My kids didn’t have Thanksgiving off – we are in Norway. And my son was in the middle of his finals week freaking out about labs and papers and, well, finals. But my husband had four days off and I have dreamt of visiting England since my mom started letting me watch Masterpiece Theater with her on Sunday nights. Bad timing be damned. We were going to London for Thanksgiving!
Timeout London had incredible information on all things London – hotels, restaurants, events, shopping. Without Timeout, I won’t have known about Bumpkin’s Thanksgiving dinner, all the pop-up Christmas fairs and ice skating rinks, the reopening of the Design Museum, and London’s first ever cat video festival. (Yes, that’s a thing).
Mylittlenomads.com and Visit a City were my other go to sources for this trip. Mylittlenomads.com helped me navigate and select kid-friendly sites and activities. There are just too many things in London to cram into a 4 day trip. Mylittlenodmads.com’s reviews made prioritizing our desires a little easier. Visit a City assists you in building your itinerary. The site cross-references your travel dates with the dates and times you’ve selected to see things. You can add your hotel, restaurants, tours, and even build in breaks. It’s easy to use and free.
We had a direct flight from Stavanger to Heathrow. We landed around 1900 on a Wednesday evening and spent over an HOUR in the custom’s line. Once through, we headed to London’s underground railway system (Tube) and purchased reloadable Oyster cards from a self-service ticket machine. The Oyster card works on the Tube and on the city buses. Perfect for our plans. We only needed three as our 6 and 7 year old rode free with an adult. The Piccadilly Line took us right to the South Kensington station, just a few blocks from our hotel.
Our hotel was not what we expected. To be fair, having never stayed in London I didn’t know what to expect, but this was not it. The Gainsborough Hotel was advertised as a boutique hotel in a prime location. It was, in fact, a tired hotel in need of updating. The staff was friendly and helpful. The continental breakfast was okay. Very basic. Our triple room was cramped and the bathroom cold. Our double room was a bit roomier. We only needed our rooms to sleep in and get a shower, but for the cost I was hoping for more. The location was ideal.
Day One –
First on the kids’ list: ride on a double-decker bus. After brekkie we went out and scored primo seats on board a bus bound for the British Museum. You could live inside the British Museum. With so much to see, we needed to prioritize our visit. We did an ad hoc scavenger hunt finding items in the Explore the British Museum: A family souvenir guide we’d purchased at the information desk. Seeking out the Easter Island statue (“Dum Dum”), African Otobo sculpture, Bronze Age flesh hook, Egyptian mummies, and the Sutton Hoo helmet and burial items had us zigzagging all over the museum.
We took a leisurely walk from the British Museum over the Waterloo Bridge and through the Jubilee Gardens Christmas market. Next on the kids’ list: the London Eye. It was crowded. We opted for the Fast Track tickets and went to the head of the line. Our ride was beautiful and was a great way to point out the other sites was planned to see while in town. There were interactive maps on board to identify some landmarks we didn’t immediately recognize. Big Ben and Westminster were hard to miss. We went up in the Eye in the late afternoon. I think it would be spectacular at night.
We had reservations at Bumpkin’s South Kensington location for our Thanksgiving meal. It was a short walk from our hotel and it was EXACTLY what I had hoped for. Delicious three course dinner. Pumpkin soup, turkey and stuffing, corn, pots, and (my favorite) cranberry sauce. Great bar selection, friendly service, and comfortable atmosphere. I would return in a heartbeat.
Day Two –
After another subpar breakfast we set off to the Tower of London. It was impressive and not exactly a tower. It was a fortress. We viewed the crown jewels, saw lots of ravens, and, after the changing of the guard, got an autograph from Guard Jade. We ate beer-battered squid rings at the Bridge House Bar and then toured the Tower Bridge and took our obligatory pic with the river below us.
Green Park was very beautiful. We followed part of the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Walk through the park and then jumped on a bus to Harrods.
Harrods is a destination – multiple restaurants, food stalls, a grocery, and high end clothes and housewares. Thanksgiving may not be a big deal in London, but Black Friday certainly is. There were people, people everywhere. We ate at the Burger Bar, drank milkshakes, my seven-year-old tried on a gorgeous Gucci dress, and we OD’d in Harrods expansive toy store and Christmas Shop. We opted for a taxi back to the hotel. (So cool that all five of us could fit in those cute, iconic black cabs). Exhausted, the teenager and I gave the Cat Video party a miss. I ended the night drinkinh wine out of the bottle and eating some Duty-Free Godiva chocolates.
Day Three –
The teenager opted to stay in and get some studying done. The rest of us walked across the street and queued for the Natural History Museum. We almost bailed from the line. It was long, but moved quickly. It was worth the wait! The entry point provides an opportunity to see a Stegosaurus and ride up an escalator to the Red Zone through a huge globe. Very cool! We learned about volcanoes, rocks, and earthquakes. There was even an earthquake simulator. We had lunch in the café on the first level and then went on to see the mammal and dinosaur exhibits.
Item three on the kids’ list: Visit the new Leicester Lego Store. We met up with the teenager, jumped on the tube, and arrived at the new store. There was a TWO HOUR queue. Pass.
Next item: High Tea. This was much harder than it should have been. Tea in London on the busiest shopping Saturday of the year is not easy. The oven was out at The Delaunay. We weren’t dressy enough for The Ritz. The Wolseley was fully booked and their walk-in wait was about an hour. Getting discouraged, we pushed through the crowds and took a chance on the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon at Fortnum & Mason. Fully booked. As I stifled my tears, it was suggested we try The Pallor one level below. It is known more for ice cream treats. We managed to get a table after a short wait. And HUZZAH! Full on afternoon tea. A meal, not a snack. Everything was right in the world once again. Delicious. We did a bit of browsing after we ate. F&M was just as crazy as Harrod’s. Crowded and wonderful. Incredible history and hampers, gifts, pies, and some strangely wonderful creation the Scotch Egg.
Full and warm, we headed to Hyde Park for Winter Wonderland. We walked with the herd of others heading in the same direction. Apparently, everyone visiting London or living in London decided to experience Winter Wonderland that night too. We finally made it to the entrance only to see another immense queue. We took amiss and practically ran to the Natural History Museum ice rink with the little kids on our backs. Ice skating at night was brilliant and beautiful! It was the perfect ending to our wonderful trip to London. The kids were thrilled to finally skate and another item on their list was realized.
Pop-up ice rinks, trees, and markets around the city make London a great place to spend the holidays. Many restaurants advertised special Christmas and New Year’s meals. There are multiple holiday festivities, Christmas shows, elaborate displays in shop windows, and streets and parks decorated in lights. It’s magical. We plan to return to London as soon as possible!
Lessons learned: While we didn’t love our hotel, it’s location was a huge plus. We utilized the tube and buses but weren’t completely dependent on them nor did we endure long trips to get anywhere. South Kensington is near museums, shopping, and incredible restaurants. Next time I’ll book tickets to a show before we arrive. Everything we were interested in watching was sold out. Thanksgiving may not be a holiday in London, but Black Friday certainly is recognized and people were out en masse for some discounts. Anticipate crowds, construction, and transportation delays. Restaurant reservations, patience, flexibility, warm clothing, and comfortable shoes are key.