My first visit to London was a last-minute trip. I was about to turn 30 and my lifelong goal of traveling abroad before this milestone birthday was quickly evaporating. On a Thanksgiving bargain — roundtrip airfare for only $230! — I quickly jumped at the chance to fly to Heathrow and to uncover things to do in London with friends.
We did all things touristy during the trip. We stayed in the posh neighborhood of Kensington at an intimate hotel on Crowell Road called the Adelphi. Our prerequisites: rooms with private baths, a location close to the Tube (in this case Gloucester Road) and an in-house pub for late hours. The Adelphi Hotel was just fine for the deal we were getting, but the room was so small that in order to get to my side of the bed, I had to rub along the wall — obviously not the only one to do so as the wallpaper had been pretty much rubbed off at butt level.
We spent our first jet-lagged day getting acquainted with the city by riding a double-decker bus. I highly recommend this activity for a first-time visitors, as you can see all the sites, learn your way around and not move a muscle.
We visited Westminster Abbey, the Cabinet War Rooms, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Kensington and Buckingham Palaces, and the Tower of London. We watched the changing of the guard and the horse parade. Wze enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner at a lovely Indian restaurant in Kensington, partook of many types of ale in local pubs and walked in the rain for a Jack the Ripper nighttime tour (very frightening neighborhoods still!).
On a break from my friends who decided to go shopping, I headed outside of the city to visit Hampton Court, a palace of King Henry VIII designed by Christopher Wren (who also designed St. Paul’s, among other London landmarks). I enjoyed a typical Sunday brunch in a local pub, and then rode the Tube to the town of Wimbledon. As a tennis junkie, I walked through the quaint streets to find the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club and then spent an hour in the gift shop and adjoining museum. Although all the places we visited could be named as a top destination on my list, the day outside the city was what clinched my deep like for London.
Minding the Gap, Again
In a completely unparalleled universe, my second flight to London began what my friend and I nicknamed “the Good Karma Tour.” As I was boarding the plane, the ticket agent called our names. The flight was overbooked and passengers were being told they would have to wait until the next day. We thought we were doomed. Instead, we were told they had to rearrange our seats and that we had been moved closer to the front. When we board, I literally stopped in my tracks (causing my friend to slam into me) as I realized “closer to the front” meant business class. The unfortunate passengers around us had to deal with two adult 30-something women acting like schoolgirls who had just been asked to the prom as we played with our flying reclining seats and gorged on delightful meals, complete with an ice cream sundae cart with fresh fruit toppings.
During this second stay, we decided to forgo the cheap-yet-comfy hotel experience and choose the name-brand comfort of the Marriott in the Marble Arch district. The location was key for our purpose of traveling up and down Bond and Oxford Streets to shop. Our hotel was near Hyde Park, and a quick stroll through the park found us in the West End and the upscale shopping in Kensington and King’s Cross.
Once we arrived and settled into our hotel, we meandered through the city and stopped for a quick visit to the National Gallery. More benefits of a repeat visit: Knowing my way around made it feasible to simply pop in (it’s free) and just visit some of some of my favorite Impressionist pieces in the East Wing. At the end of the day, we called a friend we had met during our first visit and met his family in Notting Hill for dinner. To further ease into our first night, we enjoyed the hotel’s indoor pool and hot tub, and easily soaked away our jet lag.
Day two, our Good Karma tour continued with sunny, 60-degree weather and a taste of royalty. We decided to be a bit touristy and headed to Windsor Castle. As we walked up the winding road past Eton, the band paraded by. When we entered the main gate of the castle, the changing of the guards had just begun. We left the castle for lunch and sat at an outdoor cafe on a cobblestone street. The cafe had two plaques: one stating the first floor housed an apartment belonging to William Shakespeare, while the other was signed by a handful of courtiers declaring the king was under arrest for not paying taxes. Meanwhile, our view was of the castle, where the Queen herself was in residence. Here we were, sitting on a street of kings, queens and Shakespeare, and I couldn’t think of a better day. We returned to the hotel that night and quickly changed to head out for our first night of theatre at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.
Our tour continued with shopping in Kensington at Burberry and Harrods, and following a fellow London-obsessed woman’s advice to head to King’s Crossing, where we came across couture shops filled with beautiful clothes — perfect for window shopping. I also discovered a Burberry factory outlet that could be found in Hackney, which required a bit of exploration and many wrong turns to find what was then a hole in the wall with fantastic steals. Dining in many of the city’s best restaurants before each night’s theatre, we also had good karma on our side when we attempted to visit a Gordon Ramsey restaurant before a show. Unfortunately, the restaurant was closed and we wouldn’t have time to eat once they officially opened, and we were disheartened. Until Gordon Ramsey himself overheard our dismay and invited us in for a pre-theatre appetizer that he would whip up for us! What luck!
Feels Like Home
I’ve returned to London so many times since my first two trips, it feels like home. I have friends in the city I can call to meet me when I pop into town, which I love, as they can show me places near and dear to them versus what is written in guidebooks. I’ve visited to attend a 40th birthday party at the top of Tower Bridge and to enjoy a champagne flight around the London Eye while dressed in black tie. For such a special event, I chose to stay at the Lanesborough, a St. Regis property. My, what a difference in accommodations a decade can make!
My last trip, just last summer, I splurged and stayed at the Rosewood Hotel near Covent Garden. This is the creme of the crop in terms of luxury, and while I was beyond satisfied with my room, a chance meeting at an event with the hotel manager resulted in a knock at my door the next day to upgrade me into a suite so large that I could not use every part of its amenities and space in the one day I had left in the city. Even with numerous trips beneath my belt, when I met a friend for dinner in St. Christopher’s Place, I discovered a charming pedestrian shopping and dining area I had never-before visited.
It’s why I truly love London. It surprises me, it immerses me in history, it can be done on a budget or high-end splurges, there is culture at every turn, the dining can be superb (yes, really!), and the people are so friendly you will find them awaiting you on your next return.