Boarding the Heathrow Express to London’s Paddington Station, I tried to remember what I could of my last visit. It had been years since I’d touched my feet on the ground in the UK, and I was excited to have the next 9 hours to explore the city with a friend I’d met while touring Southeast Asia last summer.
Parma planned on meeting us at Paddington to take us on our tour de force and introduce us to the London he knows and loves. We were lucky to have our own personal local guide and I was happy to let him take the reins on the plans for the day. After months of researching and planning for all of our stops along the way on this trip, I was relieved to not have to worry about figuring out the best routes or navigating public transportation. I was just along for the ride.
I spotted Parma through the crowd as soon as we got off of the train and started walking the platform. After a quick round of introductions, we were on our way to for our first stop along the way–Buckingham Palace.
I had made a couple of small requests for our visits; a visit to a park, Trafalgar Square, a visit to a pub. Otherwise, anything was fair game.
Because he aimed to please, we were on our way to the Palace via Green Park, which as the name might suggest, is a nice green space that is just across the street from where the Queen resides and makes for a good substitute for Hyde park when you are short-ish on time, like us, and trying to kill two birds with one stone.
It was immediately evident that the Queen wasn’t in, since the Union Flag was flying. After a quick couple of pictures and a minute or two admiring the guards and the palace, we were off toward our next destination. Because we were mostly walking the city, we needed to allow plenty of time to get from one place to the other throughout the day.
By the way, did I mention the great weather that we were lucky to have during our stopover? I think we brought a tiny piece of sunny Florida with us to the city for the day.
Trafalgar Square was next up on the list. It was pretty crowded. I paused as I soaked it all in. Slightly ahead of us was a silent protest that was taking place as a rebuttal against the anti-refugee sentiment that had been building. There were rows of masked men and women alike, all drawing the attention of the crowds that gathered in the square. Just behind them stood another row of people holding various signs, playing music, again encouraging glances and pauses of the passerby’s. We walked up the steps to the National Gallery and took a look around. Mostly stone with fountains and some miscellaneous statues the main monument in the center of the square is what really draws your attention. This is Nelson’s Column, in honor of Horatio Nelson who commanded the British Navy at the Battle of Trafalgar. Fun fact: the land that was removed to develop Trafalgar Square was used to level Green Park, where we had been earlier.
After absorbing all the square had to offer, it was time to take strides toward the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey. All very popular sites on most tourist checklists. I was happy that we were getting to see the clock tower before renovations begin in 2017, which will be the first work to be carried out in 30 years.
We didn’t spend a lot of time in this area, but it’s easy to take it all in on a lazy stroll. The river Thames is just nearby and so after some pictures of Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, we walked over toward the water for a peek. Originally, Parma had planned for us to take the river boat to our next location, but time constrained us from doing that. He had a couple of surprise items for us, one of which was a scheduled thing, so we had to make sure we were there for our time slot. Instead of the river boat, we ended up hopping on the tube and heading to Parma’s to pick up the tickets for one of the surprises he had arranged.
We stepped out of the tube from modern London to a quaint area known as Greenwich where you just knew that all of the buildings had stories to tell and, if we had more time, I would’ve stopped to listen. Greenwich is best known for being home to the Prime Meridian and also the London base of the Royal Navy. The Cutty Sark, a large historic naval ship, is available to tour ($$) as is the Old Royal Naval College (free), among many other sites.
This little slice of the city was idyllic. Pubs and shops lined the rows of streets and the water runs just along the edge. As we wandered around for a few minutes, sans Parma, it was easy to get lost as you twisted through the lanes and explored. We ended up retracing our steps back to where we were all supposed to meet, since it was uncertain as to where the opposite end of the road would deposit you.
Once again, we were back on the tube and heading to our first surprise spot of the day and the reason why we had to be so timely with the first half of our visit: The Skygarden.
Situated approximately 508 ft above ground, at the top of a sleek building in London, the Skygarden is all windows with sweeping views of the city. Fully equipped with [yes] a garden, a bar, and a restaurant, this is one stop you want to make on your next visit. Just be sure to book your tickets in advance, as the reservation is required and bookings open up three weeks prior with availability varying from 1 space to 65 spaces depending on the time slot. This was one of my favorite places we went while we were in London. It was a great way to get a bird’s eye view, while simultaneously enjoying a handcrafted cocktail (or two!).
I’m just going to put this out there. I love Harry Potter. And Parma, being the magnificent friend that he is, designated the second surprise stop of the day as the Harry Potter Special. While we didn’t make it to King’s Cross Station to see platform 9 3/4 (blasphemy, I know), I was equally excited to arrive at Leadenhall Market, which is home to Diagon Alley in the first movie, and doubles as a Victorian covered market for the muggle world. If only we all had a Nimbus 2000 to fly around on, I’m sure we could have fit in more exciting HP stops. Next time, London. Next time.
For those of you following along with my timeline, you’ll notice we haven’t had a moment to spare to stop for food at this point in our tour, outside of a Bounty bar that was tossed our way back in Greenwich (doesn’t count). Parma was intent on showing us St. Pauls Cathedral, which is fantastic, but I found myself wondering when the last time he had 3 hangry girls on his hands was. My assumption was that it wasn’t anytime recently, given that we stopped at St. Pauls BEFORE stopping to eat. We all have to live with our mistakes (I’m looking at you, Parmjit). Unfortunately, the placement of the sun was not conducive to great pictures of the Cathedral so I had to go old school and look with my eyes instead. Here’s one I managed to take despite the sun.
How hard is it to find a pub in London? Apparently, pretty hard when you are looking for one. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I think of England, “pub” is one of the first things that pops to mind, after “fish and chips”, of course. (Now some of you may be thinking what about Stonehenge or The Beatles; but what can I say, food and drink are typically the first thing I’m thinking about.) We had to walk miles before finally bumping into a pub that was open. Ok, it was probably just blocks that felt like miles. But who’s counting?
Since we desired a classic British experience, we made sure to order fish and chips with mashed peas. We were not disappointed. First off, I’m pretty sure I had the entire length of a fish on my plate, and the mashed peas with pearl onions were really quite tasty. The batter was light and airy and the fish just flaked away. Topping it off with a beer, and it’s a pretty impenetrable combination.
AND THEN WE HAD TO RUN…when we went to pay and leave none of the machines were working to allow cards and even combining all of the cash between us, we didn’t have enough to cover the bill. We were tight on time and this was setting us back a good bit. After about 10 minutes of trying to swipe to no avail, Parma suggested we head on without him so we didn’t miss our return on the Heathrow Express. After giving us a loose list of directions and saying our goodbyes, we walked briskly toward the underground. It would seem that us leaving the pub was exactly what was necessary for the credit machines to start working again, because within minutes we were joined once more by Parma, who informed us that “we would need to walk a lot faster than that” as he started jogging ahead of us.
Now, I’m all for a little exercise in life, but running on a stomach full of food and beer doesn’t quite do it for me. It wasn’t pretty and I’m just gonna go ahead and kill the suspense now. We didn’t make it back in time to make the return train we needed on the Heathrow Express. But because you’ve likely already read my post about India, you know we made it there on time, and that was solely due to the fact that Parma was rapidly searching other routes for while simultaneuously trying to keep us all calm and without fear that we were going to miss our connecting flight (thanks, friend). Luckily, there was another train that was about to roll out of the station toward Heathrow and we could use our day passes from the tube on it. It had a good bit of stops along the way, but it was still scheduled to get in only 10 or so minutes after the express train we were orginally bound for.
I was dreading the security line at Heathrow, so imagine my delight when we walked through the doors and there was no line. None. There were two people in front of us, and we breezed through with little effort and a some time to spare. Just enough time, it turns out, to change back into comfy plane clothes and settle into our seats for the 9.5 hour flight to India.
**a special kudos to Parma, for being the best tour guide a girl could have and also for putting up with us for the day…Xo