Why stay at an airport hotel, when you can stay very near walkable activities and see more? Come with me and I’ll give you some tips for turning that layover into something great.
Have you ever connected through a city, or arrived to/from a meeting and told yourself, “I’ll just stay at the airport”? I’ll admit, I’ve done it. And, at the time, I thought I was right to do it. In looking back, I missed some pretty great opportunities. So, I’m not going to let that happen to you. Without further ado, here are my thoughts on making your London layover SO much better.
Where to stay?
London is geographically large enough that one night isn’t going to do it justice – admittedly. But, you’re not there to see the whole city. Mainly, you’re just looking to avoid another night of room service and future embarrassment (having seen nothing) when someone asks about your trip. To narrow it down, let’s say you pick an attraction you’re interested in and focus on that:
What about the London Eye and observing the Thames, Big Ben and Parliament?
You could easily take in a live show with little or no advance planning
Are you a shopper? – Harrod’s can more than deliver and you won’t even have to leave for dinner
Near each of these attractions, there are options for lodging, food, and a libation (or 2)…. Here are some excellent options:
This Marriott is in the shadow of the London Eye and offers amazing views. It’s a luxury property, so the pricetag might not be for everyone. Also nearby, is this Radisson property, right at Westminster Bridge.
The Radisson Blu Edwardian offers several luxe locations. One of which is nestled in Leicester Square where you can take in the British Museum or a show, and a terrific meal.
Knightsbridge is a location that puts you near Harrod’s, the V&A Museum and this adorable boutique townhouse. If you want to really feel like your brief stay was out of the ordinary, this will do it.
Finally, don’t rule out an economical alternative. Premier Inn is all over town and is routinely recommended to me by friends and colleagues. I haven’t yet stayed at one myself. Yet, I guarantee there is one near anything you want to see.
What if I can’t get to London until 5-ish?
Definitely. I’ve gotten in that late and made a bee-line for Harrod’s, which closes at 9 most evenings. You can start with a cocktail at their champagne bar, do a little shopping for yourself (obviously) and friends back home if you’re feeling generous. Before calling it a night, make your way down to the Food Hall for literally anything your heart desires. You could try something new, sample something you’ve been missing, or stick to a staple. There’s no shortage of options here. Eat there, or take it back with you.
Arriving that close to curtain time, you might be apprehensive about buying show tickets in advance, so TKTS offers last-minute tickets, too. In any case, most box offices will have single tickets available for purchase. Grab a quick bite, and then sit back and enjoy something truly spectacular. What a way to live it up on an evening that was just a place-holder for a meeting tomorrow, or an early morning flight.
What says “London” more than a traditional pub? In my opinion, not much – and, if you haven’t visited a true pub lately, you’re missing out. They have a few. You can’t throw a stone without hitting one. Furthermore, each one is unique and worth a stop. And, if you’re hungry, many serve food – really, really good food.
I’ve written before about my love for the neighborhood of Clerkenwell. Within its walls, I can walk along streets that sing “London” to me – the vibe is rich and authentic. I have a favorite hotel, restaurant and bar. I don’t need more. If I’m leaving out of a London airport in the morning and coming in from the English countryside, I’ll always choose to stop here.
Are you nearly convinced?
My point is simply this:
If you’re flying in, pick a spot outside of the airport and see a LITTLE something; taste something.
The city is the perfect, vibrant stopover en route to the airport. You’re nearer than the countryside, so it’s a productive option.
You’re not adding any more time away….unless, you want to, and I would never discourage that. As I’ve said before, you’ve already invested the time it takes to get there – pay yourself back by adding some vacation on top.
Since you’ve probably already missed something at home just by being gone, don’t make it worse on yourself by limiting your experience to simply: the office and the airport. If nothing else, think of the fun you’ll have all year long pulling out gifts of little trinkets you’ve collected on your travels. With every one you wrap, you can relive a fond memory of the brief trip you made. These little excursions are out there for the taking – grab one.
Going to Paris for work cannot begin and end with a business meeting. My trip began with an historic side trip and ended with an extravagant, no holds barred, break-neck tour of all things Paris – with a business meeting sandwiched in the middle. And, with the 7 hours time-difference from US Central time zone, you can awaken in Paris, catch up on yesterday’s events state-side before getting dressed, and still manage to squeeze in touring while the states are sleeping. It’s an ideal situation for a work-play balanced trip. If planned well, you can keep a handle on everything back home/work and still accomplish superior sightseeing.
In this post, I’m going to discuss:
To tour or not to tour (with a guide)
Planning an ambitious itinerary
Selecting your launch point
I’m often asked whether I recommend booking tours for various places. In most cases, I d0 book a tour – and, I’ll tell you why. When I used to take my son places, there was so much I wanted to show him wherever we were going. My niece calls this: March or Die. I quickly learned that dragging him through each adventure was, while totally worth it in the end, WORK during my VACATION. So, I started turning it over to professionals. Can you pick where to go, what to see, and even enhance the experience with historical context? Of course you can, but for an added fee, someone else can do that FOR you (and your party) without your having to wear your bossy pants all day. Enter Viator, owned by TripAdvisor.
I’ve talked up TripAdvisor before. I find them to be a thoroughly well-informed app (crowd-sourced) that helps me pick where/what to see, stay, and eat within a city or even a neighborhood based on users’ reviews. I’ve written nearly 300 reviews myself. Their enhancements to include tours and restaurant reservations has been well worth it for me. Between them and Airbnb Experiences, I don’t have to look very hard to find someone who will come collect me, tour me, and bring me back again – and give me a pocket full of local tips and recommendations to boot. I’ve yet to ever book a trip through a travel tour company. They call to mind old couples with matching shoulder bags emblazoned with the tour company’s name so that they’re easily identifiable moving in lock-step with strangers onto buses and into hotels in unison. Rather Viator’s and Airbnb Experience’s individualized tours have become a great way for me to preserve the sanctity and serenity of my vacations while missing NOTHING. My vacation goals: Think less, worry less, organize less, enjoy more.
“If we arrive a day early, we could go to Normandy”, said my friend. My dad flew over Normandy on D-Day, so I was like: Yes, please. But, everyone’s always told me how far away from Paris Normandy is and everyone I know who’s gone has rented a car (ugh – driving). Once there, it’s a beach with a cemetery. This sounds like a lot to organize….there’s a solution for this.
Collected us from our hotel and brought us back in time for dinner
Told us great stories along the way
Provided cultural context about France and current events
Gave us tips and recommendations for restaurants, sights
Stopped along the way for refreshments
Took us to a local lunchery while in Normandy
Personally toured us through the cemetery, beaches and 2 museums
Shifted gears to accommodate poor weather – what a pain that would’ve been on our own….
It wasn’t cheap, but it was 100% worth it. Look at all we got (above). These same friends took a similar Viator tour to Giverny and were equally satisfied. Again, Giverny is a place other friends had rented a car to visit – that’s really not what I want to do on vacation, but that’s a personal preference. I think you pay for the convenience of being pampered – and, the private tours on Viator provide pampering in my opinion.
Fast-forward to our aggressive itinerary. You can see (if you blow it up like 200%) that we blended guided tours with individual exploration. Our guide for Normandy said: You’ll never accomplish all of that. Nay-nay, we TOTALLY did.
We arranged our days by neighborhood to save transit time
Pick your days based on when attractions in that area are open. My first draft had us going to museums on days they were closed….not helpful.
We bought skip-the-line passes everywhere
If you buy combo tickets, be sure to read the fine-print/rules regarding when and how the tickets are valid – e.g. do they have to be used on consecutive days
We pre-arranged guides to the larger, busier, more overwhelming places
Versailles, The Louvre, Montmartre (where we didn’t really know what we wanted to do)
Guides hit the highlights – he/she knows his way around and explains what you’re looking at saving you time reading plaques, maps, guidebooks
We toured smaller sights on our own
L’Orangerie, Musée Cluny, The Conciergerie
Timewise – if I can explore a place efficiently without a guide, that’s my route – we spent only 30min in some places
We really only had 1-2 planned/timed events per day
Perhaps most importantly, we stayed in a great location. In talking with friends with a lot of experience in Paris, the Marais was most highly recommended as our launching point. It didn’t disappoint. We got an Airbnb directly across from the Picasso Museum (a great landmark for Uber drivers) and walkable to a variety of shops, groceries, cafes, bars, macarons….. It was a short Uber to anywhere and a longer, but doable walk to tons of places from St. Germain to the Tuileries. We even meandered back from the Louvre on foot one day – so much to look at along the way.
To further economize time, we did a lot of walking and Ubering. While the metro is very accessible (and economical) in Paris, we opted to not be on a train schedule and dependent on specific drop-off and pick-up stations. There’s a bit of a trade-off here, though, because traffic in Paris is notoriously bad. Use the CityMapper app and weigh your options. Information is key – you have lot of alternatives. Of note – there are some local ride-hailing services in Paris. I tried a couple and found Uber to be easier for ME – it informed me ahead whether the driver spoke English, tracked their location on the app more precisely, etc. We also found cabs to be equivalent in price within the core of the city. So, if you’re wanting to be picked up and there’s a cab nearby – hop in. For the business portion of our trip, we stayed 3 km outside of the city limits in a part of town called La Défense – expensive to get in and out of, difficult to navigate on foot and impossible by car (professional drivers made circles for 20min almost every time we got dropped off). You can probably save money by lodging out a bit, but you’ll make up the difference in cost getting to and fro and in aggravation in my opinion.
Feel more like flying by the seat of your pants? A kind of non-schedule is “vacation” to some people and I get that. There are options for that, too. Lots of services allow you 24-hour cancellation without penalty. Viator is one of those, surprisingly. One friend recommends the Hop On/Hop Off buses. They go everywhere – once you buy the pass, it can be free transportation all over the city. There’s also Paris Walks. They have a set schedule that they post and those walks occur whether you’re there or not. Interested in one of their many 2-hour walks? Just show up at the train station they designate and join (you pay cash at the start). I’ve used their London-based sister too often to count and across a WIDE swath of topics from gardens, to museums, Ripper locations and cultural neighborhood tours. They’re just as knowledgeable in my experience to include experts by passion, education and even licensure. Relax and enjoy the freedom of being less committed upfront – wait, we’re still talking about tours and not relationships……right…?
Great things await you in this world if you are open to them. I know tons of people who travel to amazing locations for business, but don’t see anything beyond the airport and the hotel. Please don’t be one of those people – travel is a gift. Choose how to embrace it.
Think you can’t tour Rome in only 1 hour and 58 minutes? You can with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck (and Eddie Albert pre-Green Acres and ZsaZsa). If you already love this pic, I hope to share at least 1 thing you didn’t previously know. If it’s new to you, you’re in for a treat. Regardless, this is a MUST watch prior to your next trip to Rome. And, if nothing else, the final scene is the most MOVING last scene in film history (as declared by me).
OK, so you think you’ve seen Rom-Coms where the elite identity is hidden either from themselves or from others because trying to travel incognito – that’s this one…..sort of. In this 1953 classic, Princess Ann (Hepburn) is frustrated with her situation to be sure and accidentally catches a wave of independence by serendipity, which she rides to its fullest in a carefree and transformative day with the swooniest Joe Bradley (Peck). When we first meet Peck here, he’s definitely looking to capitalize on this windfall of a sought-after princess landing in his mitts, but he too is transfigured. That’s amoré.
Three-time Academy Award winner for Best Director, William Wyler was a craftsman of the highest order. He made a total of 45 films (beginning with silent pictures). Born in Germany, he volunteered (at the age of 42) to use his gifts to support his adopted country during WWII by joining the US Army as an officer filming bolstering films (aka propaganda) that lifted our spirits and showed war as it was happening. Important to note – his career was in no way lagging at this time:
1943 Won 1st Oscar: “Mrs Miniver”, which also won Best Picture
Joined the Army
1944 Films documentaries while serving: “The Memphis Belle” and “The Fighting Lady”
Wins Oscar for Best Documentary for Lady project
1947 Returns from Army, makes “The Best Years of our Lives”
Wins 2nd Best Director Oscar…film also earns Best Picture
And, he had an amazing eye for talent – more actors have won Oscars under Wyler than any other 2 directors combined: Enter Audrey Hepburn – new, unknown to Hollywood, survivor of Nazi occupation. Nominated and WON an academy award for this, her first major role.
“Rome! By all means, Rome. I will cherish my visit here in memory as long as I live.”
Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn)
Originally planned to run as “and Introducing Audrey Hepburn”, Gregory Peck informed the producers that she’d surely win an Academy Award for her performance, so her name MUST appear above the title. And, so it does.
This is the first American film to be made in its entirety in Italy and they really celebrate it:
Bocca della verita (btw: her reaction is REAL – Peck improvised his performance to get that reaction from her)
If you haven’t seen this picture – I can totally imagine you looking at the first 20min and thinking: Nah, I’m not that into 1950s B&W. Ostensibly, it’s a mid-century, milquetoast rom-com. That could not be further from the truth. The extras in the Embassy Ball include actual Italian nobility (who donated their salaries to charity) and the reporters at the end are all actual reporters – OH, the reporters and when she addresses the members of the press. THIS is the ending scene to end all ending scenes….I defy you to have a dry eye. Not to sit on the edge of your seat CONVINCED that she’s going to……..
….oops, I almost gave away the ending. Watch it. Then go to Rome.
This movie is available in many format including streaming on Amazon. Settle in with some of this, and this, and that. Ciao!
I have a friend who orders mussels everywhere we go. Has for years. To me, they always seemed like a huge bowl of piping hot, black …shells. However, I was lured by the promise of fries served with mayo. Who knew, she’s been right all this time – but, I had to go to Belgium to discover it.
As mentioned in an earlier post, I had previously only spent a little over a day in Bruges (this time last year actually) and I fell head over heels in love with it. So, 6 months later, I returned with a friend for her birthday. She wasn’t sure about spending an entire week in Bruges (that’s fair), but I’d looked into Brussels and Antwerp and I didn’t want to spend 1/2 a week in either, so we compromised – we’d hit all 3, with Bruges being the grand finale. It was a rousing success – each stop held something enticing, but Bruges truly was the icing on the cake.
Brussels: HQ for the EU. Major metropolitan city. Home of Mannken Pis. We stayed at the exquisite Hilton Brussels Grand Place, which is directly in front of Central Train Station. I’ve praised the power of brand loyalty before, but here it REALLY paid off. Most of our accommodations on this sojourn were covered by my friend’s points. Not only did Hilton have rooms for us at no charge, as the Hilton Honors program promises, but they upgraded us in honor of her achieved level. That’s a very square deal. Loyalty pays off – there are lots of times that I want local flavor and something truly unique, but give serious consideration to establishing consistency for the benefit of points if nothing else. This Hilton location was ideal for getting around on foot as we were easily walkable to Grand Place (shocking – since it’s in the name….). You’ll scoff a little when I tell you that Grand Place at night, when it’s all lit up, people are milling around with beer & wine in hand, and there’s live music wafting in the air….it feels a little like St. Mark’s Square. I know, I know – but, TRUST me. I didn’t say full-on reminds me, just is a little reminiscent of. Anyway, on the square, we were directed by our concierge to ‘T Kelderke for mussels and frites. Word to the wise, don’t call them “french fries” in Belgium. Who exactly invented them is still somewhat contentious – so, just call them frites. Nonetheless – we wanted the whole spread – mussels, frites, the fabled mayo on fries (which I fully endorse), and flemish asparagus. We were in heaven – the aroma, the flavor – garlic, white wine – we ate our fill and BARELY had enough energy to drag our satiated bellies back to our stylish hotel bar, which was showing classic films. #heaven
I’ll be frank – if you’re not going to Brussels with shopping in mind, just go somewhere else. Built in the mid-19th century, this shopping mall draws you in with the promise of extravagance. Each window is expertly adorned. The shops are perfectly curated for a mix between clothes, chocolates, restaurants, home decor, hand-made leather gloves….I could go on. There’s something beautiful to see, or taste, at every turn. Then, there’s the Place du Grand Sablon. I had every intention of buying myself a diamond necklace in Antwerp because 84% of the world’s diamonds travel through Antwerp. However, walking around Grand Sablon, I happened onto a jewelry merchant with whom I connected and came to trust – that’s key when you’re buying jewelry. FYI: There are no amazing deals out there on jewelry – the internet’s just about everywhere….everyone (wholesalers and retailers) knows what everyone else is selling and for how much….. But, do you love the piece, trust the person you’re buying from and did you do your homework? If the answer is yes to each one of those and you’re happy with the price. Buy. Having worked in the jewelry business myself and having seen people get taken in the past, I was so far beyond skeptical – and, I always am.
If you’re thinking of buying diamonds abroad, here’s my advice:
Don’t get talked into stones that are TOO clear or TOO colorless
Unless you just have SO much money to spend that it doesn’t matter; that’s cool, too.
Personally, how close are people going to get to my neck? – an H, I, J is plenty white for me, and SI 2 clarity was perfect – the main inclusion is actually hidden by one of the prongs
Make sure the stone comes with a GIA grading report
I compared the details they gave me with the GIA grading report that was posted on-line (there’s a tracking #); they matched
The GIA grading report has a # engraved on the girdle of the stone – I made the poor guy read me the number AFTER it was set to ensure I got the same stone that had been graded by GIA
Walk away even if for just a second and ask yourself if you’ll be more happy having the piece or the cash – if you’re ambivalent, just keep walking.
IGI (International Gemological Institute) is not GIA
Shall I spare you all the clothes shopping we did in Antwerp? Alright, but there was much. Why don’t I tell you about Peter Paul Rubens instead – Would that be a nice change of pace? If you don’t like religious art, then I’m afraid you’re still out of luck. However, the artistry is nothing short of extraordinary. I know nothing formally about art, but I know that when I look at a Rubens next to a piece by another artist, his use of perspective, human emotion and warmth set him apart. There are several places to see his work in Antwerp, but Cathedral of our Lady offers at least 3 that you won’t want to miss. If you have to economize your time, I say go to that one and THEN start hitting the beer scene in Antwerp. You will have covered all your bases.
I’m convinced that I’ll never get all of Bruges down in only one post. I’ve praised the lodging in an earlier post: De Castillion Hotel Bruges. Everyone I send here is knocked out of their socks. I exaggerate you not.
In the Martin McDonagh movie “In Bruges“, which incidentally isn’t entirely well-received here, Ralf Fiennes repeatedly says that Bruges is ‘an effing fairytale, it is’…… and, that’s absolutely true. It’s a medieval village. Wander its streets, its squares, its river banks, eat its chocolate, see the actual blood of Christ. Bruges is a popular weekend destination for Europeans. If you have the option to avoid Friday-Sunday, I recommend it. If you’re trying to decide between Bruges and Ghent – they’re probably similar – yet, Bruges has decided to NOT allow commercial water traffic, so that seems a little better preserved in my opinion. Not judging, just saying. That’s my $0.02.
Old St. John’s Hospital – it’s an art museum, garden, and pharmacy museum. You’ll be glad to learn that ambulances have advanced since the 1100s. Their pharmacy served the community from the 17th century to the 1970s. Yeah, you read that right. And, there’s a painting there that shows the pharmacy in its early days – it hasn’t changed much. Doesn’t that trip you out when you see a painting of a room you’re standing in, yet the painting shows it filled with people in garb centuries older than your own? Same ROOM – it’s the closest we can come to actual time travel. I love that.
The Begijnhof – So peaceful, so serene – it’s silent. Literally. Do you know what a Beguines is? Read about them – it’s interesting. After the crusades, many women were left without men to provide for them, so the communities had to do something. They lived in these convent-ish settings like nuns, but didn’t take vows. The Beguines are gone now and it’s an actual convent. I wandered in while they were chanting their prayers in the chapel one day. Mesmerizing.
Wonder why I skipped over any elaboration of the Bruges Madonna above? That’s because there’s no better way to understand why you have to see her than to watch “Monuments Men“. It’s a movie directed by and starring George Clooney. (Is that enough – shall I just close now?) If you like history, it’s thoroughly enjoyable. The movie itself isn’t a great work of art – I doubt it will become a classic, but if you’re heading to Bruges, it’s a must see. You have to appreciate the power of art over time – whether the ‘good’ guys or the ‘bad’ guys, people have vied for it and fought over it since its inception. This particular piece also happens to be the only Michelangelo sculpture to have ever left Italy during his lifetime. Art and how it has been received over time, its place in the world, and how its world intersects with my own moves me. I hope it does you.
“I’m half-Irish, half-Dutch, and I was born in Belgium. If I was a dog, I’d be in a hell of a mess!”
In preparing a recommendation for you that would give you a picture postcard of India, I bumped into my old friend, Sir David Lean. He had the ticket I was looking for in “A Passage to India”. However, no discussion of this gifted director is complete without also mentioning “Summertime”, so you get a double-feature today.
So, David Lean has made a few movies you might’ve heard of: “Lawrence of Arabia”, “Dr. Zhivago”, “The Bridge on the River Kwai”…nothing too heavy, or overly ambitious…if you’ve seen these movies, you’ll know I’m rolling my eyes right now. His résumé is lengthy and accolades well-deserved. By focusing on the two movies I’ve listed above, we’ll look at his first “big Hollywood” movie (Summertime in 1955) and his last picture (Passage in 1984). If you’re intrigued and want to look into his career (check him out on IMDB or Letterboxd), you won’t be disappointed. He loses none of his vision or passion in the nearly 30 years between these two and for the purposes of travel without departure, you’ll find either of these 2 to be entirely satisfying.
Assuming you’ve been to Venice before, did you arrive by train? The Freccia trains in Italy are fast and convenient – watch lush Italian scenery whiz by while you have a glass of wine and a snack. But, when you see Venice come into view, at the far end of a long expanse of water, you’ll feel like Katherine Hepburn’s character in “Summertime” – eager to see the rest RIGHT NOW. But, let it unfold slowly – you don’t want to miss a single moment.
While her budding romance with Brazzi unfolds, you can just sense the conflict she’s feeling, but for the love of pete – she’s on vacation. Why not indulge? – I mean sure, he’s married and that’s a big no-no (not even a little bit good), but does she have to be QUITE so chaste? Let’s be honest, by the time Hepburn starred in this picture, the USS Winsome Coquette had already sailed….they’re both adults. And, he’s SO handsome and charming…. (sigh) I digress. Nonetheless, the longing is real and artfully presented. Similar to an earlier film by Lean, “A Brief Encounter”. Whether you watch this picture for the vistas of Venice, the canals by day and by night, or for the spirit of independent female adventurers, you won’t be disappointed.
“Good films can be made only by a crew of dedicated maniacs”
Sir David Lean
Next up in our little double-matinee is “A Passage to India”. When they say ‘a movie by David Lean’ in the opening credits, they mean it – he wrote and directed this screen play from original material by E. M. Forster. He, too, has a knack for inventing stories that translate well to the big screen: “A Room with a View” and “Howard’s End” to name only two. He won one of those awards they’re always giving out in Sweden. When it comes to making Victorian English seem relatable, he’s your man. And, historically speaking, that’s a tall order – this was a pretty up-tight bunch.
Judy Davis leads the cast and looks lovelier than I thought possible – had I overlooked her younger years on film? Maybe. Here she’s promised herself to a young magistrate in India during a time when India was a teensy bit oppressed by the English (read: the word “enslaved” was thrown around a bit during this period). Enter the young Davis with the elder Ashcroft, who are surprised to find that Ashcroft’s liberal upbringing of a son who’s risen high in the ranks could be undone by 2 years in India where he’s begun to drink the Kool-Aid and now believes the English to not only be the ruling nation, which they are, but also a superior race. It’s a powerful study of the time and the various people and their roles within it.
Set, in part, in Bangalore (now Bengaluru), you’ll see the elaborate and striking colors, the cacophony of masses of people and environ, and…I’d swear I noticed a whiff of Indian aroma. Maybe I just got swept away. Regardless, you’ll experience a LITTLE of being in another place and time through Lean’s master craftsmanship and the Oscar winning soundtrack.
I hope you’ll make time for one of these outstanding pictures. As always, it’s hard to say goodbye to an extraordinary place, but it’s never too far to go to Amazon or Netflix to say hello again – if only for a brief time. Both films are available in a variety of formats. Order a pizza or have some Indian food delivered to round out your experience. Make an evening of it – then make some travel plans.
Starting from within Europe springboards a long weekend – just add trains. The idea hit from around a conference table when a new idea offered potential: We’d all be in the idyllic village of Marlow (near London) at a meeting ending on a Thursday afternoon. Why not head out by train and see a little? Checking the rail lines, and tapping into personal experience from UK-based colleagues, we put together the following itinerary: London, Lille, Bruges & Amsterdam. Easy….well, sorta.
What we’ll discuss in this post:
Planning an itinerary; with fall-back plans
Tips on travel tools
Restaurant & Cocktails advice
Sights to consider
Why don’t we take a few extra days and REALLY see some stuff? That was the question on the table. Essentially, my boss never takes vacation, so we wanted an itinerary that even she would agree was economical (time-wise). And, another in our 4-man crew, that didn’t actually include any men, was diametrically opposed to just spending a weekend in Paris (we’ve since addressed and resolved that opposition – more to come later). So, there you have it – we set out.
Have you ever been to Marlow? I’d never heard of it before I started traveling there for work. When you arrive in London, you’re really in the thick of a busy, modern travel frenzy. But, about 1 hour by car, you leave all that behind and fall back at least a century to Marlow. This is a 700+ year-old town along the Thames where an unassuming little bridge connecting our hotel to shopping and dining is passable by only 1 car at a time – each just patiently waits his turn. It’s very civilized – we never fail to remark on how that scenario might play out in New Jersey (…no judgment).
There are several options for lodging in Marlow, but my favorite is the Compleat Angler. Situated along the water, you can sit and think, read, have a glass of wine or a peaceful breakfast (highly recommend their breakfasts). Goal #1: Work hard – but, when you have the chance to forget you’re at work TAKE IT. Anyway – it’s an adorable, quirky hotel with twists and turns everywhere you go. You’ll take several stairways just to get to and from your room – some might be 3 steps, others might be a whole flight. There will be many. Pack your strength for hauling luggage. Quaint comes at a price and this one is well worth it.
Anyway – Marlow was our jumping off point. Nonetheless – I’d highly recommend visiting these villages around London (e.g. Windsor, anyone?) – each has its own unique charm. In my opinion, we don’t pause long enough to appreciate the little differences:
Towel warmers in every bathroom even in the most meager accommodations.
Nespresso is pretty standard fare in European hotel rooms, whereas it’s pretty luxe in the states.
Have you ever noticed how unbelievably efficient electric kettles can be? I really marvel over the stupid little things.
Country #1: United Kingdom
Our official first stop was London – and, this brings me to one of my FAVORITE hotels, the Zetter Townhouse in Clerkenwell. I’ve stayed here about 4 times since a good friend from college revealed this little gem to me. Each room is different and perfectly appointed. I’ve recommended it now to dozens of people – many of whom stayed, as well as drank, here and RAVED about it. The service is very warm and personal. I’ll admit – I love when a hotel pretends to know me – I say pretends because: Do you really think that seeing me once a year stands out in their memories? No – but, they make me THINK it does.
At the stay that launched our 4C/4D, to toast ourselves and our journey – we requested bourbon. The bartender came over and gently asked why we weren’t drinking Scotch whilst in England. We confessed that we didn’t much care for Scotch, so we opted for its American cousin. We quickly consented to a lesson on the varieties of Scotch and enjoyed it very much! In what is often listed as a top cocktail destination in London, this staff took the time to teach us – warm and personal. Definitely enhanced our evening. Note – when you check-in, reserve a table in the lounge for later in the evening – you won’t be sorry.
There’s so much to do within walking distance to the Zetter, which I’ll revisit in a future post. Right now, I must be hungry because I really just want to tell you about food. The Quality Chop House is craving-worthy and casual – not fussy, but make reservations (they’re on OpenTable). Seems to be locally sourced, which tells you the menu varies throughout the year. I’ve visited several times and always bring friends who share in my delight. Wine options are good and the meat – obviously; it’s their heritage. Adaptable chefs – I’ve seen them cater to dietary and preference requests without jeopardizing any quality at all. Dessert – I once ordered a dessert there that was basically vanilla ice cream with olive oil and crunchy salt – don’t knock it. I’ve been making it myself at home ever since and I’ve won over many a skeptic.
Let me just say – it was SUPER easy getting to St. Pancras Station from Clerkenwell. Farringdon Station is walkable to Zetter Townhouse, but the advantage to St. Pancras is that it’s international – you can launch your train through The Chunnel and come out in Lille (first stop in France). So, from that perspective, a short cab ride to St. Pancras is worth its weight. Speaking of wait…….security is tight there. Plan to be in a long queue, but it’s reasonable (given international air travel these days). Plan about 75 min prior to boarding (which is about 5-10min prior to departure) and this way you won’t stress. It’s a great train station – not like a regional terminal at all – here are a few tips on how to spend your time. I’m pretty low-maintenance in the morning – black coffee and a bag of breakfast crisps if I’m splurging – but there are MUCH better options to be had there!
“IF ADVENTURES DO NOT BEFALL A LADY IN HER OWN VILLAGE, SHE MUST SEEK THEM ABROAD. ”
Do you have the Citymapper App? This app revolutionized things for me when I discovered it could get me all over NYC and BACK to New Jersey again using NJ transit (no other app could reliably do that……because…..Jersey, I guess). Nevertheless, when I started using this app, they only had New York, London and Paris. I was equally impressed with it in London. It’s SO many places now. You’ll find this to be an indispensable tool. (Digressing again…)Back to Eurostar, there are an average of 9 trains per day going from London to Lille starting from St. Pancras (so you have options) and you arrive in only 1h 22m. I like to arrive in my new destination by lunch, so I backward plan it. In this case, we left our destination the following morning to have lunch in the NEW place, so there was a LOT of backward planning – and, if you wanted to have ANY time to see things……well, you get where I’m going with this.
I like the Trainline App, although I see online, there are dissenting opinions. I’ve used several different apps, but this is one I’ve used most recently (within months) and have found it to be most serviceable. Previously, the various train lines required me to use different apps based on country – this seems to be a little more universal. As with anything, try it out for yourself. And, when it comes to buying train tickets, do the math, map out your itinerary, check arrivals and departure options and THEN ask for a quote. You might tweak your plans based on cost. And, I’d recommend 1st class (shocking) if you can swing it only because it will be less crowded and you’ll more likely have a place to stash your bags (practical). Also, you won’t have to vie for a seat – often, it will be assigned. Either way, they don’t oversell and you can have your tickets in your app. If you plan ahead, train travel is VERY economical – several months out (3-ish).
Country #2: France
Lille, France. We arrived with no expectations – We really knew very little about it except that lots of people from London head there to go shopping for the day. It’s FRANCE. And, it’s only ~1.5h away – for a girl from Texas, that’s extraordinary. I’ve seriously been more than 1.5h away from a MALL before, so the idea of popping over to France for lunch and shopping…?
We chose to stay at Hotel Carlton Lille. The price was right, the accommodations were very nice and the location ideal (as you can see from the pic above). It’s opposite the Opera in the Grand’Place and Old Lille, which is to say many walkable stores, cafes, and restaurants. Have you read The Alice Network? Female spies in WWII….takes place in Lille. Good frame of reference. We didn’t engage in any espionage, but we did treat ourselves to some Longchamp tote bags. Even my fuction-over-form husband agrees that keeping one of these in my suitcase all the time is one of the smartest travel tools ever. Here’s my advice for dinner in Lille – we wandered, got tips, checked TripAdvisor and ended up at a VERY nice place a little earlier than was customary in France (maybe 7-ish?….we’d been traveling). The hostess literally told us to wait outside for 15min until she was ready to open. As I recall, when she opened, she merely flipped the sign….she didn’t even open the door and greet us. After being allowed to sit, she didn’t warm to us, but she did start enthusiastically greeting other patrons…..so we left. We discovered that little side street nooks and crannies had FUN places to go – so, we popped into one that offered home cooking and it was WONDERFUL. My advice – wander around Lille until you see a place where people are having fun and the food smells and looks delicious to you…..and, do it at a decent French hour, like 8. Evenings go long here – being a college town, and with quite a large balcony on my room, I can tell you – there was spontaneous and uproarious singing well into the wee hours. If you’re uptight about that sort of thing, staying in the heart of the city might not be right for you. With the right attitude, though, young people breaking into song, rather than sirens and honking was a refreshing reminder that I wasn’t in any other city I’d ever visited before. That’s my unique ‘sound of Lille’.
Country #3: Belgium
Would you forgive me if I left Bruges to another time…? I have so much I want to tell you about Bruges, that it really must be reserved for my telling of Belgium as a whole. Suffice it to say, Bruges has become one of my favorite places – one that I have yet to get enough time to fully explore. If you look this up geographically, you’ll see that the whole place is more or less walkable in 10min. But, it’s so much more than that.
For the purposes of this post, I’m going to make Belgium a reference only to hotel and train travel.
We arrived in Bruges along with a gaggle of LOTS of other Europeans looking to enjoy the last vestiges of summer in Bruges (it was late September). On the train from Lille, we worried about having only 15min to change trains (with luggage, having to locate tracks, dash through the station, etc) but, they schedule these trains with tight connections for a reason – they’re doable. We changed in Brussles Midi and signage is excellent. Made our train without worries and it was PACKED (as I said before). We didn’t opt for 1st class this leg. Note, weary travelers – don’t discard your train tickets or receipts until you’re safely in your hotel room. All throughout Europe (and, the US for that matter) different stations have different rules. On this trip, Bruges was one where you have to swipe your ticket to get out. So, file this tip aways even if you discard everything else. And, there’s no hope of walking to Bruges proper, so hail a cab – they’re plentiful outside.
Upon arrival at the hotel, we did another last-minute assessment of our itinerary for the next day. Knowing that we’d have to loop back to Brussels Midi to get to Amsterdam, we determined that the early morning departure would be better suited (for us) by car – when there are 4 of you, that’s an option. Single or even double travelers struggle with whether a car is worth it – while the $$ was about the same, the hassle was not – the hotel arranged a car for us, which freed us up emotionally to stay out a little later and sleep a little longer the next day.
If anyone, including me, tells you that they can see Amsterdam in 1 day….they’re kookie. But, I wouldn’t change having stopped over here. It was easy to reach by train and the canals are beautiful to walk around even if you don’t have much time to explore shops, shows, and ALL of the history that Amsterdam has to offer. With VERY limited time, we chose a tour that focused on the Jewish immigrant experience in Amsterdam. It ended at the Anne Frank House. Entrance must be scheduled in advance and it’s very crowded, so plan ahead. The self-guided audio tour is well-paced and engaging. It’s not to be missed – one of the real benefits to travel is getting to expand your perspective – by combining these 2 activities, we were each individually moved. So, while I will eventually go back to see some Van Gogh and Rambrandt, I’m glad that I spent my first trip doing something very real that I can carry with me everywhere.
“Practise what you know, and it will help to make clear what now you do not know.”
Rembrandt van Rijn
And, with this being our last night on a short, but long, journey, we nestled into our lavish hotel – it was a bit of a splurge, so we doubled up to afford it. Each rooms was spacious with a private balcony on the canal. It’s literally not to be missed. The Ambassade Hotel is a work of art in itself. Everywhere you turn is another original piece (literally, even the stairwells). Their Library Bar is exactly that – over 5,000 books signed by the authors, each one having once been a guest of the hotel. Being a little too tired to explore dinner options, we accepted their invitation to make reservations at their in-house Brasserie. This was no ordinary brasserie – it’s an extraordinary French dining experience. The food was excellent, the service was exceptional. Upon making our reservation, I informed them that I’m Celiac. The waiter greeted us later that evening acknowledging that aspect of my reservation and guiding me in my selections throughout the evening. I can manage on my own most anywhere – but, knowing that they take your health and comfort so seriously is a worthy consideration.
A hotel that I did not choose this time, but one that I’m following on Instagram for future consideration is The Toren. If you’ve stayed here before, I’d love to hear about it. Also – any tips you have for a future Amsterdam trip are appreciated.
So, I’ll close this LONG (first) post by promising – they won’t all be this lengthy. But, I hope I’ve inspired you to think about how EASY it is to arrange a long weekend that can touch 4 countries in 4 days – It was a teeny bit exhausting, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. Not only did I get to know some of my favorite work colleagues in ways that you can only achieve at 7am on a train…with a 5min connection…on only 5 hours of sleep…..for 4 days in row. I also saw parts of the world I’ve ALREADY gone back to visit again – and, I might not have ever seen them at all if they hadn’t been on the train line out of St. Pancras on a long weekend.