travel guide: london

I nabbed the shot above coming out of our hotel Park Plaza Westminster Bridge on our first day in London. As you can see, we were in the heart of much of the tourist action– just steps away from Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, and the London Eye.We went a bit against our norm in booking a hotel in such a frenzied area. We thought since this was the first stop on our journey and our first trip to London it might be advantageous to situate ourselves within walking distance of a bunch of sites we wanted to see. Despite it’s convenient location (4-5 minute walk from both the Waterloo and Westminster Tube Stations), I wouldn’t stay in this area again. After just one day we started to dread the impossibly crowded selfie-clogged walk over the Westminster Bridge. We had previously considered staying in both the Kensington and the Shoreditch area. While obviously very different, upon visiting them both we realized that either would have been more our speed. We prefer unique, slightly slower paced neighborhoods that carry their own vibe created by distinctive architecture and locally owned shops and restaurants. Plus, the public transit in London is so excellent, as long as you are close to a tube station almost any location can be convenient.

So after grabbing a quick bite at the Chop Shop (one of our few good meals in London, stay tuned for a detailed food post!), we found our way over to Covent Garden where we were meeting a guide to take a “free” city tour. I put “free” in parentheses because while you are not charged anything upfront for the tour, the guides do work strictly on tips so it’s important to be generous if you feel like the tour was informative and entertaining. The tours are offered by SANDEMANs, a company that offers these “free” city tours in NYC and in cities all throughout Europe. They also offer more specific tours for a fee tailored to each area’s attractions. I wanted to mention the company briefly because they played a significant role in our introduction to each place we traveled. We took a city tour in each of our destinations and also paid for a more specific one–they were all FABULOUS. I have heard some negative things about the company. Specifically, it’s been said that the tours are unfairly marketed as free- when in actuality, not only are tips expected, but the guides are not allowed to explain to tourists that they themselves have to pay the company anywhere from 2-3 euros/pounds per person on the tour. I did not find this shocking; I seldom have expectations of anything in the world really being “free” and I also assumed the company had to be charging the guides something in order to turn a profit. With that being said, we were really pleased with all of our tour guides and felt like they gave us such a great intro to the place we we would be exploring for the next few days.

Our last stop on our first day was the London Eye, basically a huge ferris wheel that moves very slowly and gives you great views of the city. We actually learned on our tour that day that the Eye was supposed to be a temporary attraction but ended up being so profitable for the city, it’s future is now secure for at least the next 20 years. I’m not surprised it’s hugely profitable, like everything else in London, we found the fees to be exorbitant. We purchased the flexi-fast track tickets which meant we could visit at any time during the day we selected (cheaper tix are available for specific times) and we had fast track entry–which was valuable considering the huge line we got to bypass when we got there. The tickets were £32.45 each which means it cost us a little over $100 for the two of us. Despite many people’s insistence that this was a “must-do”, I’m sad to say I have to disagree. I’m not saying there weren’t some great views. Check em out:

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Despite getting these nice shots, my hubs and I both found the experience pretty underwhelming, especially for the price. Maybe we are spoiled for views living next to the Brooklyn Bridge. A lot of people recommended going at night which I am sure would have been lovely- but not as romantic as many suggested unless you pay even more for your own capsule to ride around in. Otherwise, you are stuck in there with at least 15-20 other people who are all vying for the seats–until they realize you can’t see anything from the seats, so everyone stands up and moves toward the glass. Then they vie for the seats again when they are over the view and realize they are stuck up there for at least another 20 minutes. Hopefully you get my drift. I’m not saying there aren’t people who would enjoy this attraction- but if you are looking to save a few bucks, say this is one thing you can cut from the itinerary.

One site I definitely would keep on the list of things to see is the Tower of London. Although crowded, I think visiting the iconic fortress gives so much insight into London’s history over the years; how the palace was used by each Monarch was strategic and it introduces you to exactly what was going on at the time of their reign. For example, we learned that William the Conqueror is given credit for the location and the aesthetics of the White Tower (pictured below), although it wasn’t fully completed till years after his death in 1087. When it was built, there was nothing like it, and certainly nothing similar had ever been seen by the layfolk in the area. William, the first Norman King of England, wanted the tower to be a domineering and oppressive structure that would serve as a daily reminder to the people that their city had been conquered. If you can imagine this structure right at the edge of the Thames River, and amongst nothing but wide open land and small shacks, I’d say he accomplished his goal.

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We rented audio guides which were extremely helpful in learning what each of the buildings had been used for throughout the years. There are several structures and it’s quite expansive; it really feels like a small city. We found it most interesting to learn about all the people who had been imprisoned in the different towers and eventually even executed; this includes two of the wives of Henry the VIII– Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. Below, we paused for a moment coming out of the Cradle Tower to capture this stunning backdrop of the clouds moving behind the Tower Bridge (bet you thought that was the London Bridge–probably the most common mistake people make regarding London architecture!).

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I have to say that my only disappointment I had in this Royal Palace might sound silly–and I had it all over Europe. RESTORATION. I realize it is a positive thing and cities and historical societies all over the world spend millions preserving historic buildings and artifacts. Its just that sometimes, it’s all too clean and too well preserved for me. I’d rather touch old stone that’s been there for a thousand years and starting to crumble in places, than look at perfectly restored structures decorated how they may have been in that time. Again, I am fully aware that I know nothing as it pertains to the task of preserving history; I am sure most of this work is necessitated by the amount of interest these places attract. I guess I’m just pointing out my eagerness to get to see more things as they were left.

All of the imprisonments and executions at the Tower of London are a great segway into another tour I’m so happy we took while we were visiting– The Grim Reaper Tour! You must check it out if you are planning a trip. I loved it because we got out of Central London and into the East End–I always think the slightly “dodgier” areas of a city are also slightly more interesting (and when I say “dodgy” I mean like “Brooklyn dodgy”, i.e. not really dodgy at all). We learned so many fascinating things from our guide about the history of crime and punishment and prostitution in London. Did you know that back in the day if you were a Nobleman and you committed a crime, you would be executed by beheading, which was considered a much more dignified death than that which was given to the commoners– a simple hanging. Obviously being hung is a very slow and painful way to die. While being beheaded seems more ideal–or at least quicker and less painful– it did not always turn out that way. You know how when they take someone’s head in Game of Thrones it comes off clean in one shot like a small stack of loose leaf in a crisp paper cutter? Yeah, that didn’t happen in real life. More often than not, the guy yielding the axe was no specialist, and he often missed. It was not uncommon for the criminal (or victim–you decide!) to be struck and cut several times in the back, shoulders, and neck area before the actual beheading was successful. Often when we are heading somewhere, we research to see if there are any old prisons or cemeteries that might be worth visiting. We both seem to have an unrelenting inquisitiveness when it comes to the darker side of things. If you can relate to that at all–then this tour is definitely for you.

Another place worth mentioning, which we stopped by after a shorter day trip to Windsor (more on that trip later!) is the Churchill War Rooms. The underground bunker which served as a British command center during WWII is one of five branches of the Imperial War Museum. The War Rooms (also called the Cabinet War Rooms) are unbelievably well preserved and it’s quite thrilling to see things like actual maps the British used loaded with pins indicating enemy positions. Some of the most interesting stories we heard on the provided audio guides came from women who worked as typists and switchboard operators; listening to them talk about conditions during the war whilst walking around these tiny cavernous rooms forces you to reflect on how different life has been for each generation. There has yet to be a sacrifice I’ve had to make in my own life that can come close to those made by men and women who’ve lived during wartime.

In addition to getting to see where leaders and soldiers strategized and slept, you also gain access to an extensive museum dedicated entirely to the life of Winston Churchill. He is a captivating subject, to say the least. I was especially intrigued  to learn of his affinity for champagne and for alcohol in general; he didn’t seem to think it was too wise to do many things sober.

This place is undoubtedly worth a couple hours of your time. BONUS: Often, there is no wait to get into the museum at all (as you can see in the pic below). If there is a bit of a queue, it tends to move quite quickly. From what I’ve read, although this is one of the more fascinating and well preserved sites in London, it is not the most frequented.

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On an intermittently rainy day (they sure do have a lot of those!) we scored a couple of plastic ponchos and headed out to explore Camden (or Camden Town), one of London’s more eclectic northern neighborhoods. I had read and heard a bit about Camden before we visited, much of it in reference to Amy Winehouse. The bohemian vibe was such a nice break from everywhere else we had been in London, and although there was still a good amount of tourists there, the atmosphere was undoubtedly more relaxed. I would describe this neighborhood as a feast for the eyes; it’s definitely one of the most visually fun spots I have ever taken a walk through. We spent hours dipping in and out of shops and weaving our way through Camden Market-which is a group of adjoining retail markets and food stands. These markets never seemed to end- every time you turned the corner there was something vibrant or wacky to look at.

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After checking out Camden we had definitely solidified what we already knew about ourselves which is that we are “neighborhood”, not “city center” people. You might have read here how we New Yorkers avoid places like Times Square at all costs. The good, authentic stuff is always in the less hectic surrounding locales. London was no different. At the end of the Grim Reaper tour which I told you about earlier, we ended up in the Shoreditch neighborhood. We stomped around a bit but it was nighttime and we were starving so our primary focus was finding dinner not snapping pics. I think my only regret about our visit was that we didn’t have more time to explore this or the Hoxton area; those were 2 nabes we didn’t get to see to the extent that I had hoped.

We did however get to check out Kensington a bit as we had a dinner reservation in the area and we arrived a couple hours early to putz around. I felt at home here almost immediately–this was probably due to the fact that we were able to find a Whole Foods and they actually had Kombucha! (Whole paycheck smaycheck–I LOVE Whole Foods; it is my happy place, especially when I find them on vacation; such a comfort!)

As we were a little tired from an already full day, we were so happy to find Holland Park, where we were able to just relax and people watch for about an hour. Out of the hustle and bustle, it was one of those great spots to observe people going about their day to day lives; that’s one of my favorite pastimes when I myself am out of my element with none of my normal responsibilities. We sat on the bench below, reflected on our trip so far, and imagined what life might be like if London was our home.

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I had an argument with someone at work recently. She was reading about all this money they were putting into parks in New York and she commented how useless she thought it was; she just felt like there were so many other important areas which had a stronger necessity for funding. I told her I had to disagree. While there are a lot of things we spend money on that I might divert to others, Parks are not one of them. I think my husband and I visit a park on almost every vacation that we go on. Locally, we run in our parks almost every day and often head to them for a leisurely walk or sit-down when we want to relax. Thousands of parents take their kids to these parks every day to let them be free and run around–for FREE, which for me is really the key thing. I think parks are one of the few things that freely give access and contribute to a better quality of life for the people in the community. They are one of my favorite destinations to seek out on any trip and I highly recommend finding Holland Park on your next adventure in London .

I’ll leave you with a few blooper pics. Ones I’m so glad my hubs pushed me to get; they were so fun to send to my Dad who is a HUGE Sherlock Holmes fan. These were taken on the one day of our trip that it POURED, and did not stop. That was one thing we just could not dig about London–the weather. I think we saw the sun once the entire time we were there. We also could not get behind the £; we are used to NYC prices and still found London to be out of control expensive. (It cost us $75 for us both to attend one Bikram yoga class!). Lastly, I really didn’t want to go with the crowd on this one, but we were generally not impressed with London food. THAT, you will read about in a post very soon!

The last pic here shows our very favorite part of London, THE TUBE! I have never experienced a cleaner, more efficient, and easier to navigate mode of public transportation. Bravo London! I think the MTA could learn a few things here. The most compelling? The Tube and Tube stations were SPOTLESS, and yet there were NO garbage receptacles to be found. Something to think about NYC!

Five days is not nearly enough to do London justice; we will definitely have to return at some point in our lives. I’d love to hear about your favorite spots as well–I’ll put them on the list for next time! In the meantime, I can’t wait to share about the day trips we took with London as our home-base. Ta-Ta for now! x

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3 thoughts on “travel guide: london

  1. Pingback: travel guide: paris, part II | cat h. bradley

  2. Pingback: travel guide: paris, part I | cat h. bradley

  3. Pingback: food: london | cat h. bradley

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