I had visited London back in 2001 when a friend of mine was studying abroad there. We visited over Thanksgiving so the weather was a lot colder and while we did see some of the tourist spots, we spent a lot of our time at the pubs. This time around I was excited to explore more of the city. With all the Brexit drama going on, we had pretty good timing as the pound lost about 15% against the dollar but even with that discount, London is still pretty expensive.
We arrived in London Gatwick around 1 PM but we had a hard time getting a hold of our Airbnb host. He told us he was working until 5 PM so we stayed at the airport for a while and then went to the place to wait for him to get back. The place is pretty much in the ghetto south of London and the house itself had dirty floors and paper thin walls. We put our things down in the room then grabbed some dinner at a café nearby. It was cold out so Diem got a stew. I got a salad since I hadn’t had many greens lately. The first night our Airbnb host stayed up till 3 AM drinking and smoking with his friends. Even with my earplugs, they were pretty noisy so it took me a while to fall asleep.
On our first full day in London we needed to recover from jetlag and from the poor night of sleep from dealing with our host. We woke up around 1:00 PM and surprisingly had a sunny day. We finally got moving and then made our way to Central London. It took about 45 minutes to get there and we grabbed lunch at a fish and chips spot that Diem found. A number of famous landmarks are pretty centrally located in London. We went by the Tower of London, the Tower Bridge, Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the London Eye, Buckingham Palace, and the Palace Gardens around Buckingham Palace (Green Park). We had thoughts of going up the Tower Bridge but the line was so long that we decided against it. It was good revisiting these sites and the London skyline looked more modern than I remembered in 2001. I was surprised, however, on how dirty the city was, especially around the tourist areas. There were mounds of trash in the area next to Parliament and Westminster Abbey and the parks and streets were constantly littered as we walked around London. The other thing that was disconcerting was the public transportation. The London Metro has lots of older smaller trains that have very poor ventilation and no AC so they were pretty hot and stuffy. The subway stops were also stuffy and dirty. I would have thought that London would have upgraded the trains when the Olympics came in 2012 but apparently not. After a busy day of sightseeing, we went to have dinner at a pizza place that Diem researched. The restaurant was in a cool hipster area that had converted old warehouses into restaurants. Unfortunately, the restaurant was too popular and we could barely see the counter where we had to order. We decided not to wait so we went next door to a BBQ and brewery spot that was less crowded. The food was pretty good but they ran out of the brisket and some other meat, but we still had a pretty good dinner.
Our second day we went to Trafalgar Square and had brunch at Café in the Crypt nearby. There was a big Hare Krishna event going on in the square with floats, people singing and dancing, and serving free food. The line for the food was way too long and it was Indian food (not Diem’s favorite), so we didn’t wait. The Square was beautiful and it would have been nice to see it with less people but it was also cool to see the Square full of people and excitement. The National Gallery Art Museum is in Trafalgar Square and it was free so we went there for a little bit. They had some good Van Gogh paintings and other impressionist art.
Next we went to the British Museum, which is also free and the number 1 tourist attraction in London according to Trip Advisor and in terms of the number of visitors. The British Museum has a pretty cool central hall and a few items I was excited about seeing. The most famous was the Rosetta stone. There was a big line in front and it was tough to get a picture with a crowd of people shoving you next to the exhibit but we got a couple of good shots and moved on. We also saw an Easter Island Rock, some Egyptian ruins and tombs, and some ruins from the Parthenon in Greece. I can’t complain too much because the visit was free but to me the British Museum was not all that special.
Next we went to Kensington Palace and the Gardens and Hyde Park next to the Palace. We didn’t actually go in the Palace but it was a nice area. Our dinner spot was nearby so we went to eat. The dinner spot was called Windsor Castle and we ordered a 21 day aged roast sirloin of beef and an ox cheek dish with sweet potatoes. We actually made a reservation here and we had a nice little table set aside for us with that had this reservation card on it. Both dishes were really good but I liked the Ox Cheek meat better and the roast beef au jus.
The next day we had lunch at Duck and Waffle up on the 40th floor of the Heron Tower building. There were some pretty nice views up there but unfortunately we didn’t get a window seat. We ordered the Duck and Waffle dish and a Miso glazed rabbit. The duck was really good and the rabbit was tender but the miso glaze was a little strong and not my favorite. The portions are pretty small so I was still a little hungry when we left. We walked by the Gherkin downtown which is a pretty cool building but we couldn’t go inside.
Next we went to Tate Modern and saw some great works from Picasso, Dali, Monet. There was an exhibition featuring Georgia O’Keefe but we’re on a budget and didn’t want to pay almost 20 pounds each to go in. The new wing of the Tate “Switch Building” is 10 floors and on the 10th floor there is an observatory with some nice views of the city. Especially St. Paul’s Cathedral across the river, which was very reminiscent of the Capital Building in Washington D.C. Next we made our way to the cable car Air Emirates Line which had some different views of the Eastern Part of London. The skyline on this side of London isn’t all that impressive but it was a nice ride. After, we went to Greenwich Park next to the Maritime Museum. We grabbed some food and drinks nearby and just relaxed in the park for a while. The park has a nice view of the Museum and the river. We were so tired that we didn’t bother to walk up the hill to get a better view but it was since to relax in the shade and get out of the heat. Afterward we made our way back.
We couldn’t leave England without seeing Stonehenge. We talked to a number of Brits in Hong Kong about Stonehenge and all of them said that it’s not that impressive but you have to see it. We also read a lot of reviews of Stonehenge that said the same thing. It’s kind of a pain to get to if you don’t have a car so you pretty much have to take a tour. Rather than just waste an entire day on just Stonehenge, we decided to do a tour that would take us to Oxford and Windsor Castle as well and was only a couple dollars more than the Stonehenge only tour. The tour started at 8:45 AM and left from the London Victoria bus terminal. The first stop was Windsor Castle which took about an hour to get to. Since we’re visiting a lot of different castles and because we’re on a budget, we didn’t pay to go inside and instead we went to a park nearby which had a nice view of the castle. Today was the hottest day of the year in Britain so we decided to relax and lay down in the shade for a while until it was time to leave.
Next we went to Stonehenge which took about an hour and a half from Windsor. We originally booked the tour without the entrance fee to Stonehenge because we read a number of reviews saying that buying the entrance was not necessary because you could get a good view of the stones from behind the fence. The tour guide was saying though that the new visitor center is now about a mile away from the stones and you have to take a shuttle to the stones and you can’t park next to the stones like you used to. The reviews I remember reading were from a couple of years ago so we decided go ahead and buy the entrance fee which is 17 pounds. While you do take the shuttle from the visitor center, it is still possible to walk from the center to the stones and still get a decent view of the stones. It was a really hot day though so we were good with paying for the shuttle and entrance fee. If you want to save some money though, it is definitely possible to walk from the visitor center and get a decent view of the stones. With the entrance fee, however, you do get pretty close to the stones and we took a lot of good pictures. There is a roped path around the stones but you can’t go inside the circle of the stones unless you pay a lot for a private tour outside the regular hours. Our tour included an audio guide which had some interesting information about the site and the visitor center had some other exhibits and more information about the history of Stonehenge. It’s a pretty short visit to actually see the stones once you get there though, you really only need 15-20 minutes to take pictures and walk around the stones and maybe another 15-20 minutes in the visitor center to see everything there.
Next we went to Oxford. The tour included a guided tour of the city and included some fun facts about the campus. It was really hot out so we didn’t explore the town after the 20 minute tour and just had some really bad fruit smoothies and sat in the shade until it was time to leave. We headed back to London which took about 2 hours and had dinner at an Italian restaurant next to the bus terminal. We were pretty tired so we just went back to pack and get to bed.
Our flight to Dublin wasn’t until 6:30 PM so we still had a full day that we could use to see more of London. Diem really wanted to experience tea in London so we reserved a spot for Afternoon Tea at the Soho Hotel (~£25/pp). Tea includes a selection of cakes and pastries from the cake table. Fruit and plain scones, clotted cream and preserves, and an assortment of traditional tea sandwiches. The food was pretty good but it was a lot of sweets so we couldn’t finish everything. We are really trying to milk the whole honeymoon thing for the duration for the trip so the wait staff was really friendly and gave us an extra dessert plate. After tea we headed to the airport to go to Dublin.
London is a huge capital city but it is worth seeing and has lots to offer. We obviously didn’t get to see everything but I think we got a good taste of the city. It is also very expensive so it is not very budget friendly even with the current discount.
See the full gallery of our London exploits here: London Calling