Archive for the ‘Travel Advice’ Category

Notting Hill Neighborhood Guide of Good Stuff

If unfamiliar with Notting Hill, visitors booking accommodation in London are sometimes hesitant to give this excellent neighborhood a chance as a holiday home base. They assume that it is far away from the center of the action, the theaters, the museums, the heart of London-ness.

Not so, says all of us at Elegant Retreats International. Just a short walk, tube, bus or cab ride to all the rest of the best of London, Notting Hill is itself a small, vibrant and thriving place, with many neighborhood gems worth discovering. Between the beautiful architecture, leafy garden squares and an eclectic mix of upscale and bohemian fashion, food & curio shops, the borough nestles up to Kensington and Holland Park, offering the chance to live like a Londoner in an interesting and popular village.

Your Guide to staying in Notting Hill

There are plenty of guidebooks, write-ups and travelogues that detail the most well-known of the Notting Hill events and attractions (for example Carnival, an Afro-Caribbean street festival in August and kitschy dining establishments like Beach Blanket Babylon). Instead of rehashing all the well-covered stuff, Elegant Retreats would like to offer you an insider’s guide to staying here and living like a local.

We have gorgeous self-catering houses on Chepstow Road (two, actually, right across the street from each other, nice for large groups), Ledbury Road, Colville Mews, Chapelside Mews, and even a flat on Portobello Road, plus several others waiting in the wings for our next viewing trip. We know you have many options in the holiday vacation rental market, but if you book one of the carefully selected and personally inspected Notting Hill London short-let properties in our portfolio, here’s some of what you can expect during your stay:

Notting Hill Food Markets

There is a large Tesco Metro on Portobello Road just past Westbourne Park Rd, as well as a Tesco Metro two minutes walk from the Notting Hill Gate station. Stock up on the basics at either location, or perhaps Sainsbury’s Local on Westbourne Grove, Waitrose on Porchester, or hit any of the many local gourmet markets (Grocer on Elgin, Planet Organics) for specialty foods, and any of the many small bodega markets for top ups of milk, eggs, tea, addictive digestive biscuits and strictly-UK Cadbury chocolate varieties (mmm).

Marks & Spencer, a department store and market combo known for fresh & delicious pre-prepared foods and conveniently packaged ingredients for semi-prepared meals, has a “Simply Food” storefront located just a few minutes walk from the Notting Hill Gate station (toward Holland Park). And if you feel like cooking a proper meal in the cooks kitchen at the house, there is an Asian market and a Thai market a block away, plus all the fresh produce from the market stands at Portobello Road (the upper portion of the street). There is a wonderful fishmonger on Westbourne Grove.

Excellent food abounds around every corner, enjoy it!

Restaurants & Eateries in Notting Hill

On Chepstow Road, just down the street from two of our holiday short let homes, at Talbot Road there is a fantastic Greek and/or Mediterranean style cafe and bakery, called Haminados. It’s a gem, open from 6am to 10pm, with a delicious selection of fresh pastries, sandwiches, soups, quiches, pies, deli items like hummus and tzatziki and marinated cheeses and a coffee bar. We had a perfect latte and flaky apricot thing one morning, and came back for a terrific bowl of chicken soup and a lamb burger in the afternoon. This was the favorite find of our last visit, you’ll love the friendly and accommodating owner, the reasonable prices, and the charming stone patio out back with an olive tree and random framed photos of The Beatles hanging about.

Next door to Haminados is a popular gastropub, The Prince Bonaparte. A few blocks the other direction, around the corner to the left on Westbourne Grove, is the Italian deli and cafe chain, Carrluccio’s, with terrific Italian desserts, meats, deli items and meringue cookies the size of your face. Eat in or take away, it’s a great casual eatery to have nearby on holiday.

Le Pain Quotidien is a tasty bakery and cafe with storefronts throughout the city. The Notting Hill location by the tube station is a great spot for a good coffee pick-me-up, creamy and decadent almond filled croissants, or to pick up a good loaf of sandwich bread for toasting up in your holiday home from home.

More Notting Hill Recommendations:

This from a client who stays in Notting Hill several times a year: “Please don’t miss a good burger at Lucky Seven diner, with a margarita first – they make them in the next door Mexican place. It’s our Saturday lunch staple!” Located on Westbourne Park Road.

A fashion blogger in love with Notting Hill recommends an eatery called Bloody French on Westbourne Grove. They have an excellent weekend brunch, and classic French dishes at reasonable rates. Sometimes they offer a BYO special where you can bring your bottle of wine to have with dinner, no corkage, no fee. Tres bien!

With a rich tradition and celebration of the many immigrant communities in the area, Notting Hill also offers terrific North African, Caribbean, Turkish, Afghani, and Indian food, as well as Thai, Chinese and Japanese.

But, as you’ll discover, there are an absolute ton of great places to eat in Notting Hill, let alone the rest of the city. Check London’s Time Out guide for recommendations, or try Yelp, Urbanspoon or Chowhound. Or simply walk around and find some treasures for yourself.

Shopping: Portobello Road in Notting Hill & so much more!

There’s a bit of a Parisian feel to some of the shopping rows in Notting Hill. If shopping is your thing, some notable area shops include Maje, Sandro, The Kooples, Zadig & Voitaire, Nicole Farhi, Aime, Comptoir des Cotonniers, Merchant, Les Petites and scentiful Diptyque.

Stroll Ledbury Road between Chepstow Villas and Westbourne Grove for charming designs, upscale boutiques and lovely cafes, not to mention a nice chocolate shop called Melt.

Portobello Road has shops open all week, with a new Friday market that brings some of the Saturday vendors in for slightly less jam packed streets. There is also a Vintage-only market on Fridays, north up the street, under a bridge. However, Saturday is the big day here, with all of the vendors out in full. Be sure to bring cash as the single ATM/cash dispenser usually has a ridiculous queue. And as always, keep a close eye on your bags, pockets & wallets – it’s a safe area, but prime for pickpockets with all the crowds and close quarters and people bumping into each other at the vendor tables.

There’s a treasure trove of vintage shops in the area, on Portobello Road and off. Impressive storefronts include Dolly Diamond, One of a Kind (spendy! but apparently quite special), Rellik and Retro Woman (great shoes!). Proper sifting is sometimes required to find the gems at resell shops, but they are usually quite worth it at Traid on Westbourne Grove and the Three Pound Shop on Pembridge Road.

Famous record shop: Honest Jon’s.

Famous bookstore: The bookstore featured in the Julia Roberts movie “Notting Hill” closed in 2011. Boo.

New Famous book shop: Books for Cooks. Exactly what it sounds like. Plus spices and other good stuff.

Famous Cupcakes: Hummingbird Bakery on Portobello Rd. (But also try the custard tart at Lisboa Patisserie, also on Portobello Road.) 

Famous-ish and very oddball spot to check out: Museum of Brands. “The history of consumer culture is revealed though household products and shopping basket favourites in our ‘time tunnel’, which charts a nostalgic journey from Victorian times to the present day.” On Colville Mews.

Getting Around London, Staying in Notting Hill

Know Where You Are Going

Buy a London A to Z Streetmap at any tube station or news stand (“A to Zed” as you’ll hear them called). Or download one of their map apps to your smart phone.

Public Transportation

Get an Oyster card for the tube and buses at any tube station. It requires a refundable GBP 5 deposit plus whatever amount wish to pre-pay-as-you-go. Put GBP 20 on it to start, single rides are GBP 2 (GBP 1 for teens) and your max daily fare will be between GBP 7 and GBP 8.40 depending on how many trips you take and at what time of day. Or you can choose to purchase a Travel Card (also available via Oyster Card), good for unlimited travel on buses & tubes in your zone (Zone 1 is all most visitors to London will need, starting at GBP 29.70 for 7 days of unlimited travel), and use it to get around town with abandon. There are many buses nearby, and the London transport web site is very easy for planning trips by bus or tube.

The number 70 bus picks up at Notting Hill Gate, or along Westbourne Grove (we like the stop in front of Carluccio’s), with a fast 11 or 13 minute interesting and sites-filled ride to South Kensington, to the museums, the tube station, and all the shops, restaurants and attractions of the area.

Side note about buses: Not all bus stops pick up every bus on the route, so be sure to look at the sign at each stop to see if the bus you are wanting to take actually picks up there. You may have to walk a few blocks in one direction or the other to find the right pick-up stop (We figured this one out the hard way several years back.)

Walking in London

Walk whenever possible. There’s nothing so terrific as discovering the city while strolling through the streets, perusing windows and menus, catching glimpses into the large front room windows of the period buildings lining the busy roads.

London Taxi Cabs

Keep all the massive amounts of coinage you’ll be getting in change whenever you buy anything, and have it handy. If you are ever lost or confused or just plum too tuckered out to try to figure out where you are versus where you want to be, just hop in a London Taxi and ask them to take you to a familiar landmark so you can get your bearings.

Get the most out of your London visit to Notting Hill

Our best advice for enjoying your stay: Above all, relax and have fun. London is an incredible city, with no end of activities, sites, excursions and experiences to take in. Notting Hill is a fun and interesting place to explore and from which to base for all your adventures in this incredible international city.

We update our local area guides after each property inspection visit, taking advantage of all the wonderful stuff our clients report back after their own holidays in each neighborhood. We hope you’ll report back any highlights or special finds from your trip on your return.


Embrace The Tourist Cheese (Why We Love City Bus Tours)

Historic Monument! Modern motel! Bus Railing!

Rules of Travel #1: Avoid Touristy Stuff

Generally speaking, we at Elegant Retreats are advocates of avoiding the usual tourist trappings while on holiday. The whole point of renting a holiday flat, cottage or home on vacation is to avoid the myriad costs, hassles and inauthentic experiences heavily marketed to visitors of any city, town or village. We cherish the sensation of living like a local as much as possible in the few short days or weeks that we get to spend in an area, and most of the tourist-targeting hoopla tends to detract heavily from that feeling.

There is one place where we quite emphatically and consistently contradict ourselves on the subject, however: City Bus (or Boat) Sightseeing Tours.

Rules of Travel #2: Periodically Ignore Rule #1

The first time you visit a famous monument and landmark-filled city, go ahead and hop on one of these delightfully garish tourist traps. Most large cities and some of the smaller, more popular villages in Europe have some version of these guided tours, usually on an open-top double-decker bus, sometimes on a small shuttle bus.  In cities with prominent rivers or waterways, there is very often a floating version of the tour via canal boat or other small craft.

These sorts of guided tours are the single best way to quickly and  easily get to know the approximate layout and major landmarks of a new destination. The best ones are manned by live guides, who spin tales of history woven with modern hints, tips and humorous facts about the places being visited along the way. Some versions feature taped commentary (which sometimes lowers the price of a tour) and ensures that you won’t be stuck with one of those bored guides who can no longer hide his disdain for telling the same story day in and day out. (To be fair, these sorts of sour guides are rare, and while they can dull the fun of a city tour experience, they can also rather funny to listen to in their own right – it’s amazing what a bitter, bored, had-it-up-to-here-with-this-nonsense person will come up with to amuse themselves or keep from karate chopping the 37,000th tourist who asks about leprechauns in Ireland, or where to find the best “coffee shops” in Amsterdam, or if it’s possible to attend high tea with the Queen in London).

Rules of Travel #3: If Ignoring Rule # 1, Embrace the Elements

Dark and fairly useless photo of Edinburgh Castle taken from the tour bus - one of our favorite useless bus top snapshot memories.

What’s so great about these tourist tours, with their tourist price tags and their potentially snarky-at-tourists tour guides, you ask? They are, in just a word, great:

– Designed for broad appeal: They hit the hottest spots and most ubiquitous landmarks in every guidebook. You can get a cursory lay of the land quickly and without having to think too much about it.

– No thinking skills required: The absolutely perfect thing to do straight off the plane, require zero effort beyond finding a stop and purchasing the ticket (which can often be done ahead of time online and with a discount!), and can be enjoyed in the fog of jetlag while waiting for the sun to go down so you can finally collapse into bed on the day you’ve arrived.

– Inspires serendipity: A great way to figure out what of the major attractions you might feel most inclined to visit or experience more in depth. (For example, we had no desire to visit the Whisky museum in Edinburgh until our bus guide pointed it out as we drove down the Royal Mile away from Edinburgh Castle and told us that it featured an interactive carnival-type ride in a whisky barrel, carrying passengers through 3-D diorama scenes explaining the history of Scotch in Scotland and ended with a fancy shot of booze… off the bus we went, picking up the another one about an hour later, now very well informed about the intricacies of Scotch whiskey making in the various regions of the country and very pleasantly buzzed!).

– Dual carriage: A nice, low-stress way to get around on your first day in town. Passes are usually good for 24 hours and let passengers hop on and off at any spot.

– Reasonably priced for something that rolls sightseeing and transportation into one easy package. Some tickets come with discounts for the monuments and attractions along the route. Prices vary only slightly between competing companies in any given city. It seems that most offer a fairly similar experience, though in larger cities like London, routes and major attractions may vary by company, or even within a single operation.

Rules of Travel #3B: Embrace the good, avoid the bad, try not to worry about the smaller details in between.

Awkward photos of people's heads and various monuments from the deck of a double decker tour bus!

The caveats: Yes, you will see the city in a bit of a blur. Yes, you will take terrible fuzzy photos of famous monuments and interesting sites from very odd and ultimately unattractive angles. Yes, you may very well be a bit chilly in the open top bus (but it’s really the best place to sit, so bring layers!). Yes, you will laugh at the corny jokes of your guide and immediately forget all the interesting historical anecdotes you found so fascinating in the moment, that you wanted to remember to write down in order to pass along to others later, perhaps at a dinner party or a wedding reception. Yes, the price of the ticket will feel a bit extravagant if you are trying to keep within a daily travel budget.

And yet: we cannot over-emphasize the value of these wonderfully cheesy, terribly informative, exceptionally tourist targeting sightseeing vehicular experiences. Once your 24-hour pass expires, you can continue on your merry trying-to-blend-in way, and no one (except those who might one day look at your cockeyed photos) ever has to know you indulged in such a guilty tourism pleasure.

More Information about Various City Tours

Dublin Sightseeing City Tour
City Sightseeing – Dublin

Here’s a round up of several of the bus tours in Edinburgh, that includes the following:
City Sightseeing – Edinburgh
Edinburgh Tours
MacTours City Tour Edinburgh

The Original London Bus Tour
Big Bus Tours
The London Tour Bus Company

Boats versus buses: more leisurely pace, less car fumes to breathe, none of the urgency of careening through city traffic! Often warmer, though sometimes views are obscured if raining heavily on the glass roof top above.


Paris A La Carte (Bus AND Boat package)
Paris L’Open Tour
City Sightseeing – Paris

City Sightseeing Amsterdam
Canal Boat Tours

We don’t have any particular tour operating recommendations. In every city, these kinds of companies seem to be well regulated by the local tourist board, well managed, legitimate operations and thoughtfully (if not sometimes cheesily) entertaining.

You could always sift through online reviews of various operators in your destination location in order to make your decision, or you can wing it and jump on the one that looks best when you stumble into town or is select one that lets on/off closest to your apartment.  Research ahead of time is worth it for large groups when group or pre-booking discounts might be available.

Rules of Travel #4: Have Fun!

This is really rule number 1, of course. Have fun, take lots of wonderfully terrible snapshots and perhaps send us a few pics from the road!



Sidewalk message "Look Right!" for out-of-town travelers to London.

Brit Speak

On one of our very first trips to the UK in 2000, my partner (now husband) and I booked an apartment in Edinburgh with a reputable US agency (that is no longer in business, unfortunately, because I must say the customer service we received was terrific). While we found some of their booking process cumbersome, we loved the many emails full of additional and helpful information they sent out, helpful hints and interesting travel tips about our destination. Since then, this sort of “value-added content” has proliferated through the internet on blogs and travel guides, but back at the turn of the century (!) there was a lot less of it floating around the web.

One of the greatest pieces of non-essential information we received was a long and funny email titled “Brit Speak” and included the following guide to some of the common language uses and turns of phrase native to the United Kingdom.

Winston Churchill purportedly said that “America and Britain are two nations divided by a common language.” The following tips for travelers about “Brit Speak” tends to prove his point:

Sidewalk message "Look Right!" for out-of-town travelers to London. “LOOK RIGHT” and “LOOK LEFT” written on curbs are meant to be obeyed – they could save your life as you are not used to the traffic flowing in the “wrong” direction. Trust this.  Rely on this.

Language in Britain is very class conscious. A 1950’s book called “U and non U” (“U” meaning upper class) says that a “U” person would not say toilet or WC.  She might say loo, but proper use is lavatory.  A “bathroom” is a room that has a bathtub.  A toilet or gents or loo or lavatory does not have a bathtub.  A room with a shower is a “shower room”.  Tubs are baths.

The check in a restaurant is the bill.

Cell phone – mobile
A biscuit is any kind of cookie.  Sweets are candy.  Jell-O is called Jelly. All else is jam.  Brits love jam.
A crisp is a potato chip.  Chips are French fries.
Jacket potatoes are baked potatoes.
A cooker is an oven.  Range tops are hobs
The TV is called the telly.
Napkins = serviettes
Jugs are pitchers.
Take-away = take out
“To hoover” is to vacuum
Markers are felt pens.
A garbage can is called a bin.  Garbage is rubbish – and so is anything disliked.
Yards are called gardens – even if it’s just grass.
Q-tips are cotton buds.

A jumper is a sweater.  Trousers are pants.  Pants are men’s underwear.  Women’s underwear are knickers.
Purse – hand bag
Swim suit – swimming costume
Windcheaters or cagoules (Ka-gools) are wind breakers.  Wellies are rain boots.  Trainers are sneakers.
Nappies are diapers.

Backpacks are called rucksacks.  A fanny pack is called a bum bag.  (“Fanny” is a very naughty word in the UK.)

The letter “Z’ is pronounced “Zed”.

A queue is a line waiting for something. Brits are very patient in queues. You will see queues for busses, trains and taxis, all quiet and orderly. Civilized

A shopping carts is called a trolley.  Flats = apartments.

Holidays (or hols) are vacations.

A lorry is a truck.  A coach is a bus.  A parking lot is called a car park.  A highway is a motorway or dual carriageway.  Petrol is gasoline.  The car windshield is the windscreen.  A car boot is the trunk and the bonnet is the hood.  One hires a car, not rents a car.

The game of tag is called tig and the tagger is a tigger.  Soccer is called football.  American football is called . . .American football.

Math is called maths.  A school crossing guard is a “lollipop” as s/he holds a round stop sign on a stick!
What we call “private” schools, the British call “public” schools as they train the privileged class to serve the public. These are “fee-paying” schools. “State schools” are what Americans call “public schools”.

A doctor’s office is a surgery.  A surgical operation is performed in an “operating theatre”.  One is “in hospital”,not, in the hospital.  A plaster is a Band Aid.

Stalls = Orchestra seats in a theatre.  An off-licence is a place where one can purchase alcohol and leave with it.  You post (a letter) instead of mail it.
Brilliant refers anything that is reasonably nice or good or pretty or smart. It can get quite annoying.

Bobbies are London police, named for Robert Peel, who started the London police force.  Pharmacies are called chemists.
You ring someone on the phone, not call.

The London subway is the underground or the tube.  “Mind the _____” means be careful of _____, as in “Mind the gap”.  If you don’t come home from London saying that, you didn’t spend enough time on the tube.

While & whilst are different. “Whilst” implies a passage of time. “While” may be sudden or immediate.  Will & shall are different. “Will” implies a decision; “shall” is future tense.  Got it?

The British ground floor is the US first floor. The US second floor is the European first floor. And so on. In other words, if a Brit says it’s on the first floor, add a floor to equal it to the US system. Their way makes much more sense since the ground level is not really a “floor”.

There’s one word you absolutely must master before attempting to Britify your speech, and that is “sorry.”  Use it whenever possible, and you’ll fit right in.  As in, “Sorry, you’ve made a terrible mistake on my bill.”  Or “Sorry, but you’ve just won the lottery. “

Jimmy is your name, even if it’s really Harold.  Smart means sophisticated: he dresses smartly.  I don’t like him, I “fancy” him.

A lounge is the living room in working class homes only.  In middle class homes, it’s a living room.  In upper class homes, it’s a drawing room.

And yes, at some point some innkeeper may well ask you what time you’d like to be “knocked up” in the morning. He means what time do you want to be awaken.

Generally, food in Britain is wonderful, but some old style foods linger. The Full English (or Irish) Breakfast is bacon, sausages, two eggs and a tomato, all fried in the bacon grease, and cold toast – a cardiac arrest served on a plate.

Pudding is dessert – any kind of dessert. What Americans call pudding, Brits call custard. But “black pudding” is neither pudding or a dessert.  It’s a black sausage. It’s blood, mainly, and it’s part of every “Full English Breakfast. There is also white pudding (lard sausage) & fruit pudding (lard, cereal, fruit & spices in a sausage). You have been warned.

All over Britain and Ireland, pubs serve a “Sunday Roast” 12 – 3 every Sunday. It consists of roasted pork, turkey, chicken and/or beef, two or three good vegetables, mashed potatoes, gravy and Wellington pudding. Wellington pudding is not pudding (of course). It’s a sort of puff pastry that is covered with gravy. These meals are served “family style” and they are big and delicious, a feast. Then the pubs close and everyone goes home to sleep it off.

Courgettes are zucchini.  Aubergine are eggplant.  A joint is a piece of meat for roasting.  Griddle cakes are pancakes.  Tins are cans – as in tinned tuna.  Ketchup is “red sauce”.  Brown sauce is sort of a thicker Worcestershire sauce.  It’s ubiquitous.  Eggs have only brown shells.  A bap is a roll – usually soft, sort of like a burger bun.  A Popsicle is called an ice lolly.

Lager = yellow beer.  Shandy = half beer and half ginger beer or lemonade.  Ginger beer is a stronger, more flavorful ginger ale.  Yummy.  Lager & lime = beer and sweetened lime juice.  Brown (or “broon”) = Newcastle Brown Ale.  One is “quaffing a pint”, not drinking it.  Last orders – just as you’d think: your last change to order a pint.

A barrister is an attorney who tries cases in court.  A solicitor does not.

A fag is a cigarette. I’m not sure what homophobic people call gay men.

A call box is a telephone booth.  A lift is an elevator.  One says “stopping” for “staying”.  “See thee” (often with a little lilt) is good bye.

A flannel is a face cloth or wash cloth. Bring one with you as they are considered personal items and are not supplied in self-catering properties or B&B’s.  Flannel can also be used in a more cockney term to indicate that someone is making up a story: “What a load of flannel”.

Don’t get your knickers in a twist means to calm down, please.  A punter is one who buys something from you or uses your services, a client. It’s a sort of put down, but in a soft way, not mean.

Pubs and churches are often the main points of directions: ” Go to The Dukes Head & turn left at the church and then right at Six Bells & pass The Fox Revived . . .

These are some of the essentials to know when traveling to London or the whole of the UK for the first time. Since receiving this list from the very nice woman at the now defunct vacation rental agency, we’ve picked up boatloads more small language details – like saying “chemist” for drugstore, and “that’s so boring” for anything troublesome or annoying – and will attempt to compile a complete (and perhaps alphabetized and searchable?) list of terms in short order.  Currently the list consists of a zillion tiny little scraps of paper, torn out of travel journals and piled into a pencil case in one of ERI’s desk drawers. The list of odd sayings (“Bob’s your uncle” and “Easy peasy lemon squeezey”) alone practically fills the thing.

For now, though, the above list will get you started and we hope you find it helpful on your travels to London, the English countryside, and parts of Scotland (where there is an entirely new list of terms and terminology to cover… but that’s another post!).

Happy Travels, from Elegant Retreats.

Duke of Wellington Pub in Belgravia London

A week in London

London is a terrific city for all travelers, first timers and oops-my-passport-is-full-ers alike. Fantastic for families, couples, groups, there’s never a lack of things to see, do and experience. Yes, it can be expensive, though prices are relative, and good value can be found in all price ranges, from basic to deluxe. No matter your travel budget, there are infinite tricks and tips for the many ways to enjoy the city without breaking the bank.

Of course, one of the great ways to maximize your trip budget, again at any price level, is to rent a flat or a house in London rather than one or a series of hotel rooms, especially for groups larger than two travelers. Between a stocked kitchen – with options for eating casually at home rather than every meal out or in a prices-padded hotel restaurant – and the ability to avoid VAT and bed taxes and a host of other hotel-related fees, flats and house rentals offer excellent value for budget and luxury travelers alike.

Because the purpose of our company, Elegant Retreats, is to offer the best selection of housing options for visiting groups of all sizes and within a broad range of budgets and accommodation needs, we pre-inspect the properties we offer to clients, and so we travel to London a fair bit. On our trips, we travel to see new properties and inspect those that have been in the catalog for a while to make sure they are still fresh and ensure that we are offering a good value to our clients. Along our various inspection trips, we have picked up some first hand knowledge about how best to enjoy the city that serves as the Gateway to Europe, and often as something of a gateway to International travel for many first time travelers.

A First-Timer’s First Week in London

Day 1: Arrival – City Sightseeing Tour

If you come in on an overnight flight from the states, plan to be a bit of a zombie at this point, and know that everything you see today may be remembered in a lovely dreamy haze. For this reason, we suggest simply heading to your property, dropping your bags, getting briefly acquainted with the joint, and then hopping aboard a city site-seeing tour bus for the rest of the day. No, really.

The site-seeing tour bus, which allows you to hop on and off for either 24 or 48 hours from time of purchase (and sometimes includes a boat-ride admission as well) is the perfect way to get the general (if not a little confusing) lay of the land, and to decide what big attractions you will want to return to in the following days.

It’s great to sit back and not have to think, just take it all in, point your fingers, point your camera, maybe oooh and awww a little at things like the pub that’s been in business for HUNDREDS of years, and the Tower of London where so much of that history you learned in school took place almost a Millenia ago.

Try to time it so that that you can hop off close to quitting time, as close to your house or flat rental as possible (be sure to save your receipt for tomorrow, you’ll be using it again!). Your internal clock will be a mess, but if you are hungry and can stand the sensory input, find a neighborhood pub to have a pint and a bite. Stop in at Marks and Spencer, or Waitrose or Tesco to pick up some sundries on the way home – milk, cookies, breakfast items, tea, etc. If not in the mood for a pub, pick up some food for an easy dinner.

Try to stay up as late as you can stand it, without thinking about what the corresponding time in is back home, or how long you’ve been awake. Just try to go to bed as late or as close to your typical nightly bedtime as possible, and hope you’ll be able to sleep through the night. By morning you’ll be laggy, but probably not fully on home time.

Day 2: Acclimate –

See Also:

A Week in London with Kids

A Romantic Week in London

Christmas or New Year’s Eve in London

The Culture Vulture in London

Shopper’s Paradise in London

Pre-Trip Planning

When to Go

London is a year-round destination, and with the exception of Christmas, Boxing Day, New Year period and a smattering of bank holidays, you’ll rarely find things shuttered here.

If you absolutely must go in the summer, try for early June. Don’t bother with August, it’s crowded and weird and full of Europeans from elsewhere who get the entire month off. Prices are through the roof on airfare, etc etc.

If you can, aim for May and September – the weather is mild, the crowds a bit thinner, and the airfare is reasonable-ish (though not as amazing as in the winter and early early spring).

Length of Stay

A week, minimum, we say. It’s not always possible, but it’s ideal to have at least your travel over and travel back days, plus 5 full days to explore and have fun. Since you’ll likely be jet-lagged the first few days, a 10-day stay is even more ideal.

Guide Book

We at Elegant Retreats are big fans of the Eyewitness series Top Ten Guides from DK Publishing for first time visits to any city, state or country. Billing themselves as “Your Guide to the Best of Everything” they are the the short-cut to all the big, interesting, or important attractions in a given place. Slim, colorful, and easily digestible, these books are broken up by categories, so you’ll find sections like “Top 10 Highlights” & “Top 10 Museums” & “Top 10 Royal London” as well as small area maps/guides for getting your bearings, and quick hits of advice on everything from travel safety to notable walks, children’s interests, and recommended cafes. Each item has the bare-bones bit of information you need to know in order to decide if it’s something you want to check out.  These guides are fantastic and the only thing you need in your pocket, really – though a smart phone doesn’t hurt either….


It’s hard to pick a bad place to stay in Central London, honestly. If you select something from our catalog, you can be assured that the area is safe, comfortable, active, and if not right in the heart of the action, then a very short walk, tube or bus ride to every possible area of interest in the city.

That being said, first timers in London often enjoy South Kensington (so many museums, so many restaurants, so much to see!) and Knightsbridge (shopping, oh the lovely lovely shopping!). Families seem to gather in Chelsea or the bits of Belgravia around Sloane Square and King’s Road.  Planning to see a lot of theater? Mayfair and Covent Garden areas are great, although they can be quite noisy and feel a bit more tenuous in the safety department at night (not unsafe, just… less obviously protected than some other areas).


Pack light. Anything you forget, with the exception of life-saving medications or one-of-a-kind comfort items, can be procured locally if necessary, and most can’t-live-without necessities turn out not to be missed on holiday after all.

Plan to dress in layers, the weather can change quickly. Wear comfortable but not ugly shoes, if possible. Avoid logos. If you plan to go to the theater, no need to break the bank, but do plan to dress on the nicer side of presentable, please.


19 people in a forum discussion about taking and using money abroad will have 23 opinions about the best way to accomplish spending money with regard to safety, security, maximizing exchange rates and avoiding transaction fees. You can read more about this what’s-your-financial-philosophy decision making here.


Holiday Rental Flats Eaton Square London

First Time In London

We have so much to tell you first time visitors, it’s hard to be brief.  Here is a condensed version of the basic information you’ll need to plan a terrific first time holiday in London. Keep in mind that much of it you can find in a guidebook in greater detail, but really all you need is a few of the important bits of information to have an exceptional travel experience. These are the things we feel will serve you well, and provide you with a great trip, even if you don’t learn anything else prior to your arrival in London (not that we are recommending this, but if by necessity or happenstance, you would be fine with only the following info lodged safely in mind).

Things to know before you go to London, England:

Passport/Visa/Permission to enter the country – You do need a passport to enter England, and a visa as well, however for Americans and passport holders of certain other nationalities, the visa is issued by the stamping of your passport on arrival, and is valid for 6 months. If you are not an American or European Union member nation passport holder, check the simply named “Do I Need A Visa?” section of the UK Border Agency to find out if you’ll need to apply ahead of your trip for a visa to enter the country.

Currency – the monetary unit is the British pound Sterling (£), and has been hovering at about $1.60 – $1.70 in US dollars for a while now. It can change on a dime (or more appropriately, ten pence), but has been enjoying a steady and moderate rate of exhange, which will hopefully continue. So, if something costs a pound, figure you’ll be spending at least a dollar-fifty, more like a dollar-sixty or a dollar and sixty-five cents. At the highest exchange rates of the last decade, the rate was nearly two dollars to one pound, and that was a huge bummer for the old travel budget.

They rely pretty heavily on coinage in the UK, so plan to be overwhelmed by the amount of change that will begin to collect in your pockets and purses. Coins come in denominations of £2, £1, £.50, £.20, £.10, £.05, £.02 and £.01. There are no paper £ notes under £5.

Access to money – if you  have 4 digit ATM pin number and you have let your bank know you’ll be traveling overseas,  you should have no problem withdrawing pounds directly from any ATM. (There is usually a fee associated with this, anywhere from $2 – $10 per withdrawal, depending on your financial institution, so check before you go and think about the right balance of how much cash you want to carry versus how many withdrawal fees you want to rack up).

There are also TravelEx and Bureau de Change all over London, from the minute you land and walk through the airport to many of the train stations and many strategically placed retail currency exchange storefronts dotted around the city.

Time – 24:00 clocks in the United Kingdom, so bone up on your military time now if you will be using trains or going to the theater or trying to make it to certain museums before they close. 5:00pm is 17:00, for example, and 11:00pm is 23:00.

Electricity – The voltage in the UK is 220 – 240. You will need an adapter to plug in your electronics. They can be purchased online, from travel stores, and in many hardware, travel or supply shops in London.

Driving & Pedestrian Caution – Cars drive on the opposite sides of the road from places like the United States and continental Europe. All the rental cars have little reminders on the dash that say “Keep Left!” You most likely will not be driving in London (no really, please don’t drive unless you absolutely have to), but as you walk through the city, be mindful that cars travel the opposite directions, so you must look right instead of left when stepping into a crosswalk.

Transportation – The London Underground or Tube, as the underground train system is called, is comprehensive and easy to navigate once you’ve familiarized yourself with the system.

Where to Stay – We tend to think that the busy, crowded, bustling and quite loud areas of the city around Oxford, Picadilly Circus, Leicester Square, etc, are a bit too much for the first time traveler to commit to as a base. Instead we suggest any of the lovely boroughs or neighborhoods fanning out around the parks – Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Holland Park, even St. James Park.

First time visit to London:

There are a few different ways to approach your first trip to London.  Actually, there are infinite ways to approach a first trip, with regard to planning and reservations and activities, but for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll stick with a favorite few, that we’ve casually named, and include:  The Top Ten Everything Whirlwind Tour; The Slow Travel Best Of The Best; and The Wandering Wonders.

Top Ten Everything Whirlwind Tour of London

We at Elegant Retreats are big fans of the Eyewitness series Top Ten Guides from DK Publishing. Some first time travelers enjoy devouring the thick, wordy, wonderfully informative travel tomes. Others, initially wary of exploring a new city can be unnerved by the pages and pages of tiny-printed text in some of the thickest guide books. In such cases the simplified and picture-filled Top Ten Guides are life-savers.

To be continued…