London is one of those cities that just steals your heart; the blend of history, culture, food, art and the modern life. James and I are fortunate to have visited this city once before, however this time around we got to spend more time in the beautiful city, and be tour guides to his parents while there.
Mr. and Mrs. DiCroce, or G and Papa as we call them, decided to do a stint abroad, visiting us in Exeter, some family in Swindon, fulfilling their travel dreams in Spain, and ending their trip with us in London.
James and I boarded a train from Exeter St. David’s train station to London Paddington train station early Thursday afternoon to check into our hotel (thanks G and Papa) before his parents flew back from Spain later that night.
PRO TIP: Do not forget your Kindle on a three hour train ride.
When we got to Paddington Station, I obviously made it my mission to find the Paddington Bench and take a photo. Can you tell how excited I am?
To the Hotel
Next we had to figure out how to get ourselves from London to our hotel the Sheraton Skyline, located just outside Heathrow Airport. If you are unfamiliar with London, Heathrow is pretty much outside of the city center.
Fortunately G and Papa had James and I to blunder through it all and make the mistakes beforehand, so we could text them and tell them what NOT to do. We hopped on a tube directly to Heathrow airport, which was fairly simple. Using our railcard, we purchased an off-peak zone 1-6 day pass on the tube and paid £8 ea. as opposed to £18 ea. and took the Picadilly Line to Heathrow Airport.
The difficulty came in figuring out how to get out of Heathrow Airport and to the hotel, without paying for a cab – because we’re cheap (and broke). Silly us thought we could just walk out…WRONG. There is literally no way to simply walk out of Heathrow Airport.
Your butt must be planted on some mode of transportation. A kind gentleman who worked for the bus system informed me that there is a local bus that operates at Heathrow Airport for FREE within certain zones and luckily our hotel was located in the free zone. I could see the wave of relief on James when we found out a way to get out of the airport without spending any money – yes we are that broke.
Platform 9 3/4
We took the free bus (Bus 285, 423, or 555) to the nearest Tube station (Hatton Cross) to ride back into London. First stop, Kings Cross, A.K.A location of Platform 9 3/4 in Harry Potter (I’m still secretly waiting for my letter to Hogwarts, that I’m convinced got lost in the mail). Kings Cross has actually created a little area between Platforms 9 and 10, dedicated to Harry Potter. They even have staff that give you props and take professional photos that you can purchase. However, you can still take photos for free on your own mobile device or camera. I took all my photos in the cliche, generic ways, whereas James always unique, took his photo as if he was struggling to get his cart through the barrier.
After our journey to the Magical World of Harry Potter, we took a pit stop at Leicester Square and walked over to Picadilly Circus. Essentially these areas are the equivalent of Time Square, NYC. Bright lights, street performers, tourists at every corner. Nonetheless it was still nice to walk around and see the nightlife of London.
G & Papa’s Trip to the Hotel
As the end of the night drew to a close, I sent G a text informing her they should get onto bus 140 at the bus station #19. Unfortunately, I never stopped to think about the fact that there are multiple bus stations. My directions worked great for Terminals 2 and 3. Not so much for Terminal 5 – where they flew into. Turns out the last bus station at Terminal 5 is 18…An hour later after much confusion, they decided to just get a cab.
This day will forever be marked as Papa’s record day on his fit bit – 17 miles of walking. If James and I ever break up I will never be forgotten that’s for sure.
By 9:00 a.m. on Friday morning we are all sitting on the top deck of the double-decker bus – a first for us all. To say we were excited was an understatement. Our first stop once in London was Kensington Palace. If you want to see a Palace while in London and not deal with crowds – Kensington is the way to go.
The Palace itself was a bit underwhelming from the outside, but the gates around it were ornate and beautiful. I made a comment at how cool it was that you could see the ceiling through the window from the outdoors. Cue Mrs. DiCroce yapping at the guy in the window to move over so she could see the ceiling. James, his dad and I quickly walked away and pretended that we didn’t the know her. By the way if you really want to see the inside of Kensington Palace, you can for a fee. Again we are cheap so we opted to just stroll the Gardens.
Mazes, arches, and statues all leading up to a massive pond filled with elegant swans and ducks floating about. The pictures I have can’t even do it justice.
Just twenty minutes from Kensington Palace is Notting Hill. No I haven’t seen the movie, I don’t get any of the references, and we did not find the bookstore (mainly because I did not know there was a bookstore to begin with). With that said, the area is beautiful, and the houses and suburbs are perfect for a stroll. Fortunately for us we did venture across the Portobello Market on Portobello road. It was filled with local independent stores, selling artisanal, handmade products. From the latest fashion trends, to cashmere, to antique souvenirs – head to Alice’s.
Tower of London & Tower Bridge
Following Notting Hill we decided to head over to see the Tower of London. The tower is more castle, than it is tower, and is actually quite historic. From what I gathered from brochures it was once a Royal Residence, a prison for many including Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Raleigh, a controlling point of power for London, and home of the Crown Jewels. You can pay to take a tour inside of the tower, or you can enter it for free by reserving a spot (well in advance) to view the Ceremony of the Keys. The traditional locking up of the tower that has been done without fail for the past 700 years.
Right next to the Tower of London is the famed Tower Bridge, most often mistaken by foreigners as London Bridge. We walked across the Tower Bridge, along with tons of other tourists. You can actually pay to climb to the top of the bridge- but again in the spirit of free we opted to just cross over to the South Bank.
Have you really been to London if you haven’t seen the famed London Bridge? While yes, the bridge was not what I expected, since I mistook Tower Bridge for it – it’s still pretty cool to see the focus of the famed nursery rhyme.
Before crossing London Bridge, we took a pit stop at Borough Market, which is situated below rail tracks, and smells absolutely delicious the minute you walk into the busy market. Foods from all walks of the world can be found here, New Orleans style, to Ethiopian entrees, to drunken cheeses, and French Meringue. We opted for delicious cookies.
The Sky Garden
After crossing London Bridge you come across the Monument of Fire, which commemorates the Great Fire of London that burned for three days. At this point, Mr. DiCroce’s bad knee and left foot literally fell apart. Cue James blaming Eric for hurting their dad while playing football and throwing such a bad pass that his dad stepped in a hole and twisted his ankle. He was limping at this point. Moral of the story, walking 17 miles doesn’t help a bad ankle. Thankfully we were at the Walkie Talkie building (a building literally shaped like a walkie talkie) where we had reservations to the Sky Garden to view the London Skyline. For FREE. You know your girl was very happy about this freebie. Reservations must be made in advance as it is very popular.
Half an hour, 35 floors higher, and Mr. DiCroce was able to sit and relax for a bit and ease the pain in his leg. The views are impressive – to the left you can see the Tower of London, and the Tower Bridge, directly in the middle you can see the Shard, and the London Eye far off to the right in the distance.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
By this point we were approaching 5 pm and the Cathedral was closed for viewing, nonetheless it was still a great view from the outside. The Cathedral is massive, and really needs to be appreciated a bit further back so you can take it all in. A popular spot is the Millennium Bridge which has views of the Cathedral in one direction, and views of Tate Modern in the other direction. Also Millennium Bridge is another location that was used for filming the Harry Potter movies (cue fangirl moment). We crossed the bridge and went back to the South Bank, so that James and I can could go down to the shore of the river and collect a rock before the high tide came in. I have to say it’s really cool to know that I’ve stepped on the shoreline of the River Thames. How many people can say that?
Food & Pints
At this point we were all starving and decided we needed food. Thank you random Italian guy for drawing us into the restaurant and helping us decide what to eat.After a delicious dinner we decided the best way to top of the night was, to have a pint in a pub. We ended up at a pub in front Big Ben.
If you don’t know Mrs. DiCroce, she is an extrovert 100%. I kid you not I went to the bathroom for all of one minute and came back to find she had a made a friend just as chatty as herself. It was a battle of words between the two, and who could talk more about their kids. My son went to Germany, my daughter has a 4.0 blahblahblah. This lady’s husband and Mr. DiCroce both had the face of “good lord here we go again”. It was absolutely hysterical to watch.
After our pints we crossed Westminster Bridge to get a view of House of Parliament from the South Bank and the London Eye. If you want an uninterrupted, tourist free view, you must go at night.
After this we decided to call it a night and attempted to find Waterloo Station, but got lost, then we tried to take Lambert North but turned out it was closed for reparations, and the next nearest station was Elephant and Castle. After three failed attempts and thirty minutes both mine and Mr. DiCroce’s bladders were about to pop and thus our one pub turned into a pub crawl as we hopped into the nearest place in site with a bathroom. Thank goodness for Flowers in the Forest, the random pub we found in our need to pee. £17 later, a few pints in a beer garden, and very much relieved we enjoyed the night.
We finally decided to take the tube back to the hotel but low and behold about 10 stops in Papa’s bladder kicked in again. Unfortunately there aren’t any toilets on the tubes, nor do many stations have them. And the tubes close at midnight so we were battling both time and bladder issues at this point. A gentleman sitting next to G and I overhead us saying we needed a restroom and offered to take us to a restroom at his restaurant located just outside one of the stations. The catch was we needed to wait a few more stops to get there. Our only other alternative was to get off at the very next station, and bumble around trying to find the nearest restroom. G declared he would be fine and we said we would wait and follow the gentleman. Poor Papa – the train got delayed five or six times, and crawled due to “signaling” problems. What should’ve been a 5 minute journey to the Turnham Green turned into 20 minutes. Once we finally reached Turnham Green you could see the relief on Mr. DiCroce’s face as he was escorted to the restaurant and allowed to pee.
We quickly got back on the tube, and then bus back to the hotel. 30,000 + steps, 17 miles, and many catastrophic pee incidents later we had somehow made it through Day 2 of our trip and James jokingly accusing me of trying to kill his parents. I’m pretty sure they’re sore in places they didn’t even know they had. I promise I didn’t try to kill you both.
At about noon we made it to London, where our first stop was the London Eye and Houses of Parliament, with a quick walk across Westminster Bridge so we could see the views in daylight. I really do not recommend going to tourist sites in the smack middle of a day, it was swarmed. Though there was a really cool Scottish guy in a kilt playing the bagpipes while we crossed the bridge, so it did add to the atmosphere.
Immediately behind Big Ben is Westminster Abbey. It’s pretty cool to think that I was now standing in the same spot that I watched on television during the Royal Wedding(Will and Kate).
St. James Park
We were starving because we skipped breakfast and we were on the hunt for a Pasty. James remembered that there were cafes in St. James Park on the walk to Buckingham Palace the last time were in London so we decided to head there next so we could grab a pasty for a late breakfast. St. James Park is very interesting because it is a sanctuary to a variety of birds, and the walk to the Palace is dubbed “Birdcage Walk.” It is without a doubt a great way to spend an afternoon if you’re a nature lover. As it turns out, none of the cafes in the park sold pasties, so we decided to trek on and just do lunch instead later on. I’m pretty sure by the end of this trip Mr. DiCroce had enough “misadventures” to last his lifetime.
Buckingham Palace is swarmed with tourists, and to get to the actual Palace you need to walk around a massive roundabout, however once you get to the Palace you can peer at it through the gates and see the guards. If you’re there at 11:00 you can see the changing of the guards ceremony, though in winter it’s done every other day. Next stop: Stroll down The Mall (the red road leading to Buckingham Palace) down to Trafalgar Square and find lunch. We found a tapa-esque restaurant that consisted of small plates, and meals meant to share. It was delicious. Though almost everything I eat I find delicious so I may be biased.
After lunch, we all felt quite tired from the previous day and decided we would do one more site then head to the hotel to relax and grab dinner. We opted for Abbey Road as it was his parents last night and it was one of the few things they wanted to see. There wasn’t that many people there at the road, however it is still a functioning road and its a bit difficult to take a photo in an active roadway. In England drivers actually stop and allow pedestrians to cross the crosswalk when they’re standing by it. I could tell how infuriating it was for drivers to stop, expecting pedestrians to cross, and ultimately they didn’t cross because they were waiting to get a photo in the middle of the busy road. We tried our best to get a photo without impeding traffic and then once we crossed we signed our names on the wall of signatures in front of Abbey Studios. I tried to take a video of James and I crossing, to find after the fact I never hit the record button…typical.
Indian food in England is a must. After we had gotten back to the hotel and recovered we opted to do Indian food for dinner. James insisted on dressing up, while the rest of us were dressed down, and then made me take a photo of him and his parents because “it looks like my parents are tourists and just met Bennedict Cummberbatch.” Okay James, okay. Regardless it was a delicious dinner, filled with great conversation.
After our dinner, as we were walking back to the hotel, and a random house across the way was setting off fireworks. At first, we thought people were celebrating Halloween wrong, and setting off fireworks thinking it was the norm – turned out unbeknownst to us, that night was Divali (a Hindu festival). We were completely mistaken, but it was really cool to see fireworks across the street as we were walking by. We finished off their weekend in London, by going to the pool and soaking our stinky feet in the chlorine (yes stinky, 10 miles of walking all day does that), but don’t worry there was no one in the pool as it was closing.
At 6:30 am bright and early, we got up to take G and Papa to the bus stop and make sure they got on the right bus this time so they wouldn’t get lost again. 30 minutes later we got them on the bus, and as James put it, “It’s like putting kids on the bus to school, awww.” We waved goodbye as we saw them for the last time until we returned home three months later.
Two hours later after a cat nap, and clearing our hotel room out of all the toiletries that was provided (always good to have travel soaps trust me), James and I were off to spend our last day in London before heading back to Exeter. First on the agenda was Harrods because I am my mother’s daughter. Sadly Harrods didn’t open till 11 and we were there at 10. I took it as a sign that my suitcase couldn’t afford to have one more item in it, so we were off to our next destination, Hyde Park.
We were lucky enough that just as we got to Hyde Park the Queen’s men rode by on their horses. The parks are all the same, in one very important way, you can always count on their being dogs to pet. If you can’t tell James and I love dogs, and we admired them all as we strolled down “Lover’s Walk” to the Marble Arch (modeled after the Arc de Triomphe). Unfortunately the Marble Arch was swarmed with tourists like us so it was really hard to get a photo of it without anyone in front of it.
Big Ben & Trafalgar Square
The next stop on our destination was back to Big Ben so we could take more photos. Sadly it was a bit foggy today and everything just looked gray and dreary. We then trekked to Trafalgar Square in hopes to enter St. Martin-in-the-fields, but it was closed to visitors as it was in service. It became clear that about now was a good time for breakfast/lunch. What do two broke college students eat for breakfast/lunch? McDonalds of course. You can always count on it being around. Three pounds later, and one and a half sandwiches each we were filled and onto our next stop.
I think this is a London secret, tucked away in the middle of Covent Garden, filled with vibrant colored shops and locals. Or so it seemed at least.
We then visited Leadenhall Market, famous for the film location of Diagon Alley. It is no surprise that I am a Potterhead so I was thrilled to stand in the actual location of Diagon Alley. Unfortunately the market was closed on Sundays, but I think I prefer it this way because there really wasn’t that many people there.
The Royal Observatory
Our next stop, was way out in Greenwich, to see the Royal Observatory and the Prime Meridian line. It is pretty cool to say you’ve stood at 0 degrees Longitude.
Pro Tip: Bring a walking stick to hike up to the Royal Observatory.
Maybe it was because we walked almost 50 miles, or that I was carrying a heavy backpack all day, but to get to the Royal Observatory from the Greenwich park involves a massive and steep hill. On the flip side, the view of the Queen’s house (she has houses all over this country it seems), from the top of the hill is impressive.
For our last and final stop of London, we opted to go to Little Venice. I have to say I think it’s more of a Little Amsterdam than a Venice, as far as the canals go, nevertheless it was quite scenic. After our stroll through Little Venice, we walked over to Paddington Station, and sat for two hours and waited for our train because we were too exhausted to do any more exploring. By the way, our lunch menu made a comeback, and we had McDonald’s for dinner. A whopping £5 later got us three sandwiches and a large order of fries. All in all, it was a quite lovely, yet tiring weekend in London.
Total Cost by us: £136
- Rail Tickets: £40 ea return Exeter St. Davids to London Paddington = £80
- Tube Tickets: £8 ea. zone 1-6 off-peak, we bought 6 tickets = £48
- Food: £8 (of our own money, the rest Mr. and Mrs. DiCroce treated us too – thanks again!)
- Hotel: This one goes to G and Papa again…thanks!!
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