Welcome to London! This morning I got up at 7 a.m. because it was so bright outside. After getting ready and eating a breakfast of orange juice and croissants provided by our hosts, we set off to explore London. I had pretty low expectations just because of how stressful it was to get to our residence last night and I was just frustrated with having to travel on my own (with a friend) and figure out how to get places in a city I’ve never been to. It made me very appreciative to have Teo in Paris who knows everything.
Our host showed us where the bus can pick us up, and one of those famous red buses dropped us off in Westminster. Soon enough, we turned a corner and there was startlingly tall Big Ben, which I learned is just the bell’s name and it’s actually called Westminster Tower.
We walked across the bridge to the London Eye, just to see the tower from another perspective. Walking back, we passed by Westminster Abbey but decided to wait until later to maybe go inside. Part of it was under construction of course, just our luck. Another part of the church was open so we walked inside briefly just to see the rows of benches and interior.
Westminster Abbey reminded us of Notre Dame because of the gothic style – hopefully we can go inside later on the trip but I think it’s 20 pounds admission.
Near the Abbey, we found a stand that was selling tickets to the Big Bus Tours, which are those double decker buses. The way it works is that you buy a one or two day pass and you can just hop on and off these buses any time – and you also get a free boat ride. They give you either a live tour guide or an audio recording on the buses to tell you about places you pass by, so we bought a two-day pass that will help us see London more efficiently (hopefully).
Our first stop on this bus? Buckingham Palace. Naturally we compare everything to Paris, so this was the Versailles. I loved the brightly colored flowers that lined the roundabout outside and surrounded the statue. Peeking through the beautiful gates we could see a tiny soldier at the Palace waiting outside in his red suit and black fluffy hat (great terminology here).
I loved looking beyond the gates all around at people laying on the dying grass, enjoying themselves or having a picnic. This reminding me of Paris. We turned down into St. James’s Park, which was one of my favorite parks. It’s so pretty, with wire green gates containing habitats of ponds and willows and lily pads. There were ducks and geese everywhere, and so many people laying in the sun. It was just really happy.
We even stopped at one point and a ranger type guy gave us bird food in our hands and the pigeons landed on us to eat it. It was scary but cute as they flapped in our faces. Don’t worry, we put on hand sanitizer afterwards.
It’s a lot cooler here than it was in Paris – even though it was quite sunny in the morning, it wasn’t stuffy and smokey. We did cool down with a little ice cream with a “flake,” which was a shaved block of chocolate. Even the parks here are more metro/city than in Paris and reminded me of sitting on the grass watching fireworks for Fourth of July because of the dead grass.
There was also an adorable little cottage tucked in the garden that used to be the bird keeper’s old house. A lot of things about London make me miss my mom, because she loves English culture and travelled to London for a month.
Now we were just exploring what was nearby, and found ourselves walking through a gravel area and huge grand buildings that turned out to be the household cavalry I believe.
After strolling under an arch, we found ourselves next to a soldier on a horse! I heard a British man walk by the mass of tourists and say, “What, they don’t have horses in their own countries?” which I thought was hilariously true, but I still petted the horse cautiously anyway. Because I’m a tourist and I can do stuff like that now 😉
We kept telling ourselves we’d get on the bus and just drive around to see the sights, but then we kept seeing signs to places that I’d heard of! My travel buddy doesn’t really know much in London so I suggest places to go, but it’s annoying when I don’t know how to get there. Luckily we kept running into things, like Trafalgar Square.
It had tons of metal gates and chairs and construction-looking material, but we learned it was because they were setting up some type of outdoor concert. Later we saw that they were playing a filmed opera on a big screen. Maybe tomorrow it will be pristine again, but it’s still one of my favorite places in London.
Regardless, I love love the fountains in Trafalgar Square because of the pretty seafoam green color. It’s so iconic with the huge column, roads weaving around the square with red buses and the classic architecture of the National Gallery. We popped inside for a bit since it’s free, and saw Van Gogh’s sunflowers and a Seurat painting. It’s incredible that the museums are free here – unlike Paris.
It was finally time to rest our feet and hop on the tour bus – dashing straight for the top with the breeze and the view. It was just beginning to get cloudy, but it felt perfect to sit down, listen to the history and information from headsets and see London. The bus can take you all over, but ours specifically left the City of Westminster and went into the City of London, as we drove by the Prime Minister’s house, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and eventually under the Tower Bridge. I’m pretty sure we also passed by or through London Bridge but I don’t remember. I can still hear the royal-sounding music that plays in the headphones in between information.
It was a pretty long ride, and we hopped off at Westminster to try to find some lunch – it was now 3:30 p.m.. The tour said that there were some restaurants near Covent Gardens, so we walked up where we’d been in the morning, towards the garden area. We were keeping our eyes peeled for a garden, but apparently there isn’t actually a real garden at Covent Garden, except a little one behind St. Paul’s Church, which through us off. Once we finally believed the maps that we were indeed here, we found ourselves in a stone plaza with tons of people. It was like a festival with an indoor market, tons of cafés/bars/pubs/whatever, and a huge crowd gathered around a magician in the plaza.
I wandered around the area for a bit, soaking in the excitement of crowds enjoying the golden summer evening. Once more, very unlike calm Paris, it was loud and fast and upbeat.
For lunch (at this point also our dinner), we settled on one of the outdoor café type restaurants near the square. I had a very saucey crab linguini and a diet pepsi because I needed something refreshing. Remind me not to order soda again, because it was very diluted and came with lime which made it acidic.
We felt like we’d packed a lot into just one day in London. We have one more full day to go before we leave on Sunday afternoon. However, we agreed to do one more touristy thing: the London Eye. It was super expensive for one ride (20 pounds), but worth it because you have to do it. It’s on the other side of the River Thames, so we crossed the bridge with white strings (officially called the Hungerford Bridge and Golden Jubilee Bridges apparently).
The line was only 30 minutes despite rows of people, as 20 of us piled into one of the little compartments while it was moving. The ferris wheel doesn’t stop to load carts, but just moves very slowly and continuously so we had to jump on.
The views from the top were gorgeous, especially since the sun was not quite setting but almost. It made the perfect contrast of yellow and blue skies on the cloudy day. The ride lasted 30 minutes and it was really pretty to see from all directions almost 1,000 feet up. The views remind me of Harry Potter!
On a more random note, here are some other things I noticed about London…
- I thought the driving on the wrong side of the road would be confusing, and sometimes it is, but the crosswalks are actually marked with words saying “look left” and “look right” – probably because so many stupid people have walked into the streets.
- The accents… make me so jealous, I wish I could talk like that. Also, there’s obvious slang like “holiday” and “cheers.”
- I have accidentally said some French words – mostly “merci” and “pardon” and then I catch myself and it’s awkward.
- People stare at us when we talk intimately about Paris like we live there, because we have American accents.
- Can we talk about the lack of public bathrooms (or, should I say “toilets”) and drinking fountains? And both are overpriced.
I hope you enjoyed reading about my London naivety, and especially about my adventures at these common tourist attractions. I’m actually less tired today than I usually am in Paris. Despite my initial worries about being lost or confused in a new city, I’m enjoying the differences of bustling London. I love all of the parks, opposed to gardens as they’re called in Paris, where people can hang out all evening long. I still like Paris better so far, but maybe it’s because I’ve just been in the less local areas of London. Looking forward to tomorrow.