I spend a lot of time in London, often taking the first train in and spending the day in meetings and coffee shops, but I’m embarrassed to say the girls (8, 9 and 11) have only come in for occasional day trips.
This half term we stayed as guests of The Rubens at the Palace, which is part of the The Red Carnation Hotel Collection and rated one of the highest 4-star hotels in London by the Automobile Association. The Rubens has 161 luxury rooms and suites, and is literally on the doorstep of Buckingham Palace. Originally part of the Palace grounds, the hotel is seeped in history (debutantes used to stay here while attending parties at Buckingham Palace). With Victoria Station just a four-minute walk, it’s a fabulous location to base yourself as a family and tour London.
Before our visit I took a quick look at Gogobot’s London Top Things to Do list for some ideas of touristy things to do. Trafalgar Square and Buckingham Palace rank 4 and 5 respectively (London Eye, Tower Bridge and Big Ben are 1, 2 and 3). To be honest, the girls were most excited to be staying so close to the queen. Do you think she might invite us to tea mummy?
Our visit started with parking. The only thing I hate more than driving in London, is parking in London. Luckily Rubens doorman Nathan took care of that for us. When I asked about charges, he kindly said he would move the car on Saturday to the street parking behind the hotel, which is free on the weekends, so we would avoid another day of charges. It’s the little things like this that really make a difference (my Scottish husband was impressed).
Guest services manager Janine met us on arrival. While I dealt with the bags and checking in, the girls had a separate check in, filling in their own vital information such as their favourite drink, food, animal and hobby. Janine gave them each an interactive children’s map of London where they could tick of popular sites they visit (the girls noticed same one later for sale in the trendy National Gallery gift shop). Then we were whisked off for our Master Chef in the Art of Pastry Experience (part of the hotel’s “Get more for the family” package).
The girls loved this! They got kitted out in chefs whites and headed down into the main kitchen to decorate cupcakes. The charming Chef Francesco, from the small town of Pesaro in Italy, had the girls dip strawberries in chocolate.Then they were taught how to pipe a swirly mound of sweetened whipped cream on to vanilla sponge cupcakes. After practising that a few times (and stealing a taste) Francesco brought out all the decorations: dried raspberries, white and dark chocolate swirls, almond flakes and of course the obligatory candy-coloured sprinkles. The girls devoured the chocolate strawberries, and Janine put the cupcakes in the refrigerator for us to enjoy later.
Our family suite consisted of two interconnecting rooms. It’s cleverly designed – the rooms are in the corner corridor of the hotel, so they can be used separately, or you can close the hallway door and ta-da! they become a family suite.
As expected for London our room was compact, but beautifully decorated in turquoise and brown velvet. There was equally stylish arm-chair and foot lounge and a large flat screen TV (which we immediately turned off.) The TV had a discreet digital clock, which I found very handy for telling the time (I usually wake up early). The room had all the amenities: a ‘real” hairdryer (not one stuck to a wall), white fluffy robes and slippers, cafetière coffee and tea, magazines, and an office set with stapler, extra staples, scissors and paper (we used for kids crafts!). At night, the turn-down service left water and French Gavottes biscuits bedside. The Independent newspaper is included, but you can order your favourites too.
The bathroom was small but lavish with granite floor and tiles, and a deep bath and shower. A single fresh red carnation, a trademark, was placed by the sink. The toiletries by the famous perfumery Fragonard reminded me of trips to Grasse and Eze-Vilage in France.
Our king-sized bed was beautiful and very comfortable to sleep in. We had a very restful night, partly in thanks to a silent air con system. A big thank you to the engineer was installed the system. So often a badly running air condition system can keep you update at night.
The girls’ room had twin beds, with a sofa bed, and a view over to Victoria. Waiting for them on their beds were activity packs and make-up brushes and a gorgeous crystal charm. There were long discussions on where to pin the charm (the rucksacks won out). On a nearby table were Bea’s homemade biscuits and brownies and some London post cards. But the most coveted items were the three London snow globes – one was the London Eye, London buses, and Buckingham Palace. Very appropriate.
After we settled in we were ready to explore London! Though we could have walked to Trafalgar Square, the girls had never experienced the Underground, so we asked Nathan to direct us to the nearest tube station (Victoria, a 4 minute walk). I explained to the girls that mummy often comes to this station during the week for work, but they were more enthralled people watching on the tube, and figuring out to get our next destination (District to Embankment then Bakerloo to Charing Cross). It’s easy mummy.
Our first stop was Trafalgar Square, a large public space in Westminster. In the centre of the Square is Nelson’s Column, which is guarded by four lion statues. The girls had fun climbing the statues (yes you are allowed to climb them as long as they are not wet). I’m not sure when all the pigeons disappeared, but in their place are several impressive street performers which captivated my daughters’ attention.
At the top of Trafalgar Square is the National Gallery art museum. Founded in 1824, it houses a collection of over 2,300 paintings. I still find it amazing that you can walk in off a busy London road and within seconds be gazing at world-famous paintings, such as Van Gough’s Sunflowers and Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks.
Next on the list was Piccadilly Circus (No. 8 according to gogobot), a short walk away. Connecting the West End theatre district with the shopping of Regent Street, it oozes London atmosphere, especially in the evening when the lights are shining. The girls LOVE Cinnabon cinnamon rolls. If I am in London during the week and pass through Piccadilly Circus I always bring home the rolls for them. They were very excited to visit the famous Cinnabon themselves.
This led us to Regent Street, an area with all the trendy shops that pre-teens love. Hollister, whose shop 3 windows are live cams of surfers in the Pacific Ocean at Huntington Beach, California, had a queue to get in. We skipped that and opted for reasonably priced Japanese fashion shop Uniqlo (I bought an Orla Kiely long-sleeved V-neck T-shirt for £12.95). And of course, all tweens LOVE browsing in Lush Handmade Cosmetics and smelling each and every item.
For dinner we headed over to the very popular Rainforest Cafe. This is an adventure, not just a meal, and a fun way to educate little ones about the Rainforest. You enter through a shop full of stuffed frogs, alligators and other endangered species and then descend into an Amazon Rainforest with life-sized gorillas, elephants, toucans. There are intermittent thunderstorms and chattering between animals. The menu is American-style fare, with burgers, ribs, Chinese noodles and more. The girls loved the kids adventure meal, which comes with a pack filled with goodies to keep them busy. It’s pricey, but in my 8-year-old’s words: “This place is the BEST, mummy! Can I come for my birthday meal? Pleaaaassse.”
The next day we caught the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Make sure you check the official website for timings. We got there a 1/2 hour before it was due to start at 11.15, and the crowds were already forming. We stood in front of the main gates, but if I did it again (I probably wouldn’t) I’d watch from the front of St James’s Park, where the view is just as good. The ceremony lasts about a 1/2 hour and includes a lot of formal marching around by guards in tall furry hats. The band was a bit quirky, and played Dancing Queen and James Bond music, which amused the girls to no end. Get it mummy, Dancing QUEEN.
A short walk through the park and soon we were in Covent Garden (No. 21 on gogobot) where we saw more street performers and had a walk through the covered market. We stopped in at Carluccios (where I explained I sometimes comes for work meetings) and we drooled at the new Five Guys Burgers and Fries, which had a queue wrapped around the building!
We took a taxi back to The Rubens, which strangely was cheaper than the tube for five people! We headed to the tacky tourists shops, and the girls used their pocket money to pick out a few souvenirs (pencils, postcards and a rubber London bracelet).
We headed back to the hotel, and the ever-present Janine got the cupcakes the girls made the day before and we sat in the cozy Calvary Bar to enjoy them.
It’s nice to relax after so much sightseeing, and we ticked off 12 items off the must-see list. It was a fabulous weekend, and The Rubens was the perfect place to base ourselves. We hope to visit again soon.
If you go:
The Rubens at the Palace, 39 Buckingham Palace Road, London, SW1W 0PS, United Kingdom, T: +44 (0) 20 7834 6600 www.rubenshotel.com Part of the The Red Carnation Hotel Collection, this 4-star property has 161 luxury rooms and suites. Kids are treated as VIPs with all kinds of extras like pint-sized dressing gowns and slippers, activity packs, treats and an interactive child’s map of London where they can tick off all the places they have seen.
Rainforest Cafe 20-24 Shaftesbury Ave London W1D 7EU +44 020 7434 3111 www.therainforestcafe.co.uk This is an adventure, not just a meal, and a fun way to educate little ones about the Rainforest. You enter through a shop full of stuffed frogs, alligators and other endangered species and then descend into an Amazon Rainforest with life-sized gorillas, elephants, toucans. There are intermittent thunderstorms and chattering between animals. The menu is American-style fare, with burgers, ribs, Chinese noodles and more. The girls loved the kids adventure meal, which comes with a pack filled with goodies to keep them busy. It’s pricey, but in my 8-year-old’s words: “This place is the BEST, mummy! Can I come for my birthday meal? Pleaaaassse.”
Cinnabon Trocadero 7 – 14 Coventry Street London W1D 7DH +44 020 7287 9274 www.cinnabon.co.uk My girls love these ooey gooey cinnamon rolls. If I’m in London for work and am anywhere near Piccadilly, I always bring home the four pack (£10).
National Gallery Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN 020 7747 2885 nationalgallery.org.uk I still find it amazing that you can walk in off a busy London road and within seconds be gazing at world-famous paintings, such as Van Gough’s Sunflowers and Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks. The art museum houses 2,300 paintings. They have a FANTASTIC kids programme on Sundays. FREE (£4 donation requested).
The Changing of the Guard Buckingham Palace, London royal.gov.uk A colourful show of British pageantry taking place every other day. Show up at least 45 minutes early, or watch from nearby St James’s Park.
Uniqlo 84-86 Regent St London +44 020 7434 9688 www.uniqlo.com Reasonably priced fashion for men, women and children.
Lush Handmade Cosmetics 1/3, Quadrant Arcade 80/82 Regent St, London +44 020 7434 3953 www.lush.co.uk Natural handmade bath and body products including natural soaps, bath bombs, and creams.
Carluccios Garrick St, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9BH +44 020 7836 0990 carluccios.com Authentic Italian food at sensible prices.
Five Guys Burgers and Fries 1-3 Long Acre London WC2E 9LH +44 0800 083 3005 fiveguys.co.uk American-style burgers serving the best burgers and fries. Really.
Eat. Various locations throughout London eat.co.uk Billed as “The Real Food Company” it has no fuss sandwiches, soups, pies and pastries. I “eat” here often when in London for business, and it was nice to show the girls where I would typically go for a quick bite on a work day.
Note: Our accommodation was provided by The Rubens at the Palace for the purposes of this review. All opinions are mine and my family’s.