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Published: January 31st 2014
Fresh from leprechaun country, Michael and I flew to London for one day before he had to return home to the real world. We started with a Sandeman's New Europe tour (http://www.neweuropetours.eu/), and I honestly can't recommend these enough. They're not in every major city, but they do have tours in a lot of the big tourist spots like Paris and London. I went on four of these tours during my whole time in Europe, and they were always a blast. The tours usually leave from hostels and they are completely free, which means if you'd like to be a giant douchebag and leave without tipping the guide you are well within your rights to do so, but they receive no other compensation from the tour company and they're amazing at what they do.
Moral of the story? Don't be a jacka**. Tip your guide.
We met the tour at the Wellington Arch and got to hear all about Duke Wellington and what a tool he was. I don't always like guided tours, but one of the best aspects of the Sandeman's tours is the history behind the monuments. As much as I love wandering on my own, I
would have missed the story about the drunken Irishman who once climbed the walls of the queen's rose garden and made his way into Buckingham palace. Apparently he stopped by the queen's room in the middle of the night, looking for cigarettes. My favorite story comes from Green Park: every day, King Charles II would take a walk through the park, claiming that he was smelling the flowers. In reality he was visiting his mistress, and when the queen found out she ordered every single flower picked. There haven't been formal flower beds since then. I also heard stories about pigeon-eating pelicans, and the fact that Constitution Hill is made of red brick so Queen Elizabeth will always have a red carpet entrance.
We walked up Constitution Hill until we reached Buckingham Palace. The palace itself was a little underwhelming for me, but I did really enjoy the intricate black and gold gate surrounding it and the golden monument to Queen Victoria in the plaza. Next was Trafalgar Square, and it is beautiful. The famous lions are a lot of fun to take pictures with, and the square itself is very elegant and inviting. Later on in the day,
Michael and I walked past it again on our way to Chinatown for lunch. We ate dim sum at New World Chinese Restaurant, and it was a-ma-zing. I'd never had dim sum before, and on top of being a feast for my eyes it made my tummy very happy. Chinatown is a really cool part of London, and I recommend swinging by if you can.
My favorite part of London was probably one of the most touristy spots you can find: Parliament Square. On top of being an architecturally beautiful spot, it's surrounded by a flood of history and the culmination of a lifetime's worth of expectations. I was a little disappointed when I saw Buckingham Palace and very disappointed by the Tower of London (though in its defense, I had always pictured this dark edifice casting a shadow over like half of London), but the moment I saw Big Ben I fell in love. It represented everything that I had always pictured about London, this magnificent, cosmopolitan city a whole ocean away. The Houses of Parliament looked like something out of a fairy tale, though they did attract a fair amount of protesters. We barely got to see
Westminster Abbey, but it has a wonderful, dreamy sort of majesty that I really enjoyed.
It was about this time that the tour broke up and Michael and I found our way back to Chinatown and the theater district. SoHo is a great part of town, especially if you're a sucker for nifty little winding neighborhoods like I am. We popped back over to the Thames and saw Tower Bridge, the gorgeous architectural delight that everyone thinks is London Bridge. Don't go looking for London Bridge, it's barely more than a walkway across the river. Feast your eyes on Tower Bridge instead, it's the real treat.
This was also about the time that we began the Great Gherkin Hunt. You might not know the name of the Gherkin Building itself, but if you've seen a panoramic shot of London then you'll recognize the giant silver and grey Easter egg in the middle of the financial district. Michael knew it by name and insisted that we find it because you can go up to the top floor. As I'm a great lover of pretty shiny things, I agreed.
"But Kelsey," you say, "it's a 180 meter Easter egg.
Surely finding it couldn't have been that hard!"
To which I shake my world-weary head and reply, "You'll learn."
An hour and a half. That's how long we circled that stupid Easter egg, trying to find a way to reach it. We backtracked and criss-crossed, praying to the tourist gods for compassion while the daylight was burning around us. Finally, after lots of coffee and some very helpful locals, we found our way to the front door. We walked inside, the flush of victory upon our cheeks, and were very politely informed that the Gherkin is an actual place of business and no, we couldn't just go wandering around inside. I'd like to say the quest was the true reward anyway, but it wasn't. I worked my butt off, darn it, and I wanted to see the world from that freaking Easter egg.
Ah well, you can't win 'em all. It really is a beautiful building, and we had to literally put our cameras on the ground to take a picture of the whole thing. We stopped by the former site of the Globe Theater and finished off our London adventure with a Jack the Ripper tour,
because we genuinely did not want to go to sleep that night. It was brilliant and spooky, and our guide took us all across Whitechapel to every crime scene. She told stories and showed us pictures, and she even shared her personal theory about Jack the Ripper. It was the perfect way to end our London experience.
Or it would have been, if Michael and I hadn't been hungry. Before we took the Tube back to our hostel, we went foraging for food and nearly died when our sidewalk very abruptly stopped being a sidewalk. Instead of dying, we found the original Hard Rock Cafe and partied like figurative rockstars. Seriously, that place is wicked cool. I've decided that my retirement project is going to involve visiting every Hard Rock Cafe in the world. Fun memorabilia and world travel, what could be better?
As one last addendum, I would like to include a recommendation for hostels: use them (www.hostelworld.com). They're awesome. They are much cheaper than hotels, and you meet the most amazing people. These blog posts will be full of stories about cool people that I met in hostels. That being said, don't be stupid. Pick one that's safe and close to the stuff you want to visit, and for God's sake don't book one with twenty beds. I'm frugal, but that was a mistake that I won't be repeating. Other than the obvious problems with noise and security (plus the occasional extra-curricular activities in the bed next to you) it becomes easier to lose track of your guests. The hostel in London ended up double-booking Michael's bed, but thankfully they had what's called a ghost bed
, which is saved for just such occasions. I prefer hostel rooms that house 4-6 people, but that all depends on your own comfort level. When my mom traveled with me over spring break she insisted that we upgrade all of our rooms to private, and since I wasn't paying for it I was happy to oblige. We're a pair of spoiled princesses, is what I'm saying.
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