Why you should see London

Castles on hilltops. Bustling metropolises. Bucolic vineyards. No river captures the breadth of the European river cruise experience like the Danube, which offers all these (and more) along one route stretching from Bavaria to the Black Sea. Options abound at every turn: Take a weeklong cruise, or extend your journey up to a monthlong expedition. Focus on a few regions that most interest you, or cruise the entire river. Stick close to the water, or go on excursions to farther-flung sites.

"The Danube has a lot of small-town charm and big-city interest—more variety than you'll find on other rivers," says Allison Walker, one of AAA's top travel agents. “River cruising suits every age and activity level. I have cruised with both my parents and my 20-something children. Cruisers can choose to take driven tours, easy walking tours, or sail and enjoy the sites. Or if a more active approach is preferred, hiking, or my personal favorite, biking, on a variety of excursions will satisfy every interest. It’s a great way to get out amongst the locals and the charming nooks and crannies of a village or larger town. ”

With so many choices, advice from experienced experts is invaluable. Read on for just a few highlights of Danube cruising, plus insights from Allison, who has 21 years of experience as a travel agent and has cruised the Danube three times with three cruise lines. 

Allison Walker travel agent portrait photo

AAA Travel Agent

Allison Walker is here to share her tips and insights on London. AAA can help you plan the perfect trip to London, or wherever your dream vacation is. Contact a AAA travel agent today, or visit a branch to meet with an agent or take advantage of other travel services.

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London has seen many things in its millennia-long history. Founded as Londinium by the Romans about 2,000 years ago, it was later settled by Anglo-Saxons and was a frequent target of Viking raids. It survived plagues, fires, and civil war to become the capital of the British Empire and home of the Industrial Revolution. Today, all that history (and much more) is part of what makes London such a compelling city to visit.

"Whether it's a first-time experience traveling abroad or a return journey because there's so much to do, London is an ideal destination," says Allison Walker, one of AAA's top travel agents. "Many travelers find it unintimidating and easy to adjust to. Firstly, the culture isn't drastically different: the people speak English and the food is familiar, but with a local twist. Secondly, there are lots of direct flights and it doesn't take long to get there, especially from the East Coast. It's also ideally situated as a jumping-off point to other destinations in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. There's a lot to see and do, with plenty of variety depending on your interests, traditional or eclectic, making it a great return destination. I've been six times and I would definitely go again."

With so many choices, advice from a travel agent is invaluable. Here are just a few of London's highlights, plus insights from Allison, who has 21 years of experience as a travel agent.

Allison Walker travel agent portrait photo

AAA Travel Agent

Allison Walker is here to share her tips and insights on London. AAA can help you plan the perfect trip to London, or wherever your dream vacation is. Contact a AAA travel agent today, or visit a branch to meet with an agent or take advantage of other travel services.

Find an Agent | Find a Branch

Fast facts

 

Currency

 

The United Kingdom still uses the pound as its currency, denoted by the £ symbol. Like the U.S. dollar, one-hundredth of a pound is a penny; the plural is pence.

Check exchange rates and order foreign currency online.

 

Common confusing pronunciations

 

  • Thames is pronounced "temz"
  • Leicester is pronounced "LESS-ter"
  • Borough is pronounced "BUR-ah"
  • Pall Mall is pronounced "pal mal," rhyming with canal
  • Marylebone is pronounced "MAR-li-bun"
British money, in paper bills and one-pound coins

Fun fact

 

Our modern time zones and longitudinal coordinates still center on one spot in London: the Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park. The observatory is now primarily a museum, and visitors can stand precisely on the prime meridian (0 degrees of longitude, the border between the Western and Eastern hemispheres). The observatory also features a daily ceremony in which a red "time ball" is lowered at exactly 1 p.m.; this has taken place since 1833 and once helped sailors on the Thames set their shipboard clocks accurately.

What to see

Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace is the home to Queen Elizabeth II, and is open for guided tours in the summer. Outside, the Changing of the Guard is held daily during the summer, and on alternating days in the off-season. Check the schedule online; it may change to accommodate other events.

 

ALLISON SAYS: "The best place to experience the Changing of the Guard is not pressed up against the Palace gates, but rather on the grassy areas along the paved roads towards the gate.  From this vantage point you witness the band warming up their drums and pipes with fun songs. Once the ceremony begins, you have an ongoing view of the band and the procession of guardsmen on their horses as they march towards the gate. The actual switching of the guards inside the gate is very quick."

Red-coated guards marching at Buckingham Palace

The Tower of London

This castle is more than 900 years old and originally served as a residence for royalty. It would later become better known as a prison with high-profile inmates such as King Edward IV's sons. 

 

ALLISON SAYS: "This site, adjacent to the famed Tower Bridge, is a fun, historical experience that offers tours led by a boisterous Beefeater. More like a fortress than a 'tower,' the guardsmen live here with their families. It's a little self-contained community, very rustic, authentic, and original. It's also home to the English crown jewels, which visitors can see."

The Tower of London photographed from a low angle

Thames river cruise

Cruising the River Thames is a great way to string many of London's top attractions together without having to do a lot of transit or walking. You can even view the sights from inside the boat, a big perk if the weather isn't ideal. Some cruises run on a set itinerary with a start and finish, while others are hop-on hop-off.

 

ALLISON SAYS: "You can take a cruise day or night. At night, you can get really stunning pictures; during the day, you get more detail. Dinner cruises are also an option, though some are not accessible for those using a wheelchair. The Thames river cruise offers the best photo-taking opportunities for the Palace of Westminster, Big Ben, and the Houses of Parliament."

River cruise boats on the Thames near the Tower Bridge

The British Museum

This museum is home to more than 8 million items, with about 80,000 of them on display. Those include the Elgin Marbles, the 2,000-year-old body of Lindow Man, and the renowned Egyptian Galleries.

 

ALLISON SAYS: "The British Museum is known for its extensive collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts and for being home to the Rosetta Stone. Visitors may recognize the phrase 'Rosetta Stone' from the language learning software, but the name comes from this artifact that enabled hieroglyphics to be translated."

An Egyptian mummy exhibit at the British Museum

The London Eye

This 443-foot-tall Ferris wheel on the Thames rotates once every 30 minutes and offers a bird's-eye view of London up to 25 miles away (weather permitting).

 

ALLISON SAYS: "I would recommend only going on the Eye if you have time to spare. The line to get on can be long, and the Eye rotates very slowly. Depending on the weather, there may not be much to see or the view may be anticlimactically gray. If you have to prioritize your time, I wouldn't use it going on the Eye, because there's so much else to do and you can take more intimate photos. To me, taking a picture of the Eye itself is more interesting. A selfie with the Eye in the background makes a nice keepsake."

The London Eye lit up red at night across the Thames from Westminster

The Churchill War Rooms

ALLISON SAYS: "This hidden gem is adjacent to St. James's Park, which offers a lovely stroll amongst gardens, ponds, and swans. This museum is the actual site of Winston Churchill’s original cabinet war rooms that he used as command post, bunker, and shelter during the Blitz of World War II. The Map Room where the charts were left exactly as they lay the day the lights were switched off in 1945 is like a step back in time. A war history buff’s must see!"

 

ALLISON'S TIP: "When visiting multiple sites in London, consider the London Pass.  For one fixed price you gain entry into more than 80 attractions with some skip-the-line entrances. Entry at the Churchill War Rooms is £21, but you can get free entry if you have a London Pass."

An aerial view of Government Offices Great George Street, the building that houses the Churchill War Rooms

Ready to explore London?

Allison Walker and AAA's other travel agents can help you plan a trip that's the right fit for where you want to go, what you want to see, and what you can spend. Learn how to get in touch with Allison and AAA's other travel agents.

What to eat

Allison's British favorites

  • Fish and chips with mashed peas: A familiar dish with a twist. "Be prepared that this is made in the traditional way with the fish skin still on one side."
  • Shepherd's pie: "Cottage pies and meat pies are traditionally British and provide a hearty, filling meal."
  • Bread pudding: "Yum!"
  • Jacket potatoes: The dish Americans know as baked potatoes. "The ones stuffed with baked beans are a family favorite."

ALLISON SAYS: "Make sure to have a pub lunch experience. One famous option is the Sherlock Holmes pub near Trafalgar Square."

British-style fish and chips with a side of mashed peas

London as a culinary crossroads

London has always been a melting pot of cultures, including food. An easy way to sample lots of different cuisines is to visit the many diverse food stalls at Borough Market in Southwark (pronounced "SUTH-urk"). A particular highlight citywide is the Indian food: All the regional varieties are well-represented, so branch out from chicken tikka masala and explore the dishes of Tamil, Parsi, Goan, and other kitchens.

 

ALLISON SAYS: "I enjoy the Indian food in London. London’s Indian cuisine is authentic and extremely good. As a result of Britain’s imperial history over India, Indian food and culture are threaded into modern day London. Don't be afraid to have a conversation with the staff about your food—they're happy to tone down the spice or recommend their most authentic and unique dish." 

Pans of Indian food being cooked in London

Allison's dining tips

Dining location: "Covent Garden is a fun, casual place to see street entertainers, shop for local treasures, and have fun, on-the-go lunches like jacket potatoes and ice cream treats.  It is also adjacent to the London Transport Museum. Covent Garden is a convenient Tube stop."

 

On-the-go meals: "I stop at local markets in London and grab a sandwich, fruit, and chips.  There are flavorful and different varieties of sandwiches and chips to try.  You will find that even major brands of snacks and candies will offer different varieties in Europe, that are a treat to try. A park bench or monument stoop works well for lunch on the go and under budget!"

The Covent Garden Apple Market in London
Where to stay & how to get around

Stay in the historic core or the famous West End

If convenience is high on your list of priorities, staying in the city center puts you walking distance from sights and at the nexus of many transit lines. One option is the City of London, the historic core and business district (note the capital C; not to be confused with the broader city of London). To the west is the West End, the shopping and entertainment hub of London, famous for its theaters. The West End includes trendy upscale areas like Leicester Square, Soho, Picadilly Circus, and Marlyebone.

 

ALLISON SAYS: "Leicester Square is bustling and active with nightlife and 24-hour fun at your doorstep. For a quieter local experience, the City of London, where St. Paul's Cathedral is located, can be your getaway."

Picadilly Circus in London's West End

Stay in one of the districts surrounding Hyde Park

Keep going west from the West End and you'll arrive at the sprawling green space of Hyde Park. Visitors can stay nearby in the districts of Kensington, famous for Kensington Palace; Notting Hill, known for its art and colorful architecture; and Belgravia, notable for having some of the most expensive homes in the world.

 

ALLISON SAYS: "For an upscale neighborhood with garden parks and lots of restaurants, Kensington is a great spot. Notting Hill is more residential and quieter."

Colorful buildings in London's Notting Hill district

Stay at a AAA-recommended hotel (and save when you do)

ALLISON SAYS: "AAA recommends many Best Western hotels in London. They offer a great variety of locations, and each has a unique personality. Special rates are offered to AAA members, with breakfast included and clean, comfortable accommodations. Best Western hotels are a personal favorite for my European travels."

 

"The AAA Travel Agency can also book hotel packages for members at a variety of hotels including local chains best known in Europe and the UK, like Thistle and Novotel. I have stayed at these properties and found them to be centrally located with comfortable efficient rooms, free Wi-Fi, breakfast, and helpful front desk staff."

Exterior of the Best Western Victoria Palace hotel in London

Getting around via taxi or the Underground

ALLISON SAYS: "London traffic can be horrific. London taxi drivers are very fair, experienced, and highly trained to know the mapping of the city along with the best and quickest routes. They must pass a rigorous test called ‘The Knowledge’ to get licensed in London."

 

"Though you may want to try a classic London black cab experience, the London Underground ('the Tube') will always be the quickest way to get around. The London Travelcard is great for unlimited easy transportation. If you get the all zones (1-6), it even covers the Heathrow Express train to and from the airport. I recommend cards like these because they eliminate standing in line at a ticket booth or trying to figure out the correct fare you need at a kiosk."

A subway train moving through a London Underground station

Getting around via tour bus

ALLISON SAYS: "I get a hop-on hop-off tour bus ticket in almost any city I visit. They are sold in 24-, 36-, and 48 hour increments. These flexible passes take me all over the city. The open-air top level is my favorite spot. You have a full 360-degree view of the city as you drive along listening to a pre-recorded narrated description of all that you are seeing."

 

"With this ticket, you can hop on and off as you please. Stop to visit something in more depth, and then hop on the next bus. There are several colored routes through the city—usually highlighted as blue, red, green, and yellow—and you can get on and off each route based on your ticket. This option not only provides a great city tour, but also serves as easy transportation and a welcome break for tired feet."

Young couple riding on top deck of an open tour bus going over the Tower Bridge in London
Other destinations to add to your trip

Allison's recommendations for other sights near London

  • Highclere Castle and St. Mary's Church: Fans of the period drama Downton Abbey can visit the castle and church that served as the show's backdrops, about an hour and a half from London.
  • Windsor and Windsor Castle: "Recently famous for the royal wedding of Prince Harry, this weekend and Easter home and chapel for the royal family is more of a quaint and relaxing outdoor experience than the more formal one offered by Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s in the heart of London." It's less than an hour away, too.
  • Stonehenge: "This site is mysterious in its purpose and impressive in its construction." Under two hours away.
Stonehenge in England at sunset

Allison's recommendations for other towns to visit

  • Liverpool: "Primarily a port town, Liverpool was made famous by the Beatles and its primary tourist focus is on the rock band. This trip is almost four hours outside of London, so it is usually visited as an overnight stay." 
  • Bath: "Known for its Roman baths dated to circa 43 AD and its natural hot springs, in this charming town you are surrounded by 18th century Georgian architecture  especially spotlighted in the Bath Abbey. To me, the town of Bath reminds the visitor of how influential and far-reaching the Roman Empire was in conquering lands throughout Europe and the British Isles."
  • Stratford-upon-Avon (home of William Shakespeare): "This home in the countryside has classic English gardens and great literary history."
Street sign for Penny Lane in Liverpool, England

Ride to Paris & Brussels

ALLISON SAYS: "Trains leave from London’s St. Pancras and King's Cross stations. Don’t forget your passport, as you are traveling to a new country, and the currency will change to the euro. It's less than two and a half hours to Paris, and two hours to Brussels via the Eurostar."

 

"In Paris, take a quick stroll down the Champs-Élysées, pass under the Arc de Triomphe ,and take the Metro to the Eiffel Tower in the Champ de Mars for a visit to this iconic monument. Nothing says Paris like the Eiffel Tower!"

 

"Brussels is a personal foodie favorite of mine. Famous for their chocolate, hand-held waffles and the best fries or ‘les Frites’ I have ever had. Walk off the calories by taking a stroll to the Grand Place in the historic center of the city."

 
Allison Walker at Kensington Palace

Ready to explore London?

Navigating all the available options is no small task when considering a London trip. A travel agent can help find the itinerary that's right for you, and Allison Walker's six visits give her special insight. Whatever your culinary, historical, artistic, and leisure goals, Allison (seen here during a visit to Kensington Palace) can recommend highlights and hidden gems to fit your tastes: "I always suggest taking a trip that suits both the traveler and the destination best."

Get Allison's help planning your personalized London trip, or submit a request for travel planning assistance online. (Note that this request will not go to Allison.)