London

The biggest city in Western Europe, London is similar to New York but more historic and, in my opinion, much prettier. Both speak English, both have famous monuments, iconic taxis, and a big theater street. Here are some of my highlights from this trip:

1.) Maggie Jones’s–Emma and I agree that this was where we had the best meal on our whole trip. We came here for lunch after visiting the Natural History Museum in the morning. It’s in the Kensington area which is right near Hyde Park, a big public garden, as well. Maggie Jones’s served great food–my sirloin steak special was great and Emma’s vegetable pot pie was warm and tasted very homemade–and it wasn’t particularly crowded or touristy either which was a good escape from the busy streets and the crowds.

2.) Afternoon Tea–After our morning in Windsor, my sister and I were pretty tired and decided that we’d get tea at our hotel for a late lunch. The Bloomsbury Hotel had an incredible afternoon tea which we split. After lunch at Maggie Jones’s, this may have been our best meal as we gorged ourselves on scones, sandwiches, and sweets.

Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey

3.)Westminster Abbey–So much about this church is incredible: the ornate architecture inside and out, the amount of royalty and famous authors buried here, and the history within this building are all great. Emma and I went after a late lunch at Westminster Arms, a pub across the street, after going to King’s Cross Station and The British Library–which is worth the visit for housing items like Jane Austen’s writing desk, copies of The Magna Carta, papers that Beatles lyrics were originally written on, among many, many others–so it wasn’t particularly crowded then and we didn’t have to wait to get in. We took the free audio guides, which were very helpful and informative and enhanced the visit a lot. It’s also located right next to the Palace of Westminster which houses the famous bell Big Ben, so the area is filled with tourists and incredible architecture.

4.)London Eye–We took a ride on this impressive ferris wheel on one of our last days in the city. The wait wasn’t too long, and the views during this half hour ride are definitely worth it. If you enjoy The Top of the Rock in New York, this would be right up your alley.

5.) Soho Bookstores to Trafalgar Square–Walking down Soho is great for anybody who loves antique, used bookstores. Tons of shops line the streets and you can find almost anything here. When my sister and I went, we ended up stumbling into Trafalgar Square. People were setting up for a concert when we went, and the square was filled with people, so it’s clearly a place of activity. It’s right next to the National Gallery as well, although we didn’t get to this museum.

Here are some of my other picks:

Food:

  1. Strada–a chain but a good Italian place for pizza with a location near the London Eye.
  2. Sun Tavern–a good pub near Covent Garden.
  3. Westminster Arms–classic pub fare near Westminster Abbey.
  4. Monmouth Coffee–I’ve never been, but a friend from London raves about the coffee here

Activities:

  1. King’s Cross and St. Pancras Stations–A good stop for somebody after having gone to Leavesden Studios. It’s touristy but fun, and why would you not go to Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross? Although you can’t go to the actual platform, they’ll take pictures with your camera at Platform 9 3/4 and there’s a gift shop next door. St. Pancras, next door, is what’s filmed as the outside of King’s Cross in the HP movies.
  2. British Museum–We did this on our first day in the city as it was close to our hotel and we were exhausted from our flight (we flew Virgin Atlantic which I would recommend). The museum is free with a five pound donation requested. It’s filled with great artifacts like Egyptian mummies and shabtis, the Portland Vase,  ancient and classical pottery and tools, and even the Rosetta Stone. The scope of this museum is incredible, and we definitely could have spent much more time here, so it was important to choose what we most wanted to see to get the most out of the visit.
  3. St. Paul’s Cathedral–With an impressive dome on top, St. Paul’s Cathedral is beautiful inside and out. The ceiling inside is covered with beautiful gilded mosaics, so make sure to look up. There’s a whispering gallery up top inside the dome which I’ve heard is great. Although we didn’t get a chance to go up during our short visit, we did descend to the crypt where historic figures and some British war heroes are buried.
  4. The Tower of London–Very historic, and an educational trip. The Crown Jewels are incredible! There’s a lot to see here, so give yourself ample time to explore, and the wait to see the Crown Jewels can be long.
  5. Covent Garden–A cool outdoor market area with shops, restaurants, and lots of activity, Covent Garden is good for an evening stroll after dinner. There are street performers and a lot going on here. We didn’t spend too much time here, but it’s a cool place.
  6. Natural History Museum–Check out the famous dinosaurs exhibit early in the day before the lines get too long

Getting around:

The Tube–Although London’s iconic black cabs are cool and rival New York’s yellow taxis in fame, everywhere we went in London was really congested, and the traffic added a significant amount of time it took to get anywhere. Walking is obviously a great way to get around and see so much of the city, like how my sister and I accidentally reached Trafalgar Square which we hadn’t planned on visiting. However, the Tube, London’s subway system, was one of the most navigable subways either of us has ever taken. The trains run frequently and the stations are filled with large maps to check that you’re on the right line. If you expect to be taking the Tube a lot, getting an Oyster Card is worth it. You can top it up (or add money) as you go, and once you’re done using it you can turn it in and get the five pound deposit back.

Day Trips:

  1. Leavesden Studios–Being big Harry Potter fans, this day trip from London was one of the highlights for both of us. A ticket gives access to the backlot and two sound stages filled with sets, props, costumes, artwork, and the Hogwarts Castle model used in filming the movies. The crowd wasn’t too bad when we went, and it takes about three hours to get through the whole studio, but it was all very thrilling and definitely a must for Harry Potter fans visiting London.
  2. Windsor Castle–We took a day trip to Windsor and got to spend the morning walking around the lavish State Apartments and looking at Queen Mary’s dollhouse (though its size alone is impressive, also remarkable is that the plumbing works, there’s real wine in the little wine bottles, and the dollhouse even has working electricity) before going to the changing of the guard. Because the Queen was at the castle, the ceremony took place in the castle’s courtyard. At first there was a big crowd around the gate watching, but it thinned out eventually and we managed to get right up front and have a great view of the elaborate ceremony, better than that which we had at the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. It’s worth checking out the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace as well though.

For a London city guide from a local, check out this guest post from Jessica from Diverting Journeys.