Two months ago I traveled to Europe with a friend. London was our first stop and we would only be staying two days, which admittedly is not enough time to see and experience all that the city has to offer. Our first day in the city was lost in a haze of tube transfers and jetlag. When we finally did manage to leave our hotel the first day, we spent most of the day walking, walking and more walking–ending the day utterly exhausted. That night, feeling a slight panic that we only had about 24 hours left to experience the city, we resolved to make the best of our last day before catching the Eurostar to Brussels. With only a short list of priorities, here are 24 hours in London.
9am: Eagerly we leave our hotel located in Kensington Garden Square, right behind Whiteley’s, and start walking west through Notting Hill to a cafe rumored to have a great traditional English breakfast. The morning is bright, crisp and sunny as we pass expensive cars and gleaming white row houses covered in ivy. The cafe is located just across the street from The Travel Bookshop–yes, Hugh Grant’s bookshop from the movie. It was a real bookshop, but sadly it closed not too long ago.
9:30am: “I can’t leave London without having some bacon,” my friend announces firmly. “English bacon is different, it is actually cut from the back of the pig as opposed to to American bacon that is cut from the belly,” he explains. He orders the traditional English breakfast with a side of bubble and squeak (a fried mash of vegetables and potatoes) and I order french toast with bacon and banana; we both order huge cups of coffee. Looking around the cafe, I get a good feeling about the food we are anticipating. Its a Thursday morning and the place is busy with people on their way to work, friends catching up over coffee and eggs and an open refrigerator full of a mixture of familiar and exotic looking drinks (Tang in a can!).
Food arrives and it’s spectacular: thick slices of English bacon (which is more like ham), sausage, grilled tomatoes and mushrooms, perfectly cooked eggs and a flavorful bubble and squeak. My french toast is huge and served with a side of bacon, half a banana and a generous amount of maple syrup. Fully satisfied and with renewed energy, we step out of the restaurant and start walking towards Ladbroke Grove tube station.
10:30am: We buy day passes for the tube for 5GBP, which makes more sense than buying individual tickets at 4GBP (yeah, how does that pricing scheme make any sense?). We get off the tube at Tower Hill Station, a prime starting point for London sightseeing. Exiting the station, the Tower of London is right in front of us, along with the iconic Tower Bridge and the River Thames. We explore Trinity Square Gardens for a bit before crossing the bridge to the south bank of the river. Clouds are gathering and the wind picks up as we pass other tourists taking photos of themselves or of the view. About a third of the way across the bridge we spot a couple posing for wedding photos. With the rushing cars and the tourists, it does not seem like the most romantic spot in the world, but the light is just right and the bright blue trim of the bridge really stands out against the gray and brown hues of the city and the muddy color of the water.
On the other side of the bridge, we walk along the river and pass the HMS Belfast, a Royal Navy ship docked permanently on the River Thames that now functions as a museum. Built in 1938, the ship was used in combat during World War II and the Korean war. It served as a museum since the 1970s, with nine decks open to the public, allowing visitors a look at what life is like on a combat ship. Sadly, the ship is currently closed and is scheduled to open once again in the spring. The previous day, we had noticed people walking around the city wearing orange poppy pins on their coats. Standing on the banks of the river we spotted a large poppy.
11:45am: We wander away from the river, deeper into the Southwark neighborhood, passing ancient-looking railroad tracks and coming up to Southwark Cathedral. Amazingly, the cathedral has been a place of worship for almost a thousand years, but has only functioned as an Anglican cathedral for about 100 years. The sun is out again and the high gothic towers of the cathedral radiate sunlight to the dark streets below. We follow a group of people into the gardens surrounding the cathedral and stumble across one of our favorite finds in London, the Borough Market. Known as the oldest produce market in the city, it still operates on a wholesale basis in the early morning hours. It is almost noon and most of the fruit and vegetable vendors are long gone, replaced by a slew of specialty and fine food vendors and food stalls. We walk through the market enjoying the sights and smells of freshly-baked bread, hand-made candies, dazzling displays of fine cheeses and so much more. I remember how unimpressive the food was the last time I visited London–generally speaking, the UK does have a reputation for unimaginative and bland cuisine. Finding a treasure trove of delicious diverse and creative food makes me feel almost triumphant, as if I had uncovered a hidden secret. A delicious secret! We stop and buy glasses of prosecco spiked with creme de cassis (a kind of Italian version of kir) from a friendly, smiley man who reminds us that it never too early for a cocktail.
The market seems to be a favorite lunch time spot for office workers in the area, with its chorizo sandwich stall and its huge line of hungry customers. Still full from lunch, all we can do is admire the food and enjoy the incredible smells emanating from the fried cheese sandwich cart and the coffee stand and the bakery stall. . .
1:30pm: Heading away from the bustle of the market, we find ourselves walking along the river banks once again. We pass the unimpressive London Bridge and approach the Globe Theatre. Both of us being English/Comparative Literature majors in college, we can’t help but have a little geek-out moment in front of Shakespeare’s famous theater. The real reason I want to walk this far along the river is to visit the Tate Modern, which is directly adjacent to the Globe. The last time I visited London, the Tate Modern was by far my favorite museum and in terms of modern art, it rivals the MOMA in New York. Housed in what used to be a power station, the museum is huge, with five floors full of modern and contemporary art by various internationally renown artists. In fact, this time around it seems to be a completely new museum with completely new pieces to admire. Aside from the art, the architecture of the museum is staggering. The section of the building where the turbines were once kept is now complete empty, save for a temporary exhibition in the far off corner. The space is kept dark, which only adds to the industrial-cavernous feeling of the room.
3:30pm After getting a bit lost looking for the Southwark tube stop, we hop on the Julinee line towards the theater district. “We must see a show tonight,” is my declaration as we walk down the busy streets. But which show? Surly this is a decision that will require careful consideration. . .and a pint. We escape the busy streets and duck into a pub.
Since arriving the day before, I had developed a particular fondness for Aspall’s cider, and for a snack we order some delightful deep-fried brie. After much debating about which show to watch, we decide to stick to the classic: the undeniably beautiful Les Miserables. With the decision made we feel relaxed enough to sit back and admire the truly authentic British pub decor.
4:45pm: Losing track of time, we scurry over to the ticket booth only to discover that Les Miz is sold out for that night. Quickly we improvise and choose Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Surely any show with dancing Australian drag queens promises laughs and lots of sparkle.
5:10pm: Tickets in hand, we have some time to kill before the show so we hop on the tube once again and get off at Knightsbridge station, right in front of Harrods. Christmas is only six weeks away which means the famed department store is even more primped than usual. Naturally we gravitate towards the food stalls and sink back into a foodie dreamland. In retrospect, we actually did not eat very much on that day, but seemed content to simply enjoy the sights and smells of food all around us. Sure, there were fine luxury and designer clothes, to-die-for shoes, glittering pieces of jewelry and stunning watches–but to us, it all seemed secondary to the dazzling sights of artfully arranged food. Having fully satisfied our shopping itch, we head out and jump back on the tube…
6:30pm: We arrive at the Palace Theatre with time to spare so we decide to have a drink at the pub across the street. Packed with theater-goers and a loud after-work crowd, we manage to nab a spot at the bar and the attention of the bartender. I am getting excited about the show–surely a large sparkling stiletto above the entrance to theater is an indication of a quality theatrical production.
7pm: Show time!
“Oh I hope to god they use that lipstick as a prop!” my friend declares with apparent gusto. Sadly, the giant tube of lipstick floats off stage as soon as the show begins. But what a show; it’s just as kitschy, campy and funny as we expect it to be, with excellent singing, outrageous costumes and creative use of moving scenery. The only thing that I cannot ignore is the pathetic attempt at an Australian accent by a majority of the actors. It is so bad that I have to imagine them as Brits who just happen to be traveling across Australia on a bus. Nevertheless the show is a fantastic way to end the evening.
9:45pm: Fully re-energized from the show, we decide to jump on the tube once more and head down to Westmister to say our final goodbyes to the city and experiment with a bit of night photography.
11:00pm: Feeling a bit rundown and absolutely starving, we get on the tube one last time and head back to the neighborhood of our hotel. We look for a place to eat, but since restaurants and pubs close early in London, our options are somewhat limited. “Well, there is Pizza Hut and there is Tesco,” none of which sound particularly appealing. Luckily the neighborhood kebab place is still open and serving food. God bless the late night kebab restaurants all over Europe, for they have fed the weary and hungry in times of desperation! Actually, the lamb kebab and fries hit the spot, and we even manage to run to Tesco before closing time to buy a Viennetta for 0.65GBP. Remember Viennetta? The not-quite-ice-cream and not-quite-whipped-cream dairy-based chocolate concoction that all good housewives served for dessert in 1994? I had not seen it in grocery stores in the states in years, but now there it is, on sale at Tesco.
Midnight: We head back to the hotel to pack and sleep, and make plans to get up early to go to the British Museum before catching our train at noon.
9:30am: Up, out and on the tube again towards the British Museum. We are lucky enough to experience London rush-hour on the tube!
10am: Given that we only have an hour or so to look around the museum, we have to be selective about what we want to see. Rosetta Stone? Check. Egyptian antiquities? Check. Greek statues? Check. Assyrian hieroglyphics? Check. The Wave? Check. Although The Wave is not the original, it is a copy.
11am: We race back to the hotel on the tube to collect our luggage and take our final tube ride to St. Pancras train station. This is no easy feat considering we have two weeks worth of luggage and our journey requires a transfer. Also, the lack of elevators and escalators in Europe only makes the trek across the city all that more difficult.
12:53: We depart London on Eurostar. Bye London!