Let's be honest. You can spend a ton of money on traveling the world or what you could do is wait until a friend is going somewhere on business and tag along mooching their free hotel room so you can kick around a cool place for a week. You do it your way if you want. Mine, where all I pay for is the flight and some food, works out pretty well. I had the opportunity to do this in London in March and I can report it was a great way to get away. I will also say that I didn't anticipate this being a three part post but here we are. So for the first three days in the UK here's what we did.
Really it’s Sunday into Monday. Flew through the night on Virgin Atlantic. Slept some but not a ton. The flight was fine. Customs was crowded but I travel light and it didn’t really take very long to get though considering how many people they were processing. Against others advice I took a cab from the airport to the hotel. If I’m being honest I was tired, disoriented and Uber wasn’t working on my phone at the time. Just wanted to get to the hotel get a shower and be on my way. We stayed at the Double Tree in Ealing, the cab was pretty expensive and I can say, sorry cabbies, I Ubered any time I needed a ride after that. Uber would have been roughly half the price
Blakes for Breakfast:
Flew overnight leaving on Sunday but I was very paranoid that I’d arrive check into the hotel and fall asleep and miss out on a day. To prevent that I purposely made a reservation at Blakes Hotel in Kensington for breakfast. It was a beautiful sunny day in March when I arrived so after dropping off my bags, getting myself a shower and a change of clothes so I didn’t smell like someone that had been on a plane all night I took the tube to the stop nearest to Blakes and walked the rest of the way. Situated in a quiet neighborhood Blakes was the perfect way to start the trip. I really didn’t need the reservation as there was only one couple and myself in the restaurant. I don’t know if this is typical as I never went back or if it had more to do with the time I arrived (I got there at 10am) but they put me in a nice, comfortable seat by the window the service was wonderful as was the food. I took my time, enjoyed my breakfast, a couple cups of coffee and just relaxed. Once I was done I made my way back to the street and along my way.
Natural History, Big Ben, Leak Street Tunnel
I had originally planned from here to hop back on the train and head towards Big Ben and Westminster Abbey and then hit the natural history museum after but considering how nice the weather was and after checking Google maps and noticing the museum was basically right between me and Westminster Abbey I called an audible and switched things around. The Natural History Museum was great and museum hopping in London is something you have to do many of them are free (unless you choose to donate which maybe you should) and packed with amazing exhibits. Going in the middle of the day like I did means dodging a lot of school kids but hey that’s not any different from any other museum in the world and it’s not that big an inconvenience. Don’t be such a Scrooge.
Let me be clear about something regarding day one. I’m not saying that the distances were minimal. I walked a lot this day and most days for that matter. I really like walking especially as a means of introducing myself to a new place. If you’re not someone who is able or willing to walk a lot I would just suggest you utilize your transportation options. One nice thing about all that walking though are random things you happen by along the way, random places you might not see other than the interior of a subway tunnel and chances to interact with new people. Just find places you want to hit in the day and map out what’s in between each one so you have stops and have fun. For instance there were a few things I wouldn’t have seen otherwise like just happening by Westminster Cathedral or when I finally arrived and I crossed the Westminster bridge to get a better picture I realized how close I was to the Leake Street tunnel and wandered over there too. The Leake Street tunnel was also known as the Banksy tunnel, although from what I understand most of his work is now covered up, and has some really interesting street art.
Well from there I did try and walk back for a while (my hotel was quite a ways away so I was never going to walk all the way) but at that point I was finally starting to slow down so I called up an Uber and headed back to the hotel periodically dosing off in the back seat. Joined up with my friend who I was traveling with for dinner and a drink at the Grange Pub and then to bed so I could get up early the next morning.
So, the entire time I was planning this trip there was a debate going on in my head about spending the entire time in London (there is after all a lot to do in London) or getting out to the countryside, visit Stonehenge, Southhampton, I even debated hopping on the train to Paris for a day. I had not settled any of those questions at this point in time but I did wake up early in the morning on the second day catch an Uber down to Paddington station and head to Oxford. I’m so glad I did this. Still recovering from spending the night on the plane and not really sleeping the following day the pace of Oxford, while I still did a lot, was exactly what I needed at this time. Oxford too felt more like I was in England (as I had envisioned it in my head going over). While there are certainly things unique about London the striking thing I found throughout the week was the similarities not the differences. Many an Uber driver as I made my way around London asked me how different it was and I could tell they were expecting me to be a kind of shell shocked tourist trying to handle how everything was so different here but if I’m being really honest while there are certainly different attractions and things that are very unique to London it doesn’t feel dramatically different than being in New York, Washington DC or San Francisco. That may simply be a commentary on the homogenization of modern cities. So, Having boarded the wrong train, going to the right place just slightly earlier, I arrived in Oxford a little before I had intended. I was planning a walking tour later that morning and I had booked some time to visit C.S. Lewis home later in day, something you just need to email them and ask to do, but aside from breakfast and paying homage to Lewis and Tolkien (yes I am a nerd) I had not, strictly speaking, planned much this day. Just playing it by ear. I headed to the Turl Street Kitchen for breakfast. You’ll notice a lot of breakfasts as we go on and I will not be apologizing for that. Breakfast is by far my favorite meal of the day and I made sure to take full advantage of all breakfast options while in the UK as there were some really good ones.
The plan from there was to walk over to Blackwell’s Bookshop a book store that bosts a room, The Norrington Room, which the internet tells me is the single largest display of books in the world while I killed some time waiting for my tour. While at Blackwell’s I met a nice older man who told me a tour of Mr. Blackwell’s office was about to take place so I decided to check it out. My tour guide’s name, to my shame, I am unable to remember but he was a very kind older man who works for one of the tour agencies in town during the summer but was supplementing by doing these since he wasn’t really starting that until the warmer months began. He did make sure to tell me that I shouldn’t go on the free Footprints tour I was going on was pretty much rubbish since they’re not properly trained and don’t know what they’re talking about. The way he kept stopping every few seconds to smile and ask if I was impressed was a little off-putting too but I knew he meant well and it was genuinely interesting to see the office so no harm no foul. The office belonged to Benjamin Blackwell and was left in the same condition it would have been in during his time considering that at least a few famous writers had sat at the desk. After the tour I grabbed another cup of coffee at the Cafe Nerro in the shop, which from what I can tell from this trip is basically just the British Starbucks, and then departed.
My bookstore tour guide had almost convinced me at that point not to take part in the footprints tour and I wandered up the street a bit only changing my mind at the last second and rushing over to join up with the group just as they were getting ready to leave. I’m glad that I did. Oxford is not very big but I still didn’t really know my way around I could have wandered aimlessly all day without really seeing much of anything if I hadn’t. The tour was lead by a recent Oxford grad just trying to make a little extra cash and it wasn’t like we really went into any of the buildings but he seemed quite knowledgeable about what he was covering with us describing each building and what was inside as well as some other attractions around the city. By the time we were done I knew where the buildings were that I wanted to see and I had successfully walked around a large portion of the town so I had my bearings and could choose more accurately what I wanted to see while killing time before my tour of CS Lewis house.
A couple things to know about the free tours. First, while yes the tour is in fact free the kid is working for tips and unless you’re a complete cold hearted bastard you really should tip him so it ends up costing you something. Second, one thing I will warn about is that on their website you can reserve your spot on the tour and they charge you a couple bucks for that. This is a complete waste of money to do. As I said I walked up at the last second and just jumped in with the tour and they certainly weren’t doing any head counts or arguing about an extra person joining in (the kid’s working for tips after all he’ll take as many as he can) so I wouldn’t bother reserving anything for this.
Following my tour I walked back around town going into some of the places we covered such as seeing Einstein’s blackboard, that he wrote on while giving a lecture on the theory of relativity, at the museum of the history of science or going by Christ Church so I could take some Harry Potter related photos for my friends back home (also see the Becket Window and other things but let’s be honest the Harry Potter stuff). Christ Church is free to get in if you are there to attend services at the cathedral. However, since that is not what I was there to do, many pictures were taken, and since I’m sure that money goes to maintaining things that are a valuable part of experience I didn’t mind paying and went ahead and did so.
As I was doing these things the thought occurred to me that I was approaching time for my appointment at CS Lewis house, The Kilns, but since it was only a couple miles away, originally I had planned to walk it, and I was enjoying myself so much I made the call to just call up an Uber when I got close to the time and catch a short ride over there so I could sightsee some more. Here’s the mistake I made. I assumed that Uber was an option in Oxford. I literally pulled up the app saw no vehicles walked to a different part of town tried again, already late, before I Googled “Uber Oxford.” As it turns out Uber has been banned in Oxford. Add that on top of the fact that I couldn’t find a cab anywhere, admittedly I’m not a local so I don’t know what my other options were, and I missed my appointment at the Kilns. So instead I walked on down to the Eagle and Child for a drink and a bite to eat to get my CS Lewis/JRR Tolkien fix in instead.
From there I made a stop at the Ashmolean museum and back up to the center of town to stop at the Turf Tavern famous for a number of it’s patrons but most recently as the place where Bill Clinton supposedly “did not inhale.” From here it was back up to the train station for the return trip back to London, another drink at the hotel and then start getting ready for the next day.
The Pubs and Books Tour
Day three. My first real full day in London. As I fear I'm getting a little long winded and there's still a lot of itinerary I thought it might be more fun to just follow along for day three. Just hit the right arrow on the map below to follow my itinerary for the day. You can read on the map if you like or scroll below.
Day 3 Itinerary
1. DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel London - Ealing (6:45 am)
2-8 Hanger Ln, Ealing, London W5 3HN, UK
020 8896 8400
2. Balthazar (7:30 am)
4-6 Russell St, London WC2B 5HZ, UK
020 3301 1155
Breakfast at Balthazar was great. Here's the thing though. It was morning, I was being lazy maybe not paying attention as well as I should. There are two Balthazar spots right next to each other. The first just has coffee and pastries the second is the full restaurant. They're directly next to each other But I Stopped at the first one I crossed coming from the direction of the tube. That was the coffee shop. I was expecting something more and while I enjoyed my Americano and pastry it wasn't quite what I was looking for. I walked out the door and realized my error but hey I was on vacation and I love breakfast so....second breakfast.
3. St Paul's Church (11:26 am)
Bedford St, London WC2E 9ED, UK
020 7836 5221
The plan today was to have a bit of a literary day. After breakfast, head up to Charing Cross road poke around some bookstores, visit the Dickens Museum and the British Library before grabbing some drinks. However, while I was here in Covent Garden, where I would end up coming back to a couple times coincidentally, I figured I'd poke around. I walked over to St. Paul's Church (known as the actors church). The statue of St. Paul being thrown from his horse is in the courtyard adjacent to the church and, as the plaque states, was unveiled there by Dame Judy Dench in 2015.
4. Quinto Bookshop (11:53 am)
72 Charing Cross Rd, London WC2H 0BB, UK
020 7379 7669
Charing Cross Road is famous for all of it's used bookstores. Walking from Covent Garden over to Charing Cross Road was fun and I just poked around some of the bookstores for a while on my way.
5. The Crown (12:18 am)
51 New Oxford St, London WC1A 1BL, UK
020 7836 2752
After Charing Cross Road I started making my way to the Dickens Museum but I was making much better time than I had originally anticipated in addition to just feeling like I could use a beer and to cool my heals for a second so I stopped into The Crown. I just had a drink and didn't eat anything. But the staff were really nice, the atmosphere was great and at this point in the day it was just what I needed. Plus I had had two breakfasts so I didn't really need any food.
6. Charles Dickens Museum (1:04 pm)
48 Doughty St, London WC1N 2LX, UK
020 7405 2127
The Dickens Museum is open Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 5pm with the last admission being at 4pm. I was mostly just trying to make it there in time to get in and enjoy the tour and make it to the British Library as well. Originally when I planned out the day I thought this would be tight but it ended up not being. Mostly I wasn't having anywhere near as hard a time finding my way around as I have in some other cities the first time I've visited them. As with many of the other places the staff were great and very polite. There was someone in just about every room ready to give you whatever information you wanted but you could kind of just give yourself your own tour as you made your way around.
7. The British Library (2:25 pm)
96 Euston Rd, Kings Cross, London NW1 2DB, UK
0330 333 1144
A monument to all things book. The British Library is massive and when you walk in being confronted by the enormous collection is entertaining in and of itself. However, you can find tour information at the link below. There are some vendors outside and a cafe inside if you need to stop and have a bite to eat (although like most museum cafes I there are probably better and more affordable places you could stop and eat) and if you walk around the back of the collection on the second floor you'll find these delightful Roald Dahl portraits. The little kid in me loved seeing portraits of the Twits hanging on the wall.
8. The Real Food Market (2:53 pm)
Kings Cross Square, Euston Rd, Kings Cross, London N1 9AP, UK
Kings Cross Station isn't far from the British Library so that was my next stop. I went there with the intention of taking some more Harry Potter inspired photos, there's a platform 9 3/4 shop at the station, for some friends back home. Here's the thing about that. It's kind of a waste of time. I mean if you want to stand in line for an hour to take a picture with a replica of a cart in a wall be my guest (I found a spot where I could wait until someone took their hand off of it and snapped a quick photo) but all in all it's kind of just a gift shop with some Harry Potter stuff. That said the thing I didn't come there for was the highlight. When I arrived I found what appeared to be a farmers market setup outside of the station. Lots of local vendors selling all kinds of good food. I got some coffee and chocolate which was awesome and some cheese which was ill advised. Not because the cheese was bad but because I bought a bunch of it and would be walking around with no way to cut it or eat it for hours. It just kind of went to waste. Buying cheese in the UK is a good idea (it's definitely better than in the states imho) but make sure you can eat it fresh.
9. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (4:57 pm)
145 Fleet St, London EC4A 2BU, UK
020 7353 6170
Following the real food market I headed to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. So really I stopped at one other place along the way for food which has since been forgotten but Ye Old Cheshire Cheese was on the list since we started talking about coming here. Just a cool old pub the bottom floors of which feel like a cave. I actually ended up back here later in the week because I wasn't the only one who wanted to come here. One problem about drinking in the basement of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is cell service is a little spotty. So when I got out I had a few texts waiting for me. I had to start making my way back toward Covent Garden to meet up with my friend who was getting off work.
10. Twinings (5:19 pm)
216 Strand, London WC2R 1AP, UK
020 7353 3511
I was on my way back to Covent Garden at this point and I passed the Twinings store. It was already on my list and I thought I was a little ahead of schedule to meet him so I popped in. However, as I was walking around in here I got a text that he was on the train on the way to Covent Garden so I didn't stop as long as I'd have liked (and they were getting ready to close anyway). I assumed I would end up back here at some point for some tea but never did make it. I can confirm the smell when you enter the building is amazing however.
11. Somerset House (5:31 pm)
Somerset House, London WC2R, UK
Somerset House is an old neo classical building in London. It houses an art gallery and has a lot of interesting art exhibits going on pretty much year round. I just snapped a picture of the courtyard here since I didn't want to be late. However, we ended up back here a little while later and they had music and a cafe and some outdoor food vendors in the courtyard at that point. Another thing that may be of interest to you if you've been walking around the city as I had all day. They have a public restroom. I had just been using Starbucks for that most of the rest of the day. Because hey that's what Starbucks is for right?
12, Covent Garden (5:45 pm)
Covent Garden, London WC2E, UK
Made it back to Covent Garden and my friend I was waiting on wasn't quite there yet but it was quite a bit different than it had been that morning. There was outdoor music all over in setup out on the street and another group inside the center marketplace. The restaurants were all bustling and the seating at all of them was pretty much taken. I popped back into the little cafe at Balthazar to have another Americano while I waited for him.
13. Somerset House (6:00 pm)
Somerset House, London WC2R, UK
As I said before we ended up back at Somerset House. Here's where the evening gets fuzzy and this is no longer an accurate log. We actually popped into a few more pubs along the way had a few more drinks ate a bit more food but we were making our way to Ye Olde Mitre. I will say one of the pubs we stopped at we had a Scotch egg. How have I not ever had a Scotch egg! A soft boiled egg wrapped in deep fried sausage. This isn't a thing in the US!!? I had a few more of these this week. Oh hey if you want more on the Somerset House see below.
14. Ye Olde Mitre (9:32 pm)
1 Ely Pl, London EC1N 6SJ, UK
020 7405 4751
Something London has no shortage of, at all, is cool old pubs. We ended up here having another drink. The place had kind of slowed down at this point. It was the middle of the week too. But Ye Olde Mitre is a cool stop and you can see why it's on Londonists 'Best Old London Pubs' list.
15. DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel London - Ealing
2-8 Hanger Ln, Ealing, London W5 3HN, UK
020 8896 8400
Three Days Through
So, there you go. After three days there was certainly a lot that I got to but there is so much in London that I know that I missed in that time too. If there's something that you see looking at that itinerary feel free to let us know by commenting below. We'll get to what other fun things there were to do in London in the next post.