And finally, the British portion of my So, You Wanna Go to Europe series! First and foremost, I was extremely lucky to have my long time friend, Luke Murphy, hosting and offering advice on how to best experience the city. It was one of the most expensive places I visited, but it is definitely one of those must-see places that you go through after Ireland. It is also one of those places with lots of advice already online on where to go and what to do.. So, based on my personal adventure there, here are the tips that helped (or would have helped) me out. And also, tons of pictures for all of the people who wanted to see more about the trip. (Here ya go, Mom!)
London was one of the only places where we had a plan. Luke, having previously worked in student events coordinating (or something like that), was really familiar with telling visitors where to go and the potential walking path to take.
Here is a picture of one of the lists that we followed to find our way throughout the city centre of London. One thing that is great about this place is that it’s a walking city.. we were able to see most everything we wanted in one full day of moving about (assuming we followed the path we were given and excluding longer stops like museums/or the castle). Another great thing about London is that it’s expensive. Err, at least for us. The USD to pound conversion was atrocious, so it forced us to be conscious about not spending money. (This, of course, had nothing to do with the fact we spent much more money than we planned on going out in Ireland.) So, in lieu of spending money, we spent more time walking around and seeing all of the iconic sites that make this renowned city so famous.
So first things first, let’s get from Dublin to Ireland!
We left our friend’s house by catching a taxi to the port where we took a ferry over to Wales. The ferry ride was a great choice for us when considering money and luggage. Since Bosen and I both had our guitars, we were concerned that the cheap airlines would charge us crazy amounts since they’re bigger than typical carry-on size (which is never a problem for me in the States.. but not worth the hassle here). After doing some online research, we decided to go with IrishFerries.com/ for their package deal: ferry from Dublin to Holyhead (Wales) and then a bullet train to London. I loved the ferry ride because for the first time traveling, we had lots of space! Plenty of room to move around, but I definitely suggest riding at an obscure time or board early so that you can find a good place to sit. It takes a little over 3 hours to cross the water, but I was content in seats without a view of the water (after Galway, this was pretty standard scenery). For the last bit about this leg of travel, I would suggest bringing your own food and water.. The ferry has its own little cafe (average options with above average prices) and the train didn’t really offer anything unless you were riding in first/business class. If you want to be extra frugal, Bosen and I spent most of our trip buying deli meats with various rolls to make sandwiches along the way.. it’s definitely not the fanciest way to do things, but it always ebbed our hunger and kept us out exploring with more money to spend on more important things! (like a pint or whatever) Once we finally arrived in London, the London Underground was really easy to navigate (I would say even mores than subways in the States). And we met up with our friend, Luke Murphy.
I think the best way is to get up in the morning and try to see as much as you can.. for us, we woke up and took the Underground to Leicester Square Station and walked the block or so to see the area. Instantly, we were reminded that we were very much tourists. Accept this fact. So, we took a picture with a police officer and kept journeying on.. next through Chinatown which is substantially less impressive if you’ve been to a Chinatown in ANY Asian country, but this one feels much cleaner and much more for show and tourism. Something about Chinese lanterns (right) hanging across streets is such a sight, regardless of where I am. Next was SoHo, a fun area with bars and restaurants known as their gayborhood. Having gone out in San Diego and San Francisco (with their really fun gay neighborhoods), this area wasn’t super exciting for me.. but it definitely has a nightlife and plenty of places to go out. I think Piccadilly Circus (left) is the iconic small square to see in London. I’m not sure why, but this small section was the major “I’m in the center of London” moment for me. We decided to skip Buckingham Palace, because I guess you can really only stand at the gate.. which I suppose is a lot like visiting the White House? We found other places where you can get more up close and personal with the guards, so we were content with this. From what we were told, I would only recommend going if you can see the changing of the guard, and even then, it’s such a tourist haven that you’ll mainly just get pictures of people taking pictures. Besides, we wanted more time to spend in the most lively tourist location: Trafalgar Square. This area is the must-see of tourist locations in London. The square itself is large and inviting with its two fountains, statue lions, statue admirals of war, the National Gallery, and a giant blue rooster. The center is called Nelson’s Column and can be identified by the 4 lion statues at the corners. The rooster, I believe, is just a work of Art that is both interesting and out of place. We spent the majority of our time here taking pictures and shooting video of the site and the street performers who gather here to make money off the tourists.
(It’s a good place to meet up with other travelers you’ve met, like Liz and Shelley!)
The last couple stops on our Day 1 London Experience brought us to Westminster Abbey and Big Ben. We weren’t able to go inside of the former cathedral, but the giant gothic-style building was still such a sight to see. And, of course, Big Ben is Big Ben. This was pretty much all we could fit into our first day (as we decided to unwind over an overpriced pint somewhere near Westminster Abbey). After this, we went to bed early because we were going to uncover a global mystery the next day!
To set the mood for Day 2, feel free to watch the video: “What’s the Meaning of Stonehenge” by Ylvis (the guy who did, What does the Fox say?) .. it’s ridiculous and hilarious and what Bosen and I kept singing to each other during our visit. We got up early and went to London’s Central Station to catch the tour bus for the Stonehenge/Bath tour. When you’re comparing prices for the various tours, I would recommend choosing one that also stops in Bath (with entrance to the Roman Baths). Stonehenge is great and all, but adding the city of Bath makes your full day more worth it. We ran into a little difficulty with booking our ticket and getting the matched advertised price from the website, but with a little Polite Persistence (a post for another time), we were able to persuade the ticketing counter to give us our deal. Regardless, this was still our most expensive tourist stop.. I think we spent around 60 pounds each for these tickets but knew that we’d never have another chance to see Stonehenge. While you’re there, make sure that you rid yourself of any embarrassment and take every type of picture you can think of! We were reluctant to do so, but as soon as we started taking silly pictures, we watched as every other person followed suit to do the same exact pictures!
Bath wasn’t even on our radars as a place to visit. We were happy that we did because the Roman Bath tour was interesting and added a lot of value to our day. Had we only gone to Stonehenge, which is basically a large circle walking around the perimeter, it would have been a bit disappointing (despite how interesting the actual Stonehenge is). Bath was a quaint, little town good for shopping (something we didn’t do), grabbing food, and seeing the Roman baths.
At the Roman baths, we learned a bit about Roman history and a lot about the worship of Minerva and Neptune. We were able to walk around the entire complex following the audio guided tour through the various rooms full of artifacts and information. I don’t have much to say about it, but I definitely feel like it is worth visiting if you’re already going to Stonehenge.
On our final day in London, Luke suggested we go to St. Paul’s Cathedral, cross over Millennium Bridge, see Tate Modern and the old Globe Theatre, go on a bit of a trek toward Borough Market and London Bridge, then finally see Tower Bridge leading over to Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress, the Tower of London. We got a later start to the day than we planned, so we were rushing a bit mainly just seeing the outsides of these locations. We had a delicious (and overpriced) lunch at a stand before crossing the Tower Bridge to the Tower of London where we bought tickets and actually walked around the grounds.
As I recap on the previous few days, some advice comes to mind:
because, who cares? These are pictures for You. They’re as fun and silly as you want them to be, because they are your tangible memories of the places you’ve visited. If there’s ever a place to be an annoying tourist, it’s London.
As always, bring friends or make friends:
We were fortunate enough to have our good friend we know from San Diego, Ash Gallagher, passing back through London from the Middle East to meet up with us for some quick selfies and a couple pints. When we didn’t know people, we made a point to “cheers” strangers and chat with musicians to try to get a better feel for the people in the areas we visited.
Take pictures other than the tourist norms:
There is so much beauty in the random buildings, statues, and art of London, that your picture opportunities are endless. I’ve found that I appreciate places (and people) more when I can find the beauty in the places where it’s not expected. My general go-to’s are anything man made in the foreground with clouds or the sun in the background. Haha, and I’m no photographer, but I’ve found when I’m out trying to think like a photographer, I notice so much more of my surroundings.
You obviously have to go see the Tower Bridge:
I think Tower Bridge is more recognizable than Big Ben. I also feel like it is one of the most common bridges to call by the incorrect name .. (London Bridge) It’s a gorgeous structure that is impressive to witness when it raises for the larger passing boats. Walking over the bridge is an experience in itself. (There was a couple taking their wedding photos while we were there)
See the castle (Tower of London):
Get there early enough that you can take the tour. Sadly, we were too late to do so, but it was still worth the 20 or so pounds that we paid to walk around the castle. Seeing the infamous ravens, the crown jewels, and all the exhibits that they have are worth seeing. They do not want you taking pictures/recording anything inside the jewel room, so don’t get yelled at (like I did).
Our final evening, we were excited to check out Camden Town. We had heard so much about Camden and its Market, Lock, and local music. During the day, the street market is known for the artsy vendors selling their touristy and creative wares. The energy of the market matches the colorful small shacks and stalls. In the evening, this area quickly fades into a darker version of the vibrant daytime that is much more vacant with nearly every person trying to sell you weed and sometimes other drugs. Regardless, I still felt relatively safe, and the view of the water in the Camden Lock is amazing (shown below).
With much credit going to Amy Winehouse, the area is also known for live music. The night that we were there, we visited multiple open mics with a variety of talent hitting the stage. As with most music scenes, the sound catered to what the city (and area) is famous for.. British rock and Amy Winehouse musings. As always, I enjoy the unknown expectations of any open mic, and we even found ourselves on stage sharing a few of our own Bosen & Suede songs.
The other thing that stood out to me in Camden were the tattoos.. for whatever reason, this area has turned into a known tattoo haven where people haphazardly get inked up in the back of the multiple shops that line the streets between clothes and tourist traps. In general, I found almost every tattoo horribly done and perfect examples for Spike TV’s Tattoo Nightmares. I recognize that I’m partially spoiled by the quality of San Diego tattoo artists, but I wouldn’t recommend anybody get a tattoo in Camden unless you’re only getting a Camden tattoo for the sake of getting a Camden tattoo.
Finally, after a long day of exploring and sightseeing.. go get kebabs. For real. Almost everyone knows a great late-night kebab shop, and I would highly recommend this over your typical fish n chips. For real. They’re so good. I can still picture myself standing there in line salivating over the meat being sliced off the vertical rack and placed directly into my food, whether chicken or lamb (or the healthier “shish”). It’s really good. Go get some. You can even be creepy about it:
All in all, London was a great time. If I was more into museums, shopping, and history, I imagine I would have appreciated it more than I did. There is very much a Life Force in the city that you feel as you walk around all of the historical buildings and pop culture references. My biggest advice for visiting would be to find some sort of lodging arrangements before you get there. Easily, we saved a lot of money during this leg of our trip by staying with a friend. Regardless, go experience London! There were (BY FAR) more sights/sites to see in the few days we were there than any other place we visited.
There’s so much to see out there, Friends.