Pre and Post Cruise Stops
In this posting I cover:
- Places to see
- Transportation to and from the airports
- Transportation to and from the port of Southampton
- Day trips from London
- London Markets
- Taking the Tube
- Hop on Hop off buses (Big Bus, Original Bus etc.)
Full disclosure here, you CANNOT see and do everything there is to do in London on a limited pre or post cruise stay. The best you can hope for is to get to see the things that hit your “must see” wish list.
London never fails to enchant and entertain me. On my most recent cruise, I promised to show a group of friends the city and most popular sights. In preparation for that trip I put together a list of place I thought people should see and made my recommendations.
I will begin with the places I think you MUST visit if you are there for a day or two and then gradually expand to places that you should see if you have more time. I will finish up with some of my day trip recommendations before moving on to transportation options.
Places to see
Tower of London - always number one on my London list.
You must buy a ticket to enter the Tower and you can buy those online in advance, or at a ticket kiosk at the Tower itself. Your admission ticket gives you entry to all public areas of the Tower of London, including the Crown Jewels. I usually like to start with a tour given by one of the Yeoman Warders. These are included in the price of admission and tend to start near the Tower entrance. They are always entertaining and sometimes a little topical. Those tours usually finish up in the chapel and from there you can start visiting the buildings such as the White Tower and the Bloody Tower. I also suggest you walk the battlements where you will find that you have a great view of Tower Bridge (which some people mistakenly call London Bridge). When going in to see the Crown Jewels, make sure to see the front and back of the crowns. Give yourself time to enjoy this site.
Near the tower are the ruins of an old Roman wall that was built when the Romans occupied Britain (43 to 410 AD). It is located just as you exit Tower Hill station and start walking towards the Tower. Stop and have a look. I speak more about this in my Roman and Medieval London blog.
British Museum – I love this museum and as with all museums in Britain, it is free! Loads to see here. It also has the finest exhibit of Egyptian mummies and artifacts outside of Egypt. No matter what your interest, chances are this museum has something for you. Highlights include:
- The Holy Thorn Reliquary - A medieval masterpiece
- Shiva Nataraja (Lord of the Dance) - A remarkable bronze sculpture from the south India;
- Easter Island statue Hoa Hakananai’a - A colossal figure from a lost Civilisation;
- The Parthenon Marbles (and yes Greece still wants them back);
- The Rosetta Stone - The key to deciphering hieroglyphs;
- The Egyptian exhibit; and
- Clocks and Watches – Check out the ship clock as it is my favourite piece in the collection:
Westminster Abbey – Located near the Houses of Parliament, it is easily possible for you to view and photograph the seat of government before heading to the Abbey. The Abbey is very impressive and there is a great deal to see inside and out. This is the place where coronations and royal weddings take place so many people have seen it on television, but to see it in person gives you a whole new perspective on just how visually stunning it is. Loads of famous people are buried here so as you walk around the massive abbey you might find yourself walking on the grave of someone famous. The Stone of Scone was here but has now been returned to Scotland.
There is a charge to enter but book ahead and if you are with a group the rate is around £17.00.
Five nights a week there is an Evensong service which is offered at 5pm. If you stand in line to enter the services, your admission to the Abby is free and you are treated to organ playing and choir singing. Our group attended and even though we had members of our group who were not religious, all enjoyed the experience of attending Evensong. I highly recommend it.
For people just wanting to photograph this historic building from the outside, be forewarned, there is no good location to get a complete photo of the Abby. For those wanting to purchase a memento, there is a gift shop outside the Abby (where the line for the Evensong service begins), with a good selection of items.
Buckingham Palace – The statue of Queen Victoria in front is impressive but Buckingham Palace alone is a building I find underwhelming. Buckingham Palace is the London residence and administrative headquarters of the Queen. If you stand in front of the palace, you can photograph the palace and the famous balcony where the royal family stands on special occasions. Worth a photo stop but I suggest you don’t spend too much time there as there are more interesting and historic places to visit. Usually this is further down on my list, but I find that people visiting London usually want to see Buckingham Palace simply for its tie to the royals. If you do go see the palace, you can tie in your visit with the changing of the guard ceremony and kill two birds with one stone.
The Changing of the Guard takes place at 11:30 every second day. I don’t find it all that impressive compared to the Canadian changing of the guard’s ceremony but for those who like the pomp and ceremony, it offers up a little tradition, colour, music and good photo ops.
Note: Tours of Buckingham Palace are only allowed in July, August & early Sept.so the rest of the year all one can do is stand outside the palace gates and look at it.
Victoria and Albert Museum
The self described “world's leading museum of art and design” is free to enter and also offers up a large number of interesting exhibits. If you enjoy art and design this IS the place for you. My favourite sections include jewelry, art and design. I will always pop into the photography section to see some work by my relatives who were early portrait specialists in London.
Churchill War Rooms
I have to admit it took me forever to go see the Churchill War Rooms. I thought it would be a little dull even though I love history and I like Churchill. I finally went and found the place really interesting. So much so I returned and will definitely go again.
Described on the website as “the underground nerve centre where Winston Churchill and his inner circle directed the Second World War” it is so much more. I could write a page on this place alone, suffice to say, it is well worth the price of admission if you like history, Churchill’s wicked wit and want to find out more about how and why certain decisions were made.
Cost is £17.60 per person / senior rate (59+)
London Eye - People either love or hate this giant Ferris wheel style viewing platform. It will give you a really nice view of London and the river Thames. Book a time and pay in advance as the line-ups at this attraction can be very, very long.
The cost is £27.00 on the day or £24.30 if tickets are bought in advance.
Trafalgar Square – This free attraction is well worth a stop. Not too far from Piccadilly Circus, stop by to see this historic square and if you walk around the area surrounding the square, there are additional points of interest. Photograph Nelson’s Column or the four lions found at the base of the column. Stop in to see St Martin-in-the-Fields at the north-east corner of Trafalgar Square or my favourite, the National Portrait Gallery. Free to enter and chock full of portraits. For those of you who have viewed the art section of this website, you will have noted my fascination with portraits so you can see why this museum is a regular stop for me.
Madam Tussaud’s Wax Museum - Wax figurines of famous people (both current and historical). A famous tourist place, it was established in 1836 and it always has some fun exhibits.
£29 for online in advance entrance tickets
£38 for online, in advance entrance tickets plus one more attraction (London Eye or London dungeon etc.)
Jack the Ripper Walking Tour - I have taken this tour four times and Dan has taken it five. Originally, I had no interest in the tour but my friend talked me into taking it and it was fascinating. If you are not into history or murder mysteries, give this one a pass. It is about two hours of walking. During the tour you hear about the places where the Ripper’s victims were murdered and the circumstances. You do visit places where a major suspect worked as a barber in the basement and where two of the victims were known to drink. You will see the actual doorway on which Jack the Ripper scrawled a message. It is a little creepy to walk down some of the darkened alleyways.
There is also a free tour offered that leaves Tower Hill Station at 6 and 8pm. I have not taken it but one of my friends did and described her experience as excellent.
Transportation to and from the airports
Airports into London
There are two main airports used for flights to London, so I have focused on those and provided information on how to get from those airports into central London.
Gatwick to London via Gatwick Express
- Take the Gatwick Express to Victoria Rail Station
- From Victoria Rail station take the tube to the stop nearest your destination in London
Heathrow to London via the Heathrow Express
- Take the Heathrow Express to London Paddington and take the tube to the stop nearest your destination in London
- Shuttle bus from Russell Square directly to Heathrow and take the tube from the Russel Square tube station to the stop nearest your destination in London
Other Transportation Options to and from the Airport
Certain Discount Service Providers (ie: https://gettransfer.com/en/our fleet) offer 8 passenger vans with room for 5 large suitcases and 5 carry-on bags.
Uber / Ride Sharing service providers All serve the airports and prices are destination dependant.
Taxi from Gatwick or Heathrow directly to your hotel (cost depends on your destination location within London). This is an expensive option, but the taxis are safe, and you don’t have to navigate public transportation with luggage.
Limo Most expensive option but there are a number of private hire companies that offer limo service and prices can sometimes be negotiated. We have secured some excellent last-minute rates.
Ship organized pick-up /drop-off Usually tied in with pick-ups associated with several flights so there may be wait times in assembly areas. Not the cheapest option but certainly not the most expensive. Safe and usually affordable.
Transportation to and from the port of Southampton
Renting a Bus for a Group - I have to admit I always book private transportation. For bus rentals I use Angela Coaches in Southampton. https://www.angelacoaches.co.uk
I have also used private car hire with mixed results. I write about this in my book Sleeping in a Life Jacket so I will not go into detail here. Suffice to say, do not use a service that has operators bidding on the trip. The lowest bidder may not be reliable and the company you deal with to obtain the bids may be slow to refund your money.
Ship organized pick-up /drop-off - Safe and usually affordable.
Train - Depending on the time of day you might end up transferring trains one or two times. Prices also vary on the time of day and the train that you catch. Check in advance for deals. There are several rail stations in Southampton but the station near the cruise line docks is Southampton Central, the main city centre station. It is a little over a mile (or one point six kilometres), from the port to the Southampton train station (depending on which cruise line you are booked with). When planning to take a train or bus, remember you will be travelling with luggage which can slow down your walk.
Public Bus - Various options so I suggest checking in advance. The National Express coach station is the one I recommend but it is not that easy a walk with luggage so consider a taxi. It costs 7 to 11 pounds to the cruise ship terminal by taxi. The bus station is not overly large, has limited seating and basic facilities. There are three National Express routes to and from Southampton that provide direct services between London Victoria, Heathrow and Gatwick Airports. We once used a local service that had us going from Southampton to Winchester to London and left from a location further from the port. It was a scenic but slow route.
Taxi - We caught a taxi from Southampton to London for a negotiated price of 95 pounds when our private car hire failed to show up. The taxi was in the taxi queue and we simply negotiated an off the meter ride into London. Our taxi driver was entertaining and the ride smooth and efficient. It was however a pricy option and the price negotiated did not include the tip.
Day trips from London
Note all of these attractions have organized tours that will take you to these points of interest but you can easily arrange your own transportation via private vehicle hire, bus or train.
Windsor Castle – This castle is within close proximity to London and an easy location to get to if you are going travelling on your own (outside an organized tour). Take a train to get to Windsor (or sign up for one of the many tours that will take you to Windsor). The Castle is the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world and the weekend home of the queen. When you purchase a ticket, you have access to The State Apartments and St. George's Chapel. It is a spectacular castle and the inside rooms are impressive. Well worth a visit but check ahead to see if there are any special events taking place that might result in restrictions being imposed on visits. If I had a choice between Hampton Court Palace or Windsor, I would choose Windsor Castle. Also, Windsor and Eaton are just a bridge crossing from each other so lots to see.
Cost is £19.30 per ticket.
Train to Windsor is £15 but it varies according to departure time
Hampton Court Palace - I rather like this palace. It has more of a 15th century feel to it from the grand hall to the little inside chapel. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey began building the palace in 1515, but King Henry VIII took possession of the palace when Wolsey failed to secure the divorce Henry wanted from his first wife Catherine. Henry enlarged the palace and spent considerable time there. His third wife, Jane Seymour, died here while giving birth to Henry’s only son Edward. The palace is quick and easy to get to and has impressive grounds and gardens.
Take a train from London to get to the Hampton Court Palace and once exiting the train station, it is a 5 minute, flat walk to the Palace.
Cost is £17.00 per ticket.
Train to Hampton Court is £6.60 peak Total time: 30mins to get there.
Dover Castle - This is a fabulous day trip. Dover castle is not just one building and it has it all. The white cliffs, the various castle buildings. Great history plus the second world war tunnels and war rooms etc. Take a train to get to Dover Priory station and then a taxi or bus from the train station to the castle. If you want to walk it is about a mile (1.6 km) and up hill. Step into centuries of history from the Romans to the Cold War. This is a very full day out but well worth the time and money spent
Castle Entry Cost is £20.90 per ticket.
Taxi from the train station £5 /Bus (#80A) was about £2.50
Train to Dover is £35 but again the prices vary according to the time.
As with the other day trip attractions, you can take a train to get to Warwick from London. The castle is located in the town of Warwick in Warwickshire, England. Situated in a strategic position at the bend of the River Avon, it is a very striking, traditional looking castle with an archery demonstration and a dungeon. A good castle to see but in my opinion, not as impressive as Dover castle. That being said, children seem to prefer this castle so choose the day trip option that best suits the ages of your group.
Cost is £17.0 per person.
Train to Warwick is £25 but the prices vary according to the time and which train line is used.
Note: All costs for trains are approximate as prices differ depending on the time of day and the train you take.
Note: Future posts to come on day trips to Canterbury, Manchester etc.
Borough Market is a wholesale and retail food market in Southwark, London, England. There has been a market on this site since the 12 century, and the current place is one of the largest and oldest.
Camden Markets (Camden Lock), are bustling markets that are packed on the weekends. With over a 1000 stalls, this place has a lot on offer. The Camden markets are actually a number of adjoining markets that are located north of the Hampstead Road Lock of the Regent's Canal. Selling art, clothing, jewellery, leather goods, flea market type items and more, I have always found a treasure or two at this location.
Covent Garden is in the West End, London’s main theatre and entertainment area. You can walk here from Trafalgar Square or St. Paul’s. The Royal Opera House is there and you will always find street entertainers performing. The Market Building has craft stalls as well as some well known retailers. Nearby is the London Transport Museum which houses vintage vehicles. I think this is a must go to stop simply because it is near the 17th century St Paul’s and other historic points. Beside the historic market is a large warehouse type facility with lots of vendors so a lot of items on sale.
Portobello Road Market is touted as the world’s largest antiques market with over 1,000 dealers selling every kind of antique and collectible. This place can get quite busy and is usually packed on the weekends however there are all sorts of items on offer. A lot of the dealers are in buildings with little rabbit warren style aisles that are crowded and not for the claustrophobic. We have bought several antique clocks and some vintage jewelry at this market. There are also street vendors selling low market items such as clothing, purses, art, food etc.
Taking the Tube (the Underground/Subway)
I recommend you buy an Oyster card (good for both buses and the tube), to get around London. Unless you are going to make just one single journey on public transport in London then you should really be looking to use either an Oyster card or a London Travelcard travel pass and not pay for single tickets.
For example, paying cash for a single journey in the centre of London is more than double the price of the same fare with an Oyster card. The Oyster card is a reusable electronic ticket which is used to pay your fare(s). You can buy and/or top it up at ticket machines.
You purchase the card at a tube station from one of the automated machines. You can load cash or buy a set number of days (for example 3 days or 7 days). If you choose to load the pass with cash, the fare for each journey is taken from the cash on your Oyster card. This is called Pay As You Go. If you get a pass which is valid for a week, you just use your pass every day, as often as you wish. It is a cheap and efficient way to move quickly from point to point.
The London public transport system is divided up into zones that radiate from the centre. Nearly all the main hotel districts and the main sights of London are in Zone 1 or 2.
The daily rate for zone 1 & 2 travel is £7.00
And the weekly rate is £35.10
Hop on Hop off London Sightseeing Tours
I am not going to recommend one service over another as I find these type of tour buses pretty much the same. I have mixed feelings about them as traffic in London can slow to a crawl and you may find yourself sitting on a bus going nowhere.
If the traffic is moving, these buses are great for getting around London to various points of interest but frankly I prefer the tube for speed and efficiency, especially if you have limited time in London. However, if you only have a day or two and you are not comfortable with the idea of taking the underground, one of these tours will take you to most of the popular tourist locations and provide you with a running commentary as you move from point to point. Some have live guides while others offer earphones and recordings.
Try and use a service that includes on and off capabilities AND a Thames cruise.
Tickets are usually around £24.95
Future posts to come on Hotels, Pubs and Eating in London