The last time I visited London was full of “firsts”. It was my first trip out of the country, my first vacation without my family, and my first plane flight after the events of September 11th. In the words of our vice president Joe Biden, it was a “big f-ing deal”. 😉 I was a college freshman, and I still remember almost every detail. My first experience with beer – my very cruel classmates started me off with a Guinness. I took one sip and promptly renounced beer for the next several years. Walking down Abbey Road and recreating the iconic Beatles album cover… climbing all over the lions at Trafalgar Square… visiting as many art museums as possible, partly because I love paintings, but partly because they’re the few free attractions in a very expensive city… eating at Wagamama at least four times in a seven-day trip… my buddy Ben falling asleep in the corner of a pub due to jet lag and trying to surreptitiously take a picture of him nearly face-planting in a plate of fish and chips….
All of that to say that London holds lots of special memories for me. So when Richie mentioned that he had a meeting scheduled in London, and the timing would be great for a long weekend trip together before the meeting, I jumped at the chance.
We arrived in the city late on Saturday afternoon, after most of the sightseeing attractions closed (in the off-season, the last entrance is usually around 4 or 4:30). That didn’t matter much to Richie, because he had a mission of visiting as many suit shops as possible before they closed. The man loves English clothiers. We shopped for a few hours, including a stop at the little market outside of St. James’ church, and then headed to dinner at… you guessed it, Wagamama. Ever since I went as a freshman, I’ve been waiting to return. I worried that I’d built it up too much in my head, having longed for it for nearly twelve years, but it lived up to expectations!
The next morning we went bright and early to the Tower of London. Online comments said to pre-purchase tickets and go at opening time, which worked perfectly for us. We skipped a very lengthy ticket line and, again based on recommendations, we went straight in to see the Crown Jewels. If you visit, be sure to do the same, because while there were certainly lots of other people in the rooms with us, it was NOTHING like the crowds we saw waiting to enter the building only thirty minutes later.
I visited the Tower during the college trip, but I didn’t take the time to read many of the descriptions on the exhibits then, so I saw everything with fresh eyes. I also did a terrible job of taking photos then (it was pre-digital camera, so I had to save my rolls of film, you know!) My only photos from then are mostly pictures of me and my friends posing goofily in front of the guards. This time I went overboard in the other direction and took photos only of the scenery (and none of me and Richie! Whoops!)
The indoor bathrooms were pretty funny. They were essentially just hanging off the side of the building, open to the ground below, so waste just fell down in plain sight of everyone. Several years later, it occurred to them that they should build a wall beyond the hole so that it would be hidden from view. I’m not sure why this took so long to figure out. Ew.
One of my favorite exhibits was about the animals that lived at the Tower when it was the royal residence. Apparently visitors to the castle at that time would bring exotic animals as gifts, such as polar bears, lions, etc., and the majority of the animals were free to roam the grounds. Even the lions and snakes. There were stories in the exhibits about various women being mauled by lions and tigers while petting them. Eventually the animals were removed to the London Zoo.
After touring the Tower, we took the Underground to Camden Lock and perused the markets there.
These markets were amazing. It was a seemingly endless maze of clothing, jewelry, art, household goods, and best of all, FOOD! There was everything from sushi to Indian food to sweets to Texas barbecue, of all things, and all of it was very reasonably priced. Since we’d already eaten lunch, I opted for a salted caramel crepe as dessert, but I wished we had known to eat lunch there.
That afternoon I had planned to spend in Kensington Gardens, but the sun set much sooner than I was expecting, so we only had a few minutes to wander in the gardens before they closed. We saw a few fun things in that time, though – the Henry Moore arch, through which you can see the Serpentine (a long creek that flows through much of the park), the Round Pond, and in the distance, Kensington Palace.
That night, Richie made reservations for us at Veeraswamy, London’s oldest Indian food restaurant. This restaurant was gorgeous, with windows overlooking a busy shopping street, and the food was amazing. I have no idea what Richie had because I was wholly focused on my tiger prawns cooked in coriander, mint and chili, with pineapple curry. Mmmm. My mouth is watering just typing that. If you’re ever in London, go to Veeraswamy!
On Monday morning, we headed down Horse Guard’s Road from our hotel to Westminster Abbey, as our trusty Rick Steves guide mentioned it was a scenic route. It was a little more scenic than even he could have anticipated. As we passed 10 Downing Street (the Prime Minister’s residence) and the Foreign and Commonwealth office, we were stopped by the guard at the edge of the sidewalk so that two cars could enter. And who stepped out of the second car? None other than David Cameron himself. (I should point out in fairness that I didn’t recognize him at all until I Googled his picture. I’m terrible at that sort of thing. But Richie knows all.)
On to Westminster Abbey. I had been there as well during my college trip, but we didn’t use an audioguide and mostly just wandered aimlessly through the church. These days, an audioguide is included with the ticket price, and it is very detailed, with options to get more or less information about each area of the church based on your interests. Unfortunately, they don’t allow photos inside, which is really disappointing (especially considering the steep £18 admission). A few noteworthy things we saw include the grave of Charles Darwin and a memorial gravestone for Jane Austen, as well as the tombs of most of the kings and queens throughout England’s history.
Afterwards, we walked along the waterfront and checked out the Parliament and the London Eye.
Richie and I had a quick lunch at the Sherlock Holmes pub near our hotel (traditional fish and chips, less the mushy peas!) and then headed to Harrods to see if we could find some must-have souvenirs. I remembered from my college trip that Harrods had functioning cars for children that cost more than my own car did, and sure enough, they were still selling them. One was a little Range Rover replica that can go up to 30 mph and cost £40,000. Oy. Our favorite area ended up being the food halls, where we indulged ourselves in yummy truffles (the chocolate kind, not the fungus).
Afterwards, Richie had to get some work done, so I went to Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens again on my own. I checked out the Albert Memorial, commissioned by Queen Victoria after her husband’s untimely death:
And the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain, which was less like a fountain and more like a calm little stream:
And lots more…
I didn’t realize you can actually tour Kensington Palace until it was nearly closing time, so I stayed in the gardens and enjoyed the beautiful fall weather. Richie and I met up after he finished working and enjoyed one last Wagamama dinner.
For me, London will always hold a special magic, and it was especially nice to go there now. Although I love Budapest, the unfamiliarity of the stores and the language barrier and … well, everything that comes with living an expat life… can get me a bit down from time to time. It was a welcome feeling to go to familiar shops, to be surrounded with signs in my native language, and for everything to be just a little bit easier.
Planning a trip to London? I’d highly recommend our hotel – the Citadines Trafalgar Square, which had an excellent location close to several metro stations, stores, attractions, and restaurants. And, given its location, it was really reasonably priced. Also, if you plan to bring an iPad or iPhone, the websites for most of the attractions like the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Kensington Palace and gardens, etc. have PDF maps that you can download for easier sightseeing.