter Holiday and the end of the school year, we had four long holiday weekends for May Day, Ascension, Pentecost, and a school teacher workday. I wish we could have traveled somewhere for all of them. That has been our mission while living in Europe, to travel on as many holidays as possible, but it wasn’t practical to take that many trips, almost all in back-to-back weekends, given our work and activities schedule. Still, we managed to travel for one of them!

There were a few reasons we decided to make a return trip to London. For starters, I love it. It is probably my favorite city to visit and that has rubbed off on my son, who claims the same. I learned early on in this expat experience that research shows that children tend to mirror their mother’s emotions and attitudes toward their move, and to hear my son say how much he loves London, and why, it makes me think that some of that is in play. I am thrilled he agrees with me and has enjoyed musical theater, which we associate with London. We wanted to see another show. Lastly, it dawned on us that as he has entered the phase of Harry Potter fandom, that we should visit the Harry Potter Studio Tour outside of London while we were still in Europe.

HMS Belfast and Tower Bridge
HMS Belfast and Tower Bridge on the River Thames.

So, off to London we went, for a third time as a family, and fourth time for me in total. We drove and took the Eurotunnel. We have found this to be quite convenient, another good reason to make this quick trip. Though we drove there, once we arrived, we parked the car in the Bloomsbury Square car park using Secure-a-Spot reservation. We have gotten used to driving in and out of the city, but it is still easiest to get around the city on the Underground or buses. We used our Oyster cards.

Big Ben
Big Ben, under construction.

One thing that is nice about returning to a city you have been to before, and that you plan to visit again, is that you can constantly see new things and not feel the pressure to see the same popular attractions and “must-sees” if you have already seen them before. You’ll notice that a lot of the traditional London “must-dos” are not listed in this trip because we visited them in previous trips. This time we could focus on a few specific things we knew we wanted to do.

What We Did

Tower of London

Our son had not been to the Tower of London yet and I thought he would enjoy it, so we made sure to visit this time. Here’s a time-saving tip, we bought our tickets in advance online so we didn’t have to wait in ticket lines.

Tower of London
The Tower of London.

In the Tower, we used the audio guides. They had a child/family option that made the tour more interesting for our son. You can join tours lead by the famous Yeoman Warders (Beefeaters) but we decided not to do that this time. In hindsight, we probably should have, because I think my son would’ve really been entertained by the Beefeaters, but on the flipside, we got to move at our own pace.

Queen's House at Tower of London
A Beefeater crossing a lawn at the Tower of London.

As I expected, my son enjoyed the ravens, the crown jewels, the armory, and the prisons. There was a whole floor in the armory in the White Tower that had hands-on kids’ activities that he really spent some time on.

 

It has been eleven years since my last visit to the Tower, but it was pretty much as I remembered it! I don’t know that I need to see it again, twice is probably enough, but I am glad we gave my son the opportunity.

Queen's House at Tower of London
The Queen’s House at Tower of London with The Shard in the background.

Aladdin

We definitely wanted to see another show in the West End on this trip. I wrestled with the decision of seeing a new show versus seeing one of the shows we’ve already seen and loved again. I decided to go with a new one and we chose Aladdin in the Prince Edward Theater.

We didn’t have a lot of familiarity with the Aladdin story before this, especially my son, but we did see the Will Smith movie of it about a week before our trip … perfect timing … so we were all excited to see the on-stage production. We enjoyed it. The costumes were beautiful and you can’t not enjoy some of those classic songs. I especially enjoyed the set work for the flying carpet scene. That said, it didn’t make me cry like The Lion King, so do what you’d like with that assessment!

British Museum

Because we were staying nearby, and because he remembers it from the Night at the Museum movies, our son begged us to go back to the British Museum for a bit. We hadn’t really planned on it, but as a parent, it feels wrong to say “no” when your kid is begging to go to a museum, so we did. The great thing about most London museums is that they are free, so you can go in for a quick trip like we did and see whatever you want without feeling like you have to get your “money’s worth”.

British Museum
Inside the British Museum.

We did a quick spin through their Acropolis and Parthenon collections since we had just returned from Athens and wanted to see again what they had there. Then we went through the Egyptian section because our son is interested in mummies and Egyptian history. After that, we left and went on with our day.

Parthenon Horse
A horse head sculpture from the Parthenon at the British Museum.

Bus Tour

With just a few hours left in the city before we had to leave, we decided to hop on the Original Tour/City Tour London Bus tour. Like we did in Athens, we thought this would be an easy way to see a wide swath of the city. We’ve already been in so many little pockets of the city, but traversing between them by the Tube, so it was nice to stay above ground and see how all the neighborhoods come together.

Dragon Statue in London

While we were on the tour, I learned about one monument in London I had not heard of or seen before, the Monument to the Great Fire of London, designed by Sir Christopher Wren. It is a tall column just North of the London Bridge with a small viewing area on top. I don’t know how I had never heard of it before! Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to hop off and climb up. Maybe next time! After the tour, we left London and drove to our final stop of this trip, Watford, outside of London.

Monument to the Great Fire of London
The Monument to the Great Fire of London, designed by Sir Christopher Wren.

Warner Brothers Studio Tour London, The Making of Harry Potter

Located in Watford, north of London, our final activity was to go on the Warner Brothers Studio Tour London, The Making of Harry Potter. I highly recommend this for all Harry Potter fans. My son and I started reading the series together last year. Reading the books and watching the movies has become a fun, family activity for us, so to be able to visit the movie studios together and see sets and props from the making of the movies was really special. We all loved it and I am so glad we made the trip, especially as a final little European getaway before we move back to the States in July.

 

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If I can offer one tip about visiting the studio tour, it is to buy your tickets as early as possible in advance because they sell quickly, and book early entrance times if possible. We were only able to get a 6:30 pm entrance time and the facilities close at 10:00 pm. Allowing for their introductory tour explanations and gift shop time, this gave us just about 3 hours to complete the tour. That is possible, but you can easily spend much more time here, especially if you really take in everything slowly and read and listen to the entire audio guide. Your entrance time is controlled, but once you are in, you can take as long as you want, so just keep that in mind. We opted for the tickets that include the audio guide and a souvenir guide book, and we added on Butterbeer, because, of course!

Where We Stayed

In London we stayed at the Grange Clarendon Hotel again. We have stayed here once before, and another time in one of their partner properties. It is in a good location near the British Museum and fairly close to the West End. It is also good quality for the rates. We’ve often found they have some of the best rates available.

In Watford, we stayed at the Best Western White House Hotel. It perfectly suited our needs for one night. The room seemed recently renovated, though the bathroom was a bit dated, but it was all clean and comfortable and the staff was very nice.

What We Ate

The Best Western in Watford provided a typical hotel breakfast with our room rate. For breakfasts in London, we went to Starbucks and Costa Coffee.

We had a decent lunch at the Tower of London’s New Armouries Café. I had my much-desired fish and chips. The next day, I had more fish and chips for lunch at The Salisbury Pub in Covent Garden.

 

For dinner before Aladdin, since we had a late, large lunch at the Tower, we actually just grabbed some food from a nearby Sainsbury’s (grocery store) and ate it in the hotel. We hadn’t really given ourselves time or belly room for a nicer meal out somewhere, so this worked and saved us some money!

Cream Cookies
Shopping for Custard Creams, a favorite!

The next night, we had dinner along with our Butterbeer at the Backlot Café on the WB Studio Tour. Again, with the 6:30 pm entrance time, we didn’t really want to eat way earlier than that, so we decided to eat there. The food was fine and we ate as fast as we could so we could get back on the tour route.

What We Missed

Cecil Court

While we were in Covent Garden for lunch one afternoon, we tried to walk down Cecil Ct, which people say was an inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter books. Having heard that another street in Edinburgh was also the inspiration for Diagon Alley, I wanted to compare and see what the fuss was about. But I may never know, because all of Cecil Ct seemed to be getting a renovation while we were there. All the buildings on both sides were covered in scaffolding and renovation works. But there were lots of interesting shops there with art, antiques, maps, and used books.

Cecil Court
Cecil Court in London, under construction.

So now we’ve seen Cecil Ct in London and Victoria St in Edinburgh and the Diagon Alley set at Warner Brothers Studio, so I think we covered all the bases!

2019 Trooping the Colour

The Saturday we spent in London was the 2019 Trooping the Colour, the annual Queen’s birthday celebrations and regimental ceremonies. There is a lot of pomp and circumstance and a royal procession on this day every year and we totally missed it. It goes to show how big of a city London is, we had no idea it was taking place at all, as we didn’t enter that part of the city at all that day. Once I realized we had missed it, I kicked myself for not being a more aware royal fan because it would have been cool to see this royal spectacle!

So that concluded our last holiday trip before we move home to the States. I love that it was to London, my favorite city, and my son’s apparently, and the first city I ever visited abroad, many years ago.

What’s Next?

We move home in July and I will not be RB Abroad anymore. I guess I will be RB At Home? I don’t know. I haven’t figured that out yet! But I will keep you posted.

One thing is for sure, this will not be my last blog post. I am still working on other pieces of writing and podcast episodes I want to publish. I still have things to say about this crazy, amazing expat experience, and the next chapter of returning home. Leaving one home and going home to another.

You can listen to episode 3 of my podcast to hear some of my thoughts on all the travel we have done while living here. In summary, I will say here, it has been amazing and I am so grateful. We have had incredible experiences that have enriched us and that we will never forget. I am so glad I have also documented them here, to share with others and so that my family will have this to look back on. I hope you have enjoyed coming along with us. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for what comes next!

Big Ben and Parliament

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