Tower Bridge in London, England

One of the best things about an overseas assignment is being able to travel and explore new places. My husband has been fortunate to have three overseas assignments: Italy, South Korea and now England.

Each time my husband receives a new assignment, we create a “must see” list for things we want to do around our new duty location. It helps us get acquainted with the area and generates a feeling of excitement. It also helps us make the most of our limited time in each place.

Two years ago we moved to North Yorkshire, England. We are a few hours away from London, so naturally it was at the top our list of places to visit, which also included places in Scotland due to proximity.

This was our actual list:

London, Stonehenge, Newcastle Brewery, St. Augustine’s Abbey (Canterbury Festival), Lake District (Beatrix Potter), Cornwall and/or White Cliffs of Dover, Bath (Jane Austen), Sir William Wallace Monument (in Stirling), Edinburg, Loch Ness, and Harry Potter places.

London Eye
The Original Double Decker Bus Tour London
Original Double Decker London Bus Tour
View of Big Ben and Parliment from London Eye

 

Honestly, I didn’t know much about England prior to this assignment, but I had always wanted to visit London.  Despite living a few hours away, we have only spent a considerable amount of time outside of Heathrow on two occasions. So far, we have managed to cross seven of these places off our list. Plus, we have visited other fantastic places in and near England that I did not anticipate to be so wonderful and inspiring.

In London

The first time in London, we made it a point to live like tourists, exploring all the “must see” places in Rick Steve’s travel book — Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, Churchill War Rooms, Westminster Abbey, the National Gallery, the British Museum, the British Library and the Royal Observatory in Greenwich where you can straddle two time zones (Cue “A Walk To Remember”). Royal Observatory in Greenwich LondonEven with four kids in tow, we managed to see nearly everything we wanted to see. I always recommend a good travel book and some planning to make the most of your time. You need to be familiar with where you are going and open/closing times to avoid disappointment. Most likely, even if you live nearby, you are going to spend a lot of money visiting all the places in the city.

On our second trip to London, we had the pleasure of hosting family. With limited time and six kids, we kept an open mind about the places we wanted to see and things we wanted to do. We rented an apartment in London for a few days and another on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. Knowing jet lag and little legs might slow down the speed of which we saw each city, we let them decide what they wanted to see or do.

Top of the list was a ride on the Eye of London and The Original double decker bus ride. Both of these things also provide a good view of Big Ben (though still under construction). We also got to show off the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London and took them on a boat ride near the Tower Bridge.

Just Outside London

Hands down, my favorite place to see near London is the Warner Brother’s Harry Potter studio tour.

Hogwarts Great Hall Warner Bros Studios in London
Hogwarts Great Hall Warner Bros Studios in London
Hogwarts Warner Bros Studios in London
Gringotts Bank Warner Bros Studios

Because my niece was celebrating her fifth birthday, she was chosen to open the door to Hogwarts Great Hall. It was fantastic! Both my sister-in-law and I had a tearful but joyful moment watching the opening video as Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and J.K. Rowling discussed how the Harry Potter book and subsequent movies came to be. We got to see the props and settings from the movies, including Gringotts Wizarding Bank, Diagon Alley and Hogwarts. We saw the costumes including Harry Potter’s invisibilty cloak! Yes, you can actually see it! We also enjoyed some butterbeer. Don’t worry, it is alcohol free so the kids can enjoy it, too. It tastes like a butterscotch root beer float.

For HP fans traveling from London to Edinburgh, you may want to stop off at Alnwick Castle for some broom flying lessons. While in Edinburgh, stop by The White Elephant for coffee and pastries, which is considered the birthplace of Harry Potter. This is where the Queen of England, J.K. Rowling herself, conceptualized the series. 

Just kidding. The real Queen of England often resides at Windsor Castle, which is also just outside of London.

You can even tour her home which has over 900 years of royal history. While I have only viewed the brick wall driving past, I do hope to go back and spend some time inside the home of the past 39 monarchs.

“When exploring London, you will come across lots of excitement by chance, so try to take everything in rather than just rushing around to all of the major tourist haunts.”

– Richard Branson, an English business magnate, investor, author and philanthropist who founded the Virgin Group. 

While three days is not enough time to truly enjoy and immerse yourself in the city of London, one week should give you enough time to experience all the top touristy sites without feeling like you’ve run a marathon.

If your time is limited, I recommend picking a couple mus- sees from this list and just enjoying the moment. Pick up a travel guide to help maximize your time. You’ll have access to historical information, maps and itineraries that will help guide you. However, you can set your pace and mix it up with something spontaneous like wheelbarrow races near Big Ben.

Don’t forget to venture outside of London, too, because England has so much more to offer than the bright lights of the city. Step back in time at Stonehenge or explore the White Cliffs of Dover. Or if you are looking for something more peaceful, take a train a few hours north and go on a hike through the rolling fields of the Yorkshire Dales. Stop by Robin Hood’s tree in Sherwood Forest as you pass through Nottinghamshire.

As a writer, I’ve been drawn to many places with a connection to stories and poetry. If you have a favorite English author, explore the places where they’ve been and become inspired yourself. Whether it’s the Bronte Sisters, Lewis Carroll, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, J.R.R. Tolkien or William Shakespeare, walk the paths they walked and stand in the places they stood. If you are more connected to politicians or war heroes, seek out the places in which history was made. Or if you just want to have a good time eating the local fayre and chatting with locals, hop from pub to pub.

No matter where you go in England or what you do, you’ll be glad you did.