Our top hotel pick, Thistle Holborn the Kingsley, balances style, comfort and affordability in the very center of London
By J.C. Thomas
As the end of 2021 approaches, the pandemic and its travel disruptions are by no means over. Yet, travel is tentatively back, with many of the world’s greatest destinations eager to welcome back international visitors. London is top among them. Eternally enticing to travelers from all over the world, London is a top contender for vaccinated visitors from the United States who are ready to get back to globetrotting.
Can I Fly to the U.K?
If you are a U.S. citizen or permanent resident who is fully vaccinated, the procedures for entering the UK and re-entering the United States are relatively straightforward. Some additional paperwork is required, along with testing upon arrival and before returning home. Testing can be done yourself, with results recorded via app, or at a clinic. Click here to read the most up-to-date rules for entering the U.K., which currently include completing a passenger locator form and taking a Covid-19 test within two days of arrival. Click here for the U.S. State Department’s rules, which currently involve proof of a negative Covid-19 test and a signed declaration.
Start reading up on the procedures as early as possible, while also being aware that they might change before your trip. The process is not overly complicated, but following the correct timeframes for testing and submitting paperwork is key.
From my own recent weeklong trip to the U.K. from California, a long-missed opportunity to visit family and do some solo sightseeing in London, I am glad to report that the additional requirements were easily manageable. It helped to write down a list of the necessary tasks and the days on which they must be done. I flew with British Airways, which requested use of an app to upload all travel documents and test results (via QR code) in advance of travel. This was optional, but doing so made airport procedures go quickly and smoothly. Another positive experience was the lack of big crowds at both airports (LAX and London Heathrow) and a half-full plane in one direction, although there is no guarantee of similar circumstances.
Where to Stay in London
The additional logistics of international travel can easily take away from the pleasure of planning a trip to London. Instead of spending even more hours researching your almost endless lodging options in the vast and labyrinthine city, I highly recommend you check out the Thistle hotel brand. Thistle has eight hotels in London, all in desirable locations close to major tourist attractions and underground stations.
I had stayed at Thistle Trafalgar Square on a previous family trip to London, and was so impressed by the accommodations, excellent breakfast and friendly service that the brand earned my immediate loyalty. Knowing that Thistle has numerous locations in London, it was the first name I looked up after booking my flights. Options include Hyde Park Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park Lancaster Gate, Piccadilly, Bloomsbury Park and Holborn. Any would make a convenient base for sightseeing, and all have equally pleasant, spacious accommodations with a full range of amenities. This means you can consider your particular needs and desires – the places you most want to visit, transportation plans, and ease of getting to and from the airport – and find a Thistle hotel that suits them.
I booked a room for my one-night stay at Thistle Holborn, which is in the Bloomsbury district in the almost-exact center of London. The convenience of its location appealed to me, as it’s minutes on foot to the Holborn tube station, which offers a direct connection to Heathrow on the Piccadilly Line. It’s also less than a mile from King’s Cross railway station, where I needed to go on the evening after my stay. Being able to store my luggage at the hotel, enjoy a day of solo sightseeing, then pop back for my bags before heading to the station saved a lot of time.
First Impressions of Thistle Holborn
Traveling on the tube from Heathrow to Holborn on the Piccadilly Line takes approximately 1 hour, although there is the more expensive, faster Heathrow Express as an alternative. From Holborn station, it takes only about 5 minutes to walk to the Thistle Holborn hotel. With luggage, the tiredness from a long flight and the mild, temporary culture shock of London’s frenetic foot traffic, it’s a pleasure to reach a hotel lobby so efficiently.
The hotel occupies an elegant Edwardian building fronting Bloomsbury Way, a busy and people-packed street but relatively calm by London standards. The vintage signage above and stone plaques flanking the entrance to the lobby bear the hotel’s original name “The Kingsbury.” It was named after the writer Charles Kingsley, a link to the literary heritage of the Bloomsbury district. These beautifully maintained historic details continue inside, where an ornate iron staircase spirals upward from the heart of the lobby. Purple carpeting highlights the architectural feature, adding a regal vibe and major pop of color, while artsy black and white photos of London landmarks nod to the storied city outside.
Thistle Holborn underwent a major renovation in 2019, and the results blend sleek, contemporary sophistication with the most appealing of historic fixtures. It’s a fairly small boutique hotel with a coziness and friendly charm that’s absent from many larger, more generic properties. The on-site restaurant is currently closed, but the Kingsley Bar off the lobby is open for drinks, snacks, light meals and sports on its TVs. Chat with the always lovely front desk staff about local dining and drinking recommendations, or just go online and browse the dozens upon dozens of options within a few minutes’ walk.
All Thistle Hotels have comprehensive Covid protocols in place, which you can read about in detail here. They include enhanced cleaning procedures, contact-free express checkout, cash-free payments and all team members wearing face coverings. For guests, masks are encouraged but not required in public areas; around half of the other guests I saw wore masks inside.
Thistle Holborn’s Guest Rooms
Thistle Holborn has 129 guest rooms including 11 junior suites. Options include standard single, double, twin, deluxe king and executive king rooms along with junior double suites. Breakfast is included with all room rates, along with fast, free Wi-Fi and in-room amenities including a hair dryer, iron, safe, toiletries, a work desk and large flat-screen television. Upgraded amenities in the executive rooms and suites include a Nespresso coffee machine, electric kettle, wide selection of teas and coffees, and complimentary mineral water.
Thistle Holborn hosted my stay in an executive king room, which was beautifully spacious with serene décor. Along with a luxurious king-sized bed, the room had a work desk, wardrobe, and a distinct raised sitting area with a custom curved banquette tucked into the bow window. It’s a really nice spot where you can open the curtains open to watch the bustling street below, or draw them closed to enjoy peace and privacy. Chenille upholstery and accents in a rich burgundy add a softness to the calming neutral hues elsewhere in the room.
In the bathroom, mirrors and polished chrome are balanced by sand-colored tile, a serene setting for the full bath and shower and my favorite feature, a heated towel rail-radiator. Bath robes and slippers are provided, encouraging guests to embrace the luxuriousness of a super-comfortable home far away from home.
Breakfast is Included
An included breakfast is always a great bonus, but frequent travelers know that the quality and options vary widely from hotel to hotel. At Thistle hotels, the included breakfast is exceptional – a full array of hot and cold items and barista-style hot drinks menu, all in a sit-down restaurant setting.
At Thistle Holborn, the buffet spread included all imaginable components of a full English cooked breakfast, including several egg options and vegetarian alternatives, plus European-style cold meats, cheeses, cereals, fresh fruits and yogurts. There was also a wide selection of breads and pastries, and a state-of-the-art self-serve coffee machine that puts most others to shame. The dining room is bright and spacious, and a pleasant place to start the day off with a very satisfying breakfast.
The Local Area
Thistle Holborn straddles two storied districts of West London: Holborn and Bloomsbury. Holborn has a favorable balance of shops, offices, hotels and restaurants, with the benefit to sightseers of being in the very center of London. This makes it a great home base for exploring in all directions. Bloomsbury is famous for its cultural and intellectual heritage, a literary hub with several prestigious universities. Bloomsbury Square Garden, minutes from Thistle Holborn, is a time capsule of the district’s Regency-era heyday.
The major visitor attraction close to the hotel – in fact just minutes away on foot – is the British Museum. The world’s first national public museum, its collection of more than eight million items is one of the largest and most important in existence, spanning human history from the stone age to today. Highlights include the Rosetta Stone, Parthenon Marbles, exemplary works by Renaissance masters, Ancient Egyptian statues and so very much more. Entrance is free, so hotel guests should certainly fit a visit into their sightseeing schedules. You could spend all day there and only take in a fraction of the museum’s scope, but even a short visit is worth it.
Only a few doors down from Thistle Holborn is a major architectural and historic landmark seemingly unnoticed by locals. Passing by its grand Classical frontage, a row of tall columns backed by an ornate steeple, I found little signage. Curious, I did some research in my hotel room and identified the monumental neighbor as St. George’s Church. It has a very interesting heritage, consecrated in 1731 and the work of baroque master Nicholas Hawksmoor, a protégé of Sir Christopher Wren. According to the World Monuments Fund, charged with the church’s decades-long restoration efforts, the Corinthian portico was inspired by the temple of Bacchus as Baalbek in Lebanon, while the “stepped pyramidal steeple (was) designed according to ancient descriptions of the Tomb of Mausolus at Halicarnassus.” The church has a glorious interior, too. Opening hours are limited, but planning a visit might be of interest to some.
36-37 Bloomsbury Way, London WC1A 2SD
Disclaimer: California News Press and its contributors received goods, services and/or other professional courtesies to facilitate this review. All opinions are those of the author.