London Travel Guide: 10 Must-See Spots

Big Ben in London, England

Big Ben in London, England at dusk

Last month marked one year since my self-planned, self-funded Eurotrip. After months of planning, my girlfriends and I embarked on a 17-day international trip. We started in New York, dining at food trucks and exploring Brooklyn. Then we moved on to Paris, where I had the most amazing food of my life. But we spent the majority of our trip in England and Ireland. I never got around to sharing my photos from that portion of my trip, and out of nostalgia I’ve decided to share them now.

1. Covent Garden Food Market

A blue cheese burger at Covent Garden food market

A blue cheese burger at Covent Garden food market

I recently read a quote from a travel writer who said the best part of London is the markets. Amazing vintage jewelry, clothing and antiques – this is where London shines. But my favorite personal favorite market sold something different: gourmet cookies, burgers and cheeses. Most of the food I ate in London was lackluster (a lot of street vendors and unmemorable restaurants), but the food at the Covent Garden Real Food Market is something I will never forget – everything was affordable, unique and de-lect-able. I tried an organic blue cheese burger, served with olive oil, rocket and Stichelton blue cheese. The meat was biodynamic beef from Kent and Sussex and it was amazing; one of the best burgers I’ve ever had. My friend Lisa had an equally amazing mint lamb sandwich. We had so much fun ogling the gargantuan bowls of paella, fragrant falafels, and piles of macaroons, cheesecakes and cookies.

Organic beef burger

Organic beef burger. Interesting side note: a garnish called “rocket” is extremely popular in London – served on almost everything. My friends and I kept wondering what it was until we finally tried it. Turns out it’s arugula.

Mint lamb sandwich at Covent Garden food market

Mint lamb sandwich

Handmade giant French meringues at Covent Garden food market

Handmade giant French meringues

We spent hours browsing the shops in the area, too. I bought a cute, small wooden, painted gray sign that reads “The Loo” at a boutique called Santa Bella. It was perfect for me because I kept talking about using “the loo” the entire time I was in England. It currently hangs on my bathroom wall, and I get compliments on it all the time. I don’t buy too many souvenirs when I travel because I only believe in adding new items to your suitcase that you’ll actually use every day when you get back home. I have a bracelet from St. Thomas that I wear almost every day, The Loo sign hangs in my home, and I bought a gold vintage statement necklace from another street market in London that I wear often. I also have two illustrations I bought at a street market in Paris. I framed them and they both hang in my home, too. It’s so nice to look at or wear these pieces and feel connected to my trip.

Souvenirs from my trip

Souvenirs from my trip

2. Platform 9 3/4

harry potter, platform 9 3/4

Dream come true.

I’m going to be honest: at least 75 percent of the reason I wanted to visit England was because of Harry Potter. Much of what I know about the British culture comes from those books, and I’ve been a bit of an anglophile ever since my preteen years when I first started reading the HP. So to visit Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station was literally a dream come true. My friends and I waited in an unorganized 20-minute line for a chance to snap a picture with the famed secret entrance to the train that takes you to Hogwarts. When my moment came to take a photo, I was so nervous and excited I didn’t even bother to check the settings on my phone camera, which was unfortunately the only camera I had with me that day. Turns out it was set to extremely low-res quality, which means my dream of blowing this picture up and putting it on my wall will never come true. But it doesn’t matter too much – I will cherish this image and that moment forever.

3. The Tower of London

The Tower of London

The Tower of London

We were in London for about a half of a week, and with such limited time, we got into heavy debates about what we should see and what we should skip. The Tower of London almost got crossed off the list, but I pushed for it because I love ghost stories, and we were all so glad we visited it. The castle was named one of Time magazine’s “Top 10 Haunted Places.” It was a dreary, rainy day when we visited (although to be honest it was like that almost every day we were in the UK), which only added to the eeriness. We didn’t spy any ghosts or strange happenings while in the buildings, but we loved reading the history and creepy stories about what took place in the castle. The execution rooms were the most horrifying yet interesting – we saw machines that stretched or bent people’s bodies in excruciating ways.

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A dreary day at the Tower of London

Tower of London

Tower of London

3. Portobello Road Market

Portobello Road Market is the largest antique market in the world, with more than 1,000 vendors. The day my friends went it was rainy and cold. I wrapped myself in a crappy poncho I could barely see out of and that barely did anything to protect me from the rain. Physically, I was miserable. But this market was so great that I didn’t care about any of that – all I could feel was pure joy taking in my surroundings. I bought a vintage gold statement necklace from the 1980s for 20 pounds that I wear constantly now (pictured above with my “The Loo” sign). The lady who I bought the necklace from had so many amazing vintage pieces at great prices; I still regret not buying more. We also passed by this amazing acoustic guitar duo singing Beatles songs, pictured below. The rain had just started to clear up so we stopped and watched them for a good 15 minutes. One of the most magical parts of traveling to big cities is the creative talent that surrounds you at every corner – artists, musicians, actors… you can just tell they all moved here to make their dreams come true.

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Street performers transported straight from the 1960s.

4. Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park

Kensington Gardens

Kensington Gardens

Formerly the private garden of Kensington Palace, the 270-acre park is open to the public today. There are numerous fountains, memorials, lakes and plants in the park. It’s a great place for a picnic or just to wander around and decompress. The Princess Diana memorial is located in nearby Hyde Park, and it is gorgeous – a large circular pond that is big enough to wade in, although you’re not supposed to. Despite signs warning about the slippery marble the fountain is made out of, kids and teens can be seen breaking the rules and tiptoeing in.

Kensington bridge

Kensington bridge

A tunnel in Kensington

My friends Kathy and Lisa walking under a tunnel in Kensington Gardens

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Me in front of the Peter Pan statue in the gardens

5. Abbey Road

Me crossing Abbey Road

Me crossing Abbey Road

For whatever reason, Abbey Road was another amazing moment for me – I was almost as excited to be here as I was to be at Platform 9 3/4. I’d dreamt of getting my friends to take an iconic Beatles-cover-esque picture on the road like I’ve seen some people do, but that task turned out to be so much easier said than done. The famous intersection was packed with people and more importantly, cars! Abbey Road is, of course, a real road with tons of traffic and annoyed drivers honking at the crowds of pedestrians crossing without a concern for their own lives. The above photo is not what I envisioned taking at all, but I quickly realized that with the rain and the traffic, it wasn’t going to get much better than that. Still, being in London I was constantly aware of the rich musical history in the city and how many bands got their start in the city – everyone from Jimi Hendrix to The Clash to Coldplay. Abbey Road might be a tourist trap, but crossing it was still magic.

 6. The London Eye

The London Eye

The London Eye

I’ll never miss an opportunity to ride a ferris wheel – especially one like this. The tallest ferris wheel in all of Europe, the London Eye stands at 443 feet tall. Instead of benches that seat 3-4 people each, the wheel holds 32 observation decks – covered capsules that hold about 25 people. Riders get an amazing view of the city. I was hoping we’d get to ride the Eye at sunset, but it was rainy and cloudy almost every day we were visiting and things just didn’t align. The surrounding area on the South Bank of the River Thames is great to explore, too. Big Ben is nearby and there are lots of vendors and restaurants. Just watch for pickpockets, who like to prey on the multitude of tourists (the Eye is the most popular paid tourist attraction in the entire UK.).

Another view of Big Ben, from near the London Eye

Another view of Big Ben, from near the London Eye

The London Eye, seen from afar (I think I shot this near Buckingham Palace)

The London Eye, seen from afar (I think I shot this near Buckingham Palace)

7. The iconic red phone booths

This is a must, mostly because it’s hard to say how much longer the classic red British phone booths will be around. According to this travel article, the booths are beginning to disappear. The article notes that some are being converted into libraries, art galleries, info centers, flower shops and even grocery stores. As of last summer, there were still booths all over London, so of course my friends and I had to jump inside one for a photo shoot.

Me posing inside one of the booths.

Me posing inside one of the booths.

8. The Tube

One of my favorite things about being in a big city is public transportation. It’s so different from South Florida, where public transportation is not widespread or functional, and the people who do use it are, well, kind of… sketchy. But in New York, Paris, London and Dublin, public transportation is used by everybody, and it can get you just about anywhere. During my entire 17-day trip across these cities, I think we only used a cab three times. The rest of the time, it was all about trains. I loved being on the Tube in London because it made me feel less like a tourist and more like I belonged in the city. Sometimes, I would pretend like I lived there and I was just one of the masses rushing to get to work. I loved people watching and snooping on the conversations of my neighbors, reveling in the beautiful English accents.

Some of my favorite English words and expressions? Mate, rubbish, bin your gum, brilliant and queue. I also loved observing the fashion. Having arrived from Paris, where everything is so classically chic, it was interesting to see how punk rock the look in London is. Everyone wears booties, shorts with leggings, and great black leather jackets.

I don't know if you can tell just how packed this Tube car is from this photo, I just know I have never seen so many people shove themselves into one small space. This was taken around lunchtime in London.

I don’t know if you can tell just how packed this Tube car is from this photo, I just know I have never seen so many people shove themselves into one small space. This was taken around lunchtime in London.

In London, there are no "exit" signs. It's always "way out."

In London, there are no “exit” signs. It’s always “way out.”

9. Westminster

Central London is one of the busiest, most exciting areas to explore. There is lots to do there and it’s great for people watching. I enjoyed exploring Westminster Abbey, the church where a ridiculous amount of famous people are buried (Isaac Newton, Geoffrey Chaucer, George Frideric Handel, Charles Darwin and Dickens to name just a few). Big Ben is here, as well as Buckingham Palace, Covent Garden, the London Eye and Trafalgar Square.

Big Ben

Big Ben

Me and Lisa playing with a random piano we found on the sidewalk

Me and Lisa playing with a random piano we found on the sidewalk

A close-up of the piano

A close-up of the piano

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

Lisa enjoying some sidewalk fish and chips.

Lisa enjoying some sidewalk fish and chips.

Outside Buckingham Palace

Outside Buckingham Palace

This street performer was floating in midair. We couldn't figure out how she was doing it.

This street performer was floating in midair. We couldn’t figure out how she was doing it.

A street performer using a cone as a musical instrument

A street performer using a cone as a musical instrument

Statue of King Charles I in Whitehall

Statue of King Charles I in Whitehall

10. Tea at Kensington Palace (probably my favorite thing)

Me, enjoying my tea

Me, enjoying my tea

I saved the best for last. Having a real English tea was on our must-do list, and after we visited and fell in love with the beautiful Kensington Palace, we decided we might as well go all the way and do our tea the right way. We indulged at the Orangery, enjoying a la carte tea and dessert. The Orangery is quaint, airy and beautiful, with white white tablecloths and walls, and big windows to admire the view of the gardens. We each ordered different teas, and our server brought us each our own teapot and cup. I have never felt like such royalty.

If you go a la carte, it’s way more affordable than you would expect for such a refined experience. I spent under 10 pounds for everything. The traditional Afternoon Tea is a little more pricey, starting at 22 pounds for a range of teas served with an assortment of sandwiches (smoked salmon and cream cheese, egg mayonnaise and cress, honey roasted ham with English mustard), an assortment of jams and pastries, and cucumber and mint Orange-scented and currant scones with Cornish clotted cream.

Me in front of the Tower Bridge, all decked out for the Olympics last summer

Me in front of the Tower Bridge, all decked out for the Olympics last summer

Going through these photos and my travel notebook to compile my thoughts for this post has been so much fun. It’s like I relived my time in London all over again. The crazy thing is that these 10 items only represent a fraction of what my friends and I saw on our trip – we visited so many museums, met so many interesting people in our hostel, and took day trips to places like Stonehenge and the WB studio that holds all the sets and props from the Harry Potter movies. There just isn’t room for it all here, but look out for another post on the rest of my trip soon.

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