You go on vacation either to relax, for a holiday or event (usually family-related) or to go sightseeing. Most of us joke about needing a vacation to recover from vacation because- let’s face it: vacations are exhausting. I’ve found that no matter what type of vacation you have planned, it’s always important to allow for some down time. It’s good to take a breath, relax and let it all soak in.
Our last three big vacations have allowed us to see the world. We’ve experienced the Baltic region, Southeast Asia and now London and Italy. Having already explored two amazing cities, and barely reached the midpoint of this adventure– Michael and I were both ready for a little relaxation time.
What to do? Our suitcases had to be packed and ready for transport (early) leaving us about four hours before boarding the coach bus. From there, it would be about an hour to Cittavecchia, where we would meet our ship.
So what do you do with time to spare in one of the world’s most famous cities?
You go for a walk in the park.
Villa Borghese Gardens. After breakfast, Michael and I headed to Villa Borghese just to wander around. No rush, no set destination– just a relaxing walk on what was to be another beautiful day with perfect weather.
Who knew that we would spend our time, sitting on a bench, enjoying ducks swimming around the Temple of Aesculapius (built in 1786)? Or, that we would find a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (2003) hidden among the trees? Well, we did.
Here are some of the images I captured along the way:
Leaving Rome. We walked through the streets after leaving the gardens, arriving back at the hotel with plenty of time before boarding the bus to Cittavecchia.
Upon arrival at the port, we were greeted by the ancient Cittavecchia fortress at the harbor. In just a matter of minutes, we were on board the Silver Seas ship, Silver Wind.
Sailing on the Silver Wind. Since we weren’t technically leaving Italy, boarding was fast and simple and our luggage was to be delivered directly to our room. We got our keys and checked out the room before exploring the ship.
The Silver Wind is a small ship with a modest passenger capacity of 296 and a crew of 222. Silver Seas has paid great attention to detail, providing most of the amenities of a larger cruise ship. Pool, spa, gift shop, casino and four restaurants all beautifully provided.
Shortly after boarding, we ran into Lindsay Mendez (Wakefield) and her husband Philip– they remembered us from last year– and they had just enjoyed a beautiful honeymoon (pre-cruise) in Tuscany.
Once everyone was on board, we had the required muster drill, which was fast and painless. Our luggage didn’t reach our room until about that time; so afterwards, we quickly changed for the cocktail reception and dinner.
We were treated to a beautiful sunset shortly after sailing. It was difficult not to pause and enjoy it– with the flurry of excitement and meeting many new people that was all happening at the same time.
Luckily, George had made dinner reservations for the four of us at The Grill prior to the cruise. We enjoyed dining outside with the ‘Black Rock experience’– cooking our own choice of meat on preheated volcanic rock at our table. It was unique. Our meat cooked perfectly– but bibs were required! Lots of pops and sizzles on the hot stones.
Broadway On the High Seas. Our first concert of the cruise was a special treat: Andrea Burns, taking a break from her Broadway run in On Your Feet and traveling with her husband Peter and son, Hudson.
She is an incredible performer with great versatility and talent. Andrea Burns was in the original casts of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights and Jason Robert Brown’s Songs For a New World among many other theatre, film and television credits.
After the concert (and some unavoidable raving,) we said our goodnights and headed to our room for some much-needed sleep.
There are so many beautiful houses of worship in Rome. Churches, Cathedrals, Basilicas — no matter what they are called, they are full of a rich history and artistry that is a wonder to behold.
On our full day of touring Rome, Michael and I found ourselves wandering in many of these beautiful sanctuaries. They stand open, throughout the day, welcoming anyone to enter.
Here is a sampling of the churches we visited. Many had origins back to the 1st Century but all the current structures date back to as early as the 16th century.
All Saints’ Anglican Church – Est. 1887
Chiesa de Gesu E Maria – Est. 1602
Basilica S. Giacomo – Est. 1600
Basilica dei SS Ambrogio E Carlo – Est. 1610
Chiesa di San Marcello al Corso – Est. 309 AD , rebuilt 1597
Oratorio del Santissimo Crocifisso – Est. 1568
Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio a Trevi – Est. 1650
Basilica dei SS. XII Apostoli – Est. 499, rebuilt 1714
Chiesa San Luigi dei Francesi – Est. 1589
Chiesa di Santi’ Agnese in Agone – Est. 1652
What better way is there to discover a new city than to literally get lost in it? Okay, so maybe not your first choice and it wasn’t ours either– well, kinda-sorta.
At breakfast, everyone had pretty much decided they were doing there own thing. I think Michael and I were the only ones determined to really go sightseeing and see as much as possible.
The best advice I could find online suggested seeing Rome on foot, skipping the tours and the all-access packages like the Rome Pass and the HOHO bus tickets. We had what we thought was a very modest list of sights we had to see. We figured we’d start at the Spanish Steps since it was closest, then work our way down to end at the Colosseum and Roman Forum. We’d just zig-zag across the city and take in what we could, leaving room for a little exploration along the way.
We left the hotel using the Map.Me app… and right off, I thought the direction we were going didn’t make a lot of sense. Long story, short– we walked about a half mile to nowhere. Seriously, we reached a point where there wasn’t even a sidewalk! We knew we’d have to turn around, backtrack and pretty much start over. Nothing like getting lost first thing– and not in a good way.
Once we’d reached the Piazza Trinità dei Monti, located at the top of the Spanish Steps, we didn’t seem to have anymore problems with the GPS and the app. Still, with the Spanish Steps closed, we had to find a different route down to the base to be able to see them. Up top there was a barricade blocking it all off.
We found our way down to the Piazza di Spagna at the base of the Spanish Steps. The steps had been closed for renovation for a number of months. Coincidentally, they had the dedication and reopened them, later that same afternoon after we had visited them.
Just to the southeast, we found the Colonna della Immacolata (Column of the Immaculate Conception) in the Piazza Mignanelli. From here we started our leisure stroll, turning down streets that looked promising and stopping by shops and visiting many churches. (My next post will just focus on the churches and cathedrals we happened upon.)
We saw the Piazza del Popolo from a distance and wandered through. The name’s modern translation is “People’s Square”. I found it to be one of the more beautiful piazzas we encountered.
Next we found Piazza Colonna with the striking and detailed Column of Marcus Aurelius. Adjoining the piazza is the seat of the Italian Government.
I love the architecture and classic style of the buildings found throughout Rome. I also found the numerous news kiosks very charming.
There is literally something new to see around every corner in central Rome. I could spend days just wandering the city aimlessly.
Piazza di Trevi – Completed in 1762, the Rococo (Late Baroque) Trevi Fountain fed by an aqueduct that was built in 19 BC. It is one of the most famous fountains in the world. It is also the centerpiece of this small, extremely claustrophobic piazza.
There is the legend that if you throw a coin in the fountain… you will return to Rome one day. Well, it was so crowded, there was no way we were going to get close enough without taking up valuable time- so no wish was made.
Near the Pantheon, was the Elephant and Obelisk designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The Egyptian Obelisk was excavated nearby.
The combined work was unveiled in 1667 in its home in the Piazza Della Minerva.
Piazza della Rotonda – is the location of the Pantheon – formally a Roman temple and now a church. It’s excellent condition is due, in part, to its continuous use throughout history.
When you consider the age (completed in 125 AD) and its condition, it really is a world-wonder. The interior is primarily lit by the sun through the nearly 30 foot oculus above, in the center dome.
The Palazzo Madama is the seat of the Senate of the Italian Republic; built on top of the ruins of the ancient baths of Nero.
We happened to stumble upon the changing of the guard taking place as we passed.
Piazza Navona is one of the most popular and visited piazzas in Rome. It features three fountains, including Bernini’s world famous Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) as the centerpiece.
The historic significance of the space is that it was built on the site of the Stadium of the Domitian, also known as Circus Agonalis. It was an important competition stadium back in the first century AD.
At one time, it was also the home of the city market. Over the years, many films have featured scenes that were shot here.
Finding the Sacred area del Argentina was completely unexpected. In 1927, during demolition work, parts of the holy area were discovered. The original square was uncovered that includes the ruins of four Roman temples and part of Pompey’s Theatre, with portions of the ruins dating back to 241 BC. Julius Caesar was believed to have been assassinated in this square. The area is currently undergoing restoration.
It is also the location of Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary, a no-kill shelter run by volunteers. In addition to protecting them, they sterilizes the cats to help control the city’s feral cat population. There is a no-kill law in Rome protecting homeless cats. We didn’t see any cats here on our visit.
The Piazza Venezia is the central hub of Rome. We actually passed through here four times throughout the day. On one side is the Palazzo Vallenti framed by two churches.
Also on the piazza is Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland), built in honor of Victor Emmanuel the first king of a unified Italy. It was designed by Giuseppe Sacconi in 1885 but not completed until 1925. It is the largest monument in Rome. Immense in size, it is despised by many because a large part of Capitoline Hill and its historic artifacts were destroyed in order to build it.
Colosseum (or Coliseum) was something we had to see. We’d wisely purchased tickets ahead of time to avoid the lines. It included the Colosseum and Palatine Hill/Roman Forum which could be used on two separate days, but only one entry into each location.
When we arrived, the line to get into the Colosseum, even with a ticket, was pretty long. We let a guide on the street talk us into joining a group tour (for only a few Euros since we already had tickets) and he said we’d get in right away. Big mistake. We waited another 20 minutes and still had to wait to get in the queue. We ended up only staying with the tour a short time because the guide was long-winded and wasn’t going any place fast. So we left the group and finished it on our own.
The Colosseum is massive and quite impressive. I’ll admit that the interior was actually in a greater state of decomposition than I expected. Still, iconic– a must-see when visiting Rome.
Leaving the Colosseum and starting to get a little tired, we continued on to Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum. The breathing-taking views from the hill were the highlight of the day. One of the seven hills of Rome, it is one of the oldest areas of the city. With multiple viewing points, we had exceptional panoramic views of Rome, the Colosseum and the Roman Forum below.
After the Forum, we walked out past the Piazza Venezia and on to the Via del Corso where we wisely hailed a taxi back to the hotel. In all, we walked fourteen and a half miles through the city.
Back at the hotel, we had an early dinner/late lunch, having not eaten since breakfast. We had about an hour to kill before we had to get ready for the evening’s reception.
Broadway On the High Seas 7 Reception. As with the last cruise, Playbill Travel hosted a pre-cruise reception with champagne and entertainment. It was a chance to socialize and see friends from past cruises we hadn’t seen yet. We also caught up again with Anthony and Michael, that we met in London.
So in addition to the fact that I was standing a few feet away from Adam Pascal (the original Roger in RENT) during the entertainment– the highlight of the evening was hearing Kate Baldwin sing “Ribbons Down My Back” from Hello Dolly. She will be performing as Mrs. Malloy on Broadway in the upcoming revival starring Bette Midler.
Afterwards, we took a stroll down the street for Gelato with George and Mary before calling it a night.
I think we did pretty good seeing Rome in a day. Not to mention all the churches we also visited, that I’ll share in my next post. (We’re spending the day at the Vatican after the cruise.)
We managed to get lost literally and figuratively in one the most beautiful, historic cities in the world.
Saying goodbye to a city you’re visiting can be hard. Especially when you’ve had great experiences and stayed in a wonderful place.
This was my early morning– saying goodbye to St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel. Before breakfast, bags already packed, I walked through the hotel one last time.
I found myself back at the grand staircase. I had to walk all the way up and down it one last time.
Some London Takeaways
- Public transportation is a must in London. It’s much too big and spread out to walk. Walking neighborhoods, yes; but not if you are sightseeing all over the city.
- We purchased and used the London Pass. We probably just about broke even with what we saw using it and saved time not waiting in lines. I know we visited a few spots we wouldn’t have, had we not had it. If you are the type of traveler that wants to see as much as possible (in and out), it’s likely a good investment. If you are the type that prefers longer visits, especially at museums, for example– you are probably going to save money paying as you go.
- Travel Guides can be handy but for me, I found them unnecessary (practically useless) and it certainly wouldn’t have been practical to carry around the city. If you do your research online ahead of time– there’s no need to purchase/carry/take a book.
- Get a good GPS phone map (app) like Maps.Me to help you get around. I found it to be an invaluable tool and never had to stop and ask directions while using it.
- Safety was never a concern during our visit. Of course, you should always be cautious but I never felt I was in a dangerous or risky situation. I honestly felt safer in London than I did in my last Chicago overnight visit, 45 minutes from home. I bring this up because in Rick Steve’s London 2016, he overemphasizes the necessity of safety steps, to the point of fear mongering.
A few things I haven’t mentioned:
Traditional London Pubs, you know, with the old-style classic exteriors– are abundant. I always love sighting unique architecture. Another thing I noticed as we passed many restaurants– in London, creating a unique atmosphere and ambiance is not only important, it’s the norm. This can be said of many of the small retail shops as well. I mean, uniquely different. It appears British entrepreneurs have a better understanding of what will set themselves apart and draw in the clientele. American business owner should take notice.
Classic British Hearse. While we were on the HOHO Bus, we were passed by a funeral procession and it was interesting to see a British Hearse with large side windows and wreath rails. The coffin and the many floral tributes were in full display to all it passed. You hardly see this in America. The hearse windows are almost always tinted or curtained.
British Telephone Kiosks are alive and well. Often referred to as the Red Telephone Box ; there were many incarnations, with the most common ones (seen today) being the “K6”. We saw them all over London in Red, Green and Black. With the popularity of cell phones, many of the boxes are being re-purposed into WIFI, phone-charging and even work stations. The good news is that these icons aren’t going away.
My View of London
Looking back, I see London as an extremely friendly, warm and inviting city. It’s not at all what I had expected. I thought it would be more like downtown Chicago or NYC. It is full of neighborhood charm, while at the same time– steeped in massive amounts of culture and historic places of interest. As old as London is, it retains its historic appeal, yet feels comfortable and modern at the same time. It is busy– but not chaotic; and it is a quiet city, compared to many others I’ve visited.
This photo probably best embodies how I feel about/picture London in my head:
Off to Rome
Our car to Heathrow arrived early and we were there in a flash. I was so glad we weren’t hauling our luggage on the Tube again. The flight to Rome was on time and we had no issues at the airport or with our flight.
Our transportation and hotel had been arranged through Playbill Travel, so a car was waiting for us at the airport when we arrived in Rome.
Our driver didn’t take the most scenic route to the hotel. I was a little taken aback by the rundown, graffiti-covered buildings on the outskirts of the city. It got better the further in we got, finally arriving at the Westin Excelsior Hotel, a few blocks from the Borghese Gardens.
We arrived mid afternoon and had a short wait before our room was ready. The first thing I noticed when we arrived were the armed soldiers across the street. That was a little unnerving. Then I discovered the following day that we were next door to the American Embassy, which explained the added security.
While we waited for our room, we started looking to see what friends from past cruises had arrived. We knew our friends George and Mary had gotten there that morning– if we could only find them!
We checked in around 4 pm. –Our room was nice enough. — And we got settled in.
We went down to the Playbill Reception Desk, got our stuff and ran into a bunch of friends. After chatting for awhile, we decided to make things simple and have dinner in the hotel.
Eight of us met for dinner at the Doney, and enjoyed good food and conversation before retiring for the night. A big day tomorrow!
We started the day enjoying the ambience of our hotel and a hearty breakfast in the Chamber Club. Our last day in London. Our day was mostly planned out ahead of time so we weren’t rushed getting started.
Buckingham Palace. We purchased tickets to tour the State Rooms of Buckingham Palace with an add-on garden tour, way in advance of our trip. The ticket also included a large exhibition of the Queen’s clothing entitled, Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style From the Queen’s Wardrobe.
The State Rooms tour is only available during July-October. I was extremely glad we were going to get this opportunity.
Upon arrival, I got the bad news that no photography was allowed in the Palace. I always find this annoying, especially when you are being charged admission in the first place. You see people ‘sneaking pictures’ (which almost always turn out bad) that they will surely post on social media–so doesn’t that defeat the point? I behaved (inside at least) and left my camera in my bag while in the Palace. We were told we could take as many pictures as we wanted in the gardens afterwards.
The 19 State Rooms (public rooms) are each ornate and unique in their decor. The Green Drawing Room and the Music Room were my favorites. What is really great about touring Buckingham Palace is that it is a living museum. It is actually lived in and used to receive guests. There are many breathtaking pieces in the Royal Collection. Also, the self-guided audio tour (with touch screen options) is one of the best I’ve seen.
The fashion exhibition was quite interesting as well. The exhibition is actually taking place in three locations. (Also at Windsor and Holyroodhouse.) The selected pieces of the Queen’s wardrobe are tied most directly to the location where they are displayed, 150 pieces in all. The only drawback was that the display blocked the grand view of the ballrooms where they are located.
We finished the tour and discovered we had an hour until the garden highlights tour started. This was frustrating because we could not leave the garden terrace and re-enter, meaning that we missed the changing of the guard in front of the Palace.
Buckingham Palace Gardens. I had thought the garden tour was a great idea. It was an inexpensive add-on to our Buckingham Palace ticket and it’s the only way you get the opportunity to walk through the gardens. It ended up being a let down. First, no pictures. Second, there wasn’t much to see– mostly grass and trees.
The tour was basically a big loop around the perimeter of the gardens. There were a couple statues and the Queen’s rose garden– where I quickly snapped a picture unseen. We also passed the tennis courts but they were mostly blocked by trees and shrubs. I was surprised to find that there was no formal English garden on the property.
I think I figured out why they didn’t want photographs– evidence that the tour is a waste of time and money perhaps.
Leaving the Palace, we decided we were ready for a break. I’d wanted to visit the Queen’s Gallery and possibly the Royal Mews, but instead, we decided to spend a couple relaxing hours at the hotel. On the way back, we stopped at the Wellington Arch. It was an original entrance to Buckingham Palace, later representing Wellington’s victory over Napoleon.
New Friends. About a week before we left home, an old friend told me that her boss was going on our Broadway cruise and that he splits time between London and Chicago. We got contact information and planned to meet Anthony and Michael at The Lobby Bar at One Aldwych before our show.
Arriving early, we decided to walk the neighborhood. By chance, we found Somerset House— which was on my short list to visit.
We didn’t have the time to wander through but did have a few minutes to enjoy the large plaza and exterior architecture. There’s an art gallery, the Courtauld Gallery, I really want to visit in the future.
We were there a few days before the official start of London’s Fashion Week, so there was a lot of activity there.
Michael was waiting for us when we got back to the bar and Anthony joined us a few minutes later. Very nice guys. We had about an hour to get acquainted and talked a little about London, theatre, and what to expect on the upcoming cruise. (Their first one.) Then we parted ways– they were headed to see The Entertainer and we were on our way to our last show in London– and our most anticipated.
Funny Girl at the Savoy Theatre. Producers have been trying to bring a revival of Funny Girl to Broadway for years with no success. Could the success of this London production be just the push that it needs?
Any production can’t help but be compared to the original Barbra Streisand vehicle that made her a star. But is that fair? Is there another Streisand in the wings?
Sheridan Smith, who leads the cast of the London production, is clearly not Barbra Streisand. My argument is that she doesn’t need to be. She does need to embody Fanny Brice though– at this she misses the mark. Smith is a good actress and a fair singer. Her portrayal here (as pointed out by Michael after the show) is more Melissa McCarthy than Fanny Brice. Her Brice character is empathetic and likable, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that I can think of a dozen actresses that could have acted and sung it better.
Another huge weakness in this production is the choice of Darius Campbell as Nicky Arnstein. He’s too cute. Campbell is more reminiscent of Zac Efron in High School Musical than Arnstein–the gambling, debonair man of the world. It just doesn’t play believably.
My last gripe is the cast is too small. I’m sure it worked perfectly in the smaller Menier Chocolate Factory Theater (sold out run). I would have thought with the move to the Savoy, a few more actors could have been employed. This story revolves around the Ziegfeld Follies which evokes images of a large dancing chorus. Not here. Especially frustrating was when male ensemble members took on multiple roles within minutes of each other with no effort to disguise them. It was just confusing.
All that said, I did enjoy the production, in spite of its flaws. I just can’t imagine a Broadway transfer which means American audiences will have to continue to wait.
We made one final stop at Shake Shack on the way back to our hotel.
Tomorrow we’re off to Rome.
We started the day with breakfast in the Chamber Club at our hotel, fueling up for our biggest sightseeing day in London.
London Hop On Hop Off Bus. (Golden Tours) With limited time to take in this amazing city, we looked forward to the HOHO bus as a quick way to see the major sights. (One Day Unlimited use was included with our London Pass.) There are four routes (with a lot of overlap) and we chose The Grand Tour.
I’d rename this The Grand Bore. Besides the fact that traffic was at a standstill most of the time; many of the major sights of London were hidden from view or around the corner from the bus route. When we did reach a landmark that we could see…. the bus often rushed by so fast it was hard to even snap a picture. A huge disappointment!
We’ve really enjoyed the HOHO buses in Chicago, NYC and Singapore. Unless you are using the bus as your transportation to get off at each stop in London, I wouldn’t recommend it. Even then, you are bound by the bus schedule which could have you waiting and losing more valuable time. Unlike the other cities I mentioned, there wasn’t the same satisfactory ‘city tour’ overview (riding the whole route as a tour) we experienced in the past. Plus, the tour narration (prerecorded, available in different languages) often didn’t sync up and restarted segments frequently.
There was one perk. That was crossing the Tower Bridge on an open top bus. I found that pretty thrilling.
We were only about halfway through the route when we decided we were wasting valuable time, so we got off at Hyde Park and took to the street.
The Oyster Card. Before I launch into all the ground we covered today, I wanted to mention how easy the Oyster Card is to use. You scan/tap/swipe your card each time you start and stop travel whether it be the Tube (Underground), bus, train, etc. There are caps on the charges per day depending on the distance and zones you travel. So jumping on and off public transportation doesn’t have to be so expensive and is a fast, convenient way to get around the city.
We ordered our cards several months before our trip, already loaded with a balance so they were ready to go when we arrived. (Each person must have their own card.) You can reload them or cash them out at many stations but there is often a line. You need this card if you intend to use public transportation.
Hyde Park. One of the largest parks- 350 acres, Hyde Park is one of the Royal Parks. It’s often compared to Central Park in NYC, of course, they are quite different. One of the first spots we encountered was the Italian Gardens. A lovely, formal setting with fountains and statuary. We got a cup of coffee at the nearby pavilion and enjoyed this peaceful setting.
Moving on through the park to Kensington Gardens we happened to find the bronze Peter Pan statue, paying tribute to J.M. Barrie’s immortal character. Barrie lived close to these gardens and drew upon them for inspiration.
Kensington Palace was next on our walk, currently the home of many Royals (include both Prince and William and Prince Harry) in different wings of the estate. Portions of the Palace are currently closed for renovation. With limited time, we had not planned to tour the interior of the Palace.
We continued our walk toward Royal Albert Hall and the massive Albert Memorial commemorating the death of Prince Albert at the early age of 42. The memorial was designed by George Gilbert Scott, who was also the architect of our hotel.
Queen’s Gate. At this point, we left Kensington Gardens and headed to Michael’s old stomping ground in the Queen’s Gate neighborhood. Michael lived in London for six months while completing a college internship with the BBC in 1986… 30 years ago.
Michael found his old apartment building in this quiet, classic neighborhood and enjoyed reminiscing over fond memories. Including something about a fire and breaking a window. (Oops!)
Michael’s apartment was just around the corner from the British Natural History Museum, designed by Alfred Waterhouse in the Victorian Gothic Revival style of architecture. We didn’t have a lot of time but we did run in and check out the massive lobby and first floor exhibits. NOTE: Most of the major museums in London are free to the public (with a suggested donation encouraged.)
Trying to see as much as possible in a city with so much to offer is a daunting task. We knew we wouldn’t have a lot of time to spend in London’s many wonderful museums. I researched many of them ahead of time and chose a couple I hoped to visit.
The Victoria and Albert Museum. I’m glad we selected V & A, featuring a tremendous collection based on art and design. The museum provides excellent temporary exhibitions in addition to the permanent collection. One of the reasons we chose this over other museums was the smaller size (comparatively speaking) and the ambiance– based on the way the collections were displayed. When done well, the space itself becomes art, with each installation becoming part of of the whole.
Entering the museum, you are welcomed in the rotunda by a stunning, modern chandelier by Dale Chihuly. It was first installed in 1999 but expanded and enlarged by the artist in 2001 to its current size.
After walking through much of the museum, we had Cream Tea ( tea and scones, complimentary with the London Pass) at the cafe across the courtyard from the main museum building. We could have easily spent several more hours here but we needed to move on. I’m sure we’ll return in the future.
Harrods. Since we were in the neighborhood, we made a brief stop at the world-famous department store, Harrods. Just walking through the jewelry and perfume sections was mind-boggling. Michael purchased his hard-to-find cologne and then we moved through the gourmet food section– quickly— exiting before our stomachs could start rumbling. (I’m glad we just had that scone!)
Palace of Westminster. We took the Tube to Westminster for a closer look at the Houses of Parliament and Elizabeth Tower, most commonly referred to as Big Ben.
Big Ben is actually the nickname of the bell in the tower. The official name of the tower was Clock Tower until it was renamed in 2012 in honor of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
Westminster Abbey is just west of the Palace and is most notable as the place of coronations and the burial site of British monarchs.
Thames River Cruise. (Included on the London Pass.) We boarded the boat at Westminster for what was to be a short ride– but not short on visual delight. From the Thames you get great views of London and many of its iconic buildings and attractions.
Some of the most notable were: the Palace of Westminster, the London Eye, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London Bridge, the Shard, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, The Tower of London, Tower Bridge and Cleopatra’s Needle.
Cleopatra’s Needle is actually a twin to one that now resides in New York City. It was originally from the Egyptian city, Heliopolis, erected there in 1450 BC. It was moved to London in 1877.
The forecast had predicted rain and the sky looked pretty threatening. The good news was that the rain held off and the boat wasn’t too full. This allowed me to be able to take some decent photographs.
The cruise ended at a dock where the path split to either the Tower of London or the Tower Bridge. Here, we had to make a choice. We only had time for one before they closed. As much as I really wanted to walk the glass walkway across the Tower Bridge– we chose the Tower of London.
Tower of London. (Free with the London Pass.) This massive castle and fortress was built by William the Conqueror beginning in 1066 and is an UNESCO World Heritage Centre. I most enjoyed walking the walls of the fortress looking over the property and out at the city around it. While we were there, it started pouring rain so we tried to avoid it as much as possible, which also meant skipping the line to see the Crown Jewels.
At one point we made the decision to climb over 300 stairs which in the end, seemingly led to no where. The only stairs down left us trapped in a crowded basement gift shop. We had to maneuver our way through, only to climb more stairs to get out.
I’m glad I visited the Tower of London but found many of the displays, artifacts and replicas a little too “Disney” and not my cup of tea.
My favorite moment was finding two of the six ravens- the Guardians of the Tower— together. Legend says “If the ravens leave the tower, the Kingdom will fall…” There are actually seven ravens– the required six and one in case one goes missing. This legend and practice goes back to Charles II.
In our attempt to find the nearest Tube station we found Dickens Inn and decided to have dinner before our evening show. There were actually three different restaurant levels and we picked the one that doesn’t get busy until later in the evening– which might have been a good thing; but being early, service ended up being a little slow. Still, we were seated outside on a balcony with a cool breeze and a great view and that made up for the delay.
After dinner, even using the phone app, we got a little turned around in our directions. We got stuck in a maze of wooden walkways in this upscale little condo/boating enclave. Eventually we found our way out, made it to the Tube and back to Covent Garden for our fourth show in London.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. I was pretty stoked to see this play. It had won a lot of praise and awards on both sides of the pond. Michael and I really enjoyed the first act but thought it lost it’s momentum in the second.
Maybe it was just an off night or a problem with the pacing, in either case, we were left a little disappointed.
Piccadilly Circus. What Times Square is to NYC, Piccadilly Circus is to London. It’s the center of activity in the West End. We walked through it after the show and took a few minutes to enjoy the vibe and to people watch. I see the comparison but think Piccadilly Circus is quite different and unique unto itself.
What a day! Looking back it’s hard to believe we saw so much in a single day. Only one day left in London. Tomorrow? Buckingham Palace and more.
After a good night’s sleep, we decided to head out on foot with only a tentative itinerary in mind. We had two shows booked and about six hours for exploring before then. We wanted to try and catch a boat ride at 10:30 am so we started walking that direction; up through King’s Cross and Marylebone to Little Venice.
Our friend George, highly recommended the phone app Maps.Me and so I’d downloaded the map of London as soon as we arrived. It’s a life-saver. What’s great is that once you have a map downloaded, you don’t need phone service to use it since it is GPS powered. We used it to get our bearings, locate points of interest and find the nearest Tube stops, never needing to worry when we’d wander off track.
We arrived in Little Venice early, giving us time to explore around the Regent’s Canal and grab breakfast at the Waterside Cafe. The restaurant itself, was a boat on the canal.
After breakfast, we boarded Jason’s Canal Boat Trip using our London Pass for a leisure ride around Regent’s Park (which covers 395 acres) to the Camden Locks. Jason’s has been operating since 1951 using a boat that’s over 100 years old.
The boat ride takes about 45 minutes. In addition to plenty of natural scenery, you glide past old and new estate homes, jogging paths and the London Zoo which flanks both sides of the canal.
There are many bridges crossing the narrow canal allowing only enough width for one boat to pass through at a time.
At the end of the line, we reached the Camden Locks that are still manually operated to this day. The twin locks were originally constructed in 1818 and 1820. They now have Grade II historic designation and protections.
We got off the boat and found ourselves in a wonderland of food and unique treasures. The Camden Market started out open only on weekends but became so wildly popular it is now open daily.
Camden Market is an indoor and outdoor marketplace housed in multiple buildings and connecting streets. It’s a must-visit destination requiring anywhere from a couple hours to a full day of exploration.
Whether you are a treasure hunter, tourist or window shopper –there are multitudes of unexpected gems to taunt the senses. You can find food and trinkets here from all over the world.
New and perfect-condition vintage clothing, steampunk accessories, old records, lamps, artwork, new and heirloom jewelry– it’s all here. If you can dream it- you’ll probably find it.
London has a truly first-class zoo. With a little time before our matinee, we used our London Pass for fast-track entry and a rather rushed but enjoyable visit.
Opening in 1828, the London Zoo is the world’s largest scientific zoo. Today, the zoo features 756 species of animals. It’s as much a park as it is a zoo. Large green spaces, well constructed exhibition grounds and something to appeal to all ages.
We headed back to Covent Garden for the matinee performance of the musical, Matilda. Based on the popular children’s book, it made for a colorful and entertaining afternoon. I’m really glad we waited to see it here in London.
We had just enough time between shows to catch a nice dinner at Cote Bistro, in the theatre district.
Our evening performance was what might be considered standard British farce. The Play That Goes Wrong is funny, funny stuff. The plot centers on a community group putting on a play. As the title suggests, everything that can go wrong does so hysterically.
For my theatre friends– every single thing that could possibly happen, or you have ever experienced going wrong in a show, is included. I couldn’t think of one possible thing they left out.
After the show, it was back to Shake Shack at Covent Garden Market for a chocolate-peanut butter concrete, then headed underground for our Tube ride back to St. Pancras.
You’re probably familiar with the St. Pancras Hotel and didn’t even know it. Have you seen Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets? In an early scene of the movie they fly right by it. The Spice Girls video “Wannabe” was filmed at the entrance and on the grand staircase, prior to the hotel’s massive renovation.
The London neighborhood of King’s Cross was a major train hub, both freight and passenger trains, in the late 1800’s, with four major train stations located there. St. Pancras was opened in 1868 owned by the Midland Railway Company. The Midland Grand Hotel, a stunning work of Victorian Gothic architecture, designed by architect George Gilbert Scott, opened in the attached space in 1873.
Unfortunately, the hotel closed in 1935 when it became too costly to run with its outdated utilities, and was used mainly as office space after that. In addition, train terminal was hit by bombs during WWII causing extensive damage.
This incredible landmark was almost demolished in the late 1960’s after falling into major disrepair. Luckily, with great effort and much expense, it was saved.
St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel London is actually part of the larger complex known as St. Pancras International. Eurostar began providing high speed train service to Paris in 2007 and the hotel reopened in 2011 with a five star rating.
London, Rome and Broadway On the High Seas 7- cruising southern Italy. This time around, we booked our own pre cruise adventure– with the exception of the hotel in Rome, booked through Playbill Travel. The first five days we were on our own to create our own experience.
It’s funny how months of preparation and research fly out the door in the few days prior to leaving on an extended vacation. This was our third trip overseas and you’d think I’d be used to that last-minute feeling of anxiety but it still takes me by surprise. I suddenly found myself forgetting and rechecking everything I’d prepped for; probably asking Michael the same questions repeatedly, hopefully not driving him too insane. All the research on London and Rome was a jumbled mess in my head so I found myself going back over notes I’d made just to be sure I was ready.
This was the first time traveling since we got the Global Entry clearance which includes TSA Pre-check. Of course, wouldn’t you know I was one of the people randomly selected to be scanned at security. Luck of the draw.
We flew to London Heathrow, direct flight, business class– on an evening flight out of Chicago O’Hare. The seating on this American Airlines flight was cozy yet smaller than past times we’ve flown business class. I watched two movies: All the Way and Trumbo, both starring Bryan Cranston, and enjoyed them both. Though I did manage to get a little sleep, I’ve found it’s really difficult for me to sleep more than a couple hours in the air. Michael, on the other hand, can sleep like a baby.
Overall, the flight was comfortable and it was on time. We arrived at Heathrow shortly after 9 am and breezed through to pick up our luggage.
Luggage and the Tube
We don’t travel as light as we probably should, so we found ourselves both lugging our two checked bags and two carry ons– that’s right… on the Tube. Aside from being a little awkward manipulating, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be. Except– that moment when we reached the first very steep escalator in one of the stations. I had a moment of acrophobia and kept it under control by staring at the back of Michael’s head.
The ride took us about 45 minutes to reach central London. Did I mention that I still didn’t know where we were going?
You Call THIS a Hostel?
Michael spent many hours researching London accommodations, months prior to the trip. To keep me guessing, he decided that our destination would be a surprise. It became a running joke that we were staying in a seedy hostel, complete with rats, paper-thin mattresses and a shared bath.
As we got closer to the trip, Michael would get “daily email updates” that he’d share with me each morning before he left for work. He’d inform me of pending updates such as ‘new pots to catch the water from the leaky roof’, warnings to ‘sleep with one eye open’, our daily ‘work assignment’– crazy stuff like that.
I can’t tell you how many times we’d finish watching TV or a movie and he’d say, “Did you see our hostel?” It was even one of the locations used in an episode of Downton Abbey that we re-watched before the trip. I was clueless.
The whole time, I knew I was in for something pretty incredible but Michael still managed to outdo himself. Our ‘hostel’ turned out to be the historic and opulent, St. Pancras Hotel.
St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel
We got off the Tube at King’s Cross, exited the station to the street and Michael just stopped in his tracks. “There’s your home for the next few days,” he said. I looked around and was a little confused. All I saw was this stunning, monster of a building– complete with clock tower, across the street. Overwhelmed would be an understatement. Welcome to St. Pancras!
Arriving early in the day, we didn’t expect our room to be ready. I soon found out Michael had scheduled a tour of the impressive building shortly after we checked our bags. (I’ll write a separate blog post just on the hotel– too much to include here and visually too impressive not to share.)
After touring this magnificent facility, we were able to check in to our room. And as if my head wasn’t already full enough, Michael had snagged of of the three designer suites in the hotel– the Sir George Gilbert Scott Suite. The suite was named after the building’s architect. You’ll see in my next post, images of this carefully restored slice of history.
Staying in the historic section of the St. Pancras, we also had exclusive use of the Chambers Club where we could have breakfast, afternoon tea or just relax.
After settling in, we had just enough time to head out, catch the Tube and do a little exploring before our first show.
My First Visit to the West End
The West End is often referred to as London’s equivalent of the Times Square Theatre District in New York City– only it isn’t. Yes, it is the hub of many entertainment venues in London but that is where the comparison stops. I found the West End to be quite charming and warm. Though it was bustling with activity, it was still easy to take a relaxing stroll through the area. The streets are loaded with unique shops and quaint restaurants enticing theatregoers around every corner. There is completely different vibe here than the tourist-driven frenzy that exists in New York.
Our first show– my first ever in London, was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Perhaps a little ironic that it was written by the American musical theatre team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman who also wrote the hit musical, Hairspray.
I loved it! As opposed to trying to compare it to other productions, I’ll say this: It was probably my most thoroughly-satisfying theatregoing experience in the past ten years. The physical production, the cast and the adaptation were all nothing short of magical. As one of my most favorite and most-memorable books growing up, this production of Charlie… made me feel like a kid again– rediscovering Roald Dahl’s delicious tale as if it were the first time. I can’t say enough good things about it.
By the way, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is slated to make it’s Broadway debut next spring.
After the show, we took a leisure stroll through the West End with one destination in mind: Shake Shack.
The Shake Shack on 8th Ave has become one of our go-to places when we’re in NYC. With their popularity growing, others have started to sprout up in major cities around the world. (London already has three.) Michael and I both love their thick creamy concretes and their burgers and Chicago style hot dogs are good too. London’s Covent Garden location didn’t disappoint. It became our nightly stop before returning to the hotel every night after our shows.
Bellies full and exhausted, we returned to our hotel and actually slept through the whole night, peaceably.