Yoohoo, London calling! You might think it is impossible to see London in 36 hours, but with a little planning you can do quite well. London was a trip that I wanted to do for some time but had put off for a number of reasons, but when one of my best friends says “I’ll come visit you, but can we go to London too?” I said YES! We planned her whole trip to Germany around Father’s Day since Fil would be home and could watch Brock while we had a girlfriend’s weekend away.
All I can say is that if you have any less than a full week to spend in London, plan, plan, and plan. Danielle and I made a list of the things we wanted to see and did our best to cross everything off of it… and we did pretty darn good. Each of us only missed one attraction that we wanted to see. Now of course we could have extended our list to fill any amount of time, but for our short time we wanted to hit all the bigs, and we pretty much did just that.
But amazingly enough, with just about a month until our trip I discovered that we would be in London for the official celebration of the Queen’s Birthday! I lost all cool at that discovery and immediately started researching how to get the best views of the Queen and royal family. Hands down, that was my favorite part of the trip, and deserves its own post… but for now I will share the rest of our London experience. This is going to be a long one, but if you want to jump right to photos, here are links to my flicker albums: London Calling, and Trooping the Colours.
Right off the plane we hopped the tube (subway) to our hotel to check in and leave our bags. I was happy with our pick. It was a 2 minute walk from the Earl’s Court tube station which had direct lines to almost all of our planned destinations plus a handful of coffee and sandwich shops nearby.
First stop, City Cruises River Tour with views of Big Ben, the Parliament building, the London Eye, and stopping at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.
At the Globe we decided to get off the tour. Unfortunately, you can only tour the Globe in the mornings because in the afternoons they do live shows, which we did not know until we got there. With the show of the day being sold out we grabbed a bite to eat at the café and just checked out the exterior of the theater. We were disappointed that we couldn’t see the inside, and knew that with our planned schedule we probably would not have another chance to try. That being said, the Globe was pretty neat. It is of course a reconstruction, but if you enjoy Shakespeare, it is worth a stop.
We planned to get back on the cruise to travel to the next stop, Tower hill, but we discovered the boat would not be stopping where we were for quite some time so we adjusted our plan. The Thames may be the most polluted, disgusting waterway I have ever seen, but walking around London is a lovely treat. For being one of the most traveled cities in the world, it did not feel overly crowded. It felt clean, welcoming, and most importantly safe. Every house and building was straight out of a novel and we could not stop smiling. Like seriously, Fil, get a job at the embassy and buy me this house!
It is a beautiful world when you can hop off the Tube, come up the stairs and view to your left Big Ben, Westminster Abbey straight ahead, and statues of world leaders to your right. The Parliament Square Garden was our first encounter with the lovely gardens of London. Perfectly groomed grass and flowers surrounded by statues of world leaders and flags of the Commonwealth. Some of the statues included Winston Churchill (naturally), Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela.
We crossed the park to the Abbey and were entertained by the second bagpipe performer of the day- in full Scottish regalia. Adding the music to the scenery just made London feel even more picturesque.
We missed the last entrance to the Abbey by about a half an hour, but would make our way back over to it the next day. It actually worked out better this way because we had a little more time to clean up and get ready for Wicked in the West End that night. And when I say clean up, I mean a bit more than powder our noses. Our weekend in London coincided not only with the Queen’s official birthday, but also with a heatwave for the ages. Literally, the hottest temperatures in London since 1976 according to the BBC. Needless to say, after hours of touring, a shower was quite refreshing.
Wicked was a really great production. I had seen it twice on Broadway with the original cast, so I was expecting to be slightly put off, but overall I was impressed. There were a few quirks, but Danielle didn’t pick up on them as it was her first time seeing the show. Hands down I recommend anyone interested in theater shows to see one in the West End if you make it there. The production was on par with Broadway and the tickets were much cheaper.
That night I could barely sleep. I was too excited for the morning! Trooping the Colours was a once in a lifetime experience. But I am going to keep you in suspense and save that for a separate post. Here is a teaser photo though.
After the Queen’s parade carriage passed us by I could not stop smiling and feeling giddy. Instead of rushing out to the closest tube, we walked through St. James Park towards Westminster to visit the Abbey. It really was something else. Beach chairs were set up for people to use in the sun, families were playing all kinds of games, and in the distance, Buckingham palace. Beauty all around.
Another must see in London is the Abbey. Since the coronation of William the Conqueror in 1066, all coronations of British monarchs have been held in Westminster Abbey on the same throne, which is on display. There have been at least 16 royal weddings at the abbey since 1100 including Princess (now Queen) Elizabeth & Philip, and most recently, Will & Kate. The height and details of the ceiling reminded me of the cathedral in Metz, but by far Westminster is the most beautiful cathedral I have ever seen- inside and out (although I do not have pictures of the inside).
With experience of other cathedrals, I was expecting burials, but I was not expecting so many! Among the burials are Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Darwin, and Isaac Newton along with almost every monarch following the burial of Henry III in 1272. Each coffin was carved with intricate details and almost all of them were topped with a stone resemblance of the royal. It was really amazing to see so many Kings and Queens in one place, preserved in history.
But we were not done with our history lesson for the day. We popped out of the tube at the Tower of London, although we didn’t explore all of the buildings in the complex, I really enjoyed just being present. The Tower of London, I think, has one of the most fascinating histories of any complex anywhere. Built in 1066 during the Norman Conquest, the tower has played several different roles over the years. First as a fort and royal residence, next as an infamous prison and torture chamber, an armory, treasury, home of the Royal Mint and jewels, and even a menagerie. The tower is quite famous for its history as a prison with prisoners like Guy Fawkes being tortured after the gunpowder plot was foiled in 1605 (remember, remember the fifth of November), and also the location that Ann Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, was executed. The last prisoners held there were during WWII with the last execution of a German spy in 1941.
Most interestingly, the tower was also home to the King’s menagerie. In 1828 there were over 280 animals representing at least 60 species, and today they are honored with wire statues. These animals were kept private for a long time but at some point they also became part of a public zoo. Londoners had an option for entry. They could pay 2 cents to enter, or they could bring a small animal to feed to the lion. No joke. The 1800’s were an interesting time. Today you can view all kinds of exhibits, but we stuck to just the torture chamber and royal jewels which included the royal crown, scepter, and swords.
Right across the way was the Tower Bridge, and although we opted against the tour, we still enjoyed a walk across.
That afternoon we did the ultimate touristy thing and boarded a double decker bus that took us across town. The particular route we were on was not amazing, but we did like the break from walking and enjoyed the sunshine as opposed to being underground on the tube. We drove past protesters arguing against the way the government was handling the high rise apartment fire that happened a few days earlier, Trafalgar square, and down Piccadilly Circus around Kensington to Harrods. Stopping at Harrods was pretty high on my list and turned out to be my favorite experience, next to the parade.
It is simply impossible to compare Harrods to any other store. You could walk it for days and not see everything. We were on a mission for two things, a teddy for Brock and afternoon tea in the tea room. Both were a success! I bought Brock a teddy that was dressed up like the guards we saw earlier in the day at the parade, and also bought a large purse because I couldn’t help myself. Things I definitely could not afford included original Andy Warhol artwork, Dale Chihuly glass, and the countless designer labels. But my god did I love looking at it! Everything had a room. Toys, books, pens, tea, chocolates, ice cream, champagne, you name it Harrods sells it. I even stumbled on a Harrods real estate room whilst trying to find the lou! I said it once, and I will say it again. I would go back to London just to wander Harrods. I really am not a shopper, but at Harrods it felt special. Like a step back in time where you went shopping, but a staffer basically did it for you as you pointed and tried on gloves at a counter. Ok, I may watch a few too many period dramas on PBS :). But aside from the the marvels and the splendor of the themed rooms, we really enjoyed a lovely afternoon tea.
Can you believe at this point we were just halfway through our trip! Like I said in the beginning, if you plan well you can make it happen!
Saturday was very much my day—the parade, the Abbey, and tea at Harrods, but Sunday was absolutely a Danielle day. But since I am an early riser, I let Danielle rest and took a little trip to see Buckingham Palace. Before the parade started I did walk up to the palace but I wanted to go back without the crowds for a better look. From the tube stop it was a lovely stroll through the park along the Princess Diana Memorial Walk to the palace. Which, if you were wondering, is very accessible. You can go right up to the gates and it is very easy to see details like the balcony that the family emerges from on special events. I was a little surprised because whenever I saw the palace on TV it always looked like the balcony was so high that as an observer in the crowd below you wouldn’t be able to see anything, but that was just not true. If you were standing in the crowd below you would absolutely get a great view of the royals.
After my morning stroll, we grabbed a bite of breakfast and boarded a double decker bus to the filming location for the Harry Potter series at the Warner Brothers Studio Tour. A good friend, I watched all the movies in preparation since they weren’t my thing when they came out I had never seen most of them. After watching them all I still wasn’t a fan, but at least could recognize most of the props and sets on display. As you will see in my album on Flickr, my job at the studio tour was taking pictures of Danielle geeking out :).
It really was a full day event, but when we returned we finished the day in style on the London Eye. The London Eye is a giant Ferris wheel, the tallest in Europe, with a diameter of 394 feet. We booked the champagne experience so we waited in a private lounge, had a host in our carriage, and champagne. The wheel rotates at 1 mph and takes 30 minutes for a full rotation. In that time you get great views of everything along the Thames, as well as places further in like Buckingham Palace. If the Eye is something that interests you, I suggest looking into one of their package experiences. It really felt like an experience, and not just a ride on a big wheel with strangers. If you look in the carriage behind us in the picture they really pack you in, but our experience carriage only had the 17 of us who booked that trip. Much more enjoyable.
The time had come. It was our last night in London and we figured out that we needed to leave for the airport at 1pm so we really only had a few hours in the morning of our last day for one last excursion. Our London Pass had ended the previous day so if we went to anything we would have to pay for entrance, so we planned to visit a free museum. That plan got slashed when we realized the museums opened at 10 which would only give us 2 hours to visit before having to find our way out of the massive museum and back to the hotel to pick up our bags. To us it didn’t seem worth it, so I looked at what was left on our list and decided that we should check out Portobello Road Market, and if there was time we could walk a bit through Notting Hill, Hyde Park, and maybe even wander over to Kensington Palace which were all nearby.
Portobello road is lined with all kinds of shops, but on street market days, Friday and Saturday, it really comes alive. On a Monday morning it was quiet, almost dead, but it gave me the chance to peruse a few antique shops and stands without feeling crowded and hum the song from Disney’s Bedknobs & Broomsticks-
Portobello Road, Portobello Road
Street where the riches of ages are stowed
Anything and everything a chap can unload
Is sold off the barrow in Portobello road
You’ll find what you want in the Portobello road
Just being there was a treat, but when I stumbled on a shop filled with vintage sewing machines, I had a moment. I have heard of this shop from fellow machine lovers online, but didn’t realize it was here on Portobello road so I was really loving that surprise. It is a clothing store that displays the machines as décor, and no, you cannot buy the machines from them.
To cap off the market experience I found a gem. A gift for Fil. A pewter flask with a fly fisherman catching a big one engraved on it. It really is beautiful and a good find for the trip. Fil looked into the makers stamp and apparently, I got it for quite a deal compared to its true value.
As it turned out, we did have a bit of time after walking the entirety of Portobello road so we walked through Notting Hill towards Kensington Palace. We turned one street too early and actually ended up walking down a road filled with homes for ambassadors. Russia, France, Germany. All had absolutely stunning city houses with tall gates surrounding them. We cut through the park and found our way around Kensington Palace, home to Will and Kate, and also quite popular for the Princess Diana fashion exhibit. If only we had 2 more hours!
London was wonderful. If anyone else wants to come visit and pop up there I would gladly oblige! We crammed a lot into a few days and there is still so much to see. I feel so lucky to have seen the royals and to have experienced the Trooping of the Colours. A few tips I can supply you though is to look into the London Pass. We had the pass for 3 days with the optional travel Oyster card. The Oyster card was perfect and made us popping on and off the tube a breeze. We were technically in London over 4 days and I only had to top off my 25£ card with 11 more to include transport to/from the airport, otherwise the 25 would have been enough for 3 days of travel. 36£ for 4 days of transport including trips to/from Heathrow was very affordable and a breeze with the card instead of having to buy tickets at each stop.
If you are interested in the London Pass really do your research to see if it will be worth it for you. It was convenient to have our entrance already covered, but since we didn’t go into the Globe and Windsor Castle as we originally planned the Pass was not financially worth it. If we had made it to one of those places we would have covered the cost of the pass. Honestly, if the parade had not happened we would have made it to one of those, if not both, so I am still happy. Another plus was that we got discounted tickets to Wicked and the Harry Potter Studio Tour with the pass, so in my opinion it was worth it.
Finally, I will say to research restaurants beforehand. We ended eating mostly to-go, but when we looked for a nice sit down meal it was a bit overwhelming and many required a reservation.
Thank you for reading all the way to the end of this one… I know it’s a long one. In a few days I will post about Trooping the Colours… and then probably some of the stops in Germany that we hit. It has been quite a while since we had any visitors and we had a blast! Thanks for coming, Danielle!