London is to Europe what Dubai is to the Middle East — you can visit all other cities in Middle East but if you don’t visit Dubai, you would have kind of not visited the Middle East in the real sense. The same principle applies to Europe.
Opting to keep our trip to London not too pricey, we gave British Airways a miss and booked our flights in Etihad, with a stopover at Abu Dhabi. We landed at Heathrow, one of the busiest International Airport in the world, at 8 AM. Having booked an Airbnb apartment on the Gray’s Inn Road, located in Central London, we found commuting around London a cake walk. Though the London cabs looked so inviting, we soon realized that was just ‘thinking luxury’, as they would charge us more than double the normal fare. Well, an Uber cab dropped us here for £35.
The weather in London was perfect in June and although we were warned of its unpredictability, the weather behaved itself while we were there. It drizzled lightly one evening, but just a regular coat was enough to protect us from the accompanying cold winds.
We had planned our itinerary in such a way that we could cover most places in the three days that we were there.
We freshened up at our Airbnb and set off for the City of Westminster. This is the inner London borough, where one can see many interesting places such as Piccadilly Circus, Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum, Hyde Park, London Eye, Churchill War Museum and more. One can enjoy a city tour on the famed London double-decker Red Bus, but we opted to walk or take the well-connected Tube as the weather was perfect and we wanted to savour the charm of this beautiful city. Unlike the impression we had of Londoners being stand-offish, we found them to be friendly.
We empowered ourselves with Oyster Cards, which can be purchased at any station or general store and can be used to commute in buses, tubes and some local trains. These can be refunded at Tube Stations and the Airports including the £5 initial amount.
Piccadilly Circus – London
Located at the junction of five busy streets, this is a major tourist attraction because of the video displays and neon lighting. The place was buzzing with life. We walked around Regent’s Street, Piccadilly Street and Soho before sitting for some time on the steps of The Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain to imbibe in us: London. The beautiful symbol of the city, the Statue of Eros, holding the bow, seemed to act as cupid and make us fall in love with the place.
We had some typical British Buttery scones and English tea at one of the various cafes that dot Piccadilly Street.
Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum
At almost £24, the tour of this huge 6 storied fascinating museum, was worth every minute we spent here. The brochure told us that there are over 700 unusual exhibits in 8 themed zones, but we obviously didn’t cover all of them. This place is great for all age groups. I found the ‘Nature’ and ‘People’ zone gripping and marveled at the founder, Robert Ripley’s dedication to educate people on the odd and the unusual.
A visit to Hyde park was mandatory, and we decided to spend just half an hour here, strolling, since an entire day won’t suffice either. Hyde Park is one of London’s eight Royal Parks and includes some famous landmarks, like, Serpentine Lake and the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain. It boasts of a number of activities such as boating, swimming and also has great eateries that serve a variety of cuisines, ranging from French to Thai to Japanese.
The London Eye – A giant Ferris wheel
Constructed on the Banks of the River Thames, the Coca-Cola London Eye is another ‘must-visit’. It was the World’s tallest Ferris wheel at one time. A £26 ticket included an engrossing 4 minute 4D film, about the City and the Wheel treated us to a spectacular view of London City from above. We spent just about half an hour here, but boy! what an experience it was.
We took some pictures of Westminster Palace, the meeting place of the two Houses of Parliament of the United Kingdom and the famed clock, the cultural symbol of UK, the Big Ben.
Churchill War Museum
Since history has always interested me, I had intended to spend as much time as I could in the Churchill War Museum, wanting to learn more about the inspirational leader and former British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who had led Britain to victory in the Second World War.
We crossed the Waterloo Bridge over the Thames and made a bee-line for the museum. The ticket to enter the museum was £17.40 . I toured the museum at my leisure with the helpful audio guide. One can explore the life and legacy of the aristocratic Churchill, check out the cabinet war rooms and traverse the historic WW II underground bunker. I could have continued, had the closing time of the museum not been 7 pm. Reluctantly, I stepped out into the street and started surveying the streets for their famed pubs.
I noticed that most of the pubs in London are situated in ancient buildings, adding to the charm. Also, a pint of beer is 500 ml here as opposed to 330 ml in India and America. Pork and beef is readily available in the form of burgers and steaks and one can gorge on their famed fish n chips off the streets.
Satisfied with our heavenly day and satiated with our meal and drinks, we returned to our rooms to gear up for the next day.
We walked to the most famous suspension bridge in the world: The Tower Bridge, built across the River Thames. The glass floors on its high level walkways, give access to the panoramic view of Thames running peacefully through the city. We missed the chance of seeing the bridge lift below our feet.
The Victorian Engine Rooms take you back to the era of steam engines, which had helped raise the Tower Bridge. An exhibition here, tells about the history of the bridge.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
We purchased the £18 entry ticket and spent about half an hour, admiring the place where Prince Charles and Lady Diana got married. The beautiful dome is one of the world’s largest and is the most recognizable sights of London. Remembering how this Cathedral was almost destroyed in WW II, full credit goes to the long restoration process that was undertaken by the government to bring it back to its original glory.
We reached East India Docks by tube and took the Emirates Air Line (cable car link across the Thames) to the O2 arena, which is a 10 minute walk from Greenwich Village. There’s plenty to do at Greenwich, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We spent almost 3 hours between the most interesting National Maritime Museum, The Royal Observatory (which is the site of Greenwich Meridian Line) and the O2 arena.
The O2 arena has an indoor area (for holding concerts), cinema halls and restaurants (which we found expensive). A burger cost us £8 and a beer, 6. But the ambience was worth the pounds.
A ‘Walkway’ here at O2, at the cost of £36, gives you a 360 view of the City. It seems it’s best done when the sun is setting, as you can see the views twinkling in the night sky. One can have a romantic dinner at the roof top restaurant here. Well, we did neither. We took the Emirates Air Line back from Greenwich.
After a little rest, we were back near Hyde Park in the evening, to admire the imposing Buckingham Palace, the residence of the monarch of the United Kingdom.
However, we couldn’t take the tour of the Palace and unfortunately even missed the famed ‘Change of the Guard Ceremony‘.
Hoping to catch a teensy-weensy look at Prince Harry’s royal children, Prince George and Princess Charlotte, we loitered in front of the stylish Kensington Palace. Imagining the children inside and relating to the movie, Princess Diaries, we wondered who was happier — the free, ‘do-what-you-want’ commoners outside or the prim and ‘propah’ life of the royals inside the imposing walls.
We wanted to catch a play at the famed Royal Albert Hall, but the timings didn’t suit us.
A 10 minute walk from Albert Hall brought us to the very interesting Serpentine Art Gallery, which exhibits modern and contemporary art on varied themes ranging from masculinity to landscape.
We ended the day with some heavenly Italian cuisine. I loved the British dining etiquette, their P’s and Q’s and the importance they give to their privacy. Though there was public display of affection.
Windsor Castle – Castle / Fort in Windsor
We took the tube to Paddington Station and paid £10.40 for a round trip ticket to Windsor, 45 minutes away, and back. The majestic castle is the preferred weekend residence of the Queen and is the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world. Stepping into its premises transported us immediately into the surreal world of kings and queens, of aristocracy and blue blood, of crowns and thrones, of regalia and royalty. How beautiful everything was and how well maintained!
The lofty grounds, the stately art and architecture, the beautiful Chapel, all had us spell-bound. We spent almost 4 luxurious hours here and were awe struck for most of the time.
We couldn’t leave London without a stop over at the World famous detective’s residence — 221B Baker Street. You can even visit the Madam Tussaud’s around the corner, famed for their lifelike wax statues of the world’s Who’s-Who! We would have visited Madam Tussauds but we had already seen it in Hong Kong.
Shopping would have been a pleasure at Notting Hill, the town glorified by Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts had it been a Sunday, but we settled for Stratford Mall.
All good things come to an end and the next day we found ourselves on the tube headed for Paddington. From here we took a £25 ticket for an express train back to Heathrow Airport.
An Air India flight brought us back to a sultry and humid New Delhi.
Also read: Mussoorie and Landour — Home To Ruskin Bond