“The weather can be very unpredictable! So pack for the beach and for skiing.”
This was the sound advice I received from my British friend, Greg, before departing on my first trip to London. However, it’s difficult to pack for the beach and skiing when one is only carrying a backpack!
Spring brings about a huge holiday season here in Spain as it includes Semana Santa, or Holy Week. The students didn’t have school for a whopping 11 days, so it gave Javi and I plenty of time to plan a trip. Javi has studied in England multiple times, but was eager to return. This trip was my second time in the UK, but my first time in England.
For once, our trip went according to plan as we had no issues with our flights, check in with our Airbnb went swimmingly, and we managed to squeeze just about everything into our itinerary. Plus, it didn’t rain once! I even got a sunburn which just emphasizes how unnaturally white I am. Sigh. Last spring break we went to Paris…eventually. Strikes in France and flight cancellations forced us to miss two of our five scheduled days. Maybe all of that bad luck balanced out with this year’s good luck.
London has moved up to #1 as my favorite European city. All of my expectations were met and now I understand why everyone wants to live there after visiting…except the pounds. Holy LORD is it expensive! I honestly don’t know how anyone can live there unless you have a bajillion pounds…or a rich uncle…or live with five roommates.
We packed in as much as humanly possible, waking up early and going to bed late each day. Here are some of the highlights of our visit to this historic city:
Our Airbnb was about a ten minute walk from King’s Cross: a railway station and home to Platform 9¾. My cousin is going to kill me when she learns that I didn’t wait in line to have my picture taken as an honorary Hogwarts student!
The expression of the employee holding the scarf cracks me up 😀
Our first major stop was none other than Buckingham Palace! I recently finished the first season of The Crown which rekindled my fascination for the British Royal Family and made this visit extra intriguing. The famous balcony looks much smaller in real life, as all the exposure I’ve ever had to the exterior has been on television. One day I’ll pass through the grand entrance and see the elegant State Rooms!
Close to Buckingham Palace is St. James’s Park: one of London’s eight Royal Parks. It’s obvious that spring has arrived there as the trees are bursting with colorful blossoms and duckings are running after their mothers. Various species occupy the park including pelicans, which were introduced as a gift from the Russian Ambassador in 1664. If I lived in London, I would enjoy the tranquility of St. James’s Park with a sketch pad and a thermos of tea.
On our way to Westminster Abbey, we took some obligatory red telephone booth shots.Westminster Abbey is a beautiful Gothic church which dates back to 1090! Close to the River Thames and Big Ben, the church held the weddings of Elizabeth II and her grandson, William. Hundreds of other monarchs have been married, crowned and buried there including George VI (Elizabeth II’s father and subject of The King’s Speech). Princess Diana’s tragic funeral took place there as well.
The church is neighbors with the Palace of Westminster or more commonly known as, the Houses of Parliament. The Elizabeth Tower or Big Ben complete the London postcard view. Unfortunately, there was some construction going on when we visited, so part of the view is obstructed by a crane.
Another famous site is Trafalgar Square which sits in front of the National Gallery. The architecture of the National Gallery is stunning, along with 2,300 paintings which grace its walls. The artists featured include van Gogh, Vermeer, Monet, Rembrandt, and Michelangelo. Side note: all of the museums in London are FREE. This was music to my ears and gave us more options of where we could visit.
One of my favorite areas of London was Soho. This lively stretch of the city is filled with restaurants, shops, theaters, and clubs. It also includes Chinatown which is great fun to explore and enjoy the smells of fresh noodles! I even got Javi to try his first bubble tea.
We also stopped by Hamley’s which is a huge toy store and wonderland for kids. Their merchandise includes everything from remote controlled cars that drive on walls to Harry Potter wands to life-sized Lego figures of Will and Kate on their wedding day! #magical
On our second day we ventured off to a different borough called, Greenwich (NOT pronounced “Green-wich” but “Gren-idge”). Greenwich is unique for a number of reasons, but perhaps mostly because you can visit the Prime Meridian! We didn’t pay to stand on the representation of the World Longitude 0º, but at least we can say we conquered the steep hill of Greenwich Park leading to the Royal Observatory (home of the Prime Meridian and the Shepherd Clock which was the first to show Greenwich Mean Time GMT). The views from the top were well worth the effort!
Instead of taking the “tube” or the London Underground, our Oyster (travel) cards worked on the taxi boats which zoom around the Thames. This method of transportation gave us some great views of Tower Bridge, built in 1886-1894.
Upon crossing Tower Bridge, we passed Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on our way to St. Paul’s Cathedral where Prince Charles and Lady Diana were married in 1981. Being a Sunday, we were able to enter freely and listen to the choir sing during the morning service. Unfortunately, photos are strictly forbidden once you’re inside.
On our third day, we got to hang out with my former coworker and British brother, Greg. We ventured off to the Kensington area of London which has housed the monarchy since 1689! Don’t even dream of buying real estate there unless your wallet is fat and happy.
The Natural History Museum was our first stop of the day which seemed to have attracted every child in London. The museum has impressive displays of animals, including those collected by Charles Darwin, a dinosaur exhibit, the Attenborough Studio, and much more; all within a beautiful historic building. Unfortunately, the main hall was preparing a new exhibit, so we didn’t get to appreciate the architecture in all its glory. Here’s a peek from an internet example:
My favorite part of the day took place on the grounds of Kensington Palace! I’ve been dying to have an authentic afternoon tea experience and after extensive research on travel blogs, decided on The Orangery. According to their website, “The Orangery was once the setting for Queen Anne’s sophisticated court entertainment and its soaring ceilings and classical 18th century architecture are a magnificent backdrop for the restaurant’s simple and honest menu of delicious English dishes.” While a number of tourists come across The Orangery by accident, we were well prepared with a reservation and made sure we looked presentable.
Our waiter was kind enough to snap some photos of us before we daintily sipped our tea and munched on precisely cut sandwiches, scones, and small cakes. Javi and I carefully analyzed Greg’s every move such as never banging your spoon against the side of the cup while stirring, and placing your knife and fork down the middle of the plate when finished. A delightful time was had by all!
Outside of The Orangery is a garden currently filled with white flowers (White Garden) marking the twentieth anniversary of Princess Diana’s death. She lived at Kensington Palace for fifteen years.
Holland Park is near Kensington Palace and its Kyoto Japanese Garden was high on my list of places to see (especially since it was the beginning of spring). The colors were absolutely spectacular and we were lucky enough to see a very proud peacock putting on a fashion show for the visitors.
Notting Hill neighbors the park and we strolled through the famous Portobello Road Market and admired the colorful facades of the lavish houses.
One major difference you will notice in the UK is that they drive on the left side (cough, wrong side) of the road. Because of this drastic difference and to protect confused tourists such as myself, the city is covered in “LOOK RIGHT” and “LOOK LEFT” warnings on the pavement.
Like the first couple of days, our last day and a half was jam-packed with interesting stops including The British Museum where we got to see The Rosetta Stone and amazing artwork from around the world:
Hyde Park where we had a picnic lunch and enjoyed the majestic trees:
The Science Museum:
Harrod’s (a luxury department store):
and The Regent’s Park:
Our trip was over in the blink of an eye, but it was long enough for me to have a beautiful introduction of what historic London (and England!) has to offer. I absolutely cannot wait to return to this wonderful corner of Europe!
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