I just got back from London a few days ago, and I’d like to talk about my experiences there. Of course, my goal was to write something every day while I was there, but clearly THAT didn’t happen. So here are some scattered memories of the 7 days I spent in London!
My mom and I arrived in London in the morning after not sleeping on the plane at all. First thing we did was a classic tourist move- went on a double decker bus tour. This, I am not proud of. But we needed to get our bearings and make sure we saw everything quickly- and the cheesy guided commentary didn’t hurt! My first impression (and it is a lasting one) of London was that it is a city of beautiful contradiction. There is such incredible history there- buildings from the 16th and 17th centuries stand next to sleek, modern skyscrapers. The fusion of old and new really defines the city.
Then we went on a Jack the Ripper walking tour (which came free with the double decker bus deal). I KNOW, I KNOW. But it was actually really interesting! The guy leading it was a young local student and knew everything there is to know about Jack the Ripper (although this information in itself is limited). He took us through alleyways and tunnels and set the stage for the 5 murders perfectly. At one point we stood on the exact same cobblestone where one of his victims was found. So creepy!
That night, we were exhausted, so we decided to just go across the street to a pub for beers and fish and chips. Something I wish I would have known before this trip- waiters and waitresses do not exist in traditional British pubs! We sat there like idiots waiting for someone to serve us before we finally figured out we had to go up to the bar ourselves if we wanted anything. The things you learn while traveling.
On our second day, we decided to go down to the Westminster Abbey area. Westminster Abbey itself was closed to visitors, which sucked, so we went to the Houses of Parliament instead. It was fascinating to see the government of the UK- everything is pomp and circumstance. It’s so different from the U.S. They place a lot of value on tradition and ceremony, which is intriguing. We saw the House of Commons, the House of Lords, and the Queen’s Waiting Room. The building itself was awesome, but it, like SO many other places in London, did not allow pictures. Sigh. Then we walked up to Trafalgar Square and through the National Gallery, where we saw works by Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Degas, Cezanne… the list went on. There was definitely not enough time to see everything.
That afternoon, we had booked a literary pub crawl (because I am a lit nerd). And… this thing was weird. Most things literary are, but still. We ended up being the only two people on this thing. No joke. And we couldn’t get out of it without insulting the people who put it one (who were very nice). There were two women dressed in costume and pretending to be Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf. …Yeah. Parts of it were actually very interesting- we walked around Fitzrovia and SoHo and saw a lot of pubs where literary greats once drank. Honestly, though, it was more interesting to see the young, vibrant (predominantly gay) neighborhood of SoHo.
That night we stayed in the area and had dinner in Chinatown (a British Chinatown, who knew?) It reminded me of Chinatown in NYC, but on a smaller scale. The first restaurant we tried sat us down in this tube like room literally squeezed next to a couple, so we tried a different place. The food was pretty decent and the atmosphere was lively.
Old and New collide…
On day 3, we went on a Harry Potter tour in the morning, because WHY NOT. This girl about my age from Canada took us (and about 5 local familys and 2 foreign couples) around London to filming locations of the Harry Potter movies.
For lunch, we decided to *try* traditional British food. I got a steak and ale pie and my mom got bangers and mash. The food in London is just… not good. It was terrible. I know that’s a stereotype, and maybe it was just the place we went to, but my GOD those people do not know how to cook.
We ended the day at the Tower of London. We got there and this guide took a TON of people around the grounds. He was hilarious. And his Twitter handle is @BillyBeefeater, in case you’re curious. The highlight of this was definitely the Crown Jewels. Those things are enormous, glittering, mortgages of diamonds. The “Tower” of London is not a Tower at all, but almost a medieval apartment complex. It was amazing to see this medieval fortress that is still standing.
This was by far my favorite day in London. My mom had to work for the rest of the trip (the reason we were there) so I was on my own. I decided to take the tube down to Buckingham Palace and basically walk my way back through the city. Buckingham Palace was much bigger than I thought it would be, and in the front there’s this giant fountain with a huge gold statue on top of it. There was no changing of the guard that day, but I did take some close-ups of the guards standing in front of the doors. Then I walked along a gorgeous pathway that bordered Hyde Park on one side and Green Park on the other. I walked along Piccadilly up to Piccadilly Circus, where I walked past some crazy rich houses and the Ritz Hotel.
I went back to the alleyway that we had visited on the Harry Potter tour and went into some of the bookstores. Some of them were selling first edition books of Alice in Wonderland and Roald Dahl books. They were really cool to see, but about 100 GBP each, so that wasn’t happening. I then walked my way up toward the British Museum, through the Seven Dials. These are basically seven streets that converge in a wheel shape (also, the streets in London are a freakin’ mess and none of them run straight). Each of the seven streets have a ton of little boutiques, specialty shops, and eateries that I felt were more authentic London.
The British Museum 1) is huge and 2) cannot be done in just a few hours. I did get to wander through a few of the rooms and see the Rosetta stone though! This museum houses some of the most ancient and amazing artifacts from human civilization, and best of all, like every other museum in London, it was free!
From there I walked to Covent Garden. I was expecting an actual garden (nope, not literal) but instead this is like an eclectic, diverse marketplace. This was one of my favorite places in London. There are rows and rows of shops and bakeries, and then in the center there are booths set up where locals sell antiques, jewelry, leather, paintings, basically anything and everything you could imagine. The place was bustling and there were street performers juggling machetes and musicians singing and playing instruments. I spent as much time as I could there before I knew it’d be getting dark.
On my walk back to the hotel, I stopped at the Somerset House and Courtauld Gallery. I didn’t go in the Courtauld Gallery because it was about to close, but I took a bunch of pictures of Somerset House. What is Somerset House, you ask? I have no idea. The courtyard was deserted, and there I was snapping pictures. Don’t know what it is, but it’s beautiful!
I decided to get out of London and see more of England, so I took a tour to Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, and Bath. Windsor Castle is where Queen Elizabeth II spends about 3 months out of the year, and she prefers it to Buckingham Palace. And I totally understand why. First, we saw Queen Mary’s Dollhouse, which is basically the Rolls Royce of dollhouses. This thing is open on 4 sides, probably has 25 rooms, and every room is decorated down to the finest detail. I mean, there are little tiny forks and knives in the dining room. We then walked through the State Apartments, (again, no pictures) which are grandiose and completely over-the-top luxurious. They are still decorated like they were in the 16th century, but the Queen and her officials still use the rooms today.
We then rode to Stonehenge, which was incredible to see, but… it is exactly what it looks like in the pictures. A bunch of rocks, out in the middle of nowhere. What’s amazing about it is the question- why is it there and how did it get there? Other than that, though, there is nothing unexpected. We then moved on to the ancient Roman city of Bath, where Jane Austen lived. We took a tour through the Roman baths and then did have some free time (and by that I mean 5 minutes). It was then a three hour drive back into London. When we got back, I decided to at least pass by Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament at night. Big Ben was lit up in green, Parliament in gold, the London Eye in blue, and Southwark Bridge in purple. London looks completely different at night.
This was my last full day in London. I decided to suck it up and go to Westminster Abbey (cost 16 GBP, which is an outrage) but I”m so glad I did. The place is magical. So many former kings and queens are buried there, and to be honest, it was kind of cool to walk the same path that Kate did! Then, I trekked all the way across town because I THOUGHT that the dress Judy Garland wore in the Wizard of Oz was on display at the Stafford Hotel. When I got there after forty minutes of walking, however, I learned that the dress had JUST been moved. Frustration was an understatement.
I headed to the Victoria and Albert Museum but only had time to see one floor. My favorite exhibit was the “Wardrobe through the Ages”- they had clothes on display from the 1600s through today. I then took the tube (I was mastering it by now) to Tower Bridge. Just for your reference, the “Tower Bridge Experience” is a total rip off and waste of time, and I’d recommend avoiding it. I then went to Shakespeare’s Globe, which is basically a replica of the Globe theater (or at least what they think it looked like.) This, although overpriced, I would actually recommend. I would have liked to have seen a play in the theater, but the tour was still very interesting.
That night, we went to the play Les Miserables at Queen’s Theatre. AMAZING. If you haven’t seen it, I can’t describe it. And if you have, I don’t have to.
On our last day, we only had time to go to St. Paul’s Cathedral. We saw the glittering mosaics on the ceilings and climbed the hundreds of stairs up to the golden lantern where we enjoyed a panoramic view of the city. It was the perfect way to end the stay in London!