Now that I’m back in Glasgow and the teaching period is over, I can finally spend some time sharing content from my travels the past three weeks! And boy, do I have a lot to share… I actually think I will be bumping up my posting schedule to 4-5 posts per week (when time allows) for the next two months so that I can share as much of my Scotland and travel content as possible before heading back to the States.
In today’s post, I’m listing some of the activities my parents and I did in London. I’ve moved away from calling posts “travel guides” when I just visit somewhere on vacation because it’s not like I’ve seen and done everything there is to do in London. “Guide” feels a little like false advertising when in reality it is just a list of the specific places I happened to eat, stay, and see on vacation, not necessarily places I would recommend over others. Instead, I am just sharing some tips and tricks for the activities we did do in London! Due to some unforeseen circumstances and a last-minute change in plans, I ended up staying in London for eight days—so some of these activities are what I would call top-tier items (the must-sees) and other activities are second-tier (still really fun but would only recommend if you have a lot of time to spend in the city). I hope you enjoy!
The Tower of London
We spent our first day in the city exploring the Tower of London, which is a 1,000-year-old castle located on the bank of the River Thames that served as a fortress and infamous prison. Here we were able to see the Crown Jewels, learn about torture and notorious prisoners (including the execution of Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII’s second wife), observe the ravens, and hear the story of the princes in the tower. Overall, it was a great introduction to the history of London and the monarchy, and we spent several hours there. You can plan your visit here.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
A beautiful piece of architecture, my mom and I went to St. Paul’s Cathedral for a thirty-minute mass, which is held at 12:30 on weekdays. Unfortunately, it was a little hard to hear the readings, but it was still interesting to see some of the differences between the Church of England and Catholicism, which is the faith in which I was raised. It actually costs money to tour the Cathedral and the crypts below—but mass is free. They watch you like a hawk to make sure you are not cheating the system, but honestly, the free mass was enough for me to see and enjoy the cathedral. I don’t think I would have gotten much more out of the experience by paying a hefty price tag to view a few additional rooms. You can plan your visit and view the mass schedule here.
Big Ben and Parliament Square
Seeing Big Ben has been on my bucket list for ages! Mind you, I made my bucket list when I was probably about 10 years old and it was mainly comprised of famous landmarks that seemed “worth seeing” at the time. Regardless, I was still very excited to view the clocktower, and while there is still some scaffolding, I was grateful I could see the face. It was so shiny and new looking after renovations! Although, my parents and I kept joking that the clock is really quite small nowadays, compared to all the surrounding skyscrapers… Baby Ben, we like to call it. Parliament Square can get very busy and there are often protests or rallies happening there, so be aware of that when planning a visit.
I have always loved touring churches while on vacation. Maybe it’s just because I was raised religious, but I also think churches have some of the most stunning architecture and fascinating histories. Westminster Abbey was no exception. While you do have to pay to tour it, the price was worth it, in my opinion. We got to see the burial sites of famous scientists and authors like Isaac Newton and Lewis Carroll, we wandered the halls where generations of royalty have been coronated, and we stood next to the tombs of kings and queens from our history textbooks. My mom paid extra for us to tour the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries upstairs in the abbey, and while it was fascinating to learn about the effigies (creepy doll-like things they would lay on top of coffins during royal funeral processions), I personally did not find the extra gallery necessary. You can plan your visit here.
The London Eye
Riding the London Eye was another bucket list item that young me found to be absolutely essential, but in reality, it turned out to be a bit of an ordeal. The website for booking tickets is horrible, as it promises a discount for booking in advance but then never actually gives the discount. And even if you do book a time beforehand, you still have to wait in an extremely long line. I highly recommend scheduling your tickets for a weekday, probably in the early afternoon, as the area was packed with people on the weekends. Overall, while I did enjoy the 30-minute ride and the 360 degree views of the city… it was just a Ferris wheel at the end of the day. I would probably recommend saving your money for more of the incredible historical sites in the city.
Churchill War Rooms
This museum was absolutely fascinating, though I have to admit that I knew nothing about it before attending. The Churchill War Rooms is pretty much just what it sounds like—a secret underground bunker where Prime Minister Winston Churchill lived and ran the country during World War II. There was so much interesting history to learn about both the war and Churchill’s own life, and probably the coolest part is that some of the rooms were left almost exactly as they were in 1945 when they closed the doors to the bunker for the last time. Incredible! You can plan your visit here.
Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace
It seems that no trip to London is complete without a quick jaunt past Buckingham Palace. We went back and forth about whether we wanted to stay to see the Changing of the Guards, and we ultimately decided to watch part of it. Our concern was that we would get stuck in the crowd and would be unable to leave freely if they closed parts of the area off. In the end, we decided to watch the guards and the parade enter the gates of the palace and waited until one batch of guards left. To stay for the whole ceremony would have been an hour, and quite frankly, we couldn’t see or hear anything anyways (a little anticlimactic, in my opinion). We watched for probably 20 minutes from the statue of Queen Victoria in front of the palace and then were easily able to escape the crowded area when we pleased.
The British Museum
By the time we made it to the British Museum, we were a little museumed-out… but it was still an incredible space with so much to see. Luckily, the map had a really neat guide on the back of “must-sees” throughout the museum, according to how much time you were willing to spend—so it listed the must-see items for an hour visit, a two-hour visit, etc. We decided to hit all the stops for the hour visit, which included the Rosetta Stone, an Easter Island head, and sculptures from the Parthenon. However, the must-see list did not include Cleopatra’s mummy, which was shocking to me! In fact, the whole mummy/Egyptian section was amazing, and I would highly recommend it. The museum is free, although you’re still supposed to book a timeslot in advance, which you can do here.
Jack the Ripper Walking Tour through Whitechapel
This was honestly one of my favorite parts of the trip. However, I do have a certain affinity for the macabre and once did a massive research project on Jack the Ripper, so I’m not sure I would recommend this activity to just anyone… The tour lasted two hours, and we learned all about the famed serial killer, saw the locations of where some of his victims were found, and discussed theories of who the unknown murderer might have been. I imagine the tour varies greatly depending on the tour guide, but our guide Jeremy was incredible and completely made the night. This was also one of the most affordable activities we did the whole trip! You can book through the same tour company here.
Window Shopping at Harrod’s
Window shopping at Harrod’s is one of those second-tier activities that my mom and I did when we suddenly found ourselves with more time in London, yet it was surprisingly really enjoyable. I love going to ridiculously expensive department stores and being judged for “just looking”. Since my blog is all about cost per wear and affordable fashion, I just find it really interesting that someone could spend $4000 on a very fancy pair of shoes that could only be worn a handful of times. I’m not trying to be judgmental—I’m a strong believer in people spending their money however they like—but I genuinely take a lot of interest in it because it’s just so different than how I think. My mom and I spent a lot of time in the “Shoe Heaven” department, and there were some seriously gorgeous pairs! Plus, it was a treat to stroll through the fragrance section and spritz my overworn clothing with something fancy. You can browse the store’s different departments here.
Natural History Museum
Just down the way from Harrod’s is the Natural History Museum. While it was crowded with rambunctious little kids, I thought the museum had some really cool exhibits, including their earth sciences section about plate tectonics, volcanoes, earthquakes, etc. That is the kind of stuff that inspired me to major in geography! We also got to ride an escalator through this giant meteor sculpture (seen in the above picture), which was pretty damn cool. Oh—and the precious stones collection? Gave me a serious hankering to go buy some jewelry I can’t afford. I must be part fish because I automatically gravitate towards anything shiny. Like the British Museum, this museum was free! (Although they still want you to book a timeslot in advance, which you can do here.)
Recreate the Abbey Road Album Cover
I had *way* too much fun photoshopping this image of me playing John, Paul, George, and Ringo all at once. My mom and I made our way to Abbey Road after arriving in London for the second time, not expecting to spend any more time in the city. I didn’t think it would be that interesting to go to the spot of the famous Beatles album cover, but I actually had such a blast! It’s in a really quiet and beautiful residential area. I read online that the area can get insanely busy with tourists on the weekends, so we went on a Monday afternoon. There were only a few other people there to take their photos. However, the road is very busy, so my biggest piece of advice is just to be patient—you have to be willing to wait awhile for both cars and other tourists if you want the perfect shot. After our little photo-op, we strolled down the street to the Abbey Road gift shop, which had Beatles and other Abbey Road Studios souvenirs.
Harry Potter Studio Tour
I cannot say enough good things about this tour. As I’ve said a few times on the blog now, I would categorize myself as a very middle-of-the-road Harry Potter fan. I’ve read all the books, seen all the movies countless times, and know a fare amount of trivia, but I’m not a diehard fan who knows every little detail. Still, the studio tour was everything I could have hoped for and more (it was one of the top activities I wanted to do while studying abroad in the UK). We got to see props from the movies, walk through the actual sets, and learn so many interesting techniques for how they brought the books to life on film. I could honestly write a whole blog post just about this.
I will say that the location is a little hard to get to—we had to take the London Underground, a train, and the free Harry Potter bus from Watford Junction to the studios. The tour is self-guided and has two halves, with a café “rest-stop” in between. However, my parents and I realized that it’s not really equal halves—I would say we spent two hours in the first “half” and only an hour or less in the second “half”. My point is, don’t feel rushed at the halfway point. We had already spent two hours in the first section of the tour and felt like we had to hurry through the second half, when in reality there was far less to see after the rest-stop. You can plan your visit here!
Royal Observatory and the Prime Meridian in Greenwich
Since I study geography, I loved coming here to stand at the Prime Meridian and contemplate the arbitrariness of our timekeeping system. In fact, it really made my brain hurt—my mom and I decided it was a little too similar to trying to understand time travel. Regardless, it was interesting to wander the grounds of the Royal Observatory for about an hour to have one foot in the Western hemisphere and one foot in the Eastern, and to learn about the royal astronomers of the past. However, I will say that this location was pretty difficult to get to from other major London tourist attractions, so I would only venture out to Greenwich if you have the time to spare (it took us nearly an hour by bus to get to the Observatory, and that was the quickest way). You can plan your visit here.
Emirates Air Line Over the Thames
After our morning at the Royal Observatory, we walked 45 minutes (which was not a very scenic route at all) to the Emirates Greenwich Peninsula. There, we stopped at a café and then hopped on the Emirates Air Line to take the 6ish minute cable car ride over the River Thames. I would not recommend this to someone who is afraid of heights (like my mom), as the cable car rocks a little and you go pretty high in the air. I enjoyed the views of the Thames, but I do have to say that the areas on either side of the river, where the cable car departed from, were rather ugly—very industrial and lots of construction. I thought it was a cool thing to do—since we were spending a day in this part of town anyway—but I don’t think I would recommend someone to go out of their way to take this ride. It was convenient that you could pay for it like any other public transportation, though (since we stayed in London for so long, we purchased visitor Oyster cards for the Underground—I highly recommend this to save money and hassle when buying subway tickets).
What Not to Do in London
There are two activities my mom and I tried that I can very safely not recommend. The first was the Tate Modern, a free gallery of modern art along the Thames. There were no maps and very poor signage, so my mom and I spent at least 20 minutes wandering through this huge building just to find the art. By the time we did find it, we were frustrated by the whole experience and disappointed by a lot of it (I guess I just don’t get ‘modern’ art—but that’s a discussion for another time).
The other activity we tried was touring the London Mithraeum, which is the ruins of a Roman temple now located beneath a skyscraper. Sounds cool in theory, but I thought the exhibit was very underwhelming—I walked away with no increase in knowledge about what a Mithraeum is, what the Romans did there, etc. All I can say is thank goodness both the Tate Modern and this exhibit were free. Of course, these are just my opinions, but I would not encourage you to make these sites a priority on your London bucket list.
Overall Impressions of London
Lastly, I wanted to share some overall impressions of the city. Obviously, London is huge, so it takes a really long time to get around. Thankfully a lot of the sites are within walking distance of each other (such as Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, the London Eye, and the Churchill War Rooms), but other locations took 45 minutes to an hour to get to by public transit. Heathrow Airport was especially painful to get to, and I have to say that all four of our experiences there were very unpleasant.
On the plus side, the city was a lot cleaner than I expected (at least in the areas where we visited). Although, ironically, there is a severe shortage of trash cans. Seriously—we could hardly ever find a place to throw our trash. For the first leg of our journey, we stayed in the Theatre District, and it was very alive and energetic. Big city vibes bustling with well-dressed people heading to work. In fact, the fashion scene was amazing—I saw some very chic women “mooching about”, as the English would say. My biggest warning, however, is that London is expensive. So expensive. Most of the big sites cost money, and not just five or 10 bucks—usually $20 or more. Plus food. Plus hotels. Plus public transit, which adds up SO quickly. All I’m saying is… it’s hard to ball on a budget in London. Keep that in mind when planning a trip.
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Overall, I had an amazing time exploring this lively city and was able to see everything I wanted and so much more. I hope you enjoyed this extensive blog post (props to you if you’re still reading), and please drop me any questions below if you are planning your own trip to the city! Also let me know in the comments if you have ever been to London before and what activity you enjoyed most when visiting.
Miles of smiles,