It's been 10 days of touring so far, and I should write a few notes about the highlights (and lowlights).
Hop-on/Hop-off bus tours: Yup, you'll see a lot but surface traffic is so horrible that every circuit takes hours. Wear a hat and bring a drink. Best views from the upper deck, of course; the lower deck sees practically nothing.
Buckingham Palace: Great tour, including a temporary exhibit of the Queen's fashions over the decades of her reign. It's the Queen's town home and working residence, as well as reception & welcome halls for state visitors. If you've seen photos of the Queen greeting heads of state, it was probably here. We also saw the changing of the guard, kinda: the interesting stuff is inside the grounds and walled off from public view so regular tourists have to be content with watching the guards come & go.
London Eye: It's a big ferris wheel, but you can't call it that and still charge about $50 USD to go up. It's a half-hour slow revolution with spectacular views. Still, you might get better views from the dome of St Paul's Cathedral for less, if you can handle the stairs.
Walking tour of the Victoria & Albert. I was grateful to have a guide to show off a few highlights of the collection and give a lot of background information about the facility and the exhibits. That said, the place is huge and being part of a tour means that you can't just drop out to examine a gallery which strikes you as fascinating. And did I mention there's no air conditioning, something I find a little horrifying in a museum dedicated to preserving the past? Go, but consider skipping the guided tour.
Jack the Ripper tour: lots of fun! We only visited two of the murder sites as the others have been built over since 1988. Still, the nighttime walk and tour through some of London's legendary back alleys was a thrill.
The Tower: this was one of the best tours I experienced. Yes, the crown jewels are impressive (as well as the other accoutrement of the coronation process) but for me the good stuff was the chapel where you'll find the burial sites of Anne Boleyn, Catharine Howard, Thomas Moore and others, as well as the chance to stand at the site where Anne and Catharine lost their heads. The White Tower, the oldest part at nearly 1000 years, was fascinating in its structure & style. Go do this; personally, the trip would have been worthwhile if I never saw any other tour.
Kensington Palace: huge disappointment. You have a self-guided tour of some of the apartments of George III, Queen Anne and Queen Victoria (she was raised there), but the rooms are unimpressive, the exhibits forgettable and the chronologies of the signs & displays were hopelessly jumbled. You will see little about the day to day life of the residents and nothing at all about the infrastructure of royalty or the work of the non-royal staff. Skip it, but visit Hyde Park around it.
Churchill War Rooms: See this. These are the underground rooms from which Churchill ran his government during the height of World War II, including the map room, communications room, BBC broadcasting room, personal rooms of Churchill and his senior staff, the kitchen of his personal cook, etc.. Bonus: they have a separate hall which is dedicated to a birth-to-grave biography of Churchill.
Walking Tour of Old Westminster. This outdoor walking tour pointed out some interesting items about Westminster Palace (Parliament), the buildings nearby, and some of the side streets. Yes, I learned a lot but I'm unsure still it was worth the money. It's kinda interesting to know that PM Wilson didn't live at 10 Downing Street because his wife objected to being physically close to the secretary with which Wilson had an affair, but I didn't really need that info.
Day trip to Avebury and Stonehenge: OMG, totally worth it! We had a two hours bus drive out a prehistoric grave barrow, now a heritage site, then on to the village of Avebury which is built entirely within a henge of standing stones. Great pub, too, and very scenic. Stonehenge itself was another half-hour away and has an excellent interpretation center and shuttle buses up to the stone structure. It was smaller than I was expecting but very impressive. Go see it.
Walking tour of St Paul's Cathedral: great tour. There was lots of good info, a lot of highlights and, for the brave & strong, a chance to walk 500+ steps up into the dome of St Paul's. It's not actually that hard since the first half gets you to the whisper gallery, a viewing area around the inside of the dome looking into the church's interior. The next 100 steps get you to the spacious lower outdoor viewing platform, and then you can make the final run up to the very narrow and crowded top viewing platform (with a view from a landing directly down into the church, to the very center of the floor a couple of hundred feed below. Completely worth it, just for the views.
"The Mousetrap" I saw this in 1979 or so as dinner theater in Toronto but had long since forgotten the plot and the identity of the murderer. It call came back to me half-way through the first act, but it was a still a fun performance.
Walking tour of the British Museum: same issues as the V&A (too fast, no air conditioning, no chance to pause to examine thing which catch your interest). It didn't help that our tour group was twice as large as it should have been so our guide couldn't be heard from the back, and I think simply gave up on crowd management 20 minutes in. Disappointing. Go see the museum, skip the guided tour.
Whitehall Palace Banquet Hall: The original Whitehall Palace was destroyed by fire centuries ago, but the banquet hall survived. Charles II converted it into a reception hall, moving the masques to another location. He also commissioned Reubens to pain a series of enormous paintings which were then installed in the ceiling of the hall, giving it grandeur and awe-inspiring beauty. It's an odd self-guided tour: just lay back on the provided beanbag chairs and let the pre-recorded audio walk you through the art, the architecture and the history as you take it all in.
Tour of the new Globe Theater. This is a faithful replication of Shakespeare's Globe Theater which was originally located only a few hundred feet away in the early 1600s. We didn't see a play but we did sit in the seats to watch a tech rehearsal, and the exhibition hall was fascinating. If you have any interest in theater or Shakespeare, go see this.
"Kinky Boots" Many friends have loved the show but I knew nothing about the plot or content. It wasn't until the orchestra was warming up that I realized it was a musical (I suspected, but...). It was a great show and members of our group who have seen other productions thought it was a superb presentation.
Windsor Castle: so worth it! We had to take the train from Waterloo station down to Windsor, a trip of nearly an hour. Compared to years of Via Rail and Amtrak, this was the smoothest, quietest and most comfortable train I have ever been on, and it was only about 15 pounds for an open return ticket. The palace itself was everything you'd expect a royal castle & residence to be: extremely awe-inspiring, historic, and beautiful. Hey, Kensington Palace: this is what a real palace looks like! And you must tour St George's Chapel on the castle grounds: so much history!
Westminster Abbey: totally worth it! This was one of the most expensive tours we went on, but it was worth every pence. There are so many famous people buried in the Abbey: I'm still wrapping my head around having stood by the graves of Elizabeth I, Mary I, Mary Queen of Scots, Edward III, Edward the Confessor, Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, Dirac, Herschel and more. The list is too extensive to place here. My greatest regret is that photography isn't allowed because (a) it's an active church and (b) it would cut into book sales at their shop.
Hampton Court: go visit. It was a half-hour train ride out of Waterloo station but I enjoy the rail system here. We saw the living quarters of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon (Wife 1), the public halls, the kitchens and the gardens. We also spent some time in the Georgian wings, where William III had initiated major renovations & updates. Actors walked our group through the investigation & interrogations into Catherine Howard (Wife #5)'s affair with Culpeper, culminating in the death sentences issued by Archbishop Cranmer. (Side note: only three women have been executed at the Tower in London: Anne Boleyn (Wife #2), Catherine Howard (Wife #5) and Lady Rochford, one of Catherine's ladies-in-waiting who was said to have assisted her affair with Culpeper, or at least kept Catherine's secret. Last week, we visited that very site at the Tower.)
Our tours are done. Saturday morning, ten hours from now, we depart our hotel and head to Heathrow for our flight home.