From Hyde Park to Hampton Court.
Now that the after effects of jetlag are wearing off and I'm not staring at my ceiling bemoaning that it's 3:30 am, why am I awaaaaakeeeee I can finally get down to business and talk about my trip to London, which was the first proper international vacation my boyfriend and I have actually ever taken.
London is a city with a long, varied history; it's one of the oldest cities in the world really, going back to Roman times when it was called Londinium, but it's history as a settlement is very likely far older. It's stood through Celtic times, Roman occupation, Anglo-Saxon rule, the Normans, the Vikings, and an enormous set of ruling dynasties and disasters. The city as it stands now looked fairly modern at first blush, but if you look closer you see it's a veritable patchwork of its own history.
Near Tower Hill and around that area are the preserved ruins of what remains of the Roman wall. Next to this is the Tower of London itself, built in the 11th century, standing formidable and stark white. Back then, it was the largest building in what was a small, basically rural village. Within the Tower are the expanded areas including one of the few surviving Tudor structures, the Queen's house. There's the touches of Baroque with the beige and sand colored buildings sprinkled throughout, the dark red practical brickwork of the Victoria era...all knitted together with the oh so modern glass and steel wonders like the Shard and the Gherkin building.
London is a very large city alive and pulsing, with something for everyone, and runs in an efficient, almost clockwork fashion indicative of its industrious nature. From the numerous small grocery shops and sandwich shops to the ever ubiquitous Pret a Mangers, this is a city on the go that also offers it's fair share of entertainments with numerous theaters (especially in the lively West End/SoHo/Covent Garden area), museums, shops, historical attractions, lively bar and restaurant scene, and more.
This is going to be a LONG post, FYI, and I'm going to make our day trip to the Cotswolds and Paris into separate posts.
Where We Stayed
We stayed at the Hilton London Hyde Park hotel on Bayswater Road, located at the northwest corner of Hyde Park. The hotel itself is a smaller Hilton, with a very small elevator and while the King room itself wasn't too bad, the bathroom was pretty small. Still, Hiltons generally have fairly nice bedding and we ended up with a mini-fridge and a decent amount of space to toss our suitcases.
The best part of this hotel, though, is location. It's right across from the northwest entrance to Hyde Park (the Kensington Palace/Gardens side) and next to the Bayswater tube station that services the Central line. It's also a block or two over from Notting Hill, about a 15 minute walk from Portobello Road Market, a little further around the corner up two blocks or so is also the Queensway tube station which services the Central and District lines, and the hotel is only about a 16 or so minute walk from Paddington station. It's also, for London, in a relatively quiet street front. It's proximity to the Tube is really excellent, and all three nearby lines service along a lot of where you'd want to go in the city and if not, easily can connect you to the other lines.
Seeing London by foot is one of the best ways to take in the city....but it's also a very big city and in reality you probably don't want to wear yourself out too much. Luckily, London has one of the best and most efficient public transportations systems (TFL) that I've ever used, and I say this having grown up not far outside of NYC. Options to get around include: the Underground aka Tube, Overground, National Rail, Bus, Thames Ferry, black cabs, and even bicycles for hire. We used the Tube and buses a lot. Overall, once you get your bearings using London public transport, you will find it's very, very easy to navigate.
There are two options you could use if you plan on using public transport- the Oyster card and Travel card. Oyster cards are tap-and-touch cards that are pay as you go and top off as needed. Travel cards are for certain fixed amount of days at a fixed price with unlimited uses within the time they're valid. My suggestion is this- if you're only going to be visited for 4 days or less, get an Oyster card (there's about a $5 deposit to get the card but it's refundable when you turn it back in). If you're going to visiting 5-7 days or longer, get a Travelcard. Both will work on the Underground, Overground, and Bus. We chose to get 7-day Travelcards for both of us since we figured we'd use the buses and Tube a lot to get around.
Now comes a handy Pro-Tip about Travelcards: If you're traveling in a group of 2 or more and are planning on visiting a few attractions, get a National Rail Travelcard. These are paper travelcards that are different from the Underground Travelcards that get loaded onto an Oystercard. With National Rail Travelcards, you can use the 2-4-1 Vouchers for hundreds of attractions. You can get National Rail Travelcards at National Rail Stations throughout London such as Paddington Station, just make sure you go to a station owned by National Rail and ask for a Rail one, not Underground. 2-4-1 Vouchers will not with Underground cards.
Two more Pro-tips here- currently, you need to present a passport sized photo if you're getting a 7-day Travelcard, but this can be printed on regular paper. It's easiest if you take a photo at home that's about 2"x2" and bring it. Additionally, you will want to print out the 2-4-1 Vouchers at home before you arrive. Rail stations run out of vouchers very quickly, and if you print them at home the info is already on them rather than you having to fill them in.
There's a couple of apps I downloaded that made getting around even easier- Citymapper , which can help you figure out best way to get from point A to B, TubeMap, which has a map of all the Tube lines, can show you the best routing from point A to B in real line, updates on Line Status and more, Busmapper, which works like TubeMap but for buses, and Kabbee, the app for London minicabs.
Seeing the Sights
Since this was our first time in London, I might have gone a tad overboard on planning an itinerary to see all the things. These are major things we saw and did:
Hyde Park- after arriving and finally getting into our hotel room, we unloaded and walked through part of this vast, beautiful park. I read a lot of historical fiction set in London, so for me it was a kick to see the Serpentine and Rotten Row in person. It's a beautiful, leafy park that I want to spend more time in next time!
Constitution Hill/Buckingham Palace- At the southeast corner of Hyde Park it becomes a short walk over to Green Park where you pass by the impressive Wellington Arch and follow along the leafy path to Buckingham Palace and the Victoria Memorial monument.
Piccadily Circus- London's equivalent to Times Square, Piccadily Circus is a neon-lit crossroads full of posh shops, bustling activity, and a few great hidden gem restaurants nearby, like Bocca di Lupo.
Oxford Street- lined with a mix of posh and high street shops, this is a very touristy road but also a good place to do some shopping if you don't mind crowds. I'd suggest taking a diversion around the corner from this busy road and visit Liberty, a beautiful department store that's been around since the late 19th century and has a charming Tudor-style front. They have a really nice assortment of skincare and beauty, and I picked up a large bottle of Pixi Glow Tonic, Emma Hardie Moringa Cleansing balm and a few other nice bits and bobs from here.
The Tower of London- In which the history nerd in me intensely fangirled over the rich and lengthy history of this impressive site. Built in the 11th century, it was a residence of kings for 600+ years and in it's near 1000 years of existence, it's almost a shame it's largely famous for events that only happened in about a twenty-year span there, but then the execution of three queens is hardly an unimpressive blip in history.
Borough Market- this large outdoor market has been around since at least the 13th century, and ended up being one of my favorite places in London. Also £3 sangrias to go, don't mind if I do! No really, you can get sangria, spritzer, and in colder months, mulled wine. There's a small Monmouth Coffee shop nearby, where they make excellent coffee hand-pour style. We got some amazing gnocchi at the La Tua Pasta stall and enjoyed some of the many free samples throughout. There was a truffle balsamic vinegar glaze at one stall whose name sadly escapes me that was heavenly. This is, to me, a must-see in London and absolutely on full market days (Thurs-Sat). It gets pretty busy around lunch time, but it's worth it. This was the last place I ended up wanting to go before we left London, funny enough. If you do visit, definitely try a pie from Pieminister. I had the Moodog (steak, bacon, and ale) and it's was pretty legit.
Westminster- We didn't end up having time to go to Westminster Abbey, but we did take the bus from the market to the London Eye stop and walked over the bridge to catch the lovely view of Parliament and Big Ben. It is a pretty impressive sight in person. The Gothic spires and detailing are very lovely to look at and it was cool to hear Big Ben chime on the hour since it's such an iconic sound.
SoHo/Trafalgar Square- SoHo is the hip, lively neighborhood on the West End that's very clearly a theater area. We stopped at Bar Italia to people watch as Anthony Bourdain recommended in The Layover, and ducked into Foyles bookstore, which is a great shop for book lovers. We also headed over to Trafalgar Square, which is a nice spot of architecture as a landmark, commemorating the Battle of Trafalgar. I love the quatrefoil design of the fountains and it was a nice place to just sit and kick back. It's definitely one of the great examples of the patchwork of London history.
Neal's Yard- A famously colorful stretch of alley on the fringe of Covent Garden, this is a very cute set of shops tucked away from busy streets and home to the famous Neal's Yard Dairy, a cheese lover's dream. We got a nice wedge of super sharp cheddar here that I took with us along with some crisps as a snack for when we went out to the Cotswolds.
Other than that, there was a lot of walking around and due to timing, negotiating plans. We ended up not being able to go to Shakespeare's Globe, Camden Market, or Hampstead Heath due to timing, but I felt we overall got a good sense of the city and things to do. Even though I wore myself out taking in everything, I felt very at home in London and it was great being able to buy Walker Crisps and my beloved, delicious Tropicana Multivitamin juice.
October ended up being almost a perfect time to go; it's less busy, it didn't rain much, the autumnal colors were beautiful, and mulled wine! Seriously, that wine though!
I might have the opportunity to go again next September with my boyfriend if he ends up on a work trip there, and next time around I think I'd definitely take a much more relaxed pace and make any plans as they come that day. He wants to check out some of the museums next time, so it's nice a lot of them are free.
Overall, London is a great city worth visiting, and if you can go, do.