I was probably as excited about visiting London this summer as Joey from Friends! This world-renowned multicultural city is absolutely stunning and certainly warrants more than one visit as there's plenty of new things to do and see (and eat). It's the 2nd most popular destination city in the world and rightfully so. Given my last visit was in 2004, I definitely explored it at length with fresh new eyes, pop-up map and union jack hat in tow!
HOW TO GET AROUND
Heathrow Express: Arriving at Heathrow Airport, I bought return Heathrow Express tickets from my London Pass app (more on this below) to get to Paddington Station (Duration: 20 min, Cost: 35 pounds). My tickets, sent by email, were scanned on the way into the Express, and by a conductor on board. From Paddington, I took a black cab to get to my accommodation with my luggage. Same goes for the way back.
Public Transport: Buy an Oyster Card from any station which you can use on all transport networks including the underground, overground, and buses (can’t be used for the Heathrow Express). With the new card, you’ll pay a 5 pounds deposit, and top up any amount. I suggest only topping up small amounts (say 10 pounds at a time) in the event that the card is lost/stolen. For the underground and overground, touch your card on the way in and out. For the bus, only touch the card on the way in. Don't touch out when you get off a bus or tram, or you will be issued with a penalty fare.
UBER: Simply put, UBER is very convenient to use around London and much cheaper than regular taxis. The only issue I had was with availability. Many took 15 min+ to pick me up, if not longer.
Walking: Probably my favorite part about London was walking around its streets, even if with no destination in sight. The roads are easy to maneuver, especially when aided by my trusted friend, Google Maps.
THE LONDON PASS
The London Pass is one of the best ways to discover almost all of London at a fixed price. The pass allows you to visit 80+ main attractions, gain fast track entry to some of the city’s busiest sights, AND get awesome discounts on other activities. I may have been running around London like a madwoman for 3 days straight trying to cover as many sights as possible but my 3-day pass gave me most bang for my buck (or pound in this case). Download the app to your phone (you won’t need internet to use or access it), and the attractions’ staff will scan your device on arrival. Make sure to organize your visits by area so you’re not running around from 1 side of the city to the other. Like I said earlier, you can also use the pass to get discounts on other things such as tickets for Heathrow Express and many musicals.
WHAT TO SEE & DO
I started my wandering around London by hopping on the Big Bus Tour to get my bearings of the city's layout and to see all of its major landmarks. My first hop-on was on the Red Route which included an on-board enthusiastic tour guide, Jasmin, who was unbelievably informative and funny, and kept us captivated for the full circuit. I highly recommend doing this as the very first activity in London, as you'll have a much better appreciation for the sights with the insider knowledge shared by the on-board guides. Also, grab your seats at the top deck come rain or shine as the views are incredible. (Included in London Pass)
The Tower of London is a breathtaking fortress which served initially as a royal residence but later took on rather surprising new roles such as the home of many fantastic beasts including a polar bear gifted by the King of Norway. You’ll see how it also served as a prison where many women and men were incarcerated for various crimes ranging from treason to debt and sorcery, including royals who met their untimely deaths. Wander to the Crown Jewels section and be prepare to be dazzled by the royal regalia collection on display, still in use for important ceremonies. My advice would be to read up on the coronation ceremony and understand the symbolism of each piece, and better yet, watch The Crown on Netflix! (Included in London Pass)
The Victoria and Albert museum is a fantastic museum to immerse yourself in the world of art and design throughout history. The museum houses a permanent collection of over 2.3 million objects that span over ‘5,000 years of human creativity’. I loved wandering throughout the exhibitions categorized by periods and styles and was surprised at the unbelievably wide range of topics and regions covered. The museum certainly warrants several hours of exploration and I would recommend even doing a little bit of advanced reading about the collections prior to visiting to better appreciate their stories and significance. The museum is free to enter; however some exhibitions have an admission fee. Also, the museum has a fantastic outdoor Garden Café to grab a drink in and admire the adjacent John Madjeski Gardens during your visit.
The Book of Mormon is hands down one of the funniest, well-written, best-acted, sing-along musical performances I’ve ever seen. Big words right? The Book of Mormon is a multi-award winning musical written by Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Rob Lopez. The story is a tale of the journey of 2 followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who are paired on a mission to convert everyone in Uganda to the ways of the Mormon church. The topics are controversial yet are covered as a series of amusing anecdotes, with music that’s guaranteed to stick in your head for the next couple of weeks. The weekday afternoon shows are more affordable, especially if you plan to broadway-binge while in London! (Discounted tickets available in London Pass)
The Shard is an architectural masterpiece designed to be a vertical city that would capture people’s imagination. The shape of the building is defined by the 8 sloping glass facades, the “shards”, which illuminate the tower, and reflect the sky of London which is never the same. You can visit the viewing decks at the top 68, 69 and 72 floors - a great way to see 360 degree incredible views of London and enjoy a drink in the meantime. I visited at around 5PM on a sunny day, and there was no queue going up, so overall, the experience was seamless. (Included in London Pass)
To start with, I’m a die-hard Harry Potter fan. My conversations with equally-dedicated friends involve us throwing in the occasional spell and I will gladly ditch ANY event to spend a night in and have a HP movie marathon. So I can’t begin to tell you how excited and spellbound I was to visit the Harry Potter Studios to see the incredible movie sets and costumes, step into Platform 9¾ and of course have my first butterbeer. My 2 fils here would be to 1) Book your tickets as soon as your travel plans are set, as they sell out quick. 2) Get to the studio by using the train from Euston to Watford Junction (Duration: 20 min, Cost: 12 pounds return ticket), then hop on the shuttle bus from Watford Junction to the Studio Tour (Duration: 15 min, Cost: 2.5 pounds return ticket). 3) Try butterbeer. It’s delicious! 4) Opt to have your picture and video taken on the broomstick wearing the Hogwarts’ robes. It’s the best picture you’ll ever take.
WHERE TO EAT
I’m going to start by saying that my super busy schedule around London allowed me very little time to explore its culinary scene at length or to check off many of my friends’ recommended restaurants to eat. So many (and I mean almost 60%) of my meals were on-the-go and enjoyed at none other than Pret A Manger. This place literally has it all. From almond croissants, to tortillas, to heavenly brownies that I couldn’t get enough of. Beauty of it is that there’s a pret almost round every corner so you won’t need to go far to grab a deelish bite on the go.
The East End Food Tour with Eating Europe which was a great way to combine culture with cuisine. We had a wonderful array of things to try ranging from bagels to curries to the almost compulsory fish and chips! The tour included 8 tastings and fantastic tidbits about the neighborhoods we visited including streets I probably wouldn’t have thought of stepping into. Would definitely recommend doing this on an empty stomach and a thirst for a culinary adventure.
I must have been looking forward to having a burger for about 2 months before arriving in London, so granted anything may have tasted good at that point. However, kudos to Honest Burgers for an epic beef burger (with cheese and tomatoes as extras) with their crazy red onion relish and rosemary salted chips. The place was diner-like, cosy, and definitely went beyond satisfying my burger cravings.
The Harrods Food Halls are where you’ll probably spend more time browsing the food than actually eating any of the mouth-watering bites. There’s certainly no shortage of options from freshly baked bread to eclairs to pies, with a price tag to match. There are also several restaurants available to dine-in, but I would highly recommend picking up a combination of both savory and sweet bites and heading to nearby Hyde Park to enjoy them with a view.
On my last day in London, I set out to find Peggy Porschen’s bakery which has certainly made Instagram headlines and was a place my baker sister, founder of the awesome Whisk Bakery in Dubai (#shamelessad), had heard so much about. The entrance and décor of the place were absolutely stunning, and fairy-tale like. I opted for the chocolate raspberry and salted caramel cupcakes (I had earned 2 running all around London) which were both divine, with the latter being my favorite. The place has outdoor seating so I enjoyed inhaling both cupcakes under the sun.
And that's it folks. My 2 fils on London! Even with all the sights I covered and restaurants I dined in, I feel like I barely even scratched the surface. Hence, my justification for planning another trip asaaaap! On my bucket list: Speakers' Corner, Natural History Museum, a London Eye yoga class, Tate Modern, more musicals, and you may have guessed it - more Pret A Manger bites.