I previously mentioned that my visit to Italy was my first experience planning a trip outside of North America. I realized that this was not completely accurate, as London, England was actually my first self-planned European vacation back in 2017.
My sister and I planned our one week getaway to the English capital when we saw a super cheap flight deal on WestJet. At the time, they were marketing roundtrip airfare to London Gatwick at about $500 CAD from Toronto. Granted this was in mid-January, but we still took advantage of the savings and had a nice little adventure.
Arrival in Paddington
We were on a red-eye flight that landed in the early morning at Gatwick airport. This was followed by a ride on the Gatwick Express train which brings you to London city centre in about 30 minutes.
We stayed at Tune Hotel in Paddington. This place has since been rebranded so I can’t speak to its current condition, but we enjoyed our stay at this budget accommodation. It cost us only about $80 CAD per night and was perfectly located near the Tube. I should mention that getting around London was super easy. We found the signage very easy to follow and the entire system really efficient. We purchased the visitor Oyster card and were able to refund our unused funds at the end of the trip.
Tea time at The Ritz
A trip to London would not be complete without the quintessential English experience, afternoon tea at The Ritz. This was a big splurge but we saved a little by attending the Thursday morning seating which they offer for 15% off. The food isn’t exactly out of this world, but we had a fun time pretending we were refined people.
What time is it, Big Ben?
After filling ourselves with scones and tea, we wandered over toward Westminster bridge for a view of Big Ben, the famous clock sitting at the end of Westminster Palace, and took some photos of the iconic site.
View from the London Eye
Next was a trip on the London Eye, Europe’s tallest observation wheel. It’s kind of a gimmicky attraction but just one of those things you keep on your to-do list as a typical tourist. We picked up discounted tickets via the Days Out Guide and took the ride up and around, which takes about 30 minutes. The view was foggy, but that’s London!
Passing by Buckingham Palace
Following this was a walk past Buckingham Palace. The Queen was in-house at the time so we weren’t able to see much more than the gates and courtyard. You can indeed tour the royal palace, but it is open to the public for only a couple months of the year between July and October.
Fine art at the National Gallery
After watching the palace guards for a while, we headed over to the National Gallery, the home of over 2300 classic paintings dating from the mid-13th century to 1900.
A magical day with Harry Potter
This day was my sister’s dream come true as a Potterhead. We booked a visit to the Warner Brothers Harry Potter studio which included a coach bus ride to Leavesden from London. On arrival, they gave us a short spiel about the movie making process and then we were allowed to explore the sets.
My favourite bit was checking out the miniature Hogwarts.
We goofed around doing our own re-enactments of a couple scenes, drank some Butterbeer, and then caught the bus ride back to London.
In the evening we had dinner at a cheap conveyer belt sushi place which isn’t worth writing about, and then stopped over at the Sherlock Holmes Museum for a brief look around.
Prisoners and jewels at Tower of London
We started our day with a big brunch at Beany Green. The service was a bit spotty but food okay. Then we headed off to spend our afternoon at the Tower of London. This is a historic castle located along the northern bank of the River Thames, perhaps best known for its infamous use as a prison in the 16th and 17th centuries for such notable figures as Elizabeth I, before she became Queen.
Today they have a number of exhibits there, including the popular Crown Jewels (no photos, unfortunately).
You can also get a view of the famous Tower Bridge from the castle grounds. This bridge is such an iconic symbol of London that it is often confused with London Bridge, which is in fact located about a half mile upstream on the River Thames.
An evening in the West End
After our Tower tour, we spent our evening around the West End theatre district. On the way, we passed by Chinatown which happened to be in celebratory mode on account of the Lunar New Year.
We were able to secure tickets for Comedy About A Bank Robbery at Criterion Theatre. We spent only £13 each for orchestra level seats by purchasing from the TKTS booth in Leicester Square. Our seats were discounted as they were partially obstructed, but I actually had an effectively full view of the stage. The seats were also separated, but this wasn’t a big deal to us, as we were able to meet up during intermission anyway. I can’t recommend this play enough. It was so funny and probably my favourite thing we did in London.
Searching for Indian food
There is a lot of great Indian food in London. It’s the birthplace of butter chicken, after all. We had heard about a popular restaurant called Dishoom so tried to go there for dinner after our night at the theatre, but the line was huge, so we deferred for lunch the next day instead. This place was pretty good and in fact has been ranked one of the top restaurants in the UK for several years, with 6 locations around England and Scotland.
Exploring the British Museum
Following lunch, we went over to the British Museum. This was apparently the first established national public museum in the world. Entry is free and we occupied a couple hours there.
Potterheads at Millennium Bridge
In adherence with my sister’s Harry Potter obsession, we had to make a stop at Millennium Bridge, which is featured in a scene in one of the movies. Interestingly, this bridge was shut down two days after its original opening in 2000 due to an alarming swaying motion noted by pedestrians attempting to cross it. Over the next two years, multiple modifications were made and it reopened in 2002.
Modern art at Tate Modern
We crossed over and took a wander around Tate Modern, the contemporary art museum. I do have a thing for weird art, so quite liked this place.
London is a great city and I’m sure there’s a lot more to see that we missed. My wish list for future trips:
- More sun. January was a perfectly fine time for us to visit because it still beat the harsh Canadian winter we were coming from, but it would be nice to visit again in the summer months.
- More food. This wasn’t a foodie trip at all, so I’d like to return for a proper gastronomic exploration. The Fat Duck is on my bucket list.
- More England. Stonehenge and Bath are a couple other places on my travel wish list, and are doable as day trips from London.
Until next time, then.
Original post 04/03/2019 | Updated 01/12/2019