It was 10:30 am when the Eurostar pulled into St. Pancras station. We immediately went to one of the ATMs in the middle of the station to take out cash (we had euros but no pounds… As I have said in earlier posts, we have found that the exchange rate is typically lowest through the ATMs).
We then went to the National Railway Ticket Office within the train station to purchase a Travelcard. If you are planning to use London’s Underground (aka the Tube), the most economical way to do it is to buy a Travelcard or an Oyster card. These are passes that you can purchase that either are a single or multi-day pass (Travelcard) or a refillable card (Oyster card). We did a bunch of research on Fodor’s and London ToolKit and ended up deciding on a Travelcard, particularly because there was a deal where we got a “2-for-1” offers on many attractions throughout London. We were staying for 2 full days but needed to use the Tube on the 3rd day, so we each bought a 3-day Travelcard (they come in either 1-day or 3-day). Each 3-day card cost £18 (roughly $29).
We took the Picadilly line to Hyde Park Corner to drop our bags off at our hotel, the Metropolitan, on Park Lane. When we came out of the Tube, it took us a few minutes to realize that we couldn’t cross the intersection to get to our hotel without getting hit by a car, then saw that there was a neat underground passageway under the busy intersection that enabled us to reach the other side of the street without serious bodily harm (though my husband did have to schlep two huge bags up and down at least a set or two of stairs). By the time we got to the hotel, the woman who was checking us in inquired at least 3 times if we would like to use their facilities to freshen up while our rooms were being prepared (we were pretty sweaty and disheveled at that point!). We politely declined (multiple times) and quickly dumped our bags in their secure luggage-holding room and were informed that our rooms would be ready in several hours.
We decided not to use their restroom/shower facilities because we were on a time crunch–the changing of the guard was taking place at that very moment! This ritual takes place every other day during this time of year, so if we missed it today, we would not get to see this quintessential part of London culture.
We booked down Constitution Hill, along Green Park, towards Buckingham Palace and arrived there (even sweatier and more disheveled than our arrival at the hotel!) just in time to catch the tail end of the pomp and circumstance and marveled at the precision of the guards as well as the immense crowds.
Note: Let me preface our trip: we were in London from April 6-8, 2011, just three weeks prior to the Royal Wedding. There was definitely a palpable frisson of excitement and anticipation while the city prepared for one of the biggest events in decades.
It seemed that people of all nationalities were flooding London around that time, but there were a disproportionate amount of French-speaking school-age children that seem as though they were there for a class trip. When I was in school, we took a day trip to the Bronx Zoo or a day trip to Philadelphia, but we didn’t go to any other countries…
Anyway, after leaving Buckingham Palace, we walked along St. James’ park (I think down Birdcage Walk) and arrived at Westminster Abbey. We bought tickets to enter the Abbey (£16 each) and were given complimentary tour headphones and a handheld automated tour. We started the tour up at the front altar of the church and turned on the MP3 player and listened to the narrator–Jeremy Irons. He has one of my favorite speaking voices of all times so I was ecstatic to have him guide us around the Abbey.
Westminster Abbey is not just a big cathedral; rather, there are many famous British royals, authors, poets, politicians, scientists and musicians (among others) interred there. The Abbey obviously was recently featured on an international level during the Royal Wedding. When we were there, we saw a British journalist reporting from the choir seats, presumably about the preparations for the Royal Wedding. We followed the tour throughout the huge cathedral and were surprised by all of the small chapels that are off to the side of the main knave. Queen Elizabeth I, one of my favorite royals of all time (I am fascinated by the entire Tudor dynasty), is interred in the North of the church, in a highly adorned area called the Lady Chapel. Because of so much history around every corner, we spent longer than our allotted time in the Abbey but it ended up being one of my favorite places in all of London. I highly recommend spending at least an hour wandering about the Abbey (and listening to Jeremy Irons…).
After leaving the Abbey, we headed past Big Ben and over to Westminster Bridge. The bridge looks over Parliament and Big Ben and has great views down the Thames. The London Eye (which we skipped this trip due to time and the fear of motion sickness) looms over the river and has become a permanent fixture in the London skyline. It is a huge ferris wheel with enclosed ‘pods’ that was initially erected for the millenium celebration 11 years ago and intended to be temporary, but has since become such a tourist attraction with spectacular views of London that they kept it up and running.
We took a few pictures on the bridge, then walked back to the west bank of the Thames and down Whitehall towards Downing Street. We passed 10 Downing Street, the headquarters of Her Majesty’s Government and the Prime Minister’s residence, and continued past towards Horseguard’s Gate and took the requisite pictures in front of the stone-faced guards and their horses.
Afterwards, we continued down Whitehall and made our way to Trafalgar Square, which is situated in front of the National Gallery. The square is a meeting place and a landmark that houses Nelson’s Column surrounded by lion statues. We refer to one of our cats as “The Lion,” and have been fascinated by all of the lions throughout Europe, but these statues are among the largest (though Venice has a pretty good crop of lions too–thanks, St. Mark!).
We did not, however, climb upon the lion statues as some other tourists so gracefully did. Trafalgar Square (like Piazza San Marco in Venice) was traditionally overrun (or over-flown?) with pigeons but apparently the British government put the kibosh on the pigeons by making feeding the pigeons in the square illegal.
Since the weather was gorgeous that day (and reportedly the first sunny day in 6 weeks!) locals and tourists alike were out in full force, enjoying the sunshine and cloudless skies.
We walked through the square and up the steps to the National Gallery, a museum that features paintings by artists such as Boticelli, Caravaggio, van Gogh, and Rembrandt, amongst many, many others. The admission is free and it is open most days. After wandering around the gallery (we picked up a map when we got there and highlighted the rooms that were of interest for us), we left and walked down to Leicester Square, a busy central area with lots of cafes, movie theaters, and people.
When we were there, they had the main central square cordoned off for renovations, so we just walked around the perimeter and were overwhelmed by the people and the hubbub but underwhelmed by the square (presumably because of the renovations?) at the same time. We got on the Picadilly line and took the tube back to our hotel to check into our actual room, shower, and get ready for our next adventure: afternoon tea!
We found that the most highly rated tea was at the Palm Court at the Langham Hotel in central London, near Oxford Circus, so we booked a 5 pm reservation there via email prior to our arrival in London. The afternoon tea there had recently been awarded the Top London Afternoon Tea 2010 honor (at the “Oscars” of tea) so we figured we couldn’t go wrong. We took the Tube to Oxford Circus and walked to the hotel for our tea. We were greeted warmly and shown to a lovely table just near the piano (which was softly playing standards and Broadway tunes–my favorite!). A beautiful menu (I am a sucker for shimmery paper…) outlined the different selections of tea services that we could order. We had decided on the Tea Royale in the spirit of the upcoming Royal Wedding. At £40 each, the price was steep (no pun intended!) but the tea was amazing.
For those unfamiliar to the custom of afternoon tea, it is not just sitting around and drinking lukewarm tea. It is an experience unto itself that is often reserved for “ladies who lunch” or mothers and daughters. But it is also a meal that men will enjoy too and is worth trying, especially in tea-centric London (but most major cities have restaurants, hotels and tea rooms where one can have afternoon tea as well). Finger sandwiches, scones with jam and clotted cream, and desserts are the mainstays of any tea menu.
Other types of tea (high tea, for example) include alcohol (yum…champagne) or even small tasting plates. For our tea, we each chose a type of tea from the menu (complete with a “tea sommelier” to make suggestions or help us choose) that was presented in our own personal teapot. Apparently, tea etiquette dictates that loose tea is the haute way of tea drinking (bagged teas are frowned upon) so they come with a tea strainer. The server pours the tea, and as soon as our cups were nearing half-empty (or half-full?), our cups were refilled by the attentive servers. After our tea was served (which was great for me as a sore throat was setting in–more on that later…), we were presented with a little amuse-boucheof a champagne-rhubarb gelee.
Afterwards, our sandwiches were served: we had egg salad on a split roll, lobster and cucumber on brioche, roast beef wrap with horseradish sauce, poached salmon on toast, and truffle-infused cream cheese on brioche. Though the sandwiches were small, they were filling and the servers continued to come around with similar versions of the sandwiches (same fillings but on white or wheat bread–more like the traditional, crustless “finger sandwiches” that one thinks of when picturing afternoon tea) and they were offered at an unlimited rate.
We savored the sandwiches, getting a few seconds (and maybe thirds–they were so good!) until we were full, then were presented with scones. We had a choice of plain or lavender honey scones so we chose the latter. We were given four warm scones (we ate two before I realized we didn’t have a picture) that were moist and delicious. After we felt as though we couldn’t possibly eat another bite, we realized that we had our dessert sitting on a serving tower on the floor adjacent to our table.
In the tradition of the Royal Wedding theme, each cake or cookie represented something: the white wedding dress cookie, the chocolate tower represented Westminster Abbey, the pink confection was a symbol of the Crown Jewels, and the white sweet was the wedding cake.
We devoured our dessert tray and found ourselves too full to eat our wedding dress cookies but the rest of the dessert was really delicious.
After tea, we made our way back to the Tube to head to Trafalgar Studios, the location of our next adventure: a play called End of the Rainbow about Judy Garland’s last performance in London and downward spiral before her death.
Tracie Bennett played Judy with amazing charisma and had an uncanny ability to inhabit the role of the larger-than-life performer–I loved every minute. Dave even enjoyed it since it was mostly a play; the singing was appropriate (i.e. when she was performing or practicing), not random bursts into song. Don’t get me wrong–I adore, adore, adore musicals but I know it takes a special one that my husband will enjoy so we carefully chose this play. We had used the TKTS website to find out what is playing in London and get an idea of ticket prices, then decided to purchase tickets online from the theatre’s website.
After the play, we walked around Trafalgar Square and back up Whitehall, then over to Westminster Bridge again to see London at night. We took the Tube back to our hotel and crashed after our long day of traveling and sightseeing.