Our first full day in England we began with visiting Buckingham Palace. Although we didn’t get to see the changing of the guards, we saw the horse parade and followed the parade down to the bottom of the street that leads from the palace to the horse parade area. The horse parade area was nothing but a big square pad of dirt which I found amazing how they transformed it into the women’s outdoor beach volleyball venue for the 2012 Olympics 4 months later. If you walk under a breezeway past the horse parade you will be on the street where all the government building sit, including number 10 downing street, the seat of the prime minister. If you walk farther past this in one direction, you will run into parliament square that holds the grand parliament building, Westminster Abbey and the Supreme Court building. The other direction will take you to Trafalgar Square.
Buckingham palace is great, but it’s definitely not the grandest palace I’ve ever seen. You can only tour this palace for 2 months out of the year when the queen is away on holiday.
As for Parliament, you can only do tours when the houses are not in session. This includes Saturdays throughout the year and six days a week during their designated months listed on the website. This really bummed me out until I found out that when parliament is in session, the public is allowed to come in and watch it live in person! In the process of this you are able to view several other rooms and hallways of the building including the grand Westminster Hall, which I think is a great trade for not getting a full blown tour, if not better due to the fact that it is completely free whereas a tour is not! Once we were admitted in, we surprisingly had free rain to move about to the different rooms as we pleased. We were able to see both houses in session, the feisty house of commons and the distinguished house of lords. What an experience! You can stay as long or short as you like, which is wonderful for a tourists who has many things planned in their day. Visitors sit in the balcony for easy access in and out. If you are early prior to going into the sessions, they will take you in a room and explain all the ins and outs of Parliament to you. It is very interesting although the room was very small and hot and I had to keep kicking my husband to stay awake which was kind of embarrassing! Ha!
Viewing the inside of parliament was the one thing I absolutely had to do on my visit to London. So many people go to London without actually visiting the house of Parliament and I think many people don’t realize that they can tour or go in and view the sessions. I am glad I did my research ahead of time and was able to partake in this great opportunity. It was such an experience to say I have done this when not many people have. If you go online you can view the schedule of times the houses meet and schedule your visit accordingly. You can attend debates, question time or watch committees. All is listed on the website. http://www.parliament.uk/visiting/ You do not need to buy tickets in advance, only make yourself known to the Visitor Services staff who are standing on the side of the building (or ask a cop). Entrance is based on a first come first serve basis, and you would need to leave time for security check.
According to the online site, the guided tour takes 75 minutes and includes the Commons and Lords Chambers, the Queen’s Robbing Room, the Royal Gallery and Westminster Hall.
The famous Westminster Abbey is located directly across the street from Parliament. Be aware it can be closed for unexpected reasons like the queen being there (which was the case when I was there) or closing early on Saturdays. Due to these road blocks, I never actually got to go into the Abbey although I was right by it for 2 days of my trip!
After touring Parliament we had to get back to our hotel to get ready for the play I’ve wanted to see all my life- Les Miserables. I grew up listening to the soundtrack and know every word to every song, but I have never seen the play or movie. London’s elaborate theater district rivals with Broadway with roughly 40 venues for performance. We saw the show at the Queens Theater, a charming little theater house. I remember how the floor of the stage was quite slanted, lower in the front and higher in the back and the center of the stage turned like a giant wheel making the illusion of the actors running or moving in the scenes. Due to this layout, and the actual theater being fairly small, I think no matter where you sit you feel like you are almost in the stage. As for the actual show, it was everything I thought it would be- phenomenal. The actors were superb and every voice was amazing. I was so glued to the stage that my husband thought I was mad at him!
I wanted to ensure a perfect seat so I researched online and purchased my ticket prior to coming. I read online reviews to decide what seat would be the best. I am glad I ensured a good seat, but I also know you can get greatly discounted tickets if you show up right before the show and ask for any available seats. I didn’t want to take this risk and not be able to sit with my husband or be stuck on the end of a bad row or something, but my sister and her husband actually did this while they were in London and it worked out great for them. I actually would advise to buy your ticket in London whether you get a discount or not, because we had such a hard time finding the venue amongst the oodles of them that we almost missed the first part of the show. You can never anticipate what your day may end up being like once you are actually on your trip, and over planners and organizers that just have to have their tickets prior to going sometimes get punished for it. Again, if there is anything I have learned from traveling it is that you just cannot plan for everything no matter how hard you try. It is great to research and prepare in advance so you know all your options, but when it comes down to it, in many situations, it is best to just go with the flow and decide when you are there based on the how you feel that day, how much time you have etc.
The theater area is close to the racy nightlife area of Soho and close to this area is the major shopping district and Piccadilly circus. This area is like the Las Vegas or New York of London. This is where all of the entertainment, night life and partying happens. After walking back from the theater, we actually ended up in Piccadilly circus. After I got home people asked me if I had been to Piccadilly circus and I told them I didn’t think so. I didn’t realize at the time that I had in fact been there not only one but twice on the trip. And each time I thought it was a totally awesome area. Piccadilly circus is like the Time Square of London, lined with amazing buildings and major high end shopping. We walked the perimeter of the artistically curved building upon entering and exiting the theater area in Soho. The huge curved buildings in Piccadilly are amazing and very appealing to say the least. We were amazed as we walked along them, they seemed to just keep going and going! This area has a completely different feel from other parts of London, which is why I say there is something for everyone in London depending on where you go.