Sunday, March 5, 2017

Favorite Moments Around London

London is massive, and with so much to see, it's important to prioritize and plan. My mom and I are list-makers, and had come up with a massive list of everything we wanted to see and do while in London. However, after our first day we realized that wasn't going to work. Many of the experiences we wanted to have were more than just, "Walk by and snap a picture" experiences, and they were spread out all over the city. Sitting down with a physical map, finding everything we really wanted to see, and linking places that were close to each other helped us to make a more do-able itinerary that still allowed for aimless wandering through the lovely city.

More than anything, my trip to London was special because it was spent with my favorite people in the world. Can you believe that it was our first real vacation as a family since 2010? Our first trip together as adults, and it was spectacular. As incredible as it was to see everything, my favorite times were all the little moments; sitting at the table with my mom, pouring over a map in an intense research session; my dad coming back from his morning adventures laden with coffee and treats; taking a quiet nighttime walk along the river; waiting with my sisters before getting into the London Eye. Those little moments are going to stick with me forever!

My favorite people

That said, though the options are endless, and there are some sites we just didn't have time for, our four days were packed and full of London excitement. Our itinerary was as follows:

Day One 

Big Ben and Parliament

Our first day in London was spent acquainting ourselves with our neighborhood, and exploring some of the cities most iconic sights. Where better to start than with Big Ben!? Interestingly, what most of us call "Big Ben" (the bell tower/clock) isn't actually Big Ben- Big Ben is the name of the bell! The clock tower is called Elizabeth Tower. Somehow, it doesn't have the same ring to it.

Westminster Abbey

It started drizzling as we strolled around parliament, so we hopped into line at Westminster Abbey. At £20 each, the price of admissions was a little shocking at first glance (especially since there were five of us). However, when you consider the history that has taken place there, the astounding architectural achievement that went into it's creation, and the effort that's needed for the upkeep, it doesn't seem too unreasonable. Once inside, the abbey was visually overwhelming. Every angle was fighting for our attention; look up for arched ceilings and stained glass windows, look down for the burial stones of artists, authors, and other figures who have shaped Britain's culture. The ornately decorated walls have seen coronations of royals since 1066 (most recently, Queen Elizabeth II in 1953), and sixteen royal weddings since 1100 (most recently Prince William and Princess Kate in 2011). They hold the remains of King Henry III, Queen Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scotts (whom I ADORE due to the amazing show Reign), Charles Darwin, Sir Isaac Newton, and memorials to Jane Austen, Lord Byron, and Martin Luther King, Jr. 

The most touching memorial was the tomb of The Unknown Warrior, which brought me to tears. Thinking about all who are lost in war, and the idea that any family who lost someone could imagine it held their loved one, is just so moving. 

Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace has been the official residence of Great Britain's monarchs since 1837 and is just as grand as you'd expect. The wrought-iron gate that surrounds the palace is decorated with the royal coat of arms, which has both a lion and unicorn on it. As someone who is always on the hunt for unicorns, that was extra exciting. During my trip to Scotland, unicorns were on EVERYTHING in Stirling Castle, which I've learned is Scotland's national animal... so I'm assuming the lion stands for England, the unicorn for Scotland. We did not see the changing of the guards, but did spot a few of the fuzzy-headed queen's guard men marching slowly around the yard. We couldn't imagine actually living somewhere so huge- it would be so difficult to find anyone!

Day Two

The Tower of London

I've always loved reading historical fiction, and Tudor/Elizabethan England were my introduction to the genre. My mom has the same literature preferences, and has absolutely devoured every book she's found on that time period. Needless to say, the London's rich history completely fascinated us. We spent a morning on a self-guided tour of The Tower, which I somehow hadn't realized was absolutely massive. The main "tower" was a pretty quick stop, but it took us at least three hours to navigate the nooks and crannies, exhibits, and passageways of the immense complex. Arrive as early as you can, as this is a huge attraction and can get busy quickly. 

Though horrified that my girl Mary (Queen of Scotts) was imprisoned here for the last years of her life, we were enthralled by the daily life in the castle. You could see graffiti painstakingly carved into the walls by medieval prisoners, and walk through exhibits depicting the exotic animals that once stayed in the different rooms (one of the kings had a pet polar bear). I wish so badly that I could time travel and just observe how people lived- but only if it was guaranteed that, 1) I would NOT be a peasant (that life was tough), 2) everyone would like me/not behead/imprison/torture me, and 3) I could come back. My dad always loves seeing the old weaponry and armor, so we both loved/were disgusted seeing the battle gear. 

When we first arrived we were told that the room holding the Crown Jewels had closed, which was really disappointing. Luckily, it opened back up because OH MY GOSH, they were truly inconceivable. I've seen what I thought were big diamonds, but those on the crowns were so enormous, so sparkly... they truly need to been seen to be believed. Beyond just the jewels themselves, some of the tableware was also on display. There was a giant, pure gold, castle-shaped figure that particularly intrigued me. I couldn't figure out what it was, but eventually read that the extravagant, multi-drawered, multi-tiered sculpture was for salt. That's what they kept their salt in. Like, to sprinkle on their food... The sheer opulence of that room was staggering. 

Also, there are ALWAYS at least six ravens at The Tower. They're a little bit gross and scary, and eat 170g of raw meat ever day, in addition to biscuits soaked in blood. Yuck! I had no idea how big they were, either- these are pretty huge birds! Apparently, legends say that at least six ravens need to be at the Tower at all times. If they were ever to leave, the Tower and the kingdom would fall. 

Leadenhall Market

The next stop on our journey was Leadenhall Market. Though it was completely lovely, I had been envisioning more of a "market," full of stalls and vendors. Leadenhall is a Victorian covered market, is similar to Milan's Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, or Brussels' Galleries Royales Saint Hubert. Though we didn't make it to the Warner Brother's Harry Potter Studio (there was so much else to see!), Leadenhall is a destination for any Harry Potter fan, as it was the filming location for much of Diagon Alley's outdoor shots. There is a distinctly Gryffindor atmosphere, as the two stories of shops and restaurants seem to glow red and gold. 

Our visit coincided with Storm Doris, a super intense windstorm that ravaged Great Britain, and blew us around like crazy. As we contemplated where to go after our stop at the market, a gust of wind like I've never felt before swept through the cross of halls, sending chairs (and nearly us!) tumbling away. When I was little, I had this fear that if winds ever were at more miles per hour than I weighed in pounds, I'd blow away. My fear resurfaced, as the wind was so intense that it pushed and pulled at us to the point where we could hardly control how we moved! That said, we stopped for lunch there in an attempt to wait out the wind. 


The part in "Parent Trap" when Annie's mom asks her if she wants to spend the day getting lost in Harrods has had visions of a maze-like store swirling in my head since I was 9. Harrods in reality did not disappoint. This was probably the only part of the trip where my family and I split up to explore. I spent a good part of an hour lost, trapped in the never-ending home decor and furniture floor, mindlessly walking from one perfectly decorated room to the next. If you're interested in seeing the one-of-a-kind shopping center, my favorite parts were the food halls and the Egyptian escalator. Both are worth seeing, even if you don't plan on dropping thousands of dollars on designer clothes. 

Day Three

The London Eye

To be perfectly honest, the Eye somehow hadn't made my list of top London priorities. Being up that high sounded terrifying, and it's a more recent attraction, so I hadn't really thought much about it. But while I might not have been dying to travel to the top of the 443-foot Ferris wheel, it was at the top of both of my sisters' lists. I'm not sure if it was arriving right at the time it opened, or if it was the fact that we hadn't pre-booked tickets, but we waited for a VERY long time. The lines were constantly moving, but the entire experience (from arriving at the Eye to getting off at the end) took us at least 2.5 hour. Hopping into the moving "bubble" was pretty scary, and I definitely made every effort not to look straight down. Yet once we were looking out over the Thames, down at Parliament, Big Ben, and the rest of London spread out beneath us, the fear and the wait were definitely worth it. 

Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square commemorates (what else) The Battle of Trafalgar, and is full of monuments and sculptures. We loved the lion sculptures, and were hoping to get a touristy picture with them, but the platforms they sat on were much higher than they appeared! A group of French girls had the same idea, and hoisted each other up, taking photos one at a time. When they saw us struggling, the came rushing over and lifted my sisters and I up (with a "un, deux,  trois") so that we could all get one together! You've gotta love the kindness of strangers!

Covent Garden

Covent Garden is what we were hoping we'd find when visiting Leadenhall. The roads leading up to the market are full of tiny gift, book, and antique shops, and quaint pubs. We happily strolled along the sunlit paths before finally arriving at the Apple Market, the center stalls of another covered shopping center. The stalls were bursting with artwork, crafts, and flowers. Everything from paintings to jewelry, stone tiles, to hand-knitted hats called out to us. The shops themselves were darling as well; we spent time finding gifts and souvenirs, and browsing through an Alice in Wonderland themed tea shop. We loved the area so much that we returned for dinner that night!  

Day Four

Notting Hill

For our last day, we journeyed out to Notting Hill to visit the Portobello Road Market. Oh my gosh, it was the antiquing and vintage shopping heaven! The darling area is documented in the Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant film of the same name, and the market is actually one of the most popular in the world. While I read that the market varies from day to day, and there is always a variety of stalls to browse, Saturday is the most popular day to visit for both locals and tourists. I can easily see why, between the vibrant vintage goods, lovely ceramics, talented street performers, and more.

Some Things to Eat

I've always gotten a kick out of the names of some of London's popular dishes, but man oh man, Bubble and Squeak is like pierogies turned into mashed potatoes. If you're ever in London, some must-tries are: 
  • Sunday Roast
  • Yorkshire Pudding
  • Fish and Chips
  • Bubble and Squeak
  • Sticky Toffee Pudding
  • Mushy Peas
  • Curry
  • Bangers and Mash
  • Any sort of savory pie

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