England Travel: London

While many of my trips in Europe brought me to some of the world’s finest cities, I think it is fair to say that London was the most impressive. Maybe it was because my expectations were not set extremely high (I had been told for some time that London was essentially “New York, but everything is double the price because of the pound system”). While London and New York City share many commonalities– both are bustling metropolises and world leaders in finance– I found there was much about London that made it incredibly distinctive. London is full of history and culture that are unique to the city and the country of England. The red Double-Decker buses, the iconic red phone booths, the street performers, and London’s deep-rooted history were all something of a wonder. Not to mention, the city possessed one of the best transportation systems I have ever experienced in the London Underground. The Underground was truly the finest, cleanest subway system I’ve found. And the city’s history! As a history buff, I found myself rolling out World War II era facts frequently; not to mention, taking in the magnitude of sites like Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and Buckingham Palace. By the end of my study abroad journey, I would reflect on my experiences and the cities I encountered. Of them all, the only one that I could imagine myself living in– for grad school, business, or otherwise– would be London. I felt comfortable and happy as I spent a week in the United Kingdom’s capital city. I wish I could do it more often. Of course, maybe without the poor weather. 

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England was my first trip off of the Emerald Isle and it surely did not disappoint. Because I spent an entire week in London, I was able to check-off most of the city’s tourist attractions while still getting some idea of what it must be like to live there (at least, as a college student). I stayed with friends who were studying in the city, so I experienced much of what they did in a given week– from going out to eat to taking public transportation place to place. By the end of my trip, I could confidently boast that I was an “expert” at navigating the Tube. In terms of tourist attractions, I did get to see many of the city’s highlights. The first of which was Piccadilly Circus

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A photo taken in front of the Piccadilly Circus Tube station is shown above, circa March 2013. While I was in London, I received a lot of complaints from friends about Piccadilly Circus– it’s boring, it’s too much like Times Square but a lot less impressive, it’s not actually a circus (that last one might be fabricated). Yes, Piccaddilly Circus in some ways resembled a lame copy of Times Square. But, due to its Double-Decker buses flowing through, masses of crowds, street performers, and beautiful architecture (just look at those twisty buildings!) I enjoyed my brief stop through. It’s even prettier at night, especially when walking through to Oxford Circus. If anything, it was worthwhile just to catch some street performances (shown below). 

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From Piccadilly Circus, the next major tourist attraction on my list was Trafalgar Square. The square, adorned with fountains and giant lion sculptures, stands to commemorate the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. The battle was one of the most significant in British naval history. It effectively immortalized Admiral Horatio Nelson in history, as he led the British naval fleet to defeat France and Spain and halt Napoleon’s ambitions to invade the island. Today, a statue of Nelson stands in Trafalgar Square. The square is often busy with activity, being centered at the intersection of many major streets and lying adjacent to London’s National Gallery. While I did not get to see the gallery, I saw plenty of performers– and protesters– who flocked to Trafalgar Square. An image of the square is shown below, circa March 2013. 

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From Trafalgar Square, one can easily walk to many of London’s top attractions, including Buckingham Palace. The walk to Buckingham Palace itself was gorgeous. We passed through a series of parks and The Mall road, a famous section of London. There was even an old man with his (pet?) pelican. Not really sure why there was a pelican wandering the streets of London, but it was interesting to see nonetheless. And no, I wasn’t actually screaming. 

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The actual headquarters of the royal family was nice. But for me, that was about it. It’s in a relatively pretty spot surrounded by parks. One can walk right up to the gates– and on certain days, wait outside to see the changing of the guard. But to me, maybe as an American, it just seemed like a really fancy building. Not anything of the grand castles of kings and queens of old, but visually pleasing anyway. I remember remarking that I couldn’t feel any sense of magnitude being there. Conversely, at the White House, I always feel a strong sense of American pride. Buckingham Palace couldn’t do that for me, but maybe it’s due to the fact that I couldn’t care less about the royal family. There’s a reason we ditched those many years ago. 

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From there, my walk through London brought me past many interesting things– expensive sports cars in window shops, expensive dresses in window shops, and lots and lots of noodles. The museums in London were fantastic. They had so much to offer, and were all completely free. One of the things I wished I could have taken advantage of more on my trip to London was the museums. But, in my short time there, I was able to visit the London Museum of Natural History (so many dinosaurs, it was fantastic!) and the British Museum (only saw a brief bit, but impressive nonetheless). Of course, even more impressive than the museums was the walking tour of the Palace of Westminster, where the Houses of Parliament reside. My God, was this building gorgeous. It’s famed spires tower over the Thames River and looking upon Big Ben feels like something out of a movie. So surreal (especially seeing it right out of the Tube stop!) But what was even more spectacular than the building’s outside was its inside. The hallways are covered in enormous paintings depicting great moments in British history (normally battles, one of which being the Battle of Trafalgar) and statues of famous heads of state. The actual meeting chambers of the House of Lords and the House of Commons are just as impressive. In fact, the House of Lords is covered in gold-encrusted valuables (including a large gold chair where the queen sits during her visits). 

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The only way this picture could get more British is if there was a big red phone booth and a Double-Decker bus in the background as well. One great thing about the Houses of Parliament is that common people can come watch parliamentary procedures go on during certain days, including when Prime Minister David Cameron addresses the MPs. From the outside, the Palace of Westminster is an epicenter of London’s tourism– around it lies the Thames River, the London Eye, a fantastic statue of grumpy-looking Winston Churchill, and Westminster Abbey. I had a field day in Westminster Abbey. The church, located right across the street from Big Ben, is the final resting place to many great figures in British history. These include kings, queens (both Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I are buried here) and famous thinkers (including Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, which I highly enjoyed as a science geek). Even beyond the legends that lie beneath or inside the church (often in the walls, floor, or tombs inside), the church is a beautiful piece of architecture. It’s too bad I could never attend a mass here. Or whatever the Anglican equivalent is.

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Being a good tourist, I made sure to stop by (and take pictures with) the Royal Guards near Buckingham Palace on my way back from the Palace of Westminster. When I returned to London after some time away, I arrived via train– as a huge Harry Potter nerd, it was mandatory that I stopped by the Platform 9 and 3/4 at King’s Cross. There’s even a huge Harry Potter store located nearby! (Well, this isn’t actually that big of a surprise). A lot of my trip through London seemed like something out of Harry Potter– maybe it was all of the accents? On my second trip, I embarked on the river walk. Essentially, I started at one end of the Thames (near the Tower Bridge) and walked along the river all the way to the Palace of Westminster. It took quite a few hours, especially considering I had to duck into shops to avoid the cold March breezes coming off the riverfront. To begin my trip, I witnessed Tower Bridge and London Bridge (often, the two seem to be confused by Americans). London Bridge isn’t really that special– it’s just an old, small, historic bridge (that was even moved from its original spot!) Tower Bridge, on the other hand, is mighty impressive. I just wish I could have seen it with those Olympic rings– or at least, opening the draw bridge for a boat. 

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I was able to see the Tower Bridge both from ground level and from high above. This photo (pictured above), taken circa March 2013, is of the Thames River from the vantage point of the Monument. The Monument to the Great Fire of London, located on the south side of the river, is exactly what it sounds like– a tall structure built to commemorate the 1666 Great Fire of London. Over 300 steps tall, the structure provides a commanding view of the surrounding city. Something tells me that the view is much better today than when the Monument was originally built, only a few years after the fire itself. Pictured below is the view of the London financial district skyline, complete with the egg-shaped Gherkin building (possibly my favorite building in London!) The experience from up there was fantastic– views of the rushing buses and cars below and of the warships sitting in the Thames. Probably one of the best views in London (save maybe the London Eye, which I didn’t actually go on. But hey, this was much, much cheaper. Three euros, in fact!). 

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Moving down along the Thames River, I came across a number of bridges, beautiful architecture, and even Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (which, from the outside, isn’t really as impressive as you’d think). Nearby the theater, on the same side of the river, one can spot The Shard– a huge pointed building that towers over London’s north side. One of my favorite buildings from along the lengthy river-walk was the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Or, at least, I think it was St. Paul’s. Pictured below (circa March 2013). While the walk was time consuming, it wasn’t particularly difficult. As long as you don’t mind the cold breeze off the river in early spring. 

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By the river-walks end, I had made it back to the Palace of Westminster and the London Eye, An enormous ferris wheel, the London Eye sits across the river from the Parliament building and overlooks the waterfront. The price is a bit expensive (by American college student standards– slapped with those exchange rates, too!), but from what I’ve heard it provides a beautiful view of the city below. The parks and walkways around this area are always teeming with life (and tourists), and is a great place to catch some street musicians or salesmen. This was my favorite view from the area, on a bridge overlooking the two iconic London structures.

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Of course, what would be a trip to London without getting some postcard worthy photos of the Palace of Westminster? It’s one of the most iconic buildings in the world. And it consumed far too many pictures on my camera than it’s worth. And it’s worth a decent lot. Just look at those birds!Image

Some closing thoughts on London. In my remaining time, I tried living as a regular college student in the city without preoccupying myself with all of the tourist attractions (which there are a lot of, clearly). I tried Nando’s Chicken for the first time (pretty decent for “fast-food”, but a bit overpriced) and attempted to find the Prime Meridian (not sure if we found the exact spot, but we got close). I took advantage of London’s fabulous West End, home of one of the greatest theater districts in the world– after Broadway, of course. With reasonably discounted tickets, I got to see “Wicked” for the first time. What a fantastic musical! And the fact that the cast comes around back after the show is just an added bonus. 

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The Tower of London (more or less a fortified castle, not really a “tower” by contemporary definition) was a bit underwhelming, at least passing by the outside. Fortunately, it was one of the few places in London that was. And London at night? It’s pretty spectacular. 

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There’s a reason London is one of the world’s top tourist destinations. A multicultural, progressive city, London is a mark not only of Britain’s place in the world but a symbol of western ingenuity and prominence. Like New York, the city is a hub of cultural life and international finance. But London and New York cannot really be compared, other than that they are both large, important Western cities. London has a character all its own, with plenty of unique history and culture. I’m glad that I spent as much time as I did here. I actually wish I could have spent more. If Ireland hadn’t worked out, London would have been my next selection– and it would have been a great one. 

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I may miss the city, but I definitely don’t miss the pounds to dollar exchange rate. For that reason, I’m content with not going back to London for some time. Oh, and the weather is pretty bad, too. But one thing I will miss quite a lot about London is seeing those brightly colored, overly British taxi cabs. Every time I see one, I can only think of Austin Powers exclaiming, “Yeah baby, yeah!” And that’s a good thing. 

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