(I went to London, for work, back in 2015, and then I wrote about it, for work, also back in 2015, but then the post never got published, and so I am putting it here, now, in 2017.)
When the opportunity arose to travel to London to spend some time working with our England-based Local Expert team, I jumped at it. I’d been to London a couple of times before, but never for longer than a weekend, and felt like I still had a lot of the city left to see. I knew that I’d be at the office during the day, but figured that I’d still be able to squeeze in some sightseeing and exploring in the off hours. Fortunately, with some pointers from friends and the travel-loving crew at Local Expert, I made the most of my six days in the English capital, and I made it out without buying one single “Keep Calm And” souvenir.
I landed in Heathrow after a (thankfully) direct overnight flight from Seattle, touching down mid-afternoon and breezing through customs. British customs agents are so polite! I’d booked a ticket for the Heathrow Express in advance and saved it to the Passbook on my iPhone, so once I’d grabbed my bag, I made my way straight to the train. Since I was doing my best to avoid international roaming charges, I was pumped that both Heathrow and the Heathrow Express offer free Wi-Fi. This meant that I could map out exactly where my hotel was while I was on my way into the city, making it very easy to decide that no, I would not be walking there from Paddington Station and yes, I would be taking a taxi. Also: British taxi drivers are so polite!
Like the Golden Gate Bridge’s “International Orange,” the color of British telephone boxes is officially standardized as “currant red.”
After a quick shower and a change of clothes at the hotel, I figured the best way to battle the jetlag haze and keep myself awake was with a long walk, so I took advantage of the blue skies and set out to explore the city on foot. I firmly believe that there’s merit to getting lost when in a new place, and I wasted absolutely no time in doing just that. I got very, very lost. Fortunately, London has really convenient map panels all over the place, so you can get your bearings and get an idea of what there is to see within walking distance. There are also Wi-Fi hotspots all throughout the city, which meant that when I got really desperate to know where I was, Google maps on my iPhone was always available. That first afternoon, I wandered south from Russell Square to Covent Garden, where I was only a little bit surprised to see the long line snaking out the door of none other than a Shake Shack. When I was there, the 19th-century covered market space was filled with glowing white balloons, an installation by French artist Charles Pétillon. It was very pretty, so, naturally, I Instagrammed it before moving on.
Eliza Doolittle, the heroine of My Fair Lady, sells flowers at Covent Garden.
I wandered down to the Thames, crossed the river, and checked out the food trucks and carnival games along the South Bank next to the London Eye. Then I looped back up by Parliament and Big Ben, walked through St. James’ Park, and passed by Buckingham Palace, which I had only seen before when I watched the televised wedding of Kate and Will (yes, I watched that).
The London Eye is the successor to London’s Great Wheel, which spun visitors in sightseeing rounds from 1895 to 1906.
Big Ben is actually the name of the bell itself, not the clock tower.
In Victorian times, this area—known as Shad Thames—was London’s largest warehouse complex. Today, they’re flats, and I want one.
Here is me awkwardly taking a selfie in front of the Tower Bridge. When alone!
By law, hackney cabs (at their origin), were required to be tall enough for a passenger to sit inside while wearing a bowler hat.
St. James’ Park is the oldest of London’s eight Royal Parks.
Despite my sleepless stupor, I managed not to get hit by a car one single time, even though it is very disorienting that they drive on the other side of the street, and I kept myself awake until a reasonable bedtime, finally lulling myself to sleep with the British equivalent of an HGTV one-day home makeover show. British television is so polite!
Evidently, the British drive on the left as a holdover from the times of knights, who wanted to keep their right hands free for swinging a sword at a moment’s notice.
Sunday morning, I ambitiously pulled out running shoes and set off in the direction of Kensington Gardens. Here’s the thing. I love Seattle. I think we have beautiful parks. But there’s just nothing that comes close to the sprawling greenspace of a royal park, with its fountains, and rose gardens, and manicured hedges, and gilded entrance gates—not to mention the palaces. The parks in Europe have actual palaces in them! I’m telling you, nothing will get you motivated for a long bout of outdoor exercise like being able to do it beneath Kate Middleton’s window.
Kensington Gardens covers almost 300 acres in the heart of the city. It’s home to a statue of Peter Pan, since author J.M. Barrie was inspired by the park.
After leaving the gardens I walked up Oxford Street (one day I will return and shop in you, Selfridges) and found myself on Marylebone High Street. If anyone knows how to pronounce that, I will give you the remaining pounds in my wallet as a prize. Mary La Bonne? Marley Bone? Utter mystery to me, but this neighborhood totally charmed me: beautiful Victorian architecture, sweet cafes, authentic-looking pubs (though what do I know, really), and interesting boutiques.
The Marylebone, known for its botanicals-infused cocktails. I just liked the paint job.
I window-shopped my way down the lane and, in on-point Seattle style, I picked up a £7 green juice before heading back to the hotel.
A recent study found that 28% of Americans think that green juice is scary looking.
Another fun thing about England is that their English is not the same as ours. Here is a word that I learned just by looking at street signs: mews. Mews (noun): a row or street of houses or apartments that have been converted from stables, built around a yard or along an alley.
I looked up a home for sale in the Warren Mews and it rang in at a cool £2.8 million, NBD.
This lovely little pub is on Warren Street, which is not a mew.
Fortunately, I arrived back just in time for pub time. During my week in London, I learned—no surprise here—to really love pub culture. It seems like at any time of day, there’s a whole cross-section of the population gathered around a table, sharing stories over a pint. Naturally, this was a social practice I could get on board with. Also, I certainly don’t want to deride an entire culinary genre here, but I will say that pub food is a little bit like eating off of a kid’s menu… and you’re probably best off ordering the items that most closely resemble kid’s menu staples (think fish and chips and burgers), or sticking to beer-friendly snacks like peanuts, “crisps” (love that), and pork scratchings or pickled eggs (for the daring traditionalists among you). I’m totally content with beer and fries, don’t get me wrong, but let’s just say that if you order shrimp scampi, don’t expect sautéed gambas with garlic and white wine.
London boasts no fewer than 4,500 pubs and bars. Also, this is shrimp scampi.
One thing that I noticed is that a lot of the pubs seem to be chains, even if they’re in historic spaces. The giveaway is the Chili’s-esque signage outside, advertising menu items on laminated, colorful plastic. It’s worth doing a bit of investigating to find less corporate watering holes if you’re looking for a real authentic atmosphere, but when it comes down to it, even the chain ones each seem to have their own charm, and (Seattle microbrew fans forgive me) beer is beer, right? Oh, and pro pub tip: you order at the bar. You don’t just walk in awkwardly and then grow increasingly uncomfortable as no one seats you or takes your order. You definitely don’t do that.
Of all the fine British drinking establishments we frequented during the week, my favorite was The Easton, not far from Expedia’s offices in the Islington district. Worn wood tables, plush seating, and big windows perfect for watching the rain fall while discussing the true meaning of the word “cheeky,” which is, according to this US English-speaker, very much still TBD.
This struck me as very funny.
Before the workweek kicked into full gear, we took a day trip out to Oxford, which may just have the loveliest nickname of any place I’ve ever been: The City of Dreaming Spires. For a copywriter and a content editor, this was the perfect pilgrimage: my favorite comma bears this city’s name! Our day started at Paddington Station, where we met up with our guide near the Paddington Bear statue (worth a visit just to watch all the adorable little kids come pose for pictures) and hopped on the commuter train out to Oxford. It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again: train travel in Europe is fantastic. It’s fast, clean, convenient, cheap, and you can quite literally kick back, relax, and take in the scenery as you roll toward your destination. It was rainy in Oxford, but it kind of added to the ambiance as we followed our guide around the cobbled streets and through the campuses of some very elite and very Harry Potter-esque academic institutions. The lunchroom (hahaha) in Christ Church was just one Sorting Hat and some floating candles away from being Hogwarts, and the courtyard was used in the filming of The Golden Compass. I didn’t see the movie, but I did read the books, and have to say I approve of their choice of shooting location.
Oxford actually keeps its own time, given that it’s technically, geographically 5 minutes behind Greenwich. This is the Tom Tower, which you might recognize from The Golden Compass if you saw that movie. I did not!
The dining halls of University of Chicago and Cornell are both reproductions of Christ Church’s dining hall.
Our guide took us to some neat spots that we probably wouldn’t have discovered on our own, including a 13th-century pub called the Turf Tavern that’s tucked away down two discreet alleyways, just outside the original medieval city walls. As a life-long book nerd, my favorite stop on the tour was the Bodleian Library. Here, standing in the hushed, centuries-old courtyard, we were on top of a repository of more than 11 million books, since as a legal deposit library, Bodleian is entitled to a copy of every single printed work published in the United Kingdom. Wild, right? The tour was the perfect length, and by lunchtime we were on our own to explore and hop on the train at our leisure. Naturally, our literary mission continued with lunch at the Eagle and Child, where J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis used to hang out and talk story with a group of friends they called “The Inklings.” Best group name ever, am I right?
Bodleian is one of the oldest libraries in Europe, housing works since 1602.
Apparently, nicknames for The Eagle and Child include “The Bird and Baby” and “Fowl and Fetus.” You pick the most appetizing.
We got back to London around 2:30 PM, which left a short window of time to fit in the last of the sightseeing I wanted to get done. Most London attractions close by 5:30 or so, meaning that weekday sightseeing was pretty much going to be a no-go. I was really torn between a visit to the British Museum and the Tower of London; I’d heard rave reviews about the former, but the latter had been at the top of my list ever since I saw The Tudors (<3 Thomas Culpepper <3) and read The Other Boleyn Girl. Since the British Museum was closest to my hotel, and since the afternoon was ticking away, I opted for the British Museum. Unfortunately, given the rain and the free price tag, a lot of other people did, too. I made it through a few exhibits before abandoning and sprinting to the tube to make my way to Tower Hill.
Sculptures in the entrance of the British Museum.
The London Underground is really easy to use, especially if you’re a little bit familiar with other metro or subway systems. I found it less complicated than New York’s, with lines and directions well-marked throughout the stations. This was good, because I was down to about an hour to get to the Tower of London, buy my ticket, and do a speedy visit of the grounds. I don’t necessarily recommend doing the Tower of London in 40 minutes or less, but I will say this: it can be done. I jogged along the ramparts, whirled past the Crown Jewels, saw the spot on the Tower Green where Anne Boleyn and company lost their heads, walked up the White Tower, and saw the river-level Traitor’s Gate, the watery entrance that required unfortunate prisoners to pass beneath the spiked heads decoratively adorning the London Bridge. I was surprised to see that the Tower of London is more than just, well, a tower; it’s a whole castle complex, and you can see what was added onto and changed over the centuries. Had I gone earlier, I would have loved to do a Yeoman Warder tour, because I hear they’re great, and because they have literally been giving tours of the Tower of London for centuries, so I’m assuming they’ve got the spiel down pat by now. A polite and friendly cab driver also told me that the Ceremony of the Keys, which takes place at the Tower every evening, is very worthwhile, though you need to request tickets way in advance. Alas! Next time.
The Tower of London from outside the moat.
The Tower of London from across the Thames.
This suit of armor belonged to a Renaissance-era bouncer, probably.
The White Tower, the central tower and old keep of the castle, originally built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century.
A very pretty window in a very fearsome place.
For the rest of the week, we walked every morning the mile and a half or so from our hotel to Expedia’s Angel office—after, of course, enjoying a full English breakfast at the hotel. There are some things about English breakfast that I could really get on board with (roasted tomatoes are delicious with eggs, and there is nothing wrong with English breakfast tea), but let’s just call it like it is: beans and blood sausage are not topping most Americans’ lists of longed-for morning fare. A couple mornings during the week, I got up early and jogged over to Regent’s Park. In case I didn’t wax passionately enough about English parks when I talked about Kensington Gardens, let me do it here: Regent’s Park is amazing. Amazing! There are rose gardens. There are fountains. There is a pond with swans and draping weeping willows whose branches dip down into the still water. There are leafy plane trees and expansive lawns that, as the sun rose, were shrouded in mist. Particularly early in the morning, when the paths and trails were mostly empty, it was magic.
Queen Mary’s Gardens are home to London’s largest rose garden, with approximately 12,000 roses.
Until 1649, Regent’s Park was a hunting ground known as Marylebone Park.
More ugly park scenes.
Here’s the thing, though: jet lag is no joke. After sleeping soundly my first two nights out of, I think, sheer exhaustion, I was wide awake at 2:30 AM the morning of my first day in the London office. I read. I worked. I Googled “stretches to make you fall asleep immediately,” all to no avail, which made for a couple of serious afternoon slumps. Fortunately, it’s entirely socially acceptable to drink caffeinated tea non-stop in England, so I powered through and resisted the urge for post-work naps with more walking. One night, to avoid falling asleep at 7 PM (when I really really wanted to), I looked up London yoga classes and landed on something called Rocket Yoga that I’d never heard of before. I read about it and, seeing it described as “going stratospheric” and “rebel yoga” and having “a fun factor [that] appeals to laidback Londoners”, I decided: why not? A little intimidated, I signed up online so I would have to go or forfeit the fee, and then made my way to the studio in the dark, looking longingly at all the Londoners huddled in the warm glow of neighborhood pubs as I walked past. There’s not much of a climax to this story, other than that, yes, it was hard, but, no, it wasn’t ridiculous, and I’m now a big advocate of trying out things like unusual fitness classes while on vacation. You learn something, you stay active, you get out of your comfort zone, and you work off a bit of that restaurants-only eating regime.
Speaking of restaurants, during the workweek, most of our lunch breaks saw us landing at Prêt-à-Manger, a chain of take-out eateries as ubiquitous in London as Starbucks is in Seattle. Usually when I’m in new places I prefer to find smaller, less generic places to eat, but Prêt (yeah, we’re on a first name basis now) was quick, right across the street from the office, and offered a ton of really great, healthy options, so I was able to balance out my evening diet of Guinness and fries with some green things at midday. We did wander down a couple of days to the Exmouth Market, which I highly recommend if you find yourself in Islington. This pedestrian street is lined with cute boutiques and restaurants with outdoor seating, and during the day, street food vendors set up shop, selling everything from samosas to hummus and salt beef sandwiches to risotto. Go at night and check out the bar above the Exmouth Arms Pub, where the bartenders can craft a cocktail tailored to your liking.
Exmouth has been a marketplace since the 1890s, and draws its name from this pub.
Porchetta is not a typically British dish, but it is an entirely acceptable lunch at Exmouth Market.
There are a handful of things I would have loved to do while I was in London. Some of them are fairly standard (see a show in the West End, tour Hampton Court Palace, do a Jack the Ripper walking tour on a rainy night) and some I recognize are kind of weird (I’m fascinated by miniatures so Queen Mary’s Doll’s House seems like a thing I could get into, and I would like to take a picture at Platform 9¾ and no, I’m not sorry). I’d really like to explore some of London’s great restaurants; since I’ve never been a very brave solo diner, making reservations for one wasn’t something I worked up the courage for this time around. And a visit to see the eccentric curiosities of Sir John Soane’s Museum—in the evening, preferably, by candlelight—is something I’m not skipping on my next visit. Until then, I’ll just have to content myself with watching BBC series on Netflix (hello, The Fall, and Luther, and Broadchurch) and heading out for a pint or two anytime I wish I were back in the Big Smoke.
Piccadilly– not an actual circus!
London, like most cities, is home to pigeons.