Category Archives: Trips

Plotagraph: watching the ocean at Azulik, Tulum

Today’s plotagraph (see more) was created from a picture I took back in 2014 at Azulik in Tulum, one of the most beautiful places we’ve stayed. We love Tulum in general, and have visited four times in the last ten years or so.

Paula Tulum swing (640px, 30fps)

Click on the image above to see a higher resolution version. As with all plotagraphs, this was created from a single image – here is the original:

Paula Tulum swing

Amazing image stabilization with LUMIX GX8 and Panasonic Leica 100-400mm lens

I have been using micro four thirds cameras by LUMIX for several years now, having previously shot with a Nikon D7000. Since I travel a lot, and like to travel light, I love how compact and lightweight these cameras are compared to a traditional SLR (see a recent snapshot of my gear here). One thing that has been missing from the micro four thirds space until this year has been long zoom lenses. I have had a 14-140mm zoom for several years, which is my goto “do everything” lens, and is equivalent to 28-280mm in 35mm terms. I added an Olympus 40-150mm Pf/2.8 Pro lens in February 2015, together with a 1.4x teleconverter, which in combination amount to a maximum zoom of 420mm equivalent. This is the sharpest lens I have ever owned, I really love it.

However, for wildlife photography it is nice to have access to something longer than 420mm, so I was very excited when the Panasonic Leica 100-400mm Pro lens was announced, and I got one of these when it came out in April 2016. This lens weighs only 2 pounds, which is absurdly light and small for an 800mm equivalent lens – for comparison this Canon traditional DSLR 800mm (non zoom) lens weighs 10 pounds! There are lots of excellent technical reviews online and I’m not going to duplicate the details that you can find in those. I will just say that overall my experience with the lens has been great and I’ve been very pleased with many of the images I’ve got using it.

But what I wanted to talk about in this post is one particular image which I took on my recent trip to Brazil, in the Floresta da Tijuca, the rainforest in Rio de Janeiro – as it happens at the side of one of the roads that the Olympic cyclists raced along this week. It’s this image of a tufted (or brown) capuchin monkey – it’s not my favorite image that I’ve taken with this lens, but I think it’s technically one of the most interesting.

P1600617 1024px

This is the image directly out of the camera – the raw image just loaded into Lightroom and exported as a jpeg. You can click on the image above to see a full size version. The remarkable thing about this image is that it was taken in very low light, as the rainforest canopy really blocks out a lot of light. It was hand held at 800mm equivalent using a 1/40s shutter speed, which is an incredibly slow shutter speed for such a long lens. A general rule of thumb is that to get a reasonably sharp image without any camera shake, you should use a shutter speed of 1 over the focal length or faster, so 1/800s or faster with an 800mm equivalent lens. For handheld wildlife shots with any longish zoom I will usually try to use a speed of 1/1000s or faster.

Modern cameras can mitigate camera shake using image stabilization technology, which can be done in the lens or in the camera body. My camera, the LUMIX GX8, has some of the most advanced image stabilization technology available today, which lets you combine image stabilization effects from both the lens and the camera body. People talk about the number of stops of improvement you get from image stabilization, and going from 1/800s to 1/40s is about 4.5 stops worth of improvement, which is pretty amazing I think. Of course you also need the subject to be still at such a slow shutter speed, and fortunately the monkey co-operated in this shot.

P1600617 edited

Here’s a version of the photo with a little editing. It’s also worth commenting that this picture was taken at ISO 3200, which is pretty high for a micro four thirds camera, and I think the quality is very good when you consider that too.

Finally I will say that this picture was taken using auto exposure mode, and auto ISO. This is a theme I will return to repeatedly on this blog. A lot of serious photographers have the attitude that you’e not a “proper photographer” if you’re using auto mode. I strongly disagree with that. I am very proficient at using all the main modes on my camera, and use shutter, aperture or manual modes when appropriate. But I think that modern cameras are much smarter than many people give them credit for, and much of the time auto mode makes excellent decisions for you. Much of the time these days my default mode of operation is to use auto mode and keep an eye on the settings it is choosing, and just switch modes if I think the camera isn’t making good choices. This way I can focus more of my attention on the content of my photo, and I really think that has helped me take better pictures. When you’re doing wildlife pictures, saving fractions of a second can make a difference in getting a great shot, and with landscape pictures you can focus all your attention on getting the best possible composition and lighting. Also on occasions, like this one, auto mode will really surprise you in a good way – there was no way I would have attempted to take this picture at 1/40s if I was choosing the settings myself, I would have just given up and concluded that it was too dark.

Plotagraph of White Island, New Zealand

Another plotagraph from White Island in New Zealand (see my other plotagraphs). I’ve been fortunate to travel a lot and have many cool adventures, but flying to White Island in a helicopter is right up there with my very best travel experiences. It’s an island off the north coast of New Zealand which is an active volcano. About a quarter of the cone is blown out from a previous eruption which makes it look very dramatic. You fly in and land in the crater, and get to walk around for an hour or so before flying back. It is expensive but well worth it. We went with Frontier Helicopters from Whakatane, which was a fair bit less expensive than flying from Rotorua, which is the other option.

White Island 2 (640px, 30fps)
Click on the image for a larger version

This photo was taken from the front seat of a fast moving helicopter – it was tricky to get a full view of it through the window. Here is the original still image prior to processing with plotagraph

White Island 2

An interesting thing about this image is that my original photo was quite tightly cropped on the right hand side, so I expanded the image slightly using Photoshop’s content aware fill, which is a trick I learned relatively recently.

This is the original image, before expanding it on the right hand side, and before final enhancements in Photoshop:

P1360257I will post more pictures and details about White Island in a future post, but in the mean time you can see a few more photos in this Facebook album.

Photo: Rio at night

Today’s featured photo is a picture of Rio at night, taken from Sugarloaf Mountain, Pão de Açúcar, which provides iconic views over the city.

Rio at night

It is known for great sunset views, but unfortunately the evening we went up there was no real sunset, and a lot of cloud cover which hid the tops of the mountains and the statue of Christ, Cristo Redentor. We decided to wait up there until it became dark, and were rewarded by the clouds clearing enough to get a great view – just another example of the fact that patience and timing are essential to getting good landscape and cityscape shots.

One practical tip if you are going to Sugarloaf is that the lines for the cable car (bondinho) can be quite long, but you can book tickets online (for a specified time) which should speed things up – we didn’t do this. Either way, if you are going there for sunset, allow some extra time for standing in lines, both at the bottom and half way up, where you stop at the lower mountain, Morro da Urca, and have to catch a second cable car.

When we were there, about a month before the start of the Olympics, there were actually very few places at the top of Sugarloaf with a view towards the city like this – it seemed as though they were doing lots of remodeling up there, presumably because of the Olympics. In fact the only place I found to get this view was right by the top of the cable car, a spot where at most two people can fit at once. Paula and I are standing there in this selfie, which obviously we took a bit earlier, before dark – and you can see the clouds covering Cristo here.

Pete and Paula in Rio

Later on there was quite a line of people waiting to take photos here, so I had to be patient and wait a while, and then be fairly quick taking the picture when I got to the front and had my turn. I needed to use a tripod of course for a night shot like this – I used a 1 second exposure and ISO 400. There was no room to stand the tripod normally, so I used it with the legs as short as possible – it’s a pretty compact tripod, and had to perch it rather precariously on the corner of the railings that you can see here, holding onto it while I shot, which was not ideal.

I took this shot with my newest lens, which is a wide angle fisheye lens by Rokinon. It has a focal length of 7.5mm, which on my micro four thirds LUMIX GX8 camera translates to a 15mm equivalent on a full frame camera. I’ve been really pleased with a number of the pictures I’ve got with it – it’s great for these sort of wide cityscapes.

Rokinon lens

Its maximum aperture of f/3.5mm is not super fast, but that’s not too important for landscape and cityscape photography which is where I mainly use this. An interesting thing about this lens is that it is fully manual. You have to focus manually, and change the aperture manually by turning the aperture ring on the lens – the camera can’t set the aperture on the lens. The camera can’t even read the aperture to record what was used in the EXIF information stored on the photo – you just see the shutter speed and ISO, but no aperture value. But on the positive side, its optics are excellent and it is much cheaper than similar lenses that aren’t manual. Panasonic has a 7-14mm zoom lens that costs around $800, for example, while I paid around $250 for this. The manual focus is not nearly such an issue as you might think, as the depth of field is so large on a lens with such a wide angle that you can just set the focus to infinity and not worry about it. At the widest aperture of f/3.5, everything should be sharp from 3.5 feet away to infinity, and stopping down slightly to f/5.6, everything is sharp from 2.5 feet away.

You do get some distortion with a fish eye lens, which can be an issue in some situations but not in others. You can correct the distortion to varying extents with post processing, but generally at a cost of losing some of the outer edge of the image. And the distortion bothers some people more than others – in a lot of situations I’ve liked the images I got just fine, without doing any correction. Over time I’ll post more fisheye images I’ve taken so you can see for yourself what you think – click here for more.

A good technique with the fisheye in a lot of cases is to centre the horizon in the image when you take it, then the horizon will be straight, whereas it will be curved if it is above or below the center. I didn’t manage to do that in this case, probably because of the situation of being rushed and also having to balance the tripod precariously so it was hard to set up as carefully as usual. So here the horizon curves down at the edges but I still think it looks good – I don’t particularly have an urge to correct it, though I suppose I could!

Actually I just decided to do a quick lens correction in Lightroom, which is the simplest (but not the only) way to reduce the distortion. After that, the image looks like this (this version is also missing a few final tweaks I did to the one above in Photoshop):

Rio at night distortion correction.jpg

You can see that the horizon is flatter, especially on the right side of the image, but also items near the edge are stretched. So the lights on the shore at the right hand side of the image are much wider and more spaced out than the ones in the middle, and we’ve lost about half of the lights that we originally had there. I like the look of those lights much better in the top image – the three groups of shore lights across the image match better, and I think the image has a better balance. I could use warp tools or other techniques, but overall I like how the original image looks, so I’m happy to leave this one uncorrected.

I didn’t do much other work on this image, just a bit of minor tweaking of tone and colors in Lightroom and a little sharpening with a high pass filter in Photoshop, which also intensifies the lights a little. I’ll talk more about the sort of post-processing I do in other posts, I think that is enough for now!

How I saw snow monkeys in Japan and ice caves in Iceland without taking a day off work

Last weekend I hiked across a glacier to visit several amazing ice caves in Iceland, and the weekend before I photographed the amazing snow monkeys in Japan. I did this without taking a single day off work.

Hello snow monkey!
Hello snow monkey!

Because I post a lot of photos and adventures online, people often ask me, “are you still working these days?”. The answer is yes, I have a full time job, but I just make more effort than most people to fit things in around my work schedule – and I am fortunate to travel quite a bit with work. So I thought I would post this to encourage people to make more effort to fit in adventures when you travel for work (or indeed when you are at home!). There’s no rocket science to this, it’s just making the effort to fit things in, and perhaps being a bit creative about how you organize your travel to optimize your time.

Snow monkeys in Japan

I was scheduled for a 3 day meeting with our company’s Japanese team in Tokyo. They suggested we could start the meeting on Wednesday, which would mean I could fly from Denver on Monday morning and arrive Tuesday evening in time for the meeting – you lose a day going out there – and then fly back either Friday night or Saturday. That would use up a week of work time, with two days of travel and three days of meetings. I suggested to them that instead I would fly out on Saturday morning and we should meet from Monday to Wednesday, then I could fly back on Sunday night, which would get me four days to explore in Japan. I am still fitting my five working days into that 9 day stretch, just organizing things a little differently to get my four days in Japan.

Relaxed snow monkeys!
Relaxed snow monkeys!

I will post more details on my snow monkey trip shortly, but in summary it was an amazing trip and I got lots of fantastic pictures. I did it as a two day trip from Tokyo – a morning traveling up there, an afternoon with the monkeys, a great evening at a traditional Japanese “Ryokan” hotel, and another morning with the monkeys before traveling back. I also fitted in some exploring in Tokyo, including a visit to the fish market, some great food, my first visit to a Japanese Onsen (public baths) with my friend Edson, which was a really interesting experience, and some time wondering around the historic district of Asakusa. Not bad for a full week at work!

Ice caves in Iceland

After my Japanese meeting had been set and I had booked travel, it turned out that I needed to be in England the following week for a management meeting. I looked at what it would take to change my tickets to fly from Tokyo straight on to London, and it was ridiculously expensive. So I decided to leave my original tickets as they were, return to Denver on Sunday lunchtime local time and then fly straight out to London that afternoon.

View from Sapphire Cave
View from Sapphire Cave

I had been intrigued by the IcelandAir stopover deal, which lets you fly from Denver (and various other US cities) to London (and various other European cities), and do a free stopover in either direction. On top of that, they had the cheapest fare of any airline from Denver to London on the dates that I wanted to go, and that seems to be consistently the case. Paula and I had just been to Iceland over New Year and we had a fantastic time, but the ice cave tour that we booked was canceled because of flooding, and also we didn’t see the Northern Lights, partly as we had lots of cloudy weather. So I was quite tempted to revisit, because we had liked it so much, and in particular to try to catch up on either or both of those things that we missed.

I was a little in two minds because of the craziness of my travel schedule, and wondered whether I should just take the British Airways direct flight, rather than flying Tokyo to Denver to Reykjavik to London. But you only live once, so I decided to go for it.

Or as Tim Ferriss said recently:

Time is a non-renewable resource, while money can be recouped. Think hard, work smart, and play often. Assume this life is your only chance at bat, so schedule the fun stuff.

I’m a big fan of Tim and this is very much my philosophy too.

So I went ahead and booked the IcelandAir flight. I arrived in Denver from Tokyo at 12:21pm, then flew out to Reykjavik at 4:15pm. Paula came to the airport to meet me for lunch and swap a couple of items in my baggage! I arrived at London Gatwick at 11:23 Monday morning, and made it to Cambridge in time for some mid afternoon meetings, and my main meetings started the next day. Two colleagues who were attending the same meetings also flew out from Denver Sunday afternoon, but took the direct BA flight.

We had meetings in London all day Thursday. My colleagues flew back to Denver on Friday, a full day of travel. Instead, I caught an IcelandAir flight out of London Heathrow at 8:30pm on Thursday night, getting into Reykjavik at 11:30pm. My flight on to Denver was at 5pm on Sunday, so I got more or less three whole days in Iceland, again without having to take a day off work, as otherwise I would have just been flying home on the Friday.

I booked an ice cave tour for the Saturday with Local Guide of VatnaJokull, who I recommend highly. It was a really incredible experience, see my picture story about it here.

Me in Waterfall Cave
Me in Waterfall Cave

Summary

As I said above, there is no great rocket science to this, but a surprisingly large number of people don’t take the opportunity to fit in something cool and interesting when they are on a business trip. As this story illustrates, you don’t necessarily even need to take any days off work to do some really cool things.

This particular example was an extreme case, where I was in Japan one week and Europe the next. But the same principles apply regardless of where you are traveling. I definitely recommend that anyone flying between the US and Europe should consider the IcelandAir stopover deal – Iceland is such a cool place, and I see this becoming a frequent destination for me, as I travel regularly between Denver and the UK.

My mapwheel story

Today I backed a Kickstarter project called Mapwheel, I think it’s a really cool idea. Check out their video, but basically they let you design a custom “toposcope” or map wheel showing the direction and distance of places of interest from the location where you live (or any other location you choose). You can choose various materials (wood or metal) and customize the design in various ways.

I’ve been working on my design today, and it’s been a surprisingly fun and interesting thing to do. Here’s my current design, which could still change before I order:

Map wheel

One part of the process that I found interesting was being surprised in quite a number of cases about which direction it actually was to certain places from here! Especially for places on other continents, the usual map projections that you see can be quite misleading in terms of what is the shortest path direction to somewhere across the globe. There could be a fun party game for map geeks based on this idea, I think! And then a second interesting thing is just filtering down the options to decide which places you want to include, which makes you think about places that are important to you. You are constrained in that you can’t have two places whose direction is too close together, or their names would overlap.

This forces you into some tough choices, especially if like me you live a long way from your original home, as once you choose a place, other places within hundreds of miles will probably be too close to include. I thought it would be interesting to share the thought process of how I arrived at my choices so far. I encourage you to sign up for a map wheel and share your choices too!

I could only choose one place from the UK, which is where I’m originally from. That really had to be Cropston, which is not where I was born, but we moved there when I was three years old and my Mum still lives there now, so that has been “home” all my life. It’s a small village in Leicestershire, in the middle of  England. If I could add more places in England, the next ones up would probably be Oxford, where I went to University, and Cambridge, which has been the headquarters of multiple companies that I’ve worked for so I’ve spent a lot of time there over the years.

I tried various other places that I really like in Europe including Paris, Venice and Ravello, but they were all too close in direction to Cropston, so I couldn’t fit them in. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Horsens in Denmark, where my Mum was born, was just far enough away in terms of direction that it would fit in.

Paula is originally from Santos in Brazil, so that was another must have. Just as with Cropston though, this blocked several other favorite places that would have been contenders in Brazil like Rio de JaneiroFoz do Iguaçu, and Trancoso.

Moving back closer to home, I thought I should have a few visible landmarks on the map wheel – I plan to put it on our rooftop deck. The Ice House and Coors Field are two prominent buildings nearby – you can see them both in the lightning picture that I published recently. Union Station is across the street from us, though not directly visible from the deck, but I thought that needed to be included as a major local landmark. I put in a few of our favorite places that we like to take visitors in Colorado – Rocky Mountain National Park, Mount Evans, and Red Rocks. Also Denver Airport went in as we go there so often!

We go the opera in Santa Fe every summer and love it there, so had to fit that in, and we also love Telluride in southwestern Colorado, where we have a fractional  ownership in a property and spend 4-6 weeks a year. Another of our favorite vacation places is Tulum in Mexico, so that went in. I put in Key West – I have visited a few times and think it’s a really cool place, and Paula lived there for a year. I was really upset that I couldn’t get New Orleans in – it’s one of my favorite cities – but it was too close to the direction of Santos (and Key West) so sadly I had to leave it out. I threw in New York as that’s another place we love to visit, for the opera and its many other attractions. And also to have some larger places on the list!

At this point I started working on filling in areas where I had gaps. I found that I could fit in Opera Colorado in Denver, where we have season tickets (and found it was due south of us, which I didn’t know!). And that made me think of adding Central City in Colorado, which is another place where we like to go to the opera – it’s an old mining town with a beautiful little historic opera house. In case you haven’t worked it out by now, we like opera!

I thought about a few more distant places of geographical interest. I wondered about Cape Horn, but decided to go for Tierra Del Fuego, which is a place we would like to visit, and it just sounds cool :). And then added the Cape of Good Hope too, which we have both visited in the past. Just randomly I tried Mount Everest, and was surprised that it showed up in an empty space very close to due north, so that went in too. I still had some gaps in the northwest quadrant, so added Rock Springs in Wyoming where Paula’s sister lives, and I tried a few places in Asia that didn’t fit, before going for Bangkok, which I visited back in 2000, and I found it to be a really cool and interesting place that I would like to revisit sometime. Plus our daughter in law is from Thailand. We also added in Monte Vista, Colorado, where our daughter has just moved to.

I still had a little space just east of due north, so decided to add in Mount Rushmore, which was the main thing I could think of in that direction which was somewhat interesting. And then I had a gap to the east so threw in Kansas City, which is the first reasonable size city you hit driving east from Denver, so is good to show how far apart things are out here!

Oh, and lastly we sneaked in Santiago, to fill in the space just east of due south – in honor of a good family friend from Chile.

A few places that I tried to fit in but couldn’t:

  • New Orleans, as mentioned above – blocked by Santos and Key West
  • Paris, another of my favorite cities – blocked by Cropston
  • Barcelona, another favorite European City – blocked by Coors Field
  • My company Ubisense’s Denver office – blocked by Santos
  • Casablanca, site of one of my favorite movies – blocked by Coors Field
  • Sydney – blocked by Mount Evans
  • San Diego – blocked by Red Rocks
  • Hawaii – blocked by Union Station
  • Grand Canyon – blocked by Red Rocks

So anyway, that is probably way more detail than you were interested in, but like I said I found it a fun and interesting exercise to work through the process of choosing our places! Let me know if you think I should change anything! And if you get a map wheel of your own, I’d be interested to see which places you choose!

Tips on a short visit to London

Today an American friend asked me for suggestions on what to do in England with 2 or 3 spare days on the end of a business trip. She has never been to the UK before. I have been meaning to get this blog reactivated for a while, so this gives me a good opportunity to do that! She will be in Cambridge for the work week, so will get to see a good amount there.

My primary advice is to visit London, which might seem to some like an unoriginal choice, but there are so many world renowned things to see that I think you have to start there if you’ve never visited before. So this post will focus on some tips on doing a short visit to London, especially for overseas visitors passing through, but hopefully it may have things of interest to anyone! I’ll do a follow up post on other options outside London.

Take a bus tour

Many of my London friends laugh at me for this, but my top recommendation for a first time visitor (or indeed anyone who hasn’t done this before) is to take one of the open topped double decker bus tours first to get oriented. It may be “touristy”, but you get to see an amazing amount of stuff in a couple of hours. I have done this a number of times with various visitors and everyone has really enjoyed it. You are rather at the mercy of London’s weather though – if it’s raining then you may want to postpone this, if there’s any prospect of the weather improving.

Tourists on a bus!
Tourists on a bus!

There are multiple companies that do this, including The Original Tour and Big Bus Tours. They are both pretty similar. You get a ticket that is good for 24 hours, and they both have two or three routes that generally take 2-3 hours to complete if you don’t get off. They have frequent stops and you can get off and on as often as you like. Also they both include a river cruise ticket, which is worth using if you have time. Depending on your schedule and other plans, you could stay on for the whole loop in one go, then visit places afterwards, or alternatively hop and and off wherever you wish.

Where to get off

Of course there are many, many great things to see in London. This is not based on a rigorous survey, but these are a few of my top recommendations.

Westminster Abbey is amazing, and my top choice. It’s also right next to the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, so you get two (or three) for one stop! The architecture and history are amazing. Many kings and queens are buried there, as well as a diverse range of notable people including Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Laurence Olivier, Handel, Lord Kelvin, Dr Livingstone, Rudyard Kipling, and many more. I find it fascinating to wander round there. I just found out that they now have fast track entry if you buy a ticket online ahead of time, so that is worth doing. Before or after, walk across the River Thames on Westminster Bridge for great views of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. The London Eye is nearby and offers great views. It’s worth doing, but you will probably have a fair wait there, and I wouldn’t necessarily put it on my list for a short visit. I personally would rate the river cruises that come combined with the bus tours as a more interesting experience, and you can also get on (or off) those at Westminster Bridge, and take them along to the Tower of London.

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament
Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament

The British Museum is one of the best of many incredible museums and galleries in London, and definitely worth a visit. Other options depending on your preference and location include the Natural History Museum, the National Gallery, the Tate Modern (housed in a disused Power Station by the River Thames) and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). On our last trip, we were going to go to the Natural History Museum but there was a huge line so we went to the V&A which is next door, and loved it – I had never been there before.

A personal favorite of mine is the British Library – they have a relatively small and manageable “Treasures of the British Library” collection that is free and open seven days a week. I have visited it several times and always find it amazing. Just a small sample of items you can see there include Gutenberg’s Bible of 1455, Beowulf – the unique manuscript in Old English, Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, Shakespeare’s First Folio, Handel’s Messiah in the composer’s hand and original hand written lyrics from the Beatles. It is right next door to St Pancras and King’s Cross stations, so easy to visit if you are heading north from London on the train (to Cambridge, for example!).

Covent Garden is another fun place to visit – the main square there is packed with lots of restaurants, bars and interesting shops, and also has lots of street entertainers, especially in the summer. It’s home to the Royal Opera House, and a cool Apple Store (I know, I know, you don’t go to London for the Apple Store, but if you’re in Covent Garden it’s worth a quick look – you can get free WiFi there if nothing else!).

Getting around

You definitely DO NOT want a car in London. If you have a tour bus ticket, that can get you to most places. Other than that, the best way to get around is on the Underground (also known as the Tube), which is well signed and pretty easy to navigate. If you will be there for two or three days, it is worth buying (or borrowing) an Oyster Card. Actually I just found out you can buy a special Visitor Oyster Card and have it delivered in advance, which is worth considering if you are organized enough! This is especially true if you are arriving at Heathrow Airport and want to take the tube from there, as you need to buy an Oyster Card from the ticket office rather than the machines, and there is always a huge line there. Once you have a card you can top it up and re-use it, so keep it for future visits if you can. Talking of traveling from Heathrow, there are two main options, the tube or the Heathrow Express. The Heathrow Express goes to Paddington and is somewhat faster but a lot more expensive – at the time of writing this, £21.50 versus £4 on the tube if you have an Oyster Card, or £6 if you don’t. If you are going to somewhere on the Piccadilly Line, which goes right across London, then I definitely recommend taking the tube, rather than taking the Heathrow Express and changing – it’s much simpler and cheaper, and won’t take much longer. I normally take the tube to King’s Cross St Pancras if I am heading on to Cambridge or Leicester, two of my regular destinations. Central London is fairly compact, and walking is often an option too, which means you get to see more. And taxis are also not too expensive and a reasonable option within the center (but don’t take them to or from the airports, they are a long way out).

Where to stay

London hotels are expensive, but I have had good luck using discount sites like Hotwire, or more recently Hotel Tonight (I use their iPhone app). I have been very impressed with Hotel Tonight – as the name suggests, they are focused on booking a hotel at short notice, and they have great deals. On our last visit we spent two nights at the lovely Hotel Xenia for only $133 per night including all taxes and fees – and we found the same room on booking.com (at the same time) for $400 a night! We booked this the day before we were staying in London. You need a little nerve to wait and book a day ahead, but there are so many hotels in London that it’s a particularly low risk there. I am definitely likely to use Hotel Tonight for future stays there, unless I have a particular need to be in a really specific spot. If you want to splurge then the St Pancras Renaissance hotel is incredibly cool, but also very expensive. I have stayed there a couple of times on business trips, and charged half to expenses (which was comparable to other business hotels I would have typically stayed at) and paid half myself.

The living room at St Pancras Clock Tower
The living room at St Pancras Clock Tower

One other amazing place that we have stayed at is the St Pancras Clock Tower which you can book on airbnb. You will need to book a long way ahead, but it’s a unique place to stay for a special occasion, and not overly expensive by London standards – half the price of staying in the St Pancras Renaissance, and much more exclusive! I have stayed there multiple times, and held the London stop of my 50th birthday party there! See our pictures here. The owner Peter is a wonderful host.

Where to eat

Obviously there are a massive number of places to eat in London, but I just wanted to mention a couple that I’ve particularly enjoyed. A place we’ve been to multiple times is the Gilbert Scott Bar which is in the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, and right by the station. It has a really cool atmosphere, excellent food and interesting cocktails – I highly recommend it. If you walk between the lobby of the hotel and the bar you will walk past the grand staircase, which is worth checking out.

Gilbert Scott Bar
Gilbert Scott Bar

Indian food is always a good bet in London, and the UK in general, and that is something that you should try if you’re visiting, from the US especially. On our last trip we stumbled on a place called the Bombay Brasserie, which was a very formal and upmarket Indian restaurant, quite unlike the typical British Indian restaurant which is much more inexpensive and informal. If you haven’t tried a more typical place I’d probably suggest you do that first, but if you fancy something different, and more expensive and formal, the Bombay Brasserie is well worth a visit.