I couldn't believe my Europe trip was coming to an end as I flew from Vienna to London. At the same time, I was excited to see a new city.
My excitement quickly toned down as I was held up at Immigration once again (see here for the first time). It was like a nightmare on repeat. Apparently, the Immigration officer in Edinburgh failed to mention my passport was flagged in UK databases and I would be detained for questioning anytime I entered in the next six months. There was no way to get out of it--it was procedure.
So I spent three hours being searched, held, and questioned even though I had a plane ticket home in three days, a hostel booked, and proof of funds. I was pretty upset--because this horrible thing was happening again. Eventually the officer in charge told me that "she believed me" and told me that if I didn't leave when I said I would they would know. However, she was nice enough to write a special note on my passport and file saying that if I entered the UK in the next six months (totally not happening) I should not be detained.
Finally, I collected my luggage and hopped on the Tube. A little over an hour later, I was lugging my stuff through the empty and dark streets of London, something I had been trying to avoid when I booked my plane ticket. I was in a rush to find my hostel since it was after 10:30 and check-in ended at 11. Luckily for me, my trusty map app got me to Travel Joy Hostel in time, although I did not escape a smattering of raindrops. I turned in for the night after a hot shower, not hungry in the least for dinner.
Everything in London is expensive. So staying at Travel Joy hostel was one of the cheaper options as it's not smack-dab in the center of the city. However, it's a 10-15 minute walk from the Pimlico tube station and there is a bus stop not even a block away for a line that goes into the city center. If you stay at a hostel in London it will probably be above a pub, which is nice because this acts as a hangout space throughout the day. Travel Joy also served ridiculously good Thai food for dinner and had free activities like salsa dancing lessons. I found that while it was not a huge hostel, I still had to approach people in order to make friends. Basically, if you are willing to make an effort and be outgoing you can get to know the other travelers.
I stumbled upon Chelsea when walking towards Buckingham Palace. Chic, high-end shops line the streets that are otherwise filled with brownstones. The perfect kind of shopping for a traveler; beautiful clothes and accessories that are too pricey for me to consider taking them home. My favorite shop was the prettiest chocolate place where I bought some unusually flavored, but delicious bars.
Where: Artisan du Chocolat is at 89 Lower Sloane Street and good Chelsea shopping is farther along Sloane Street.
2. Westminster Abbey
Over 700 years old, this place has witnessed a lot of history. Though it functions as a church, it is best known as a burial place for the famous English. Here you can see the tombs and learn about royalty, poets and authors, scientists, and more. It runs a little expensive (though what in London isn't?), but it's one of those things that should be done. Take your time, walk through and learn about the many historic characters that belong to this place. Personally, it was reverential for me because I adore English royals and writers. I couldn't help sighing over their tombs and imagining them when they were alive. It was a little upsetting that no photos were allowed as I desperately wanted one with Queen Elizabeth.
Where: 20 Deans Yd, Westminster tube stop
Hours: see here
Cost: Adults £20.00, 60+ and students with valid student ID £17.00, children (6 - 16 years) £9.00, children under 5 free accompanied by an adult
3. Victoria and Albert museum and cafe
When I heard this museum was free and pretty cool, I had to stop by. I didn't have time for much, but I viewed a beautiful womens style through the centuries exhibit. Also, I peeked at the Raphael comics which were divine. If I had more time, I would have paid for some of the exhibitions, like one about the history of wedding dress. I had lunch in the cafe that was absolutely delightful. Counter-style one can buy all sort of salads, sandwiches, soups, and sides and then sit in the prettiest high-ceiling room. Quite a few people seemed to come for just lunch, so beware of the crowds.
Where: Cromwell Road, South Kensington tube stop (entry from tube)
Hours: 10.00 to 17.45 daily and 10.00 to 22.00 Fridays
Cost: Free, not including special exhibits.
4. See a Show
London is just as much renowned for its theaters as New York, partially because the history of English theater goes back centuries. My father emailed me to say that he would treat me to a show ticket as a Christmas present! So I quickly did some internet searches and booked a will-call ticket for the Les Misérables matinee the next day. Arriving at the theater, I was too excited. I had never seen Les Mis live and I had a great seat since I bought a solo ticket. The show was truly excellent and the cast talented. While Broadway theater is rarely cheap, the performance was worth the price.
Where: the West End aka roughly between Oxford Street and Trafalgar Square
5. Changing of the Guard
Upon planning my visit to London, I thought this was a necessary stop. It is extremely touristy, but I felt like it had to be done once, just to say I'd had. Best advice--get there early and dress for the weather. I was there a good 45 minutes early and already crowds were milling about and saving spots. To get a good spot, pick one place and stay there. So I got a spot just off the side if the center gate and it was amazing. Other people would flock to another place when something happened early-on, like the arrival of the new guards, but then these tourists didn't have a good view of the actual production. The actual thing was much longer than I expected and my feet went numb with cold, I kid you not. Still, it was super interesting to see the guards receiving orders and going through the procedural change. Even better was the band which played music not only entering and leaving, but for 15 or so minutes during the ceremony.
Where: Buckingham Palace, nearest tube stations are Victoria, Hyde Park Corner, and St. James Park
Hours: 11.15-Guards with bands arrive, 11.30-Official start time, 12.00-Guard change ceremony ends. Every morning (weather permitting) from April to the end of July and every other day on the off-season.Cost: Free
6. Cafe Below
I found this restaurant, which is nestled in the crypt of an old church, online and had to give it a try. So I went for lunch right after visiting St. Paul's, which is around the corner. I made a reservation and was glad I did, as the restaurant is small and very popular with the natives. Some of the menu was sold out when I got there, a drawback of it being so small, so I ordered a salad with a cheese soufflé on top. It was delicious and very fresh, my favorite meal in London. The pinwheel of different grain and leafy salads was something unique and the soufflé was amazing. Would visit again.
Where: St. Mary-le-Bow (Bow Bells Church), near St. Paul's and Mansion House tube stops
Hours: Breakfast and lunch Monday-Friday, dinner Wednesday-Friday (reservation recommended)
Cost: Lunch was approx £9-15 and dinner £17-25
7. St. Paul's Cathedral
The most famous church in the city, St. Paul's drew me both for its history and its architecture. Designed by Christopher Wren, basically the best English architect there ever was, the exterior and interior are equally magnificent. Delicate, yet towering and strong, it is not hard to gaze upon the Cathedral while listening to an audio guide about its building and history. Pop down to the crypt to see the burial sites of Christopher Wren and Lord Nelson (this excited me to a point of nerdy humiliation). What I found most amazing was that it had survived World War II with minimal damage. In fact, Londoners volunteered to be stationed throughout the day and night to extinguish any incendiaries on the roof and in the rafters.
Where: St. Paul's tube stop
Hours: Monday-Saturday 9.30 to 4.00
Cost: Adults (18+) £17, seniors and students £15, children (6-17) £7.50
8. The Tower
Famous for housing royalty and confine prisoners, The Tower is a major London attraction. Like most things in the city, it's rather expensive, so it's best if you give yourself some time there to explore. Unfortunately, I arrived right after the last Watchmen's tour, in which a Yeoman escorts you through the main parts of the castle. I still saw some of these Yeomen and even re-enactors inside the castle. I enjoyed walking the ramparts for a great view and seeing the rooms used as prison cells. In the White Tower, the keep, there are cool, interactive exhibits for kids and a weapons and armor display which included the head of a wooden figurine of Queen Elizabeth I. In another building I viewed the Crown Jewels, a collection a lot vaster and more impressive than I imagined. It was good to see the jewels near closing as I was one of a few visitors. The Tower was an engaging museum that I wouldn't mind visiting again.
Where: Tower Hill tube stop
Hours: March-October: Tuesday-Saturday 9.00-17.30, Sunday & Monday 10.00-17.30; the rest of the year they close an hour earlier than summer times
Cost: Adult £22, seniors and students £18.70, children £11
9. The Globe Theater
As a reader and Shakespeare admirer, I knew I had to fit this in my schedule. Although the current Globe Theater is not the original (two have burned down since Shakespeare's time), it was built in the best possible representation of an Elizabethan theater. They perform shows here still, rain or shine, despite the open roof. There are two ways to visit: take a tour or see a show. Unfortunately there wasn't a show the night I visited, but I caught the last tour. The guide was quite a character and was super informative. Definitely a highlight of my time in London, though next time I plan on seeing a show.
Where: 21 New Globe Walk; Mansion House, Blackfriars, and Southwark tube stops
Hours: tours 9.30-17.30, every 30 minutes
Cost: Adult: £13.50, senior (60+): £12.00, student (with valid ID): £11.00, children (5-15): £8.00, children (under 5): free
10. Harrod's or Selfridge's
These iconic department stores are fun to pop in if you have some extra time. Especially at Christmas time, when they are lit up and have holiday displays in the windows. Room after room of pretty products and an easy place to stop for good cuisine.
Where: Harrod's-87 Brompton Street, South Kensington or Hyde Park Corner tube stops; Selfridge's-400 Oxford Street, Bond Stree tube stop
Hours: Harrod's, Selfridge's
Cost: Free (if you can restrain yourself from purchasing)