London was never on my European travel itinerary, but thanks to Spanish bureaucracy, I booked a weekend trip for London 3 days before I left and hoped for the best. I have been very hesitant to travel alone because of my absolutely horrendous sense of direction combined with no access to Google Maps. I also wasn’t sure how much fun doing ridiculous touristy activities alone would be. Plus, small talk with random people is not my favorite activity anywhere, and it is pretty inevitable when traveling solo. So, after having some minor anxiety initially, I quickly got over it, planned a tentative itinerary for my days in London, and hoped for the best.
I made it to my 6am flight out of Barcelona with no problems thankfully. However, such an early flight which meant leaving my flat at 3 am and encountering all the drunk people on La Rambla f after their Thursday night festivities. People-watching in Barcelona is always the best no matter what time of day or night it is, and I had a few laughs before I got on the bus to the airport which I thought was a good omen for my journey. I flew into Stansted Airport which is 45 minutes outside of London’s city center by train. My first monetary shock of the trip came when buying my round trip train ticket to the city center from the airport… 32 pounds aka $49 USD. In Barcelona, it costs 1 euro to get to the airport. WHAT THE HECK LONDON? When I reached Liverpool Station, I made the decision to buy a 2-day London Pass, which involved paying a flat fee for a pass that includes free entrance to all of the major tourist attractions and unlimited transportation. I made it to my hostel in London by 9am by way of a double decker red bus which was really cool and I had the entire day to explore.
The Borough Market
One street away from my hostel was the Borough Market, which is this amazing food market located right underneath a train overpass. It is right next to the Southwark Cathedral and the London Bridge. I was starved and grabbed a croissant and coffee so that I didn’t waste too much time. Don’t worry, I went back later in the day.
The Southwark Cathedral was right next to the Borough Market, so even though I have seen a million churches, I figured it would be worth it to stop in since it is free to enter. The Gothic-style cathedral is around 700 years old and is very beautiful. It has this outdoor space that has benches, an oversized chess set, and herb gardens. It is a really peaceful place, and would be have been a great place to sit and relax, but I had to keep moving so I was in and out pretty quickly.
London Bridge/London Bridge Experience
My first planned stop was the London Bridge, because it was super close to my hostel and was on the way to the Tower of London. The view of the Tower Bridge and the Thames (pronounced TEMS) river landscape is beautiful when standing on the London Bridge, because you get the view of the ships, the London skyscrapers, and the Tower Bridge. The London Bridge itself was definitely not as ornate and distinctive as I expected based on how famous it is. I saw a sign for the “London Bridge Experience”, which was an attraction included with my London Pass so I decided to try it. The London Bridge Experience is essentially a haunted house that gives the bloody, violent, fiery history of the famous London Bridge. It cost something like 23 pounds to do it, so I’m glad I didn’t actually pay for it because it was a little underwhelming. I did learn a lot about London’s history though. Did you know that after traitors were beheaded at Tower Hill their heads were put on spikes at the base of London Bridge to discourage other citizens from treason? They had these nasty realistic fake heads on spikes all throughout the tour, something I knew my mother would appreciate.
Tower of London
It was about a 20-minute walk from the London Bridge to the Tower of London (which was also free to enter with the London Pass). Throughout history, the Tower of London has been used for many things: home to the Royal Mint, a treasury, a palace, a menagerie, an armory, and a prison. It has a reputation as being the place for executions, but only 7 people were actually executed within the Tower of London’s walls. Most people were taken to Tower Hill, located very close to the Tower, to be killed. The last prisoner was held here in the 1950’s, and it is now a historical site that thousands of tourists flock to each day. It is the home of the Crown Jewels, which were absolutely spectacular. I have never seen such large jewels in my life. The whole concept of a monarchy feels really archaic and strange to me in modern times, but seeing the lavish crowns, scepters, outfits, rings, and decorations was fascinating. I could have stayed at the Tower for hours and hours, but I decided to keep moving after about 2 hours of wandering.
Tower Bridge Exhibition
Before this year in Europe, never had I ever said “This is my favorite bridge”. Now, I specifically look at bridges to see how they measure up in comparison to other famous bridges. The Tower Bridge was one of my favorites, up there with the Ponte Vecchio in Florence and the Chain Bridge in Budapest. When I got to the first tower, I basically skipped over the entire history of the bridge, walked up the 311 steps and took in the view from the top. They have just put in a glass floor which I thought was really cool, but if you are afraid of heights I would not recommend this!
Apparently, this is the most famous and most visited modern art museum in the world. Normally, I stay away from museums, but this one had some Picasso and Andy Warhol pieces so I decided to pay those a visit. I was only in there for about 15 minutes total, but if you like modern art, this would be the museum in London to visit.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
I walked across the river to St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was after visiting hours, so I just took some pictures of the outside of the cathedral and wandered around it. I’m sure it is beautiful inside, but after visiting St. Peter’s in Rome and Notre Dame in Paris, I have felt very underwhelmed by churches recently so was really not too upset that I couldn’t go in.
King’s Cross Station
For people who may not know me very well, I LOVE Harry Potter. I re-read all 8 books every year, I own all of the movies, and on our last family vacation in the states I chose to drag the whole Wall crew to Harry Potter World in Orlando. I knew that I had to go to Platform 9 and ¾ at King’s Cross. When I got to the platform, there was a long line of people. There were 2 attendants to help out with the pictures. They tell you what pose to do, let you pick the color scarf that corresponds to your “House”, and take photos with a professional camera. Watching other people take these pictures were freaking hilarious. The whole concept is so ridiculous, but I was absolutely loving it. I made friends with some girls in line, and I used their camera to take their picture, and they used my phone to take mine (you are allowed to take personal photos, you don’t have to buy the professional picture if you don’t want to). My pictures didn’t turn out great, but I was excited that I got to do this in London, because I didn’t make it to the actual movie set on this trip which would have required an entire day.
By this time it was 7pm and I was exhausted and went back to the hostel to pass out so that I could wake up early.
I woke up early with the intention of going to Westminster Abbey to do a tour first. However, when I got there, there was a line wrapped around the corner. Also, apparently even though at every other attraction you can skip the line with the London Pass, Westminster Abbey does not allow this. So, my friend from the hostel and I decided to take take a look at some nearby attractions and walk to Buckingham Palace a little earlier than we expected for the changing of the guard ceremony.
Big Ben/ Parliament/ Parliament Square
Right when you walk out of the Westminster Tube station (Exit 4), Parliament and Big Ben are right in front of you. The Parliament building is beautiful, and Big Ben really is quite big (Duh). I don’t necessarily understand all of the hype around Big Ben, but the whole scene of Parliament, Big Ben, with Westminster Abbey in the background is truly iconic. Between Parliament and Westminster is Parliament Square, which is a large green area that has large statues of famous statesmen and other important people such as Winston Churchill, Mahatma Ghandi, Abraham Lincoln, and Nelson Mandela.
Buckingham Palace-Changing of the Guard
We got to Buckingham Palace at 10am for what we thought was an 11am start for the Changing of the Guard, but it turns out it is more like 11:30 before things get going. I was a little underwhelmed by the ceremony (I’m not sure what the term for it would be), and I still cannot get over the horrible outfits that the guards wear, but it was on all the “Must See” lists for London, so I’m glad I had the experience.
My friend Melissa from JMU lives in London now, and she met me at Buckingham Palace to go on an adventure for the day. She hadn’t done many of the super touristy things, which makes sense since she lives there, so we both got to do these things for the first time together. Our first stop was lunch at Tattersall Tavern for a traditional fish and chips meal. We walked around the corner to Harrods Department store, which is a massive department store. It takes up 5 acres and is over 1 million square feet of retail space. They have all the upscale designers here in the stores, but they also have a whole floor of just food. A fish market, charcuterie section, a tea room, and a produce room were just some of the culinary options that you can choose from when you go into this store.
Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, & Kensington Palace
A 20-minute walk from Harrod’s are Hyde Park and Kensington Palace. Hyde Park/Kensington Gardens has a beautiful lake that is surrounded by trees, flowers, and running paths. The Peter Pan Statue, one of my favorite sculptures ever, is in Kensington Gardens. It is a bronze sculpture that features squirrels, rabbits, mice and fairies climbing up to Peter. It’s in a little out cove near the walking path that is so beautiful and peaceful. The plaque on the ground in front of Peter says, “Peter Pan, the boy who would not grow up.”
We continued walking to Kensington Palace, home of the modern royals. Apparently Prince Harry was not in residence on the day I was there, which was super disappointing. We toured the palace, visited the royal staterooms, and learned about Queen Victoria’s reign over England. There was also a section with dresses worn by the modern royals, Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Diana, and Princess Margaret, which was one of my favorite parts of the palace.
I felt obligated to go to Abbey Road, but truly it was not worth the trek out there. They have changed the road so much that it doesn’t even look the same way it did on that iconic Beatles album cover anymore. Plus, it is still a road and people were darting into traffic in order to get the picture like the Beatles. We stayed for maybe 5 minutes, took a few pictures, and left to run to the metro so we could make it to Westminster Abbey in time.
Westminster Abbey is arguably the most famous religious building in the UK. It is the place where all of the important, recent royal weddings have occurred and where the coronations for the monarchs occur. Also, the science geek in me loved that Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton are buried here, alongside other important British people. We missed the times for tours, but they have services at Westminster every day. We made it in time for the Evening Song service, which was incredible. I know I said before that I was over going into churches, but Westminster Abbey is one of my top 5 favorites in Europe. The Westminster choir sang at the service, and the whole experience was so peaceful, and the music was amazing. This was one of my favorite parts of the whole trip.
This is basically the Times Square of New York or the Las Ramblas of Barcelona: super touristy, loud, crowded, with lots of lights and large stores. We just walked through here, and it was a little overwhelming after the calm church service that we had just experienced. I would have liked to spend more time here, but we were just passing through. BTW, that British flag is made of M&M’s from the massive M&M’s store in Picadilly.
Trafalgar Square is a massive public square that has fountains, large statues of important British military figures. There were a lot of people sitting and relaxing, picnicking, and enjoying the beautiful weather. It is also a place where many large gatherings of people have occurred. During my visit, there were a few very talented musicians playing here with large crowds gathered around them.
I don’t really think this needs much elaboration, but I was the happiest human alive after this meal.
Covent Garden is a small district in London on the West End, close to Chipotle, Trafalgar Square etc. There is a really cute converted, open-air fruit and vegetable market that now houses many modern stores in the same structure. We walked through the market and just browsed. We walked over to the opera house in Covent Garden, which unfortunately was under construction.
At this point it was almost 8:30pm, our feet were killing us, and I was exhausted, so Melissa and I parted ways and decided to meet for brunch in the morning before my train to the airport. I originally planned on going out in London, but after 2 such long days, I knew that I would regret the inevitable hangover, and would not be able to wake up early in the morning if I didn’t get a good night’s rest. So, I went back to the hostel, packed all of my stuff, and was dead to the world by 11pm.
I did debate doing this, but I realized that couldn’t visit London and not see Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. I had tried going there on my first day, but they were closed because of a rehearsal for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is one of the shows playing there now. I made it to the first tour that they offer on Sundays, and I’m really glad I went. The theatre is not actually built in the place where the original stood, because there is another, already occupied building there, but has the same design (or almost the same based on available evidence) as the original, which was built in 1599. It is made of wood and a “Globe” performance is very different than theatre performances in a modern theatre. First, it is an outdoor theatre, which means that plays are performed rain or shine. Also, there is no fancy lighting or sets used in these plays, as the plays are performed during the day and the audience can see everything. The most unique thing that I learned about the Globe is the role of the audience during shows. The audience is a character in itself. The actors expect the audience to participate, react, and interact with them during the shows. The next time I visit London, I would love to attend a performance there. This building opened to the pubic in 1997, and is one of London’s most popular tourist attractions.
After my visit to the Globe, I walked back to my hostel, hopped on a big red bus back to Liverpool Station, and Melissa and I had an AMAZING breakfast near there. I could sing the praises of this restaurant (called Eastway) but I will let the pictures speak for themselves. I hadn’t seen Meliss since 2012, and it was so nice to see her, catch up, and have someone who knows the city go around with me! We had many laughs about the ridiculousness of life at JMU, mutual people that we know (LOL), and life in a foreign country. Thank you Melissa for being a great companion!
Despite the fact that this trip was so last-second and that the city is ungodly expensive, I LOVE this city. If I hadn’t seen London, I know that I would have regretted it. Everyone was friendly, I understood the language (which was so nice), and I was able to hit many of the sites on my list. The London Pass was a good option and definitely worth the money, but I found that there were so many things included that there was no way to go to all of them which was a little disappointing. London is a city that you can’t just do in 2 days. While I did make it to many of the major tourist sites, but I feel like I barely scratched the surface because there are so amazing things that this city offers.
Also, once I got over the fear of traveling SOLO, I had an amazing time. It’s also nice to know that because I was able to navigate London, I basically will be able to do that in any city. This is good, because I am riding solo to Venice this weekend.
My post about Grand Canary is coming soon, and I leave for Venice today so it has been a little hectic for me here in Barcelona with all of the traveling. I finally booked my flight home to the USA this week, so my departure from Europe finally feels real. It’s so strange because back in October, 10 months felt like a lifetime, and now I barely have 3 months left. It’s crazy how time flies when you’re having fun J I have many more trips planned, so stay tuned. Until then… adios amigos!