Warning: This is a long post because I think the more detail I add when writing about my trips, the better I’ll remember them – and if not, I can always look back. Here’s the short version: London is beautiful and fascinating but also very crowded and the weather isn’t great. Even when it wasn’t actually raining, it was windy, cool, and constantly felt a little wet/drizzly. My favorite parts of the trip were the Shakespeare Globe Theatre and Mad Hatter Tea.
London is one of those places that you could explore for years and still discover something new every day. There is a unique mixture of modernity and antiquity that allows you to walk out of a Starbucks and into a 1000-year-old building next door. Walking down every street, there is the feeling that you may be standing in the same place that Charles Dickens or William Shakespeare once stood, or going under the same door frame that the Queen of England once passed through. This is not a secret, so to both its benefit and its detriment, London is swarming with tourists. It is a great place to meet and observe people from multiple different cultures, and I loved the fact that I could walk onto a train and hear three or four different languages before I got off. However, there is a very “touristy” feeling that persists throughout most of the city (in some places more than others).
Along with the air of mystery and history, the city carries a special type of cold that you feel in your bones. I can now truly say that I understand why their culture seems to be so focused on tea. Half the time, all I wanted to do was cuddle up in bed with a cup of hot Earl Grey and read a book. Although I wasn’t going to spend my trip in bed, I did drink ample amounts of coffee and tea. The multiple cafes lining every street became our safe havens, offering protection from the bitter cold as we explored the city. We stopped in too many cafes to name them all, and I must have averaged at least one coffee and about four cups of tea per day. My favorite was The Roasting, which had great lattes and amazing raspberry croissants.
The first day was fairly uneventful, as we didn’t arrive at the Airbnb flat until almost 4PM and we were exhausted from getting up at 6AM to make the flight from Madrid. That evening, we simply walked around the quaint neighborhood of Pimlico, where we were staying, and ate at a local pub/burger place called Cask. Afterwards, we settled in and had an early night in preparation for a long day of sightseeing the next day. The flat was a godsend – about $100 a night and they provided all the basics we could have wanted. Adapters, free wifi and a landline, breakfast food, coffee, tea, shampoo and conditioner, a hair dryer, a heater.. the list goes on and on. It was much more convenient than a hotel and made me feel like I was living in the city instead of just staying there.
The next day was long and full of walking. We started our day watching the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. This event is full of spectacle (fancy uniforms, marching, horse drawn carriages) along with a lot of standing around in anticipation for something to actually happen. While waiting, we did get some entertainment in the form of a sassy policeman who was directing traffic nearby. It started raining halfway through the ceremony, but it only lasted a couple minutes; thankfully, that was the only time it really rained during our trip. Pro tip: when in London, bring an umbrella everywhere.
To warm up, we went to have tea and scones at a nearby cafe called Royal Quarter Cafe. Both were fantastic. They provide fresh milk and sugar cubes to add to your drink, which makes it significantly better. The scones were buttery and warm – almost like a biscuit, but more crumbly instead of flaky. It’s one of those things you just have to try for yourself.
After tea, we walked down the mall and through St. James’s Park to get to the Churchill War Rooms. I have never seen so many birds in a park. It was chock-full of pelicans, ducks, and pigeons especially. If you look closely at the Duck Island Cottage picture below, you can see all the ducks in the pond and some sort of bird perched on top (I’m not a bird expert, so I have no idea what it is).
The Churchill War Rooms were cool, but a lot of information. It’s actually a combination of two museums, one about the Cabinet War Rooms (a WW2 bunker) and one dedicated to Winston Churchill. It is all self-guided with an audio guide, and even though I skipped through some of the Churchill things (the museum was HUGE), it still took almost two hours. Personally, I was more interested in the Cabinet War Rooms. You got to walk through the actual bunker used by Winston Churchill as an underground headquarters during the war. The bunker was left untouched after the war because they were unsure if they were truly leaving for the last time. A few years later, in 1948, Parliament declared it a historic site. It has been obviously cleaned up and there is now glass in front of most of the rooms, but it still felt pretty genuinely preserved.
Afterwards, we walked around some more and saw Parliament and Big Ben (if you didn’t know, Palace of Westminster = Parliament building; Big Ben is attached to the end). We also walked across the Thames River and saw the London Eye, but didn’t ride it since it was cloudy. Parliament is an absolutely beautiful building, and I’m a little disappointed that we didn’t have time to go inside.
Instead of touring Parliament, we went into Westminster Abbey, just across the street. This church is over 1000 years old and is where every monarch is coronated and buried and where many royal couples, including Prince William and Kate Middleton, get married. The church is still used for worship on a daily basis, as well as special events like Easter and Christmas services. The main focus of Westminster Abbey is tombs and monuments. Elizabeth I, Mary, Queen of Scots, Edward I, and multiple other monarchs are buried here, and almost every person’s tomb features a rendering of their body as well as other ornate decorations. Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin are also buried at this church, although in less extravagant tombs. Along the walls of the abbey, there are monuments designed for hundreds of non-royal historical figures, including William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens.
That night, on the way back from the Abbey, we tried fish and chips at this really cozy pub called The Feathers. Considering I am not a big fan of seafood in general, other than sushi, it was surprisingly pretty good. I’m not sure I’d eat it again, though.
On Thursday, our first stop was the Tower of London, which is a giant fortress (not just a tower!). This is one of those places where you really need to get a guided tour, or you’ll have no idea what you’re looking at. The tour was led by a “beefeater”, which is what they call the guards of the Tower of London. They told us all about the history of the area, why it was built, famous prisoners and executions, etc. They showed us where Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard were supposedly executed (there’s speculation) and the church where they are buried. The tour is great, but didn’t take us through any buildings other than the church, so we were left to roam those on our own. Unfortunately, this is one of those places where that “touristy” feeling is almost palpable. They haven’t retained a lot of the Middle Ages feeling but instead have turned much of the area into a museum. The middle building, the White Tower, is mostly a display of King Henry VIII and other kings’ armor, with little explanation of what actually happened there. It was still interesting, but would probably be much better with the guided tour (the existence of which we were unaware of at the time).
Another attraction within the Tower of London is the Crown Jewels, which I enjoyed a lot. They have on display various crowns and other royal relics from throughout the centuries, like sceptres, mantles, and the golden dishware used for every coronation banquet. The highlight of this was the Imperial State Crown, which has the Black Prince’s Ruby, the Cullinan Diamond, and the Stuart Sapphire. The Koh-i-Noor Diamond on the Queen Mother’s Crown was also pretty impressive.
From the Tower of London, we walked across Tower Bridge and had lunch at an Italian restaurant overlooking the two. For some reason, many people think that Tower Bridge is the London Bridge, but they are two distinct bridges (although they are close to each other). The Tower Bridge was built in the late 1800s and has drawbridges that can be raised for ships to pass through, whereas London Bridge is just a street and pedestrian walkway.
After lunch, we went to the Shard and instead of going up to the viewing deck on the 60-whateverth floor, which is expensive as hell, we just went into one of the hotels to the restaurant floors and looked out the windows. It was a good view but not worth €30 per person, in my opinion!
Then, we went back along the Thames and saw the aforementioned London Bridge on our way to the Shakespeare Globe Theatre. We got there just in time to buy standing tickets for the second half of the Taming of the Shrew. Although I’m sure it would have been better if I had any idea what the play was about before watching, it was amazing. The theatre itself is a replica of the original theatre used to watch Shakespeare’s plays since it was burned down, rebuilt, then demolished. The play was the highlight of my day, but if I went again, I would go to an entire play and buy seating tickets, since general admission / getting there late means you have to stand. After an hour or so, it really starts to hurt your feet.
After the play, we went to have tea and cake at the adjacent Swan restaurant, then headed over to the National Portrait Gallery. On the way, we crossed the Millenium Bridge and went past St. Paul’s cathedral, which we were too late to visit due to a charming but very chatty Australian couple making tea go longer than expected. Fleet Street was on our path, but to my disappointment, there was no trace of Sweeney Todd. We also walked through Covent Garden, which is full of cute (but expensive!) stores, and discovered an adorable garden area behind St. Paul’s church.
The National Portrait Gallery is just what it sounds like – a collection of portraits. They have to have thousands of paintings on display, some of which are famous (Like Elizabeth I, the Tudors, and the Stuarts, and some of which I have never even heard of. They also have various busts and statues, and they even had a temporary exhibit dedicated to Charlotte Bronte and her doodles and poems, since it was her 200th birthday in April.
Friday, the last day, was easily my favorite day in London. We first went to the Sherlock Holmes museum, which is adorable and amazing since I love the movies and the TV show. Then, we went to Mad Hatter afternoon tea at Sanderson. It was a little out of the way and a lot expensive, but it was probably my favorite thing about the entire trip. They didn’t just make the food themed, but also had the menus hidden in books and provided quirky tea sets. First, we got to choose our teas, then they brought items from the savory menu, then the sweet menu. I took a picture of the menu so I won’t list off what we got, but my favorites were the cucumber sandwich, the blue caterpillar fudge, and the “drink me” potion, which was a weird but delicious layered drink.
Our last stops were the British Library and the British Museum. The British Library had ancient documents like the Magna Carta and some of the first religious texts, dating back thousands of years. They also had a music section featuring sheet music by Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven as well as more modern things like handwritten lyrics from the Beatles. My favorite section was science, which had original Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, and Shakespeare manuscripts.
The British Museum was fascinating but absolutely huge. We only had time to go through a few exhibits, but it would be easy to spend weeks wandering around in those hallways. The temporary exhibit that we went to was about the lost cities of the Medetteranian and explained how intertwined the Egyptian and Greek empires were, both before and after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt. They had some statues from the 4th century BC that have been at the bottom of the Mediterranean for a thousand years as well as multiple other relics from both civilizations. They also have a statue from Easter Island and THE Rosetta Stone (yes, that Rosetta stone) on display there.
We met up with my sister after leaving the British Museum and went to eat at King’s Cross Station, since we had moved to a hotel across the street from it in preparation for the next day’s trip to Paris. I absolutely love Harry Potter, so Platform 9 3/4 was a fitting way to end the trip! I was very excited about it, as you can tell from my derp face in the pictures. I didn’t get to do that cute sorting scarf thing since it was late at night, so I pretended I was a first year who hadn’t been sorted yet.
Overall, I had a great time in London. There was a lot of walking and a lot of cold, but it’s one of those places that you can never get bored in because it is so fast-paced and there is so much to do and see. The people were very friendly and easy to understand, which was nice after being in Spain. I’d love to be able to go back someday, hopefully when it’s warmer. 🙂