Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Europe Reviews

As promised, I want to provide my reviews on the places we stayed, restaurants we enjoyed, and activities we squeezed in during our European Christmas. If you've also been to these cities, please comment below with your recommendations so that other readers can plan an awesome future vacation!


Hotel: New Orient Hotel (December 2011)
We found this hotel on TripAdvisor, which, if you haven't visited, is a great site where you get tons of reviews from around the world. Generally, I've found the reviews to be spot on, though of course there are those few people with crazy, horrible experiences that are the exception to the rule. TripAdvisor members have ranked New Orient Hotel #11 out of 1,843 - impressive! We were shocked to find such a highly ranked hotel in our price range, and it just goes to show you that quality service can trump luxury. This hotel, a little boutique hotel located about 30 minutes' walk (10 minutes on Metro) from the center of downtown Paris, really defines excellent hospitality. The rooms were small but cozy, and we felt as though we could ask the management for anything and get a thorough answer. Oh, and the free WiFi was a huge plus! They even had heated towel racks for chilly Parisian mornings!

View from our third-floor balcony
We did find this hotel difficult to get to at first; its street wasn't listed on our map of Paris, and the directions we had weren't quite clear. It was our fault for not checking the directions on Google first, but we wandered around for about 45 minutes before finally finding it. But otherwise, the location was great: close to a Metro stop (5 minutes), near bakeries and shops and restaurants, and not overrun with tourists.

View the other way :-)
We definitely recommend New Orient! The hospitality, affordability, and terrific quality make it a wonderful stay!

Serious spiral staircase

Restaurant: Auberge de la Reine Blanche
If you go to only one restaurant in Paris, make it Auberge. We could not stop talking about this meal and wish we had gone earlier in our stay so that we could have visited again! The place is tiny - we sat elbow-to-elbow with the other customers, and if the person next to you gets up, you have to let them out. But the food is absolutely mouthwatering. I had the escargot and boeuf bourguignon; Terry enjoyed the best oysters he's ever had and an awesome duck entree (fun fact: in Paris, entree actually means appetizer, but I'm using it here as we Americans do). The meal was truly phenomenal, capped off with a bottle of their table Bordeaux, also fantastic. Its location on an adorable street in a very upscale neighborhood adds to the charm, but the prices weren't bad at all! We spent around 75 Euros for the whole meal.

Things to Do:

  • Climb the Eiffel Tower: I wasn't sure I needed to do this, but I'm so glad we did! We climbed the stairs and only went to the second level, but it was a blast! The views, the history (we listened to Rick Steves' Audioguide - free!), the exhilaration of climbing so many steps.
  • Visit Versailles: Versailles is the stunning estate where such famous historical figures as Louis XIV, Louis XVI, Marie-Antionette, and Napoleon lived throughout France's history. The chateau and grounds are about 30 minutes (by train) outside of Paris, so it's a half- to full-day trip. We loved every moment of this trip, despite the freezing cold. Perhaps we may have arrived a little later (or at least entered the chateau a little later), because we didn't take three hours to get through the chateau and grounds, and the rest of the grounds aren't open until noon. But the trip was awesome and beautiful and so peaceful. Afterward, we wandered through the little town of Versailles and fell in love. We can't wait to go back and explore the town more! (Note: Lots of joggers were running through the park/grounds, and we discovered that those areas are free when the fountains aren't on. Good to know for future visits!)
  • Museums: Yes, go to the Louvre. It's huge and houses some pretty famous stuff, to say the least (Mona Lisa, anyone?). But we also recommend the Musee d'Orsay and the Army Museum (at least the WWII section)/Napoleon's Tomb.
  • Eat as many pastries as you can. I can't emphasize this point enough. You will not regret a single bite. 


Hotel: Novotel London (December 2011)
Another terrific find thanks to TripAdvisor. We loved so much about this hotel and only wish we could have stayed longer. We stayed over New Year's Eve and felt we got a great rate, especially considering the holiday. The location might be the best part: It's located less than two blocks from King's Cross St. Pancras Station (from Harry Potter fame!) and directly next door to the British Library. Several pubs on the same block make for an easy walk to any meal, but you can also jump on the Tube from King's Cross and get anywhere in the city. The hotel itself hosts plenty of amenities that we've found rare in European hotels (but then, we are fairly new to European getaways), such as a fully staffed front desk and concierge, a hotel restaurant, and a gym. WiFi is available at a cost. We also scored a tenth-floor room with incredible views.

View from our hotel room.
 The room was spacious and warm but could have been a little brighter.

King size bed - not too common in England!

View of the British Library from our floor (not our room)

View of King's Cross/London from our floor
Overall, a great choice for London!

Hotel: Rubens at the Palace (July 2011)
Talk about charm and class. This place is where you want to stay if you're looking for a perfect location and that "English feel". We arrived and felt as though we had stepped just a bit back in time. The hotel is literally across the street from Buckingham Palace! The first day we got there, the palace was hosting a garden party, so tons of upper class Brits were dressed to the nines outside and lingering near our hotel afterward. There is always a formal doorman to open the door, plus a full, formal English breakfast (extra), concierge, and excellent front desk staff. The hotel is just three blocks away from the Victoria Tube station, along with several pubs, restaurants, and shops. Our room was big (king bed again!) and our bathroom completely modern, so we felt the amenities were sufficient, but there is no WiFi (they do have a computer that anyone can use). We had a view of their inside courtyard and thought a view of the street would have been better, so try to request the street side. We did feel the place was pricey, but it was our honeymoon and the money matched the quality, so it all worked out!

Rubens at the Palace

Facade of the hotel


Lovely, spacious room

Opposite view

Pub: Ye Olde Bell Tavern
We stopped here because not much else was open on New Year's Eve day, and we were sightseeing around the St. Paul's area. The bartenders were extremely friendly, the beers were great (they didn't have my Stella, but they recommended something delicious for me), and the food was above par for pub grub. I would certainly go back!

Pub: The Phoenix
In the Buckingham Palace neighborhood, location just around the corner (walking away from the Victoria train station) from the Rubens hotel, we found this little gem in July. The bartender actually sat with us and chatted about our trip, giving us a few tips and some great food. We went back twice during the week. It has odd hours, which we never bothered to find in written form, but we will certainly go back again!

Pub: Betjamin's
Location inside King's Cross St. Pancras station, this pub is one of our favorites! The food is great; Terry had a sampling of four meat pies and I had the fish n' chips, and the ambiance is awesome. The place is bustling with travelers and locals, coming or going from the station or Tube. You can sit inside the restaurant/pub (it just keeps going back!) or you can sit in the "outdoor" patio - which is actually inside the train station! We sat out there with some pints and read awhile one day, which was so fun for people watching!

Restaurant: Wagamama Noodle Bar
With several locations, this chain noodle bar carries a variety of delicious ramen and noodle choices. I'm not a ramen fan, but I found a great whole-wheat noodle option loaded with veggies and a delicious sauce. We like the one in Leicester Square, but there are several throughout London, and the lines (if any) always move super fast! Oh, and the prices are great for budget travelers; Terry and I even managed to split one plate for lunch once.

Afternoon Tea: Rubens at the Palace
Tea at the Rubens
Of the two we've experienced, this tea was more formal, with antique furniture, a quiet setting, and everyone rather dressed up around us. We had a lovely view of the street (looking toward Buckingham Palace) during tea, which created a nice ambiance. The food (sandwiches, scones, and desserts) was delicious throughout the meal, and of course the tea was perfect, even for a non-tea-drinker like myself. It is definitely pricier than other options, though! We look forward to going back to do this tea again - a worthy splurge! Reservations recommended.

Afternoon Tea: Harrods Department Store
We stopped in with no reservation and didn't have to wait, but we also came around 12:30a pm during the winter. This tea was more relaxed, and I didn't feel the same ambiance as the Rubens (the luggage department of Harrods is right outside, so it doesn't have that "royal" atmosphere, to say the least). The tea was just as good, and the scones were absolutely stellar. The sandwiches and desserts were pretty good. The service was excellent! We would go back, because the value was good, but I would also be willing to look at other options at the same price point.

Things to Do:

  • Rick Steves' Walks: We used Rick Steves' London and followed most of his walks. I cannot recommend them highly enough! If you do them, try to squeeze them in during the first part of your trip, because they're a great way to get to know the city and acquaint yourself with sights you might visit later. Our favorite was "The City Walk", where Rick took us through back alleys that we wouldn't have seen without his guidance. 
  • Westminster Abbey: I'm a British literature/history fanatic, and Terry loves any history, so this part of our trip was perfect for us, but I think anyone would enjoy it.
  • The Tower of London: Yes, it's super cheesy, but it's SO interesting! From the Crown Jewels to the history to the Beefeater tours (free and worth every penny), we loved this part of our trip. Go early in the morning, and hit the Crown Jewels first to avoid the crazy lines later.
  • St. Paul's Cathedral: Stunning, overpowering, and humbling. Even if you aren't Catholic.
  • The British Museum: This museum houses tons of those historical objects that you've heard about or studied but didn't think still existed. Plus, it's free!


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