We left Ireland early on July 31 and soon arrived at Heathrow Airport; this was a relatively easy process since we did not have to go through customs. After spending euros the past eight-plus weeks, we had to switch over to British pounds and used the convenient airport ATM. We then figured out how to buy and add money to the Oyster Card public transportation pass. Next we took the underground to our hotel and arrived three hours before standard check-in time. Fortunately, the hotel staff allowed us to drop off our luggage so we headed out for lunch to a very ‘royal’ place indeed – Burger King!
The first two nights we spent in London were not part of our eleven-day guided tour package, so we stayed in a budget hotel. This was a new experience since the hotel room barely had enough space for two twin beds, let alone our luggage. This meant we had to do a lot of climbing around and maneuvering past each other. I think that my dorm room in Chadbourne was larger! The main benefit to our tiny hotel room beside the price was the location since it was only two blocks away from a major underground stop so it was easy to get around London and see the sights. We decided to get our bearings for the rest of the day and plan out what to do the next day. We looked online and bought tickets to an Open Top London Bus Tour package combined with admission to see the London Eye and then went off in search of dinner at Domino’s Pizza.
Our second day in London began with the four-hour bus tour; although it was super hot, we only got slightly sunburned. Our tour guide was a native Londoner and had lots of interesting tidbits to share that I will recap for you:
- The Duke of Westminster is the second person after the Queen who owns the most land in England
- Westminster Abbey is the church where most of the royals get married, including William and Kate, however Princess Diana and Prince Charles were married instead in St. Paul’s Cathedral
- Trafalgar Square was constructed to commemorate the Battle of Trafalgar against France; to add further insult to injury, the plaques are made from melted French cannons
- Kensington Palace was where Queen Victoria was born and is now William, Kate, and baby George’s official residence
- Stag Night = bachelor party, and Hen Night = bachelorette party
- London includes a mix of old and modern buildings because the modern ones were built after the old ones were destroyed by bombs during WWII
- The tea shop called Fortnum and Mason is where the Queen’s tea is purchased
- The White Star Line building was where the Titanic passengers purchased their tickets
- St. Paul’s Cathedral houses the bell Old Tom which only rings when the monarch dies; this Cathedral is surrounded by modern buildings as the Germans tried to bomb it to destroy English morale
- The Great Fire of London destroyed 80% of the city in 1666; if the monument dedicated to this tragedy is pushed over (it is 202 feet tall), it will point to where the fire started
After the bus tour, we got a refreshing fruit drink at Café Nerro (similar to Starbucks). I learned that I had to request a number code in order to unlock and use the public restroom there.
We then made our way to the London Eye attraction which overlooks the River Thames and Big Ben. It looks like a giant Ferris wheel with clear plastic passenger capsules and it takes about 30 minutes to make a complete rotation. The views were breathtaking!
We then returned to our hotel via the underground and went out for dinner. Steakhouse Guaca had American food, Texas longhorn décor and waiters sporting American flag-patterned t-shirts. We didn’t intend to eat ‘American’ food three times in a row, I swear! In London, 12 pounds ($18) per person for a tasty meal and FREE water is considered a good deal.
On our third day in London we switched from our dorm-sized budget hotel room to the more spacious hotel for our tour group. We grabbed breakfast and lunch at a nearby grocery store called M & S (Marks & Spencer) and began the trek, which meant bumping, rolling and dragging our study abroad luggage to our new, air-conditioned hotel (unfortunately, there wasn’t an underground route that could take us to our upgraded destination and we didn’t want to try navigating the bus system with all of our worldly possessions). After 30 minutes of aerobic exercise we arrived, checked in and stored our luggage. We bought tickets to see BuckinghamPalace and the Tower of London for that day. We planned to do both of these, but then realized that we could only do one attraction since they both closed at 3pm. Luckily, the Tower of London tickets could be used up to seven days after purchase so we headed out to Buckingham Palace.
This time we took a bus since the new hotel was not close to any underground stops. Most of the buses are actually the double-decker style as seen on TV! Once we arrived at Buckingham Palace, it was a bit confusing to determine which line to stand in. First we were in one line to pick up our prepaid tickets, then we got in a second line for admittance, but by that time we were 35 minutes late according to the preprinted time on our tickets and had to budge to the front of the line. After, we had to go through security, pick up our prepaid audio guides and then we were set free on the palace! Shelby and I chose to have our audio guide in Spanish in keeping with our study abroad goals (after visiting, it made me really want to watch the movie National Treasure 2!).
We saw the State Rooms which focused on Queen Elizabeth’s sixty-year reign. One room included a black and white video about her coronation day. Another room displayed clothing items that the Queen and other royals wore that day. We saw the Queen’s dress and cape, her anointing dress, and her gloves, just to name a few.
We also saw the Queen’s Buckingham Palace Guards, but didn’t watch the ‘changing of the guard’ which happens at 11:30 am (in August, on even days only). For an early dinner we went to the original Hard Rock Café.
We spent our last fully day in London at the Tower of London and the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studio Tour. I also really wanted to visit Westminster Abbey, but there weren’t enough hours in the day!
The Tower (more formally known as ‘Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress’) is a castle on the River Thames. One of the most well-known facts about the Tower is that it houses the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom. The original jewels were destroyed in 1649 after the English Civil War and the execution of Charles I. New jewels were commissioned for Charles II in 1661 after he returned from exile. The Crown Jewels include the regalia and vestments (crowns, scepters, rings, swords, orbs, and more) worn by the monarch during his or her coronation ceremony and other important events. We went on a guided Yeoman Warder tour (the Warders live in the Tower, are its ceremonial guardians and are also known as the ‘Beefeaters’) and learned lots of interesting information:
- There used to be a 15-foot deep moat surrounding the Tower, but it was the cause of disease and pestilence so it was filled in with dirt
- People including Sir Thomas Moore and Elizabeth I were kept prisoner in the Tower
- The Traitors’ Gate (a gated water entrance to the Tower) is where barges carrying the wives of Henry VIII passed through prior to the wives’ executions
- The Three Blind Mice nursery rhyme was supposedly based on the Oxford Martyrs (three Anglican bishops) who were burned at the stake for heresy
We also walked around along the outer walls which had great views of the iconic Tower Bridge.
We enjoyed our visit to London very much, made even more special by the recent birth of Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge. We rounded out our final day (August 4) with all things Harry Potter (stay tuned to my Blog)!