When I first started this blog toward the end of 2013, I was excited to use it as a place to share my travel experiences. Obviously, it has turned into more of a lifestyle blog, but I am still excited to write posts about our adventures. Since I haven’t done one of these posts in a long time, I want to share what I wrote as an introduction to my first “Travel with Me” account:
I love planning vacations. It probably is not an exaggeration to say that my absolute favorite way to pass the time is sitting down with my calendar, scouring through tons of reviews and friend recommendations, booking flights and hotels, and creating lists of things to do on a trip. I get very excited and distracted when I’m in full trip-planning mode.
One of my other favorite things to do is share my travel experiences with friends and family that are traveling to the same places as I did. I’ve been known to write extremely lengthy emails full of suggestions for a perfect vacation. Basically, I probably should have become a travel agent. Maybe I still will “when I grow up”.
I’ve decided to break up my Travel with Me posts into three types: (1) What We Did, (2) What We Ate & Where We Stayed, and (3) Planning & Other Recommendations. This way, people who would like to just read a simple trip re-cap can just read the first post, and those that are actually looking to plan a trip and get activity, attraction, restaurant, hotel, and planning advice and reviews can read all three.
In May of this year, my husband and I had the opportunity to travel to Europe! Our first stop was London. I’ll get to Paris in future posts….
When we first arrived in London, Daniel and I checked into our hotel, quickly unpacked, and went out to explore the city. We took our mini tripod around with us so that we could take pictures with the two of us together, so this first day was really all about finding the perfect picture spots and soaking in the feel of the city. We spent the majority of the evening at Trafalgar Square and in the Piccadilly Circus and Soho neighborhoods. I’ve heard people describe Piccadilly Circus as the Times Square of London, and that is a pretty good description. We loved this area! There were so many cute restaurants, coffee shops, and stores to browse around in.
Mandatory red phone booth picture!
Westminster Abbey (Fun fact – Big Ben is actually the bell inside that tower and not the tower itself).
Our second day in London included the two events I was most excited for in this city: a bike tour and a show at the theatre!
5 out of 5 stars
We decided to do a bike tour the morning of our first full day in London. I picked the highest rated tour on TripAdvisor, Brakeaway Bike Tours, and booked our trip online. We loved the experience! We did the Grand London Bike Tour because that was the recommended tour for people who were visiting for the first time. The tour lasted about four hours; the guide stopped us at many of the famous London attractions including The London Eye, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace (where we watched the changing of the guard), and St. Paul’s Cathedral. He also took the time to point out less well-known spots that were very interesting, including a hotel that pays for your funeral if you pass away while staying there and the oldest wig shop in London.
I highly recommend you book this tour if you are traveling to London for the first time. A biking tour allows you to cover more ground than a walking tour does, and we felt better oriented with the city once we had finished. Before the tour, I was slightly concerned about running into pedestrians while biking, but the guide was very careful to take us on pathways and roads that were less busy than the main routes would have been. As another plus, our guide gave us a list of recommended restaurants, pubs, and activities. We ended up going to one of the recommended pubs at the end of our time in London – I will write about that experience in my upcoming Travel with Me // London – What We Ate post. I would love to go back to London one day and take the Secret London Bike Tour!
Getting on our bikes in the Graffiti Tunnel – this tunnel was originally painted by the famous Graffiti artist Banksy but is now open to be painted by anyone
Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace
The tickets were £20 for each adult – about $34 each.
5 out of 5 stars
After the bike tour, it was time for us to get ready for the show – Les Miserables! Before this, I had only seen the musical at a children’s theatre and the movie, so I was in for a treat.
We had a nice pre-show dinner, and then we made our way to Queen’s Theatre. I have always dreamed of seeing this musical in London, and it was everything that I hoped it would be! As you can imagine, the talent was unmatched and the sets were beautiful. I got chills throughout the entire show but especially during the end of the first act.
Our tickets were £94.50 total – about $160, and we did not have the best seats, so this was a pricey event. As a reference in case you are deciding on which seats to choose for yourself, we sat in C17 & C18 in the Upper Circle. See the picture below for our view, which I thought was just fine. None of the stage was cut off as we were watching, and it was just low enough that we did not miss out on the set detail toward the top (you would miss this if you sat higher than a few rows above us). Unfortunately, I got stuck sitting behind a really tall person who liked leaning forward, but if a person of average height had been in front of me, it would have been a great view, especially for being so high up.
View of the stage from our seats – the curtain was down at this point, but when it came up, we could see the full stage
After the show, we walked around the area to find a fun place for drinks. It was neat to see what the London night life is like.
On the morning of our third day, we started our day by getting lost. This was really frustrating because I kept thinking about all of the time we were wasting. In the end, I regret that I let myself get frustrated rather than just enjoy walking through an exciting city seeing places we would not have seen had we not gotten lost. I took this thought with me the rest of the trip.
Once we found our way again, we headed over to Portobello Market.
4 out of 5 stars
If you enjoy shopping around at various market stands, hearing lots of live music, people watching, and trying unique foods, Portobello Market is for you! It is only open on Saturdays which makes it very crowded, but it is well worth the visit. We actually didn’t spend much time shopping or trying foods because of the crowds, but it was a fun experience to just walk through everything. On the way back to the tube from the market, we passed through Notting Hill – a very upscale and beautiful neighborhood. It was fun to see the big houses and all the fancy cars parked on the street.
These two were lip syncing and air guitaring for hours. It was hilarious!
4 out of 5 stars
Our next stop was the British Museum. When you first walk into the museum, you enter a beautiful atrium with a glass roof. From there, you can pick which exhibits and parts of the museum you’d like to visit. A few of the highlights from our visit include Cleopatra’s mummy, the Rosetta Stone, and one of the Easter Island statues. There were many, many exhibits that we did not have time to visit, so we will have to return someday!
The museum is free and open everyday from 10am to 5:30pm.
London Review Bookshop
Daniel and I always make a point to visit local bookstores whenever we travel. We found this one near the British Museum. It was a neat little shop with a small cafe attached to it – be sure to visit if you like to see local bookshops!
On our final day in London, we had a packed schedule. As usual, time and energy limitations from earlier in the trip had forced us to put many of our “must-sees” on our list of activities for the final day.
4 out of 5 stars
Our first stop of the day was at the Globe Theatre. We did a 10am tour after exploring the Exhibition. The Exhibition gave a very interesting overview of Shakespeare’s life and the history of the Globe Theatre. Our tour lasted for about an hour, and we really enjoyed it; our guide took us into the main part of the theater and talked about many interesting facts about the past as well as how the theater is used today. Unfortunately, the play that was showing at the time (Titus Andronicus) involved a solid black background, so the detailing and color of the stage were covered by giant black sheets as you can see in the pictures. We did get to see the stage manager crawl through the trap door in the stage as he was setting up for that evening’s show, so that was fun to watch.
The Exhibition is open every day from 9am to 5:30pm, and tours are given every half hour on Mondays, 9:30am to 5pm; Tuesdays through Saturdays, 9:30am to 12:30pm; and Sundays, 9:30am to 11:30am. Tickets are £13.50 per adult, but we got them “buy-one-get-one-free”! I will explain in my future Planning London post what we did to get this deal.
5 out of 5 stars
Our next stop was the Tower of London! Let me tell you, this was much different than what I had imagined. The main surprise for me was that the Tower is not just one tower. It’s a fortress with multiple towers, none of which were as tall as I expected. Our guide was an actual Beefeater who lives in the Tower of London. This is going to show my ignorance of English history, but right up until before I wrote this section of this post, I thought our guide was just playing a part. But no! My all-knowing husband informed me that he was an actual Beefeater, and he did in fact actually live there. So, obviously, this guy knew his facts and stories! His stories were very gory and violent in a humorous kind of way. Just in case you are considering bringing kids, I’m not sure that I would bring them on this tour unless they have a strong sense of humor and can stomach graphic, violent stories of beheadings and torture. I learned a lot of history and interesting information, and I highly recommend this tour on any trip to London.
Our Beefeater tour guide
Knight Exhibit in part of the Tower
The Beefeaters keep ravens on the property because of legend that says “if the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it.”
The Crown Jewels are displayed in an exhibit inside of the Tower and are guarded by the Beefeaters. The Crown Jewels are the regalia or objects involved with the coronations of English Kings and Queens. The current display was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1994. It was neat to see such treasured objects up close and in person.
The Tower admission price is £22 per adult, but once again, we got a “buy-one-get-one-free” deal. It is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9am to 5:30pm and Monday through Sunday 10am to 5:30pm. They close an hour earlier during winter (November through February).
3 out of 5 stars
Kensington Palace is the royal residence of Will and Kate. Obviously, we did not tour their actual home, but there is a whole side of the palace that is open to the public. There were four different exhibits: the King’s State Apartments, the Queen’s State Apartments, Victoria Revealed, and Fashion Rules. Each section focused on a different royal family or a different piece of history. Overall, I enjoyed our time there, but we found one of the exhibits to be a bit strange; in the Queen’s State Apartments, there was an exhibit focused on Queen Mary II. It consisted of a long dream sequence with paper birds hanging from the ceiling and whispering voices echoing throughout the halls. There was even a room filled with lit birdhouses that was very pretty (see picture below) but didn’t seem to make a lot of sense for a palace exhibit. We really enjoyed and learned a lot from the other exhibits in the palace. I would recommend taking the time to come to this palace, but if you are short on time, you could skip the Mary II exhibit and not miss out on much.
Palace admission is £16.50 per adult, and it is open daily from 10am to 6pm, and the last time to get in is 5pm.
Kensington Gardens & Hyde Park
5 out of 5 stars
After a long day of touring historical buildings and gaining a wealth of knowledge, it was time to wander around a couple of gorgeous parks filled with gardens, ponds, and fountains. Kensington Gardens begins right behind Kensington Palace and extends for 242 acres (!!), eventually turning into Hyde Park. We found the well-known Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens and enjoyed the nice weather and people watching. At this point, we were killing time before meeting Daniel’s co-worker for dinner nearby, so we got to spend quite a bit of time exploring the parks. Spending time in both of these parks is a “must-do” in London!
After going to a cute British pub for dinner, we walked around with Daniel’s coworker and friend Jonathan, got gelato, and took pictures of the beautiful buildings at night. Then it was time to pack and get ready for our train to Paris the next morning!
I’ll be back – hopefully sooner rather than later – with a couple more posts on London, and then I’ll get to my posts about Paris! Thanks for reading!