Rome’s most iconic sights

The Colosseum and Roman Forum are undoubtedly two of the most popular attractions in Rome, for great reason. They are marvelous, archaic and absolutely spectacular. Built in A.D. 70-72 the iconic ruin epitomises Italy, the magnetic pull bringing culture and historical enthusiasts together. It acts as some sort of beacon for those who want to ground themselves in the historical “centre” of Europe.  The Colosseum has lived a difficult life, from gladiatorial combats to animal fights; history is etched in its bones- quite literally. There are seats within the Colosseum that have Senators names etched into the back of them, preserving their seats forever in time. Left to almost ruin after the fun and games the Colosseum remains as a stoic icon of the tumultuous Roman history that surrounds.

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The Roman Forum is an important archaeological site, fortunately preserved so we can see into what was once the centre of the city. The Forum is full of  imposing ruins that leave their mark on the valley it’s situated in. The  beauty of Rome is the eclectic mix of modernity and archaic ruin and when you are among the true heart of the Roman Forum you feel as though you are miles, if not centuries away from the modern world. So large you can get lost in the immersion, the only thing pulling you out of it is the call of pizza and wine.

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As we visited Rome during winter I did not expect many queues, but forgot that we were arriving just before the sales and the Epiphany celebrations for Christmas. It felt like every single person who was in Rome was visiting the Colosseum that day. The line was ridiculously long but I imagine it would be a lot worse during summer.If you pre-purchase a ticket you will be able to save yourself some time (any time saved waiting in lines in Italy is more time to drink wine I say!) you will also be able to gain access to the underground and third tier tours, which they limit the amount of visitors per day. You can find tickets here. With the ticket you are also granted access to the Roman Forum.

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Enjoy x

Europe in winter

Visiting Europe in winter is great for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is incredibly cheap. Hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions are all off-peak prices. So if you are contemplating a European  holiday on a budget; winter is the best time for you. Secondly, snow. Enough said. Who doesn’t love a White Christmas?!  For people watchers and atmosphere addicts, a trip to Europe during winter will have you hooked, you will never want to visit during any other season again.

Here are some of the best places in Europe to visit during winter.

Berlin, Germany.

No one does Christmas better than Germany, with historic markets full of gluhwein (mulled wine), German sausages, gingerbread, pretzels, and candied nuts on almost every corner. The most famous being Gendarmenmarkt. A 1 Euro entry fee will offer sit-in restaurants, bars and entertainment. Eating (and for that matter drinking) at the markets is incredibly cheap. You can eat lunch and dinner on the go, leaving lot’s of money for gluhwein (the perfect way to keep warm), hot chocolate, or beer. It’s the best way to take in the cheerful atmosphere and magical winter wonderland that is around you.

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Prague, Czech Republic.

Home to possibly the best Christmas tree you will ever see Prague also has Christmas markets that will give Germany a run for its money. Trdelník is a traditional pastry cooked over hot coals, covered in cinnamon sugar and sometimes Nutella. This will become a staple of your diet in Prague, I promise. Prague is generally a cheap tourist destination in Europe and Christmas time, although certainly very busy, is no exception. Food portions are huge, beer is cheap and the baroque rooftops are beautifully contrasted against grey skies.

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Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Winter in Amsterdam is quiet, there are almost no crowds and this is due partly in fact to the freezing temperatures it reaches. Cold air drifts off the canals and there is no escaping it. The locals are used it, still riding their bikes absolutely everywhere. Rug up and huddle in some tea shops to keep warm. Wandering the streets admiring the beauty of the city and the Dutch architecture is also a great way to keep warm.

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Edinburgh, Scotland.

Edinburgh has this old historic charm about it that undoubtedly makes it an underrated European destination. There are a so many things to do which make exploring this sleepy, snowy town so much more charismatic. Edinburgh has a dark history full of filth and violence, it is truly fascinating and visiting during winter brings that history to life.

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Rome, Italy.

The best time to visit Rome is during winter. Fountains freeze over and there are little to no crowds, which means you can get more out of your day by eliminating wait time in lines. Accommodation costs are at a minimum and you get a greater sense of Roman life as the stresses of summer (crowds, tourists and the heat) all but disappear. Not to mention the dappled light and sun spurs make for some spectacular shots.

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Europe is beautiful. No one can deny that and winter offers a great excuse to head indoors and absorb the culture of a city. Be it museum, galleries or a local craft shop. Sometimes it is so cold outside you find a cosy spot in a warm café or bar and simply watch the snow fall and the world go by.

Roman food safari!

It has been a lifelong dream to walk the streets of Italy and eat my body weight in Italian delights. After 28 long years of waiting it finally came true, and boy did Rome deliver! I had heard many stories of how Rome was overpriced (we actually found Rome to be incredibly cheap) and the food less than average, but we did not find this to be true. If the food is less than average in Rome I don’t think my taste buds will be able to handle what is considered good food in Italy. Every single meal, except one, was perfection! The secret…get off the main streets, don’t be afraid of going down a little side street or alley way. Anything on the main streets, and especially those near tourist attractions will be overpriced and below average. Don’t waste your time.

You will want to walk everywhere in Rome, not because you will eat so much (trust me you will!) but because it is so beautiful! So don’t be afraid to wander. You will discover some beautiful architecture and some amazing food while you are at it. We preferred to eat on the go throughout the day and sharing our food meant that we could try twice as much. Rome, although not the birthplace of pizza, has an abundance of little pizza shops where you can buy by the slice or indulge in some arancini on the go. This laneway, near the Pantheon, satisfied our taste buds greatly.

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We stumbled across a family run restaurant on our way back from Castel Saint Angelo- Fattoincasa (or Fatto in Casa to help you remember) on Via del Governo Vecchio . The owners greeted us and all their patrons like family, it was full of Italians (always a plus) and the owners were so helpful and carefree about the odd broken glass and didn’t seem to mind that we wanted to sit there for hours (it was just so cold outside!). After we asked for the bill we were served Limoncello and were sent out the door with chocolate in hand. We had such a positive experience that by the end of the night we felt like family too and went back several times over our stay. The food was to die for with big serving sizes too.

Be adventurous, you won’t be disappointed. Trust me. Just don’t forget to leave room for Gelato though!

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Enjoy x

 

Vienna

We had 4 nights booked in Vienna and I was looking forward to seeing all of their beautiful palaces and gardens but unfortunately I came down with a terribly bad cold the day we arrived. I wanted to catch the train to Vienna from Budapest so I could see a bit of the countryside, it was also a cheaper option that would get us there earlier- with most planes departing Budapest around midday. The first snowfall for the season fell the night before, which serendipitously was also New Years Eve. It was freezing, I’m talking below zero, cannot for the life of you get warm freezing and we had to stand at the train station for an hour waiting for the train at 5am. No surprises that I got ill. By the time we arrived in Vienna my nose had been running like a tap all day and I was exhausted. I was determined to push through and see something of our new destination at least. We caught the train into town and it hadn’t occurred to us that being New Years Day, nothing would be open except a few restaurants. We discovered a cosy little Italian place tucked away in a side street. After lunch that was it, my body was done so we went straight back to the hotel so I could sleep. Day 1 wasted.

Day 2 was even worse, at least the day before I got to see Anker Uhr (Vienna clock) and eat some delicious food. This day I would not leave my bed. The mere thought of getting dressed exhausted me and I couldn’t bear to face the freezing cold in fear of catching pneumonia. I sent my husband out exploring on my behalf. It didn’t seem fair to make him waste his day as well.

By the next day I had felt much better but knew it would still be a short day as my energy hadn’t returned 100%. Thanks to pharmaceuticals I was able to face some of the day. We started on Ringstrasse which loops around the city centre and contains most of Vienna’s famous buildings including the Vienna State Opera, Parliament, University of Vienna and the Mozart Museum which is located in Burggarten on the opposite side of the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum of Fine Art). Snow had fallen the night before which makes Vienna (in fact anywhere for that matter) such a magical place.

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A quick stop at the Chocolate emporium Xocolat, which is located in the stone arches of the Ferstel passage on Freyung, gave me enough energy to cross the river and ride the Wiener Riesenrad (Ferris Wheel) at the Prater amusement park in Leopoldstadt. The amusement park was still open to the public although a lot of the rides had shut due to it being off peak season, which made for this eerie abandoned amusement park feel.

Our last day in Vienna was a visit to Belvedere Palace, a baroque style palace which is now an Art Gallery. The gardens are absolutely spectacular and the Art Gallery well worth a visit.

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Note: Although Vienna is beautiful this time of the year it’s near impossible to find a genuine and decent Mozart concert. I suggest looking at when shows are available and planning your trip around that. There are certainly still shows on at this time but they are nothing compared to the real thing.

Budapest top 5

Admittedly when you wander through Budapest it doesn’t look that great, the remnants of what appears to be a relatively poor Eastern European country; and then occasionally you stumble across pure brilliance. The beautiful remains of a city that was, or could be if it had befallen a different fate. Hungarians are incredibly proud of their city, their history and their culture.

Here are my top 5 things to do in Budapest.

1. Buda Castle/Castle Hill District.

There are a number of ways to make your way to the summit. You can walk up one of the many pathways or steps leading to the top, you can take the funicular, or catch the bus which takes you all the way to top. Castle Hill district is a whole day affair with a number of attractions and restaurants, it’s a free activity that just keeps on giving! We were lucky enough to witness the changing of the guard.

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2. Fisherman’s Bastion.

Just stunning. Enough said. Also on Castle Hill so it makes sense to so this whilst you are visiting the castle.

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3. Gellért Hill/Gellért Thermal Baths

Budapest is full of hills, it’s great exercise. Unfortunately the only bus that will take you to the top of this one is a Hop On Hop Off or tourist bus, otherwise it’s a hike, but a beautiful one at that. There is a metro, Szent Gellért tér which takes you to the famous thermal baths ( a must do!). There is then a path which leads all the way up the hill to the Citadella with plenty of viewpoints along the way for you to rest and take it all in.

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4. Parliament House.

This is a spectacular building, a stunning example of neo-Gothic architecture. Definitely something that stands out on the riverbank. Hungarians believe it to be blessed as a bomb was dropped on it, which didn’t explode, during the war.

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5. Hero’s Square.

This spectacular area has Vajdahunyad Castle, Budapest Zoo, Ice skating in winter and the Széchenyi Thermal Baths. You can’t be in Budapest and not visit one of its baths right? Unfortunately as the sun sets so early during winter (around 4pm or so) the lighting wasn’t very good for me to get pictures. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

Enjoy.

Amsterdam, I love you!

Amsterdam is my favourite city. There I said it. I wish I could say it was hard to admit as I have such a deep, profound love for New York and Paris; but it’s not hard to say at all. The city is profoundly beautiful and has an engrained sense of ease with the flow of traffic and friendliness of it’s people. As a native English speaker, I found it very easy to communicate with absolutely anyone and everyone. Need directions? No problem, just ask. Need something specific with your food, just ask.

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As the Dutch founded New York City (then known as New Amsterdam) the similarities to the equally  beautiful city is uncanny. Amsterdam is similar to New York in architecture and aesthetics, except Amsterdam is cleaner, friendlier, smaller (thus making it easier to navigate) and less crowded. To say this city is picturesque doesn’t do it justice. It’s a city, just like Paris, that you will very happily explore and “get lost” in for hours. Every bridge is better and more scenic than the last. Every street offers more charm and character than the last. 

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Environmental laws in regards to plastic bags and the cost of cars makes Amsterdam not only a clean city but an incredibly easy to navigate and charismatic one. There are as many bicycles as there are people and they certainly have become synonymous with all that Amsterdam is, among other things of course. 

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A special mention to the hotel we stayed at, Hotel De Hallen. I cannot recommend it enough. Using a 100 year old tram depot building they couldn’t change much so worked around the history of the structure. The result is a modernised retro building which blends together eclectic furniture and sculptures which adds character that no other hotel can offer. Incredibly helpful staff will assist you with anything you need, along with a tram stop only a short walk away as well as a bus which you can take to the airport. There is also a great breakfast place for coffee on the go, called The Breakfast Club. Walk out the hotel doors and head to the left. You can’t miss it.

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London and the rain Part 2

London is synonymous with Museums and understandably as she has seemed to have found herself in the centre of modern history. Obviously visiting one of London’s many, many museums would be the most natural of choices if the weather was to be unfavourable. Although Churchill’s War Rooms are popular amongst history buffs I have never had the opportunity to visit the Museum myself so am unable to comment personally on the quality of the museum, however, I have only ever heard good things. I am certain though that the long list of Museums and Galleries that are available to visit in London are equally as good.

One of the only museums I had the pleasure of visiting whilst I was in London was the Clink Prison. If you are in to terrifying your children or the fascinating history of London then this should be high on your list of places to visit. The Clink is Medieval London’s most notorious prison, situated in Southwark, England. I have mentioned the number of things to do in Southwark in a previous post found here https://berlinstorm.com/2014/08/05/london-and-good-weather-part-2/ What is so fantastic about the Clink is that not only is it kid friendly in regards to the information provided but the Museum has been reconstructed on the original site. The staff have quite successfully (in my opinion) maintained the originality of the site, creating an interactive and informative experience at only £7.50 for adults and £5.50 for kids.

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Now it should be a crime to be in London and not see a show in West End. The link to the current and upcoming shows has been provided below and my recommendations are as follows: Wicked, Billy Elliot and Les Miserables, although I hear that the Book of Morman is quite excellent as well. Oxford Circus and Picadilly Circus are the best stations for either the West End Theatre Bookings or a majority of the theatres.

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If you have a couple of hours to kill before a flight or the rain is just making you too miserable to get out and explore then Harrods Department Store will certainly keep you and your family entertained for a number of hours. Arguably a London institution, a visit to Harrods in Knightsbridge is a jaw dropping, spectacular experience with lavishly decorated themed rooms and staircases. You will find a section/floor for every member of the family. The Millionaire Gallery is well worth a visit if you are a fan of self-torture by eyeing off things you cannot afford. If and when all that exploring makes you hungry then pay a visit to the Food Hall which will most certainly satisfy your needs.

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That’s all for the London series for now.

Enjoy!

http://www.iwm.org.uk/visits/churchill-war-rooms

http://www.clink.co.uk

http://www.westendtheatrebookings.com

http://www.harrods.com

 

 

Harry Potter Studios- London

It is no secret to those who know me or read my blog that I am a huge Harry Potter fan. I couldn’t be in the birthplace of Harry Potter and not visit the West London Studios where the films were made. To see the sets, costumes and props as they were when they were filming and all the behind-the-scenes elements truly takes your breath away. It was the definite highlight of my trip. I got to see Diagon Alley and Hogwarts Castle as it appeared in the last films, costumes and props and learned some insider secrets to filming. It inspires a Harry Potter movie session upon your return home. In fact, it worked well in unison with the Muggle Tours walking tour of London that I did the following day. However, the Studio Tours fits in here because 95% of it is inside. There is an outside lot that houses Privet Drive, Godric’s Hollow, the chess pieces and much more including a snack stand which sells Starbucks and Butter Beer. Be prepared and bring a rain jacket or similar to the studios regardless. You will be outside briefly as you make your way through the Studios, besides it is freezing inside as it is basically a giant warehouse.

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There are two direct and simple ways to get to the West London Studios if you don’t want to hire a car for the day. The Warner Brothers website, provided below, provides a detailed description of how to get there. I took the public transport option and caught the overground train from Euston to Watford Junction. This took about 30 minutes as it stopped at every station, however, I was lucky enough to get an express train on my return which was much quicker. Once you arrive at Watford Junction, exit and make your way to the bus stands, you can’t miss the giant Harry Potter double decker bus. For a small fee (around £2) you can buy a return transfer ticket. The other option is to buy your ticket, including transport, through viator.com, direct link provided below. The public transport option costs only a few pounds extra, however, you are not limited to a tour schedule and have the freedom to leave the studios whenever you wish.

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When you book your studio tour ticket, which costs around £31 for an adult and £23.50 for kids, you select a time you would like your session to start, first one being at 10am. If you decide to take the public transport option via train and shuttle bus, allow 1 hours travel time to make this session, or they will make you wait for the next one. I suggest booking the 10am session as the tour is self-guided, no one will rush you or push you out (unless they are closing). Please note that although it is self-guided it is a one way system, so be sure you have seen everything you want before moving on. There are also upgradable options for your ticket, including audio guides and passport activities for kids, which involve them finding checkpoints and stamping a collectors Harry Potter Passport.

So there you have it, it appears that this one is all about Harry Potter Studios, it is such a great experience that it is worthy of an entire post. It will be an enjoyable experience even if you are not a fan as you get to see some behind-the-scenes aspects and secrets to filming, such as green screen and forced perspective.

http://www.wbstudiotour.co.uk
http://www.viator.com/tours/London/Warner-Bros-Studio-Tour-London-The-Making-of-Harry-Potter/d737-5461POTTERSTUDIO

London and the rain

Google “how often does it rain in London” and the general response is uhhhh often! If you travel there, even during Summer, and you get a rainless, sunny, cloudless day, then you are extremely lucky. You travel overseas unprepared for rain once (as I did when I travelled to the United States in 2012) and as a result have to buy things that you own an abundance of at home, and you never make that mistake again. Hence why I always travel with a few particular items. I will write about what I pack in another post after this series. Not only do you need to be prepared for rain in what you pack, but what you plan to do. Some activities need to be bookmarked under “play it by ear” and these are all view related activities such as the London Eye or the Shard. This applies more so in London where the weather changes often and suddenly.

I decided to start with one of the most popular tourist attractions in London, the London Dungeon. A very entertaining, educational and good value for money attraction. The London Dungeon is an iconic attraction with interactive sets and live actors who guide you through the site. The entrance fee is a reasonable £25.20 (or £17.50 if you purchase online beforehand) and includes 2 rides and 18 interactive shows that walk you through the dark and gruesome history of London, including the infamous Jack the Ripper and Sweeney Todd. There will be laughs and screams all round and is not for the faint hearted. A definite day out for the family as the emotion aroused from this activity will create resonate memories for a lifetime.

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For those who are in London for some shopping, Oxford street is the place for you, as it is home to one of my favourite shops in London, Primark. The best station to access this glorious centre of cheap, well made clothing is Marble Arch. Here you can view the triumphant Marble Arch structure, which stands close to the former site of the Tyburn gallows (sometimes called ‘Tyburn Tree’), a place of public execution from 1388 until 1793. Primark is a budget shopper’s mecca. Good, long lasting, quality products that are a very reasonable price. Primark stocks something for everyone: Children’s, men’s, and women’s clothing and accessories (shoes included). The only tip I have for anyone visiting this store is this: it is hot, it is busy beyond belief, and do not try anything on in the change rooms as there is a limit of items per customer and a line so long you wouldn’t believe me. If you have the time, by all means try things on but I could never justify wasting my precious holiday time waiting in a line to try clothes on that may or may not fit. I find myself a mirror in a discreet corner of the shop and try on things that don’t require me having to remove any items of my clothing. This is a secret between you and me of course as we don’t want too many people doing it. Oxford street is where you will find a myriad of shops and you will also connect with Regent street which has an equal number of places  to spend your holiday money, including the famous Hamleys toy shop.

Happy shopping!

http://www.thedungeons.com/london/en/

http://www.primark.com/en/whats-new

http://oxfordstreet.co.uk

http://www.regentstreetonline.com

http://www.hamleys.com

London and good weather Part 3

For Geography lovers, or those that like to make the most of their time travelling, Greenwich Village is luckily a short boat ride away. Here you will find the Greenwich Observatory, home to the Prime Meridian, where else can you stand where time starts….ahhhh nowhere but Greenwich! The link provided below gives you a number of options to get to Greenwich either by train, bus or rail. My suggestion is, if the weather is fine do not take any other transport option other than by boat. The trip down the Thames is largely spectacular, filled with archaic buildings bleeding with history and heritage. Once you arrive, spend the time to explore this quaint, truly underrated village. There are plenty of boutiques and cafés to discover, and you can either return to London by boat again or by train.

Home to the Crown Jewels and the history you travelled half way across the world to see is the Tower of London. There are not many places left in the world where there is a maintained castle in the heart of the city, part of the reason why London is so great! Entry into the Castle can range from £20- £22 (depending if you buy online or at the gate) and there are countless amounts of attractions once inside, not to mention various viewpoints of London’s iconic sights, namely the ever popular Tower Bridge. The most popular attractions inside the Tower of London are Traitor’s Gate (where they bought Traitor’s in from the ships before they tortured and most likely hung them), The Torture Tower, where you can view the various torture methods to gets criminals alike to admit to crimes they did or did not commit, and the Crown Jewels (the most popular and biggest wait time). Whilst you are there don’t forget to get a photo with a Beefeater.

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The Tower of London is situated next to the non-coincidentally named Tower Bridge, which is absolutely beautiful and on a fine day makes for a glorious walk over to South London. The north tower holds a museum (and not to mention a spectacular view down the Thames). It is well worth a walk across this Bridge as the southern side of the bridge houses not only the London Eye, but Hay’s Galleria, which allows for a perfect lunch stop. There are numerous places to eat, such as Café Rouge, Côte Brasserie and The Fish Restaurant at Balls Brothers. There is also a water sculpture for big and little kids alike.

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Last but not least for my London and good weather series (I will be moving on to what to do if the weather is not so fine next) is something close to my heart. Harry Potter fans around the world travel to London to view a number of HP related sights and involve themselves in various activities. One such activity that I enjoyed doing was a Walking Tour of London by Muggle Tours. A small, privately owned company that hires dedicated, knowledgeable Harry Potter fans who provide a historical and factual tour of places around London that inspired author J.K. Rowling. Muggle Tours is aware that some participants may be dragged along beyond their will and thus provide information of a non-HP matter to provide them with some relief. You will need a valid Oyster Card or Day Ticker for the Tube, as the tour does involve one train ride. If at the very least you are not a HP fan, have faith in the fact that you are provided with an insiders tour of London, and some not-so-commonly known facts about this fascinating city too. A highly recommended tour for any Harry Potter fans, also very good value for money at only at only £12 fir adults and £10 for children.

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http://www.rmg.co.uk/visit/get-here/by-river

http://www.visitgreenwich.org.uk

http://www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon/

http://www.towerbridge.org.uk/TBE/EN/

http://www.haysgalleria.co.uk

http://www.muggletours.co.uk