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Time Well Spent in London

London is a remarkably easy city to navigate, which, coming from me, is saying something because I’m so directionally challenged that I can’t find my way around the city I grew up in. Many of the most notable monuments and attractions are within easy walking distance, but even when walking isn’t the best option, the city has the best public transportation. The buses and the Tube are splendid and are such a part of the history and flavor of the city that using them is almost an attraction in and of itself.

The iconic red double decker buses are still seen trundling through the streets accompanied by their more environmentally friendly single-decker electric counterparts making the bus a great option to get around the city and still see what’s around you. The Tube is faster, and while it lacks the views of the city, each station is uniquely decorated in styles influenced by the history of the building, the lines serviced at the station, and nearby notable locations. Baker Street, for example, has a Sherlock Holmes theme, with tiles featuring the silhouette of the detective with his deerstalker hat and pipe.

I adore taking the Tube. It’s like magic: you go down some stairs or an escalator in one part of the city and a few minutes later you pop up somewhere else entirely! It’s like a Star Trek Transporter, but instead of risking your atoms getting scrambled, you get a tame roller coaster ride (tame because it doesn’t do loop-the-loops; it still goes fast, and sometimes there’s screaming, but usually that’s just the wheels on the tracks on some of the older sections of line. It’s not usually the passengers. Usually.)

As much as I love the Tube though, I didn’t want to spend our whole trip inefficiently zooming back and forth across the city. I wish I could say I just looked at the map and made a perfect itinerary, but it took some research and note pages and a shared Google doc and several categories of pins on Google Maps and a big document in the new Freeform app on my computer (which worked pretty well for this kind of brain storming, up to a point) before I eventually just wrote the names of each attraction on a post-it note and physically grouped the ones that were geographically close to one another. Then I fit each clump of notes onto a blank day to create an itinerary. My desk made me look a little insane by the end of it, but it really turned out better than I expected.

There is so much to see and do all over London that it’s almost too easy to fill a whole day in such a small area and far too easy to overcommit yourself. It’s like the travel equivalent of a Thanksgiving dinner where you want to try a little of everything, but it’s all your favorite things, and you end up in a food coma because you didn’t want to miss out on any of it. I’m not an expert or a super traveler or anything like that, but maybe someone out there is looking for ideas to make the most of their time in London, and if that’s you, here are some sample days. They’re labeled by the day we did them, but almost all of these things are open and available every day of the week (or very nearly).

Victoria Embankment, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre Tour, Borough Market, Seven Dials Market

We hopped on the Tube Tuesday morning and headed to Embankment. In our excitement, we exited at a different tube stop than we really meant to, but this is the Bob Ross Happy Little Accident of London travel: “Oops, we’re a few blocks away from where we meant to go, but look, it’s a compact T.A.R.D.I.S!” We strolled along the Victoria Embankment toward our intended destination and stopped to admire Cleopatra’s Needle, a 3,500 year old Egyptian obelisk that was discovered lying on its side in the desert and was brought to London and set up alongside the Thames with plaques detailing its discovery, the process of getting it to London, and the names of the men who died on that perilous journey. The obelisk is flanked by two large bronze sphinxes. The sphinxes and the plinths sport ragged scars, damage from a bomb dropped by the Germans in 1917.

We continued eastward along the Thames and visited St. Paul’s Cathedral, admiring its ornate carvings and painted dome. The architectural style of St. Paul’s, designed by Christopher Wren, is grand and ornate. With its round arches and iconic dome, it reminded me a lot of the Missouri Capital building (but that’s almost certainly less familiar to anyone who stumbles across this blog). Kalen was also surprised at the number of tombs in the crypts below the church (that is, until we went to Westminster Abbey the next day!). If you really want to save money, you can attend worship at St. Paul’s on Sunday mornings at no charge, but we opted to go the paid sightseeing route to avoid any inadvertent disrespect on our parts.

Fitting in some bonus sightseeing, we took the short walk across the Millennium Bridge (or the “Wobbly Bridge” after some unnerving swaying when it opened; it’s very stable now, though) to Shakespeare’s Globe for a tour of the theatre. (It kind of interrupts the flow of the narrative, but we actually went to the Globe before St. Paul’s to get tickets for our tour, and then returned when it was time, and you definitely get your tickets in advance like this to avoid disappointment.) We had seen one of the final showings of The Tempest the week before, but the theater was now in between seasons and while our guide gave us a lively glimpse into Shakespeare’s life, we got to watch some of the theater’s crew working on breaking down the set from The Tempest to prepare for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which would be opening a few weeks later. Because it’s a working theater, tours often happen around maintenance and watching this work felt particularly special to us because we both took stagecraft in highschool, and might not have met without it.

Around the corner from Shakespeare’s Globe is a small monument to the site of the original Globe theater, and while there isn’t much to see, it’s worth a look if you’re there and already in a Shakespeare state of mind. Then just a little further is the Borough Market, one of the oldest food markets in London, with a food market of some kind or other on this location since 1016. It’s a large semi-open air market with a wide variety of vendors selling both whole, cooked meals and individual ingredients. Sometimes I walk through a bustling arena such as this and it’s simply too much; I become overstimulated and begin to shut down, but there were so many wonderful sights and smells all around me that it overwhelmed the overwhelming and it balanced out to delighted wonder. We shared Dosa Chaat from an Indian street food vendor, a pastry from a bake stand, and a bowl of Greek olives sold by the scoop out of large wooden barrels.

Walking through American malls with kiosks of people rabidly trying to sell you garbage has gotten me in the habit of fastidiously avoiding eye contact with vendors unless it’s on my terms. My defenses were rendered useless by the cheesemonger, though, who politely offered, “Would you like to sample this gruyere?” “Gruyere, you say??” I did a stupid-looking double take as she proffered a toothpick with a morsel of my favorite kind of cheese (I would never last as a mouse). She then shared with us a few other gruyeres, pointing out the differences in flavor that came from the herds being a different altitudes and regions. We purchased a small portion to take back to the apartment for a later snack and were relieved that even though the description sounded like the fanciest cheese we’d ever encountered (sourced from a single herd that lives near the French-Swiss border), it was very reasonably priced.

On our way back to our AirBnB for the evening, we visited another market, not as close by, and with a very different (but still fantastic) vibe: Seven Dials Market.

Seven Dials Market reminded me of the San Pedro Square Market we visited in San Jose in that a former warehouse had been converted to a hip and fun food court atmosphere. Seven Dials Market is in an old banana warehouse, which influences the themes of the decor in the common spaces and a few of the individual vendors (I don’t want to admit how long it took me to get the name of a drinks vendor, “Bar Nana”). The market also boasts a strong commitment to the community. In addition to offering resources for food startups and giving street food vendors a permanent place of business, the market uses no single-use plastics, is powered by renewable energy sources and turns food waste into biofuel. There are also a ton of really fun food options here including Pick & Cheese, a cheese conveyor belt featuring British cheeses and specialty pairings, and Boolay, which magnificently combines a fresh creme brûlée into a crepe that has been rolled like an ice cream cone. So much fun!

Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, Wellington Arch, Hyde Park, Marble Arch, Oxford Street, China Town, Book of Mormon

We went hard on Wednesday, but it didn’t feel hard (even though I got 22.4k steps that day). We took our time, leisurely strolling through the city from site to site, and it was the kind of day that could have been sped up with public transportation or even a hop-on-hop-off bus tour, but the weather was almost as beautiful as the city, and you see so much more when you slow down to walking speed.

We started at Westminster Abbey, arriving just before opening to join a moderate but not daunting line (this is definitely one of those sites you should visit first thing in the morning if you don’t want to drown in a sea of tourists). This imposing gothic cathedral is very important to both the crown and the nation in general and is the burial site of more than 3,000 people, including Sir Isaac Newton, Queen Elizabeth I, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, and Stephen Hawking. It has also been the site of the coronation since 1066. And because we were visiting a mere two weeks before Charles III’s coronation, we got to see some interesting “behind the scenes” preparation including astonishing amounts of gilding and a glimpse at the preparations being made to the Coronation Chair.

From Westminster Abbey we walked to Trafalgar Square to admire the great bronze lions at the foot of Nelson’s column and eat a sandwich by the fountains. We also watched a minor drama unfold as one street performer set up her karaoke kit to begin singing and aimed her speaker directly at another street performer who was dancing and had definitely been there first. She sang loudly and off key with songs that didn’t go at all with what he was dancing to, and eventually he just packed up and left, which was unfortunate because his dance was much more enjoyable than her singing. Just sayin’.

Next we walked to Buckingham Palace, just to say we’d seen it. The palace is only open for tours for a brief time in the summer, so I’ve never been in. The outside really isn’t all that much to look at, as far as palaces are concerned, but the statute of Victoria out front is pretty impressive.

We continued our journey toward Hyde Park, but the entire bottle of water I had had with my lunch was catching up to me and, as it was included with our London Pass, we decided to stop at Wellington Arch to see if we could use a bathroom. Wellington Arch has an art gallery inside, but unfortunately no restrooms. Since we were there, we climbed the arch to enjoy the view from the top, but the current art exhibit wasn’t to our taste, and since there was no toilet, we quickly descended again. I asked the receptionist, who had previously told me there wasn’t a restroom, where I might find the nearest public toilet. She clearly didn’t understand the urgency (even though I was asking her about a toilet for the second time in ten minutes) because she said, “It depends which direction you’re going.” I wanted to tell her, “I’m going whichever direction takes me to the closest public toilet,” but I politely listened to her vague directions before we ended up buying a coffee at a cafe in Hyde Park so that we could use their toilets, which really is a vicious circle.

After walking through Hyde Park, enjoying the sunshine, flowers, and water fowl, we admired Marble Arch (which is similar to but definitely different from Wellington Arch; Europe just really likes its stone arches) and then walked down Oxford Street toward Oxford Circus and then down Regent Street to Piccadilly Circus. Oxford Street is marketed as a shopping district, which isn’t wrong, but it’s mostly international shops that you can find anywhere, so it’s also pretty widely acknowledged as a tourist trap. We did duck into a Waterstones Bookstore, though, which had at least six levels, and if I thought just being in London made me happy, being in an enormous bookstore in London was somehow even better.

Our plans for the evening were a West End show, so after looking around atPiccadilly Circus just long enough to say “yup, saw it” (it’s another touristy area that is mostly just busy for busy-ness’ sake) we diverted into Chinatown to find something to eat before our show. At a little Chinese bakery, we purchased a bottled milk tea, some kind of chicken roll, and a pandan roll. Every food establishment in London was very upfront about potential allergens, so every item was labeled with a list of ingredients, which I really appreciated. The chicken roll had some finely shredded chicken baked into a lusciously soft onion bread, and the whole thing was much sweeter than we expected, but was very tasty. We had also purchased a pandan roll for dessert, but I think the chicken roll was actually sweeter. We had only ever had pandan before at the big Vietnamese festival hosted in our neighboring town each summer, but it’s lightly sweet, almost vanilla flavored and gives baked goods a beautiful pastel green color.

As we had experienced with Shakespeare’s Globe, we were visiting between seasons for a lot of the productions doing shorter runs, which limited our choices a little, but there are so many more permanent shows installed in the big theaters that we still had a hard time choosing what to see. Of course the really buzzworthy show is Hamilton, but it didn’t feel right to be an American in London watching a show about America’s founding fathers. We also looked to see if there were any shows with any actors we would recognize from television and movies. The only one we recognized was Arthur Darville, who played Rory Williams on Doctor Who for several years. We thought it might be fun to see him, but he was in Oklahoma! and again, while it’s a fine show, it didn’t seem right to fly all the way to London to watch a musical about the dusty state we live 30 minutes from in real life. We ended up booking tickets to see the Book of Mormon, which I completely understand is not everyone’s cup of tea. We found it to be irreverent, outlandish, and hilarious, and at some points just a little too real, as we both agreed that the main character looked astoundingly similar to a friend we’d known in high school who actually was Mormon (I mean, he was, but he probably still is, too. You know what I’m saying).

Tower of London, Tower Bridge, View from the Shard

I was especially pleased with how smoothly this day went, so if these are attractions you want to see, I can’t recommend strongly enough that you do it this way. One of the few things Kalen specifically said he wanted to see on our trip was a castle, and even though the Tower of London is right in the middle of a giant city, it very much is a castle with the history to back it up. We showed up just before the Tower was scheduled to open and only had to wait in a brief line while we got to look over the former moat at this impressive complex. There’s a ton to see at the Tower of London including its famous ravens, its central White Tower which is nearly a thousand years old, and a vast collection of armor and mediaeval weaponry. The Tower of London also houses the Crown Jewels, and if you have any interest in seeing these, go straightaway as after just an hour or two, an enormous line forms. We went directly to the jewels first, though, and were able to walk right in with less trouble than Moriarty.

We spent several hours at the Tower learning about the various notable figures who had been imprisoned there over its nearly thousand year history, and when we had had our fill of castles, we exited right above the Thames and made our way to the Tower Bridge (which is not London Bridge, which is very unexciting).

Of course, Tower Bridge is a public bridge and you could just walk across it, but we wanted to actually visit Tower Bridge so we toured the inside of the bridge, learning about the history and engineering behind this iconic landmark before walking across the span at the top. After crossing the bridge, visitors take a self-guided tour through the engine rooms, learning about the massive engines that raise and lower the bridge lifts.

From the engine room exit, it was only a short walk to the Shard, the tallest building in the United Kingdom, and which offers panoramic views of the city from its 72nd floor. This was part of our London Pass, but we did have to book ahead of time (and the London Pass website looks like they might be changing their deal with the View from the Shard, so this information may not stay true too much longer). Many of the travel sites I read listed the View from the Shard as overrated, and if you had to pay for the full ticket, I suppose it might be. Most of those sites recommended booking free tickets to the Sky Garden instead, but when I looked they either weren’t available yet or were already sold out. As the Shard was included in our London Pass, though, it was a great time for no extra cost, and we enjoyed looking out over the city that had suddenly turned gray and dreary when only an hour before had been sunny and beautiful. On the elevator ride back down, the young woman working the lift casually asked if we had visited to celebrate any special occasion. I told her that the last time I was in London, fourteen years prior, it simply hadn’t been there. She was a little stunned and I felt old, but it was the truth. Construction for the Shard began in March 2009, while I was there studying, and the building opened in the summer of 2012, just ahead of the Olympics.

With both the rain and a mild head cold setting in, we found a pizza place to eat dinner before turning in for a relatively early night, but we were right by the Borough Market again, which could easily be added to this itinerary if you were looking for inspiration.

Greenwich Observatory and Cutty Sark

I was really feeling the head cold I had caught by this time, but I put on a mask to keep my germs to myself, threw several travel packs of tissues into my backpack, and we plowed on (for anyone concerned, I did take a Covid test and it was negative). I only mention my cold to explain that this day and the next are a little fuzzier for me and I don’t want you to think that means the things we saw were less worthwhile. If anything, the fact that I enjoyed them in spite of the head cold should be a pretty good review (sort of like my glowing recommendations of whale watching in spite of my ridiculous seasickness).

Although Greenwich is further from Central London than the rest of our planned activities, it was still easy to get to with a ride on the Tube and another connected rail system, the Docklands Light Railway (“DLR”). Although the DLR isn’t the same as the Underground system, it connects to it seamlessly and you don’t need separate tickets; your Oyster Card or contactless payment have you covered.

We began our time in Greenwich at the Cutty Sark, a 19th century tea clipper that was one of the fastest of its time. The ship is now dry-docked in Greenwich, and available for tours. The ship itself had a long and varied history transporting tea, wool, and other commodities across the globe at record speeds thanks to its sleek design and massive sails. The attraction also boasts an option to climb the sail rigging for an extra fee (and safety waivers, to be sure), but it was a drizzly overcast morning and that sounded miserable at the time. There were other people doing it, though, who looked like they were having a blast. To each their own.

After we had thoroughly investigated the Cutty Sark, we visited the Royal Observatory, home to the Prime Meridian line. The observatory sits atop a hill in the middle of Greenwich Park, and in addition to what must be a great view of the heavens, has a beautiful view of the city as well.

The observatory has several historical telescopes and a fascinating history of the modernization of timekeeping, which was integral to overcoming navigational challenges. Of course, there is also the bronze line representing the Prime Meridian, perfect for taking selfies with a foot in the eastern and western hemispheres if you are more practiced at selfie-taking than I am.

This feels like a weird thing to mention, but I’m going to anyway: the gift shop at the observatory was really nice. I mean, don’t go just for the gift shop, but a lot of the museums and attractions in London (especially if they’re in anyway associated with the crown) have a lot of the same souvenirs over and over, and I was really excited that the observatory’s gift shop was much more specialized to the observatory itself. Whoever curates the shop will probably never see this, but on the off chance they do, I wanted to tell them well done and that their efforts were not unnoticed.

Camden Market, Holly Village, Waterlow Park

We built a little extra flexibility into the final part of our trip so we could work around the weather, with both indoor attractions if it was raining and outdoor attractions if it was nice that would be available any of those days. Saturday was nice and Sunday was calling for rain, so we decided to do outdoor things Saturday, saving museums for Sunday. We were staying at an AirBnB in Camden that had been very comfortable and convenient for the past week and took advantage of the location to walk up to Camden Market. Camden Market was a completely different vibe from the other markets we had visited. While the others had focused almost solely on food, Camden Market had more clothing, art, service businesses in addition to restaurants, bars, and cafes. It was sprawling, bustling, and full of life. Many of the shops had signs specifically prohibiting photography (I think for a combination of protecting artistic property and to avoid creating traffic jams), but the variety of things available was astounding and marvelous.

In planning for our trip, I did a fair amount of browsing Google Maps to see if there were any smaller points of interest near our more specific destinations, and we headed north from Camden Market into Highgate. While browsing Hampstead Heath, I found a little marker that said “Holly Village” and, being named Holly, decided we needed to go see it. It’s not a destination, just a private community from what I can tell, but with an impressive carved gate and a lot of its namesake flora around. There was a lot of Holly in the area generally, both in name and in green, so I felt very special indeed in my own quiet way.

The atmosphere in the little area of Highgate that we visited, between Highgate Cemetery and Hampstead Heath, had a vastly different feel from much of the rest of London that we had experienced. It was very clear that we had left anything touristy behind and were experiencing a much quieter part of the city. For the first time in almost two weeks, we walked down a street with no one else in sight. We tried to walk through Highgate Cemetery, but couldn’t find a gate that was open. Instead we ended up walking through Waterlow Park where we saw families playing and lots of birds, including parakeets, which we did not expect. It was a lovely and relaxed way to spend the afternoon and a great place to get away from some of the bustle and noise of central London.

Natural History Museum

We had originally planned to split this day between the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum which are right next to each other and both have free admission, but we ended up spending the entire day at the Natural History Museum, and could have spent longer if they hadn’t insisted on getting everyone out and locking the doors at the end of the day (I think they’re open late on Fridays, so if you think you might need extra time try going then).

Originally part of the British Museum, the Natural History Museum opened in 1881 and houses world-class displays of life and earth sciences. And like the British Museum, even though admission is free, booking a ticket online in advance is the best way to make sure you get through the line and into the museum quickly.

Highlights of the museum include impressive and influential fossils, such as the first archaeopteryx fossil discovered and the world’s most complete stegosaurus skeleton; an earthquake simulation; and a stunning collection of gemstones.

A large portion of the museum featured taxidermy of a wide range of birds and mammals, which I had mixed feelings about. Taxidermy generally makes me feel vaguely ill, especially in such large quantities. For the purposes of displaying particular features of animals from a scientific standpoint, however, it is undeniably practical, and arguably more humane than keeping live specimens, especially if the displayed specimens died of natural causes. I did appreciate that the museum seemed to be aware of all of this and had a few signs posted explaining that the specimens on display looked old, dusty, and somewhat ragged because they were old, dusty, and somewhat ragged, and that the museum board had decided it made more sense to focus on preserving the specimens they had rather than killing new animals to replace them just because they looked nicer. I thought it was a beautiful sentiment, and showed good conscience, and I couldn’t agree more. Many of their specimens are from extinct species or critically endangered species and it’s obviously much better to have a slightly mangey looking stuffed tiger than to kill a live tiger and make a new display. No argument. But a part of me looked at the sad little raccoon, so faded with time that his mask was scarcely any darker than the rest of his face, his whole coat the aged yellow of old paper, and I thought, “Okay, but surely you could get updates for some of them.” Not that they should catch and kill a raccoon just to put on display, but have you ever been to a Bass Pro Shops store? I think every single location has at least half a dozen stuffed raccoons, and maybe they would donate one? Or scrape one off the side of the highway before he gets ground to pulp?

Another location that needed a little updating was the Mammals Gallery. The gallery impressively displays life-size models of various large mammals, like whales, elephants, hippos, elk, and more, side by side, showing the scale of these creatures in a way I’d never encountered before. The information displayed with the models, however, was severely sun-bleached and in need of updating. One display discussed a discovery in 1840 as “the last century,” but that’s very nearly 200 years ago. (Incidentally, this particular display was of the “Missouri Leviathan,” a mastodon relative that is also featured in the Visitor Center at Truman Lake where I spent many a childhood summer. Hello, old friend!)

Not that everything old needs severe updating. That runs fairly counter to the basic idea of a museum anyway, doesn’t it? The oldest part of the museum, particularly Hintze Hall, is the most beautiful. The hall itself has stunning architecture adorned with carved sculpture of plants and animals on the soaring columns, and the ceiling panels feature detailed botanical paintings. The whole thing is finished with an enormous blue whale skeleton suspended over the hall.

I did not expect to be so astonished by the displays of stones and minerals, but I could have spent so much more time looking at all of these. My favorites were the displays that fluoresced under UV light, so the display would cycle between visible light and UV to show the brilliant change. The display of cut and polished gems was also fun because they were expertly displayed in cases with low lighting to show all the sparkly facets as though in a jewelry store, except in this case you were free to admire them without any pressure to buy something that nobody really needs. The only pressure we felt looking at this display was when they announced it was very nearly closing time and we needed to collect our things from the coat check and exit.

London Zoo

We hadn’t really planned to go to the zoo, but we were nearing the end of our trip and didn’t have much mental energy left for choosing what we wanted to see and do. We also felt like we had pretty well had our fill of museums over the past two weeks. When I had studied in London, I was on the opposite side of Regent’s Park from the zoo for four months, but never managed to make my way over there. Honestly, a big part of why I hadn’t gone was because I didn’t want to pay to go to the zoo. I was spoiled with the St. Louis Zoo growing up, which is free, and by and large, most zoos are really not vastly different from each other. They tend to have a lot of the same kinds of animals in similar habitats and enclosures and offer pretty similar experiences. It was with this attitude that we decided to spend our final full day in London at the London Zoo, which was also included in the London Pass, which basically made it free for us.

Even without the London Pass, it would have been worth paying to visit. The London Zoo was a shining example of how much better everything can be when the public can be trusted to behave itself. There were several enclosures in the zoo where the public could walk into the enclosures as the animals carried on all around them. The only thing stopping visitors from reaching out to touch the monkeys or lemurs or sloths were warning signs and watchful zoo staff. It made the experience so much more incredible. And the staff weren’t there only to keep people from harassing the animals. They were happy to share their knowledge about the animals, the zoo as a whole, and their experiences as zoo staff.

Even the more traditional habitats showed consideration for the animals’ needs. Okapi, for example are so infamously shy that for a long time, researchers considered stories of them to be made up by the native people who shared their African forests. The okapi exhibit at the London zoo has hedges around it with little viewing holes trimmed in them to allow visitors to see the okapi but maintain the animals’ sense of privacy. Between the fantastic exhibits and the accessible and knowledgable staff, I can easily say this was the best zoo visit I’ve ever had.

As you can tell, we managed to fit a ton of activities into a week (after all, I didn’t even tell you about most of the food we ate or where we stayed!), but we couldn’t have squeezed it all in if we had been zipping back and forth across the city between each attraction. Do any of these days sound like your dream day in London?

Keep an eye out for my next post where I break down what we got with our London Pass and if it was worth the price!

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