A Harry Potter visit that was truly magical

Last night was Halloween, and no surprise, my daughter and her friends were watching Harry Potter movies on TV.  It reminded me of our trip to the Warner Bros Studio Tour London to see The Making of Harry Potter.  We talked about this tour, and how we almost missed out, in a previous blogpost.  All I can say is, plan early!  If you like Harry Potter movies even a little, you will not want to miss this tour!

TRANSPORTATION AND TIMING

As I previously explained, we waited too long to buy our tickets directly through the Warner Bros site.  This is your best bet, by far.  This gives you the most flexibility during your day and allows you to spend the necessary 4 hours (minimum) at the WB Studio (no joke). The website gives you instructions on which train to take to the WB Studio in Leavesden, about an hour away from London, and how to grab the shuttle from the train station.

Our only option was to buy our tickets through a bus tour we found on Trip Advisor called Golden Tours.  We met the tour bus in downtown London (near Victoria Station) and they drove us out (and back) to the WB Studio.  The ride itself was fine, but Golden Tours only schedules a three-hour visit to the WB Studio.  We were fortunate to get on the first bus which left a little ahead of schedule and got us to the WB Studio 30 minutes early.  We lined up immediately and the WB Studio staff let us in before our scheduled time (which may or may not be normal…it doesn’t hurt to try).

We had over three hours for the visit…and we felt rushed.  By the time you look at everything, wait in line to ride brooms, practice with wands, and do other interactive things, the time flies.  We did stop and shop at the WB Studio store, which was an absolute zoo (but remember we were there in August). My husband lined up to pay while we shopped in order to speed up the process.  My girls felt like there were items at the WB Studio store that they did not see at Universal Studios Hollywood.  I personally could have skipped shopping, which is a rare statement for me.

FOOD

We didn’t stop for a snack halfway through the tour, except to eat the granola bars and drink the water they let us bring in.  Many people stop for Butterbeer, but we had already tasted it at Universal Studios Hollywood.  We would have enjoyed having a more leisurely lunch/dinner before jumping back on the bus, but the time was limited.  The cafe in the main lobby has MUCH better eating options than the cafe inside (but only Butterbeer is sold inside…be forewarned).  We ordered pizza and pasta for our kids to quickly eat and took most of it with us for the ride back.

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OUR FAVORITE THINGS

The tour starts out in a group with guides/employees of the WB Studio.  However, once you get past the Great Hall, you are set free to go through the rest at your own pace.  The first room (which is enormous…no claustrophobia here) has on overwhelming number of things to see.  The costumes, the make up, the sets, the props…all of it is so detailed and fascinating.  Of course they have sets that you recognize, but they also have the drawings/plans and models that they created before building the sets.  They also have demonstrations and videos to show how they did their special effects.  I suppose that younger children may tire out quickly, but since I had a 12 and 13 year old, they took the time to look at the details.  Also, we enjoyed the interactive exhibits which seemed to be open to all ages.  If you need some fresh air, there are outside exhibits as well.

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The Great Hall
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Harry’s costumes over the years

 

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Harry and Ron’s room
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The Sorting Hat
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Professor Snape and Potions Class
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And there are plenty of outdoor sets too!

 

The broom riding (on a mechanical broom with a green screen backdrop) was a must-do for us.  The line is a bit long to wait, but it is super fun!  The activity is free, but it is quite pricey to buy the videos and photos.  We did purchase all of it (and have done nothing with it), but it is an expense we weren’t expecting, so be prepared.

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All in all, visiting the WB Studio was a highlight of our London trip!  It was educational and entertaining for all of us.  I’m so grateful that we did not miss this!

 

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Our Breathtaking Visit to Notre Dame

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.

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Once inside, the stained glass and the architecture are always amazing…the COLOR of the glass is striking.

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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.

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I can still hear the bells ringing and the deep, almost eerie, notes of the organ.
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Worshippers singing in French, no less.
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The incense was very strong…he must be used to it. 🙂

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.

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London: We Came, We Saw, We Sat in Traffic

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?

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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.

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Look at the mobs of people crossing the bridge to get a view of Big Ben.
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And since I get seasick, I avoided a boat ride and took pictures from the top of the bus.
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And since this was our first day, our jet lagged kids were happy to sit and enjoy the view.

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)!

 

Hot Tips After Visiting The Tour Eiffel

We are back from our European adventure with so much to tell.  I tried to Instagram every day to keep people up to speed.  I’ve also done a lot of reviews on TripAdvisor, which is one my favorite research sites.  Here is my profile page of TripAdvisor so you can see my reviews.

I think the best place to start is with the Eiffel Tower because I have so much specific feedback to give here.  Also, I have friends going to Paris soon, and these are all of the things I would tell them anyway!

First step:  You need to make advanced reservations online.  If you want to go to the top, make sure you are buying a ticket to the top (“Sommet”).  Here is the official website.  We had our tickets delivered via email and printed them in advance.  We walked right up to the entrance while these people stood in line.

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If you regret taking the stairs by the time you reach the first floor, you can buy a supplement ticket for the elevator at the kiosks in the South corner on the first floor.

 

Don’t get confused with tour groups that want to give you a “first in line” ticket.  There really doesn’t seem to be a need.  As I mentioned, we walked right in on a Saturday in August.  I saw some people on tours and while the guide can tell you the history of the tower, there are also apps you can download in advance and listen to.  I overheard one guide who was basically just pointing out things people could see from the tower…not overly impressive.  Also, following a group around the tower on a crowded day would get old…really fast.  But just know, I’m a bit anti-tour group; I pick and choose my tours opportunities very carefully.

So I was totally gung-ho on walking UP the stairs to the second floor.  In my Le Tour Eiffel post in May, I wrote about that being the plan.  However, when I arrived, I showed my ticket to one of the employees and she said, “Well you bought a ticket for the elevator, so I suggest you take the elevator UP to the second floor and then you can always walk DOWN.”  That seemed like good advice.  My family was very happy with that choice.  Unlike me, you may want to pay extra attention to the tickets you have and what exactly you’ve paid for before you arrive.  If you buy online, they are only elevator tickets…stair tickets can only be purchased at the tower (according to the website).

So, based on this modification, we suggest you do the following:

Enter through the elevator on the West side (North side is probably just as good as they have an elevator too…but we just didn’t try it). Take the elevator to the second floor.

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This is the view after the bag security. You will have to show that you have tickets at security but they won’t take them. Then you go through more security to get on the elevator. See where it says “Ouest” in green (West in French) and has an elevator sign?

 

Once on the second floor, get directly in line to go to the top.  The earlier in the day, the shorter the line is for the “Sommet” elevator.  We made the mistake and took our time on the 2nd level on the way up.  By the time we finished with the 2nd floor, the queue for the “Sommet” was quite long.  We would have been better off to either arrive earlier or just take time on the 2nd floor on the way down.

Once at the top, you will want to look at all of the views, because, of course, you are at the top of the Eiffel Tower.  Remember to go up the mini staircase to really be at the top top!   The famous Parisian buildings and attractions are basically at edge between the East (best) and South corners.

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Views from the East.  This may be from the 2nd floor, not the top.  Sorry!

When you are ready, take the elevator down to the second floor.  Go to the EAST corner and take those stairs down to the first floor.  Those stairs will give you a view of the famous Parisian buildings and attractions.  The other stairs (like the ones I went down in the West corner) give you pretty views, but not of anything anyone will recognize in photos.

 

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This is the view from the West stairs.  Pretty, but not super familiar and not the views I wanted to capture most.
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I suggest taking the East stairs instead.  This photo is from the first floor, but I suggest you start descending on the East side from the 2nd floor.

On the first floor, take a break.  There are snacks, a gift shop and lounging areas.  The views are cool and the atmosphere is nice.  We just ate the snacks we brought, but enjoyed the people watching. We saved room for the food stalls on the Champ de Mars outside of the Tower (see below). We do recommend using the restroom on the first floor.  They are clean and the lines were MUCH shorter than at the bottom.  And the toilets are red!

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Continue descending the East stairs to the bottom.  While underneath the tower, be sure to appreciate the architecture…the view up is super cool!

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When you exit on the East side, you will walk right into the Champ de Mars.  In the summer they had a very large variety of food stalls set up.  You may want to research if this is a year-round thing.  We ate crepes, homemade potato chips and kabobs.  Delicious! See our Instagram @thefuntrips for a fun crepe video.  When the weather is nice, this is definitely a good place to relax.

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Exploring Outside of London

It’s no secret that we are Starwood people.  So it’s no surprise that we are staying at a Starwood property in London with our points.  You gotta love that “5th night free.”  So we had six days and five nights to plan out in London and the surrounding areas.  We already decided what we wanted to do in London, but we needed to nail down our day trips/excursions outside of London.

A high priority for my kids was seeing the Warner Bros Studio Tour for Harry Potter.  It is an hour outside of London and a popular day trip.  Our family had talked about this excursion for almost a year.  In my travel planning, I had bought every other ticket imaginable, and for some reason, I failed to buy that one.  It hit me one day as I was driving home.  I had a “palm to forehead” moment!   I was in major panic mode as I rushed upstairs to my office.  With one month advance, I went online to book the tickets.  Nothing!  Nothing available for the ENTIRE duration of our London visit!  I scrambled to look for other resellers.  The only tickets available were through a tour company (clearly more expensive and restrictive) and were for the day AFTER we were supposed to leave London for the countryside.  So what did I do?  Yup!  I rearranged our whole trip so that we would be able to go see Harry Potter.  What a pain!  When I relayed this story to my youngest daughter, she interrupted me half way through and said, “mom, please tell me that in the end we are still going to see Harry Potter!”  Fingers crossed that this is a great excursion, because it ended up being a lot of money and finagling on my part.  However, I am grateful that I even had an option…I never would have lived down that mistake.  Such is life when you travel with kids/teens.

There are a multitude of other short day trips that you can take by train from London.  We considered several to fill an additional open day in our itinerary.  I really wanted to go to Oxford and Blenheim, but the train ride is over an hour just to Oxford, and then you need to take a bus to Blenheim.  It’s much better suited for a car trip.  We will have to save it for next time. We also considered Canterbury.  It is also well over an hour by train, and while it is rich in history, we weren’t sure our daughters (12 and 13) would appreciate it as much as we would (they won’t be reading Canterbury tales anytime soon).  We settled on Windsor because it is incredibly convenient at only 30 minutes by train and very family friendly.  We plan to canoe down the Thames while we are there (with a guide of course) to make things a bit more interesting (praying for good weather).  We will also visit Windsor Castle and we can compare it to the digs we see at Buckingham Palace.

Beyond our time in the London area, we also wanted to spend a day or so exploring the countryside.  We felt the best way to do so would be by car.  I chose to go to the town of Bath because of its history.  It also has a lovely location near the Cotswolds, an area of quaint and quintessential English villages.  My husband is a bit wary of driving on the other side of the road.  And he refuses to drive in big European cities.  So I rented us a car leaving from the airport…this way we will already be outside of London.  Also, I researched to ensure that our hotel in Bath has a parking lot (no parking on cobblestone streets).

We only plan to spend one night in Bath, but that will be enough to see the Roman Baths, the Bath Abbey and eat at Sotto Sotto, an Italian restaurant with amazing reviews (sticking with the Roman tradition).   On our way back to London from Bath, we will stop at Stonehenge and Salisbury.  Stonehenge has obvious fame.  Salisbury is home to the highest steeple in the UK and an original copy of Magna Carta (thanks to our friends for this fun tip).

London: Getting Around

We are less than a two weeks away from our trip to Europe, and while I’ve posted about Paris planning (Paris: Le Plan et Le Pass and Le Tour Eiffel), I have yet to discuss my London research.  I was a little late to the London planning party partially because I didn’t know where to start.  We are staying there more time, but I really had much less knowledge about what to do.  In November I grilled some dear friends who used to live there and they helped me get a start…but then I did nothing for several months.  I’ve spent the last several weeks exploring my usual planning sites and talking to other friends, and I think I finally have a more solid plan in place….but with the requisite flexibility, of course.

We are, once again, going with the philosophy of less is more.  We know we can’t see everything and won’t have fun if we try.  So I am narrowing down some of our “must haves” and ensuring they make it in the plan.  This list includes Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben/Parliament, the Tower of London, the Tower Bridge, the British Museum and the Tate Modern.

My friends suggested that we check out the “hop-on, hop-off” double decker bus options for London.  They think that is really the best way to get to know the city.  We are staying on Piccadilly and the bus will go right by our hotel, so it could be a very convenient option. There are a few different companies that run buses and they have package deals that give you other perks like boat rides, walking tours, etc.  The positive reviews declare that they are convenient and allow you to cover a lot of ground.  The negative reviews claim that the information provided isn’t over interesting (on certain routes) and the buses get stuck in a lot of traffic.

I have narrowed my focus to two companies:  The London Pass (run by Golden Tours/Gray Line) and The Original Tour.  The London Pass is similar to the museum pass we purchased in Paris, but it also includes the hop-on, hop-off bus with multiple routes.  Honestly, without considering the bus, the way I plan to see London, the Pass won’t pay off the same way it would in Paris. For example, it is good for the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey, but I don’t plan to go to both of those places in the same day.  Therefore, I would have to buy a two day London Pass and that isn’t cost effective.

The second option is The Original Tour.  This pass includes the multiple-route hop-on, hop off bus tour.  It also provides some freebies such as a boat tour of the Thames and some walking tours.  There are no individual museum/attraction admissions (but they can be purchased separately).  This option seemed better for us because they were running a special.  In addition, considering that we plan to “hop on” at our hotel, the routes seem better for us.  We bought this tour for one day and bundled a Tower of London admission so we don’t have to wait in the ticket line there (I read it gets crowded).  As soon as we arrive in London, we will go to validate our online (print-at-home) tickets at one of the indicated locations so we are ready to rock and roll on our first full day!

I’m still researching an Oyster Card, which is a pre-paid metro/subway (aka, tube) card. I’ve read that it can be a cost saving to buy it in advance but I’ve been told by other friends that it isn’t necessary.  Since our trip is close, and I won’t receive it in time anyway, I’ll just wait and chat with our concierge.

I was excited to read about the redesign/relaunch of the Heathrow Express.  Since we are landing in the afternoon, I read that taking a cab from Heathrow could take up to an hour to downtown and cost as much as 80 GBP.  No thank you!  Since we plan to pack on the lighter side (ha!  let’s see how that goes), I am planning on using Heathrow Express instead.  The trains come every 15 minutes to various terminals in Heathrow and it only takes 15 minutes to Paddington Station (clock starting from the final Heathrow pick up…see diagram above).  Once at Paddington, there is a newly designed/expanded taxi station to provide access to the rest of the city.  We purchased round trip tickets for just 50 GBP, and learned in the process that kids under the age of 15 travel free.  I booked online and printed the tickets at home.  EASY!  Just remember, for American English speakers, a “return ticket” is a roundtrip ticket, not just a ticket for the returning part of your trip! (you’re welcome)

 

London Tea Time

We have several blogs in the works on London planning that include a discussion about sites and transportation. But a vacation is not purely tourist sites.  We definitely want to make sure that we experience some of the culture in London as well.

We tend not to be crazy foodies…mostly because my girls are such picky eaters.  We will clearly miss out on the amazing Indian food that London has to offer.  I can live with that. But, I am adamant that we go to tea!  I have done a ridiculous amount of tea research.  I am very intrigued by several that I have found.  There are  Alice in Wonderland and Jungle Book themes, there are “man” teas that include scotch, picnic teas, chocolate teas and many more.  I have narrowed ours down to the following choices:  The Orangery at Kensington Palace, The Podium, The Wolseley and Claridges

The appeal of the Orangery is that it is adjacent to the Kensington Palace.  Visiting for tea can work in nicely with a visit to the palace or even just a visit to the grounds and Hyde Park.  The restaurant allows casual dress, so it can be a nice afternoon snack stop as opposed to a complete destination.  I know that my girls won’t eat 100% of the items at the tea, but I think that the girls will find enough to sample and enjoy.  The Orangery gets good reviews, but not necessarily on their food; their  atmosphere is lovely (such a British thing to say) and a huge draw.  If we don’t go there for tea, we may just go for breakfast or lunch!  The price for tea is about £27.50 per person which is low to mid range, especially considering the location.

The Podium is a more recent find.  It is actually a restaurant at the London Hilton at Park Lane which is incredibly close to our hotel.  The intriguing part of this tea is the theme…Confessions of a Chocoholic.  I think this is a tea that my husband might actually get excited about.  They also seem to offer a wide range of dietary options.  The savory options don’t look as appealing (for my kids) as some of the others and the reviews say that their savory items aren’t that interesting, but I’m thinking that I would eat everyone’s savories and drink champagne…they could eat the chocolates.  They also allow doggie bags!  My youngest has already voted for this one.  The price is a little higher at £36 per person.

The Wolseley seems like a great option because it’s a bit more casual.  It’s a restaurant and shop also incredibly close to our hotel near Piccadilly.  They allow parties to order the tea OR off the Bistro Menu (served all afternoon).  This might be a better option for all of us because my husband won’t have to eat little sandwiches and pretend to like tea.  Also, they have a modified “Cream Tea” that allows you to order tea and scones only for £11.50 per person (with the full tea experience being £27.50 per person).  The reviews say that this is a good place for kids and teens because they let them choose their sandwiches/savories. That would be ideal for my pickies!

Finally, the granddaddy of them all, Claridges, has amazing reviews.  Trip Advisor has this ranked #2 of Coffee and Tea Houses in London (with #1 being a coffee house).  The featured photo for the blog post was taken by my dear friend there in 2015.  She raved about her experience:  the food was delicious, but she was even more impressed by the service and attention to detail.  Her son has food allergies, and they completely accommodated his needs (she arranged the special menu in advance). I am in London for five days, and with five weeks notice, I got the very last possible reservation during my stay.  So, if you want to go, I suggest you book well in advance through their website (which is essentially Open Table).  The environment is much more formal than I think my family is interested in, but it is truly the epitome of English tea experiences.    At £58 per person, it is on the higher end price-wise.  They do have a Children’s Tea that they offer for seating in Claridges Foyer only (sounds like it might be an adjacent room).  That is for kids up to 10 years old and is £28 per child.

We will report back on our tea time experiences.  I’m sure you’re dying to know what we choose!  Pinkies up!