I am SO excited to write my recap of London because it was an amazing time! I have been trying to write this post all week but we’ve recently moved (more on that later!) so stuff has been everywhere while unpacking. I finally put my pictures on my computer and have the night off work to recap! We saw a ton of stuff so this recap will come in pieces. If you are just joining and haven’t read about my London obsession, you can catch up here :). This post is going to be a constant struggle between my use of American and British slang, so bear with me!
Natalie and I caught the 5:50p flight out of Chicago that went directly to London-Heathrow. Because of the time difference, we left Wednesday night in Chicago and arrived just before 8:00a in London on Thursday. I can usually sleep like a baby on a plane but I hardly slept on the way there. I think I was a big ball of excited and nervous the entire time. This was the first time I was flying that far away from home basically on my own. When Michael and I went to Japan it was different – he’s a man and I felt protected with him in this foreign land. I trust him in the sense that if something happened, whatever it may be, he would find a way to take care of it/us/whatever it may be. Natalie and I are two woman who can definitely take care of ourselves, but I got nervous when you’re stripped of all your resources (aka cell phone). Think of how many times a day you google how to do something. See my point? In a way, I was extremely grateful for this experience because of that.
As it turns out, there is free wifi just about everywhere.
LHR (London-Heathrow airport) is really nice. It’s a lot bigger than I ever imagined – not sure why. The lines to get through immigrations moved at an impressive speed despite the number of people arriving at the same time. Props, LHR! I got my London stamp in my passport (eeee!) and was on my way in no time!
First thing we did was find a place to exchange our money. HOLY $#!T the conversion rate is a killer. I would say that was the biggest shock of the trip – I had even been watching it the few days before I left and it just so happened to be the worst on Thursday (figures)!
A co-worker of mine recommended that we buy an Oyster card to help with the train. The Oyster card is a lot like the Ventra here in Chicago. You have the option to buy a one-way pass depending on what zones you are traveling from/to or just load a bunch of money on the card at once that you can get back later if you don’t use. We ended up putting 25 gbp (not sure where my pound symbol is on this computer..) on each of our cards and that was plenty. It really all depends how much you’ll be using the trains but that was our main source of transportation and we were on it a LOT. Play with it and see if you ever find yourself in London – they have machines in all the train stations to add more if you need it. The train stations tend to get kind of crowded so I recommend telling the teller how long you will be there and he/she can do the best estimating for you to avoid any type of hold up later.
If you’re looking at a map of London, LHR is to the west of the city. The Ibis London Excel Docklands, our hotel, was on the very east side. Before we left, I looked on google maps the specific train stops we needed to make our journey. I did this before Michael and I went to Japan as well – it’s helpful anywhere you go! Things can get kind of chaotic when you first arrive in a place you know absolutely nothing about so even if you don’t use it, the comfort of having it is nice :). We used it and it was perfect! Got us right to our hotel about an hour and a half later.
It was around 10:30a when we arrived at Ibis London ExCel and since our room wasn’t ready, we dropped off our bags and went to explore. There was a little “Airline Cafe” kiddy corner to our hotel so we grabbed an early lunch. I haven’t seen Natalie since school so it was nice to stuff our faces and catch up! Our hotel still wasn’t ready after lunch (in all fairness, it was about noon at this point and check-in wasn’t until 2:00p) so we went and ventured out a bit more. We found (hard to say found, it was pretty much in our backyard) ExCel – the convention center we would be at all day Friday. It was exciting to see all the Doctor Who stuff up in preparation for the weekend. ExCel is HUGE, by the way.
During our walk, Natalie and I spotted cable cars going across the river. Turns out the air-line connects south and east London and gives you a great bird’s eye view of the city. It serves as a quick transportation method between each side of the river and is also something for out-of-towners to do. It’s a quick ride from one side to the other, but it was cool to see the city from the outside before we went into it. It was extremely windy on Thursday so our car kept rocking back and forth! Kind of freaky.
Our hotel room was ready around 1:00p and man – we were EXHAUSTED. There was no way I would have survived the rest of the day without a nap so we snuck one in before heading back out. The train station closest to our hotel was Custom House for ExCel on the DLR. The train, excuse me – the tube, is SO easy to figure out! It reminded me of a cracked-out version of Chicago’s CTA. The lines are color coordinated on a map but all have their own names and there are about 3x more. A little overwhelming at first, but once you figure out what stop you need to transfer or get off at it becomes a lot easier. I thought the train stations themselves were helpful as well. There were signs for every which way you could possible go that made it a lot easier to navigate. It kept our noses out of a map and helped us keep up with traffic :). Also, they have several screens around the platforms with any kind of delays or updates on when the next few trains are. The trains themselves get crowded FAST but people have no problem squeezing in. It seemed like there was a train every few minutes, too. I can’t remember ever waiting very long for a train or less crowded one to come along. The thing I liked most about the train is that the fare is calculated based on where you are going and coming from. If you are going just a short distance, you will only be charged a small amount. London is divided into zones so the further you travel (the more zones you cross), the more you will be charged. Even going from west London to east London was not outrageous, so don’t worry if you plan to see a lot!
After our nap we headed out to see Big Ben!! Just in case there are any London-enthusiasts out there, I will try and include the tube stops for any places we went. From the Custom House for ExCel on the DLR, we headed westbound toward Tower Gateway where the line terminated. In order to get to the District Line at Tower Hill, you have to actually leave the station and walk to Tower Hill. We couldn’t find it at first (which lead to our confusion on the term “subway” in London – turns out a “subway” is just an underground walkway through a busy street and not a train/tube station…) but if you leave Tower Gateway and cross the street ahead of you and head to the right you will run right into Tower Hill. In all honesty, you can hop on the Circle or District line because they run parallel through Westminster, which is the stop you want to get off at for Big Ben. Regardless of the line you choose to get on, just make sure you are going westbound! Once you are off at Westminster, Big Ben is just outside the station (I promise you can’t miss it, just look up) :).
I think this is when it really hit me that I was in London. Seeing Big Ben right in front of me was unbelievable. This landmark I had looked at pictures of for years was now right in front of me. How crazy!
Behind us was the London Eye so Natalie and I decided to go there next.
Although we didn’t actually ride it, the area surrounding the eye is pretty busy. There is so much to do around there including an aquarium, museum, and lots of food. Waterloo on the Jubilee and Embankment on the Circle/District line will also get you to the London Eye (even if you are dropped off on the other side of the river, it’s just a short walk across the bridge).
We kept walking along the river and ran into a ton of shopping booths. They lined both sides of the walkway and was probably a mile long. They had everything you could imagine from clothes/accessories to toys for kids and house decorations. Let’s just say this is where I got a lot of gift shopping done ;). I loved that waffles and crepes were not a breakfast food, but a dessert!
It amazed me that there were alcohol stands scattered throughout the shops. Places selling bailey’s hot chocolate (which I recommend) or jager and let people walk around freely with it. At the end there were tables and tables full of books. I was in heaven!
The rest of the night Natalie and I spent walking around and trying to keep warm. We crossed the river again and headed back north. After a short walk down Queen Victoria St we made our way to St Paul’s Cathedral (St Paul stop on the Central line). It is BEAUTIFUL. We weren’t able to go inside but the outside structure took my breath away. In fact, that whole area is breathtaking.
I don’t know what it is, but the whole area has an enchanted look to it, which is exactly how I pictured London!!
Thursday night was the night Natalie and I first experience the pub scene. Sigh. Epic fail! We were starving so we decided to just find a place for some food. Even though it was close to 7:30p there were an unbelievable amount of people out after work. We walked into two places trying to find a spot to sit and get food before we were successful. Apparently at a pub you order your food at the bar with your drinks. In our experiences, there were rarely people who came around to check up on you. Mostly they cleared off tables when crowds left. Unfortunately it took us until Friday evening to figure this out, so on Thursday we found a great little Thai restaurant for dinner. Since we were both still a little jet lagged and absolutely freezing, it was time to head back to the hotel.
It was a perfect first day in London! Friday was full of all things Doctor Who related, which might be two posts itself :D.