An anglophile's first time in London
February 4, 2017 12:15 PM   Subscribe

Looking for tour company/sightseeing suggestions for first-time American tourists to London, including day trips beyond the city. Is stonehenge worth it? White Cliffs of Dover? Somewhere Downton Abbey-esque?

Together with my spouse, I'm treating my anglophile mother to 9 days in London in early March. We have rented an Airbnb place in Camden Town, so I'd love to hear any food or drink suggestions local to there. We are all current or former residents of the San Francisco area, so cold, windy, foggy conditions are familiar to us :) For my mom and me, this will be our first trip to the UK, and we are hoping to stay pretty London-based and take day trips out to nearby awesome places. No car, yes to trains/subway/buses/uber. Please judge our tentative itinerary, in no particular order:

- British Museum
- Natural History Museum
- Science Museum
- London Eye
- Tower of London
- Ride a red double-decker bus to somewhere
- Buckingham Palace (just walk by or a tour?)
- Westminster Abbey
- Maybe a show (I see that Matilda is playing at the Cambridge Theatre, and I love me some Tim Minchin!)
- Hyde Park
- Portobello Road Market

Day Trips:
- Stonehenge
- White Cliffs of Dover
- Somewhere in the vein of Highclere Castle, which unfortunately won't be open in early March.

Does this seem like a good spread? Or if you have recommendations of substitutions, I'm all ears. I understand most of museums have free entry, but should places that require tickets be booked a month out, or can we see how the weather is and plan accordingly? Any specific tour guide recommendations?

I'm interested in covering the major touristy bases, but also want to avoid overbooking ourselves. Which places require a whole day, and which can be done along with one or two other places?

Thanks in advance! If you can't tell, I'm a bit overwhelmed.
posted by Drosera to Travel & Transportation around London, England (45 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
If you appreciate modern art at all, don't skip the Tate Modern.
posted by telegraph at 12:32 PM on February 4, 2017 [9 favorites]

Instead of Highclere, how about Hampton Court Palace? Fantastic historically and an easy journey from London.

Matilda is fantastic, so yes to that.

Stonehenge is... Not very exciting. You can't get very close (usually).

I haven't been inside Buck Palace but I've heard its not very exciting. If you go on the London Eye try to get the advance tickets that mean you don't have to queue up.

If you are at all interested in art I personally am very fond of the National Portrait Gallery. One of my favourite things about London is how walkable a lot of the famous bits are if you are in good health.
posted by threetwentytwo at 12:33 PM on February 4, 2017 [6 favorites]

Stonehenge is shite, we pass it at least twice a year and don't even bother to stop. Certainly not worth the trip from London.

Consider a river trip to Greenwich. There's a fast commuter boat to there from the centre of the city that means you can see quite a lot of sites from the river.
posted by biffa at 12:40 PM on February 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

Oxford for a day trip. Blenheim Palace once you're there.
posted by rtha at 12:45 PM on February 4, 2017 [5 favorites]

For a great double decker bus experience take the number 15. You can see many sites with regular bus fare.

If you're interested in transit go to the transport museum in Covent Garden.

And, yes, yes, yes to Matilda!
posted by My Kryptonite is Worry at 12:46 PM on February 4, 2017

Cambridge is less than an hr on the train. Quaint, tour a college, walk by the river, find a country pub.

You could also make it to somewhere like Bath, slightly longer ride. But lots of cities are very accessible by train from London.

Book the train tickets (as opposed to tube tickets) in advance because the walk up fees are generally a lot more expensive and you can get discounts for committing to a specific train/ for off peak travel etc. Explore that. National Rail
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:01 PM on February 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

My wife and I went to England about a year and a half ago, spending a few days in London, two nights in Salisbury, and a few days in Exeter, where my wife had a conference.

From your list in London, we did the British Museum, National Gallery, and the Tower; and we strolled through/by Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. Additionally, we went out to Greenwich one day to see the observatory and the museum there. We also did a couple walking tours at night - one was a ghost tour and the other was a Jack the Ripper tour, offered by the same company. Those tours combined were easily our favorite part of our visit to London, in large part because you get to see parts of London that aren't touristy at all, and learn a bit about some historical things that don't necessarily have plaques on the walls. Otherwise, the Tower is pretty great. Its a huge tourist thing, but it pays off. The Yeoman Warder (AKA Beefeater) tour that comes as part of your admission is great, but it's fun to just wander around the grounds too. Get there super early and go see the crown jewels the first thing before the crowds show up. I don't feel any regret for not going into the Abbey or any of the palaces, but we got plenty of cathedral action later on our trip anyway. The one thing I regret not being able to do is seeing a free concert put on at St. Martin in the Fields, which is right on Trafalgar Square next to the National Gallery.

I kind of agree with the consensus here that Stonehenge is meh. The museum at the visitor center is kind of interesting, but I don't feel like I got much more out of going to it than I do by seeing pictures of it, besides being able to say I went there.
posted by LionIndex at 1:02 PM on February 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've done a few London Walks and have always found them worthwhile.
posted by misseva at 1:03 PM on February 4, 2017 [8 favorites]

Stonehenge looks exactly like the postcards of Stonehenge. Please don't waste a day.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:04 PM on February 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

Adding the vote for Hampton Court. You can take a boat ride up the Thames one way--scenic--and the train back, if you have a little time.
posted by praemunire at 1:26 PM on February 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

You have 9 days so it is not a rushed schedule for london

Oxford or Cambridge both are beautiful and easy train trips but Oxford has more to see than Cambridge (go to the pitt rivers museum!) - if you need to choose between the two. Stonehenge and Dover are "one shots" there is only one intersting thing there whereas Oxford has an incredible diversity of things to see.

Add the Sir John Soane museum to your itinery in london - It is something very "british" you will not get anywhere else in the world. Don't whatever you do be tempted by the travesty of the terrible sherlock holmes museum which is the worst tourist trap in london.

Don't eat in camden, it is a bit of a black hole for tourists. London has an incredible diversity of restaurants with great cuisine. You best bet would be to download the iphone app "Where to Eat London 2016" which is written by a top london food blogger and has all the interesting places to eat. Particularly go to a great Indian restaurant and try a great Turkish mixed grill restaurant like Gokyuzu as well. Different from American cuisine and will get you out into less tourisy bits of london.

Don't pay to have the tour of St Pauls Cathedral, queue to have the (free) transcendent experience of evensong.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 1:28 PM on February 4, 2017 [5 favorites]

I've been to London from the US three times in the last few years and really enjoyed it each time. A few other things I didn't see mentioned

- the goofy Emirates Air Line is a really nice view of the city from high up and very inexpensive. Pro tip: ask them to turn off the promotional video that plays.
- Victoria and Albert Museum is a good time
- Sir John Soane museum was great, agreed it's super worth going to, same with the Greenwich Observatory (there is a lot to see even if you don't pay the admission to go in)

I also liked the Wellcome Collection which sometimes has great exhibits, the Horniman Museum and Gardens (esp if the weather is good) and the British Library which houses a great collection of historical documents. I was able to get around everywhere really easily using the CityMapper app. In addition to Uber there is an app for the local taxis called Gett which I appreciated having. We had some trouble using Uber in the UK because they bill out of the Netherlands (not the UK) which resulted in our card being frozen.

We would usually pick one or two things that were sort of near each other, get up and have breakfast at our place, and sort of tool around going to one place and then the next, getting lunch in-between them and then pick a dinner place that is on the way home.

Depending when and where your flights are, you might want to consider a visit to Windsor Castle and that area. It's very near Heathrow and has some nice promenades and a lot of castle-y goodness.
posted by jessamyn at 1:44 PM on February 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

Windsor Castle, Hampton Court, and the Brighton Pavillion. The Pavillion is awesome, especially after the others.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 1:54 PM on February 4, 2017

nthing Oxford or Cambridge: a very easy day trip from London; also nthing take a boat on the Thames, whether up to Greenwich or down to Hampton Court. The river reveals the city in so many ways.

For stately piles other than Hampton Court, you could visit Kenwood or Chiswick House (or the oddity that is Eltham Palace) within London, or combine an Oxford trip with Blenheim, Woodstock and Bladon.

The Houses of Parliament are a little easier for foreign nationals to visit than the Capitol, especially if you want to visit the actual chambers. Tickets to the Strangers' Gallery of the Commons can be obtained from their UK embassies -- ask now if you're at all interested, and note that it's easier to get in on evenings, which aren't going to be as memorable as PMQs, but you'll get a sense of just how small the chamber is. If the House of Lords will do, you can just queue.
posted by holgate at 1:59 PM on February 4, 2017

Stonehenge is pretty meh. If you want to see a Neolithic monument try Avebury, which is a village that overlaps a Neolithic stone circle. You can walk among the stones, which you can't do at Stonehenge. Take a train to Swindon, then it's a 1/2 hour bus ride through mostly unspoiled English countryside.
posted by monotreme at 2:31 PM on February 4, 2017 [4 favorites]

Depending on how museumed-out you are, I'd add the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery to your list (especially the former). Like the British Museum, in which you can wander for all eternity, the NG is not something you can do in its entirety, but it's an amazing collection (bonus points for the gallery framing of Whistlejacket). Nthing the Wellcome Collection and Sir John Soane's Museum. The Museum of London is also quite interesting.

If you go to the Tower, it's worth it to take a guided tour.

Warwick Castle is another day trip possibility.

Be sure to get an Oyster card for all your London underground/bus needs!
posted by thomas j wise at 2:43 PM on February 4, 2017

Think about buying a two-day ticket on the on-and-off tourist buses early on while you're getting over jet lag. The buses give you an overview of London and glimpses some of the major sites in a fairly relaxing way. You can then devote your remaining days to in-depth visits to the sites on your list.
posted by Elsie at 2:44 PM on February 4, 2017

Oh, I just remembered getting great advice on the green for a London day trip some years ago and you have nine days. The advice was, as they say over there, spot on. It was the mix of things that made my day--the jusr-right proportions of walking, museum going, eating, etc. that worked so well.
posted by Elsie at 2:53 PM on February 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

It was the mix of things that made my day

And since you're there for nine days and the big museums are free to enter, don't feel like you have to "do" all the South Kensington museums (for instance) in one day, because that's exhausting. Rainy afternoon washing out your plans? Go to a museum or a church. Got an hour to spare and near Bloomsbury? Pick a section of the British Museum or John Soane's House, and don't feel like you're obliged to rush or see more.
posted by holgate at 3:06 PM on February 4, 2017

I've done a few London Walks and have always found them worthwhile.
We did three tours with London Walks and each was wonderful. My favorite was a day trip to Brighton. St. Paul's Cathedral was very memorable. I was not sure about seeing the Crown Jewel exhibit at the Tower of London, but it is a true spectacle. (Go when the Tower opens for the day if you can.)
posted by Snerd at 3:15 PM on February 4, 2017

"Add the Sir John Soane museum to your itinery in london "

Cray cray in the BEST way, totally do it. And, yes, Hampton Court is great, lots of interesting stuff to see, well-interpreted. Greenwich also fun.

Absolutely do a show at Shakespeare's Globe (and, if you are able, do it as Groundings).

The best way to do Stonehenge, IMO, is to do a Stonehenge-Bath-Salisbury day trip, ideally an organized trip. Here's literally the first one I pulled up -- the idea is you see the Salisbury Cathedral (and its copy of the Magna Carta, and its awesome clock), Stonehenge, and the Roman Baths and pump room and the Georgian architecture of Bath, in one long day trip with someone else managing the driving. (Personally I enjoyed Stonehenge, but it's definitely not its OWN day trip.)

I also really, really like the Museum of London, which tells the story of the city from prehistoric to modern times and you can see cool stuff like bits of the old Roman wall and the Lord Mayor's carriage and whatnot. Also big ups to the Churchill War Rooms. Those are half-day sorts of museums (War Rooms even a bit less) so you can pair them up with other sightseeing or shopping or whatever.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:15 PM on February 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

I agree with the posters above who recommend a day trip to Oxford or Cambridge. I strongly recommend Kew Gardens: there's always something to see, whatever the time of year.
posted by Azara at 3:16 PM on February 4, 2017

Consider seeing a show at the Globe. Maybe it's tourist trap, but I enjoyed it while I was there.
posted by cnc at 3:20 PM on February 4, 2017

Two logistical things, quickly:

1. As you've spotted with Highclere, you need to check opening times for anything you want to visit outside London; a lot of visitor attractions outside the capital are closed over the winter and don't reopen till April/Easter. Not all of them by any means, but I've had three disappointing trips myself in recent memory.

2. The person who suggested buying train tickets in advance is absolutely right for longer journeys, where it can save you a fortune, but on commuter lines (which describes the lines to Cambridge and Dover; not sure about Oxford), advance tickets of the kind they're talking about tend not to exist. If you're buying tickets on the day of travel, off-peak tickets are cheaper; that means travelling at the weekend or (roughly) after 10am on a weekday. Weekend travel is far more likely to be affected by engineering works, though, which lead to replacement bus services being offered instead of trains... by now there should be accurate information up about the work planned for March somewhere on the National Rail website, and it's worth checking. Final note about train tickets: best to buy them from a person not a machine, as the machines will happily let you buy a ticket more expensive than you need or (worse) one that isn't actually valid on the train you're going to take.

As for actual recommendations of places to go...

Another vote for Cambridge. I've not visited for a couple of years now, but hopefully the suggestions I made five years ago still hold. There are trains to Cambridge from King's Cross - fast trains take about 50 minutes, slower ones up to getting on for twice that.

If you were to visit Dover, which is reachable by High Speed train from St Pancras in a little over an hour, you might enjoy Dover Castle, which encompasses not only mediaeval fortifications and Napoleonic-era casemates but also a 2000-year-old Roman lighthouse and a 1000-year-old church. I think the views of the cliffs might be better from further round the coast, though - Walmer, maybe, which has another castle, this one more recent and surrounded by beautiful gardens.

A couple of other possibilities in Kent, also reachable via the High Speed line from St Pancras as well as on the slower trains from Victoria:
- there are some marvellous sea stacks and arches at Botany Bay, near Broadstairs, which you could perhaps combine with a visit to the Turner Contemporary museum in Margate (Broadstairs and Margate are a few miles apart, and there's a coastal path the whole way, or you can take the train);
- or, moving away from the coast, Canterbury is rather lovely, with a city wall, attractive parks and gardens, the spectacular cathedral, yet another castle (ruined, and sadly not at its best right now - they've roped off the walls lest stones fall on visitors' heads - but still imposing), a crooked bookshop, and an underground Roman museum built around an in-situ mosaic pavement.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 3:25 PM on February 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

Get a britrail pass before you leave.

Be sure to get the audioguide at the Roman Baths and the Royal Palaces.
posted by brujita at 4:04 PM on February 4, 2017

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is terrific. It’s going to be 2 hours each way from Camden, so I guess it depends how interesting you think British naval history is, but the HMS Victory and the Mary Rose are both superb exhibits.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 4:22 PM on February 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'd go to more than one show. There are all sorts of day seats available. More likely to be able to get them on weekdays. We got tickets to the "Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime" and it was excellent.
posted by kjs4 at 4:45 PM on February 4, 2017

Oh, and google maps now makes it possible to easily catch buses. Just chose the public transport option and it will tell you the best options from the nearest stop. You'll likely get stuck in traffic, but the view is much more interesting than the tube.
posted by kjs4 at 4:48 PM on February 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

god yes the sole thing i would see if i ever returned to england would be nelson's flagship at portsmouth
posted by poffin boffin at 5:09 PM on February 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

Do Stonehenge! We bought a tour that cost extra but allowed us to enter the stones at sunrise or sunset and it was SO worth it, one of our family's best memories. They only sell a limited number of these tickets each day, and you go in after all the other tourist hours are over. We did sunset and the bus stopped at Windsor castle and Oxford. Both were worth it, we truly enjoyed the whole day and we are not "tour" people.

We also stayed in Camden Town and that's really close to the British Museum. The greatest thing about London is that the museums are free, so you can go back more than once. We were just a few blocks from the British Museum and went several times. You can leave and take a break for coffee or lunch and go back later.

We bought bus passes and used the citymapper app to get around, and rode the buses every day. Very fun! And the Sky wifi finder is free and worked perfectly. This completely opens up the city and are very easy to use.

Spitalfields Market was worth the bus ride for shopping, I bought a scarf there that I get constant compliments on and it's fun to say "Oh, I bought this in London!"
posted by raisingsand at 5:41 PM on February 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

Agree with the Brighton Pavilion suggestion, but look it up before you go to make sure it's something that would be up your alley. Some friends of mine went to visit it and ended up absolutely hating it and considering it a waste of time.
posted by sailoreagle at 5:50 PM on February 4, 2017

I liked Stonehenge myself. But if I could only do two day trips, it would be Oxford or Cambridge for one, and Bath for the other. (For Bath, visit the Roman baths for the tour, the new baths for an amazingly relaxing time in steam rooms and the rooftop pool, and the pump room for a fancy afternoon tea.)
posted by lollusc at 6:20 PM on February 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Victoria & Albert museum was fantastic.
posted by aramaic at 6:31 PM on February 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

I recommend the Sky Garden at 20 Fenchurch.
It's free [booking ahead online is a must, but not odious] and the horticulture, architecture and the views are super. You can have a champagne, lunch or coffee n cake. If you go on a weekday it's remarkably not annoyingly full of people or queues.

Seconding the John Soanes Museum, the Museum of London and National Portrait Gallery [I think the NPG is a MUST!] I also love to walk around Somerset House. There's always great things going on there and gorgeous food stops. If you are going to the National Gallery, slip into St Martin's-in-the-fields next door for a coffee in the crypt, a random free classical or jazz concert in the courtyard.

You are staying in Camden which has big weekend markets full of tourists. Not saying Brick Lane isn't full of tourists, but it's much more fun and you get to see a lot of Banksy art in all the streets around Shoreditch. [You can even do a tour, but I think that might be overkill] AND you will find curries To Die For, England's national dish.

I can recommend Ottolenghi in Islington for breakfast or lunch or just to browse the deli. And I ate at many of the places listed here at EastLondonMornings - local, no chains, small and friendly, cute places. Often in very arty communities that are great for browsing.

And I can't believe no one has mentioned Borough Markets - 1000 year old markets with lots of yummy food, little bars and great architecture as you walk through the stalls. DON'T eat a pork pie. Unless you like gelatinous goo. And it's handy to a bunch of other cool things to do around London Bridge.

If you go to places like the British Museum or the National Gallery, pick a few things that you would like to see, don't just wander around. You'll get tired and you'll get cranky with overload. The V&A has a lovely inner courtyard for resting between the fabulousness of the collections.

For trips out of town, what about nipping down to Brighton?
posted by honey-barbara at 11:23 PM on February 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

Check out the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton. Everywhere on your list is dedicated to celebration of British wealth and finery earned from exploiting colonized people. There is finally some pushback in the tourist cultural sector at the false impression of so many global Anglophiles that it's all tea and scones and roses and fine art and whiteness.
posted by spitbull at 2:46 AM on February 5, 2017 [7 favorites]

Westminster Abbey is incredible and absolutely worth the £20 entrance fee.

On a completely different note, the old operating theatre museum is very interesting though quite gruesome - it's an actual operating theatre from 1822 with all the old surgical instruments and potions on display. It's near borough market where you can stop for lunch before or after.

The official TKTS booth at Leicester Square sells discounted theatre tickets the day of the performance. Do take in a west end show or two - I haven't seen Mathilda but I've heard it's great, anyway you'll find everything from musicals to serious theatre, and many shows are in ornate old Victorian theatres. We like to go to Kahve Dunyasi first, a branch of a Turkish cafe chain to fill up on coffee and all kinds of chocolates first.

I definitely second going to a free lunchtime concert at St Martins in the Field. But check online for times. They also do candlelight concerts which aren't very expensive but always lovely. And there are often free concert at St James in Piccadilly. Wigmore Hall is an amazing place to see a concert also although they can be quite expensive.

You can walk from the British Library to the Wellcome Collection and I definitely recommend both. Plus you'll be walking past the incredible architecture of St Pancras station.

I love taking the early morning Thames Ferries - get up early and beat the tourists and you'll almost have the ferries to yourself.

if you both like to walk go for a stroll around Hampstead, onto the Heath and up Parliament Hill for an incredible view.
posted by hazyjane at 10:09 AM on February 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'd third the suggestion to see something at the Globe (huge surprise to anyone who knows me, I'm sure), but unfortunately the outdoor shows don't start up until late April. It's still worth taking the Globe tour if you're at all interested in theatre history and Elizabethan London, though.

If you'd still like to see something in a period-authentic theater, the Globe is running Othello all through March in its Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, which is a recreation of a Jacobean indoor theater with performances lit entirely by candlelight. It's absolutely worth the trip.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 10:14 AM on February 5, 2017

Ian Visits is quite good for what's on, and often has unusual ideas.

If you're walking in the centre of town, one tip is to avoid Oxford Street, Charing Cross Road, and Regent Street, unless you're desperate to see the shops on them - they're all busy and crowded. Instead, wander through Soho which has more interesting shops and cafes and fewer tourist crowds. It's not what it once was - for both good and bad - but I still enjoy just walking round its streets, and plenty of institutions (like Maison Bertaux, Bar Italia and The French House) survive.

On a Sunday, Columbia Road Flower Market is worth a visit (from 8am) if you're at all interested in that kind of thing. It gets very crowded but is a fun place to see slightly off the usual tourist routes.

On a Saturday Broadway Market (a short walk from Columbia Road) is also a very crowded, interesting, and less touristy destination - lots of food stalls and suchlike in a very gentrified bit of Hackney.
posted by fabius at 10:23 AM on February 5, 2017

SO I generally avoid Camden Town as much as possible (fifteen thousand Spanish tourists, none of whom know how to properly traverse a pavement) but I do seem to end up there more often than seems sensible so have some local knowledge to impart here:

- go on a tour of Camden Town Brewery. You can buy their stuff now nationwide and for now they are still brewing all their beer in an archway next to the Regent's Canal.
- climb Primrose Hill if it's a nice day; bit of a slog to get to the top of it, but once up there you can see for miles. It was also featured recently on Sens8 if you're into that.
- while you're down that end (ie the Primrose Hill end) of Camden, have a drink in either The Queens (on Regents Park Road) or The Pembroke Castle (down on Gloucester Avenue). If you walk from one to the other, you will be in proper London Yummy Mummy territory and there is more fancy coffee, avocado and quaint bookshops along that stretch than you can shake a stick at
- there are a lot of nice pubs on backroads in Camden so chances are your airbnb will be close to someone's 'local'. Don't be afraid to try it (and something equally local to drink!)

I also have a lot of eating and drinking recommendations more towards Kings Cross/St Pancras if they are of use - memail me.
posted by citands at 12:28 PM on February 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

I did a trip in November of 2015:

- London Walks are awesome (and see if they're doing any special ones not on the usual weekly schedule: their Tower of London one was perfectly lovely (and not much more expensive than the ticket to get in) but the Myths and Legends of London one was really excellent except that it was very cold, which wasn't their fault.)

- Check to see about special tours or events at the things you want to do anyway. The behind the scenes tour at the Natural History Museum was a big highlight for me. (If you like things in jars + historical science geekery, I highly recommend it.) I also liked the Museum of London, and they do gallery talks multiple times a day.

- Hampton Court had its 500th anniversary in 2015, and they've done a lot of really great audio tours, there's great signage, etc. I only really focused on the Tudor bits, but it was very well done, there's tons to see, and getting there and back is pleasant but not daunting.

- I second the 'take the commuter boat to Greenwich' idea : interesting things in Greenwich, and getting to see the city from the river is really neat. They take Oyster cards, so there's no extra fussing with tickets.

The things I wish I'd done differently for my trip: pacing myself better (by the tail end, my feet hurt enough I couldn't enjoy some things) and giving myself a very easy day in the middle that was much more sitting than walking.
posted by modernhypatia at 12:46 PM on February 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'd say do Stonehenge, but temper your expectations. Your hotel should be able to set you up with a tour bus round trip, if you go that route take an early one and make sure they don't make you stay at the site for more than an hour (honestly 45 minutes is plenty of time).

In Oxford I liked the Pitt Rivers Museum way more than the Ashmolean.

I found the Oyster Card 7-day pass to be a good value.
posted by clorox at 9:09 PM on February 5, 2017

I've said it before here and I'll say it again, don't bother with the London Eye - go to St Paul's Cathedral if you want the best views of the city (unless you have limited mobility as it does involve climbing stairs).

The London Eye is expensive, there's always a huge queue, and you have to rely on not being in a pod with awful people.

St Pauls is cheaper, the queue has never been more than short when I've been, you get the amazing building and crypts to look around into the bargain, and the views are amazing because there are literally laws stopping large buildings being built where they would block certain lines of sight.
posted by greenish at 5:13 AM on February 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Keeping up my theme of interrogating the colonialist narrative that underlines the presentation of tourist London to newcomers, and I should say that I went to the equivalent of high school there in the 1980s, the internationally renowned School of Oriental and African Studies has a guide to South Asian cultural institutions in London.

In my opinion much of tourist Britain is an especially theatrical and polished performance of a parochial innocence (think Downton Abbey and Winnie the Pooh) that quickly wears thin in favor of deeper curiosity about the people who live there now and what actually happened that the just so stories that present history as tableaux vivante at sites like the Tower and the palaces and Stonehenge do their best to obscure.

Yeah of course you gotta see that stuff but eh, seen one palace, seen 'em all.

In other words, eschew the easier interpretations on offer so you come home changed by the experience.
posted by spitbull at 5:15 AM on February 6, 2017

Ride the Thames Clippers - they take your oyster card and are a bit more than the tube but much cheaper than a tour boat.
posted by soelo at 12:23 PM on February 6, 2017

Response by poster: Just got back! It was awesome, we saw a lot and still have a list of things we didn't get a chance to see and would like to go back to. Thank you all so much for your suggestions, and I'll add a few of my own.

Camden Town/Primrose Hill-specific: Primrose hill was a short hike and you get a panoramic view of London, so if you're nearby, its worth your time.

Lemonia is a fantastic greek restaurant near Primrose Hill, and we also liked La Patagonia closer to Mornington Crescent tube station. We kept returning to the Edinboro Castle Pub for its great beer selection and atmosphere, especially the Camden Town Brewery beers (by far the best, good UK beers for American palates were hard to find :( )

General: If near the Tower of London, the Hung Drawn and Quartered Pub had fantastic meat pies.

I was pretty disappointed in the Natural History Museum. Even if it wasn't filled with school groups, the exhibits and specimens were crowded and very worn and UV damaged. I understand that new specimens are impossible or not ethical to update, but the damage was bad enough to severely detract from the experience. The hall of ichthyosaurs was great, though! In hindsight, I would have spent more time at the Science Museum and British Museum.

Getting a fast pass for the London Eye meant a shorter line as opposed to no line :)

The London Walk tour we did for Jack the Ripper was great, and incredibly gory considering there were kids on the tour!

We did go to Stonehenge and agreed that it was incredibly worth it. We did one of the sunset tours that allow you to get close to the stones after general visiting times have ended. Our tour was a bus that also stopped at the Roman Baths of Bath and Lacock, so it was ten hours well spent.

We didn't get a chance to go, but the Harry Potter Studio Tour was highly recommended by a friend of mine.

Hever Castle was incredible. Take the train from London Bridge, not Victoria like I stupidly did, and do not feed the swans if you value your fingers.
posted by Drosera at 5:21 AM on March 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

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