Mon. Aug 15th, 2022

  • I just spent a week in London, which has returned to vitality but still has few tourists.
  • The crowds are light at the major attractions, making this an ideal time to do something touristy.
  • City hotels are cheap with few business travelers, as opposed to seaside resorts which are very expensive.
  • This is a column of opinion. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

I have just spent a week in London and can report that this is the best possible time to visit London. And I think it’s generally the best time to do tourism in many of the world’s major cities.

London is back. The museums are open and restaurants are busy. The streets hum. Yet there are far fewer tourists than usual, and also fewer business travelers. This means good deals on hotels and easy crowds at the sights.

This is not necessarily a time to search for hidden gems. It’s a good time to see the headlines that would normally attract terrible crowds – even the literal crown jewels.

If you are planning a “Back to normal vacation”, you have probably thought about going to a resort. You are not alone. Travel to vacation destinations is really, really back, and many of these destinations have become wildly expensive. For example, the average daily hotel room price on Maui in August was $ 596, 52% higher than the same month in 2019.

So if you’ve got sticker shocks about going to the beach or another leisure-oriented destination, you might want to consider a city break instead. Let me describe as an example how my in-laws and I made the most of a week in London at the end of September and took advantage of this special time to go to cities.

It’s time to dump her and move on

I lived in London as a child, but this was my husband and my in-laws’ first trip to the city, and that meant we made London 101 places, including the ones I would not normally do on a trip alone.

We visited Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London. With an expert guide from Context Travel, we toured the Churchill War Rooms, the basement from which Winston Churchill directed the British response to Blitz in World War II. We took a day trip to the villages of the Cotswold (booked with David Stubbs from London Country Tours) and another to Hampton Court Palace, the Tudor-Georgian home of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and William and Mary. We saw Twelfth Night at the Globe Theater and Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit in the West End. We traded at Harrods and Liberty and Fortnum & Mason. We had afternoon tea at Brown’s Hotel and had dinner at Hutong on the 33rd floor of The Shard, the tallest building in Europe.

We were totally, totally tourists. And it was great, partly because everywhere we went, the crowds were nicely light.

For example, we had Hampton Court practically to ourselves – on a Sunday – standing alone on its large farms and strolling in the residential area with a little bit of tourists. The light crowds meant a richer and more informative experience, with a lot of attention from the whole complement of associate professors scattered throughout the palace, ready to tell you what happened a long time ago in each room.

hampton court

Clock Court at Hampton Court, free of tourists.

Josh Barro / Insider


This included staff in period costumes in Henry VIII’s banquet hall, who gave us a personal guide on how guests would eat and drink (the palace gave you a spoon, but you had to bring your own knife; forks were completely absent, an Italian way not popular anyway in England). We walked through an active kitchen from the Tudor era where the museum staff made a roast beef and fried pies.

In the Cotswolds, we went to villages like Broadway and Bourton-on-the-Water, which guidebooks warn will be overrun with turbo visitors (we did not see many turbo visitors). Other tourist towns, such as Chipping Campden, were positively quiet.

cotswolds

The village of Snowshill in the Cotswolds.

Josh Barro / Insider


The Tower of London, usually an overall bullying scene, was reduced to regular levels of bustle. We had to wait about five minutes to get in to see the crown jewels, and it was a little in love when we were inside – but in normal times the waiting time to get in is often half an hour.

This is the time for a front view of Buckingham Palace

But the experience that drove most people home, what a wonderful time it is to be a tourist in London, was the shift change, which only restarted in August after a long COVID-driven break.

If you have seen the ceremony or seen pictures of it, you are probably used to a huge crowd of tourists crowding into the fence around the palace to see it. You have to show up super early to get a good spot and then push a large crowd to keep your seat. It’s uncomfortable.

But now you can see it in your spare time.

change of guard

The author’s relatively unobstructed view of the change of guard at Buckingham Palace – obtained despite the fact that he arrived just three minutes before the ceremony started.

Josh Barro / Insider


We followed the instructions in Rick Steve’s London Guide, which appeared outside St. James’s Palace at 10:30 to see the palace guards preparing to head to Buckingham Palace for the ceremony at. 11, who would complete their shift. With a crowd of only about 20 people, we saw the guards receive inspection and a band prepare and march out in song.

Then we crossed St. James’s Park to the Wellington Barracks to see new guards prepare to march to Buckingham to start their shift.

The idea behind a viewing strategy focused on these outbuildings is that you can get a better overview of them than the main ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

But when we strolled up to the castle, three minutes before noon. 11, the crowd of tourists was only one person deep at the sides of the forecourt. We could see. Around 11:15 the people in front of us got bored and went on, and therefore we had a front view of the main ceremony.

This is not an experience you can have in normal times. The time to do so is now before the crowds return.

Restaurants are busy and require advance planning

I am a big believer in restaurant reservations on vacation. Spontaneity is overrated – you will usually be glad you made plans. People get crazy at meals, and you did not go on vacation to wait in line or hunt for a restaurant based on who has a table for you rather than whether it is good.

And while current conditions in London allow for a more relaxed approach than usual to museum planning, restaurant reservations remain as important as ever. This makes sense – restaurants are not primarily for tourists, and many places are open for fewer meals a week than usual.

Still, with advance planning, you can get to many places you want. I was especially lucky to be looking for reservations shortly before the cancellation deadline.

charcoal meal

The meal at Kol in London. There was no avocado in the dish.

Josh Barro / Insider


That’s how I got to Kol, a lovely and lively “Anglo-Mexican fusion” restaurant that serves Mexican cuisine prepared with local ingredients, meaning no citrus and no avocado. The meal culminated with delicious pork chops and chicharron carnitas with gooseberry salsa and homemade tortillas. There were also a number of guacamole substitutes (including one made from summer squash and mayonnaise) that seemed designed to please me and make New York Times readers furious.

Hotels are less crowded than usual and offer good values

According to STR data, the average hotel price in London in August was £ 113 ($ 153), down from £ 150 ($ 205) in August 2019.

This pricing environment means that you can get a cheap price or that you can stay in a nicer place than you normally would. We stayed at the Hyatt Regency London – The Churchill, a five star property in Marylebone, for just over $ 300 per night. Night. This is far below typical pre-pandemic rates on the property.

As always, you should find out which way to book a hotel will give you the best benefits. At Churchill, we booked through a travel agency participating in the Hyatt Privé program (in our case Ford Beckett) and therefore received full English breakfast each day and a £ 75 credit once per person. Stay pr. Room included in the price. If we did not have suite upgrade certificates to use, booking this way would also have given us a confirmed upgrade of a category.

If you do coincidentally, having suite upgrade certificates from any hotel network means low occupancy means it’s a time you’ll probably be able to use them- we could upgrade three standard rooms to suites with park views using certificates from Hyatt.

Cities are back and all they are missing is you

One thing I realized by having this experience in London is that I should do this in New York. This is a good time to visit New York’s museums with lighter crowds than usual. And I’ve heard similar stories from friends who have traveled to other places in Europe, including Paris – that it’s just a great time to visit a great world city.

One thing that can stop people is the hassle of getting permission to travel during the pandemic. Although COVID has made travel across international borders more complicated, the test requirements for this trip were manageable and the UK has relaxed its rules since we traveled.

Since October 4, fully vaccinated travelers to England do not need to get a COVID test before embarking on a journey. You need to get a test on your second full day in the UK (we ordered mail-in PCR tests in advance from Boots and had them delivered to our hotel), and then the US government requires you to be tested at the earliest 72 hours before your return flight. For this purpose, many providers offer quick tests with video surveillance that you can perform from your hotel room.

Life is getting normal again in big cities in Europe and North America, but one of the few things cities are still lacking is you the tourist who comes to do touristy things. Tourist travel is an important part of the economies of these cities and an important way in which the world is brought together. So go now before everyone else like you gets there.

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