It’s hard to even explain how long I’ve been an anglophile. From when I was a toddler who watched Mary Poppins daily, to my elementary school years reading the Narnia books, to middle and high school being inundated with Harry Potter. Not to mention all the various British movies and TV shows I’ve been obsessed with through the years—or my favorite mega-musicals like Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera, and more. And yet, other than an extremely brief layover in Heathrow more than a decade ago, I have never set foot on UK soil. But all of that is about to change in less than two weeks! Tracy and I are taking our first Eurotrip together after years of wanting to do one. We are essentially limiting our explorations to London and Paris this time around (with a couple mandatory stops outside those city centers, including Disneyland Paris and the Harry Potter studio tour at Leavesden).
Since this trip is going to be chockablock full of new experiences for us, I thought I would write my first “pre-trip report” to highlight some of our plans. Below is a slightly verbose overview of the various sights we’re planning to see in London. Paris is also forthcoming in the next week or so. Since we’re basically Europe novices, I’d love any advice from more seasoned travelers about things we shouldn’t miss (or should skip). We’re absurdly excited to get this trip underway so soon!
We are flying in and out of London, with our sojourn to Paris in the middle of our trip. Not really on purpose, but it turns out that the hotels we are staying at during the two parts of our London adventure are actually on the same block. Our borough is going to be Westminster, with Buckingham Palace literally around the corner and sights like Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Parliament, and more just a short walk away. We’re also glad to be staying right near the Victoria tube stop so that we can easily get to the four corners of the city via public transit. Staying true to our habit of short-term planning, we didn’t book lodging until mid-September, but we still had our pick of hotels and had to rely on TripAdvisor reviews and a little bit of blind faith to hope that we’ll be happy with the places we’ve chosen.
When it comes to the various sights that we plan on trying to see, London promises to be a little overwhelming. In addition to years of seeing the skyline on TV and in movies (and taking note of several of the must-see icons), we’ve both been reading Rick Steves’ guide to London. As I read, I dog-ear the pages mentioning things I want to see and do—and now I feel like half the pages are folded down. In my head, I keep trying to categorize the can’t-miss locations in addition to those that I’d love to visit if time is on our side. Of course, as with any trip, I can’t help but hope that I’m not passing over something great while buying into the hype about something mediocre—but travel is so subjective that it’s always impossible to know for sure.
To borrow jargon from Stacey, here are the things I consider “must-dos” as of right now. As I mentioned, we’re staying right next to Buckingham Palace. While we’re not going during the months when the palace itself is open to tour, we naturally need to see the outside and witness the Changing of the Guard. We’re also going to be near the Royal Mews and hope to get a peek at the Queen’s horses. In this same area, Westminster Abbey is another clear must-do. I know the cost of entry is a little steep, but it certainly seems like it will be worth it. Big Ben seems like more of a photo op than anything, and I’m sure that we will be able to see it from several different angles during our trip. Originally, I thought the same was true of Parliament, but I recently found out that both houses are actually open to tour, and it seems like it would be fun to pop in and look around (especially if they are in session).
Trafalgar Square is a sight that I recognize from photos but hadn’t put a name to until I began to do a little more research. And while I don’t think we’ll want to spend much time in The National Gallery (because we’re going to get our fill of art museums in Paris), we’ll probably stop in there briefly. There’s also Picadilly Circus, which I honestly expect to be a little disappointing and touristy (Times Square certainly is), but I’m sure we’ll need to walk through at least a few times—even if just en route to other places. I still need to read the tour of the British Museum in my guidebook to get a better idea exactly what sorts of artifacts are in there, but there seems to be a general consensus among everyone who has visited that this is a must-do. Tracy’s not huge into museums, though, so I need to figure out which ones I consider most important. From what I’ve read, the Churchill War Rooms, in particular, sound like they are really interesting and very well-done (we always appreciate high-quality audioguides like the ones at Ellis Island, Alcatraz, and other sights), so I’m guessing this museum will be one of my “history must-dos.”
Further east, I’m really excited to tour the Tower of London. Several years ago, I listened to a quirky audiobook called The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise, which prominently featured the Tower and very much piqued my interest to want to look around. We’ll also be sure to get photos of the nearby Tower Bridge. St. Paul’s Cathedral is another place it sounds like we can’t miss, though I’m still undecided as to whether it’s essential to pay to walk to the top of the dome. Across the Thames on the South Bank, I’d definitely like to see Shakespeare’s Globe—though that’s another place where I can’t decide if the tour is worthwhile. Of course, we need to cross between these last two sights via Millennium Bridge and hope we don’t get attacked by Death Eaters in the process (don’t worry, this isn’t the only Harry Potter reference or must-do. I’ve got a whole section devoted to our favorite boy wizard below). In West London, we’re excited to wander around Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. We’re also planning to head over to Notting Hill to shop at Portobello Market and find the infamous blue door from one of the best romcoms of the ’90s.
Speaking of sights from movies (and TV and books for that matter), we’ve made note of several of them and added them to our Google “My Map” so that we can take pictures when we happen to be nearby. Among the must-sees for us are several places from Love Actually, including St. Luke’s Mews (where Mark super desperately and silently declares his love to Juliet), Gabriel’s Wharf (where Daniel and Sam wax about the total agony of being in love), and Somerset House—which is used for many establishing shots but probably won’t be as recognizable without its giant Christmas tree or skating rink.
We’ve also made note of several locations from J.K. Rowling’s (I mean, “Robert Galbraith’s”) Cormoran Strike series. We know we’re not exactly likely to see Strike or Robin walking down Denmark Street, but I still think it will be fun to see it in person and be able to visualize the locations when we read the books in the future. The Tottenham in the books is also apparently based on a real pub called The Flying Horse, and I’d love to get a pint of Dune Bar there. Another literary locale that meets TV is 221B Baker Street, home to the Sherlock Holmes Museum. To date, I’ve only read A Study in Scarlet among the original Sherlock Holmes books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. We religiously binged our way through the more recent Sherlock TV series, however, and feel well acquainted with the characters. Plus we know we need to get some of the merchandise that I’m sure is available in the museum gift shop.
When it comes to shopping, we haven’t made ourselves as informed as we probably should, but I’m sure we’ll be doing quite a lot of it. Stops into Harod’s and Selfridge’s are probably musts (hey, the latter is a Love Actually location as well!). I’m sure Tracy will also want to browse through clothes at places like Topshop and Liberty. We’re probably most excited about doing some perusing of the wares at various street markets, and I definitely want to hit up Camden Market and Covent Garden in addition to the aforementioned market on Portobello Road. Even if London isn’t a key Disney destination, one of our trips wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the local Disney Store. If the flagship stores in NYC and San Francisco are any indication, I’m hoping that we can stock up on some fun Disney merchandise that has a London theme.
While we intend to get around mostly via the tube (and maybe even some buses), we’ll almost certainly also splurge for one of the classic Double-Decker Bus Tours on one of our first days in London. This option seems like a good way to get the lay of the land, and I think we’ll also take advantage of the free Thames boat ride that comes included in the price of a bus ticket.
I know our Must-Do list is already pretty imposing, but there are lots of other sights that I would love to take in if we have time. Reading the guidebook has been such a double-edged sword in this particular vein. On the one hand, it’s great to find out more about the places we already knew we wanted to visit. On the other hand, however, it makes all these other places also sound incredibly worthwhile. I know that we will pack in as much as possible, but there’s always a fine line between not seeing enough and trying to do too much.
As I’ll talk about a bit below, I’ve been brushing up on my British history (and by “brushing up,” I mean to say that I never paid enough attention to history classes in school so it all reads like new information to me), and I’m fascinated by so many of the history-based attractions London has to offer. The Museum of London is one place that sounds fascinating, but it might have to wait until our next trip unless we happen to be right nearby with time to spare. Same goes for the Imperial War Museum. Over along Hyde Park, Kensington Palace sounds like it’s got some really interesting history relating to Victoria, Princess Dianna, and the current royal family, but a visit will likely be time-permitting as well.
In terms of city views, we want to take in as much as possible without spending inordinate amounts of time or money trying to secure a bird’s-eye vantage point, so a few attractions are up in the air (literally and figuratively). The London Eye, for example sounds like it offers pretty awesome views, but it’s pricey. Still, it might eke out a win for us because it has become so iconic. I mentioned earlier that I’m not sure whether we’ll climb to the top of St. Paul’s. If we don’t, however, Rick Steves recommends seeking out a similar city view (for free) at the adjacent One New Change mall. I’ve also got several monuments and statues marked on my map so that we can take photos when we find ourselves nearby.
I’ve had to mentally make some concessions about limited time because the list of places I’d like to visit near London (but not in the city itself) goes on for miles. Rick Steves includes information about day trips to places like Cambridge, Stonehenge, and Windsor, and I’m also a bit obsessed with visiting one of the “chocolate box” towns in Surrey—as I have been ever since our first viewing of The Holiday. I don’t know how we would fit any of these sojourns in during this trip, but I still haven’t complexly written off the idea of doing one of them.
Now we come to one of the key reasons why we are particularly excited to be visiting London at this exact point in time. There’s really never been a better time to be Harry Potter fan in the UK. First, there is the Harry Potter Studio Tour at Leavesden. Located about 20 miles north of London in Hertfordshire, this former aerodrome housed production of the Harry Potter movies for more than 10 years. We are so excited to sit in the actual Great Hall set, wander Diagon Alley, see Number Four Privet Drive, check out the Hogwarts Express and Knight Bus, and more. Plus, the tour sells the same Butterbeer available at Universal Orlando, which we always enjoy. In a bit of potentially poor planning, we booked this tour for the morning of our first full day in London. We’re just hoping that the time change doesn’t mess with our sleep too much the night before, but I’m guessing we’ll be tired enough after a red-eye flight and partial day exploring that it will be less of an issue. And there’s always coffee to give us a jolt if need be.
The other bit of Harry Potter excitement is the new play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which has taken the West End by storm. Of course, since we didn’t book our flights until mid-June, the play had long been sold out. And yet, we didn’t want to give up on our chances of scoring tickets somehow. I signed up for the email newsletter and received word one day that a block of returned tickets was going on sale at noon BST the next day (which is 5am here in Colorado). So I set an alarm, dragged myself out of bed, and spent the next two hours frequently clicking refresh on the two different websites selling tickets. At one point, seats showed up for the last Wednesday of our trip, but they were obstructed view (including one that noted it had a big pillar in the way). I hemmed and hawed, knowing that this might be our only opportunity to buy tickets at all, and I somehow lost them even though they were in my cart. And those were the last tickets for our dates that ended up being available that morning. Still, we refused to give up hope. Every once in a while, I would check in to see if there were any newly-released tickets, and I usually found that all dates were still completely sold out. Then one day, Tracy reminded me to check again, and there actually happened to be several seats available for dates the week before our visit. That put me on the alert, and I set reminders for myself to start checking a couple times each day in case our dates were also released. Literally the next morning, I woke up and followed my alert to sign on. Suddenly, I saw that several dates during our trip had switched from “sold out” to “limited availability.” I tried not to panic and clicked on our ideal dates (with the two parts spread out over consecutive days rather than being crammed into one). There happened to be an option for “premium” seats at just £30 more expensive than the usual priciest category. I didn’t even think about the money—I just clicked through and essentially held my breath until I saw the confirmation screen. So we are booked! We have two of the best seats in the house, and our tickets for one of the parts just so happen to be on my birthday (talk about the perfect present). I’m so excited to see this play. We read the script when it was released this summer, of course, and we mostly liked it (although I think the comparisons I’ve read to fan fiction are slightly accurate). What I keep hearing, though, is that the story simply wasn’t meant to be enjoyed in book form—it was written to be performed. Having read many, many scripts in my life, I feel like I get that. The play needs to be fully realized, complete with what I’m sure will be incredible stage magic and spectacle. And for that, I truly can’t wait!
I’m sure that we will have more than a few other moments wherein our trip to London reminds us of Harry Potter. Since our train to Paris leaves from St. Pancras International, we will certainly make our way over to King’s Cross to pose with the trolley going to Platform 9-3/4. I’ve also marked a few other filming locations from the movies so that we can be sure to check them out if we are nearby—including Leadenhall Market (the entrance to The Leaky Cauldron in the first film), New Square (where Number 12 Grimmauld Place might magically appear), and the Reptile House at the London Zoo, in case we want to sic a snake on someone.
Eating and Drinking
I know London’s food isn’t exactly something to be quite as chuffed about as, say, Paris, but we actually really enjoy a lot of the fare that London has to offer. We love doing afternoon tea at the Grand Floridian, for example, and I think we’ll probably find several places in London to get tea during our trip. The more “formal” afternoon tea that we’ve actually made a reservation for is at The Wolseley, and we also want to do a cream tea at teapod near Tower Bridge. Pub fare is a favorite of ours when we can get it stateside, so I’m sure that we will find several good places to enjoy bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie, Yorkshire pudding, and more. Some of the places I’ve marked on our map after reading about them in our guidebook and checking Yelp! include Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, Lamb & Flag, St. Georges Tavern, and Anglesea Arms. When it comes to various ethnic flavors, I’ve also just made notes of different restaurants that we can hopefully choose depending on the area we are touring on any certain day. I’ve added a bunch to our map, but some of the ones that seem to stand out include Bibimbap, Dishoom, YMING, WOKIT, The Fat Bear, Flat Iron, and more. We’re always hoping for recommendations when it comes to food and drink, however, so please comment if you know of anywhere else we should try to go!
As I said at the beginning of this post, it sort of seems like I’ve been doing research for an eventual trip to London throughout my life, but there are several things I’ve specifically been reading and watching to make myself feel more informed. Since I realized I knew next to nothing about British history, I’ve been slowly but surely plowing through A History of Britain by BBC documentarian Simon Schama. This 14-part series starts with the country’s earliest civilizations and walks us all the way to the present day—highlighting the kings and queens, wars, cultural developments, important artwork and architecture, and more. I feel like I’ll actually understand the history behind places like Westminster Abbey and all the various palaces now, which I think is really neat!
I’ve had Harry Potter Page to Screen: The Complete Filmmaking Journey for years, but I’ve mostly just looked at the pictures in this coffee table book rather than actually reading the text. I’m trying to change that now and think that it will help me appreciate the tour even more. I also recently finished watching all the “ultimate edition” documentaries included on our Harry Potter Hogwarts Collection Blu-rays. Tracy and I started re-listening to Jim Dale’s incredible audiobook versions of the entire Harry Potter series at the beginning of the summer. We’ll probably only get through the fifth book before our trip, but it’s still fun to get in the mood of the books again—especially before seeing the play.
Tracy and I wanted to watch (or re-watch) some of the movies and TV shows that best show off London—more to get us excited than because we expect to learn from them—so we’ve been ticking many of them off our list as the trip draws nearer. Our favorite TV episodes included Friends (“The One with Ross’s Wedding“), Parks and Recreation (“London“), and The Girls Next Door (“I See London, I See France“). Plus, over the last year, we’ve watched the entire series of Sherlock and Downton Abbey, which have put us in a constantly and thoroughly British mood. Our ramp-up movies have so far included Bridget Jones’ Diary, Notting Hill, and Sliding Doors. We’ve also got several more on the list—knowing we probably won’t get to all of them before we leave—including Four Weddings and a Funeral, About a Boy, Shakespeare in Love, and Love Actually (even though we usually save that last one for Christmastime).
So there you have it all, from our best-laid plans to everything we have done to try to prepare for our visit. It’s definitely an ambitious trip—and this is only one of the two cities/countries we’ll be visiting! If you’ve made it this far, I definitely invite you to weigh in below or comment on Facebook or Twitter about your own favorite places to go in London (or just the places you’ve always wanted to visit!). I’ll be posting our “pre-trip report” for Paris sometime in the next week or so as well, and you can be sure that this adventure will spawn a full trip report when we return!
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