Arguably the unofficial capital of the world, London is as overwhelming and amazing as it is old and historic. Each of the four days we spent in this capital city was jam-packed with things to do and brand-new experiences. I got to visit the world-renowned Stonehenge; saw the classic play Oliver, presented in its original homeland; toured the famous and macabre Tower of London; rode the infamous London Tube; saw iconic places like Big Ben and Buckingham Palace; ate at authentic English pubs and restaurants; and visited museums such the famous British Museum, which houses the equally famous Rosetta Stone… among many other things. Saying that it was a whirlwind of a trip would be an understatement.
We arrived in London around noon, and since we couldn’t check into our hotel until 3 pm, left our bags with the concierge desk and went exploring. We took the Tube (my very first time—my, what an experience) to the Tower of London. The Tower of London is located smack-dab inside the heart of London, at St Katharine’s & Wapping, something I was not expecting. It is not some picturesque countryside castle, which makes it extremely accessible to visit, but also a magnet for tourists. As to be expected, it was packed.
While the crowd was a tad bit suffocating at times, it was still well worth visiting. The history is unrivaled, and the Crown Jewels are all on display. You see very iconic crowns and jewels worn by the likes of Queen Elizabeth herself, as well as by past queens and kings. In the White Tower is armor that once belonged to famous kings like King Henry VIII and William the Conqueror. And of course, the Bloody Tower, where an uncomfortable number of King Henry’s wives were held before meeting their fates, as well as countless other poor souls. I don’t think any trip to London would be complete without an obligatory trip to this (supposedly very haunted) famous castle.
After our Tower of London extravaganza, we headed back to our hotel once again via the Tube. I absolutely hate the Tube. It’s confusing, it’s crowded, and as tourists I felt like we stood out like sore thumbs. Unfortunately, the Tube is the number 1 way to get around London, for foreigners and locals alike, so it is a necessary evil – and I’m sure it gets better with time.
The next day we decided to take a HoHo tour of the city.
**Side note: HoHo stands for “Hop on, Hop off”, a very convenient and easy way to tour any major city. HoHos are literally everywhere – as per their official website, they have buses on “5 continents, 105 cities, and 35 countries”, and all bus tours take you in a loop to the various hot spots in the city you’re in. It’s also relatively cheap, usually costing around $30 to $35 per ticket, with various discounts and packages. The buses run periodically, around 25 to 30 minutes, and you can get on any bus you like. You can spend 30 minutes at a location or 2 hours; you’ll just have to catch whatever bus is next. I highly recommend taking the HoHo, especially if you have limited time in a city. I’ll be taking a couple myself in 2 weeks on my east coast road trip!**
We rode through London on board a legitimate English double decker bus, something one must do when visiting London for the first time, and it took us to all the major landmarks and attractions, including but not limited to: the London Eye, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, Parliament, Piccadilly, and Westminster Bridge. As I’ve mentioned above, you can get off at any of these locations, and we chose to get off at the London Eye. This famous Ferris wheel – the 4th largest Ferris wheel in the world – sits right across and a bit down the river Thames from the House of Parliament and Big Ben. It’s within very easy walking distance.
We decided not to ride the London Eye, but rather take a mini cruise on the River Thames. The company we chose operates right in the same vicinity, so it is all very easy to do within an afternoon. It was a short trip for us, just from the London Eye to Tower Bridge (which everyone and their poodle mistakes for the London Bridge), because otherwise we’d be going all the way to Greenwich which meant a 3-hour round trip, so just be aware if you take this river cruise. It is a nice little boat ride, and you can either sit down below – inside the boat – or go on top and get a panoramic view of London. It can be a bit stuffy inside the boat, however; your other option is go to the top with no cover and melt from heat and humidity, sooo… Sophie’s choice there.
The next day was dubbed “Museum Day” because of the slightly ridiculous number of museums we went to: The Foundling Museum, the Charles Dickens House Museum, and of course, the British Museum. The Foundling Museum is geared towards the Foundling Hospital; built in 1741, it was the U.K.’s first children’s charity and art gallery. Located at 40 Brunswick Square, Bloomsbury, London, it’s open Tuesday – Saturday, from 10 pm to 5 pm, Sunday 11 am – 5 pm, and closed on Monday. It costs 11 euros to enter, which is $12.80 USD, and children are free.
It was meh.
To be honest, if I were to go back now, I might have a greater appreciation for the museum since I respect history much more now; however, at the time I was severely under-impressed. The content was simply not something I was interested in, and neither was most of my family (only my mother really enjoyed it). However, if you’re into music, then I suggest going here. The famous composer George Frederick Handel (of “Messiah” fame) was a benefactor, so the place is big on music.
After the Foundling Museum, it was a short walk to the Charles Dickens House Museum, which is a museum literally inside a house. Even though Charles Dickens and his family lived in the house for only 2 years (1837 to 1839), it has strongly clung to its claim to fame for the next 179 years. Probably the main reason the house is so famous is because he completed The Pickwick Papers inside the home, as well as wrote the entirety of Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby there, and worked on Barnaby Ridge before moving out. Located at 48-49 Doughty St, Holborn, London, the museum is open Tuesday to Sunday, from 10 am to 5 pm (**important note: the last admission to the house is at 4 pm), and cost 9.50 euros for adults ($11.06 USD), 4.50 euros for children ($5.24 USD), and children under 6 are free (although I wouldn’t recommend bringing a 6-year-old here; you’ll likely have one bored child).
Last but certainly not least on our self-imposed “Museum day”, was the grand and famous British Museum. Cost of admission is free, yes – free – so you can imagine what that means. Located at Great Russell St, Bloomsbury, London, it’s open every day from 10 am to 5:30 pm, but remains open on Fridays until 8:30 pm. It is home to the mystical and world-famous Rosetta Stone, and let me tell you, it’s popular. This museum was BY FAR the most crowded and overwhelming of the three, and the Rosetta Stone appeared to be the epicenter of the madness. It was damn near impossible to get close enough to even look at it, let alone take a decent picture. It’s surprisingly large and encased completely in (what I’m assuming is bulletproof) glass, and people are encircling it from every angle possible like vultures. Maybe we just got unlucky on that day and time and it’s not always so Hunger Games-ish, but I seriously doubt it. This is unfortunately part and parcel for famous and popular tourist attractions.
On top of the Rosetta Stone, we also saw Ramesese II statue, the Elgin marbles (breathtaking and beautiful), many Egyptian mummies – and the few Lewis chessmen not on loan to the Museum of Edinburgh. Of course, there is much, much more inside the British Museum but those are a few of the highlights.
That night, in a funny twist of life, we saw the play “Oliver” at the Royal Theatre Drury Lane in Covent Garden. While my American ears could only understand about every other word of the actors’ thick English accents, I thoroughly enjoyed the play. We were seated next to about 20 school boys and I was dreading it before the play begun. Some may take offense to this, but I honestly don’t care – growing up in America, as a culture we don’t teach our children’s manners, or at least we don’t teach them enough manners. It’s sadly commonplace for parents to bring children to plays, movies, or concerts, and allow them to cry, yell, talk, or be overall disruptive. This is not so much the case in England. These school boys were extremely well behaved, polite, respectful, and overall were a delight to sit next to! I’m including this because it has stuck with me all these years – the stark contrast in manners and attitude among American and English youth, and I strive to raise my child(ren) to be like the boys in that playhouse. All parents should as well.
The next day we headed off to Stonehenge, Salisbury Cathedral, and Bath, but since I already did (or will do) separate blogs on these places, there is no point in writing about them here. All I’ll say is I highly recommend going to all three!
I felt like my time in London was far too short than I’d have liked. There is just so much to see and do, it’s impossible to get the full experience in just 4 days. I’d love to go back and spend about 2 weeks there, while venturing off into the neighboring countryside towns and attractions. London has been getting a pretty bad rap these days, but despite any problems, I don’t think it should deter anyone from visiting this historic city. Just like with any major city – anywhere in the world – just remain vigilant and smart, and you’ll be fine. ‘Till next time, London Town!