Ahh, friends. Looking back at this trip makes me so immensely happy and thankful that I did this thing that – honestly – I wasn’t sure I should do.
I knew that 2017 would be the year for me to invest in education, and grow my business. And then the most wonderful person ever Kristin Sweeting announced a new Study Abroad Workshop in Switzerland. Switzerland was somewhere I’d always hoped to go, but it wasn’t on my “has to happen in the next 5 years” trip list, so I figured it was perfect – I wouldn’t have too many expectations tied up in the destination, and I could just enjoy and learn and soak in so many new ideas for my business in a really cool place. (I find this hilarious now because HOLY MOLY am I now in LOVE with Switzerland and I can’t wait to go back. More on that in the next blog post.)
And without overthinking it (like I normally would), I signed up. Alongside two other amazing photographers – Amilia James (Amilia Photography) and Jen Creed (Jen and Chris Creed).
And THEN, when I started to look at booking my flights, I realized that it would just be silly for me to fly to Europe without doing a few days somewhere else in Europe, too. So I started thinking of destinations that weren’t on the “places we absolutely have to travel to together” list I have with Tyler and it hit me: London. A big old city, amazing history, beautiful architecture, royals, and OH Harry Potter stuff everywhere. So I decided to do it.
But right around the time I was ready to jump in and go “yup, I want to go to Europe all by myself” I got cold feet. And thankfully, this lovely girl Amilia (who I knew was going on the workshop and who also liked Harry Potter, but who I had never met in person) didn’t think I was crazy when I randomly messaged her and went “hey I know we’ve never met but like…. do you want to come to London with me for a few days before the workshop?”
Fast forward to December 30th and I’m up in New Jersey at my mom’s house, frantically checking and double checking everything before my flight out of Newark. Cramming sweaters and jackets and shoes for 10 days in Europe in winter into a tiny carry-on… I felt like I was insane. New Year’s Eve by myself in another country (Amilia wasn’t set to join me until New Year’s Day)… What was I thinking??? This is so not worth it.
Well let me just tell you how “worth it” it was.
Below are some highlights of my time in London, including things I’d recommend and a few things I would have done differently!
New Year’s Eve on the Thames: Highly, highly HIGHLY recommend. I had heard that London’s NYE fireworks are some of the best in the world, and while this was my first NYE abroad, I can’t imagine that’s incorrect. I was absolutely blown away, and all I can say is that I would LOVE to go back one day and see them from a bit closer. I was just outside a ticketed area on the Lambeth Bridge, and could see/hear Big Ben and the fireworks decently well, but I could definitely see how the best views of the fireworks would be from the ticketed areas (Westminster Bridge, Lambeth Bridge, the South Bank and a few other spots). It seems like tickets do sell out quickly, and you have to be in place early in the evening (7PM or 8PM), but there are also lots of fancy rooftop parties on the Thames and cool river cruises that let you see the fireworks up close without having to stand for hours in the ticketed areas. I would love to go back and do something like that one day, but since I was alone, I’m glad I opted for something a little more chill. I also felt super safe in London on the Tube and in the streets on NYE. Crowds were well behaved, and there was a significant (but kind and helpful) police presence.
Staying in Victoria: I stayed in Victoria on NYE because the airport bus I was planning on taking landed at Victoria station. (I was nervous about taking the tube by myself at night.) Fast forward to when the bus schedule for NYE was released (a few months after I’d already made my hotel reservation across the street from Victoria station) and I find out I can’t get that bus to Victoria station due to the adjusted NYE schedule. So surprise, I was taking the tube anyway. BUT an even better surprise…. It was ridiculously easy. (More on the tube below).
Pros, Victoria was cute, safe, VERY quiet and fairly affordable. It’s still fairly close to all the touristy stuff and Victoria Station is definitely a hub. Cons, it wasn’t really that interesting of a neighborhood. Not a ton of fun restaurants or bars, but that makes it quiet, so it’s a tradeoff. Also, Victoria station is a bit of a pain. (Really, I thought any large transport station that had tube, bus and overground services – like Waterloo – to be similarly overwhelming). But overall, I’m glad I stayed there.
Staying on the South Bank: We stayed on the South Bank for the rest of our trip, and I really liked it. The South Bank is kind of a tourist trap, so if you’re not into that stuff, don’t plan to spend a ton of time here. But it was a great place to stay! We could see the London Eye from our window, and we were directly across the Westminster Bridge from Parliament Square and Westminster tube station, which was great. (Also, Westminster tube station is super super nice. It’s the tube station they used in the 5th Harry Potter movie and I can see why.) Staying on the South Bank kept us close to all the best sights, but was a little cheaper than staying across the river would have been. Win win.
The Tube: Take. The. Tube. It is so easy. Some trains are old, but it’s fairly clean and people are well behaved. (And FYI, the Tube is FREE on NYE, so it cost me $0 to get into London from Heathrow. Also, a random British guy got down on one knee, kissed my hand and told me to “have a happy New Year, lovely” and I honestly thought that was awesome.)
Another side-note about public transportation: Skip getting an Oyster Card and just use Apple Pay. London is one of VERY few cities in the world to accept Apple Pay on public transport, so that’s awesome. But also, it’ll save you the 5 pounds and 10 minutes it’ll take to get a new Oyster Card when you arrive at Heathrow. Plus, no “topping up” needed. Props to Amilia for figuring this out and being more tech savvy than me – despite what you may read elsewhere, rides cost exactly the same whether you pay via Apple Pay or an Oyster Card. And you can’t get the money on your Oyster Card back, so if you don’t use it all, you’ll just have to hold onto that card until your next trip!
How to see all the touristy stuff all at once – On New Year’s Day, I think I was the ONLY person in the city up and about at 9am. I got up, walked all the way to Parliament Square from Victoria (about a mile through a major city) and I kid you not, I saw ONE other human on the way. It was hilarious. But also a good learning experience – get up early and beat the crowds to see the stuff you really want to see. I knocked out seeing (and really taking in) Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Victoria Tower Gardens, the Churchill Statue, Westminster Bridge, the London Eye, and Big Ben, all before 10AM on my first full day in London and NO ONE was around. It was a fantastic way to see the sights and I’m so glad it was my first experience seeing them because it got super busy later in the day.
But my FAVORTIE way to experience any foreign city is to go for a nice long run. And my favorite surprise of this trip: London is a runner’s paradise. Everywhere you look, all day, every day, runners EVERYWHERE. They’re fast, legit, and (for the most part) run safely through the city, so I felt very safe running with them.
A few days into the trip I got up about an hour before sunrise and ran a pretty long/intense route, but it was so worth it. This run crossed off everything that was left on my list that I hadn’t seen yet, as well as a few things I’d already seen a few times. That included Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Millennium Bridge, the Globe, Leicester Square, Parliament Square, the theater district, the Tower Bridge, AND a whole bunch of Harry Potter filming locations (Shaftesbury Avenue, the entrance to the Ministry of Magic, Gringotts, etc. etc.!). It was one of my favorite experiences and it was a great way to at least get a glimpse of all of the touristy stuff very quickly and (again) early in the morning, so it was very quiet.
Hyde Park Christmas Market – This was SO COOL and ENORMOUS. I didn’t read much about this, but I thought it would be fun to do one of London’s Christmas markets. I thought the Hyde Park market would be like one ferris wheel and a skating rink… WRONG. It’s a full amusement park/carnival with tons of food, attractions, shops… And the rides…. Holy moly. It had been a while since I’d been in Europe, and this was the point in the trip where I went “oh right, safety regulations in Europe are like not a thing.” We did one (the swings – see the selfie below before it got scary) and it was absolutely terrifying. But overall, it was really fun and worth it. (But pro-tip: Last day of the Hyde Parke Christmas market is apparently “family day” so they don’t serve alcohol. Sad face.)
Westminster Abbey Tour – This tour is so worth it, especially if you’re a total Anglophile like me. It was incredibly interesting and just breathtakingly beautiful. Fair warning, you can’t take any pictures inside, which is sort of a bummer (especially because this was the first place I actually packed up my real gear and schlepped it through the city – grrr), but there’s honestly so much to look at, I think it would take hours if you tried to take pictures, too. Make sure you head outside and actually explore the gardens and the area around the school – this place is absolutely MASSIVE. (The part you saw on TV for Will and Kate’s wedding was like 1/4 of it.) This is also a great solo activity because you’re listening to the audio guide most of the time, and all the little chapels and transepts and tombs get very crowded very quickly, so going as a group might be tough. Also, the Westminster Abbey Shop has some great non-kitchy souvenirs! (But you will pay for them, FYI.)
Afternoon tea – DO IT. The tea was wonderful, the pastries were great, sandwiches were great, and it did fill me up just like a full meal would. We made reservations about a month ahead and went for The Orangery at Kensington Palace (AKA right next door to Will and Kate’s house) and it was beautiful and seemed to give a pretty standard overview of the British tea experience. It was a little touristy, but I also wanted to spend as much time as possible breathing the same air as Will and Kate so I thought it was perfect. However, there are a MILLION options and we looked at pretty much all of them – you can have some crazy cool and quirky tea experiences in London and you should check it out for yourself!
The London Eye – Gotta do it. It’s super touristy, obviously, but you can’t beat the view, and going at sunset is pretty cool. Definitely a highlight.
Platform 9 3/4: Um, this was WAY more of a thing than I thought it would be. On a random weeknight in January, I thought I could just tube up to King’s Cross, walk up and take a picture with the trolley in the wall, and cross it off my bucket list. WRONG. I waited for over an hour, there were two official photographers and an official scarf tosser to make your journey through the platform look legit. And a gift shop.
It was a thing.
The Harry Potter Studio Tour – There isn’t much else I can say about the Harry Potter Studio Tour except that it is epic, amazing, jaw dropping and was THE highlight of this trip for sure. If you’re sort of a fan of the movies or books, you’d love it. If you’re obsessed with the movies/books like I am, you’ll probably cry a few times and never want to leave. I’ll just tell you that they have pretty much EVERY set, costume, wig, prop, technical drawing, etc. etc. etc. from the movies and they did an amazing job curating a really well-rounded, emotional experience for fans. GET THE AUDIO TOUR when you go – it’s so cheap (like 6 pounds) and there’s SO much cool information on there. I didn’t even get a chance to listen to half of it. Which brings me to…
You need a full 6-8 hours to experience all of this. Honestly. We went the simple route and booked our tickets and transportation through Golden Tours because getting up to Leaveseden via the tube made me nervous. The only problem is that you only get 4 hours to do the tour before your bus leaves, and that did not feel like enough. We spent 3 hours in the first half of the tour and still were rushing ourselves. The second half is the more technical stuff – art department, special effects, creatures, props, etc. – so you can see it quickly, but I wish I had more time because those were some of the most amazing parts of that film series and I find that stuff really interesting. We saw everything, but in 4 hours, we didn’t really see everything. Now seeing how easy the Tube was (and after talking to other guests on the tour who had taken the Tube up) I wish we had done that, because that’s pretty much the only thing people take the tube up to Leavesden to do anyway. Everyone said it was super easy, and well marked.
Also, highlight of this day: when Amilia and I got banned from answering any more trivia questions during the intro to the tour because we weren’t letting anyone else answer and we got them all right.
My favorite dining experience of the trip: The King’s Arms on the South Bank. It’s a traditional, old, old British pub BUT they only serve Thai food and local craft beer. Thai green curry and a craft beer is my favorite meal on any given day, so this was pretty much a dream come true. But it also happened to be excellent Thai food and excellent beer, and probably the best service we had while we were there.
Overall London tips:
Obviously use caution, but even if you’re a woman traveling alone, don’t be scared of the tube. Also don’t waste your time with an Oyster Card – use Apple Pay!
Get up EARLY to see stuff before the crowds arrive.
Do your research and find good food, because the food in the touristy areas isn’t all that great.
Plan to walk A TON.
Whenever possible, opt for smaller tube stations if you don’t need bus/overground services. It’s just a little less overwhelming than stations like Victoria, Waterloo, etc.
If you’re a runner, go for a run!
PLAN MORE THAN A FEW DAYS. This wasn’t intended to be my last trip to London ever, but I still left feeling like I hadn’t even scratched the surface. And it was a very, very easy city to visit if you’re not a big traveller.
Pros of visiting during Christmas/New Years:
The NYE celebrations are AWESOME, and the tube is FREE on NYE.
Christmas markets – especially the one in Hyde Park!
You can live all of your “Love Actually” dreams in real life (cue “God only Knows”).
Supposedly crowds are slightly smaller? Don’t have anything to compare my experience with, though.
It honestly wasn’t that cold or rainy. Like mid 40s-50s. I was there when the windchills were sub-zero in Nashville, so don’t be scared.
Up next…. Switzerland!!