City Guide to London, UK: Part 3 | Must See Attractions & City Cards
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Our first trip into London proper was by the Underground, also known as the Tube. We saw nothing coming into the city because we were in the tunnels. So, when we stepped out of the station, we were taken aback and in awe. Directly in front of us was Big Ben, properly known as Elizabeth Tower, and Houses of Parliament. To our right was West Minster Abbey and Parliament Square Garden. It was everything we’d seen in pictures and on television, and to be standing in front of it was not only surreal, but breathtaking. The architecture, history and sheer size was fantastic.
At that moment, of walking out into the center of one of the most iconic areas of London, we could've possibly been satisfied with our trip to London. But quickly, we had a need to see everything London has to offer. This is a daunting task. A city dating back to Roman times, as far back as 43 AD, has more historical sights than we, as Americans, can wrap our heads around (Wiki). London is a city with hundreds of museums, treasuring both the old and the new. Attractions for the young and the old are everywhere you turn. With over 8.6 million people and the largest city in the European Union, its sheer size and cultural diversity is an experience in and of its own (Londonist).
We knew it would be a challenge to see London, especially as in depth as we are known for. We wanted to see the big attractions, the museums and the hidden gems. We wanted to feel like we gave a good go at leaving no stone unturned. We wanted to feel like we had a sense for the city and the culture. We also wanted to be wise with our budget and save wherever possible. These were all challenges in their own right, but combine them together and it can be overwhelming; fortunately, we were up for the challenge!
First Things First
Whenever we visit a new city, we do a Google search for city cards and passes. Most large cities, and many smaller ones have at least one type of city pass or card. These cards will get you into city attractions, experiences and museums for free or at a discounted price. Many times we find several competing city cards that offer similar deals, but we also find that combining cards and deals can lend itself to a more comprehensive experience, as well as larger savings. Some people may shy away from these cards because they are so ‘touristy’, but let’s be honest. While we’re doing much more than just being tourists, like experiencing the culture and diversity of the city and the people, we’re still going to be tourists for a few days!
London was no exception and we found several ways to save money, including a couple of cards/passes.
- London Pass by Leisure Pass Group. See more detail at London Pass. The London Pass gives you free admission to over 60 attractions, museums, and experiences. Choose from a 1, 2, 3, 6 or 10 day card, with the option of adding on unlimited free public transportation with a Travelcard.
- 2 for 1. Many London attractions partner with the National Rail to offer 2 for 1 deals on tickets. That’s a 50% savings! The catch is that you need a rail ticket that’s valid on the day you intend to visit. There are a few gray areas in the type of ticket it needs to be, and the attraction is the one who determines the acceptability of the ticket. Sadly, Oyster cards (the London pay as you go public transport card) aren’t valid for this deal. A great 2 for 1 deals resource can be found at Days Out Guide, they do a wonderful job of explaining things!
- London Explorer Pass by Smart Destinations. See more detail at Smart Destinations. Choose from a card that gives you access to 3, 4 or 5 attractions and pay one low price. The savings are typically about 35% off gate prices.
Decisions Need to Be Made
So, we knew we had plenty of options to save money on many, if not most of the major sights, experiences, and museums in London. We just had to make a decision on what option(s) would be the best.
Because of the sheer amount of things to do in London, no one option covers everything. However, we found that the London Pass covered a majority of what we wanted to do, plus a bunch more. Our experience with city passes in the past has been that they save us two to three times what we spend on the card. So, when comparing the above options, while the 2 for 1 deal seemed like a huge savings at 50%, it comes with the complication of having the right train ticket and it’s only a 50% discount. We reviewed the attractions included on the London Pass and knew that we’d be saving way more than 50% with the London Pass.
However, while the London Pass covered almost everything we wanted to see, there were a few key omissions. We needed to use either the 2 for 1 deal or the London Explorer Pass to see St. Paul’s Cathedral, the London Eye and a few other things. Ultimately, we choose the London Explorer Pass for five attractions that were not included with the London Pass. Read more about City Guide to London, UK: Part 2 | Must See Attractions & City Cards.
The London Pass was a clear winner and now we just needed to decide how many days we wanted to purchase it for, and, if we wanted the Travelcard add on.
London Pass Features
How Many Days to Purchase It For?
The London Pass can be purchased as a 1, 2, 3, 6 or 10 day card. Any option can be a good value, if used to its potential. When deciding how many days we want to purchase the card for, we ask ourselves the following questions:
- How much time are we going to be in a city?
- What attractions, included on the card, do we want to see?
- How long will it, realistically, take for us to see and do everything?
In the case of London, there were a ton of things we wanted to see and do. The choice for us was between the 6 and 10 day cards. Fortunately, when purchasing the cards they were on sale and the difference between the two options was only £20. So, in the extra four days, we only had to see or do £20 worth of stuff to make the 10-day card worth it. In our situation, it was a no-brainer to go with the 10-day card.
Do We Purchase the Add-On Travelcard?
Public transportation in London is extensive, making it a great way to get around. While there, we had no need for a car and only traveled by foot and public transport. However, the size and options of public transport can make it a bit hard to get your head wrapped around it. The London Pass makes this a bit easier by offering a Travelcard that you can purchase with the pass for an additional fee. A Travelcard offers unlimited public transportation on all major public transport options (Underground, Overground, Buses, DLR and London Rail). Once you have the card, you just swipe it before boarding and then swipe it when exiting. It’s simple and makes public transportation seamless.
We ran the numbers and the cost of the Travelcard add-on and they were the same price as they were if purchased directly from TfL (Transport for London). Therefore, Leisure Pass Group doesn't add a surcharge for purchasing the Travelcard through them, which is frankly surprising. There are a few reasons why this add-on option didn’t work for us. However, it could be a good fit for many visitors, so, do yourself a favor, and consider the option wisely. With that said, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- The Travelcard can only be mailed to you. It can’t be picked up or received digitally. For us, this didn’t work because we didn’t have a residence to mail it to, and we wanted to start using the card right away.
- The Travelcard is valid only for the number of days the London Pass is valid for. For example, if you purchase the six-day city pass, the Travelcard will only be valid for six days. We were spending several weeks in London and would be traveling by public transportation before and after our sightseeing adventures. So again, this didn’t work for us.
After careful consideration, we opted not to purchase the Travelcard because it was not the best option for us. Instead, we decided to purchase an Oyster, pay as you go, card. These cards can be purchased at many of the Rail and Underground stations from an automated machine for a £5 deposit. When you’re done with the card you can get a refund of the deposit and whatever is left on the card as long as it’s £10 or less. Using an Oyster card is less expensive than purchasing single fare tickets, as single fare tickets can be over double the cost of an Oyster fare.
Learn more in our City Guide to London, UK: Part 5 | Public Transportation.
The London Pass App!
Say goodbye to a physical card, a guide book and a tourist map! Finally, the London Pass comes with an app! For years (seriously, over eight-years) we’ve been using city passes and cards, and they always require being mailed a package or picking up all the goodies at a local visitors or tourist center. Don’t get us wrong, picking it up in person had always worked just fine. However, picking up the cards and books isn’t always the best part of the whole deal. Sometimes just getting to and finding the pickup place can be a challenge. But, most of all, since you have to carry around a plastic card, the size of a credit card, we worry we’ll lose it. Not to mention, we walk around town with a map and book that essentially say “Look at us, we’re tourist!” We’re not ones to like drawing extra attention to ourselves or making us a target for pickpockets’ or thieves. When we purchased the London Pass and found out there was an app, we were pleasantly surprised, but skeptical of the ease of use and functionality. We didn’t think it would be exhaustive enough to keep us from needing to pick up a map and cards. But, to our delight, it was! The app has all of the attraction information on it and the attractions are searchable. So, no more flipping through a book or bending page corners. There’s also a map feature that allows you to locate the attraction on your map app. And the best part is that your cards are loaded on to the app and attractions just scan the phone to validate it. We purchased two passes and were able to load them both to the app and just swipe left to right between cards when we were at an attraction.
However, in all transparency, to really make our sightseeing more efficient, we used the app in conjunction with our pre-made Google map that had all of the attractions we planned to see saved on it. We were unable to find a way, in the app, to see multiple attractions on a map at the same time. Using the Google map allowed us to efficiently plan out the order of attractions by what was nearest.
Needless to say, we were impressed by the app. It made the overall experience that much better. Our one recommendation is for Leisure Pass Group to add the capability of seeing multiple attractions on a map at the same time. However, all in all, nice job London Pass! Now, we just need the other cities to step up their game and get apps as well!
Using the London Pass
We’ve used city passes in many different cities (Orlando, Chicago, Miami, Oahu, San Diego, Washington DC, Dublin, Amsterdam) and there hasn’t been a single time we’ve regretted it. Our purchase of the card has always led to great savings as well as a great time exploring the city. The cards include many of the major experiences in the city, plus many smaller ones, making the time sightseeing a well-rounded and thorough experience. The London Pass gives access to over 60 attractions, including some of the major London sights and experiences.
We never once had a problem using the card at attractions and everyone knew exactly how to scan and process the card. With the cards we avoid the hassle of pulling out methods of payment and purchasing tickets, which usually saves time. We weren’t treated differently, or poorly for having the passes. In fact, there are a few attractions on the card that give you access to a shorter line, like a fast track ticket.
We packed our days with things to do, since the more things you do with the card, the more savings you get from the card. In 10 days we saw 41 attractions, museums and experiences on the card. We sightsee with vigor, so each day was usually 8-13 miles of walking, and over 10 hours long. This may not be the average tourists’ pace, but hey, Screw the Average! In those 10-days we also mixed in things that don’t have a fee, like neighborhoods, architecture, sculptures and statues. We also did the five attractions on the London Explorer Pass (London Eye, Madame Tussauds, SEA LIFE Aquarium, The London Dungeon, and St Paul’s Cathedral).
Here's What We Saw
Keep in mind that we’re two adults traveling without kids, so the list below may not be what a family would choose to see. There are many attractions we skipped that would be great for families with kids.
- Cartoon Museum – Very interesting museum on cartoons. When we visited they had an exhibition on cartoons in print. We were surprised how well done and unique it was!
- London Transport Museum – Focused towards kids and family, but it was still interesting to see the evolution of transportation throughout the years in London.
- The Courtauld Gallery – Extensive collection of paintings, prints, drawings, and sculptures.
- Benjamin Franklin House – Tour is done as a live action story with actors.
- The Household Cavalry Museum – We timed this one just right and had time to walk the museum and then head out to see the changing of the guards.
- Banqueting House – Beautiful grand ballroom.
- Churchill War Rooms – A must-see for any history buff. Very well done!
- Westminster Abbey – Get there early, crowds build up quickly.
- ZSL London Zoo – World’s oldest scientific zoo, opened in 1828.
- Kensington Palace
- Wellington Arch – Very interesting history lesson behind this city arch.
- The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace
- Museum of London - Fire! Fire! Exhibit – A free museum but the card gave us access to a paid exhibit. At the time of our visit, it was the 250th year anniversary of the great fire in London. It was an extremely well done and informative exhibition.
- Shakespeare's Globe
- The Old Operating Theater Museum – Be prepared to climb narrow stairs. It’s well worth it though if you're into medical science or the history of medicine.
- The London Bridge Experience – Similar style to the London Dungeon. It gave an interesting interactive presentation on the history of the London Bridge (not to be confused with the Tower Bridge!)
- HMS Belfast
- Tower Bridge Exhibition – Lets you walk across the top of this iconic bridge as well as see the old engine rooms.
- Tower of London – You can spend hours here walking around. If you want to see the Crown Jewels, be sure to visit here.
- The Monument – Very narrow stair case up to the top of the monument. It has very nice views of the city, although we still prefer the view from St. Paul’s Cathedral.
- Arsenal Stadium/Emirates Stadium – The self-guided audio tour takes visitors from the field to the locker rooms and the media conference room. A must-see for football/soccer fans.
- ArcelorMittal Orbit – Located at the 2012 Olympic park, it has good views of the city and Olympic stadium, but sadly are somewhat blocked by the structure itself.
- Cutty Sark – The museum is literally built around the ship, for the full affect be sure to visit the café area which allows you to see the underside of the ship.
- Royal Observatory Greenwich – Stand on the Prime Meridian Line and see the world’s most accurate clock.
- Chislehurst Caves – Our tour guide was fantastic! (Sergio here! The guy should have his own show on a science or travel channel!)
- Royal Albert Hall – We were fortunate enough to see Cirque du Soleil rehearse Amaluna during our behind the scene tour!
- National Portrait Gallery- Picasso Exhibit – Museum is free, the pass grants access to the paid exhibit. We were fortunate enough to see a Picasso exhibit.
- Jewel Tower
- Thames River Boat Cruise – We got hop-on hop-off tickets valid for a full 24-hours.
- Namco Funscape – A few pounds in coins that we used to play air hockey. Great fun! (Sergio here! I desimated her! / Shannon here! Yes...yes he did.)
- Science Museum IMAX
- Curzon Movie Theater, Bloomsbury - Watched Star Wars Rogue One in what felt like a personal screening room since the theater only had 28 seats.
- Royal Air Force Museum, Flight Simulator – The museum is full of replicas of planes and is free to view. Sadly, the Flight Simulator experience that the London Pass gets you access to is a bit outdated.
- BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Exhibition
- Wembley Stadium Tour - Our tour guide was great! We learned so much about the stadium.
- Curzon Movie Theater, Chelsea - Silence, Martin Scorsese’s latest film about Jesuit priests in Japan.
- Wimbledon Tour Experience
- Curzon Movie Theater, Mayfair- Manchester By The Sea, will Casey Affleck win an Academy Award for his performance?
- Hop On Hop Off Bus Tour
- British Museum – Access to the paid exhibit.
- Windsor Castle
As you can see, we used the cards all across London! Since the pass is a flat fee and you get into the attractions for free, once you recuperate the cost of the card, everything else is savings. So, two cards cost us $312, and in the first two days alone we went to twelve attractions that would have cost $363 without the card. So, in the two days or sightseeing we got the full value of the card, plus some. Day three through ten were just cherries on top for huge savings! We usually save double or triple the value of a card and as you can see, the London Pass is no different. We spent only $312 on two cards but saw attractions that would have cost $1,294. That’s a savings of $982!
Would We Recommend the London Pass?
Without a doubt, we highly recommend the London Pass. It has the potential to save hundreds of dollars. But our recommendation comes with a caveat. The pass is only worth it if you’re going to see more attractions than what the card will cost. In our case, the reason the card is so great, is because it really suits our sightseeing style. We’ve included general tips on using city cards in the next section that will help you evaluate if a card is the right choice for your style of sightseeing adventures.
When it comes to the attractions on the card, we were happy with it. It covers many of the major tourist attractions as well as some of the smaller ones. The card covers many private museum and art collections, gives access to paid exhibitions in free museums and includes two canal tours and a hop-on hop-off bus tour. The big attractions like West Minster Abbey, Wimbledon Tour and the Tower Bridge Experience are also included. We enjoyed the independent movie theaters that were included, as well as the IMAX experience.
If you’re looking to just see a few major attractions, the London Explorer Pass may serve you better. If your intent is to simply explore the many museums London has to offer, then you don’t need a pass. With exception to private collections and special exhibitions, London museums are generally free with a recommended donation. If you’re paying to get into a museum, we noticed the prices are listed with an asterisk. Reading the fine print lets you know that a donation has been included in the price and that the actual cost of admission is typically a pound or two less.
In closing, we wanted a full, well rounded, no stone unturned experience of London, and the London Pass delivered!
Tips for City Cards/Passes
We have used cards in several cities over the years and have learned a few things to best utilize them.
- Is the card worth it? If you’re a leisurely traveler, seeing only a couple of attractions a day, a city card/pass may not be right for you.
- The value of these cards are in using them at as many attractions as you can. For example, if you pay $50 for the card and only see two attractions that cost $20 each without the card (at the door cost), you lost $10. However, if you see four attractions that cost $20 each without the card, you’ve saved $30, and so on.
- Think ahead, figure out what you plan to do on the card and what the retail, at the door cost is. Be realistic about how much time you’ll spend at each location and how long it’ll take to get from place to place. Now, compare the retail cost to the cost of the city card/pass. Is it worth it?
- Research is done for you. City cards/passes go out of their way to give you access to the biggest tourist attractions in the city, that’s how they get people to buy them. This means the majority of the research of what to see and do is done for you. With a Tripit and Lonely Planet search to supplement the card’s attractions, you have your travel itinerary list done!
- Keep in mind that the card focuses on attractions that cost money to view or do. So, the card will get you a pretty comprehensive list of popular things to do, to that extent. We supplement the card with free attractions (architecture, parks, sculptures, hikes, etc).
- Use the hop-on-hop-off tour as transportation to attractions. It’s multipurpose in that it works as a tour of the city, but it'll also get you from place to place. This means saving on taxi fare or parking fees.
- Usually the hop-on-hop-off is only good for one day, so use it wisely. Plan out the attractions you want to see using the bus so that you get them all in in one day.
- Plan ahead! Don’t buy the card and think you’re done with planning. This approach will lead to valuable wasted time in figuring out where to go next. Plan out the destinations and their order ahead of time for each day you have the card. This way, you can fit in most everything you want to do and not miss a single attraction.
- Here’s our process for planning:
- We open every available attraction in our browser, each in its own tab.
- Together, we look at each attraction page and decide if it’s something we want to do. We consider the value, the time it will take to do, and the location. We close the tabs with attractions on them that we don’t want to do. We then organize the remaining attractions’ tabs we want to do by priority.
- Using the provided map, we figure out where all of the attractions we’re doing are located. We note how close they’re to the hop-on-hop-off bus stops.
- We look up hours of operation and determine if we need to reserve a time or space for any attractions.
- Using all of the gathered data, we logically plan out our itinerary. Making sure that we pack in as much as we can, but keeping it realistic, so we’re not rushed and not enjoying the venue. We know how far we’re comfortable walking, where the bus will take us and how long we’ll spend at each attraction.
- Here’s our process for planning: