Even though London was my first stop, but because I had lots to plan I did not really do a thorough research of the the city. I had expected that I would simply see what others recommended online, go with the flow and pick up random snippets of information along the way. The capital city of England turned out to be more than I expected. With a history that dates back 2000 years, a walk down the their streets brings more questions then answers as to what London is truly about. I only had a total of 5 days in London. 2 days at the start of my journey and 3 at the end.
Getting around London
With such little time, I really had to maximize my visit. The first thing I did was to try to figure out how to get to town from Heathrow Airport. A regular metro serves the airport but it also offers an express service to the city which costs quite a fair bit more. The London metro has a few variations in pricing. Firstly, they go by zones – the key being the more zones you travel, the more expensive it gets. There are also different prices for non-peak and peak hours (peak: before 9.30am and between 4pm to 7pm). Because I arrived on a Saturday, I paid £8.90 for a day travel card since there are no peak hours on weekends.
My next priority was to get a map of London which I got from the hostel I was staying at (I did a review on Barmy Badgers Hostel in another post). The thing I found special about London was that they publish free detailed maps meant for people who cycle around the city. It contains every small road and highlights the places where bicycles should travel. If you are a confident enough cyclist, renting a bike for £2 – 24 hours could be a much more cost effective option since most of the sights are located around the city centre.
Be sure to head down to the Buckingham Palace to watch the change of guards procession which occurs daily or every other day depending on the season. But even though this is a daily occurrence, expect some crowd as tours always make a stop here. Roads are blocked during the band procession followed by the guards entering on horseback while the actual changing of guards actually take only about 5-10 mins consisting of salutations and marching movements.
Queens Gallery and the Royal Mews:
If Arts is your cup of tea, do visit The Queens Gallery which regularly updates its collection to reflect different themes educating the public on the extensive history of British Royalty.
While I was there, the exhibition on show was dedicated to the First Georgians in light of the 300th year anniversary of the start of the Georgian Era. The art on display spans from 1714 – 1760 which coincides with the rule of King George I and II. If you are a fervent fan of Horrible Histories, you will fondly remember the first king as the German Protestant who died of diarrhea.
(The most useless chair as its leg structure can’t take much weight)
The Royal Mews is a permanent exhibit dedicated to the various Royal Carriages and Cars that the royal family uses for official purposes. Some commonwealth nations gift carriages to the Queen and usually contains details unique to their culture such as having a Kiwi (the bird not the fruit) motif in the gold gilding to represent New Zealand. Some even have upgrades like wider windows – to allow more light, and more comfy chairs…depending on who loves the Queen more I guess.
You will also get to see up close the carriage used during Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation in 1953. Its decorated with gold on top of more gold and was so heavy that the horses could not go quickly so the procession actually took a long long time.
A beautiful oasis in heart of London, Hyde Park is a must visit! I made it a point to take a walk there in the morning when the air was crisp and fresh and the park was alive with the bustling of restless Londoners looking to relax amid its lush greenery. I even saw people swimming in the open pond, sharing its waters with fishes, swans and ducks.
I visited Borough Market, a food market, on a Saturday and it was crowded as hell. The sun was out that day and the Brits were lolling on a nearby lawn enjoying the wonderful smells and sounds coming from the Market. I particularly liked the beautiful Fresh Oysters on sale from Shell Seekers. They also sell fried scallops which is apparently quite popular from reviews online. If seafood is not for you, there are also cuisines from all over the world represented in the Market. You can wash down your meal with wine from one of their specialist wine shops and end it off with something sweet like pastries or fudges.
Columbia Road Flower Market & Brick Lane Market:
Both markets are actually quite some distance apart (about 20-30 mins on foot) but since it was a good day, I walked anyway. I started out at Columbia Road Flower Market which is located somewhat in a residential area. It took me awhile to find but I knew I was getting closer when I started seeing people carrying beautiful fresh flowers or families loading pots of plants into their car. The market was mainly a single road lined with flower vendors selling all sorts of flowers with names I haven’t heard of. Along the sides are tastefully decorated cafes offering brunch and fresh ground coffee as well whimsical gift shops.
Brick Lane Market on the other hand seemed to draw a different crowd. While Columbia market is all sunshine and flowers, Bricklane market is more gritty and has a certain spunk to it. The market is crazy huge and will definitely satisfy your shopping and dining itches. You can find a good selection of second hand items (marketed as antiques), interesting knick-knacks, handmade goods and food, as well as foods from all over the world. On the weekends, you might even be able to catch a live performance or two.
For girls and guys alike, Oxford Street is a must not miss. Popular labels such as Topshop are slightly cheaper in London than at home in Singapore and I finally got to shop at the ever famous Primark which looks to be a more fashionable Target. I made sure my stay coincided with the start of the summer sale so I managed to get great pieces from Ted Bakers and Clarks all at great steals.
Watching Les Miserables:
Catching a Musical is a must-do in this city. There are a large number of Theatres located in Leicester area and you will be spoilt for choice as to what to watch. I caught Les Miserables at the Queens Theatre by purchasing a ticket from one of the resalers that can be found around Leicester Square. First of all, make no mistake that the resalers are out to make an earning from the ticket sales. So even if you buy last minute tickets, it may be more expensive than purchasing it directly from the theatre company. Unfortunately, there were limited number of seatings on the company’s website so we bought from a resaler instead, paying almost a 50% markup in price. If you do choose to purchase from the resaler, do remember to request to look at the ticket you will be purchasing first so that you do not get a shock later on (always know what you are buying). If you feel that it is too expensive, do bargain for a better price. If you are going alone, you will most likely be able to get last min tickets from the theatre company itself.
I love love love museums. They are a pretty educational way to spend an afternoon (or a whole day if you can afford the time) and the best thing is that many of London’s best museums are FREE! I particularly enjoyed the British Museum because they have a good collection of Egyptian artifacts which I don’t get to see back home. The Natural History Museum was really fun and I can see how it will be great for kids given that their displays are simple and designed to engage children. Tate’s Modern has a nice collection of contemporary art along with changing exhibits and is only a few steps away from Shakespeare’s The Globe (this is not free). If I had a chance, I would love to go back and really spend more time in each of those places! List of Top Museums in London.
Harry Potter Studios:
I grew up with the Harry Potter series and matured along with the characters as the books and movie progressed. So I HAD TO go visit the Harry Potter Studios that created the magic onscreen. Tickets I found to be pretty pricey since it was just like a museum (mostly non-interactive). But it was fun seeing the set for places such as the great hall, the entrance to Dumbledore’s office and Diagon Alley. Do get the listening aid so that you can get to know more about what goes on behind the scenes.
To get there, you can either pay more to have a direct transport from London City or find a way to get to Euston Station from which there are regular shuttle buses that cost about £2 – 2-way