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.

Trip Planning

A lot of friends ask me how I find all the cool places we stay at. In this post I’ll introduce a few of the sites that I use for researching and booking places to stay.

TripAdvisor is probably the site I use most heavily when researching trips. I’m sure most people are familiar with it, but it’s a site that ranks hotels, restaurants and attractions based on user reviews. I use it primarily for researching hotels. I’ll look up a specific hotel that I’m considering, which I may have found elsewhere, as well as looking at the hotel rankings for a city or area I’m interested in. For example, I recently used it to check out hotels in St Augustine. There are various useful filters, for example this was for a trip with my partner Paula over Valentine’s weekend, so I filtered to just show the “romantic” hotels and ended up booking the top one on that list, Casa Monica. I don’t go purely off TripAdvisor rankings though, I do read the reviews in quite a bit of detail to try to work out which place would best suit what we’re after on a given trip – and of course cost comes into it too! Also I often find useful tips on TripAdvisor for a given hotel – which rooms to ask for, where to go for dinner, etc.

Tablet Hotels is a site that I use quite a lot to find cool boutique hotels. A lot of the nicer hotels that we’ve stayed at in the past few years I’ve found through Tablet. Some of their properties are pretty expensive, but in a lot of cases they’re comparable to the costs of more boring chain hotels – there is quite a price range, but based on my experience so far, their hotels are always cool and interesting. Tablet is just an agency, so hotels are not exclusively with them – you can book through Tablet, or via other means. Usually I have found Tablet prices to be competitive with (generally the same as) other booking routes, though on our recent trip to Trancoso, I booked one of the hotels I found on Tablet for half the price on Expedia. But this is the exception rather than the rule. They have an optional paid membership called Tablet Plus, which costs $195 a year, and gets you various perks including room upgrades when available (at some but not all hotels), and other things like free drinks/breakfasts/Internet depending on the place. If you think you’ll use Tablet quite a bit it’s worth considering, I have received some nice room upgrades through this. You can use this link to sign up for Tablet’s private sale email, which sends you special offers before they are generally available.

Hotwire is another site I use a lot, which approaches this from a whole different direction than the previous two. They offer discounted deals for hotels or car rental, but you don’t know in advance the name of the hotel or rental car company. I use them quite a bit for both hotels and cars, in certain situations. For example, if I’m staying in Manhattan I often use Hotwire to book a hotel, as hotel rates there tend to be so crazy. I can usually get a 4 star hotel for $150 to $200, and they usually have 3 star hotels for closer to $100, which is much cheaper than booking direct, in most cases. If I’m staying in New York I’m usually not going to be spending much time in the hotel anyway. I’ve used Hotwire in London a number of times too. They often have incredibly cheap deals on hotels by Heathrow Airport, which I’ve used quite a few times – though recently I prefer to stay in central London, I’ll write a post on traveling in and out of Heathrow shortly. I have also used Hotwire fairly often for rental cars – in most cases I don’t have a strong preference which company I use, and often they do have good deals.

Airbnb is a site I’ve used quite a bit recently, where individuals rent out rooms in their homes, or their whole home. I used to think of them mainly as a low budget alternative to staying in a hotel, but these days they have a wide price range and a lot of very cool and interesting places to stay – and all across their range you are likely to get something that is a much better deal than a comparable hotel. I recently used this to book a couple of stays at an extraordinary apartment at the top of St Pancras Clock Tower in London. It’s definitely worth checking out airbnb as an alternative. In most cases you won’t find airbnb places on TripAdvisor.

VRBO is another site somewhat like airbnb, in that it lets home owners rent out their homes directly. It’s been around a bit longer and is a little more “old school” – it doesn’t handle all the booking and reservations in a consistent way like airbnb does. But in some situations I’ve found it useful. I was just booking a house to rent for a few days in Santa Fe, and VRBO had a much bigger choice of places than airbnb there.

Trip to Trancoso, Brazil

In December 2013, Paula and I had a wonderful trip to Trancoso, a small village in the northern state of Bahia in Brazil. I first read about it in a couple of different magazine articles, which talked about how it was the laid back but chic place to get away from it all in Brazil. It was originally a small fishing village, but these days has quite a few nice restaurants and arty shops around its central square, the Quadrado. You can see a full set of pictures and more details on what we did in this album.

The Quadrado
The Quadrado

I did quite a bit of research on places to stay, using Tablet Hotels and TripAdvisor. You can either choose a hotel in the village or a hotel on the beach. While the village is close to the beach, it’s just far enough to most of the beach hotels that you probably don’t want to walk back to them after having dinner in the village, it’s better to take a taxi. We decided to spend a few days staying in the village and a few days at the beach, and chose Etnia Pousada and Villas de Trancoso respectively. Both were wonderful places, and it was good to get the different experience of staying both in the village and at the beach. We got a great rate at Etnia through Expedia, roughly half of what we paid at the Villas. And I liked Etnia slightly better – I preferred the more rustic and interesting design of the place, and I liked being just a  couple of minutes walk from the Quadrado. We still went to the beach every day from there, to their sister property Etnia Clube de Mar. That was about a 40 minute walk in total though, 20 minutes to get to the beach and then a further 20 minutes along the beach. Or you could take a taxi which would take 5-10 minutes, but we enjoyed the walk. If you wanted to be right by the beach then obviously that’s a point in favor of the Villas or other beach hotels.

Etnia Pousada pool
Etnia Pousada pool
Praia dos Nativos
Praia dos Nativos

One day, while at Etnia, we rented a car and drove to Praia do Espelho, Mirror Beach, which is the most famous beach in the area. The staff at Etnia organized the car for us, which was done with a refreshing lack of paperwork and bureaucracy! The drive to get there is along a very bumpy dirt road, which ended up being a fun adventure. I’d be wary about driving along it if there had been a lot of rain on the previous few days, though. The beach was beautiful, but the highlight was having lunch at Silvinha’s, a wonderful little restaurant on the beach with just three tables and no menu – you just got the meal of the day. The food is Thai with local influences. You had to book in advance, and again the folks at Etnia took care of this for us.

Paula jumping at Praia do Espelho
Paula jumping at Praia do Espelho
Paula at Praia do Espelho
Paula at Praia do Espelho
Me at Praia do Espelho
Me at Praia do Espelho

We had a wonderful time in Trancoso – the beaches and both hotels were beautiful, the Quadrado has a very unique laid back vibe , and people were very friendly. One drawback if you’re coming from outside Brazil is that it is a bit of a pain to get there. There aren’t many flights in a day from Sao Paulo to Porto Seguro, so I ended up having a 5 hour layover after arriving in Sao Paulo from the US, and then it’s a two hour flight and an hour and a half drive before you’re in Trancoso. So it ended up being a 27 hour trip for me from leaving home in Denver to arriving at the hotel in Trancoso, which is much more than it takes us to get a lot of other nice beach destinations in Mexico or the Caribbean. But I guess on the positive side, that probably helps keep the number of tourists manageable! The majority of the other guests that we met were Brazilian.

All in all it’s a wonderful place to get away from it all and relax – as one of my Brazilian friends said, time stands still in Trancoso!

Introduction to traveling light

I am a huge fan of traveling light – this makes various aspects of travel easier and more enjoyable. For the past 4 years or so I have been a “one bag” traveler. On all except three of the hundred or so trips I’ve taken over that time, I have taken just a single carry on bag (with no additional bag for a laptop or other items). Two exceptions were when we were going to events where I had to wear a suit or tuxedo, when I carried an additional lightweight suit carrier (which I still carried on the plane). And the third was when I went on a winter bald eagle photography trip, for which I had to take lots of equipment and warm winter clothing! On most trips I use a bag that is smaller than the maximum carry on size, which will fit in the overhead bin even on a small regional jet, or underneath the seat if necessary. Even other seasoned traveler friends of mine are usually impressed at how little I travel with!

I use bags that can be carried as a backpack, rather than bags with wheels, as this gives you more flexibility in many situations, for example when navigating steps, bumpy streets or crowded spaces. I am fairly large and strong and have no problem with the weight of a backpack. My partner is more petite than me and has had occasional back problems, so she prefers to use a lightweight wheeled bag, and that works just fine on most trips.

Benefits of traveling light

It makes life much easier in many situations if you can easily walk carrying all your luggage. I use public transport quite a lot, and it’s generally much easier on buses and train if you are fairly mobile, and able to walk a reasonable distance when needed. I travel through London fairly often, and it’s a real pain to navigate the Underground with large or heavy bags.

Not having to check bags on planes eliminates the risk of the airline losing your bag, which isn’t common but does happen – it has happened to me several times in my pre-one-bag days. In the event of flights being canceled or delayed, you have a lot more flexibility to change plans and switch to a different itinerary if you don’t have any bags checked. In some cases the airline won’t re-route you unless your bags are on the same plane – rules tend to be strict about this on international flights in particular. And even if the airline does let you take a different route from your bags, you risk not being reunited with them in a timely fashion. You also save time when arriving at your destination if you don’t have to wait for bags to arrive at the baggage claim. On international flights, this often means you can get to customs ahead of the rest of your fellow passengers, which can save further time in some situations.

You run less risk of having a bag stolen if you only have a single bag to watch, and you can easily carry it around with you whenever needed, rather than having to leave it watched by someone else even for a brief time.

Packing and unpacking are quicker and simpler tasks if you have less stuff, and there is less chance of forgetting things. Additional techniques like using packing cubes, which I’ll talk more about in another post, can also help with this.

There’s something that’s just satisfying and enjoyable about reducing clutter, whether in your life in general or when traveling. Doing it when traveling is by far the simpler of the two to achieve, so it’s a good place to start! I’m a big believer in having less stuff and more experiences. Also, it’s not a primary reason for doing this, but it is fun to see other people’s reaction when they see you carrying one small carry on for a three week trip around Europe!

In upcoming posts I’ll talk a lot more about different aspects of traveling light. A few other good resources on this topic are One Bag, One Bag, One World and this article by Rick Steves.. There is a whole sub-culture out there around one bag travel!

My current cameras

I enjoy photography and love to document my travels. I’m also quite into wildlife photography in particular. I’ll be doing plenty of posts with tips on taking, editing, organizing and sharing photos.

I use three main cameras currently, all of which have pros and cons:

A Nikon D7000, which is fairly serious DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex). I mainly use a large 18-300mm zoom lens on this. This is what I use for wildlife photography, and I’ve used it a lot for general travel photography too. This has now been superseded by the similar Nikon D7100. While it’s the most powerful of my cameras, it’s also quite bulky and heavy, as well as being expensive (roughly $1000 for the camera body and $1000 for the lens).

A Lumix LX7, which is a high end compact camera that will fit in my pocket. In the majority of situations, this takes pictures that are just as good as those I get with the D7000 – the most obvious exception being when I need a long zoom lens for wildlife or other purposes. It actually has several useful features that the D7000 doesn’t have, which I’ll explain in a future post. Because I like to travel light (a topic I’ll talk a lot about), increasingly often I find this is the only dedicated camera I will take on trips, if I’m not planning to do wildlife photography. It has the added benefit of being more discreet, so you can look less like a tourist, which is often a good thing!

An iPhone 5 (now superseded by the 5S), which is the camera I always have with me. It doesn’t have all the capabilities of the other two, but it also takes great pictures in many situations. Its big advantage is being able to share pictures immediately, which you want to do sometimes, so there will be occasions when I’ll use this even if I have one of the other two cameras with me. And of course it’s even more compact than the LX7 so there might be times when you only want to carry this.

I recommend all of these cameras and will discuss much more about them, other cameras, and many aspects of travel and wildlife photography in future posts.

Travel better!