By: Nicole Pensiero, Special To Follow South Jersey
I’m always dazzled by London’s fascinating mix of old and new – the ancient monuments, like Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London, that sit so close to modern-day attractions like the London Eye and The Shard. It’s a city of contrasts that meld together beautifully.
Some 30 million tourists descend on England’s capital city each year, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s a fun and fast-paced place with everything from history to culinary adventures. And with some advance planning and a willingness to push through long days, you can experience the best of London, even managing to enjoy a side trip outside of the city.
My most recent get-away to London was planned as a solo trip, but I would also connect with friends who live in the UK. Three of my four days in London, however, were spent on my own, just taking in the sights and exploring. Never did I feel unsafe; never did I worry about getting around. London is perhaps the easiest city in the world to explore – thanks to its amazingly efficient Underground subway system, affectionately known as “The Tube.”
I found an affordable, easy-to-book package through Expedia that included non-stop flights and a four-night stay at a modest, clean little hotel in a lovely part of Kensington. The Villa Kensington just so happened to be reachable on the same Underground (subway) line that runs from Heathrow Airport – so I saved a bundle by taking the “tube” directly to Gloucester Road, where it was an easy two-minute walk to my accommodations.
I was blessed with spectacularly mild and sunny weather for my mid-February visit. There were many highlights during this fast-paced getaway, and there’s something to be said for the fact that there are loads of free museums, numerous historical attractions, good restaurants, theatre, and plenty of parks.
For our last-day dose of culture, we explored the beautiful Victoria and Albert Museum, which focuses on decorative arts. We saw a special paid exhibit, Hallyu! The Korean Wave, which explores the history of the “Korean Wave,” and its global impact on everything from cinema, fashion, beauty, and music. It runs until June 25 and is worth checking out – as is the museum’s amazing gift shop.
Here are some suggestions for any first-time visitor.
Get a View from Above: If it’s a sunny day, take in a view of London from above via either the London Eye or at England’s tallest building, The Shard. With a friend who joined me on my final day, we enjoyed The London Eye this time around. While not as tall as the Shard, it’s quite an experience: a gigantic Ferris wheel with 32 capsules that can each hold up to 25 people. At 443 feet at its highest point, you get an amazing view of the city along the River Thames. The most popular paid tourist attraction in the UK – more than 3 million visitors annually — the London Eye is unique, and memorable and exciting – all at once.
Visit London’s Most Historical Sites: Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London always get my vote. If you can’t do both, do at least one. They are both magnificent, and date back to the 11th century. Price of admission at the Tower features an included tour with a Beefeater, where you’ll learn everything from where (and why) Anne Boleyn was beheaded, to the folklore surrounding the prevalent ravens. Westminster Abbey, meanwhile, offers an audio tour – and guests can select a shorter or more in-depth experience. From Poets Corner to the tombs of Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, the history here is amazing.
Take a Side Trip: This year, I decided I wanted to visit Queen Elizabeth II’s tomb and her home, Windsor Castle, the largest and oldest occupied castle in the world. Founded by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, it has been the home of 40 British monarchs.
Traveling solo there from London’s Paddington train station (yes, there’s a Paddington Bear stature there) was quite easy; I even purchased my tickets from the U.S. via Trainline.com. It cost less than $20 roundtrip to travel from central London to Windsor; the ride itself was only 20 minutes. Admission to Windsor Castle includes a self-guided audio tour. The castle is nothing less than magnificent – I was surprised at the size and scope of it, and how crowded Windsor Castle was on a Monday in February! (Note: Windsor Castle is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays).
There are no photos allowed inside so one has to keep memories with them as they go along. I especially loved St. George’s Chapel (where the Queen, Prince Philip and her parents are laid to rest – and let’s not forget King Henry VIII). Queen Elizabeth’s tomb is behind glass – it is elegant and subtle. St. George’s Chapel is also where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were wed in May 2018. Windsor Castle is an immense castle and palace, and there is much to see, from Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House – one of the largest dollhouses in the world — to the magnificent State Apartments. I especially loved the castle’s exterior; it looked like something out of a storybook. And I got a true thrill seeing an entryway engraved with “ER” – for Elizabeth I (1533-1603). The town of Windsor is small and charming, with many shopping and food options. It was a wonderful side trip.
Enjoy Afternoon Tea: A highlight of my recent trip to London was afternoon tea at the Royal Albert Hall, which has observed this tradition for more than 100 years. A world-famous entertainment venue, tea here was elegant and relaxing. You can even book a joint visit that includes a tour of the building, followed by tea. Experiencing this on my final day, accompanied by a longtime English friend, was more than memorable. We thought the quality of the food was wonderful, as was the service. Along with delicious sandwiches, scones and cakes, there are 11 blends of tea to choose from, by the way – definitely something for everyone.
Grab a Good Meal: From pub food to gourmet dining, London offers an array of dining choices. You can enjoy both entertainment and food at Covent Garden, a popular shopping and tourist destination. Opened in the 1660s as a farmer’s market, there you’ll find upscale shops, an indoor/outdoor flea market, and street performers (called “buskers”). At the nearby St. Martin In-the-Fields, one of the city’s most beloved churches, you can enjoy a delicious meal in its Café in the Crypt, a cafeteria-style eatery offering a delicious variety of choices.
Traveling around London is a breeze, thanks to the popular Oyster Card. This easy-to-use electronic ticket – which you just “top off” when funds get low – gets you around the city via the Underground, buses and even the river buses (yes, that’s what they’re called).
London is my favorite city for more reasons than I can count, and it just might become yours too. For more information, go to www.visitlondon.com.
Nicole Pensiero is a South Jersey resident and a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA). Follow her on Twitter @NicoleWrytr.
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