London revisited!

Last time out on the blog I wrapped up my NYC series which I hope you all enjoyed! I could only follow on from that series in one way, writing about my favourite city in the world: London!

I’ve written about London on the blog before (here) but that was quite some time ago and perhaps also a little more generic. That post focused on what you could potentially do in London, this post is going to be focused on what I actually DID do in London on my recent trip at the end of the year.

As some of you will know by now, I’m in a long distance relationship and I had the pleasure of hosting Haleigh here in England for her first ever overseas trip. I’ve made the journey the other way a few times so Haleigh had been keen to make her first visit in this direction. Consequently I went from traveler to host which brought a new type of preparation and a little self-imposed pressure too. I don’t think Haleigh was overly concerned but I was keen to make it a memorable first trip to England (London mostly).

I met Haleigh at Heathrow ahead of her arrival, equipped with a brand new Oyster card and tube map for Haleigh’s benefit. I don’t think I’ve ever used the Heathrow express, admittedly the tube does take a while to get in to London itself but it’s surely the most convenient mode of transport?

So immediately Haleigh was getting her first crack at the tube – her only comparative was San Francisco’s BART system in the summer which is much more simplistic to navigate.

I’d booked us a hotel near Tower Bridge, leaving us just a short walk away from the Thames. Having dropped off Haleigh’s things (I’d checked in earlier) we took a little time to relax in the hotel before having our first proper glimpse of London together.

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First glimpse of London, not bad eh?

Haleigh was instantly mesmerised, admittedly I’m a little biased but it’s hard not to be when you’re overlooking the Tower of London, Tower Bridge and the bright lights of the city. Also closeby was the Shard which I’ve somehow never seen after dark (keeping in mind it gets dark early in Dec) so looking up at it I presumed it was always lit up in different colours. My parents later told me it was a seasonal light show so it was nice to have witnessed that albeit unintentionally, mind you had I known that I might have got some pictures of it!

In the same general area London was hosting some of its Christmas markets with a long line of markets, including a wooden little tavern-like building which had seating for people to eat, drink and be merry. They even host Christmas movies there at various times of the day which adds to the festive mood of the place. We were feeling a bit peckish so grabbed a Bratwurst from one of the stalls, shamefully making Haleigh’s first meal in England a German delicacy. Oops!

Following some food we passed by the famous HMS Belfast and then cut through the impressive Hay’s Galeria. It’s a bit like a shopping arcade. It’s largely full of brands and, no doubt, expensive restaurants but the building itself is absolutely stunning. We took a slow stroll through it in admiration before coming out of the other side of the building, crossing over to London Bridge station and hopping on the tube to Green Park.

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Green Park – not taken on this particularly trip!

 

There are some things that are always going to be in London and other points of interest that are more seasonal. I was hopeful Haleigh would want to come back to London so I had it in mind to see some of the places that are particularly worth seeing around Christmas time in London.

With that thought process I figured I’d take Haleigh to see Hyde Park’s famous Winter Wonderland. I expected it would be less busy going this evening, given it was a Thursday night, rather than our remaining time in London but that proved to be wrong. It was a struggle to even get out of Green Park station, let alone switch lines to go to Hyde Park Corner. It was crazy. In the end we abandoned hopes of jumping on the tube and exited at Green Park. With that in mind I figured we might aswell cut through the park and see another nearby famous landmark.

We walked through Green Park which was actually somewhat of a struggle. Much of the park was pitch black. Here we were, stood in one of London’s richest areas and all I could think was “can’t they afford to put up a few lights so you can actually see where you’re going?”

It’s somewhat embarrassing as you step out of the park on the other side and in front of you is Buckingham Palace. Surely the queen has a few lightbulbs going spare? Seriously, sort it out London. You can afford to stick a few lights up in the neighbouring park!

Anyway, where were we? Ah yes! Buckingham Palace!

Buckingham Palace is no doubt impressive but I think less so at night. It was after dark so whilst Haleigh was still impressed seeing it for the first time, I think we both intended to return and see it again before we left.

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We could have walked up to Hyde Park after our little detour but given the queues we’d seen we thought better of it, plus I had work in the morning and Haleigh had only just arrived so an early night seemed a better idea. Ordinarily I would have just got the tube but Haleigh wanted to see a little of London so suggested catching a black cab.

With the benefit of hindsight we might not have bothered as my parents ended up giving us a guided tour through London on our return to Heathrow but it was a fun idea so we flagged down a taxi and made our way back to the Tower of London.

Unfortunately a mixture of traffic and roadworks meant we only briefly saw the London Eye before our driver ended up taking a lot of back roads which didn’t really take us past anything particularly noteworthy. It was still a fun way to travel through London though and gave Haleigh a London black cab experience, plus myself too as I’d generally avoid them as they’re pricey haha.

Sadly the next day I had to work so I left Haleigh to explore. I’d left her a host of recommendations and directions so with tube map in hand she was well equipped to tackle London by herself. My departure was also a good chance to catch up on some sleep / recover from jetlag so it was a fairly relaxed day for her I think. Our close proximity to the Thames also meant she didn’t have to venture too far for lunch or to have a little wander once waking up.

Coming back to London I suggested that we meet at Kings Cross station, partly as that’s where my train would take me but also because it covers a lot of the tube lines and would mean we could move on to our next destination quite conveniently. Haleigh had no problem navigating the tube by herself for the first time so all that practice in San Francisco had paid off!

Whilst Haleigh waited for me she enjoyed Kings Cross’ street performers and interesting characters that public places, such as train stations, often provide. The area outside Kings Cross station is a good meeting point and additionally it’s a great area to do some people-watching. I highlighted that there was also a Harry Potter store (and the famous platform sign) in the station if she wanted to amuse herself whilst she waited for me, she took that advice so I can take some blame for the inevitable Ravenclaw inspired purchases that followed.

Having arrived we quickly turned our attention to some food, opting for a nearby pizza favourite of mine (Pizza Union). It’s cheap for London, the food is good and the atmosphere is nice too so I regularly end up here before catching a train home during the football season.

Stomachs full, we hopped back on the tube and headed for Oxford Street. Much like the previous nights intentions, one thing you’ve got to see in London at Christmas time is London’s Christmas decorations and Oxford Street & Carnaby Street are home to some of London’s best. This years theme largely revolved around the 25th anniversary of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody which was pretty cool. It was definitely worth a visit and Haleigh managed to pick up a couple of souvenirs in this cool little independent shop that wae passed along the way.

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You have to visit London around Christmas!

We ended our night with a quick pub visit, offering a little insight in to England’s drunken little culture. She’d already witnessed some human traffic cones earlier in the day which was some indication at the state of our drunkenness but this was topped off with some old woman doing laps of the pub whilst talking to herself (mostly mumbling really). It was somewhat amusing for both of us to watch. From there we hopped back on the tube and made our way back to the hotel for the night.

The next day was our first full day in London, together at least. We had a bit of a lay in before heading out to begin exploring. Before the trip I persistently, perhaps annoyingly, kept asking Haleigh what she wanted to do whilst she was here. I had a rough idea on places we should see on a first time visit but also wanted to allow for some input so we didn’t miss anything Haleigh might be interested in. We talked about possibly going to the Sherlock museum so I squeezed that in as something to try and make some time for.

Consequently that was our first stop of the day. We contemplated breakfast options before and decided it’d be better to go to Baker Street first and find somewhere near the museum. We ended up visiting Bill’s which is a chain restaurant, albeit not one I’d personally been to for breakfast before. I’ve been there for dinner but only heard good things about the breakfast. It lived up to its reputation, I was content with my pancakes and they offer a huge teapot which amused Haleigh as I regularly kept topping up my cup (not a pot of tea intended for one person I expect).

We walked up to the museum, which was barely in sight as we stumbled upon a large queue. Surely this wasn’t the queue to get in to the museum? Sadly it was! We decided to wait it out in the cold, you have to go and buy your tickets in the gift store beforehand but by the time Haleigh came back with the tickets the line hadn’t really moved very far. We had a lengthy wait but eventually we reached the doors!

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Sherlock Museum, Baker Street

 

It was a little anticlimatic. The museum itself isn’t very big and in hindsight it probably wasn’t worth the wait. I think we spent more time in the queue for the museum than the actual museum itself which is a bit laughable. If you’re a fan of Sherlock it’s cool, I did like it, but if you’ve got a long wait then come back and visit outside of peak times.

Following on from the underwhelming museum visit, Haleigh suggested she’d like to take a red bus so rather than make our way back to Baker Street, we hopped on one of the first buses on the street opposite the museum. I was ideally hoping to go to Westminster but the first one to come along going in that general direction was to Victoria which I figured was good enough.

The journey took us past Hyde Park and Winter Wonderland so we did briefly see it, albeit only from the upper deck of a bus. Whilst we were feeling quite content admiring the view through the streets of London, the same couldn’t be said for our driver who’s customer service skills were lacking. He bit passengers heads off (not literally) at a couple of points along the journey and was in a pretty foul mood. We were pleased to depart and see the back of him at Victoria.

Somewhere along the way Haleigh had mentioned she was feeling a little peckish, so after catching the tube from Victoria to Westminster I couldn’t help but notice a Greggs within Westminster tube station. I was keen to introduce Haleigh to the famous Greggs sausage roll but to my horror she wasn’t quite as enthused about it as I was.

I also explained that, at the time, the Christmas number one in the charts was a sausage-roll themed anthem but I still had little fortune in convincing her how amazing they were (more for me!!).

Whilst the verdict on the sausage roll was up for debate, as we came out of Westminster station there was no doubting Parliament Square had left a better impression on Haleigh. Poor Big Ben is a bit of an eyesore at the minute but beyond that it’s a spectacular square with some stunning architecture, notably the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. There are also a few statues in the area commemorating some historical figures, including London’s female occupant in the square – Millicent Garrett Fawcett.

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Poor Big Ben

 

Having had a bit of a look around we ventured back towards the Thames. We had booked tickets to go up the sky garden at 4pm, which is free but has to be booked in advance. The perk of being free was that we didn’t have to commit to it and instead we decided to have ourselves a bit of a cruise on one of the boats along the Thames.

We booked tickets to take us from Westminster Pier up to St Katharine’s pier by the Tower of London. It took us past a lot of the sights including the likes of St Paul’s. Our boat didn’t officially offer narrated tours but we were fortunate to have an employee on board taking on a guide-like role, offering a typical witty English sense of humour. Haleigh was particularly amused at some of the names for buildings such as “the Cheesegrater” or “the walkie-talkie” that add to London’s famous skyline.

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St Paul’s looking as stunning as ever!

Exiting at St Katharine’s Pier we had a few options on where to spend the evening. It wasn’t particularly well thought out but we jumped back on the tube and near enough made our way back to Westminster by visiting nearby Trafalgar Square. We had a quick look around before assessing potential food options, I noticed on Google Maps there was a nearby pub called the Sherlock Holmes, hoping the food might be a little more impressive than the museum.

It was a nice pub which included some cool memorabilia. Haleigh had her first English fish and chips experience whilst I was tempted by a steak and ale pie. It was a nice way to round off the day before we wound down and made our way back to the hotel for the evening.

Our plans for the next day were pretty flexible but we had to check out at some point so rather than drag our luggage around with us exploring London we decided to leave the city around lunchtime. There were plenty of things we didn’t get around to doing but it was a good introduction to London for a first time visit and we ticked off a lot of the main things to see. We temporarily bid farewell to London and headed North for Peterborough.

I didn’t have any big expectation of Peterborough, our time here was mostly revolved around Haleigh meeting family and friends. London was the city I felt more pressure to proudly show off, I’ve never really sung Peterborough’s praises in the same way. Nevertheless if there was any doubt in my mind that sometimes I undersell the city’s attractiveness, Peterborough quickly came to reassure me it’s as “shit” as I make it out to be – literally.

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Checking out Peterborough cathedral!

We strolled through cathedral square towards the spectacular Peterborough cathedral, however on the way back to our pick-up-point some pigeons gave Haleigh a rather unwanted welcoming present from the sky.

It was unbelievable! We’d barely been in the city for an hour and spent a chunk of that time eating lunch at the nearby Wetherspoons. We’d only gone for a short walk up to cathedral square, 5-10 minutes at the most and Haleigh was probably regretting having ever come here! Well done Peterborough, great job!

It wasn’t the best first impression of life in Peterborough, I think things did pick up from there and she had a nice time here. However London had wowed Haleigh, dare I say she’d even fallen in love a little bit.

In contrast, much like San Francisco was for me (and which Haleigh finds highly amusing I’ll add), Peterborough will now always be remembered as “that place I got pooped on”. I haven’t set the bar particularly high for Peterborough, kept expectations to a minimum and comically it has still found a way to come up short.

Anyway, on that lovely note I’ll wrap this up. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed it. Playing host was a lot of fun for me, moreso in London which I love but also know that you’ll be “welcome” in Peterborough any time!

All the best!

Jason

P.S – for clarity, most of these photos weren’t taken on this particular trip!

New York City: The verdict!

Here we are – the finale to my (June 2016) New York City series. For those of you who haven’t been following from start to finish I’ll leave links to previous posts at the bottom, however the rest of you will remember I started this series with an introduction of my high hopes for NYC.

I’m London born and bred and consequently still consider the city my home. I’d always said it was my favourite city in the world but I’ve welcomed the challenge to find somewhere that surpasses that. I love big cities and at this point of my life (June 2016) I’d been to some incredible places. Some of my favourite destinations I’d visited included the likes of Sydney, Berlin, Edinburgh, Budapest and more but in my eyes all fell short of the high standard that London sets.

My dream city / destination growing up was New York City and in my mind, if anywhere could surpass my love of London surely this city was as worthy a challenger as any. I’ve always held high hopes for NYC so after finally getting the luxury of visiting, how did it measure up? I reflected on a wonderful trip, New York City is an incredible city and somewhere I knew I could easily call home. Did that necessarily mean it was better than London though? I sat and pondered it, weighed up the pros and cons of both cities and eventually reached the below decision.

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New York City!

The Challenger: New York City!
Let’s begin with our challenger. I spent a week in the city and wow, what an incredible week. I went to NYC with high expectations and it didn’t disappoint. It lived up to the high standards I hoped it would do and as I said in my last post, I’d struggle to name just the one singular highlight.

It was a faultless week. There are a lot of similarities between New York City and London, both are cities I know I could visit time and time again and never get sick of. As a travel destination New York City has everything you could want from a city break and its diversity really does have something for everyone. I struggle to fathom that people would not enjoy New York City. Too loud? Visit Central Park or better yet, get out of Manhattan altogether. Brooklyn botanical gardens is still one of my favourite retreats in the city.

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Brooklyn Botanical Gardens

Maybe you didn’t mind the loudness but couldn’t find something that aligned with your interests. “What!!?” Impossible. I’m not saying you have to like everything that NYC has to offer but if you found nothing on offer that you enjoyed then you weren’t looking very hard. Museum person? World class museums. Theatre – NYC’s perhaps the most famous Broadway on Earth. Sports? Pretty much every major (American) sport on display at the very least. Nightlife? City that never sleeps. Shopaholic? High end department stores, markets and antique places everywhere. Foodie? Multicultural city with every type of food on offer. I could honestly go on and on and on. NYC has EVERYTHING! I’ll give you a pass on saying you wouldn’t want to live there but visit? I can’t comprehend the logic in not wanting to.

“So it’s a faultless city?”

Ah, well no. I was desperate to look for some cons to NYC and the easiest came to me from a friend that once claimed New York City to be the best city in the world. Hang on though mate, didn’t you stay in New Jersey?

“Yeah to save..” – too late. Ha! How can NYC be the best city in the world if you can’t afford to say there? London wins!!

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London!

The existing champion – London!
Wait a second, London’s extortionate too! Damnit! I’m back to square one!

The one con I could genuinely find for NYC is the one con I have of London too. I love everything about London. It’s home and finances aside, it is faultless in my eyes. NYC can offer everything but similarly what does London lack? Museums, theatre, sports, nightlife, great food, multicultural etc etc etc.

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Green Park, London

NYC is without doubt an incredible city and worthy challenger to London but as far as I was concerned London could match anything thrown at it. Equal in pros, equal in cons.

“So it’s a tie? You pesky little fence-sitter!!”

Hang on, hang on. I didn’t say it was a tie now did I? Yes, it was an incredibly difficult call and I scratched my head long and hard over which city I considered my favourite and there was one surprising, and perhaps harsh, deciding factor that I’d yet to consider.

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London!

The decider

*drumroll*

“New York City isn’t London though..”

That’s right. I’d overlooked this city-defining criteria in my impartial adjudicator role. NYC wasn’t London, that definitely has to go down as a con against the former.

“Great system Jason, well done!”

Being objective, the two cities are incredibly difficult to split but my somewhat flawed system means that sadly NYC does fall just short of my favourite city in the world. Was it ever really in doubt?

New York City rose to the challenge and threw everything it had at me to sway my thinking but ultimately that emotional attachment means London is perhaps never likely to be surpassed as my favourite place in the world.

Nevertheless I couldn’t have loved NYC any further and it’s definitely somewhere I’ll be returning to.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed the series, for those of you that haven’t caught my previous NYC posts you can read those below but it’s time for me to wrap this up.

Stay tuned for what’s next!

Jason

P.S – All other New York City posts
NYC Introduction
Manhattan
Empire State, Top of the Rock and a surprising encounter!
Brooklyn
Liberty and Ellis islands
Coney Island

My favourite city: London

I remember a friend saying to me that New York City was the best city in the world. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t but for someone less traveled than myself I pondered whether he could proclaim it as the best?
If he’d said the best he’d been to so far or his favourite city, sure, I’ll allow it but stated as fact? No, I can’t accept that. Particularly as he spent his visit staying in New Jersey. If it’s too expensive to stay in the city it doesn’t really give merit to the idea that it’s the best city in the world, does it?

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NYC, best city in the world?

For what it’s worth, I love New York City and I can understand why it’s so highly rated but it just falls short for me when compared to London. My love for London is unrivalled really. It is the best city that I have been to and will probably always be my favourite.
I had high hopes for New York City though, if anywhere was going to surpass my favourite this was as likely as any.

I said above, for me personally, it just fell short compared to London and I asked myself why? What gave London the edge? New York City has everything, ignoring the cost (London is hardly cheap either) my only criticism of NYC was that it “wasn’t London”. Needless to say I’m not entirely impartial when it comes to being a travel critic – my system was already rigged in London’s favour.

So rather than focus on some overseas based destination, I thought I’d dedicate this post to “my city” and giving a few reasons why it’s my favourite.

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Little Venice, London

It’s home!
First and foremost it’s home. I was born in London, living there until I was 9 years old so it’s a city that has been with me since day one. I feel proud to have grown up in London and have that association with the city. I’ve lived in Peterborough for the 20+ years since and whilst I do possess some local pride it just isn’t the same.

I have so many good memories growing up in London and it’s a city that is always there to welcome me back when I visit. It’s a special city with special people and it’s easy to see why so many people around the world fall in love with it.

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Views like this have people falling in love with London

It’s diverse!
One of the things I love most about London is that it’s open to everyone. I’m privileged to be able to travel pretty much anywhere in the world without fear but not everybody has that same luxury. Homosexuality for instance is still punishable by death in some countries, whereas London has one of the largest Pride festivals in the world.

I’m not suggesting London is perfect but it’s a lot more accepting than many parts of the world and celebrations of all backgrounds are widely enjoyed here. For example a vivid memory of my time in school was learning about Diwali and being fascinated by the “festival of lights” in assembly.

London is home to people of so many backgrounds so throughout the year you’ll find various celebrations to reflect that. With the Chinese New Year approaching it’d be a great time to take a wander through London’s very own Chinatown and see some of the decorations on display.

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London getting in to the Christmas spirit!

It’s not all city life!
I think one of the biggest misconceptions about London is that it’s just a big city – all traffic and pollution. You might be surprised to know that it’s estimated that 47% of London is green space, almost half of the city! London always has so much going on and it’s easy to be overwhelmed by that but if you need a little time to sit back and escape the London rush then there are so many places to do so!

London is full of beautiful parks and places to relax. Admittedly the weather can be detrimental to actually enjoying some of these spaces but on sunnier days there are few better places to enjoy London. Park visits were always an enjoyable part of my childhood and I used to love collecting “conkers” as the change of season hit and they started falling from the trees near our home.

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Green Park last Autumn.

It is ever-changing!
I think there’s a reluctance among travellers to visit somewhere more than once but with London you’re never going to see everything. Whether you visit once or you visit 500 times it’s never going to be the same experience.
For starters, England has four different seasons so London has a very different feel to it depending what time of year you visit (rain in the summer, rain in the winter..). London is a great place to see the changing seasons and the festivities that come with that, such as great outdoor festivals in the summer or Christmas decorations in the winter, make it a place you’ll want to return to.

Beyond the seasons there’s so many other things constantly happening in London. New restaurants opening, new shopping brands arriving in the city, new shows to see in the city, new bars to check out. You’ll never experience everything in London and it makes it such an enjoyable city to return to time after time.

 

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One of the new shows I went to see in 2017 – it’s good!

It’s home to world-famous sights!
I thought I’d end on this final point but the last thing that makes London special for me is that it’s home to so many iconic landmarks. Everybody is familiar with the likes of Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s cathedral and the London Eye and they look even more impressive in person!
I’ll never tire of wandering through Westminster and taking in some of London’s best known landmarks.

Of course the landmarks stretch beyond the best-known ones. Many popular TV shows and films feature some famous places in London such as Baker Street or the Millennium Bridge, whilst of course you have iconic music, theatre and sporting venues too.

Some of the marketplaces in London are some of the world’s most famous and everyone loves a good red bus / telephone box photo when they visit. London is full of familiar sights and sometimes you’ve got to go and see them for yourself!

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Beautiful St Paul’s Cathedral

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this post and the little glimpse in to the reasons why I love London. There are many more of course but I’d be writing forever if I listed them all.

Now tell me, what do you love about London and if it isn’t your favourite city then tell me where is! Maybe I’ll have to pay it a visit!

All the best

Jason