At the end of April, I fulfilled a lifelong desire of mine by embarking on a trip to my dream destination – London, England. Taking a cue from my favourite independent female icons from British History (I’m looking at you, Queen Elizabeth I and Jane Austen), I took the liberty of traveling across the pond and conquering my first trip to England as a solo adventuress.
A lot of people have been asking me one of two (or both) questions: 1) Why London? and 2? Why alone?
1) Well, as I’ve said, it’s been a dream of mine since I was a kid (even my name is a marker of my destiny). I would always envision myself going to London. It’s a city fit for queens and kings and Anglophiles like me, obsessed with the people, the stories, the literature, the fashion, the arts, the music, and much more, of a land rich with culture and history (not so much the food, but their fish and chips and their tea are top-notch). Plus, all eyes are on English entertainment and news right now, with export musicians like Sam Smith and the royal baby (I missed the birth of Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana of Cambridge by two days – drats!) making headlines. It’s been a long, long wait, but I wanted to go when I was mature enough to fully appreciate and enjoy everything London has to offer, and 2015 was the year.
2) I did a trip to Los Angeles in 2013 all by myself, but this was my first time venturing to a place where I didn’t know a single soul (and it was my first time outside of North America too). Solo travel is not for everyone, but it works for a person (like me) who prefers to make their own (jam-packed and multi-faceted) itinerary, go by their own (independent and hardcore) agenda, move at their own (quick and curious) pace, and essentially roam free.
Plus, I found that it was easy to find company amongst Londonites and fellow travelers. The people are so welcoming and friendly and kind and beautiful. And as a multicultural melting pot, you not only hear British accents, but accents and languages from around the world. Travel reminds you that the world is a bigger place with diverse people from different walks of life, but also grounding you in terms of what we share in common and what ties us together. It’s about discovering new places, meeting new people, reaching new perspectives, uncovering new possibilities, and all the reasons you read about in countless travel blogs. After being grounded in Vancouver for two years, a break from the daily grind and some time out and abroad was definitely needed.
So, from April 22nd to April 29th (sandwiched by two 9-hour flights between Vancouver International Airport and London’s Gatwick Airport), I toured London for eight days of solid and memorable exploration (and took a crapload of photos every step of the way – check out my #LondonQueenE hashtag on Instagram and/or clickthrough the hyperlinked titles below). Here’s a summary of my itinerary for each day of my trip…
I arrived in London in the afternoon and was greeted by warm sunshine, a smattering of clouds, and a light wind. Upon catching my first glimpse of the Underground station sign and a red telephone booth, my first stop was the Tate Britain art museum, just a 7 minute walk from my hostel. Then, I went on a self-guided walking tour from Buckingham Palace down to Covent Garden, stopping at St. James’s Park, Trafalgar Square, and Leicester Square along the way. I was in awe when I got to the Buckingham gates. You see these famous landmarks countless times in pictures but there’s nothing like the feeling of viewing it in person. It was a sensation that would continue for the entirety of the week, as I had a full list of sights, activities, and excursions inside and outside of London to cover…
Navigating London’s Underground transportation system was surprisingly easy. I guess all that experience with the Vancouver Skytrain was good practice for the tube! I spent a good 3-4 hours uncovering the dark side of British royal history at the Tower of London, where the costumed beefeaters served as my tour guides, sharing the gruesome tales of treachery, torture, and tragedy within the mighty fortress. The highlights were most definitely seeing the Royal crown jewels, including the Imperial State Crown (I may have shed a tear or two) and seeing the collection of royal armoury and weaponry at the White Tower. I had my first taste of British fish and chips while enjoying the view of Tower Bridge in the distance. Then, I wandered around the City, known today as London’s business and financial centre (thus, I saw many ladies and gentlemen in suits on the streets). I toured the tombs, memorials, and holy art of the remarkable St. Paul’s Cathedral, and even climbed up 85 metres (528 narrow and steep steps) to the Golden Gallery at the very top of the dome to see a 360 view of the entire city of London. In the evening, I headed over to Piccadilly Circus to see my favourite musical, Les Misérables at the stunning Queen’s Theatre in the West End. A Little Fall of Rain all over my face! #myemotions
My main goal for my inaugural trip to London was to go to as many royal attractions as possible, such as royal residences, royal collections, royal gardens, and royal parks. To start, I journeyed by train from Waterloo Station to Hampton Court Palace, home to many Tudor, Stuart, and Georgian monarchs, and most notably, where King Henry VIII and King William III once ruled, resulting in the contrasting Tudor and Baroque building styles. With its exquisite exterior architecture, impressive interior decor, Chapel Royal, and outdoor oasis of gardens, flowerbeds, and fountains, the palace (which celebrates 500 years of operation this year) is a marvelous beauty. When I arrived back in London, I did the quintessential tourist thing to do – took several photo ops and selfies under and over the Westminster Bridge and around Parliament Square (a.k.a. where Big Ben/Elizabeth Tower and the Houses of Parliament are situated) and the surrounding area. I even met a fellow traveler from North America and we continued on a photowalk together, wrapping up with ale and pies at The Admiralty pub in Trafalgar Square.
I welcomed the weekend by marching to the beat of the Beatles at Abbey Road’s zebra crossing, forever immortalized in music history by the Fab Four. I spent the rest of my Saturday exploring markets, from the quaint Portobello Market in Notting Hill (antiques and coloured houses for miles and days!) to the alternative Camden Lock Market (where eclectic creations and exotic foods can be found). I picked up some vintage earrings and a handmade origami heart necklace from the various venders (and there were A LOT to choose from – unlike any artisan or farmer’s markets I’ve ever seen). I had the best fish and chips I’ve ever devoured at Poppies, a retro-diner themed joint in Camden, and treated myself to a Hummingbird Cafe vanilla cupcake for dessert. I ended the evening with a showing of the summer blockbuster, Avengers: Age of Ultron, as it premiered in the UK a week before North America. Curzon Cinemas was the swankiest and most expensive movie theatre I’ve ever been to, but so worth it.
The next stop on my grand royal tour was Kensington Palace, current home of the Duke, Duchess, Prince, and Princess of Cambridge, and former home to King George I and II, Queen Victoria, and Princess Diana. Past the Golden Gates and picturesque gardens, there was much to see inside the palace – the glittering state apartments of King George II and Queen Caroline, and of Queen Mary II and William III, an exhibit dedicated to the childhood and reign of Queen Victoria, and the Fashion Rules showcase, featuring the wardrobes of Queen Elizabeth I, Princess Margaret, and Princess Diana. Unfortunately, I missed out on brunch and tea at The Orangery, so I opted to have my own lighter and cheaper version of afternoon tea at the Kensington Palace cafe. Continuing on this royal vibe, I took a stroll along Hyde Park and was in awe of the two memorials to Prince Albert as commissioned by Queen Victoria: the Albert Memorial Statue and Royal Albert Hall (imagine having someone love you that much to do all that in your memory after you die!) Then, I attended the 2015 Vogue Festival in Kensington, where I saw make-up maven Bobbi Brown and supermodel Kate Upton in conversation with British Vogue editor-in-chief, Alexandra Shulman to discuss building your dream, finding beauty through confidence, and being pretty powerful women. I got the London look from Bobbi Brown Cosmetics and struck a pose for a souvenir magazine cover photoshoot with Vogue photographers (I even got to wear a real Chanel pearl necklace for the shoot – le gasp!). In the evening, I did a quick tour of Green Park, had dinner at the original Hard Rock Cafe, and picked up a shirt for my Hard Rock shirt collection.
(Pro Tip: Go to the gift shop and ask to see the Vault downstairs, where they store guitars from Jimi Hendrix and B.B. King, outfits from Elvis Presley and Elton John, and various other rock music memorabilia. I even spotted items from American Idol’s David Cook and Chris Daughtry).
A fashionista’s trip to London isn’t complete without drooling over some haute couture, and man, was I ever lucky to be in the city while the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibit was at the Victoria & Albert Museum! This retrospective of the innovative and daring designer showcases some of the best works of his extraordinary career. Fashion romanticism at its finest. While at V&A, I spent a couple of hours at the Luxury, Jewelry, and Theatre and Performance exhibits, and had lunch at the museum cafe – which was the most incredible museum cafe I had ever had the pleasure of dining at. Seriously, the Morris, Gamble, and Poynter rooms, with their stained-glass windows, painted ceilings, and sparkling chandeliers are attractions in their own rights. Craving more luxury, I entered shopping heaven at the ritzy and HUGE Harrods department store, and my goodness, they make the cutest stuffed animals and prettiest handbags and accessories around – I couldn’t resist blowing a bunch of cash there. Then, I apparated (okay, not really, I took a double-decker tour bus) to the Harry Potter Studio Tour by Warner Bros, where I bought a Gryffindor scarf, geeked out over all of the props and sets, went snap happy with taking pictures (including a photo op at Platform 9 3/4), and sipped on delicious Butterbeer. Everything was magical.
So I didn’t manage to catch the official Changing of the Guards ceremony, but I did stumble upon a gathering of the guards during their band practice, in which they performed selections from Lady Gaga and Elton John. I finally managed to visit Westminster Abbey (visiting hours open and close at sporadic times) and the neighbouring St. Margaret’s Church (where I lit candles for the dearly departed). Along with being a place of worship, the Abbey is the site of royal coronations and of tombs, monuments, and memorials for many historical figures, and is notably known for the funeral of Princess Diana and the wedding of Prince William and his beloved Kate. I then headed over the Bankside to watch a touring production of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet at the Globe Theatre. Not only were the starcrossed lovers and the cast outstanding, but just being there in the reconstructed Globe made me feel like I was transported back to the Renaissance! Afterwards, I took a windy walk across the pedestrian-only Millennium Bridge (the struggle was so real) and hopped on the tube to the Oxford Street area to indulge in a little shopping. A few notes on UK retailers: Primark is MASSIVE and cheap, Marks & Spencer has everything you need and then some, and Selfridges is almost as big as Harrods but a lot more accessible. Oh, and I’m obsessed with the Cath Kidston brand – vintage and floral everything! Regent Street at night is a spectacular sight.
On my last full day in England, I went on a half-day trip to Windsor and Windsor Castle, the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world, and the current Queen’s official home away from London. After a week of my royal pilgrimage, I ended by literally following in the footsteps of Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen’s ornate state apartments (furnished with treasures from the Royal Collection), the gothic St. George’s Chapel (where King Henry VIII, King Charles I, The Queen Mother, and Princess Margaret are buried), and Queen Mary’s miniature dollhouses are among the attractions at Windsor Castle. It was at Windsor where I experienced my first UK rainfall! When I arrived back in London, I rode the London Eye (thank you, Coca Cola!) for a birds eye view of London town, observing all that I had seen over the past week from River Thames and beyond. For the grand finale, I caught an evening performance of the bewitching and bedazzling Wicked at the Apollo Victoria Theatre. It was then when I realized that this trip to London had changed me For Good.
On the morning of Thursday the 30th, I checked out of my hostel and jumped on the train to Gatwick Airport, where I checked in and spent the rest of my cash on duty-free souvenirs (tea, teacup, chocolate, stationary, London trinkets, and a precious corgi plushie) before reluctantly boarding my afternoon flight back home to Vancouver International Airport.
One week was just the right amount of time to get to the main attractions I wanted to check out, but there’s still so much left to do in London, including all the royal parks, art and history museums (British Museum, National Gallery, Tate Modern – there’s enough to spend a whole day in each museum looking at the collections), proper afternoon high tea, a boat cruise, walking tours (for a more insider and off-the-beaten-track experience of the city).
During that week, I did a helluva lotta walking, averaging a good 18km per day (that’s a ton of ground covered!) Many times, I got lost and walked the streets until my legs went numb, which continued for the duration of the trip. By the end, I gained a new understanding of the phrase, ‘No Pain, No Gain’. I was always on the go, so next time I’m in London, I’d like to spend more time chilling in the parks and cafes, eating and drinking leisurely, writing and reading and thinking and reflecting, and yes, people-watching.
For the eight days I was there, London truly felt like home. I haven’t experienced had that feeling since my grad trip to New York City in 2007. Hopefully, this is just the first of many trips to the UK! This may sound incredibly cheesy, but this trip has really inspired me to go out and conquer more of the world, as there’s such a lot of world to see. We may never be royals, but why shouldn’t we try living like one?
- If you love royal history and want to explore all of the castles and palaces, purchase a Historical Royal Palaces membership card. At £47 for a year’s membership, you’ll save time and money and get unlimited access to Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace, Tower of London, Kew Gardens, Banqueting House, and more. And if you’re visiting Windsor Castle, don’t forget to get your ticket stamped before leaving, as that enables you free entry for a year. Who knows, maybe you’ll be back by then…
- If you want to see West End theatre shows, go to Leicester Square’s ticket booth for cheap tickets (that’s how I managed to get seats for Les Mis for under £30) and/or purchase from the box office on the morning of (a friend tipped me off on this and I managed to get fourth row aisle seats this way).
- People have been asking me, “How do you manage to get great photos when you’re traveling alone?” A selfie stick is not required. You just need to ask the right people, just a) look for someone with a professional camera or who looks like they know how to take good photos, or b) look for someone with the same camera or same mobile phone as you,
- London isn’t well-known for quality hostel accommodations (according to friends), but I’d recommend staying at Astor Hostels. Located in the Westminster district in the Pimlico area, the Astor Victoria Hostel is on a quaint and quiet residential street with Regency-era buildings and garden squares. It is also located in a convenient spot, with a 5-7 minute walk to Victoria Station, where you can find the Victoria Underground line, train station, and coach buses, and a 15 minute walk to Parliament Square. Classy, cozy, central, and a caring staff – Astor is the best you’ll find in London!
- Walking is the best way to explore London, but the city’s public transportation system is an adventure within itself. Be sure to get the Oyster Card to use for the duration of your trip. It’s a £5 deposit for the card and you can pay-as-you-go, and you can return the card and receive your money back once you no longer have use for it. Also, download the Citymapper app, which will track and recommend train and bus routes as you map your journeys out. Sure saved me from a lot of headaches.
- These days, wi-fi is not longer a luxury for travelers, it’s a necessity. How else are you going to get in touch with your family and friends, share photos and updates from your adventures, and get information without raking up huge roaming charges? I was surprised by how many free wi-fi spots there were in the city – such as shopping centres, stores like Marks and Spencer, coffee shops like Starbucks, and museums like Tate Modern and Victoria & Albert Museum. London totally gets the need for people to stay connected.
Photographs can all be found on Flickr.