Europe. Here at last. While Europe seems to be the most common site for international travel – as well as most peoples’ first intercontinental destination, we seemingly traversed the rest of the globe before making it to Europe. Alyce had really been wanting to go to Europe, and I was excited about it too. Our first stop – London.
London…Easy to figure this one out. It’s the capital of the country England. But wait, what about the United Kingdom? Or Great Britain – where does that factor in?
Geographically, it is not too hard….England, Scotland, and Wales make up the Island of Great Britain. Toss in the territory of Northern Ireland, and you have the region that makes up the United Kingdom (full name: The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northen Ireland). Settled – at least ignoring territories…
So what country is London in? According to Wikipedia England is a country, and it’s capital is London. Need further proof? England is a country that competes in the World Cup. So let’s see what this “United Kingdom” thing is then…A country. What?
The United Kingdom is a “country of countries.” While I’m no Poli-Sci major, that doesn’t make sense to me. One place can’t be two countries. Time for further research.
A simple google search reveals this discussion on whether England is a country (most of the people are wrong). That’s no help. So what’s really going on here?
England is a country…if by country you mean “not a country in the terms we typically think of but a reference to former times when England actually was a country, but it still wants act like one so it chooses to be called a country despite really not being one.” That would be like if Louisiana started calling itself a country…Sure, call yourself whatever you want, but you’re still not a real country…I’ll take the title of Grand Emperor while we’re just picking meaningless titles.
So what are England, Scotland, and Wales? They function more like states in the terms we think of. Some more proper terms for them (compared to “country”) would be Home Nations or Countries of the United Kingdom, but they are not sovereign nations and thus are not countries in the sense of what the vast majority of the world considers a country. Still not satisfied, check out the official list of Countries – the US has one too. You won’t find England/Scotland/Wales/North Ireland; you will find the United Kingdom.
Phew….And I though Hong Kong as “kind of China” was confusing. Sorry for the tangent, I guess I was confused myself and wanted to figure it out.
London has a Metro population of roughly 15 million people, so it is a pretty big city; it would be the second largest in the US behind New York. The national language is no surprise to anyone – English. Even though we may think they speak funny and they might think we butcher the language, difficulty communicating is a complete non-issue in London.
The currency is the pound (GBP). It is worth a good bit more than a US dollar, so it makes things expensive to us foreigners
Getting around London is expensive. The Tube (their subway) was pretty nice, but not cheap. An all day ticket was around 9 pounds a person – or about 15 USD. A one way cash ticket was about 5 pounds. If you pay 5 pounds for their Oyster card, a one way ticket is a little more than half that. Though, it’s still pretty expensive at almost 5 USD for a one way ticket with the discount. Taxis will run you about a little more than a pound per minute.
The weather is what you’d expect for a country in this location in winter…Cloudy, rainy, cold. But not as cold as we were expecting. The highs most days were in the upper 40’s to low 50’s, and the lows were generally in the low 40’s. I was definitely expecting it to be colder.
We had some form of rain just about every day. That said, it was generally more of a misty rain than the downpours we are used to in Louisiana. It didn’t stop us from doing all that much.
As with seemingly most of the places we have visited. We felt safe. London was pretty clean as well. We found several things to occupy our time…
I had pre-purchased Heathrow Express tickets for Alyce and I. It was 50 GBP (~85 USD) for both of us round trip…for a 20 minute train ride. That was a sign of things to come. And I’ll add that the only reason it was that “cheap” was that I found a deal for a couple by googling for couple discounts (it was called the Duo Saver option). Otherwise, it would have been 68 GBP or 115 USD for both of us round trip. And we still had to catch another cab once we reached Paddington Station.
That said, I’d probably do it the same way if we visit London again and they still have a Duo Saver type deal. The Heathrow Express was nice enough with plenty space and it was the quickest option into central London. Another potential option is pre-booking a private “mini cab” for probably something like 40-50 GBP each way or just catching a metered taxi, the price of which is probably your firstborn child.
Navigating Paddington Station was easy, and there was a long line of cabs waiting. We got in the first one and were at the hotel roughly 10 minutes and 12 pounds later.
The Hyatt offered us to go check-in in the lounge upstairs as opposed to the desk where we were currently standing as we were suite/diamond guests. I passed, as that is something I really just don’t get. I’m already standing here talking to you, just check me in. It is not a long process.
I kind of get in room check-in since you have to go to the room anyway, but it usually just ends up being awkward. I guess some people like it. Or I could see it being beneficial if the take you straight from arrival outside to the club/your room, skipping any lines.
Anyway, we were staying at the Hyatt Regency Churchill. I was able to get a very good best rate guarantee for the hotel, and thus paid cash for the room. Since I was paying cash, I used a suite upgrade.
The suite was nothing special – easily the least impressive suite we’ve stayed in. Still, it was a suite. We appreciated the extra space, especially considering we were probably paying less than anyone else to stay at the hotel at the time.
It had 2 small rooms, partially separated by a wall. The bathroom was relatively small, and the closet was right by the entry to the room – which was a pretty odd location. I guess you shouldn’t expect too much in a city like London where space is at a premium…Though the same could be said for Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc.
We enjoyed the lounge. There were actually two rooms – a family room and an adults only room. Both had the exact same food/drink spread. Breakfast was mostly continental, but scrambled eggs was an option. The evening spread was quite good, focusing on a different regions cuisine each night (British, Asian, Italian).
My only other thought on the property was that the internet was painfully slow. I’m talking unusable in a literal sense. There would be stretches of 30 minutes where I couldn’t even pull up google.com. That is completely unacceptable for a hotel of this quality – especially one that caters to a business crowd.
It was bad enough that it brought my first ever complaint to the front desk of a hotel. The response at that exact moment was along the lines of “tough, deal with it.” Though, the manager sought us out when we were checking out and apologized for the problems. He said that he understood how important internet access was to guests, and that they were actively working on fixing the problem they had. While that didn’t go back in time and speed up the internet, I really appreciated the sentiment.
We were still stuffed from the flight and lounge meals, so dinner was not an option. We just had a couple waters in the club (we yet again showed up too late for evening service), made our way back to the room to unpack for an actual stay, and went to sleep.
We had no trouble getting up to make it to the lounge breakfast. Though we were not in any kind of a rush as it was raining pretty hard. After a little waiting the rain had slowed to a mist and we decided to brave the conditions.
The plan for the day was to walk down Oxford Street to the British Museum, and then see what we felt like doing after that. I was still debating whether I wanted to buy a local SIM for my phone at this point. We passed several cellular stores along the way that sold prepaid SIM cards, but they were pretty pricey. I decided to hold off on getting a SIM after seeing how the GPS on my phone plus the saved for offline viewing google map worked out. Turns out, that would be all that we needed in London (and Paris as well).
The walk down Oxford street was uneventful; we made it to the British Museum after about 30 minutes. Museum entrance was free, but they sold anything you might want once inside (map, guides, etc.).
It was packed. Everybody in London must have had the same thought of spending the rainy day in the museum.
We saw the Rosetta Stone over the heads of 20 other people. The British took that from the French upon the defeat of Napoleon.
We saw most of the sculptures from the Greek Parthenon (the Elgin Marbles). A British explorer took that stuff about 200 years ago.
We saw lots of other stuff that the British took at some point or another.
Noticing the trend? The museum has some really cool, historical stuff…that the British took at some point. Now to be fair, most museums have that to some extent; there was just a whole lot of it there. Also, many things like the Greek Parthenon sculptures were wasting away in Greece when they were taken, as no one really cared about them at the time. Now that the Greeks see those as a money making thing, they’re tune has changed to “thanks for taking care of those, we want them back now.” Egypt wants the Rosetta Stone back, and so on.
The British Museum’s stance is “we’re not giving them back, and I’d like to see you try to come take them” – though maybe not in those exact words. And to be honest, I’m glad that’s their stance along with the other major museums. If not, some of the most famous museums would be gutted, and you’d never see most of this stuff because it would be scattered all over the place. Plus, giving back anything that came from another area or someone else possessed at another time would set a dangerous precedent…Just think of all the things that could be claimed throughout history.
The bottom line is that the British Museum has a lot of neat stuff. You could spend days in there if you are a history buff. But on this day, it was pretty crowded. Somewhere between 2 and 3 hours was our limit.
Leaving the British Museum, I saw that we were not too far away from Sir John Soane’s museum. This place had great reviews on the internet, and it was a place to go on this cold rainy day. So we proceeded in that direction.
The museum was John Soane’s house. John Soane was an architect who really liked collecting things – lots of things. We both found the museum to be a little odd. Maybe it was because just about nothing was labeled inside and we didn’t buy a guide book. Maybe it was just stuff that the local Londoners got more excited about because they seemed to make up the majority of the crowd. Either way, it was fun to walk around a really old London home, but that was about all we got out of it.
From there, we decided to start making our way back to the hotel. Along the way, we passed Trafalgar Square and walked down Regent St. Regent Street is a big touristy/shoppy type of street…maybe like a bigger Canal Street in New Orleans or a smaller Broadway.
We warmed up back at the hotel and spent some time in the lounge for drinks and canapés prior to dinner. Tonight, we were eating at Harwood Arms in Chelsea. It was true British food in a pub atmosphere, but it was supposed to be good. It had many good reviews and even a Michelin star.
There was no good option for getting there via public transportation, so cabbing it was our only option. I figured no big deal as it was only 10-15 minutes away. Wrong. It was nearly $40 (US) to get there in a metered taxi. Ouch. If it costs $80 US just to get to a meal, it had better be good.
It was blah. We had a soup, beef tongue, veal shank, and something else. Nothing was bad, but nothing was good either. The service was pretty poor as well. It was just an overall forgettable meal, which it cost $150 US with just one glass of wine. So we were out about $225 US for the night for a pretty blah experience. Oh well – I guess the old saying about English food being bad is somewhat true. I had thought maybe people were just eating the wrong things.
Back at the hotel, were able to get the Saints game on TV. We drifted in and out of sleep before finally knocking out for good just after the Saints kicked the winning field goal to beat Philadelphia.
Not too surprisingly, we overslept the following morning. This was disappointing because I had wanted to get up and moving because there was actually a forecast of sunshine until about 1:00. We ended up leaving the hotel just before 1:00. So much for the sun. We also missed breakfast, which was probably a good thing at that point.
Still we had plenty time to do some of the stuff we wanted to do. We had already decided to skip dinner that night and just eat the lounge food, as I couldn’t bear to drop another $250 for a blah meal. I had booked Medlar (also in Chelsea) but went ahead and cancelled it.
I also went ahead and splurged for the all day tube travel pass. You come out ahead almost immediately (2 rides) if you don’t have an Oyster card.
St. Paul’s Cathedral was first on the agenda. It was a pretty, old Catholic church. Admission was free, but you were not allowed to take any pictures from inside the church.
From there, we caught the quick tube ride to London Tower. It’s a pretty big tourist operation, and it is expensive (seemingly like everything) at 22 GBP per person. That said, it was one of my favorite things we did in London.
The Tower has been used for many things over the course of it’s life – from a fort, to a royal castle, to the royal menagerie/zoo, to a prison and execution grounds. Now it houses the crown jewels and displays the royal armory, among other things.
We caught the tour guided by a Yeoman Warder (aka beefeater). It was definitely worth it, as he explained a whole lot about the Tower and its history. Plus, it is included with your admission to the Tower.
Following the tour, we went through the Crown Jewel exhibit and passed through the White Tower to see the Royal Armories. It was also really cool just being able to walk freely through a place with so much history behind it.
Daylight was running out, but we still had a good bit left to do. It seemed to start to get dark around 4:00 – 4:30 there. The Tower Bridge is nearby and is nice to get up close to and walk across. We then walked along the Thames to the London Bridge, which was pretty plain/boring.
We hopped on the tube and rode to the Jubilee Garden area. It had a nice pedestrian bridge to walk across. Once across the river, you can get some good views of the London Eye, as well as Big Ben. After a short walk, we were at the Westminster station where we caught the Tube back to the Marble Arch right by the hotel.
We had drinks and a lounge dinner, then it was time for bed.
No oversleeping today; we were up plenty early for breakfast. We were planning on seeing some if the major London sites.
To start the day off, we walked to Big Ben/Parliament. I think you can occasionally do tours through there, but I wasn’t aware of any on this day.
Westminster Abbey is nearby. We walked to it, and took some pictures. I was pretty ambivalent on whether or not to go in. I’m sure it was neat, but it also was nearly $75 US for the two of us…which is very expensive to go in to a church in my book. So I left it up to Alyce, and she wasn’t really all that interested.
Buckingham Palace was another 20-25 minute walk away. There are certain times of the year that Buckinham Palace offers tours inside, but this was definitely not one of those times. Still, there were plenty of people out front. Plus, the temperature had warmed up by this point…and I even think I saw the sun.
We walked to the Queen’s gift shop to see what they had and then made our way along Hyde Park back to the hotel. We passed our dinner spot along the way and saw that it was just a 5-10 minute walk from the hotel.
Lounge drinks and snacks were out around 5:30, and we made sure to take advantage of our last night of lounge access. Tonight’s theme was Asian and had some sushi roll options. We easily could have just ate in the lounge again.
I had reserved us a table at Corrigan’s Mayfair. It was a much more elegant/upscale place than Harwood Arms – despite the meal only being 20 GBP or so more expensive. The cuisine was still British, but it seemed to have more of a French influence to me.
We shared a foie gras appetizer. I had braised beef shin for my main, and Alyce had pork belly. We enjoyed all the courses. It was definitely a much better experience than our previous dining. I still wouldn’t rank it up there with our favorites, but I definitely felt like we got our money’s worth.
We strolled back to the hotel and packed up our things. It was time to head to Paris.
We liked London. Though I wouldn’t say we loved it.
There is a massive amount of history in London. While neither of us are huge history buffs, we certainly both appreciated it. London also features some pretty iconic sites; I’m glad to have seen them in person.
Overall, I’m happy to have been to London and seen everything. I won’t be rushing to plan a trip back.
Again, everything was expensive. Part of that is the exchange rate, but part of it is London just gouging tourist. Don’t believe me, let’s look at prices not even considering the exchange rate (which is absurd, but proves my point).
A 7 day all you can ride subway tickets costs
- $30 US in New York for all zones
- 20.4 Euros (for zones 1-2) or 34.3. Euros for all zones in Paris
- 31.4 GBP for zones 1 and 2 or 57.2 GBP for all zones in London
As you can see, London is the most expensive, despite also having the significantly most expensive currency. How about a single ride purchase at a machine or counter (“cash fare”)…It’s even worse
- New York is $2.75 for any zone
- Paris is 1.7 Euros for any zone
- London is 4.7 GBP for zones 1-2 or 5.7 GBP for zones 1-6
Attractions are the same…20 GBP to enter a church. Really? I’d think it was pretty excessive even if it were $20 US. Taxis are equally as bad.
Meals were not as outrageously priced, but they were still very expensive for what you got. And even though we liked one of our meals, it certainly wasn’t knock your socks off, I have to go back there good. The other one was blah and forgettable.
So I’d consider London a place I’m happy to have been. I’m glad to have seen the sites and experienced the history. I wouldn’t be opposed to spending a couple days in London again, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to make it happen.
I do hope to someday get back to England Great Britain The United Kingdom to explore more of the countryside. They are supposed to have some absolutely beautiful spots in other areas of the country. Plus some of the other things I considered doing in London involved taking daytrips to Oxford or Cambridge. So, I’d like to visit some of the smaller towns.
I hope that didn’t come across as too negative because we did have a good time in London. It’s just that some places are like that. You see the sites, and there may not be a compelling thing pulling you back – like the energy and culture in Hong Kong or the unbelievable food in Tokyo or the vibe and food in Paris.