I adore London. To me, London has always been a bit like Disneyland. It was a place from the movies that had been on my bucket list ever since I can remember. Not to mention, there is something a bit magical about the city. When you arrive, you are immediately surrounded by the beautiful accents, black cabs, and red phone booths, and you feel like you are walking into a movie. This is my second time to this city and even after two trips here, there is still so much more I need to see and experience.
I flew in from Turin on Monday midday, but somehow didn’t get to my hostel until late afternoon. First problem, I flew into Gatwick Airport. Although fantastic because of the cheap flights in and out, Gatwick is a ridiculous trek from the city. After spending 30-45 minutes for passport control, it still took about 25 GBP (about $40 which also covers my roundtrip), a tram, two trains, a bus, asking a local for directions, and 3 hours to find my hostel. Needless to say, I was very happy to have a beautiful day in London.
I have been staying at the Wombats London City Hostel and I couldn’t recommend it more highly. This is one of the nicest and cleanest hostels I have stayed. I am in an 8 person room and have met really cool people. I know sometimes it can be nerve-racking to be in a gender mixed dorm room. However, keep in mind when booking that paying a bit more for higher security, location and cleanliness ratings is what other people are paying for as well. Often times this can mean a room of like-minded travelers. I got this room for about 30 GBP a night, which in London is a steal. Not to mention I am less than a 5 minute walk from the Tower of London and Tower Bridge.
My first night I knew I wanted to spend seeing a show on the West End (London’s Broadway). When traveling to London, much like New York City, take advantage of day of or lottery tickets at the theaters. This can be an amazing way to see high price shows for little money. Take the time to do your research before to make sure the company you are buying from is a legitimate company and not scalpers. There is a great booth in Leicester Square that sells mostly half price tickets, so that was my beeline after settling in.
I had a few shows in mind, but was really looking for one of the cheapest ticket knowing they would all be amazing. I ended up going with a half-price ticket for 25 GBP (about $35) to a show called In the Heights. As is most every theater person in America, I am obsessed with the new Broadway show Hamilton (if you don’t know it, Google it and listen to the Spotify album now it’s incredible). The genius, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the book and lyrics for Hamilton, also wrote In the Heights. I was even more excited when I found out the show was at King’s Cross Theater.
The King’s Cross Theater is a stage built around an extra track of King’s Cross Station. It only holds about 900 people but feels like it’s only 300. The actors are only feet away in this intimate setting, especially with the audience sitting on either side of the stage/train track. It was a theater unlike anything I have ever seen. Not to mention, the show is absolutely incredible. A bunch of Brits doing Puerto Rican accents was a little funny, but the songs and book of the show stands on its own. I highly recommend it.
Tuesday was one of the most beautiful days in London. Perfect day to start off with another free walking tour. Check London off my list of Sandeman’s Tour cities! In about 3 hours we had walked everywhere from Covent Gardens to the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace to finishing at Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Again an impressive expanse of information and a great way to see a big part of a giant city. This tour’s guide was a historian by profession and could tell a story like you wouldn’t believe. He did an awesome job of telling history that other tours don’t, so that you are really learning new things.
After the tour I was starved. Misjudging time and the fact that it would take 3 separate tube lines to get me to the start of the walking tour, I had completely missed breakfast. Wanting to keep it quick and inexpensive, I stumbled on a really cool store called Eat. They are all over London and are basically lunch counters. The shelves are filled with sandwiches, salads, drinks, and sides. Pick your preference, bring it all to the counter, they will heat the sandwiches up and make you tea or coffee if you choose before you are on your way. It is delicious and very reasonably priced. I even went back to lunch the next day as well.
After lunch I walked to the London Eye. This is something that has been on my bucket list since I can remember, and especially after watching a special on it during the 2012 London Summer Olympics. A gift from my mom (because for a 30 minute ride on a glorified Ferris wheel, it is not a cheap activity), I had my ticket in hand and was bursting with excitement. I entered the ticket shop and went to ask a man if I needed to pick up a paper ticket instead of my voucher, and if I could stand in line early before my 3:00pm ticket was valid. Barely even looking at my ticket, he told me to follow him. He led me into the fast track line, whispered to the man at the gate and let me by. I got to skip the entire queue and enter a pod within 10 minutes.
The Eye is so cool! Each pod can fit up to 25 people, but are usually only filled with 16-18. Entering at the bottom, your full rotation takes only 30 minutes, but the views make it all worth it. To sit and watch it work is really quite amazing. Different from a Ferris wheel, hydraulics move the connections around your pod as you move around the wheel. Therefore, you never feel like you are moving, unless the wheel stops for someone at the bottom that needs assistance. I have never been so high and felt so safe. It was one of the most incredible experiences.
I spent the rest of the afternoon following one the routes on the hop on hop off tour, just listening to the guides. The last time I came to London I did the bus tour with The Original Company and had a great experience, this time I decided to try another company and went with Golden Tours. You get more for less on Golden Tours, however, I think I would still recommend Original. Golden Tours, I paid only 22 GBP for a 48 hour pass on 4 different routes, access to 2 walking tours, and river cruise on the Thames. However, there are only live guides on one of the routes and the buses do not come more than once every 30 minutes. Overall I highly recommend a bus tour for London because everything is incredibly spread out and it is most often cheaper than the tube, and more fun.
Dinner was at a grocery store near my hostel. In England, I have found the same meal deal as in Edinburgh of a sandwich or wrap, chips and a drink for 3 GBP. It is a great dinner for incredibly inexpensive, which is always a plus in London. I spent the evening in my hostel meeting friends and working. Truthfully, I have been using the few nights here in London to decompress and unpack my trip. I am still coming to terms with the idea that soon it will only be memories.
Wednesday was my last full day in London, but was surprisingly relaxing. I started the morning at a café in the shadow of the Tower of London, with a full English breakfast. It was interesting. Okay, let’s just be real about British food, there isn’t a lot of flavor there and they traditionally eat a lot of weird things (Sorry mum). Breakfast was a cup of tea (awesome), an egg, “bacon” (really ham), a sausage link, a hash brown, grilled tomatoes, black pudding, beans, mushrooms and toast. Overall, not bad, but one of those things since I have tried it I now never need to order it again.
The rest of the morning and early afternoon, I spent on the buses. I stopped at an Eat to pick up a sack lunch of sorts and plopped myself down on the longest route, the one with a live guide, and simply enjoyed. I learned so much about the Queen and battles, not to mention really fun things like about Mad Hatters. Did you know the glue hatters used to make hats had enough mercury in it that after prolonged exposure to make people go mad? Case in point, the Mad Hatter of Alice in Wonderland.
I rode the line around to the Tower of London and spent my afternoon there. This would be the one thing in London that I recommend the most. If you pay to do one thing in London, pay to go in the Tower of London. Take the free tour with one of the guards to begin. They happen every half hour and are a great way to get all the history and a lay of the land. Our guard/guide was hilarious and so smart.
The Tower of London is actually a castle looking thing in the middle called the White Tower, where the monarchies used to live. That is surrounded by castle walls that are also towers and residences. This is where they kept prisoners before torturing and killing them. Around that is a moat and an outer defense wall. Today the tower houses the crown jewels, an armory museum, and many other exhibits about torture, prisoners, and the royal heritage.
After the tour, I went straight for the crown jewels. They are magnificent. They could absolutely replace them with fakes because you sit in front of them in utter disbelief. They amount of rocks glittering at you is incredible. It is hard to believe that people wear these on their heads. One diamond is the size of a small fist, and just for good measure is surrounded by 57 emeralds, 48 rubies and about a million other diamonds. Its jaw dropping.
After the crown jewels, I spent about an hour and a half walking through exhibit after exhibit. They covered everything from a history of armor and artillery to the royal families that lived there to all of the torturing and beheading that had occurred. It is an incredibly creepy place, and one that is difficult to believe is not a movie museum or something.
This evening was another grocery store dinner and packing to go home tomorrow. Although there will be a whole reflection post tomorrow, I can say that I am really having trouble processing it. It feels as surreal that I am going home to the USA tomorrow, as it did when I landed in Reykjavik a few short weeks ago. After this trip there is no doubt in my mind that this is what I was made to do. As I say goodbye to the last city, I know that I will be back soon. There are so many adventures waiting for me around the world, and so many foods to taste.
-The Very Hungry Traveler