Date of Trip: January 2003
I celebrated my 20th birthday with a whirlwind weekend in London. I was studying at the University of Glasgow at the time, so a bunch of us traveled by train from there to London on a weekend in January. We all shared a room at the Atlantic Paddington (a pretty average hostel — reasonably clean, no apparent curfew, free breakfast, decent location near Paddington Station).
Day one was definitely the busiest. We took the Tube pretty much everywhere, starting with Westminster, where we got our first glimpse of the Thames, the Houses of Parliament, and Big Ben. Then we walked to Westminster Abbey to see that — lots and lots of graves and memorials, basically. There was some cool architecture though, and I really enjoyed Poets’ Corner. One of my friends got yelled at by a guard for taking a picture…FYI, that’s not allowed!
After that we headed over to Buckingham Palace to take a quick photo and then strolled through St. James’ Park (very green even in January, as all of the parks we saw there were) en route to Trafalgar Square. Of course we took the requisite photos with the lion statues at Trafalgar, though I had no idea they were quite so high — a fellow tourist actually had to shove my rear end from below to boost me up onto the statue.
I’m embarrassed to say we grabbed lunch at a McDonald’s (no defense except that we were looking for something cheap) before making our way by Tube to St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was absolutely gorgeous. We had to climb more than 500 steps to get all the way to the top. On the way you could stop on various levels; at the first level you could look down over the inside of the church, while the second and third levels were both outside on the edge of the church’s famous dome. For a while there I didn’t know if my friend and I were going to make it up that last set of stairs, a flimsy-looking spiral staircase through which you could see an awfully long way down. Scary! But it was worth overcoming my fear of heights to see the views over the city from atop the dome.
Five hundred easier steps down and we were on our way across the Thames over the Millennium Bridge on the way to the Tate Modern, which all of us agreed was an extremely ugly museum — it’s actually a converted power station. By that point we were so exhausted and our feet were so sore that we couldn’t really appreciate the art, so we didn’t spend too much time there.
We had dinner in this little patisserie/cafe near Oxford Circus (I love the word “circus” for a big intersection!) and wandered through the Soho area and saw Piccadilly Circus (the latter looked a lot like Times Square to me, probably just because of the huge TV screen flashing ads). We ended up at the Maple Leaf, a Canadian bar where we met up with some other members of our group.
We slowed down a little the next day. One friend and I got up early for a rainy walk through Kensington Gardens/Hyde Park and then took the Tube to the Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, both of which I really enjoyed. In the Tower we spent a lot of time ogling the Crown Jewels, which are insanely huge. There’s actually a little moving platform that takes you through the exhibit (kind of like the ones in airports), and I think we got back on the platform two extra times so that we could drool over the shiny stuff some more!
We met another friend in Notting Hill. After a bit of a crisis over a missing cell phone, we went exploring that neighborhood a bit (street vendors and cute, colorful houses). We spent so much time in Notting Hill that we didn’t have time to see the National Gallery, which was my only regret during the whole weekend. Instead we grabbed dinner before going to the Royal Festival Hall for Mahler’s Third Symphony. (Hurray for student tickets!)
We had one more half day before our train back to Glasgow, and we spent it at the (enormous) British Museum — saw the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin marbles, of course, but there’s so much other amazing stuff there too. We also breezed into Harrods just to say we had — it was just a prissy, overpriced department store, though the gourmet food there looked pretty amazing. Then it was time to go back to Glasgow.
Of course, two and a half days is not nearly long enough to see all of London (try two and a half years!), but we had fun playing tourist — and it was a perfect birthday present to myself. Hopefully I will get back there someday for a longer visit.