At the end of May and start of June, Megan and I went on a trip to London, Paris, and Barcelona. We only had a few days in London and Paris, but we spent a full week in Barcelona where Megan was attending a conference. Here is the story of our travels.
We arrived in London on Monday morning. We took the metro from heathrow to Victoria Station, not far from our hotel – the Luna Simone Hotel in the Belgravia area. Our small, but nice room was along a street filled with other hotels. We got a special deal (110 pounds / night instead of 140) by paying cash, thanks to the tip in Rick Steves’ guidebook, but London is still a pretty pricey place to stay.
It was a surprisingly sunny day, a stark contrast to the dark circles under our sleep deprived eyes. We headed out towards the Thames. First we stopped back in at Victoria Station for lunch at a French cafe. Our bodies were still confused by the time change, but a light meal helped. Slightly reinvigorated, we headed back out into the streets.
Our plan was to ride the London Eye, a massive ferris wheel of sorts on the south shore of the river. The wheel turns very slowly, so it takes about 40 minutes to do the full circle. You ride inside a small glass capsule with space for about 30. We were afforded with some great views of most of London’s sights–Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Parliament, and Westminster Abbey. The lines outside the Eye were intimidating at first, but it wasn’t too bad–we spent about 10 minutes waiting in line to buy a ticket, which gave us a specific time to come back and line up. This gave us about 30 minutes free to wander around the nearby garden, which was packed with family’s eating picnics (it was a Bank holiday). We then waited another 30 minutes in the queue for the ride.
The immigration officer at Heathrow had recommended we go to both the Eye and to the London Dungeon, but one look made it clear that the latter was a tourist trap “museum”. Instead, we walked north across the Thames towards Trafalgar Square. We reached there in the late afternoon and discovered that a few hours later there would be a concert, but since people were already saving seats we decided to skip it. Instead, we went into the National Gallery for afternoon tea. Megan and I each ordered the “cream tea”, which typically includes a pot of tea, a few scones, creamy butter, and jam. The pastries were quite delicious, and we both agreed that we may need to add afternoon teas into our schedules.
The tea’s caffeine was not nearly strong enough, so we made our way back to the hotel around 6PM. We promptly collapsed in bed and slept solidly… until around midnight when we both woke up again, wide awake from jetlag for a few hours.
Day 2 began with typical English weather and a typical English breakfast in our hotel. I had bacon (more like canadian bacon), a fried egg, and beans. Megan had two broiled eggs. Of course there was also tea and toast. The food was quite good, and very filling. We left the hotel around eight, and headed towards St. Paul’s cathedral, one of the few sites open before 9AM. The cathedral is quite gigantic (4th largest in Europe), with a massive dome rising 365 feet in the air. We paid the rather steep 15 pound entrance fee and wandered the hall and the crypt. The fee includes an audio guide, but both of us turned it off since it talked more about religion than history and architecture. It was interesting to see the different sections, some keeping to the original architect’s clean simple lines, while others filled with Victorian-era extravagance. In the crypt below were burial spots for war heroes like Wellington and Nelson. We did not climb 500+ stairs to the top of dome – that probably would have made it more worth the entrance fee.
We departed the cathedral and went south to the Millennium Bridge (fortunately there was no sign of Death Eaters). Across the bridge we went to Shakespeare’s Globe Theater for a guided tour. The tour was quite well done, led by an actor with a good sense of humor and a decent amount of historical knowledge. I was amazed to learn how many people would have been packed into a theater that size: about 3000, most of whom would be the commoners standing in the mud in front of the stage. We also learned that the schedule of plays was made up almost day to day based on finicky crowds, so a single actor might play five different parts in six or seven different plays, all in one week! I knew that the theater there was not the original, but I hadn’t realized that this one had only been built in the 1990s, and before that there had only been a plaque on a wall nearby announcing the historical spot.
After our tour of the theater and its museum, we walked over to the Tate modern art museum for lunch. We toured their surrealist gallery, but a lot of it was more on the abstract side, so nothing was overly impressive (but at least it was free!). Rather than see more paintings that a two year old could have done, we headed back across the river to see Westminster Abbey. The weather was worsening, but luckily we were spending most of our time inside or underground.
Westminster Abbey was not cheap either (~16 pounds), but felt more worth the money. The church and neighboring buildings are filled with dead kings and queens, beautiful stained glass, a massive organ, an intricately carved wooden choir, memorials to famous poets and thinkers (Shakespeare, Jane Austin, Longfellow, Darwin, etc.), the coronation chair used for the last 700 years, and (most importantly) England’s oldest door (almost 1000 years old). We didn’t even bother trying the audio guide, but perhaps it would have been better than St. Paul’s. Instead, we followed the steps outlined in Rick Steves’ guidebook, which gave basic details about the different chapels and sights. Since it was mid afternoon, we concluded the tour with afternoon tea at the abbey’s cafe. This time we got the more elaborate mix of finger sandwiches, scones, and cakes. I also traded hot tea for a cold cider, which was more to my taste.
We next headed up to Leicester Square, where we bought tickets to see the musical Wicked. We had hoped to see it earlier this year in Baltimore, but missed out. Conveniently, the theater was in Victoria, just a few blocks from our hotel. We went back to our hotel for a quick nap before the show. The original plan had been to get dinner, but since it felt like we’d been eating all day we just didn’t have any room. The play was a lot of fun—good songs and a very interesting story (an entirely different explanation for what goes on from what you see through Dorothy’s eyes). The show finished a bit after 10PM, but we were able to find a nice French restaurant, Grumbles, that was still open.
Day 3 was short since we needed to be at the train station by midday. On our way to the train we passed Buckingham Palace, which was quickly filling up with tourists in preparation for the changing of the guard. Just as we passed the Wellington Arch, the cavalry guard, in full regalia and swords drawn, passed by, giving us an unexpected peak at British pageantry. Perfect timing!
Of course the most important stop of our trip to London was visiting Platform 9 and 3/4, where Megan was able to zip through the wall and join Harry Potter at Hogwarts!
Overall, our visit to London was rushed, but still a lot of fun and full of interesting sights. We missed pretty much all the museums, the changing of the guard, and didn’t even ride a double decker bus. But we did get a sense of England’s artistic past and present with the Globe and Wicked. We also saw a glimmer of the grandeur of the British empire from the massive cathedrals and Buckingham Palace. Of course we still have lots of things to do the next time we come back!