Author: Adrienne L.
Date of Trip: April 2014
“Where do I begin to tell the story of how great a town can be”?
This variation on the opening lyrics to the song “Love Story” definitely describes our experience as first-time visitors. We had heard that London is one of the world’s most visited cities, and it didn’t take long to find out why.
We arrived at London Heathrow airport early on a Monday morning and were immediately swept up into the pace of this bustling city. We felt like VIPs when our smiling driver, who displayed our name on his iPad, loaded us into his BMW sedan. He whisked us through the morning commute traffic, telling us the story of how he and his family had moved to London from Romania. He gave us a mini-tour of the city as he took us to our hotel in the Kensington district. Our hotel was the Holiday Inn Kensington Palace. It was a good mid-range hotel with small rooms and very small closets. The onsite restaurant served a good buffet breakfast. The hotel is frequented by tourists and business travelers and is functional, if not fancy. The hotel staff was friendly and provided good customer service. Since it was too early to check in, we stored our luggage and struck out to acquaint ourselves with the city.
You’ve probably heard the adage, “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping”. That’s exactly what we did. We hopped into one of those famous Black Cabs and headed for Harrods, the world’s most famous upmarket department store. To describe it as massive would be an understatement. It boasts floor after floor of wonderful merchandise; from the scandalously expensive to the delightfully kitchy. The store personnel were quite helpful and gave us much-needed maps of the store. The highlight for us was visiting the Food Halls – several massive rooms chock full of beautifully displayed food from all over the world. Choices included meat pies, seafood, cheeses, charcuterie, desserts, olives, pate, caviar and much more. We wandered from room to room snapping pictures and looking every bit the tourists that we were. I can still vividly recall the delicious aromas that emanated from the freshly baked pastries.
After leaving the Food Halls we visited the Egyptian Escalator with its beautiful Egyptian artifacts. It is also the location of the memorial to Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed, since Dodi’s father, Mohammed Al Fayed, once owned the store.
As we returned to the hotel, we noticed the beauty of the Kensington and Chelsea districts. The architecture of the homes is charming, like something out of a movie. There are also many little parks and green spaces.
After checking into the hotel and resting a bit we began making dinner plans. We wanted our first meal in London to be at a traditional English pub. Our hotel concierge was quite helpful and suggested Bumpkin Pub in South Kensington. It was every bit the charming establishment that we had hoped it would be. It was warm and welcoming with a cozy atmosphere, cold Guinness and of course fish & chips. The food was just OK and I must admit that I have had better fish & chips in San Francisco. But it was a nice experience.
The next day began bright and early with a short tour of the city that included St. Paul’s Cathedral and watching the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. St. Paul’s Cathedral is a beautiful structure and Sir Christopher Wren’s design is awe-inspiring. It was amazing to walk where Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer were married. Since it is in such a busy area of the city, it was interesting to watch all of the Londoners and tourists dashing to and fro. During the noon hour, many people sit on the expansive front steps to enjoy their lunch. Dining choices in the area are plentiful and we ate at a tasty little Japanese noodle house on nearby Paternoster Square.
Changing of the Guard – Although I had seen it on television, I was not fully prepared for this amazing ceremony. There were literally thousands of people who had come to see it also. Besides people, the front of Buckingham Palace was filled with rows and rows of beautiful flowers. Also in front of the palace is St. James Park, a huge public park with acres of lush green grass, verdant vegetation and peaceful ponds. It is also a good place to find public restrooms. Luckily our guide had the bus drop us off at the right time and guided us to a great location. We saw the St. James Palace detachment march, along with the excellent band up to Buckingham Palace where the change actually occurs. The Guardsmen were resplendent in their red jackets, black slacks and bearskin hats. However, since the temperature was in the 70’s I can imagine that they were quite warm. But the Changing of the Guard is British pageantry at its best.
On Wednesday we spent the afternoon at the Tower of London. For an English history buff this is a magical experience. It was amazing to actually walk where these famous people lived – and died. It is much more than a tower, it is a walled city. Like other attractions it was filled with tourists. It is well laid out and easy to navigate. Even with the throngs of people, it never felt crowded and the lines moved constantly and smoothly. The Beefeaters are readily available to help with directions and offer information.
One of our favorite areas was the Wardrobe Tower, which is FULL of weapons of every description – battle axes, swords, muskets and full coats of armor – all artfully displayed. Touring the Wardrobe Tower requires lots of walking. The entrance is located at the top of a steep staircase and once inside there are 3 more flights to climb since the weapons are displayed on different levels. Please note that once you enter, you must tour the entire tower – there is no turning back.
The highlight of the tour was viewing the Crown Jewels. It is difficult to find the words to describe these opulent riches. The size of the jewels alone defies description. But there are also cases full of the dishes, utensils and even the elegant robes used at coronation. There are no pictures allowed, but none are needed. Those sights are unforgettable.
No visit to London would be complete without a cruise on the Thames River. For just a few Euros, you can ride one of these open-air boats and enjoy the sights of London as you sail by. There is a guide who narrates the tour and describes each iconic building. Our cruise ended at the London Eye, another London must-see. Although the line was extremely long, it was worth the wait. Each of the pods holds approximately 25 people. Note, that the ride is constantly moving, so when it is time for you to step onboard, you need to move quickly. Since we were there at sunset, the views of the city were spectacular.
Although we were only in London for a few days, it impacted us greatly. The food scene, like the population is very diverse and goes way beyond what has been referred to as “traditional English fare”. It is a fast-paced city, full of life – and traffic. But taxis are plentiful and public transportation is easy to navigate.
Our time in the city was much too short and we look forward to returning to continue our love affair with London.