One of the things I love about living in a new place is the freedom you have to really get to know it. You’re not rushed. When touring, it’s much harder to figure out what’s close to what and what you’d like to do. So I thought I’d do a little series of fun “afternoons” and “mornings” (ideally 3-5 hours) of activities located together to help those wanting to enjoy London. These can take longer if you really enjoy museums or browsing as you stroll.

Strolling into the City Morning

City of London DragonStart your morning off on the South Bank (exiting from Waterloo station), which gives you a lovely view of the the north side of the river. You should be able to spot the clock on the Savoy Hotel, which it turns out has a bigger clock-face than Big Ben. Walk across Waterloo Bridge and as you’re almost finished look down on the Victoria Embankment to spy Cleopatra’s Needle on your left. Once over the bridge, head right to Somerset House, where you might stop for coffee or some lovely artwork. Return to the Strand and keep heading right into more Imperial history as you pass India House, Bush House–which housed the BBC during WWII–and Australia House. Then you will see the Royal Courts of Justice and to your right you might just make out Twinings the oldest tea shop in London. It’s worth popping in to see what you can sample in the back. As you continue east you will see a Dragon of the City of London.

The City of London is an unusual title since it sounds like it means the whole metropolis of London, but it actually only refers to one of the 33 boroughs now called London. This Square Mile (sometimes simply the City) is now mostly the financial district of London but is noticeable from the dragon statues guarding it (one in each of the cardinal directions along the main roads) and its Lord Mayor of London (not by the way the same as the Mayor of London).

Properly into the City, you might decide to stop for lunch at the Old Bank of England. If it’s a weekday (closed on weekends besides Sunday services) you may want to check out Temple Church created by the Knights Templar with an exhibit (in 2018) on its connection to the Magna Carter. Though depending on the time, it might not be too early for a half pint at Ye Old Cheshire Cheddar, which was rebuilt after the fire of 1666 and may be one of London’s most famous pubs.

Embankment Evening

If it’s a Tuesday and you love tours, consider returning to Somerset House for an Old Palace Tour. If its not a Tuesday (closed that day), you could wander west back along the Strand passing the Savoy and turning down Craven St to the Benjamin Franklin House for a tour (last one is at 4:15 PM). Afterwards you can wander along the Embankment to Gordon’s Wine Bar, which has wonderful patio space in good weather and atmospheric vaulted cellar space indoors. Also indoors you will find British newspaper memorabilia covering the walls from throughout the 20th Century. It’s a fun place to end a day of touring. You might even notice you’re near Whitehall.

More City, Edge of Barbican Afternoon

Of course you can instead continue along Fleet St/Ludgate Hill until you reach St. Paul’s Cathedral for a quick peak inside, tour, evensong or lovely apple crisp in the Crypt cafe. (Note due to evensong, sightseeing tickets that take you up to the Whispering Galleries end at 4:30 PM.) Unless you got held up at Ye Old Cheshire Cheddar, you likely have time to wander up to the Museum of London with its free unique and sometimes quirky exhibits about this city. Nearby you can also see remains of the original Roman wall around London. On your way towards Bank station you can stop off at Guildhall, London’s old town hall and the city’s only surviving secular medieval building. If it’s before 4:30, you are likely to be able to go inside as well to see an original Magna Carter or some art in the galleries.

An Afternoon Exploring Bank/Monument

If you still want more walking after your morning stroll, you can continue from Temple church on Fleet St passed St. Paul’s (stop in if you want).* Wander along Cheapside and stop at St. Mary le Bow church because in that courtyard you will find a statue of Captain John Smith. As you near Bank station you can see Mansion House, where the Lord Mayor of London lives and works and the Bank of England (free museum during the week, last admission 4:30 PM). Next to the Bank you can see the London Troops War Memorial. Walk down King William Street to reach the Monument to the Great Fire of London (1666) (climb all the way up and see London in a new way, last admission 5:30 PM). Also nearby is St. Dunstan in the East’s church garden, which has an interesting view of the Shard on the opposite bank through the church’s ruins. At this point your feet are unlikely to thank you if you keep going east to see the Tower of London lit up at night, so the good news is that many Tube lines connect at the Monument and Bank stations.

 

*It is only fair to say that you can save your feet by taking the Circle/District lines from Temple to Mansion House or Monument.

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While the last several blogs have been about neighborhoods, I want to take a break to talk about food. England still is the land of fish and chips, but that’s not all it has. I’ve broken the food scene down into unique ingredients/common dishes, drinks to try, and common local chains for when you’re tired and need food. There are plenty of blogs and websites to help with good recommendations for special dinners or ethnic food, both of which are plentiful in London.

Ingredients and Classic Dishes to Try

So, you probably already have British curry and fish ‘n chips (originally a Jewish East End creation) on your list. Lots of people enjoy trying a meat pie or fish pie (called Cornish pasties if made in Cornwall). For meat lovers there are bacon sandwiches and sausage rolls—there are so many kinds of sausages it seems here. (Note: bacon in the UK is what Americans call Canadian bacon; American bacon is called “streaky bacon.”) If you are around on a Sunday, almost every pub will serve a Sunday roast (complete with Yorkshire pudding) though most close their kitchens around 6 PM and can start running out of the most popular roast options around 4 PM, so plan for a lunch roast.

Just about every café (and some pubs) will serve you a cheap cream tea (tea and scones with clotted cream and jam). Afternoon tea (often called “high tea” in the US) can be anywhere from £15-60 per person depending on if you fancy going to the Ritz or a local option. Crumpets are for more than breakfast but can be bought in any grocery store. I like them with lemon curd or melted cheddar cheese.

There are also some ingredients that are popular in British cooking that aren’t as popular in other locations. Korma chicken is a popular curry option and if I start down the wonderful road of Indian food available here, I will never stop. I was so excited to move here and experience all the possibilities with rhubarb for example. Celeriac is similar to celery with a bit more of a nutty taste and often served with fish dishes. The parsnips (particularly roasted) are delicious. While not that unusual, asparagus and strawberries are worth seeking out if you’re here for spring. Mackerel is really salty fish; hake (haak) is more like cod. Kippers (smoked fish) for breakfast is particularly popular in Scotland. HP sauce is readily available in pubs and worth trying if you like A1 sauce.

For desserts (called “pudding” in the UK), there are endless possibilities. To add a layer of verbal complexity, puddings like “sticky toffee pudding” are not American custard-like puddings to be eaten with a spoon but rather are steamed cakes. They are very unique and worth trying, but don’t ask for a to-go bag; they are best fresh and hot. Bakewell tart is another local favourite with frangipani (almond flavoring) as the filling. Two common popular cakes are Victoria Spounge and Lemon Drizzle. Christmas cake is a fruitcake with a layer of marzipan and then fondant. (Brits love their fondant.)

Of course, you might need something to grab for your daily snacks. Crisps (potato chips) come in some unusual flavors, but most people love salt and vinegar. After all, they cover their chips (fries) in malt vinegar too. Digestives, shortbread, and custard creams are the standard biscuits (i.e. cookies). You may want to buy some Jaffa cakes too (soft cake-like bottom with a bit of orange marmalade covered in chocolate so you can eat them on-the-go). There is a cool dessert traditionally called tiffin a.k.a. rocky road uses chocolate as a base to hold any number of goodies like honeycomb, crushed up cookies, nuts, and dried fruit. It’s cut in blocks like fudge but is a solid chocolate and, given the lack of heat in Britain, won’t melt on you if you get some to carry around.

Drinks to Love

At the end of the day (or in the middle), you might want to try out some of the breweries in Bermondsey along the “Beer Mile.” If you’re not a beer fan, every pub will have several ciders to choose from, and most will be much drier than what you find in the States.

Gin is so British you may want to add a distillery tour while in London. Though if that doesn’t fit into your schedule, you can try some really great cocktails with some unique gins in many bars and pubs. Also know that gin and tonics are also quite detailed with a variety of types of tonics as well as gins.

Tea is everything (though coffee is now quite popular in the UK). What is still universally true is that most places either do coffee well or do tea well because coffee grinds and tea leaves need different temperatures of hot water and most places go either/or. If you want to enjoy an afternoon tea, this site can give you a listing of many options throughout London. Monmouth Coffee with its two storefronts is a haven for my coffee-addicted friends. If you like local tea stores and tea houses and local coffee shops, you will find no shortage in London.

Water is always needed when you’re out and about, but sometimes the taste can get bland. Brits love to add cordials (particularly elderflower) and “squash” (favoured fruit concentrates) to water. You can pick up these in a grocery and flavour your water before you set out for the day.

Chains to Remember

I strongly encourage you to try local places that don’t have multiple locations, but I also know at the end of a day of touring you just want a familiar sign when decision fatigue sets in. You probably haven’t run across these chains outside Britain, but they are recommended by locals here and are a nice change from Pret a Manager (a British chain if you didn’t know) and Five Guys, which are readily available in London.  You’ll find the British Starbucks equivalents (Costa and Nero’s Cafe) everywhere as well.

  1. Bill’s Restaurant–Recommended for breakfast, lunch and dinner. If you’re near one, it’s worth a visit.
  2. Wahaca-American ex-pats love this English spin on Mexican though expect the nachos to be like soda in Europe–no free refills.
  3. Strada– I really like this Italian restaurant that has a few locations in London. It’s kid friendly and has good pizza.
  4. Gail’s-This is fabulous bakery that is located throughout the city, a perfect break in the mid-afternoon.
  5. Hummingbird Bakery-Again have heard people get pretty excited about the pastries and cakes on offer.
  6. Leon-If you’re at a train station or on a busy street, chances are you’ll see one of these storefronts; they are really good for those with dietary restrictions (vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free). The portion sizes are considered small by some.
  7. M&S Simply Food-While not a restaurant, these grocery stores have massive amounts of prepared foods–perfect for picnic sandwiches or for snacks to carry around.
  8. Cote Brasserie–Modeled on French brasseries in Paris, this chain has a really good deal for early evening meal (usually something like 3 courses for 14 GBP) and has a gluten-free menu.
One of the things I love about living in a new place is the freedom you have to really get to know it. You’re not rushed. When touring, it’s much harder to figure out what’s close to what and what you’d like to do. So I thought I’d do a little series of fun “afternoons” and “mornings” (ideally 3-5 hours) of activities located together to help those wanting to enjoy London. 

A Kensington Morning

If the weather is good–which means it’s not raining right this minute–you may want to start the day early in Hyde Park with the Speakers’ Corner, Marble Arch, and the Serpentine Galleries if you want some art with your morning. I love this area because in much of it you would never believe you are in the heart of London. Parts have a sense of wilderness about them (with the perks of a clear walking path). Technically when you cross the Serpentine, you will be in Kensington Gardens and can head to Kensington Palace and of course after 10 AM, it’s open to the public. If you get there early with kids, there’s always the Diana Memorial Playground. As you walk south towards Exhibition Road you can see the Albert Memorial before you find more museums than you’re likely willing to have time for.

Afternoon of Museums

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(c) Pharr

The Science Museum is great for kids and adults alike. The WonderLab is designed for kids ages 4-11, and any age will be interested in the energy and space exhibits. (I personally enjoyed the clockmaking and mathematics exhibits.) And you can continue your love of science in the Natural History Museum–literally next door. Called the “Cathedral to Nature,” this museum is architecturally stunning and may look familiar if you’re a fan of the movie Paddington, but it holds some great treasures too. You can see a Dodo bird, experience an earthquake, and find out which minerals are native to Britain.

Just across the way, the Victoria and Albert Museum is also linked to science; it is decorative arts and design with a strong relation to industry. The V&A tours are a great way to start if you aren’t sure how to see it all. There are different topics throughout the day.

Of note: All these museums are really great with kids, and their websites make it easy to figure out what kid-friendly options there are if you’re a planner. They also are all accessible via an underground walkway (termed subway) from South Kensington Tube station if you’re trying to avoid the weather.

Out and About

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Kensington (c) Kay Pharr

Of course, chances are that you could get museum fatigue and need to get out and about. Kensington is a lovely neighborhood to walk around in nice weather and is what many Americans “expect” London to look like even though most people cannot avoid this neighborhood. (Actually that’s true for practically all of Zone 1.) Whether you head along Cromwell Road towards Gloucester Rd to the west or towards Knightbridge and Harrods to the east, you will find plenty of delicious looking tea shops and restaurants to fill you up from your museum exploration.

One of the things I love about living in a new place is the freedom you have to really get to know it. You’re not rushed. When touring, it’s much harder to figure out what’s close to what and what you’d like to do. So I thought I’d do a little series of fun “afternoons” and “mornings” (ideally 3-5 hours) of activities located together to help those wanting to enjoy London.

A Trafalgar Morning

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(c) Pharr

Getting of at Charing Cross, gives you any number of exits to explore Trafalgar Square, which has held Nelson’s Column since 1843. Throughout the year, lots of events happen in the square, which is also home to some great classic stops like the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery. In the latter, you will see portraits familiar from history textbooks and the former has some stunning classic artwork. (I could easily spend 2+ hours in each museum but less time if fine for many.) Just across the street from these museums is St. Martin-in-the-Fields with its Crypt Cafe and possibly something going on in the sanctuary like a midday concert. Looking out across the square at Admiralty Arch, you’ll see the start of the Mall leading to Buckingham Palace.

 

 

Leicester Square

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(c) Pharr

If you want to see a show in “Theaterland,” its a quick walk from Trafalgar Square to Leicester Square with its NYC-like TKTS booth for discounted West End tickets, but you could get a better deal for day of tickets by going to the box office of the performance you want. Box offices often open at 10 AM and you may find getting there early to stand in line before they open is the best way to save a few quid. You can also just save yourself time and search online for a deal or pay for the seats you really want before you leave your hotel room. (Little known fact: the Hippodrome Casino imports its steak from the U.S.A. if you find yourself in need of some American beef before the show.)

Theatre tickets procured, you likely have some time to kill. You might decide to explore London’s Chinatown or look for books in secondhand and rare book shops along Charing Cross Rd, just north of Great Newport St. (Though walking east from there will land you in Covet Garden.)

 

Russell Square

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(c) Pharr

But walking north on Charing Cross Rd and then taking a right on Great Russell St. will land you near the British Museum. (If the weather is really bad or you want to sit down for a bit, there are plenty of bus options.) Now I won’t lie to you, I love the British Museum and all its archaeological treasures including the Rosetta Stone, Easter Island statue Hoa Hakananai’a, the Assyrian Lion Hunt reliefs, and brass plaques from Benin. I would recommend several hours or reviewing the website so you know exactly what you want to see in advance. If you love cartoons, you may want to try and squeeze in the Cartoon Museum before it closes at 5:30 PM. While I enjoy hanging out in Russell Square or popping into the stunning and recently renovated Principal hotel, I appreciate there is less to do here, so it might not take a full half day depending on your interests.

One of the things I love about living in a new place is the freedom you have to really get to know it. You’re not rushed. When touring, it’s much harder to figure out what’s close to what and what you’d like to do. So I thought I’d do a little series of fun “afternoons” and “mornings” (ideally 3-5 hours) of activities located together to help those wanting to enjoy London.

A Borough Morning

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(c) Pharr

Borough Market and Southwark Cathedral (now with Doorkins the cat) have been side by side as a place of worship and a market place for over a thousand years. The market is unbearably crowded on Saturdays & closed on Sundays, but a fun place to explore during the rest of the week. It’s a great place to explore and buy nibbles, but nearby shops like Monmouth Coffee are also fun to stop in. Entering Southwark Cathedral is free (£1 to take photos); be sure to look out for the Harvard side chapel and the statue of William Shakespeare. You can check for Evensong or concerts. Just outside the cathedral is a replica of the Golden Hinde, a privateering ship of Sir Francis Drake. Look at it and think about crossing the Atlantic in something that small…

Of course at Borough Market you’re next to the Shard-Europe’s tallest building, which has restaurants and a viewing platform affording great London views on clear days. If you want something unexpected, consider a climb to the attic for the Old Operating Theatre museum if you’re interested in medical history (open 10:30-5 PM, £6.50 for adults). It’s a quick stop and a good reminder of how lucky we are with medical advancements. If you’ve gone this long without lunch and want more of Merry Ol’ England, consider a proper lunch at The George Inn, the only still standing 17th Century coaching inn. Alternatively, you could meander Bermondsey High Street like a local checking out local coffeeshops and eateries.

 

A Towering Afternoon

I have previously mentioned how to take an afternoon to explore the Tower of London, complete with torture and the Crown Jewels.

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(c) Pharr

You can get there along the Jubilee Walkway, part of the Thames Path with great views of the north bank, from London Bridge to Tower Bridge, an iconic symbol of London. Along the way if the sea spirit takes you, you can explore HMS Belfast, Royal Navy Town-class light cruiser launched in 1938. In crossing Tower Bridge, you have the option of the normal crossing or buying tickets in advance for the Exhibition.

Alternatively to reach the Tower of London, you could cross London Bridge and detour to walk up the Monument to the Great Fire of London (1666). Walking this way, you can also pass St. Dunstan in the East’s church garden.

 

A Mayflowering Evening

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(c) Pharr

Let’s say the Tower of London isn’t your thing and again, you want to think about how London links with the United States or you just want to have a relaxing wander. I’d still recommend the Jublilee Walkway along the south bank, passing Tower Bridge. You’ll get a good view of the Tower from across the water and you’ll pass the new City Hall on your right. You’ll continue through Shad Thames (formerly a warehouse area, now a ritzy place to live) and along the river. Eventually you can leave the river to relax in Southwark Park, a lovely local park opened in 1869 before grabbing a bite at the Mayflower pub, located where the Mayflower set off in 1620 for America. The pub has a wonderful outdoor area in the summer.

 

All the World’s a Bridge

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(c) Pharr

Another afternoon option from London Bridge is a bit more Shakespearean. You can follow the Jubilee Walkway in the other direction till you reach the Globe Theatre (which does not perform outdoors in the winter but now has the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse with its year-round schedule). Even if you can’t catch some of the Bard’s wit in a play, the tour is worthwhile and often led by the actors. Just next door is the Tate Modern that has a cafe with a great view of the north bank and modern art. If you have time, you can cross the Millennium Bridge to reach St. Paul’s Cathedral for either a tour, evensong or lovely apple crisp in the Crypt cafe.

One of the things I love about living in a new place is the freedom you have to really get to know it. You’re not rushed. When touring, it’s much harder to figure out what’s close to what and what you’d like to do. So I thought I’d do a little series of fun “afternoons” and “mornings” (ideally 3-5 hours) of activities located together to help those wanting to enjoy London.

A Westminster Afternoon

Westminster is a typical stop for first-time tourists, but it’s also an area worth a closer look if you have the time. Naturally what most people think of is the Palace of Westminster with its Houses of Parliament and Big Ben (which is silently hidden beneath its renovation until 220180116_143418022). Tours are available on Saturdays.

Founded in 960 CE, Westminster Abbey is a must-see and even an option for those on a budget. Wednesday evenings from 4:30-6 PM you can get tickets at the door for half-off. Evensong (daily except Wednesdays) is a free way to see (parts) of the Abbey and to worship (or observe worship) in this history-laden sanctuary, but you will not be able to wander around afterwards. If you arrive before it closes at 3:30 PM, you can visit St. Margaret’s for free next door to the Abbey. (St. Margaret’s church was built so that locals would leave the monks alone in the Abbey to have their own services–I’m not kidding.) Also you can now go into upstairs filled with treasures as of June 2018!

Just a quick walk away are the Churchill War Rooms, part of the Imperial War Museum. It’s a great way to explore World War II for an hour or two. Think about dining at England’s first “posh” Indian restaurant, the Cinnamon Club.

 

A Buckingham Morning

20180221_111841The Changing of the Guard is a great experience, but it is not every day so check the schedule. Different people have different preferences on best views (the Victoria statue on the Mall, just in front of the gates, etc.), but expect that this experience will take two hours once you’re in place. You’ll want to arrive at least fifteen to thirty minutes early and likely well before that if the height of summer. If you’ve taken the Tube in, get off at Green Park and find some breakfast to tide you over (ceremony often starts about 11 AM).

Of course once you’ve see the guards and/or the palace, you realize you are in St. James’s Park, so take a stroll. You can also cross the Mall to see St. James’s Palace. If you head along the eastern edge of the park, maybe you’ll spy a horse or more at the Horse Guards Parade. At this point you may look to your right and recognize that you’re next to the Churchill War Rooms.  If you want more horses, check out the Household Calvary Museum. Passing through the museum, you’ll find yourself on Whitehall Street where there are options for a late lunch. Walking just a bit further, you can crane your neck to see 10 Downing St, home and office of the Prime Minister.

Additional: Tours of Buckingham Palace, Carlton House, and other royal abodes are often limited during the year (details here). For example, Buckingham Palace only opens for visitors in late July-end of September, but the Royal Mews is open most of the year.

If you find that your morning near Buckingham has turned into a day, consider trying the late Queen Mother’s favorite drink (Gin and Dubonnet-pronounced Du-bon-nay) at her hotel of choice, The Goring.

Note: I’ve listed these all together because of their close proximity, but you would have trouble doing all of this in one single day. Listing them together though might help you decide what you would want to fit into a single day.

Once of the first things that Tom pointed out to me on my trip to Munich, the capital of Bavaria, is that it is the region of Germany where most Americans get their German stereotypes. Bavaria is known for Octoberfest, Oompah bands, pretzels (some come covered in cheese), beer gardens, mountains (Bavarian Alps), and of course traditional formal dress of Altbayern Lederhosen for males and Dirndl for females. Apparently even thirty years ago, you could see German couples leaving the Munich Opera House in Lederhosen and Dirndl’s because it was the most formal attire.

Munich, the third largest city in Germany located in the southeastern corner, is definitely worth a visit. Our first stop was the Englischer Garten (English garden), one of the world’s largest parks that even has an area where surfers enjoy River Isar in addition to a beer garden around the Chinese pavilion. The northern part of the garden feels like you are completely outside the city and has fewer people. The only drawback on a beautiful spring day is feeling that you need to leave to see the rest of the city.

Then we ran to Marienplatz in time to see the Rathaus Gockenspiel. This clever 15 minute show happens daily at 11 AM and 5 PM. Nearby is the Viktualienmarkt, a continuing farmer’s market from the early 1800s. We managed to get our tickets to climb up the tower of St. Peter’s just five minutes before they closed. Those 229 steps felt like a lot but the views of the city from the top were simply stunning!

This trip was not long enough to enjoy the many great museums that Munich has to offer or to catch an opera at the beautiful National Theatre next to the former royal residence. We did manage to pop into several churches from St. Peter’s to the very Rococo Asamkirche to St. Michael’s. They are all Catholic; Bavaria tends to be Catholic.

I was happy to also enjoy the gardens of Nymphenburg Palace. We arrived too late to get a tour of the palace or the other interesting side buildings, but the gardens themselves were worth a visit.

A Dark Side

It is so easy to spend time in Munich’s gardens and Marienplatz and completely miss that this is a place that was significant to Hitler and the Nazi Party. Hitler staged the attempted coup d’etat Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 here, which landed him in jail where he wrote Mein Kampf. Germans want to make sure everyone understands how Hitler came to power and what atrocities that brought. This is not something that happened once but could never happen again. Therefore, its very affordable (only 5 Euros) to explore an excellent museum of the National Socialist movement.

If you have the time, I recommend taking public transportation out to Dachau, a “working camp” run by the SS from 1933 to 1945. It was the first of the concentration camps and where new tactics to brutalize and humiliate prisoners were “tried out” and where most SS officers who went on to run other camps were trained. Anyone could be sent to Dachau; it didn’t matter if you were Aryan, Communist, Jewish, Polish, clergy, or a criminal. That fear kept many people in check. Your uniform had a triangle on it with a color indicating which type of prisoner group you belonged to. The horrors of this place were hard to fully fathom on the warm sunny day I toured.

Guided tours in English happen every day at 11 AM and 1 PM; they last about 2.5 hours. I had a really wonderful guide whose grandfather had been sent to the camp in the 1930s for saying “this idiotic war should end.” He was very lucky to be released because his boss pushed hard to get his engineer back. Few were so lucky. There was only one successful escape from the camp and it happened in the early years of the camp. What camp prisoners had to endure was beyond words. Sites like these are difficult to visit, but we all need to confront the evil that humans are capable of so that we will resist and fight in small and large ways if we are ever challenged.

I would recommend planning to take some time after the tour to go back through certain sites to process at your own pace.