I recently took two trips to London, spending a few days in the city with my mom and cousin after our Ireland tour and then a quick weekend back on my own. London, you had me at hello.
First up, one of the most iconic sights: The Tower of London. It's alarming to see - not far from a modern business center, a massive Medieval tower looms up along the river. Built in the 11th century, today it's a major tourist attraction. I recommend visiting and doing a bit of research beforehand. This is a place you can spend an hour or an entire day, depending on what exhibits within the tower you want to check out. There's a torture museum, white tower history, royal mint exhibit, and, of course, The Crown Jewels. There's also a place in the tower walls to catch a changing of the guard.
Next to the tower is Tower Bridge, another major symbol of London. Some sights fail to impress: The Statue of Liberty is really quite small, Navy Pier is lame. Not a problem with the Tower Bridge. Beautiful and imposing, it was one of my favorite sights in London. So much did I enjoy it, I checked it out in the evening and early Monday morning. More pictures later, don't worry. I walked the bridge later but didn't have time to visit the Bridge exhibit. A friend who went found it fascinating but she's a civil engineer and somewhat biased.
Here's another cool bridge, the Millennium Bridge, and St. Paul's Cathedral. One at a time:
- The Millennium Bridge is a pedestrian bridge, originally opening, as you probably guessed, in 2000. However, it was a bit 'wobbly' and shut down and stabilized, reopening in 2002. Due to its location, I crossed the bridge several times and never experienced any wobbles. Well done! Also, this bridge is destroyed by Death Eaters in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It might also be featured in other films, but this is the one that matters.
- St. Paul's Cathedral. The church is the seat of the bishop of London and plays a large part in several official city ceremonies.
A different perspective on the Bridge and Cathedral.
Big Ben and Parliament. We didn't have time to take a tour of Parliament but they're available, if that's your thing. I have to say, these guys were impressive. Let's set the scene. When you exit the Westminster metro station, the first thing to great you is the side of Big Ben. It will literally take your breath away. Impossibly ornate, the building is beautiful and worth its fame.
Westminster Abbey. Warning - it costs 20 pounds to get in, there's going to be a bit of a wait to get inside and a not insignificant crowd when you get in. And once you're in, no pictures allowed. I could give my usual 'get there right when it opens' spiel but I did and it didn't make much of a difference. All that aside, it's worth it. I've seen so many churches here in Europe, they're starting to run together (this is partly why my St. Paul's description is so minimal, sorry guys). Westminster does not have to worry about that.
First, there's the memorials and tombs. Everyone is either buried here or has a memorial! There's the scientists, from Darwin to Newton. Both are buried here but while Darwin gets a somewhat large slab, Newton has an elaborate sculpture. The engineer in me is happy to see the nerds getting so much credit. There's also the poet's corner, with everyone from Laurence Olivier to Shakespeare to Chaucer and Charles Dickens. There's also plenty of royalty, with Elizabeth I and her rival Mary taking the cake with elaborate tombs. There's also a really lovely memorial to the unknown soldier.
Second, there's the history of the abbey itself. Kings and queens have been coronated here for centuries. It's where Will and Kate tied the knot and also where Princess Diana was laid to rest. It was surreal to be in the room where so many things have happened (Hamilton reference just sneaked in there).
Finally, there's the building itself. It is gorgeous. The Lady's Chapel, especially, must be seen.
All this together, I was basically near tears the entire time. Powerful place.
Atop the London Eye. I was pleasantly surprised by the experience itself. We went on a Saturday afternoon and waited maybe half an hour to get onto the Eye. The pod we were in wasn't terribly crowded. Sure, there were a few rude tourists who would not move out of the way once they had their picture/selfie/whatever, but otherwise it was fine. That being said, the view was not the best. You could see Parliament and Westminster and other various government buildings, but that was it. Other major icons of the London skyline were missing - Tower Bridge, St. Paul's Cathedral, the Gerkin, etc. If you want a great view of London, it might be better to go check out the Shard.
Next up, two things London has great examples of: palaces and parks. This is Buckingham Palace, as seen from St. James' Park.
First, the palace. You aren't allowed to take pictures inside but it's about what you'd expect - well-appointed rooms of various historical significance. There is a bit of a queue, so book ahead or be prepared to wait. We were there right when it opened on a Friday and it was still very busy. We were basically in a line the entire time we went through the palace. While we were there, the palace had an excellent exhibit on the Queen's fashion, starting with a by-the-decade peak at various styles and then a large line-up of some of her more famous ensembles. I was impressed by the sheer work and thought that went into her outfits.
Now, the park. It's in an excellent location, near Westminster Abbey and Parliament and the Churchill War Room and 10 Downing Street and, of course, Buckingham Palace. I killed a half hour here while I waited for the Churchill War Room to open and it was a nice experience. The park is around a large lake and has a few statues/memorials and well-manicured greenery. Lots of walking paths and shade and benches to hang out.
The park also has plenty of wildlife. I semi-judged some tourists in front of me for taking pictures of squirrels, but then I came across this guy. He was extremely ballsy. This critter must be used to some very generous tourists. He came up right next to me and almost begged for food. No fear at all. I didn't have any food; otherwise, he would have gotten a handful from me just out of appreciation for his gumption.
There was also a variety of birds that provided some entertainment while I read my book and waited for the museum to open. Check it out!
Next up: Kensington Palace and Hyde Park.
As for the palace, honestly, I wasn't that impressed. It was basically a nice house that a few kings and queens have used as a 'home-away-from-home.' If you only have time for one palace, do Buckingham. They had a fashion exhibit that was embarrassing and small when compared to the rich exhibit at Buckingham. Also ruining my trip was a way-too-friendly docent. I was just looking at a dress, minding my own business, when he starts chatting with me. For about fifteen minutes, he held me hostage (I tried to get away several times, really), talking about everything from all the famous people he knows (including all the living royals!) and also some somewhat racists views on Brexit. It was not appreciated.
All that said, this Princess Diana wallpaper was pretty cool.
Now for Hyde Park. I just walked the grounds for maybe an hour, waiting for Kensington to open. As I've said in previous posts, I really enjoy city parks. They're usually impressive and a nice break from the city. Tiergarten in Berlin is still my favorite but Hyde Park is up there. I do recommend getting a bike. The grounds are large and extensive. It's difficult to just go by foot and see everything. I was there Sunday morning so it wasn't terribly crowded and a bike would be easy to manage. Not sure about more peak hours.
Awesome things in Hyde Park include several statues and memorials, like this monument to Prince Albert. There's also a lake, a playground, and several gardens. Kensington Gardens are right next door to Hyde Park and are equally impressive.
And now, the museums. London has several museums and I just hit the main ones. From the lists online, you could probably spend weeks just museum-hopping. Here are the ones I visited.
First up, Churchill War Rooms. A few general recommendations on this one. It's under a government building and there are no cloak rooms for security reasons, so be careful what you bring. I had a backpack (this museum was before my flight back to Germany) which wasn't terrible but any large items or actual suitcases are a serious no-no. The museum is somewhat tight so just be cognizant that you're stuck with whatever you have on your person when you visit. Also, I know I say this often, but this is definitely a 'get there as early as you can' stop. I was at the door at 9:30 and by the time I left at 11 there was a serious line. There are also private tours that might be more accommodating.
As for the museum itself, super neat! The actual war rooms offer a comprehensive insight into Britain's efforts during WWII and the audio guide does a great job adding to the exhibit itself. Along with the war rooms, there is an intense Churchill museum, focusing on his leadership during WWII and then coming back to cover his life before and after the war.
I was struck by how influential and respected this guy was, from his funeral to his extensive awards from other countries to his friendship with Roosevelt. It was very humbling. It also offered a stark contrast to our political shenanigans today. Looking at what Churchill sacrificed, including the rooms he and his wife occupied during the height of the war, to fulfill his role made me all the more disappointed and frustrated with that orange idiot we having running in our country. But this too shall pass - Churchill lost reelection in 1945 and look how history has reflected on him.
Overall, an excellent museum, especially if you're interested in 20th century history. Personally, I very much enjoyed the visit and have now added a half-dozen Churchill books to my Amazon wishlist.
Up next, the best of the museums I visited - the British Museum. If you have the chance, spread your visit over several days. There is so much content, you need a breather to consume it all. If you don't have that option, I recommend trying the museum's 'must-see' list. This is what I did. They have a map that indicates the location of some of their most important pieces, scattered all over the museum. For me, this was ideal. It gave me a purpose and a thing to look for but also a clear path throughout the museum, allowing me to stop and explore whatever else piqued my interested, as opposed to attempting to slog through the whole thing.
Here is where I also note that London has many excellent free museums. They recommend a donation and things like audio guides and maps require a fee but it was a nice deviation from costly entrance fees. Of the sights, I had to pay for the Churchill War Rooms, entrance to the Abbey, tour of the Globe, and entrance to both palaces. All the other museums were free, including several that I didn't get the chance to visit.
The main gallery within the British Museum. This is the largest covered square in Europe. I visited the museum on a Sunday afternoon and was struck by how not-crowded it was. For a weekend afternoon, the place was surprisingly easy to navigate. Even when stopping by the museum's self-claimed wonders, there was never much of a crowd. Except for my next image, I never struggled to get to a placard or eye-ball a piece. Well-done, British Museum. Finally, this hall had an excellent shop if you need a few gifts. I had to stop myself from going crazy in the book section.
Okay, this piece had a bit of a crowd. Understandable! It's THE Rosetta Stone. So that was pretty cool to see. The other major pieces, per the museum, ranged from African art to Japanese pottery to ancient Roman game pieces. A great museum, definitely a must-see if you're in London. And it's free, so no excuses.
Next up: Tate Modern. This was my 'killing forty minutes before I go to the airport museum'. The majority of the exhibits were free but some, like their Georgia O'Keefe temporary collection, required an entrance fee. Honestly, I'm not a huge modern art person. But, if it's your cup of tee, the Tate Modern offers four floors of the stuff. My only caution is when to go. I went on a Monday and the place was full of students of all ages participating in art classes. Museums shouldn't be experienced when there are a bunch of kids running around and their teachers yelling after them.
In addition to Tate Modern, there's also Tate Britain, further down along the Thames.
If Instagram posts belonged in a museum.
And now something more my speed: the National Gallery, on Trafalgar Square. Also free!
An example of the lovely building the National Gallery is housed in. Like the British Museum, this museum didn't feel overly crowded. And this was on a rainy Saturday, prime museum-visiting times.
They had a few Van Gogh pieces and his Sunflowers was the only piece that really had an unwielding crowd. Other major artists include Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Renoir.
Trafalgar Square at night. Pretty architecture is all I have to add here.
A blurry view of Big Ben from Trafalgar Square. Let's take a minute to talk about getting around. You will definitely need to take the metro in London. Things are somewhat close. The Eye is by Parliament, which is kind of by Buckingham Palace, which is kind of by Piccadilly Circus, which is kind of by Trafalgar Square, etc. This is fine but put all together, that's a lot of walking. And some spots, like King's Cross and Camden Market, really require a metro. We got an Oyster card and it worked really well. It's scanned at the entrance and exit of every metro and the fare is adjusted based on your use to ensure you get the best deal.
Leicester Square. The square is busy and has plenty of options for restaurants and street performers. This is also the location of the M&M World and several casinos.
Just down the road, we have Piccadilly Circus. In general, Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square, and Piccadilly Circus are close to each other. They're busy areas with plenty of options for museums, theaters, restaurants, shopping, and people watching. Most of the theaters are in this area so expect to spend some time here if you plan to take in a West End show.
Now, for a pop culture break. London has a large presence in our pop culture landscape. It's the place of Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes and most Hugh Grant movies. Personally, every time I would mention I was going to London, internally I would hear the voice of Joey Tribbiani shrieking "In London?" as in that episode he finds about Monica and Chandler. But that's a personal problem. On to the city itself, which has done an admirable job or embracing it's role.
First up, the most obvious: Harry Potter. King's Cross has this lovely stop, where you can pick out your house scarf and get a picture taken at this mock Platform 9 3/4. Getting your picture taken is free. While there is an official photographer there, instructing you to take one picture with a wand and one picture jumping through the barrier, you can also have a friend/random stranger take pictures with your own camera/phone for free. Side note - there was about a fifteen minute wait (it's a quick process but there is always a line) and only one person chose a scarf other than Gryffindor.
After getting your picture taken, head over to the King's Cross Harry Potter shop. There, you can get a print out and digital version of the professional photos as well as plenty of Harry Potter-related items. When we visited, I hadn't done much in the way of souvenir shopping yet so I went wild, picking up the copies of the pictures along with a t-shirt, a copy of The Cursed Child (I haven't read it but the detailed synopsis on Wikipedia sounds like fanfiction), and a few postcards. Buyer beware, enter at your own risk.
Next up, Dr. Who. Here is where I admit I honestly have never seen a single episode of the show. That being said, my cousin is a huge fan. I recommend touring London with a Who fan, if you can. Every landmark had some Who reference, from the stairs in front of St. Paul's (attacked by aliens) to the Tate museum (blown up). This police box/Tardis is right in front of a subway station. We took the metro to said station, took a picture, then got back on the metro for our next stop. Efficient!
And now for Sherlock Holmes. In addition to these fun subway logos, there was also a statue of Sherlock right outside the metro station. Around the corner, at 221b Baker Street, there is a Sherlock museum and a Sherlock shop. We stopped by the museum, which had a variety of Sherlock memorabilia, including DVDs of the Cumberbatch version and most of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle books.
Our last stop on this mini pop culture tour is Abbey Road. Nearby is the famous Abbey Road studio, which you can tour. We just did our tourist due-diligence, stopping by for a photo op on one of the most famous cross-walks.
Our next London theme: theater. The Globe Theater has been reconstructed as faithfully as possible to the original, where several Shakespeare plays debuted. I highly recommend taking a tour. It provides insight into theater during Shakespeare's time as well as the history of the theater, up to present day, where it puts on multiple shows a day. The tour was fun and informative. If you want to skip the tour, there's also a helpful mini-museum on Shakespeare and the theater. Like the Harry Potter shop, this was another place I spent way too much money. The souvenir shop had a variety of Shakespeare-related products, including various books of his plays as well as books on the man, the theater, and the plays. Then there was the usual souvenir items - magents and mugs and t-shirts and prints. Something for everyone!
Coming back this past weekend, I also had the chance to actually see something at The Globe Theater. This is not actually the Globe but the Sam Wanamaker playhouse, the indoor theater next to the Globe. I saw Two Gentlemen of Verona, updated to take place in the 60's (see the music stage). It was fun to see a Shakespeare production is such an iconic setting. I definitely recommend if you have the time.
As for tickets, they're cheap. Seats run from 30 to 60 pounds but standing room (my seat) was only 10 pounds. The Globe actually has pit standing at 5 pounds. As for booking the tickets, the tickets go on sale about a week in advance and sell out quickly. I recommend checking incessantly if you really want a ticket. My showing was sold out but I kept checking and, randomly, the Wednesday before (I saw it on a Saturday), a couple of standing room seats (are they still called seats?) became available.
Two London things I really enjoyed: Shakespeare and the metro. First, let's chat about the metro. There are some cities that really require the visitor to become familiar with the metro (London, Paris, DC, NYC, Barcelona). A fellow frequent traveler collects these as art, getting prints of the subway station for home decor. Honestly, this isn't a bad idea. The outlay of the metro reminds you of the city, the places you visited. And they can look pretty cool. The tea towel I bought at the Globe theater is genius - it's the metro of London, with all the stops replaced by Shakespeare characters or locations. And each line has a theme - villain, title character, major couples, etc. Love it. I'm framing it whenever I return to the states. As for the metro line, I also bought a mug with the major stops of London. And I've added those prints to my pinterest wishlist.
Next up: Book of Mormon. I can't believe I missed this when I was in NYC in May. I saw this one with my mom and cousin and they basically only went because I really wanted to see it and they were fine with checking out a show of some kind. Asking someone to pay 50 or 100 bucks for a ticket is very risky but it paid off. Hamilton is still closest to my heart but this one is certainly up there as well. I had listened to the music so I knew it was funny and crass and shocking, but I wasn't expecting the heart and to be moved as much as I was. Yes, it's hilarious and you'll laugh until you cry, but there's also a grander statement about religion and the things we tell ourselves that will stick with you.
I really recommend this one. All hype is lived up to. And like Hamilton, I can listen to the music incessantly and I can't wait to see it again. Luckily, it's basically everywhere and looks like it'll have a good home on West End and Broadway for years to come.
Before Miranda and co gave us Alexander and Eliza, there was Usnavi and Vanessa, Benny and Nina. First up, let's chat about the theater. It's at King's Cross theater, which is very unique. It was built in 2014 specifically for The Railway Children. It reminds me of gym that's being used for a performance. It's sort of an in-the-round setting, with the stage essentially a strip in the middle of the space and seating on either side. The musical itself was just joy. Be prepared to be reminded of your college-age self and tear up a bit.
Okay we're out of themes. This is just the rest of it. Here is Harrod's. I didn't actually enter because the crowd was bananas. It's around the corner from Hyde Park and I stopped by just to see it and accidentally arrived just when it was opening. Do not recommend this! That being said, the place is huge and the building lovely.
Monday morning, I got up really early and went for a walk along the river, waiting for my museums to open. Glad I did as I happened upon this complete mosaic of the history of London, covering everything up to 2014.
I warned you we would revisit Tower Bridge. Monday, while I was waiting for museums to open, I took a walk along the Thames, starting with the bridge itself. I stopped at Starbucks beforehand and my barista, a fellow expat, warned me that I would be mostly alone. And he was right. The place was mostly deserted. It was nice! As for the Bridge itself, walking it was a nice perspective. I took a lot of pictures. And watching the sunrise from this vantage point wasn't the worst.
And now the other end of the spectrum: Tower Bridge at night, one more time. Good night London. Be back soon!