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When people ask us for suggestions on where to go in Europe on their first visit, we always highly recommend England and in particular, London.
I don't know anybody from the U.S. who hasn't really enjoyed their experiences in England although we did have an odd encounter with a couple of really nice Brits on a tram in Bergen, Norway one time. We were riding up to the summit with a couple from the U.K. and we mentioned how much we love visiting London. Their reply was: "You've got to be kidding? London is a miserable, crime ridden place. We stay as far away as possible!"
While crime does exist in London, we think it's a lot safer than most major cities in the world. In Rome, for instance, it would be a surprise if somebody didn't at least try to get your purse or wallet. I know they tried to get ours twice on a recent trip. Once on a subway, the second time at the main train station. However we had our valuables protected and they got nothing. Prague is famous for purse thieves. Friends visiting St. Petersburg in Russia were told that if they didn't grab their luggage on the first pass on the conveyor belt at the airport that it wouldn't be coming around again! And London is downright innocent in the crime department compared to such dangerous cities as Rio, Johannesburg, and Mexico City.
The people really make England. They are very friendly, seem to appreciate us Yanks and will go the extra mile to help. A friend once had to use the restroom and entered a small camera shop in the hopes of relieving himself. The little shop didn't have a WC. However the owner was kind enough to close the store briefly and escort my friend down the street to his house so that he could take care of business. Now that's British hospitality!
There's so much to see and do in England but the best thing about being there is, well, just being there!
Below, you'll find brief reviews of London, Manchester, Liverpool, Brighton, Bath, and the incredibly beautiful town of Chester--a city surrounded by walls.
We all have our favorite cities but London is our favorite in Europe. It just feels good to be there. It's a vibrant city full of locals and tourists alike filling the streets.
You probably picture London weather as always gray and dreary. But that's not always the case. On one of our visits during the month of June, temps were in the lower 90s (F) with bright, blasting sunshine. It was so hot that rail tracks were buckling between London and Brighton on the English Channel. On another visit in mid to late November, we awakened to four inches of snow which is very rare for that time of the year in London.
You could easily spend your entire vacation in London seeing and doing things--- Piccadilly Circus, Tower of London, Soho, the various parks and much, much more. London also makes a great place to headquarter for your European vacation. Side trips to Paris, Scotland and Wales are easy to do. The Eurostar train really rips on the French side once you exit the "chunnel" topping out at 186 miles an hour!
Other "must see" things to do in London include checking out the Tower Bridge, the BA London Eye, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul's Cathedral, and of course, Buckingham Palace. By the way, you can always tell if the Queen is actually in residence. Check out the top of the Palace. If the British flag is flying, then she's there. If not, she's somewhere else.
On one trip to London we based at the Marble Arch Marriott Hotel (good value for the money) and took side trips to the seacoast of Brighton and to Bath where they have the ancient Roman Spas. We also trained it to Cardiff in Wales and Edinburgh in Scotland.
We've stayed at a number of other hotels including the Hilton Park Lane, the Selfridge, and the fabulous Dorchester, one of the highest rated hotels in the city. But if you'd like to stay at the Dorchester, be prepared to mortgage the house. It is that expensive.
One funny story about London hotels. On one trip, my wife and kids had flown over a few days ahead of me. In fact, this was our first stay at the Hilton Park Lane. I flew into Gatwick and was too tired to deal with trains. So I grabbed an expensive cab to downtown London and snoozed along the way. The driver dropped me off and I entered the hotel. My wife had told me by phone that her room was on the 16th floor. So I got into the elevator and was surprised to see that the the hotel only had 8 floors! I went to the front desk and asked where the higher elevator bank was located. Turns out the hotel had only 8 floors. The cabbie had dropped me off at the wrong hotel---the InterContinental Hotel next door to the Hilton---and I was so groggy, I didn't even notice!
Do yourself a favor if you’re heading over there and buy a London Visitor Travelcard and/or a BritRail Pass before you go if you plan to explore the city or the U.K. You'll get a nice price break! The Travelcard gets you unlimited tube & bus rides. The BritRail Pass gets you unlimited first or second class train service in the U.K. Great values! And here's an interesting hint. Not that we'd suggest that you try and "cheat" the system but on a recent visit we purchased a BritRail Flex pass allowing us four days of unlimited rail travel during a certain amount of days. Conductors hardly even looked at the pass and only two bothered to stamp it. One guy didn't even ask us to open the envelope. So we could have used it a lot more than just four times!
London’s mass transit system is great. The “underground” or “tube” is the London Underground Metro subway system and it gets you pretty much anywhere you want to go safely and efficiently. The double-decker busses you’ve seen in the movies are everywhere although their schedule is a little big more confusing. Don’t be afraid to use the “tube.” You’ll quickly catch on and it’s going to save you many “pounds and ounces” over taking the cab.
While you’re in London though you must take one of the famous old London black cabs. They are built to turn on a dime and the back seat is so big (the area) that entering and leaving the cab is a pleasure.
If you're observant, you'll notice men on small motor-scooters with clip boards scurrying about the city. These guys are practicing to take a test called "the Knowledge." To become a taxi driver in London, you've got to learn every nook and cranny and there's no better way to learn the often narrow streets of London than on a small motor-scooter. To get a taxi permit, potential drivers must successfully pass that rigorous test--the Knowledge. By the way, I wasn't being sexist when I said "men" at the start of this paragraph. On our many trips to London, we've never encountered a female taxi driver.
The first time we experienced a black cab ride, I told Cindy in a very low voice that the cabbie seemed to be awfully quiet and not very friendly. He overheard the remark and chimed in: "Sir, excuse me. I overheard your remark. You must understand that we have rules. We're not allowed to talk to you unless you initiate the conversation." After that, he was extremely chatty and friendly!
Despite what you may have heard about English food, it’s really quite good. I love the fish and chips over there. They usually use cod or plaice which is a flounder type fish from the North Sea. It’s fried and served with chips---fried potato wedges. You pour vinegar over the chips, not the fish (although I like a dab on the fish too, so sue me!). There are some famous fish and chip eateries but just about any pub will serve you up one of the biggest and freshest slabs of fried fish you’ve ever tasted. Warning--you’ll get a whole month’s grease allotment in one of these meals but it’s worth it!
Pubs are everywhere in London. Do stop in even if you don’t drink. The atmosphere is great and most of the Publicans (pub tenders) are very nice and will help suggest a non-alcoholic libation if you don't want to try a local pint. Pubs are a way of life for the locals and offer great and inexpensive lunches.
London is loaded with very trendy restaurants and the city has certain ethnic pockets serving up incredible Middle Eastern, Malaysian, Turkish, Asian and other cuisines. And if you like Indian food, you'll be in heaven here. Londoners practically consider Indian food as local cuisine. And there are some great Indian restaurants here.
London has many popular parks and some interesting neighborhoods to explore including a small Chinatown.
You should really include Trafalgar Square among your stops. It is great for people watching and feeding the pigeons although some people are trying to get it banned because of all the doo-doo. Harrods Department Store is incredible. When Cindy and I went to use the john we got an interesting surprise. After I did my thing and walked over to the sink to wash my hands, an attendant immediately rushed over to my urinal and cleaned it. I met Cindy outside, told her what had happened and quipped: “Maybe the guy thought I was dirty or something!” Cindy laughed and said the same thing happened at her stall. It’s just part of the Harrods tradition of service. You’ll find anything you want at this huge store from live Lobster, to Harrods own brand of beer to clothing and diamonds! Incredibly Harrods has it's own electrical generators and even it's own water well and system. So if London should suffer a blackout and loss of water, Harrods would continue unmolested. And get this. They even employ a "falconer" to go up on the roof from time to time and release the Harrods falcon to scare off the poop producing pigeons! Do stop by during your London visit.
London is a very gay friendly city and one funny experience came as we exited the underground station at Marble Arch. As soon as the tube doors opened we could hear a ton of whistles blowing. Emerging from the station it seemed like everybody was blowing them. A vendor approached selling them for a pound each so I bought one and blew it for a while just to chime in. After going back to the hotel and flipping on a local TV station I learned what all the whistle blowing was about. It was Gay Pride Day in London and I had been a participant! My wife got a good chuckle out of it!
I hope you'll one day be able to visit London. It's one of the greatest cities in the world and you'll feel right at home.
Suggestion. If you only have a short time in London or if it's your first trip, I can recommend a sensational travel guide. His name is Nick Wilson and he works for an outfit called James & Company in London. We've used him twice and I can't tell you how wonderful he is. He is extremely knowledgeable, has a great sense of humor, knows London like the back of his hand and will custom tailor a game plan to meet your needs. He'll gladly even meet you at the airport. Is he cheap? Not necessarily. But when you consider what you'll save on taxi fares it's money well spent. Nick can be e-mailed at: email@example.com. He can also custom tailor trips to the continent.
London Restaurant Reviews
Rules is, by far, our favorite restaurant in the city. It is the oldest restaurant in London and serves up wonderfully traditional dishes. You might enjoy nice medallions of deer cooked over live charcoal, perhaps a nice steak or a beautifully prepared piece of fish. They're also famous for their wild game birds. They have wonderful desserts and my favorite end to a meal, stilton cheese. When you order the cheese they bring a giant wheel weighing several pounds to the table and you just carve out as much as you like. Read our personal review of Rules here.
Simpson's in the Strand is the place to go for traditional English roast beef. It's right in the theatre district. Be sure to tip your carver after he slices off some succulent perfectly cooked joint (roast beef). They also feature fowl and other roasts. A very traditional British evening. Read our review of the restaurant here.
Aroma is a restaurant located in London's small but fascinating Chinatown. The food is good but the service is traditionally rude. These folks must have roots in Hong Kong where rudeness rules. You'll find all the usual suspects on the menu here and most of them well prepared. Read our review of the restaurant here.
Trader Vic's is one of my favorite places in the world. All of their outlets are wonderful and their London branch is terrific. Trader VIc (a real guy named Victor Jules Bergeron) invented the Mai Tai and all the tropical cocktails are great and the food is consistently quite good. Suggestion: Start out with a Mai Tai and an order of Crab Rangoon. I always do! You may remember hearing this restaurant's name mentioned in the song "Weir Wolves of London." At least I think that's the name of the song. Great place. Read our review here.
The Quality Fish Bar in the London suburb of Richmond fries up some of the best fish and chips we've ever had. Nice, crispy, hot, yummy. Our review is here.
Porter's English Restaurant in Covent Garden is extremely popular with locals and tourists alike. They serve up traditional British puddings, pies, meats, etc. A busy place during prime dining hours. I'd suggest that you make a reservation, just in case. Read our review along with pictures here.
Satay House (sometimes the web site works, sometimes not) is a wonderful Malaysian restaurant that serves up, in my opinion, some of the finest Malaysian food outside of Kuala Lumpur. It's located not far from the Marble Arch and Edgware Road tube stops. It's worth making an effort to track down this little gem. Read our review here.
While London is truly an international city with just about every ethnic minority on the planet represented in certain sections of the city, Manchester has a much more urban feel to it. People of color are well represented and it's obvious that there is a large Muslim community here. It just feels like a good place to be, much like London. Everybody gets along quite nicely.
Over the past several years, an increasing number of international airlines have launched service in and out of Manchester's growing airport.
The city is probably best known for its industrial complexes. But in recent years, there have been many cultural additions. Many of the old factories have been turned into loft apartments for the well heeled. During a recent trip the city was outraged and in shock when Boddington's announced that it was phasing out it's Manchester brewery after decades of producing their famous bitters.
Manchester boasts the highest concentration of Chinese immigrants outside of London. So expect plenty of wonderful Asian cuisine. Manchester also features many wonderful little (and big) pubs.
If you're into "football" (we call it soccer in the U.S.) then you will have to make a point of visiting the home of the most famous football team in the world - Manchester United.
Throughout much of Europe although not so common in England, trams are popular---light rail vehicles that run on tracks. We love them because it's impossible to get lost on them. At the worst, you ride the tram to the final stop and then catch the next one back. We were surprised to see a small tram network in Manchester. It's called Metrolink. And there are hundreds and hundreds of single and double-decker busses to speed you to your destination. You will also find plenty of those famous London black cabs.
As for things to do in Manchester, many will drop by the Jewish Museum. There are only two museums like this in England. The other one is located in London. The Manchester Art Gallery is a popular place, if you're into that sort of thing.
One popular area is Castlefield, the old, old part of the city. You'll find a web site with some pictures of Castlefield here.
Manchester Restaurant Reviews
The Waldorf Pub was located right across an alleyway from our hotel, the Malmaison, and it was a great little place. We popped in for a pint or two and a quick lunch. The fish and chips were great! Read our review here.
The Market Restaurant is truly an English establishment. It was a bit hard for our cab driver to find but well worth the effort. They have a nightly, hand-written menu offering various typical English meals. Interestingly, one of the "starters" or appetizers was called Michael Palin's Wild Mushroom Pancake. It was quite good and the talented actor & entertainer became fond of the place while filming a movie in Manchester. His favorite starter was the Wild Mushroom Pancake so the owners ask for permission to use his name on the dish and he gladly gave his blessing. Something on the beverage menu really caught my attention. A beer brewed in Austria that is the strongest lager in the world with an alcohol content of more than 14%. Yipes! The beer is called Samichchlaus Bier and is brewed by Castle Brewery in Eggenberg, Austria. Click on their web site at the beginning of this paragraph for menus, directions, etc. Read our review here.
This is much more of a "blue collar" town than London but it still maintains an incredible amount of culture. It's right on the river Mersey and offers frequent ferry service from bank to bank. You can also hop a ferry to Dublin from the dock on the "other side" of the river.
Fans of the Beatles flock here in droves to see where the fab four grew up, etc. Diehard fans will want to be in the city in late August and early September when "International Beatle Week" is observed. There are a number of tours and exhibits year round. Cavern City Tours offers a daily 2 hour Magical Mystery Tour. Or you might want to take in the Beatles Story at Albert Dock. The Paul McCartney House is another must-see attraction for Beatles fans.
Albert Dock itself is an interesting place to explore. It was first built in 1846 and was finally rehabbed a few years ago and houses nice restaurants and shops.
One fun little trip is to "Ferry Cross the Mersey." The Mersey Ferries make frequent trips.
Fans of "regular" museums might enjoy a visit to the Liverpool Museum featuring fine art from around the world. Another big one is the Merseyside Maritime Museum and the Museum of Liverpool Life at Albert Dock along the waterfront.
Liverpool Restaurant Reviews
Simply Heathcote's is a traditional British restaurant located in a glitzy, glassy, facility just across the street from the waterfront. Good food, fair prices (all things considered) and friendly servers. They also have eateries in several other cities in the U.K. Read our review here.
Shanghai Palace is a beautiful Chinese restaurant on the second floor of a building near the ferry docks. It's right on the water. If you head to the ferries on "main side" of the river, you can't miss it. Very good dishes served perfectly seasoned and piping hot. Read our review here.
We had heard about this ancient, walled Roman city and decided to check it out one September morning and it was incredible. It's a short train journey from Liverpool if you're staying there. It's a good 200 miles from London but we think, well worth the effort.
Chester is known for the walls that surround it and they remain in remarkably good shape all these years later. A church there dates back to the early 900s A.D.
Upon arrival at the Chester rail station, they offer a free bus that drops you off in the heart of the old city. You'll find helpful tourist information at the official Chester tourism site here.
They've got some really quaint and neat hotels in Chester. Had we known that, we would have spent at least a night. The "pick of the litter" appeared to be the Chester Grosvenor Hotel. But you won't get in the front door for less than $336 on most nights.
Please check out the pictures of this beautiful fairytale little town and do try to pop in for a visit.
Chester Restaurant Review
There are so many restaurants to choose from it's confusing. But we checked out a posted menu on a window and selected the Red Lion for our luncheon. It's a pub located at 59 Northgate Street. My wife ordered a cheese and tomato pannini sandwich. I had the large fish and chips. Excellent food. Very friendly service. And extremely clean restrooms if you need to make a pit stop.
The first time we contemplated going to Brighton we asked some of the locals what they thought about the place. They kind of shook their heads as if it wasn't worth the train ride. But it sounded interesting being right on the English Channel so off we went.
We found Brighton to be a nice day trip especially if the sun is out brightly. I nearly did a double take when I saw some palm trees! Not the lush type we've seen in Tahiti but nonetheless, a type of palm!
There are some seaside hotels and families flock to the "beach" although it's not the dreamy sandy beach you're used to in much of the world. This beach consists of pebbles.
The Brighton Pier is a popular attraction. It has a videogame parlor for the kids and shops, stores, bars and restaurants.
It's just nice basking in the sun on the pier if you're lucky enough to find a sunny day and inhaling the nice, fresh sea air.
If you've got the time, I'd give it a try. It's not more than an hour's train ride from London.
Brighton Restaurant Review
The Palm Court is a nice place right out on the Brighton Pier. We enjoyed a nice batch of fish & chips along with traditional mushy green peas. Read our review here.
This is a town that was put on the maps thanks to it's ancient Roman baths. It's pronounced "bawth" and not bath as in bathroom. Queen Anne started the ball rolling making trips from London to Bath to luxuriate in the spas. The Romans, who built the old baths, knew the town as Aquae Sulis. And while the baths are no longer used (signs warn not to stick your fingers in them because they are contaminated) you can visit them.
Bath Abbey is an imposing structure in the middle of the city and dates back to the late 1400s.
The Bath Tourist Information Centre has a nice web site offering all kinds of information about the town.
Bath may be a small little town but it thrives with local shoppers and visitors alike. If you'd like to spend a couple of nights here, there are some nice hotels
Getting there is a piece of cake from London. Just head for Paddington station and it's about a 90 minute train ride through pretty countryside.
Currency is the Pound Sterling (The U.K. is not going with the Euro, at least not at the present time.)Americans will need a Passport. Driving is on the left (and CRAZY). Watch out when you step out onto the sidewalk. In London all the curbs are marked with white paint signs proclaiming “look right” warning us yanks that the cars will be coming from the right instead of the left! You’ll need a passport on this trip.