And London! While I thoroughly enjoyed the Paris experience and would happily return for another visit, I have to admit that I'm far more passionate about London. London is a special city, one in which I could live for the rest of my life. So, without further ado, my thoughts on this great place.
Top Ten Things about London
10) The vibrance of the city. London is alive. It's brimming, spilling over with life and excitement. It might sound a little strange, given the stereotypical stuffiness of the English, but I think Paris is a much stuffier city. London has a freedom to it, almost vulgar at times but never too much. It balances its past and its future perfectly to make for a very well-rounded experience.
9) The people. Again, a surprise. The people of London are very friendly and approachable. Not in an over-the-top, how-are-y'all, Texan kind of way, but very friendly nonetheless. Every employee at the hotel, train station, airport, etc. was polite and helpful. It's important to remember that London is a working city, so you have to be willing to move along with everything, but as long as you keep going London will go with you.
8) Walking through the neighborhoods. We stayed in the Knightsbridge/South Kensington area, which is a little further from the sightseeing, but was great for the neighborhood ambience. You can walk up and down the streets, getting a great feel for how the city lives (in a more affluent part, of course, but let's just call it a representation). Each area is different, as we discovered by branching out and walking through other neighborhoods, and each has a unique tone. Despite its size, London doesn't feel like a big city, but rather a collection of small towns that have just joined together. Which, I suppose, it is.
7) The tube. I loved the tube. Easy to use, convenient throughout all the main sightseeing areas, and great for people-watching, the tube is a gift to the tourist. The different lines are very well marked, and there are updates throughout the stations about anything occurring on other lines. If a line is shut down, you know immediately, and you are advised which lines to use as a substitution. It's not really cheap (nothing is), but it's much cheaper than the cabs. As another tip, if you buy the all-day pass after 9.30 AM, you can get it for 4.90 (pounds), instead of the rush-hour price of 6.30.
6) Regent and Oxford Street shopping. We didn't really buy much in London, but if we had a small fortune and plenty of time, I could find more than enough to carry home with me by shopping on these two streets (and the streets immediately around them). We were there at Christmas time, so it just added to the excitement, because everyone was out doing all their shopping. On a personal note, my favorite store was Fortnum and Mason on Piccadilly. A great store, with a little of everything. Rather sophisticated, very expensive (all I could afford was tea), but terribly fun to take a browse through.
5) Free museums. Yes, that's right. Most of the big museums in London are free. That means you can just walk into the British Museum, the Tate Modern, the V&A--all for free. My guess is that the English people have been subsidizing this with all the high taxes, to which all I can say is, "Thank you!" What a great idea: make the museums free, so that everyone can go in and see them. Granted, I don't know that I'd want to pay the taxes, but it's great for tourists.
4) Harrod's. A mammoth department story, Harrod's motto is everything, for everyone. I think they might actually have accomplished it too. It's a little overwhelming. The store takes up a city block, soars several stories high, and then plunges a couple of levels below. We didn't come anywhere near scratching the surface of seeing it all, but it was enough for me. I walked in excited and left exhausted. If you need to pick up stationary, buy a Yamaha baby grand, or outfit yourself for a ride in the country (on horseback...), it's one-stop shopping at Harrod's. Just remember that it's always busy, so you will be pushing your way through, especially on the food levels.
3) The British Museum. I'm a fool for museums. I love being in them, soaking up everything they have to offer. The British Museum's goal is to tell the story of Western Civilization through the artifacts they have acquired over the years. There are mummies (quite a few of them actually), marbles from the Parthenon (a bit controversial, but I don't mind having the chance to see them), and Viking pieces from Sutton Hoo (in great condition, too). My only regret is that I didn't have the chance to see the Magna Carta, which was in the section now closed for renovation. But I can't regret the opportunity to visit, and I'd heartily recommend it for any traveller to London.
2) The Tower Bridge. We didn't actually go into the Tower of London. We got there late in the day; it cost about $30 per person; and the last guided tour was over. We decided instead to get pictures of the Tower of London and go into the Tower Bridge. Getting to see the Tower Bridge was pretty amazing; getting to go inside was incredible. There is a small museum, with some movies about how the bridge was built, as well as an entire engine room where you can see how it is operated. Who knew you could raise the bridge in less than a minute? And it's still a working bridge that gets raised and lowered several hundred times a year. If you can't do the Tower of London, I'd definitely recommend the Tower Bridge as an alternative.
1) Christmas Eve at Westminster. Because we were in London at Christmas, we decided to attend the carol service on Christmas Eve at Westminster Abbey. By far, it was my favorite experience of the trip. The church itself is beyond expression, so I'm not even going to bother trying to describe it in any detail. Suffice it to say, it's truly a house of worship, in which you are reminded of God's holiness. But what is also amazing is getting to sit in a service there knowing that Geoffrey Chaucer is buried only a few feet away.
Ten Things I Learned about London
10) Use the restroom before going into Westminster. This tip, courtesy of my husband who had the excruciating experience of having to go and not being able to. Even worse, we were at the very front of the church, which meant that we were among the last out. There are no public restrooms inside the Abbey, but there are some across the street, so I'd advise using those prior to entering for any service. Keep in mind that you have to pay 50p (about $1) for them, but I can't stress that it's absolutely worth the money, especially if you're going in for a service. Just remember that Anglicans stand up numerous times during a church service, and the sitting and standing experience can prove to be pretty miserable under certain conditions.
9) Study a map in advance. I spent hours poring over maps of London before our trip, and it really paid off. There is a lot to see, and it can be a challenge to know where to go or how to get there without the help of a map. Even nicer is the Pocket Pilot series of maps that I'd highly recommend. They are small (um, pocket-sized) and laminated, with just about every point of interest on them. Even our hotel was on this map. It also has a map of the Tube, as well as Tube stations clearly marked, so you can easily figure out how to get around.
8) Learn the tube system. I can't say it enough: the tube is great, if you know how to use it. There are tube stations everywhere, and you can get to almost any main sightseeing location in a matter of minutes. But some of the lines are a little confusing, so it pays to spend a while looking at a map and also being aware of the different stops. Some lines divide, so you half to watch out for the train you want to take. On the upside, everything is clearly marked, so it's not difficult to figure out.
7) Go on a tour. It sounds a little cheesy, but the tours are incredibly helpful. We took a bus tour that had a hop-on-hop-off service, so we could get on and off at a variety of locations. The tours have great guides with wonderful little tidbits about the city. But what is best of all is that the tours give you an idea of the city as a whole, so you can decide what you might want to spend more time seeing.
6) Buyer beware! I don't know why the American dollar has such a bad exchange rate in the British Isles, but it does. Consequently, we didn't buy many souvenirs while we were there, for the simple fact that we could probably get most of it in the U.S., but it literally costs twice as much in British pounds. Hotels, transportation, and food will consume much of your holiday budget; why spend more than you have to on something "English" that you can most likely buy in America. Now, some things are unique and I wouldn't advise passing up on the chance to buy a great souvenir; but I did have to think carefully before I purchased anything.
5) Eat a good breakfast. I now understand the English breakfast. It's cold in England, and nothing gets you going like eggs, sausage, pastries, and tea. What is even better, with a breakfast like this, you don't need as much lunch or dinner later in the day. I wasn't terribly hungry the entire time I was there, and I think it has much to do with the breakfast. As a side note, I'd recommend getting a hotel that includes breakfast; if we had paid for the breakfast at our hotel, we would have been giving them an extra $60 a day (just for one meal...).
4) Pay a little more for the hotel. I did quite a bit of research on hotels before we got there, and based on reviews I read, it's worth the money to pay a little more and have a nice hotel. Ours wasn't really fancy, but it was clean and surprisingly spacious. Now, it's easy to get ridiculous with hotels in London. You can start paying upwards of $500 per night before you know it, and that might be for off-season. Stick with something in the three-star range, and you should be on the safe side. Now, I know that many people will swear by the B&Bs, but honestly they're not that much cheaper in London, and I read some pretty scathing reviews. I'd look into any place carefully before booking.
3) Everyone smokes. I know: it's Europe, so we're just supposed to expect it. But really, it's pretty disgusting. My coat now smells like it was dry-cleaned in cigar smoke, and all because people there can't seem to quit lighting up. Part of the problem is space, I think. Small restaurants are too small to have a real "smoking section," so you end up with a chain-smoker sitting next to you. We even walked out of a pub one night, simply because we couldn't bear the smoke. I don't have a remedy for this one; I'm not going to just "get used to it," nor am I going to tell people (in a foreign country, no less) to quit smoking. We just had to do what we could to avoid it and turn away when we couldn't.
2) Take the time to walk into small shops. London is full of them, and they are treasures. Right next to the large department store of Fortnum and Mason was a rather small old bookstore, complete with circular staircases and intimate niches. It carried new books but didn't feel at all like a Barnes and Noble. There are shops like this all over London. Tucked away into the corners of nearly ancient buildings, they beckon to the visitor. Even if you have no intention of buying something (just keep reminding yourself of the exchange rate--it really works), it's fun to step into them and get an idea for what London is really like.
1) Pack light. This could easily be my advice for the entire trip, Paris included, but I'll throw it in here. Honestly, you always hear it on travel shows, and they aren't kidding. Europe is...small. Everything about it feels pretty small, and there really isn't room for American-sized suitcases. My husband had a rather unfortunate run-in with the ticket booth at the train station in Paris, which wasn't wide enough to accomodate the suitcase. We were smarter in London, but only because we learned to turn it sideways. So, pack light! You don't need that much, really. I had two pairs of shoes, and we each carried four days worth of clothing. It's vacation, so unless you have some obscure expedition planned that's really enough. Also, it's good to know that while you can fly out of America with two carry-ons, you can fly out of Heathrow with only one. Even a purse counts as a carry-on, so don't plan on taking too much onto the plane. Seriously, a good size backpack or rolling duffel bag is more than enough. Otherwise, you will find yourself wishing you had brought less.