Just like with other big-named cities in the world such as Paris or New York, the city of London is a dream destination for many travelers out there, especially those who have yet to step foot outside of their home town, even their home country.
While certainly a cliché place to go out of the many other destinations to offer, London still has that magnetic charm to it, being what lots of non-British people believe to be the epitome of British culture, aka the land of the Buckingham Palace, afternoon tea, and palace guards with those fuzzy, tall hats. Not to forget the posh, British accents which many people, specifically non-Brits (again), find attractive. No idea why, but even I admit the accent is charming; wish that I could say the same for the American!
I spent four nights in London during the last week of December in my first year as an assistante. After spending time up in Edinburgh during Christmas, I took the bus all the way down to London, literally going from the north to the south of the UK. Total time took close to nine hours, and finally I arrived at the Victoria Station around 21h00, exhausted and ready to go to my hostel.
Thing was, I needed to first purchase a metro pass, or the “Tube,” as it’s called, since I would be in the city for several days and would probably be taking it frequently to get from place to place (London is huge). Went inside Victoria Station to get my pass and it was expensive: £37 or around 50€ for Zones 1 and 2. It was especially bad, because the pound-to-euro currency exchange rate was particularly bad that holiday season, thereby making things a lot pricier than they should be. Even worse, I realized afterwards that my hostel was located in Zone 3, not Zone 2 as I’d previously believed, so I ended up paying an extra £3 one way to get to and from the city center every day. In total, I paid an extra £12 for the Tube, which for me greatly pissed me off. Oy vey, transportation headaches…
Any case, I took the Tube, got off at the Seven Sisters stop, then spent the next half-hour getting lost trying to find my hostel. It was nighttime, so it was difficult to see and orient myself, considering that I also didn’t know the city. Ended up asking for directions twice at two different Arab shops before finally reaching my hostel which was quite far in the outer neighborhoods of the city center, or “boroughs,” as they’re called. Checked into the hostel after waiting forever in the line in front of two female travelers who were haggling with the receptionist on their reservation. Mind you, I had just arrived in London after nine hours in transit, paid a fortune for the Tube pass, got lost trying to find the hostel, and just wanted to get some rest. I also hadn’t known, but I was required to pay for my stay in cash, not credit card. Didn’t have a lot of money on me, so I had to use the ATM to withdraw some more. Another frustrating situation, but in any case, I finally got into my room, shared with twenty-five other travelers (it was massive) and settled in. Lockers were small as heck, and I could only fit my purse inside of it; my big backpack had to go on these racks placed in the center of the room, which greatly worried me for security reasons (thankfully, nothing bad happened). Freshened up and turned in for the night.
After buying some groceries for breakfast the next morning, I headed out to explore the city center, first taking the Tube down to Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park to wander around, before heading over to Buckingham Palace to see the famous Changing of the Guard ceremony, essentially a bunch of fanfare and guards with the fuzzy top hats marching over to the palace and performing their guard duties, performance-style. It was an overcast day, a bit drizzly as well, which I guess is typical of weather in England.
At the Buckingham Palace, there was already a large number of people, bodies pressed up against the gate, small children hoisted up on the shoulders of their parents to look over the sea of heads in the crowd, and too many couples taking selfie after selfie in front of me as I was trying to get a good spot to see the soon-to-happen ceremony.
However, I realized that the Changing of the Guards wouldn’t be starting at 10h00 when I’d arrived, but at 11h30! Although I was reluctant to give up my spot there, I didn’t want to stand around for ninety minutes for the ceremony, so I thought that I would go see some other monuments, then come back just in time for it to start. In hindsight, it wasn’t the best decision, but still, I didn’t want to wait around.
I headed over to Parliament square where some of the most iconic buildings– the Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster, and the Elizabeth Tower (where Big Ben is placed)– were located. Didn’t go inside the abbey, just because the £20 fee to enter was ridiculous and I needed to get back to the Buckingham Palace for the Changing of the Guards. Instead, I just took photos of the facades outside of the buildings, and that was good enough.
I was on my way back to the Buckingham Palace when the ceremony started! By then, the crowd had gotten even bigger, and it was close to impossible to squeeze through, get a good spot, and take photos. To be frank, I didn’t get any good photos in to be considered saving. Really, I tried, but in the end– frustrated and unable to see or hear anything– I left without watching the Changing of the Guards. A disappointment, but I guess there’s another time…
Returned back to Parliament Square, then crossed Westminster Bridge (crowded with buskers and tourists), getting a glimpse of the London Eye, then wrapping around and strolling along the quay of the Thames River, passing by the Shakespeare’s Globe (or rather, the reconstructed version, since the original one had been demolished back in the 17th century) and seeing Tower Bridge which was one of the highlights of my time in London, architecturally-wise. Definitely impressed me and I was glad to walk along it to get over to my next destination, namely the Tower of London, which I also didn’t enter, just because of the admission price (£20 as well). It was a bit difficult to take a photo of it, too, just because it’s surrounded by walls, but I did my best!
I had plans to visit St. Paul’s Cathedral afterwards, but decided to put that aside for another day since I also wanted to go to Keat’s House, located up north in Hampstead; that day would be the last day that it would be open, before closing for the rest of the holiday season, so it was my only chance that day. Took the Tube over to Hampstead, then walked a bit before reaching the house-museum in a quiet, residential neighborhood of town. I was willing to pay to visit the house in which famous Romantic poet John Keats lived, and the admission was actually not bad at £5.50.
What made me want to visit and actually go inside Keat’s House is the fact that I’m a huge fan of John Keats’ poetry. Since studying it as a literature major back in college, I’ve fallen in love with his writing and the historical biopic, Bright Star, is one of my favorite films and every time I watch, it gives me the absolute feels, with drama, good casting, and amazing cinematography rolled into one.
It was a pretty small house, with narrow corridors but all the same was cozy. This was where Keats lived for about two years, where some of his most important works were produced, including the famous “Ode to a Nightingale.” It was also where he became engaged to Fanny Brawne who in a sense was the muse for much of his poetry and letters to her which, if you read them, are poetic in themselves and just beautiful. I don’t usually admit it, but I’m definitely a romantic at heart when it comes to all things literary.
Left Keats House around 16h00 which by then was getting dark (oh, winter season!). Nevertheless, it was a good opportunity to head back, passing by the London Eye again to see it lit up for the evening.
Returned the hostel where I rested for the remainder of the night. First day visiting London…accomplished!
The following morning, I actually took a day trip outside of London to places like Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, and the University of Oxford, which I’ll recount in the following post. That said, the day after was my second and final full day in London and I did my very best to cram as much as I could before leaving, which I succeeded to some degree (and then not).
Took the Tube to King’s Cross just to see Platform 9 3/4 from the Harry Potter series. Just took a photo of the crop outside of the tourist line for the photo opportunity and left for Baker Street to see the Sherlock Holmes Museum, which I also didn’t enter, but that was fine. Instead, I walked around Regent’s Park, as well as popped into a Beatles’ store just right next door to the Sherlock Holmes museum to see what it had for souvenirs.
From the tranquil nature of Regent’s Park, I headed over to the loud, busy Piccadilly Circus, a major crossroad for traffic and people. Lots of flashing ad billboards that reminded me too much of Times Square in New York City; worth the experience, I suppose!
Also visited Leiceister Square and Covent Garden, the former where I got some overpriced fish and chips for lunch (£14, oh my!). Definitely was being a tourist there, and the food was just all right; now I know that London isn’t known for fish and chips so I won’t bother ordering it again.
Went over to Harrods, a large department store, after lunch. Not only is it known for being a big shopping hub, but also a really expensive one; it’s not uncommon to see big-brand names– Burberry, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci– on the shelves and you can’t help but feel super poor as you walk through the different clothing sections. Again, it’s the experience that matters!
Next I headed over to St. Paul’s Cathedral, which impressed me more than the Westminster Abbey, just because it was much larger (towering, even). Went inside for a bit before exiting and moving on to my next destinations, which were two museums which I wanted to visit whilst in London: the Courtauld Gallery at the Somerset House and the British Museum. Visited the former first, after getting a bit lost trying to find it, and was pleased with its modest collection of Impressionist works from Monet, Cézanne, and Degas. It was a small, but intimate museum; plus, there was free admission!
Was rushing a bit as I hurried over to the British Museum, also free to getting into. I only had about ninety minutes before the museum started closing and pretty much raced through the 100-plus galleries and seeing a variety of artifacts and paintings from all sorts of civilizations, from the Persian to the Japanese to that of Easter Island, the last one with its Moai statues. Unfortunately, the museum guards were beginning to kick us out around 17h30, just when I was about to search for the Rosetta Stone- darn! Another time…
It was already dark for the evening when I exited the museum and decided to call it a day after ten hours straight of running all over the city. Returned to the hostel and turned in for the night. The following morning was my last day in London before I left for my next destination for les vacances. Essentially, I spent the time visiting Camden Market with its outdoor shops catered to the alternative, youthful crowd. A bit too alternative for me, but worth the experience. Right before leaving London, I stopped by Primark for some post-Christmas shopping, since I wanted some new (but inexpensive) clothes. Bought a couple of long sleeves and a leather jacket, then jetted out to catch the bus at 11h30 over to the next place in England, thereby saying goodbye to London.
All together, it was a fast-paced four nights in London; technically, I only had 2 1/2 days to actually explore the city which looking back was not enough time to see everything, or at least in detail. A week would’ve been better, so as to not rush things. I have very mixed feelings about London, just because I found places I visited to fall just slightly short of my expectations (which I admit are always set too high, so that’s my fault). Having to pay for every church or monument didn’t help either, and I felt like I was missing out whenever I chose not to pay for the entrance. Pessimistic as it sounds, London for me was a disappointment: too big, too fast-paced, and too expensive.
This isn’t to say, however, that I hated London. Not at all. I admit, there were a few gems in the time I was there. Touristy as it is, Tower Bridge was a lovely piece of architecture, and I very much enjoyed the Keats House and the Courtauld Gallery. It was the smaller attractions which attracted me, so that’s why I wouldn’t say that London was a total bust. Despite the over-hyped nature of this otherwise touristy, gimmicky European city, London is still, what I believe, worth a visit at least once in one’s lifetime. Just because.
I’ll be recounting my day trip from London to the places that I’d previously mentioned for the next post. Coming up: Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, and Oxford!