I’m back from my six-day vacation in London! And what a wonderful six days they were. This is going to be a long post, but I hope it will be useful (or at least interesting!) to y’all and at the very least it will serve as a trip diary of sorts for me. But first, the finances. My total trip spending was approximately $720 USD, which is less than 50% of my originally planned $1,500 budget. All the expenses I’ve incurred in London I have in pounds (currently £1 is $1.68):
Total Trip Spending:
- Airfare: $250 (plus 60,000 United miles)
- Hotel: I stayed with a school friend.
- Food: approximately £100 (£16-£17 per day), or $170
- London transportation: £70 – £25 is the total amount I put on my pay-as-you-go Oyster Card. There is still a good £5 or £6 left on it. I took the tube from Heathrow Airport to my friend’s place, but splurged on a £45 mini-cab service on my return back to Heathrow.
- Attractions, tours, entertainment: £35. I LOVE LONDON for its myriad of free or incredibly low-cost museums and attractions. I purchased something at the gift shop or the café or purchased a fee-added tour at every museum, because I want to support these institutions in the little ways I can.
- Shopping: £35. I bought some vintage scarves on sale for myself and friends and got a hostess gift for my friend whom I stayed with.
After getting in around midnight and then going to be at 2am the night before, I woke up at 1pm, a sad cry from the 9:30am I set my alarm to. I walked past the famous Brick Lane Market (it looked a little too crowded) into the Spitalfields Market. In one of the stalls I bought a very delicious, extremely buttery, slice of “twice-baked banana bread” and then found this incredible set of London landscapes, all reasonably priced at £25-£50 (self-control exercised, did not purchase).
Then I went to a falafel chain restaurant. Moments after I sat down and unwrapped my falafel sandwich, the sky darkened and started pouring rain. But it was all for the best because I struck up a conversation with a local. After the rain let up a bit, he offered to show me around. And because this is the sort of thing you can do when you are traveling alone, I said, sure, why not. And so I spent the next 2 hours on a personal tour, walking through the Smithfields Meat Market (incredible Victorian architecture for a meat market), passing by the famous Gerkin in the City, looking up at the golden dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, stopping by the edge of River Thames and even finding an old-fashioned red telephone booth for me to take an unabashedly touristy picture in.
That night, my friend and I went to a little noodles place not far from where she lives, and we met up with one of her friends who is an expat lawyer in London. I enjoyed my £8 dinner.
Again, woke up around 11:30am. I quickly got dressed and got over to the Tower of London, where the queues never stop. From 12:30pm-5pm, I walked the Tower grounds. Entrance cost £19.50, and included a few free tours inside the Tower. The much-publicized Yeoman Warder’s tour was great, despite the… 60+ person tour group. I saw the Crown Jewels, spent a lot of time in the White Tower, visited the spot where Anne Boleyn (mother of Elizabeth I) lost her head, and came very close to a Tower Raven. Those creatures are HUGE. Then I came back home – with a pit stop to a Pret-a-Manger to pick up a sandwich on the way – to get ready for an evening reception held by my alma mater (in business casual! I wore my tango heels because I didn’t want to pack another pair of shoes). That evening, I munched on grapes and marmalade and listened to a professor share his thoughts on China’s geopolitical future.
I woke up a little earlier than previous days and was out the door by noon. I caught the underground to the British Museum. I didn’t do much there, except sit around a bit and visited the Money and Clocks/watches exhibits. For some reason, I didn’t quite feel in the mood to visit the British Museum in much depth that day. So around 3pm I went east, to the Geffyre Museum, a museum dedicated to the home and décor of England’s urban middle classes, from the 1600s to the present. I only had an hour to spend in the museum before it closed, but I promised myself I’d come back before I left London. I had a good hot chocolate and a scone in the lovely café/conservatory that overlooks the Museum gardens (£4.95).
Dinner was a Masala dosa from a local curry place (£5.99).That night I went to a tango class and milonga (£10), and danced a few times with some very, very exciting gentlemen (who in addition to being fantastic dancers were also very smart dressers). During a break from dancing I met a lovely lady who used to be a hairdresser but gave up that profession to teach and dance tango full-time. Tango, it’s serious business!
I got to Westminster Abbey around 11:15am and saw that the scheduled tours with the vergers were at 2pm and 2:30pm. So I decided to return for the tour, and instead spent the few hours in between walking around St. James’ Park, known for being the smallest, but apparently most beautiful, of the royal parks. Saw some royal pelicans royally lounging in the sun. If I had walked just a little further I could’ve seen the Buckingham Palace, but laziness (and hunger) won out. After a lunch of spaghetti, scone, and tea (£9) at the Central Hall Westminster, I returned to Westminster Abbey for the verger’s tour. This tour costs £3 in addition to the £18 admissions ticket, but it is so, so, so worth the money. Photography is not allowed inside the Abbey, so all I can share are some of these outside shots.
Westminster Abbey is probably the most incredible building I have seen in my life to do. It is simply amazing, and it almost boggles the imagination that a building erected in the 1200s is still standing today. I was fortunate to have a more senior verger to lead our very small group of 6 or 7. As part of the tour, we visited the Chapel of St. Edward the Confessor, where the tomb of Henry III (the king who started building the present church) and several other kings and queens were kept.
I left the Abbey around 4:30pm and walked towards the British Academy, past Trafalgar Square, with a short stop in Pret-a-Manger for a buttery pain au raisin (Only £1.40! I love Pret-a-Manger’s – I’ve scarcely gone a day in London without going into one for a snack or a sandwich.) The British Academy is housed in just a lovely building tucked in a smaller street from the Square… I wish I could have taken a tour of the house. I sat in on the Changing Face of Value, a panel discussion on technology, material culture, and changing values. The panel was interesting, but what was even more interesting was the reception afterwards. There were some nuts and olives prettily presented in small white bowls, and servers circulated with glasses of juice and wine. Mind you, this was all FREE. I started chatting with an older gentleman at the reception, who turned out to be a professor of organizational research. He was a pleasure to talk to and we exchanged cards and said we’d stay in touch. These British Academy lectures and panel discussions are open to anyone, free of charge. All you have to do is to make a reservation via www.britac.ack.uk/events. Highly, highly recommend.
A rare, sunny day with no hint of rain. I was out the door by 10 minutes past 11am and started the hour’s walk toward Victoria Park, London’s oldest and largest public park. I was a woman on a mission – to get a meat pie from The Ginger Pig, which Timeout London has specifically highlighted as the thing to do. Some parts of the walk were very lovely – I passed by Regent’s Canal (look at those cute little houses with balconies facing the canal!), but the meat pie itself was thoroughly disappointing and not worth the £5.50 I paid.
To appease my disappointment, I took the tube to the British Library. In the café area I got a hot cup of tea, a good scone, jam, and some delicious, thick Jersey cream for £3.95. I also went on a tour of the Library (£8), and then spent an hour strolling around the Treasures room, where there lay TWO copies of the Magna Carta. Around 7pm I met up with my English friend whom I met my first day in London and then we went to a Pakistani restaurant, Tayyabs, where I dug into lamb chops, lamb sausages, lamb Karachi (love lamb!) and all sorts of accompaniments. I paid for dinner as a thank you for him taking me around London the first day (£35).
My last day in London! I had an early breakfast with a former classmate near the Lyseum Theatre. He generously paid. Afterwards, I went to Sir John Soane’s Museum for a little bit (£5), then I strolled around the Covent Garden Market, where I heard a delightful quarto of violinists and a cellist (I gave them £5). I was feeling hungry, so then I headed back to the Geffyre Museum in East London, where after a stroll around their herb and period gardens, I enjoyed a nice little lunch in the conservatory: tea, scone with cream and jam, and salmon finger sandwiches. SO GOOD, and only £7.95! I discovered that the Victoria & Albert Museum is open late on Fridays, so back on the tube I went to South Kensington. I wandered around the museum for a bit (my favorites, of what I’ve seen, are the jewelry gallery and the antique stained glass gallery). After I picked up a gift for my friend who hosted me, I rode the tube back.
Perhaps it’s because I was traveling alone and not with CB, or perhaps because London is a place I am likely to return to for work or personal reasons, I didn’t feel the pressure to see everything, or even everything that a tour guidebook says a week’s worth of itinerary should include. I didn’t make it to the National Portrait Gallery, or Buckingham Palace or Kensington Palace or Shakespeare’s Globe. I didn’t want to travel outside of central London, so there goes Hampton Court Palace, Kew Gardens, Bath or Cambridge (upon reflection, I probably should have tried harder to go to Hampton Court Palace). I didn’t even have a proper English afternoon tea – my friend wasn’t feeling well before our planned tea date, and I figured there’s no point in spending £25 on tea by myself. I’ll save those attractions for next time. On the other hand, I thought I did a couple of really interesting things that perhaps most tourists don’t often have the chance to. Making a new friend and getting my own personal tour of London and the City was serendipity, but I also had a very nice evening at the British Academy, and my night at the tango milonga made me more determined to dedicate some serious time to this craft once I got back to the States.
Mostly, I woke up very late, went to one or two attractions a day, ate scones with loads of butter and cream and jam, drank tea, and walked. I must have walked 2-4 miles every day. No wonder people in London are so svelte despite all that scone and cream and jam! Walking was a wonderful way to see the city (when it’s not raining), and see the juxtaposition of the old and the new. In the evenings, before bed, I would read the Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie mysteries on my Kindle, and feel a tiny jolt of excitement every time I read about a street or an underground station that I now recognize.
P.S. The word scone appeared in six times in my recap. This was a very good trip.