Once again this post is ridiculously late, but luckily I wrote most of this awhile back so my memories of my time in London are still very fresh. Anyways, I’m now two-thirds of the way done with my semester abroad, which is crazy to think about. Luckily I still have several more trips while I’m over here, including a trip to Vienna which starts much earlier tomorrow than I would like. But I’ll get to my Vienna trip later, and hopefully before Christmas. Right now I’m concentrating on my weekend in one of the most fascinating, beautiful, and important cities in the world: London.
Even though I’d never been to London before, I felt a certain sense of familiarity while in this city, a place filled with characters from my childhood. This is where Sherlock Holmes tracked down elusive criminals. where Shakespeare wrote his most famous plays, and most importantly, where Harry Potter went to battle Voldemort in the Ministry of Magic. It has some of the most famous monuments in the world: Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, and the Globe Theater, and it’s a city I’ve always wanted to visit.
The original intent of the trip was that my friend Jorge, who is in my program in Prague, wanted to go to London to see Chelsea play some team that I can’t really remember at the moment. I was interested in going along, but since I wasn’t a Chelsea fan at this time I wasn’t sure if I wanted to pay a whole lot of pounds to see a soccer match. So I skipped the soccer ticket but found what I thought was a great deal on a flight to London flying out of Brno, a city two and a half hours away from Prague in the Czech Republic. We would fly with RyanAir into Stansted Airport, which is about an hour and a half away from London. It turns out with all the added bus fees we actually paid more than for a direct flight from Prague to Heathrow, and wasted a whole lot of times in buses as well. I guess that’s all part of traveling though, learning from your mistakes and realizing that sometimes things are cheap for a reason, like a flight on Ryanair.
The first night three of us: myself, Maddy, and Lauren, checked into the hostel Travel Joy Chelsea, which is located in an old wooden building right on the Thames. Since we got in so late we wanted to go out for at least a little bit so the day wouldn’t be wasted. So the hostel worker recommended we go to Leicester Square to see what was going on.
When we got to the square we were offered free entry to several different clubs and bars, and the first club we entered was nearly empty except for a group doing some sort of strange dance to electronic music. There was also a man who looked to be about 80-years old and dressed like a butler who came up to us, said “cheers,” and just stood there. This wasn’t really the atmosphere we were looking for so we decided to take our free shots and head out. We walked around Leicester Square and then Piccadilly Circus for awhile, both of which were swarming with drunk tourists and drunk Brits alike. After walking around for a bit longer and meeting some friendly Irishman, we decided to quit while we were ahead and take the double decker bus back to the hostel. I have to say the highlight of my night was riding the double decker buses around London, and when taking these buses we always went straight to the top, no matter how short our voyage was.
The next day we walked around town, and followed a very useful itinerary sent to me by my cousin’s close friend (Kristen Abel if you are reading this, that itinerary was great). We started off at Westminster Abbey, saw that it was 14 pounds to go inside, and then settled on simply enjoying the buildings exteriors. This was where the royal wedding took place last April, and considering all of London was plastered with Will and Kate’s picture, this seemed to be the epicenter of all that, so of course there was plenty of royal wedding memorabilia to be had here. I didn’t feel the need to buy anything though, because I really don’t need a tea set with Prince William and Kate Middleton’s faces on them (and plus it would be such a pain to ship back to America).
We then continued our tour a few blocks further through St. James Park (and took the mandatory phone booth picture)
before finally making our way to Buckingham Palace. And Bloody Hell! that place was busy! I suppose what we saw was the changing of the guards, though it looked much different than I imagined it for some reason.
After that we made our way back to the Thames to eat some fish and chips. While sitting down to enjoy my traditional British food, a swarm of pigeons came along and surrounded me, including a pigeon with deformed claws that I assume was a mutant. I tried swatting and screaming at the pigeons but they still kept coming towards me, and once they were basically a foot from my fish I ran away from these winged freaks. Strangely, I had never felt afraid of pigeons until that day.
After the pigeon debacle, we continued over voyage along the Thames while appreciating the London architecture, both modern and ancient. I really liked how there are so many different styles of building in this city, and even plenty of really cool modern buildings that feel almost futuristic. London really seems to be a city not content to just rest on its past, but also looking towards the future, which include the Olympics that are only months away now.
We then made our way towards Abbey Road. Although it’s in a cool neighborhood, it’s basically just a crosswalk where people like to walk across mimicking the Beatles on their Abby Road album cover, which we attempted, but none of us really knew what we were doing. Next to the crosswalk is Abby Road studios, where the Beatles recorded many of the albums. Radiohead and Pink Floyd have also recorded here.
Unfortunately, I did not see Susan Boyle or any Harry Potter castmates as I had hoped, but I did meet up with two friends from back home, Catherine Foley and Ryan Wieczorek (who often goes by Wiz). It was great to see some familiar faces after being away from home for so long. When I saw them they told me that tomorrow they really wanted to eat fish and chips, see Abbey Road, and eat Indian food (which I had just eaten), and I was suddenly overcome with the feeling of deja vu, but we ended up doing all those things again and it was just as fun the second time around.
After a night on the town that ended when the bar we were drinking at closed at midnight, which was quite the shocker, we woke up the next morning and headed towards the London Eye. Unfortunately my camera was dead, but Catherine Foley took some good pictures, so if your Facebook friends with her check out her album. You get to see a great view of the city of London from above and you also get to see me looking pretty European in my plaid scarf and hipster glasses. Although the London Eye was pricey, like everything in this town, I thought it was worth the money and hey, you’re on vacation so why not?
When our loop around the Eye was finished our group parted ways, and many of the ISA kids went to the Chelsea vs. someone else soccer match, and the Omaha kids explored the town more. We started off with St. Paul’s Cathedral, famous for Princess Diana’s wedding and many other things I’m sure. It was strange actually, once you walk in the church you pay to cross a certain line, but you can basically see everything for free, which is what we did. After that we roamed around the city more and went to a British pub for lunch, where a stag party was getting off to an early start (these are basically bachelor parties for British people).
There were three free museums right next to each other that we were deciding between: The Albert and Victoria, an art museum; The Museum of Science; and The Museum of Natural History. Since Cath and Wiz are spending the semester in Florence they had seen their fair share of art, so we eventually decided on the Museum of Natural History. There were plenty of cool exhibits here, with everything from dinosaurs to human reproduction (which we never made it to unfortunately), but very similar to the Museum of Natural History in New York and the Field Museum of Chicago.
Considering we were in London we wanted to check out their world famous department store, so us three amigos adventured through Harrod’s, a magical place where you can buy everything from haute couture pet clothes to giant chocolate eggs that I could literally fit inside and eat my way out of. There was also a bottle of liquor we saw that costs £29,999 pounds. I’m sure it tastes delicious and all but a bottle of Barton’s vodka would have the same effect for about £29,989 less.
An interesting fact I learned later (on Wikipedia of course) is that until a couple of years ago, Harrod’s was owned by Mohammed al-Fayed, whose son Dodi al-Fayed was dating Princess Diana and was killed alongside her in the car crash in 1997. Apparently, there is a memorial to both of them inside Harrod’s, which would have been interesting to see at the time.
Another interesting fact was that Arnold Schwarzennegger had visited Harrod’s cigar shop the day before. I was devastated (okay, maybe not devastated) but disappointed that he hadn’t shown up a day later, because even though I’ve never really considered myself a fan of “the Governator,” I’ve never actually ran into a celebrity before, so I’ll take what I can get. Anyways, Wiz and I bought two of the cheapest cigars available. I think we felt pretty cool buying those cigars but a few hours later after we lit up I was quickly reminded that I hate smoking cigars, so I chucked it down a sewer grate when it was only about half way done. So hopefully that’ll be the last cigar I’ll smoke for awhile.
Going to London was certainly a nice change of pace from Prague. It was a relief to be in an English-speaking country after so long. Although London is definitely European, there are many similarities between London and American cities like New York or Boston that I felt like I was back in America several times, a welcome feeling after being in Prague for so long. Also London is extremely diverse, and has people from all over the world, as opposed to just Europeans in most of the other cities I’ve visited.
There were certainly some downsides to this city, however. I would advise people to do their research before going out to bars and clubs in London. First of all, many pubs close at midnight or even early, and many of the clubs are prohibitively expensive (except for the tacky tourist clubs). Second of all, London is a huge city and if you find yourself miles away from your hostel or hotel it can be difficult to make your way back. Some other friends who went to London a few weeks later went out in a neighborhood called Camden Town, and apparently they didn’t run into any of the difficulties that we did. So go there, I guess.
Oh, and don’t even get me started on the prices. I spent more on public transportation in one weekend here than I did for a three month pass in Prague. Also, dinner at a casual Indian restaurant cost over $30 a plate one night. There are certainly deals to be had, but in London it’s really important to pay attention to the exchange rate otherwise you may be spending far more than you planned.
My trip to London was fantastic and I can’t wait until my visit. Hopefully then I’ll have a lot more money, because this town will really take you to the cleaners, as they say. The amount of things to see and do here are astounding, and a weekend really doesn’t do this city justice. This quote I’m about to write is such a cliche, but it’s the best quote I’ve got right now. “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford”-Samuel Johnson (I’ve never heard of him either).