Finally, after a week and a half of traveling around England, we arrived at our last destination - London.
We took a two-hour bus ride on the Oxford Tube from Oxford, getting off at the Marble Arch Underground station on the northeast corner of Hyde Park. We took the Underground over to the East End of London, where we were staying with Nick and Kyra for a few nights, courtesy of AirBNB.
We chose the East End as our first stopping point in London because I was fascinated by its history and culture after reading a book by Deborah Crombie set in Brick Lane. Brick Lane (a neighborhood, not just one street) has historically been the home to predominantly Bengali immigrants. In recent years, the area and others adjoining it (Spitalfields and Shoreditch) have become the new trendy hipster-grunge neighborhoods, as restaurants and revitalization has moved in. It's also close to the center of London, easily accessible by bus or Underground.
We checked in with Kyra and headed off to the Tower of London, our one big tourist splurge during our trip. The initial construction of the Tower occurred around 1066 as a defense fortress against hostile Londoners (a bit ironic, no?). Since then, the Tower (which comprises of towers, multiple walls, and dungeons) has served as royal residence, prison, execution site, armory, royal zoo, and museum. Visiting the Tower gives you a broad view of British history, as well as a chance to view the Crown Jewels up close. We also joined a Yeoman Warder ('Beefeater') tour, which was free with admission. Our guide, Spike, was a former Army officer, and he helped us understand the long timeline and multiple functions of the tower, as well as throwing in lots of dry, punny humor.
After the Tower of London, we wandered up to the Tower Bridge. At 6:30pm every day, the bridge opens up to allow tall boats through it. Of course, Andrew (the engineer) didn't want to miss an opportunity to see how it works close up.
Visiting the bridge on a summer evening was the perfect way to see London - loads of people walking around, locals rushing home or on their daily run, everyone enjoying the brilliant blue sky and almost-hot sunshine reflecting off the River Thames.
After daylight finally started fading, we took a bus back to our flat, stopping along the way to eat wood-fired sourdough pizza at Franco Manca, which has locations all over the city. We happened to stop in the one off Liverpool Street right during Happy Hour, which gave us a front-row seat to financiers and stock brokers 'networking' over expensive glasses of wine - one more unexpected view of London.
The next day, we walked and saw everything we could possibly want to see in central London - the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, St. James Park, Buckingham Palace and the changing of the guard, Trafalgar Square, and the British Museum. But the only place we actually went inside was the British Museum because it was the only place that was free. London is especially expensive, and most historical sites require a £20 or more admission fee. So we enjoyed what we could and saved our pennies for the things we really wanted to enjoy...more on that below...
The British Museum is worth a stop, even if you only have a few hours. It is so huge and extensive that it would take days to see everything it has to offer. We spent a few hours focusing on the Roman, Greek, and ancient antiquities. It's home to the Rosetta Stone, remnants of the Parthenon, and mummies galore - so you'll find something to fascinate and educate you.
After a loooong day of walking miles upon miles, we crashed for a bit at our host, then headed our to find an enjoyable way to end the day. One of our friends had recommended Nightjar, an underground speakeasy cocktail bar. Although we'd read about how popular it was, we didn't expect to be turned away on a Tuesday night. The host (standing just inside an inconspicuous door with a small drawing of a bird on the front) asked us to come back in a few hours, and he might be able to find us a table.
We rode the bus, wandered around another part of town, then came back around 9pm. After waiting about ten minutes, the host sent us downstairs into a dark, cozy basement lined with mirrors, plush seating, and dimmed pendant lights, permeated with laughter and soft piano jazz as the live musician tinkled his way through old familiar favorites.
We managed to get over our shock at the high price tag of the drinks (£10-15 each) and ordered one to share after asking for the waitress's recommendations - the Kyro cocktail, which included pine sap infusion, gin, vermouth, grapefruit juice, and cloudberry jam. It's almost impossible to describe what pine sap infusion tastes like, except that sipping it made me feel like I was walking through a meadow of sunlit flowers, the scent of pollen and tree bark and wild berries filling my nose. It may have cost us $25 including tip, but that drink was good. At least they served free popcorn.
Our first 36 hours in London were a ripping success. The next few days held an amazing culinary experience, an unusual Italian-Cockney eatery, and a trip to southern London to visit old friends...
- Oxford Tube - frequent buses to/from Oxford and London; £15 per single ticket. Best way to travel between the two cities.
- Tower of London - £25 per adult (slightly cheaper if booked online in advance)
- Tower Bridge
- Franco Manca - affordable wood-fired sourdough pizza; locations throughout London
- British Museum - one of the best and largest museums in the world (and it's free)
- Nightjar - speakeasy cocktail bar with live music nightly
- AirBNB - stay with local hosts. Click here to get $30 off your first trip.