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London for the holidays

Dining room of our rental home in London, England
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The dining room of our rental home in the Knightsbridge neighborhood of London, England was a delightful setting for our Christmas holiday.

With our family members scattered across the globe, we wondered how we would gather our three generations for the holidays. How could we celebrate together while keeping holiday stress to a minimum for all?

We began a search for a setting that would be special for everyone. All agreed that a city offers the most for multiple generations, particularly for winter travel. Regardless of weather, there are attractions and activities to suit all ages and interests. Decked out for the holidays, cities sparkle with excitement and special events.

Our daughter and new son-in-law recently moved into graduate housing in England. We decided to rent a place with plenty of room for all of us in the heart of London. We would visit them in Oxford and travel together to our holiday home.

Piccadilly Circus, London, England
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Piccadilly Circus is a hub of activity any time of the year.

With the diverse needs of three generations traveling together the convenience of an apartment, of flat, as they are known in the UK, is clear. Rentals are available for a full range of budgets, but when traveling with older family members who may choose to stay in more frequently, opting for accommodations with a higher level of comfort and amenities is particularly worthwhile.

It was our good fortune to come across a wonderful home in the fashionable and centrally located Knightsbridge neighborhood. Accurately described as “a splendid house”, it was filled with books, antiques and artifacts. There were generations of family photographs and portraits going back to the mid-16th century—along with modern amenities like wi-fi, cable TV, and DVDs. Available when the owners are temporarily away from London, it was a destination in itself, a window into gracious British family life. Two of the many bookcases were filled with books written by a well-known family member. What a delightful setting for our home-cooked family Christmas dinner!

Harrod’s, London, England
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The block-long illuminated façade of Harrods beckons shoppers from around the world.

Much was within walking distance, and we were near taxi stands, the bus and the Tube. It was just a three minute stroll from Harrods and a short walk to areas like the boutique and restaurant street, Beauchamp Place.

Harrod’s, London, England
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Harrods windows added to the city’s holiday sparkle with a Russian winter theme.

Living like a local, making discoveries about daily life, and shopping at neighborhood shops and markets makes for a far more memorable experience than the typical touristy trip. Restaurants in Europe are expensive, and London is one of its most expensive cities. With the dollar tumbling against other currencies, eating in keeps one of the largest vacation costs down. Moreover, having kitchen and dining facilities make for leisurely breakfasts, relaxing family dinners, and convenient snacks.

Where To Start

HomeAway.com is a company based in Austin, and in true Texas style is said to be the “world’s most complete marketplace of vacation rental properties”. They offer a wide range of properties by consolidating the inventory of affiliated internet vacation rental sites they own and operate. Our home was found through one of these affiliates, VRBO.com (Vacation Rentals by Owner), and is a listing offered by Coach House London Vacation Rentals.

When making reservations for a vacation rental, there are steps that should be taken to ensure that your stay meets your expectations.

Top 10 List for a Vacation Rental Home or Apartment:

  • Location—You may save some money by staying on the outskirts of the city, but unless you have quick and easy access to inexpensive transportation options like subways and buses, and are amenable to using them frequently, your savings will be quickly eroded by expensive taxi fares. Don’t waste valuable vacation time, money and energy getting to and from places of interest.
  • Be sure to have enough bedrooms and bathrooms to insure everyone’s comfort and privacy.
  • Contact the owner or agent in advance for a sense of whether you are a good match. Reputable ones will offer reliable contact information, preferably by phone and email. Try both and see whether your questions are addressed promptly. Check references. Keep contact information handy in case you are delayed or have concerns during your stay. We were greeted at the property, shown the details of the home, and given ample time for questions. Booklets were provided with recommendations for sightseeing, transportation, shopping, and dining. There were transport and street maps and a list of recommended medical and other services. Written instructions were available for household systems and appliances, and a 24/7 number was provided in the unlikely event of a problem or emergency. You may pay a little more for a higher level of service, but this is what helps you to get the most from your vacation and can separate a vacation disaster from the trip of a lifetime. My recommendation is to book only with rentals that offer this level of assurance.
  • If bringing along anything that needs to be plugged in that does not have dual voltage capability—battery chargers, etc., be sure to bring an electrical voltage converter as well as an adapter plug. The UK uses 220/240 volts, not our 110/120 AC system.
  • Most homes will have a telephone for use with local calls, but international calls may be blocked or prohibitively expensive unless you bring along a telephone calling card. We buy the kind of prepaid card sold at Sam’s Club and check in advance for the AT&T local access numbers for the countries we will be visiting.
  • If wi-fi is available, check to see whether you will need your own laptop for Internet access.
  • You can travel light if you book accommodations with a washer/dryer. This is especially important if you are traveling to other destinations, as well.
  • Since smoking is more prevalent in Europe and other countries, be sure to ask for non-smoking accommodations if this is important to you.
  • Avoid fees being deducted from your security deposit by knowing what is included in the price– such as use of phone and cleaning services–and what is expected upon departure—such as putting out rubbish.
  • Be sure to verify check-in and checkout times. Flights to London generally arrive quite early in the morning. As with hotel rooms, if the property was occupied the night before you arrive, it may not be ready until later in the day.

Transportation

With a London Travelcard you travel smarter and for less. Travel as much as you like on the Tube, buses, trains, and more . It also includes savings at top attractions in London.

In an attempt to make bus transportation accessible to all, the old-style double decker Roadmaster buses have been replaced, but refurbished versions still run at the normal fare on Routes 9 from Royal Albert Hall to Aldwych and Route 15 from Trafalgar Square to Tower Hill.

Traditional licensed Black Cabs can be expensive, but are metered and regulated. Drivers of the must pass a rigorous test, “The Knowledge” on details of the city and its streets, and can offer great insights. Avoid becoming the victim of a scam by steering clear of unlicensed touts.

What To See and Do

It’s a good idea to check the variety of discount passes available to see which one best serves your needs.

St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, England
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St. Paul’s (taken fron side, with dome)—A 530 step climb to the Golden Gallery atop the dome of London’s St. Paul Cathedral is rewarded by a panoramic view of the city.

 

At St. Paul’s Cathedral we climbed 259 winding steps to the Whispering Gallery and continued higher for a panoramic view of the city. We descended into the crypt, where Sir Christopher Wren is honored for his masterpiece with an inscription on his tomb that translates “Reader, if you seek his monument, look about you.”

The grand State Apartments of Hampton Court were the Tudor home of Henry VIII and baroque palace of William III and Mary II. Step can back in time and immerse yourself in history with costumed guides who regale guests with stories.

Piccadilly Arcade, London, England
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Piccadilly Arcade— Piccadilly Arcade is just one of the many shopping areas decorated for the holidays.

You needn’t spend a fortune to savor more of the city’s finest. London’s parks, museums (Victoria and Albert, Natural History, and British Museum), art galleries (National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery), and ceremonies like the Changing of the Guard (Buckingham Palace every other day at 11:30 in winter) may all be enjoyed without cost. Stroll the Thames Path along the South Bank from Tower Bridge to the London Eye. People watch at local street markets, marvel at the array of fine foods at Harrods Food Court or at Fortnum and Mason on Piccadilly. Delight in the street performers at Covent Gardens. There is no admission charge when attending religious services at Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Write ahead for tickets to the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London, held nightly for over 700 years.

Special events during the holiday season

The annual lighting of the Norwegian Christmas Tree in Trafalgar Square kicks off the holiday season. Since 1947, Norway has sent this token of appreciation for support in World War II. A service of carols at St. Martin-in-the-Fields is held the next night.

kitchen of Hampton Court, London, England
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Step back to the time of Henry VIII in Hampton Court’s Tudor Kitchen, London, England

Cauldrons bubbled in Hampton Court’s Tudor kitchen as the staff demonstrated 16th century cooking methods. Characters surrounding the king — daughter Mary, youthful 5th wife Catherine Howard, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, dukes, lords and ladies, musicians, jesters and more—were all here for the holidays, entertaining guests with historical anecdotes.

potter, Hampton Court, London, England
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During the Christmas season at Hampton Court, costumed artisans like this potter entertained in the Tudor kitchen of Henry VIII.

Travel back to the Middle Ages and join the court of King Edward I for music and traditional tales. This 1284-style Medieval Christmas is celebrated at another former royal palace, this one dating back to the time of William the Conqueror — the Tower of London.

St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, England
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St. Paul’s Cathedral in London is the masterpiece of Sir Christopher Wren, whose tomb is in its crypt.

Visitors from around the world are drawn to the special Christmas programs at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Services end with clergy and choir toward the back of the Dome for a blessing and dismissal amidst the four paintings “The Way, the Truth, and the Life”, depicting Christ’s birth, baptism, death, and resurrection.

ice skating at Hyde Park, London, England
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ice skating at Hyde Park, London, England

There’s ice skating during in the holiday season alongside famous landmarks and grand surroundings like the 18th century palace, Somerset House, the Tower of London, the National History Museum, or Hyde Park.

German Market, Hyde Park, London, England
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The wooden chalets in Hyde Park’s German Christmas Market sell handicrafts, traditional foods, and mulled wine.

Hyde Park is transformed for the holidays to Winter Wonderland, with amusement rides, including a giant observation wheel, and the city’s largest ice skating rink. There are over 25 wooden chalets in the German Christmas Market, with vendors of handicrafts, traditional foods, and mulled wine. By night the area sparkles with thousands of lights.

Will a destination holiday become your newest Christmas tradition?

Ebenezer Scrooge would pale at prices in London today, but even in this great city you can celebrate a Christmas Yet to Come without breaking the bank. With some planning, you may find yourself sipping warm Pimm’s as the goose roasts, the Christmas pudding steams, and the mince pies bake —- with all the comforts of home.

 

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