One Week or Less
You will probably be exhausted after your flight to London, so take it fairly easy on the first day. Once you're settled into your hotel and refreshed, try a bit of easy sightseeing, perhaps by taking one of the tour buses that let you get on and off, so you can explore London at your own pace. You may also want to take the opportunity to wander around the area near your hotel to help you get your bearings, and explore nearby attractions.
The next day you should get down to business and visit possible living locations. I would start centrally and cover a few areas in Westminster, such as Mayfair (nearest Underground station is Green Park) or Belgravia (nearest Underground station is Hyde Park Corner), if you want upmarket, urban living. These areas border each other and so can easily be merged together in a visit. This area is near Buckingham Palace, so if you want to see the Changing of the Guard be there by 11:15 a.m. Another very central location is Marylebone (nearest Underground station is Baker Street), and you may want to spend some time here.
Families may prefer the quieter residential areas of St. John's Wood (St. John's Wood Tube station) or Maida Vale (Warwick Avenue or Maida Vale station), which border each other. The American School in London is based in St. John's Wood, so this would be an ideal time to visit the school (be sure to pre-book a visit).
The next day you could combine a bit of sightseeing and location scouting, by visiting the parts of Kensington and Chelsea nearest South Kensington Tube station, followed by a trip to one or more of the South Kensington museums. If you think Chelsea may be to your liking, start at South Kensington Tube station and walk down Pelham Street and Sloane Avenue until you get to Kings Road, or you can take the number 49 bus. Once you are finished exploring this area of Chelsea, head back on the 49 bus to South Kensington, where you can visit the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, or Victoria and Albert Museum (or all three if you are a museum buff).
The next day give yourself a break from location hunting and just enjoy London. If you like walking you could go to Parliament Square (Westminster Tube station). Here you'll find the Houses of Parliament, including the bell tower that holds Big Ben, as well as Westminster Abbey. Then walk across Westminster Bridge and take a trip on the London Eye (you can pre-book online). Next you can walk up the river's edge along the South Bank to The Globe Theatre and take in a play, or continue on until the Tate Modern. If you still have energy you can walk across the Millennium Bridge and up to Queen Victoria Street, where you turn right to get to Mansion House Tube station and hop on the Circle or District line to Tower Bridge to see the Tower of London. If you are tired, you can leave this to another day.
If you'd prefer a predominantly residential area near a large park, check out Hampstead, Belsize Park, or Highgate on the Northern line on your fourth day in London. Hampstead (in the borough of Camden) is packed with good independent schools, so build any Hampstead school visits into this day. You could then take the Northern line down to Tottenham Court Road to visit the British Museum and explore Bloomsbury. One last area I'd suggest that you visit would be around High Street Kensington and Notting Hill. Both neighborhoods offer a good mix of different accommodations in a fairly central location, but aren't as busy as some of the central areas of Westminster. If you are going to be based in the City of London for work and want a short commute, then spend some time exploring around Islington (by Angel Tube station) or the City itself - this would be another time you could see the Tower of London, if you haven't had a chance to yet. Even Canary Wharf in Docklands (on the Docklands Light Railway or Jubilee Underground line) could be worth a visit if you are going to be based there. If you are a tennis fan, then a trip to Wimbledon to do a tour of the grounds may be in the cards; just be sure to pre-book your tour. While there, you could explore the streets toward Wimbledon Common to see if it may work for you as a place to live. On the way back you could take the train to Clapham Junction and walk around Battersea and Northcote Road or take the District line train and get off in East Putney to quickly check out this neighborhood.
If suburbia calls, head south of the river to the borough of Richmond, by taking the District line to Kew Gardens (at the station, follow the signs to Kew Gardens and then walk down Lichfield Road to get to the gardens themselves).
Afterwards you can go into Richmond and have a wander around its pretty town center before heading to the river and taking a boat ride from Richmond back to Westminster Pier. For a distinctly rural flavor, take the river boat from Westminster Pier to Hampton Court and spend some time touring this palace. Many of the towns and villages that are popular with Americans in Surrey are within 20 miles (32 kilometers) of here. By taking the train back to Surbiton and changing lines you could pay a visit to Esher, Cobham (via Cobham and Stoke d'Abernon station), or even Virginia Water. Unfortunately they are all on different train lines, but you could visit at least one of them. If you think you and your family would prefer to live outside of London, rent a car and spend at least a day out of town and skip some of the areas in London. This would be a good time to check out Surrey (around Cobham and Thorpe) or parts of Buckinghamshire or Hertfordshire. If you have kids under the age of seven, then you may want to visit the Bekonscot Model Village and Railway (www.bekonscot.co.uk), which is in Buckinghamshire and around five miles (eight kilometers) away from Gerrards Cross. If your kids are too old for this, there are several stately homes (such as Hughenden Manor or Cliveden House) in this part of Buckinghamshire, or you can visit Runnymeade and see where the Magna Carta was signed. For more information see the National Trust website (www.nationaltrust .org.uk). North of London in Hertfordshire the grand stately Hatfield House was built in 1611, and part of an early palace (home to Elizabeth I in her child- hood) can still be seen. Hatfield House is less than 10 miles (16 kilometers) away from both Harpenden and St. Albans, so explore these areas while you are up this way with the car. St. Albans was an old Roman town (called Verulamium), and the Verulamium Museum has some wonderful Roman artifacts.
More than a Week
If you can afford a two-week fact-finding trip to London you will be much better able to really explore the capital's various neighborhoods, as well as
its suburbs. Think about renting a vacation apartment. You could also look into doing a house swap with some Londoners, as a more affordable solution. Either would give you the chance to really experience what it is like to live in London.
You can do all of the activities listed in the one-week itinerary, but at a much slower pace. Fill in your time by exploring more of London's museums, art galleries, shops, markets, sights...whatever takes your fancy. As well as staying in town, you could spend a few days (and nights) out in the suburbs of Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, or elsewhere, and this would give you a chance to visit a school or two. If you are thinking of living outside the city, whoever will be working in town should experience the commute in rush hour so that they know what they are taking on.
As you'll be in town over a weekend you may want to visit some of London's markets, such as the Saturday Portobello Market (Notting Hill Gate Tube station) or Borough Market (London Bridge Tube station) - gourmet heaven. Camden Town Market (Camden Town Tube station) runs on both Saturday and Sunday and is great for students. The Greenwich Market (take the Docklands Light Railway to Cutty Sark station) is also open on the weekends. While you are there you can visit the Observatory, stroll through the park, or visit the National Maritime Museum. A fun way to get back to Westminster is by river boat under the Tower Bridge.
A longer trip to London enables you to have a few day trips, such as going on the train to Bath to see the Roman Baths or heading to the seaside in Brighton to see the splendid Brighton Pavilion. If you have kids, Legoland in Windsor would be a real treat, perhaps as a reward for trudging around town looking at places to live, or you could pay a visit to Windsor Castle. You could also use some of your time to explore farther afield for a few days, be it north to the Lake District and Scotland or west to Cornwall and the Cotswolds. You could even take the Eurostar train to Paris for a short break to experience the delights of that city.
From the book Moon Living Abroad in London by Karen White. Excerpted by arrangement with Avalon Travel, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2012. For more information, visit http://www.moon.com.