“London opens to you like a novel itself… It is divided into chapters, the chapters into scenes, the scenes into sentences; it opens to you like a series of rooms, doors and passages. Mayfair to Piccadilly to Soho to the Strand.”Anna Quindlen
This was my birthday trip, and I have no idea how Ben will ever top this. We had an awesome time and I loved every part of our trip (except the flights, of course). London has it all: museums galore, quirky bars, awesome food, and lovely parks. And royalty!
A Cultural Affair
We spent so much time perusing museums and even got to see a play in the Globe Theater! We visited the Tate Modern, the British Museum, and the National Galleries. We spent at least an hour or two at each museum, and could easily visit again and see more in every one. We typically spent our mornings in a museum, and found them to have excellent collections, but also to be crammed with visitors. The large museums in London are mostly free and that means lots of tourists visit on the weekends. But it’s worth standing in the midst of crowds (for me, anyway) to see works by Matisse, Dali, Van Gogh, and Renoir, among other big names in art history.
Visiting the Globe was a super exciting adventure for me, English nerd that I am, and I really enjoyed the play. We saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the set dressings were modernized with awesome costumes and minimal set design, but the dialogue was all Shakespeare. The play was easy to follow and they even pulled a spectator from the audience to play one of the minor parts! The show was funny and sweet and most definitely a spectacle. We had box seats, which ran us about £ 44 per ticket. But prices can be as low as £ 5 (if you’re willing to stand for a 3 hour show exposed to the elements) and go all the way up to our fancy box seats. If I were to go to another show there, I would book earlier and get the middle-of-the-road seats directly across from the stage. The seats are wooden benches, but you can hire cushions for the duration of the show for just £ 2 each. (If you book a gentleman’s box, there are already cushions on the seats.)
Magical Drinking Spots
We visited a few bars while we were in London, of which The Cauldron was my favorite. In addition to the Cauldron, we also checked out a speakeasy called Nightjar, a dance club type bar called …Loves Company, and a couple of local pubs The Friend in Hand and Three Crowns Pub. The speakeasy, Nightjar featured heavily ornamented cocktails and was a pricey, exclusive feel. We didn’t make a reservation, so they were only able to give us the table for an hour, so we ordered one cocktail each. My cocktail had a stem of eucalyptus in the glass and fruit leather attached to the stem by three toothpicks wired together. It made me wonder how good the cocktails would be if I ordered something simple, like a French 75. But the speakeasy had fun, low lighting and was underground. There were tables set off in little alcoves and more private spots and small tables for couples. There is apparently live jazz sometimes as well.
…Loves Company was a dance club type bar that we ducked in for a moment while the rush hour traffic eased on Monday. They have a great happy hour deal with a bottle of wine for £ 10, two (of the same) cocktails from a limited menu for £ 12, or 4 beers for £ 10. It was a good spot for watching harried commuters out the window, but would be even more fun if you find yourself in the dancing mood in Shoreditch.
Both pubs we visited had a more local feel. The Friend in Hand had excellent food and we stopped in for a steak and ale pie and half a roasted chicken for lunch one day. The beer was good, too! Three Crowns was close to our hotel in Shoreditch and we stopped in there for a drink after Nightjar. Both pubs had the order at the bar, drink in comfy spots, and we’ll leave you alone type vibes.
Last, but not least, was the Cauldron. This was actually a suggestion I saw on Facebook in one of my group pages, and once I looked it up, it was a must. You book a session for as little as £ 29 and with your session comes a welcome cocktail and two “potions lessons.” You work with your group to create your potions with lots of magical ingredients like “Fairy Dust” and “Bladdarwort Nectar.” The result is a delightful cocktail for each of you! I thought three cocktails per £ 29 experience was a pretty good deal and we had a lot of fun with the theatricality of the potion masters (servers) and the setting. This would be a great date night experience (as long as you know the person well enough to know they’d be into this sort of thing).
London is a kind of epicenter of good food. And it being such an international city, you can find all kinds of excellent options from all over the world! We had excellent Turkish food (which struck a chord with Ben, since he lived in Turkey for a while), traditional afternoon tea, a French dinner in complete darkness, and Michelin-starred Indian food.
Our Turkish food was from The Stone Cave, which had won some local award for best themed restaurant. It had a funky created-cave interior with gold accents and lots of Turkish lamps hanging from the ceiling. The food was excellent! Ben got a three course lunch menu and I got the Chicken Shish Wrap. We shared everything and couldn’t find a thing we were disappointed with!
Dans Le Noir is a dark restaurant. By dark I mean you literally can’t see your hand in front of your face. You order a menu of meat, fish & shellfish, or vegetarian and are lead into a pitch black dining room by a (blind) member of the waitstaff. You eat your dinner in complete darkness, and are served meals with traditional plating and bottled water you pour yourself. You must leave your light-up smartwatches and phones in lockers in the reception area. The food was good, but what this restaurant really excels at is a new experience. It was interesting to eat a dinner without our phones, without being able to see the food on the plate, or the wine or water in the glass, or the ambiance of the restaurant. We talked more than we usually do and met a lovely couple from Surrey. We talked all through dinner and then got to see each other once we left the dining room. Ben noted that while this was a new experience, it was also discomfiting. Our table-mates also spent a lot of time talking about what it would be like to be blind and have this be a normal experience. I was very glad we went, and it was one of the most social dinners we have had in a long time.
We were told (while we were in London) that the best afternoon tea is at the Ritz, but I have to say, it would be hard to beat the views and deliciousness of afternoon tea at Oblix. Oblix is on the 32nd floor of the Shard and the views are spectacular! We had a table right next to the window and were able to see the Eye and London Bridge from our spot. The afternoon tea included unlimited finger sandwiches, scones, and tiny desserts for £ 42 per person (which isn’t a lot compared to tea at the Ritz or the Savoy).
While we were at dinner at Dans Le Noir, our table-mates suggested Tamarind, a local Indian restaurant with a Michelin star and apparently a favorite spot of Gordon Ramsey. We decided to book there for lunch both to get a table and to try their prix fix lunch menu, which is just £ 25 per person. The restaurant has a beautiful upstairs dining room with green accents and lots of shiny wine glasses and fresh flowers. The food was stunningly beautifully plated and tasted lovely. I ordered the three chicken plate, which had three types of tandoori chicken. Ben had fish curry. The lunch portions came with a spinach dish and lentils for the table to share and we ended up having too much food to eat! It was a lovely experience.
Saturday in the Park
London is a bustling city with lots of buildings, concrete, and stone, but there are lots of green spaces tucked away too! We spent a lot of time rushing around this trip. On average we walked 8 to 10 miles per day, even using buses and trains to get around. So sometimes, it’s nice to take a break from the hustle of the street and soak up a little green. We loved visiting Green Park, Hyde Park, and Russel Square.
Green Park and Hyde Park are both close to Buckingham palace and we walked through Green Park to get to the palace to see the changing of the guard. There was a protest going on by a group called Extinction Rebellion down the street from the palace, so we walked down to check it out and found ourselves directly in front of one of the regiments of the guard. It was fun to walk along beside them as they headed into the palace grounds, our feet finding the rhythm of the band. It certainly stirs the spirits of camaraderie to march along to the beat.
After the changing of the guard, we walked along the park to visit Hyde Park, which had lots of beautiful flowers, a restaurant with lots of ducks, geese, pigeons, and crows on hand to eat any crumbs left by patrons. Don’t miss the upside down tree; a tree that created a canopy that touches the ground, allowing you and your sweetheart to sneak in and steal a few kisses (assuming there aren’t tons of other tourists coming in all the time).
Probably my favorite park though, was Russell Square. It was sunny (a rarity for our trip) and there is an espresso shop called Tropea. Ben ordered some espresso and a pastry and we sat on their patio watching the light stream through the golden leaves. There was a father and daughter duo collecting bouquets of fall leaves and a canopied walkway created by weaving trees’ branches together. Next to the walkway was a little birdhouse with a book in it. We pulled it out and found it was a book of secrets. I tried to come up with a secret to put in it, but couldn’t think of one, so Ben wrote a secret in the book and we put it back in it’s spot. In a weekend of cold, rainy weather, Russell Square provided us with a golden hour.
If I have any advice for someone travelling to London, it’s MAKE RESERVATIONS. I made at least two reservations per day and while we were able to get in to some spur-of-the-moment locales, reservations made everything easier. We also broke up our day into just a couple of places we had to be and a list of places we wanted to visit. That allowed us to have some structure and some flexibility.
London is often rainy, so have some wet weather contingencies. Bring an umbrella and light rain jacket. They’ll come in handy! We liked being able to duck into a museum or coffee shop to get out of the rain and planned lots of bookstores to visit to wait out rain.
If you are flying into Stanstead Airport (as we did) there is a train called the GreaterAnglia. It will drop you off at Liverpool Street. If you’re traveling with a group of people, be sure you get a group ticket at the ticket vending machines. We didn’t the first leg of our trip and paid about double what we could have.
For traveling around in London proper, I highly suggest the Oyster Card. It allows you to load money onto the card and ride the bus or trains to wherever you need to go in the city. It can be topped up at any underground station, so it’s a great way to get around without having to rent a car. We traveled around the city for four days for about £ 10 a day per person!