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Published: December 27th 2015
Big Ben & House of Parliaments
Standing on the River Thames looking at London's iconic landmark
On paper, London is the who's who of global cities. It's the world's most visited destination and has the busiest airport on Earth (Heathrow), making JFK look as empty as a Jags game. It has the most billionaires in the world (72), so plentiful that Sir Richard Branson is just another number. It's considered the world's leading financial center and top investment spot, even Forbes Magazine
brushed aside New York City and Wall Street to call London the most influential city on the planet. The town's conglomerate of 43 universities was ranked #1 internationally for higher education, making Cambridge, Massachusetts feel like junior high. And if that weren't enough, it's the only city to host the Olympics 3 times, an ode to its incredible infrastructure that comprises of top-class museums, a theater scene second only to Broadway, and the world's first metro system.
But all this comes at a price. Real estate here costs Є25,000/m2
--which for the math-illiterate is $2,500/ft2
--meaning 2 grand in this town will afford you a spot to stand and wipe your butt (toilet paper not included). It's also considered the 3rd most expensive city in the world after Tokyo and Moscow, only because Putin's antics
Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace
The quintessential English thing to do at the Queen's residence
have jacked up prices in the laughing-stock they call Russia. However, Kristina and I wanted to make the trek to London after a short stay in Dublin thanks to the stronger dollar. But our excitement was short-lived because even with a 1 GBP to 1.50 USD conversion rate, a cup of tea for £5 still translates to $34,895,564,788.
We landed at Stansted airport with our friends and took the 2-hour ride on the Airport Express into the city center, which was anything but "express." After some bewilderment walking through the suburbs of Peckham, which looked like the result of Chinatown and Little Nigeria having a baby, we finally found our AirBnB, dropped off the luggage, and headed back into the city using our Oyster Card (£5 refundable deposit with a £6.40 daily cap if traveling in Zones 1-2). Our first stop was Hyde Park and the Winter Wonderland, something more akin to a seaside carnival than a Christmas market. We tried some chimney cakes of the coconut and cinnamon variety, then headed to the free Natural History Museum for a refresher on gems, mammals, dinosaurs, and everything that make Ross Geller gitty; if science or design are more up
Prime Meridian in Greenwich
Kristina stands in the Western Hemisphere, while I stand in the Eastern
your alley, peek into the Science Museum or Victoria and Albert Museum around the corner. We elected, instead, to stroll around Covent Garden, the epicenter of holiday festivities in London, earning the city the #3 spot on Buzzfeed's best Christmas towns. This small mall was admittedly overhyped and overpriced with the decorations unremarkable and atmosphere uninspiring, something you'd find in any high-end shopping district. After a quick dose of window shopping, we were ready for dinner, so off we went to Punjab (80 Neal St.), the U.K.'s oldest northern Indian restaurant. We and the other couple ordered chicken tikka masala with rice and butter chicken with nan, both of which were incredibly flavorful and perfectly seasoned. While not cheap (£30 per couple without drinks or tip), the meal was worth its value to get a taste of Britain's national dish.
We left dinner when the owner scurried us away to make room for the growing line outside. Choosing to stroll the nearby streets, we landed in a charcuterie specializing in Iberian ham called Enrique Tomas (68 Neal St). The butcher offered us samples through the window so we entered eager for a taste, but left with a curiosity for
Platform 9 3/4
A mecca for Harry Potter fans the world over at King's Cross station
the art of aged ham. Another salesman down the road at a cosmetic store, Sakare (50 Neal St), piqued our interest by demonstrating an amazing nail buffer, but failed to pull off a sale with us. We ended the night exploring Oxford St--Europe's busiest shopping avenue, which is quite a feat considering the Champs-Elysees is just across the Channel--tried some boba tea, and headed home.
Our group began the next morning traveling to Greenwich for a chance to stand on two hemispheres simultaneously. The Prime Meridian was determined in 1884 in Washington D.C. by a delegation of 25 countries, which defined the arbitrary longitude as the line passing through the cross-hairs of the telescope at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Due to tectonic plate shifts, the current meridian is 334 feet east of the telescope, but that didn't deter us from straddling the line for a picture.
We then skirted off to Borough Market just south of the River Thames. Based on reviews, we tried the chorizo roll from Brindisa and the duck confit from La Marche du Quartier. The former is a smokey, spicy sausage sandwiched between bread and the latter is a wonderfully juicy wrap. If
A landmark for the 21st century London
able, other notable markets to visit are Camden Lock, Portabello, and Old Spitalfields. Since we were short on time and wanted to see the Changing of the Guards by noon at Buckingham Palace, we hurried off to catch a glimpse of the most quintessential English attraction.
The Queen wasn't home that day, as evidenced by the Union Jack flying above the residence instead of the Royal Standard, but that didn't dampen the occasion (although the rain certainly did). Nothing feels more British than guards in tall, furry hats marching in tune to... Christmas carols? Well, we didn't care really, besides the fact that the guards foregoed adorning their iconic red jackets for grey ones that looked like crap, or as the Brits call it, "bloody hell!"
Our group then strutted off to another landmark, Big Ben and Westminster House of Parliaments. The initial awe factor was certainly there when we stepped out of the Tube station, so we decided to take our traditional "foot picture" here. After a quick walk across the bridge overlooking the London Eye, we visited Kensington Palace to appease Kristina's obsession with the Royal Family. Whether Prince George or Princess Charlotte were home remains
The marble sculptures of the Parthenon in Athens displayed at the British Museum
a mystery, but our peaceful stroll through the area was enough to warrant a look. It comes as no surprise the real estate in this part of town has 7-digit price tags, but to be neighbors with the Royals is truly priceless. Since we couldn't afford anything around here, we settled for a Christmas ornament from a nearby shop as a souvenir to satisfy our annual tradition.
Afterwards, we and our friends took the Tube to King's Cross station to visit Platform 9 3/4, the fictional site where aspiring wizards in Harry Potter
come to catch the Hogwarts Express. In typical tourist fashion, we interpreted the term literally and searched between platforms 9 and 10, but came out empty-handed. It was only after the security guard laughed at our mistake did we manage to find it; all fun and games, until you miss your train to Hogwarts...
We then returned to Soho to visit the British Museum, home of the real Rosetta Stone, not the one that teaches you to say, "Hi," in 12 different languages. This legendary rock was discovered by a French soldier in 1799 during the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt, but following their defeat to
The star attraction of the British Museum
the British 2 years later, the stone was forfeited and has been on public display almost continuously since then. Its significance lies in the 3 inscriptions of King Ptolemy V's decree in 196 B.C., first in hieroglyphics, second in Demotic script, and third in Greek. This allowed scholars to decipher hieroglyphics, which was achieved 20 years later in Paris.
Besides housing the Rosetta Stone, the British Museum is a vast and beautifully furbished complex filled with antiquities, not the least of which include the collection of sculptures from the Parthenon called the Elgin Marbles. Its presence in these halls is of great controversy; many argue the Earl of Elgin's removal of half the remaining structure from the Acropolis in 1801 was in essence, vandalism. Since Greece's independence from the Ottoman Empire, the country had expressed disapproval and demanded its return, but the issue remains unresolved.
Following a short scamper around the building, widely regarded as a top 5 museum internationally, we opted to skip the National Gallery where works by Van Gogh and Botticelli's Venus and Mars
are on display. Instead, Kristina and I separated from our friends to seek out e5 Bakehouse (395 Mentmore Terrace), a top 25 bakery in the world. This turned out to be an ill-advised venture that got us lost on the streets of Hackney. By the time we had our bearings straight, the shop had closed 15-minutes early, so we returned to our AirBnB empty-handed. Little did we know this would be the least of our worries. The journey to Victoria Station where we planned to catch the coach to Paris later that night was fraught with obstacles; from having trouble unlocking the apartment door, to problems finding our luggage, to sprinting through the muddy streets of Peckham, to malfunctions with the Oyster Card, to the Tube experiencing systemic issues, to not getting our Oyster Card refund and groceries smoothly at the station. But we made it in the nick of time and plopped our sweaty, tachycardic bodies onto the bus for a 6-hour ride to the City of Lights. What an end to a tumultuous couple of days in London!
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