My husband and I had been to Notre Dame before. However, we included a visit to Notre Dame in our recent itinerary with our kids because it is an iconic Paris site. Just by accident, we ended up entering the cathedral right before mass, and it was an incredibly happy accident. We saw Notre Dame as we had never seen it before.
Now, the facade of the Notre Dame is a masterpiece. And really, you have to visit this cathedral MANY times before you could be bored with all of the detail. And who are all of those people? I need to have a guide give me the scoop on that next time.
Once inside, the stained glass and the architecture are always amazing…the COLOR of the glass is striking.
But, experiencing the cathedral as a place of worship instead of a tourist attraction really changed my whole perspective. The organ music, the worshippers/choir singing, the ceremonial entry with the incense…all of it created this 4-D drama for us that completely brought Notre Dame to life and took our breath away.
Now if you are clever, you might have thought we were out of breath because we climbed the 387 steps of the tower. You can climb the top of the South Tower, Hunchback of Notre Dame style, and be face-to-face with a gargoyle. We actually missed this because we stayed for the first part of the 5:45pm Sunday mass. By the time we exited, they had closed the access. Here is the timetable/information from the website so that you don’t miss it!
I suppose it is for the best that we didn’t do the climb. My younger daughter wasn’t feeling well and instead we went to a delicious dinner. And, it’s always good to leave something to look forward to for next time! 🙂 But we did make sure to walk around the outside of the cathedral and look up. We recommend you do that…the view upward is amazing.
Don’t let my snarky title fool you…we LOVED London. We left with such a long list of “things to do next time” that I’m secretly trying to figure out how to get there again…soon! There’s culture, lots of history, great eating and shopping and just a fun vibe that is similar to being in New York, but still very different so not to be confused with New York. The U.K., in general, is a great entry point for any American family wanting to try European travel but not sure their kids are ready to adapt to a big international trip.
And yet, the title does not lie. Our first day in London started off quite slowly. We had tickets to use the Original Tour, a “hop-on, hop-off” tour bus that I talk about in London: Getting Around. I KNEW that there was a risk of sitting in traffic, but I opted to take the risk. And, guess what? We sat in traffic…loads of it. But, overall, I don’t regret doing this tour. My husband and I both agree that riding on the top of this tour bus allowed us to get oriented to the city; later in our London visit we would recognize our location: “Hey, we drove past this!” It helped us the next day to find the line to Buckingham Palace. In addition, we did get a few tidbits from the tour driver that added to our cocktail conversation repertoire. For example:
Did you know that you don’t enter the actual City of London until you pass the dragon on Fleet Street?
And, that the term “hangover” actually refers back to the days when there were public hangings. People would gather and drink while they watched the hangings. The day after people would need to rest to “get over the hang.” Now this one seems sketchy, but we have already told this story once (while sitting at a bar, no less) and had a good chuckle.
Anyway, another benefit of the double decker, open-air tour bus was the view. We got some nice photos…without having to suffer the walk.
With the good also comes the not so great. I learned a few things. First of all, if you do this tour, don’t be pressed for time. Have a commitment-free day. For us, we got a late start and had a theater commitment at the end of the day. So, we were slightly pressed for time. We intended to get straight to the Tower of London via the Original Tour bus, but needed to validate our online Original Tour tickets (purchased online to get a discount) at the Piccadilly Square location. Upon arriving at Piccadilly Square, we boarded a YELLOW Line bus. MISTAKE. The Yellow line makes a very large loop in the opposite direction of the Tower of London in an area that has a LOT of traffic. We should have boarded the RED Line to get to Tower most quickly. This ate up an extra hour of our time. So, second learning: be really clear on the color of the line you want to board and ask the staff for advice (with specifics about timing, etc). I will say, even if we had boarded the Red Line, we still would have ended up sitting in traffic on Fleet Street, which is unavoidable because it is such as small street (and a major tourist route). Ideally, and a third learning, we should have bought sandwiches before boarding and eaten lunch during the ride so we would use our time wisely upon arrival (instead of stopping for lunch after getting off the bus). Overall, August is a busy tourist month and there will always be crowds, but I’m not sure if our traffic was worse because it was also a Friday (perhaps fourth lesson learned). Maybe Saturday and Sunday would have been better? If you experiment with this, let me know.
Overall, you will have to decide if you think that you: a) have time to sit on a bus; b) want to sit on a bus; and/or c) will hop on/off enough to get the value for price. I just recently recommended this to a friend with a smaller child because I think that London is a bit too spread out to walk (unless you cluster/limit the sites each day), and to cover a lot of ground, riding the bus can be advantageous for parents.
Even beyond this first day on the bus tour, we were continually reminded of the London traffic. Racing off to the theater one night, we hopped in a Black Cab and proceeded to sit on Piccadilly in traffic (and arrived late at the show). We may have arrived more quickly if we had just taken the underground. Returning from the Harry Potter Studio Tour, our tour bus sat in traffic creeping toward the center of town. We joked we could have hopped off the bus and “tubed” back to the hotel faster.
This leads me to another key lesson learned. When you are in London, invest in an Oyster Card. We weren’t prepared in advance and didn’t understand the intricacies of the Oyster Card fare rules, so be sure to read up. But, if you are lost and confused, the staff in the underground wears a uniform and they are usually standing near the turnstiles or at the machines. YES! They are literally standing there, WAITING TO HELP YOU! We experienced this at several stations and we were floored. And we received their help several times. From that, this is what we learned:
A card costs you 5 GBP, but that money is refunded to you when you turn it back in. The machines where the refund is given are separate than the machines where you purchase.
Kids 11 and under are free…they can just go through the turnstile with you
Kids over 11 can travel with a youth/student fare…their cards have to be coded/loaded in a special way, so ask for assistance.
Keep the card away from hotel cards, credit cards, etc.
Make sure you tap the card as you enter and exit so that the fare is calculated correctly.
In addition to taking the tube…which we loved…we also took the rail on several occasions. We discussed Heathrow Express in London: Getting Around. We LOVED it! Arriving at Paddington from the airport was so easy and transferring to the underground at Paddington was equally as easy. The underground entrance is clearly marked. But, if you want to grab a cab, follow the black line painted on the ground (literally) to the taxi stand. In addition, taking the train on day trips is super convenient. We took the train, again from Paddington, to Windsor and it was not only enjoyable, but super easy.
Happy travels! Let us know how you got around London (and avoided the traffic)!