When planning our trip to London in 2013, I remember talking to my friend Chuck about a previous visit to the city.
I babbled on about how, for all of London's uniqueness, it immediately felt like some place I could call home. The city has convenient transportation, historic sights, tremendous culture, and is all and all very clean for a city of its size. I remember remarking, "It's like being at home but where all of the buildings are picturesque and everybody's English sounds a little funny."
"Sounds like a theme park."
"Yeah, I suppose you're right."
I don't mean to sound so cliché but I suppose that's the natural reason why an American would fall in love with London. It's different enough to feel like a unique experience to us and yet has Starbucks, Burger King, and the most important comfort-of-home, the English language.
For all of those reasons, London serves as the perfect entry-point for an American into Europe, the roll it would play for our trip to Europe in September of 2013.
Chuck, Cindy, Jose, and I arrived at Heathrow International Airport early Sunday morning. The red-eye flight was particularly red-eyed for me as I was unable to sleep and I wore my exhaustion like weights hanging from my shoulders. I suspect the others did too but after planning and saving for 10 months and a crazy day of travel (including navigating a poorly designed airline check-in, unimpressed attendants, a frantic run between connecting flights, and the least-jolly British Border Control agent on the line) we were just ready to get going.
We took the train into town and arrived at Paddington Station. This was tremendously convenient as we had arranged to stay a few blocks away from this train station. It was around this area that we stayed 3 years earlier when Cindy and I visited London with my parents. Though less-central than other hotel options, the Paddington neighborhood is clean, quiet, and a short Tube-ride away from anything you want to do.
We stashed our bags at the hotel and decided to refuel with our first proper meal in a day.
So tired and with little orientation, it wasn't until half-way through our meal that Cindy and I realized that we had eaten at the same restaurant on our trip 3 years earlier. Breakfast managed to reset our clocks (it was 2am in California) and gave us the strength to start a new and exciting day!
We purchased some day-passes for the Underground (Tube) and caught a subway train into town, disembarking near the British government buildings. When we surfaced from the Underground, our access was restricted by a bicycle race, an event we would reencounter multiple times on this first day in town. Despite this minor inconvenience, it made for some beautiful shots of an empty London.
After perching ourselves outside of a Starbucks to mooch off of their WiFi signal, we wandered a bit and found ourselves on the Jubilee Bridge, a pedestrian bridge over the Thames River. Directly on the other side was the London Eye.
The London Eye is a ferris wheel that has been able to transcend beyond a carnival ride to a famous tourist attraction thanks in part to its unique design, impressive height, and the great architectural contrast it forms sitting beside buildings centuries old. It also costs $30/person. Combine that with a 60 minute queue, the price of a lift was too high for even these shameless tourists.
Instead, we snapped our pictures and moved on to more touristy sights available from sidewalks (for free!). Again crossing the Thames on the Westminster Bridge, we approached the Houses of Parliament and arguably the world's most famous clock: Big Ben.
From there, we moved onto Westminster Abbey, "the 'Royal Peculiar' - a church responsible directly to the Sovereign." We missed our window to see the church in 2010 and keeping up with our luck, it was closed for a function on this day (it was Sunday)! It's not so much that I wanted to see the inside—without denying the fascinating beauty of the structure, it must be said that when traveling in Europe (unless you have a trained eye) these gothic churches begin to fade into one-another. Rather for me, I still want to get in there and see the grave of Sir Isaac Newton; I'm sure I'd be in awe of its gravity.
...thank you very much. I'll be here forever.
Anyway, the building's closure didn't keep us from snapping a few and moving on.
It was at this point that we bumped into a classic British icon: the Red Telephone box.
In the age of cell phones, we thought it would be worthwhile to snap a few shots out of fear that the booths may fade into irrelevance in the way that the Police Box box has. I suppose some people already need to explain even the concept of a "phone booth" to their children. Additionally, there seems to be a struggle over the past 30 years between finding a better (more accessible) replacement or modern purpose for the booths and alternatively the notion that these red boxes connect people to the past as a historic icon. Who knows how long they will be around?
As charming as this looked, it smelled of pee (you can see Cindy's expression say, "Hurry up and snap the damn picture so I can get out!").
From there, we strolled through St. James's Park and down The Mall towards Buckingham Palace: The official residence of the Queen (and famous tourist attraction, really).
I don't have much to say about Buckingham Palace. We were of course happy to see it but in all reality, we were growing painfully tired. At this point, the sun was rising in California and we hadn't had respectable sleep in over a day. 'Tis the curse of the red-eye.
We made our way via Tube to our hotel. I remember us huddling by the door in a semi-circle like hunter-gatherers around a fire except, instead of fire, we were huddled for WiFi signal. We made our final uploads and then laid down on the beds to rest our tired backs. The conversation began to draw out more slowly. It was almost as hard to speak as it was to keep our eyes open. Without really trying we began to d r i f t a s l e e p . . . . . . .
Good morning everybody!
On our next day in London, we set out early for St. Paul's Cathedral. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to us we had purchased "non-peak" Underground day passes and thus were denied entry to the Tube for another 90 minutes. So much for waking up early!
To kill time, grab breakfast, and position ourselves at a more convenient Tube station, we decided to walk the nearly 2 miles across Hyde Park to the famous Harrods department store.
Along the way, we re-discovered the Peter Pan Statue in Kensington Gardens. I remember taking pictures of the statue in 2010 on the very first day I ever set foot in London. That night, I uploaded the pictures to an old laptop which proceeded to die later that trip, losing all of the pictures in the process. It was nice to finally grab a few photos to bring home this time.
As we continued on, I fell in love with the park. Our early-morning visit was absolutely perfect as all was quiet and serene. For me, it definitely ranks as one of the great city parks.
When we finally arrived at Harrods, we found it was still closed. We grabbed some coffee and did some souvenir shopping before the store finally opened up. For those unfamiliar, Harrods is a big, fancy department store that has been in operation in some way or another for over 150 years (and in the current building for over 100 of them).
In honesty, even at its age I hardly found the department store to be interesting with one exception: they had a fantastic collection of Harry Potter merchandise! Now that, I can appreciate!
Either way, the store was a suitable and warm way to pass the time before we were eligible to use our Tube tickets. On to St. Paul's!
When we arrived at St. Paul's Cathedral, we wandered around to the West Entrance where, to our delight, people really were feeding the birds! We enjoyed the outside for a bit and then went inside, something we didn't do on our last trip. Unfortunately, but understandably, photos are not allowed inside of St. Paul's Cathedral. You can trust that the inside is as ornate and dazzling as expected. I personally liked how much natural light is able to filter through to the inside. We wandered around, gazing at the artwork, the alter, and the inside of the gorgeous rotunda before stumbling on a staircase to the top of the building. The steps seemed shallow enough, why not?
What came next was the most grueling climb of the trip! It was just about 200 ft up to the first level, at the base of the dome. I remember this climb already kicking all of our butts, although I was the only one who got the memo on taking a "tired picture" (see below). Next was about another 100 ft to the top of the dome. Ouch! I don't think it's the climb itself that bothered me—I used to operate 200 ft tall roller coasters and I climbed those lifts regularly!—Rather, it was the realization that something I used to do often was now difficult!
I'm definitely out of shape!
Either way, the climb was perfect for views and photos. If I remember correctly, the panoramic-mode on our phones was a relatively new feature and we took advantage of it fully.
The climb down from the rotunda was just as unique as the climb up but only fractions easier. I loved heading through the space between the interior and exterior domes as the decoration peels away and you are clearly inside the structure. Soon after, we were back on ground-level, much to all of our relief.
I have no regrets of climbing St. Paul's and I don't believe that the rest of the group had any either. That being said, the experience single-handedly ruled out most other churches and towers on our trip! For example, a day later in Bruges, Belgium we had the opportunity to climb 366 steps up the nearly 300 ft tall Belfry but with legs literally still sore, we opted to pass on the experience! With the notable exception of Notre Dame, we "got our fix" of churches as well.
Tired and unsure of where to go next, we went into the Starbucks across the street to regroup (and if you haven't picked up on the theme yet, mooch off of the WiFi). What happened next feels like a silly byproduct of group-travel but remains a fond memory of mine: With everyone unsure of where to go next, we sat around the table looking at each other for ideas (but with no one speaking up, unwilling to be seen as imposing "their idea" on the group). This was probably born out of courtesy, hunger, and the sad acknowledgment that our time in London was already coming to an end.
Our solution to the problem was democracy. We each wrote down two ideas onto small pieces of paper, crumpled them up, shuffled them, and then read them aloud. "FOOD, TOWER BRIDGE, FOOD, TOWER BRIDGE..."—after all of that, each of us had the same exact idea!
Regardless of how we decided, we took off across the Thames River yet again, this time on the Millennium Bridge, a fancy looking pedestrian bridge across from the cathedral. If anyone has watched their Harry Potter films, this bridge gets destroyed by Death Eaters in film 6 when they wobble it back and forth until it unhinges into the river. Apparently, that scene is something of an inside-joke if you're a Londoner as the bridge was notoriously wobbly, when first built, and needed to be reinforced.
On the other side of the river was The Anchor, a terrifically old tavern allegedly going back to the days of Shakespeare (the location of the Globe Theatre is also on this side of the river). Despite reviews of mediocre food and cries of being a tourist trap, we were hungry and still had fish-n-chips on our "edible to-do" list, so we dug in.
The food wasn't inspiring but I can't deny that the atmosphere is just what I was looking for. I do recommend getting your peas mashed!—they come out looking like wasabi but tend to have more flavor than the whole peas I got!
If you've been looking at the sky in the pictures so far, you may have noticed that it keeps teetering between a gorgeous, clear-blue and impending rain. It was after lunch that the rain finally started coming down hard.
We ran for cover in a Tube station and decided to take that line through a few transfers to stay out of the rain and get to our next destination: the Tower of London and Tower Bridge.
If I remember correctly, the Tower of London was ending its visitation hours and we were only able to see the exterior. Instead, we strolled along the river and got our fix of Tower Bridge. Both landmarks were absolutely stunning; I believe they both got some work done in preparation for the Olympics.
Unfortunately, it was very clear that our final day in London was winding down so we took off, hoping to catch one more sight with the sun still out...
That's right! It was back to Abbey Road and the famous crosswalk from the Beatles Abbey Road album cover. The last time we had visited this, it was nice and quiet; this time, it was quite an ordeal! Many others had flocked over to take their pictures, hoping to match the perfect shot of them walking in tandem. Drivers would give a few moments for a photo before growing impatient and zipping through with pedestrians still in the crosswalk. There were even people (who I assume were locals hustling for tips) in bright safety vests offering to stand in the street and snap your picture for you.
Though there wasn't exactly a queue to take your picture, between people casually crossing the street and an annoying guy in an orange jacket who kept cutting in to get a solo picture (seriously, in the photo below you can see a car was tired of waiting for him and chose to barrel through) we decided against squeezing our way in for the perfect photo.
For us, there was a perfectly legitimate crosswalk just to the right of the "official" one.
From Abbey Road, we returned to our hotel to regroup and rest. Saddened that our time in London was already coming to an end and unwilling to sleep without squeezing in more of the city, we decided to head out one last time. Chuck's cousin had recently moved to the UK and offered to take a train into town to meet us for drinks and a tour, an offer we were all happy to take!
We met him at Piccadilly Circus where we grabbed a bite and took off through Chinatown and Soho, looking at a variety of joints but never really committing to one. This was just fine for us and we enjoyed our stroll through town.
We walked for about an hour before returning to our hotel. As much as we wanted the night to continue, we had to be up at 4am to start-off on the Eurostar towards Bruges, Belgium, concluding our two days in London.
One of the obvious themes of this blog is my failure to spend enough time in each place we visit. Our next day, in Bruges, was the same exact way. I don't mean to lament to you and perhaps intriguingly, I'm actually rather proud of what we were able to accomplish on our trip to this great city of the world. That being said, London deserves at least 4-6 days if you intend to soak up a truer experience and take the time that each sight deserves. Westminster Abbey, the British Museum, the Harry Potter Experience!—two trips down and I still haven't seen whole parts of this fantastic city!
But as Chuck says, "It just gives you a reason to go back!"
And go back, I intend to do.
Thanks for reading! For more photos of our two short days in London, check out the gallery below: