Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Protests, Palaces & Harry Potter: 5-days in London 2019

Typically, we have a hardcore plan when we travel. We want to see and do all the best things and usually get everything done. But after Prague, we switched gears; this trip was about pacing ourselves and reconnecting after a week apart. There were things on our list that we suddenly had no interest in and we found ourselves wandering in and out of beautiful gardens and parks, stumbling upon Royal Guard changes and cavalry parades, and completely dismissing the idea of entering the major sites we had initially intended to visit.

After a full week of solo travel for graduate school, I met Devon at Paddington Station for five full days in London. I had already made a pit stop here for one night before heading to Stratford-Upon-Avon at the front end of my travels. Immediately upon making our way up from the tube to walk to our hotel, we were greeted by a mass protest overtaking the few blocks we were trying to navigate down. Do not get us wrong, we 100% support climate change awareness- but when you are jetlagged and carrying all your bags on a 74-degree day when you're expecting 50 degrees, it is not something you want to deal with at the moment. 

Cool thing though- Emma Thompson was there supporting the protest. She's a goddess.

A few days later when we were settled in, we can across this same protest at the Marble Arch just at the entrance of Hyde Park and had a much better time checking out what was going on. In a country in which 50% of the population seems to ignore or just not believe in the significance of climate change, we were fascinated by how incredibly eco-friendly English culture is on the whole. Generally speaking, we found most shops, restaurants, and bathrooms offered recycled hand cloths instead of paper towels, used glass cups for water instead of plastic, and used 100% recycled materials for take-away. The folks protesting are already working with leadership who DO recognize climate change is an enormous problem; they are asking for transparency with just how bad it is and for immediate laws that will quickly decrease the levels of fuel emissions.

After settling into our perfect economy room at the Rathbone Hotel, Devon had his first tea at 108 Brasserie. One traditional afternoon tea is a MUST-DO! Traditional teas began in the 1840s, when Anna, the Duchess of Bedford would become very hungry before dinner. It is a great way to fill up, relax and socialize in what is often an elegant or trendy environment. 

*Quick Tip: There are all sorts of pricing options across the city, but because this was Devon's first and their gluten-free options were excellent, we went for a mid-range option which was about 33£/person ($42).  

We decided to explore our area just outside the West End. To begin with, there was a pedestrian only side alley just a few feet from our hotel that was reminiscent of something you'd find in the old towns in Athens and Greecian islands. We ended up breakfasting and dining here a few times. They even had a bakery that was dedicated to being entirely gluten-free for Lenni.

*Quick Tip: London is the most vegan, gluten, dairy free and general dietary restriction friendly city we have ever visited outside the US. Even American food chains offer big signs that indicate vegan options here. Much like the attitudes about caring for our planet, English food culture leans fairly progressively toward accommodating those with dietary needs or who choose a vegan lifestyle.

We found ourselves wandering into Regent's Park. This was not the plan, but it ended up to be the perfect way to spend a beautiful half-day. The gardens and parks in London are many and stunningly manicured.

Our first full day was our only regimented one. At the suggestion of a local friend, we headed across the Tower Bridge for a walk along the South Bank. 

*Quick Tip: The London Bridge is lame by comparison to the Tower Bridge, so be sure to walk across that one or at least check it out! 

The suggested route was perfect. Upon crossing the bridge go to Boroughs Market, which is essentially an open-air food market with cheap specialty eats. Devon tried his first English meat-pie and Lenni had some delicious pad-thai.  Sit by the water and enjoy!

*Quick Tip: We picked an ideal location for walking. We LOVE walking and if you do too, make sure you choose an area that is fairly central! We were only 10 minutes from The Harry Potter theatre, 13 minutes from Trafalgar Square, 25 minutes from Westminster, 28 minutes from the Marble Arch and 35 from Saint Paul's. We only used the tube when we traveled to the South Bank area because we weren't quite acquainted with the city yet, and to return from Saint Paul's. Although the tube is extremely clear and easy to navigate, the beautiful weather gave us a chance to really understand the layout of the city. There was one day that we walked about 10 miles on foot!

Our first official stop was Shakespeare's The Globe Theatre. This is a MUST-DO! The tour is only 40 minutes, but it moves very quickly. Sam Wanamaker's replica of the original globe is the closest anyone has gotten to understanding how Elizabethan theatre functioned. The space itself is beautiful and full of color and life (literally we watched the actors warm up for rehearsal). Our tour guide, Mark, was excellent! 

We then came upon another food market, which had almost two dozen options. Gluten-free crepes for Lenni and German sausage for Devon.

*Quick Tip: Food in London is expensive, and to be honest, not always very good! These unique markets are a cheap way to fill up and usually have some pretty tasty options.

We stopped into The National Theatre and were able to check out a free exhibit about the use of their incredible technology for crafting scene changes in the Olivier Theatre. We also stopped into the Royal Music Hall and watched a jazz band perform few songs in the open gallery.

*Quick Tip: We did not see any plays or concerts here, but you do not need to. Just go in and walk around. It is free and a great way to glean the arts culture in this city!

On our walk, we passed by a number of other sites, including The Tate Modern and an outdoor book market. There seemed to be plenty to do, but we were slowing down. We caught a glimpse of the under-construction Big Ben and the ridiculously long line at the London Eye. We walked a ridiculously crowded Westminster Bridge back to our side of the city.

Our only plan on Day 3, was to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts 1&2. If you don't already know, this play is performed in two parts and each part is about 2.5 hours in length and you get dinner between ... so it really is a full day commitment. If you can snag a ticket 6-months in advance through a rather complicated but efficient lottery system, like we did, this production is a MUST DO! It sounds super touristic, but it was absolutely the best things we did here. To be honest, we essentially paid for two tickets each to two shows...and it was still cheaper than seeing it on Broadway...soooo it was now or never.

Without spoiling the magic, we never got tired or bored during our five hours of theatre... it is impossible. This production is so riveting that we never wanted it to end. 

Pre and post-show we strolled thru Trafalgar Square and through the West End. We also checked out Covent Garden and saw some locals in their Easter Sunday finest. 

There are so many street performances- we found ourselves stopping and checking everything out. We headed back here on our final day for a few fun souvenir purchases at Apple Market and watched one more street performance act.

*Quick Tip: If you have the time, you can see each part of HP separately. For example, you can purchase a ticket to see Part 1 on Tuesday evening and Part 2 on Wednesday evening. We didn't want to lose two evenings, so we opted for a full day event, which happened to be Easter Sunday, so many things were closed that day anyway. Also, be sure to check the official website if you know you want to go. They release a new block of tickets every 4-6 months. The only way to get them is to wake up REALLY early if you are from The States and log in to their lottery system. You are placed in a digital queue and are then able to select your tickets.  

The next day, we had big plans for entering Westminster Abbey and Parliament, but with the holiday extending into Monday, the lines were outrageous and we decided to pass. Although we were bummed that Buckingham Palace staterooms were not open to the public when we were there, we were in for a treat when we found out that the changing of the guard included a full mount (yes, that basically means a parade of horses). Apparently, this is not common and we were lucky enough to have stumbled upon it with no prior knowledge. The changing of the guard is VERY crowded, but because it was not a typical change, it was worth it).

Around noon, we had a special treat. Lenni had been given a gift by her employer to enjoy while in London- a very generous gift that was put to amazing use! Tea and Fortnum & Mason is one of the poshest things you can do while on holiday here- next to Harry Potter, it was our favorite activity. Essentially Fortnum & Mason is a luxury department store. Its 4th-floor tea room is pristine, the food and teas are delicious (yes there is, of course, an allergy menu), and there is even a live pianist. 

We felt privileged to have such an experience ... it is nothing we could have afforded on our own, but if YOU can, we highly recommend the splurge  

We spent most of our day post-tea on the palace grounds at Buckingham and later at Kensington and Hyde Park. We realized that we didn't need to enter these sites (which are extremely expensive!) to have a great time. We lucked out because the weather was in the upper 70s all week, so we leisurely strolled the many manicured gardens, visited statues, and enjoyed each others company. 

*Quick Tip: Finding food generally was a challenge for us. Outside of the two lovely teas that we had, and despite being allergy friendly, English food is not our favorite. It is also EXPENSIVE! We found ourselves walking from restaurant to restaurant (because there are truly a million) and turning our noses at the menus... and we are not fussy people! The best meals we had were actually non-English. We really enjoyed fresh Pad Thai and Mexican just on our block in Fitzrovia. Once we figured that we did not like fish and chips and mushy peas, we stuck to non-English options.

Our final day was slow. We slept in and had a leisurely breakfast outside. 

*Quick Tip: Breakfast and Lunch deals can be found at most chains. The good news is that in London, most of the chains are unique at their location and it shows in their appearance...so we get all the "cuteness" and elegance at a chain rate.

We headed back to Covent Garden and checked out Drury Lane before heading to Saint Paul's Cathedral. The 20£/person price and the 528 step ascent to the top of the dome is worth the view. And that is not all. If you like mosaics, crypts, and generally beautiful spaces- there is something for you here! Included in the cost is an audio guided tour. We made use of this at points, but generally just guided ourselves.   

At the end of this trip, we had gone OVER budget. We thought that $500 would be enough to cover our food and entertainment for 4.5 days (this number does not include Harry Potter), but due to the conversion rate, $500 does not get too far for the pound. But we made it work and really committed to what we wanted to spend our cash on.

*Quick Tip: Always remember to check your bill here to see is a 10-12.5% service fee is included so you don't over tip! AND a travel rewards credit card in some cases is better than continuing to take out cash at an ATM. You will at least build rewards points that you can eventually reimburse yourself with.

We are confident that another trip to England will be in the near future. Until then... cheerio!


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