For the past three years, I’ve been making serious attempts to get to London, England during the Christmas season, but have been unsuccessful. But this year, things took a fabulous turn and guess what? I guess the third time really is the charm, because I made it there!
This post is a bit overdue, but with all of the Christmas excitement, I’ve held off on posting until now. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing snippets from the amazing trip my mom and I took (my first one to Europe) with you guys, so stay tuned!
DAY 1: Arriving in London, Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square & Somerset House
We landed at London Heathrow (LHR) about an hour early and couldn’t wait to get off the plane and start our London adventure, despite our lack of sleep on the plane. But before we could, it was through the UK Border Patrol/Customs we went. I had heard a couple horror stories about the length of time it takes to get through the line, but fortunately for us, the line wasn’t too painful and we were making our way out of the arrivals area 20 minutes later. Walking out of the arrivals gate wasn’t quite the scene from Love Actually (my favorite movie), but just knowing I had made it to London was good enough for me!
After extensive research, I determined that the Heathrow Express was our best option for getting into the city from the airport. We hopped on a quick shuttle ride to the next terminal and transferred onto the express train, and BOOM. 15 minutes later, we made it to Paddington Station! Although it would’ve been cheaper to catch the tube (what Londoners call their underground subway system), we took a taxi to our hotel instead so we didn’t need to worry about lugging our suitcases and could see a bit of the sights! This was also my first experience being in a car driving on the “wrong” side of the road. Quite interesting!
Our hotel (read my review of our stay here) wasn’t ready for us since we arrived earlier than expected, so we freshened up (MUCH needed after our day of travel), checked our bags with the bellman, and were off! As we walked toward the nearest tube station, we caught glimpse of a Starbucks and both stopped in our tracks. Coffee? Yes, please! The Christmas red cups were in full swing there, but we quickly noticed that the drink menu was slightly different, featuring the Toffee Nut Latte (a UK favorite, which I opted for) and Honey & Almond Hot Chocolate. Definitely different than here in “the States,” but still delicious!
First on the list was Covent Garden! I heard that the (insanely crowded) area brought in live reindeer on Saturdays during the Christmas season, and despite it being more of a “kid” activity, I was looking forward to it! Unfortunately, when we got there (and walked up 320+ stairs = 15 floors! from the tube), we found out that the reindeer event was cancelled on the ONE Saturday we were in town. Go figure. But we weren’t going to let that stop the fun. There was SO much to see in the Covent Garden area!
After walking around for a couple hours, the hunger set in, so we stopped at Jamie’s Italian (yes, the Jamie Oliver) for a delicious meal filled with bread, wine, and pasta. Yum x 1000!
At this point we were starting to fade a little after having flown the afternoon before + a red eye and just been go-go-go. But since the sun had already set (no later than 4 p.m. in the winter), we wanted to scope out some of the incredible London Christmas lights at night. A few blocks from Covent Garden, we passed through Trafalgar Square and admired the insanely tall Christmas tree gifted by the city of Oslo (a tradition since the 1940s).
Our final stop during our first day in London was Somerset House. Famous for their ice skating rink during the Christmas season (plus a decked out shopping hall by Fortnum & Mason), this was an exquisite view and truly the perfect setting for my favorite season of the year!
When we first walked up the ice was being cleaned so we caught a really cool view of the rink and Somerset House as a standalone. But minutes later, the ice was bustling again! I’m a pretty terrible ice skater (I’m the one that ends up in the middle where the experts are.. but because I can’t control where I’m going) so we didn’t skate, but just taking in the atmosphere was fulfilling to us!
DAY 2: Buckingham Palace, Churchill War Rooms, Jack the Ripper Walking Tour
We slept in a bit on our first morning waking up in London and got a nice ~12-hour rest to make up for the lack of sleep the night before. First on the agenda was visiting the Queen’s home, Buckingham Palace, for the changing of the guard (occurs on odd days in December). This is also where we encountered our first experience with the infamous London rain. Most of the people around us (there were SO many) brought umbrellas, but we didn’t think to bring one with us. Oops. At least it only lasted a few minutes!
Despite the insane crowds (I can’t imagine what it was like during the royal wedding), it was so cool to see the Palace up close. I felt so tiny standing next to it (see picture below to get a glimpse)! I was really happy that I was able to squeeze next to the main gate as well and snap this picture – definitely one of my favorites! See if you can spot the balcony Will & Kate kissed on post-wedding!
The walkway leading to/from the Palace was HUGE (basically an entire road), so we decided to go exploring on the way to our next stop on the list. In doing so, we stumbled across the Horse Guards Parade, where we saw some more of the Queen’s Guard (they can’t talk or smile.. talk about awkward taking a picture “with” them)!
I’m not entirely sure what the purpose of the building was, but the architecture of the building (like most of the buildings in London) were incredible, and also HUGE.
Just around the corner (right in front of the entrance to 10 Downing Street where the Prime Minister lives), we ran into one of the 50 Paddington Bear statues scattered around the city, in honor of the Paddington Bear movie that hits theaters later this month. Growing up, the book series about the adorable British bear were my favorite, so I was pretty excited for this find!
The next stop on our list was the Churchill War Rooms, a top-secret location during WWII, where Winston Churchill and his team strategized to win the war. Of course this entrance on the street didn’t exist then, but WOW, what an amazing place to visit for anyone, history fan or not. There’s so much to share about this place, so stay tuned for a separate blog post on it!
After spending some time in the War Rooms we made our way up the River to the Tower of London, where we joined a Jack the Ripper Walking Tour, hosted by The Original Tour (one of three walking tours included in your ticket, along with their famous double decker bus tour). This 1800’s serial killer case was never solved in London, though it was interesting hearing about life during that time and some of the theories of who the culprit might have been. As you can probably imagine, the stories were a bit gruesome, but it’s a part of the city’s history and we did also get some history lessons during the tour!
At this point in the day, we were starving, so we stopped at The Sherlock Holmes Restaurant, named after, you guessed it, London’s famous Sherlock. Decorated entirely in Sherlock paraphernalia, this is a must-stop location for any fans of the crime solver. This place was JAM PACKED in the downstairs bar area, and pretty hopin’ upstairs in the restaurant as well.
As we made our way back to our hotel, we found ourselves in Covent Garden once again and decided to hunt for some dessert to end the day. There weren’t too many places open, but we stumbled across a cute French restaurant with the most delicious pastries/desserts you can imagine. A great way to end the day, indeed!
DAY 3: The Original Tour, Warner Bros. Studio Harry Potter Tour & Oxford/Carnaby Street
First on the list on our third day in London was experiencing the famous double decker bus’ you always see in regards to London! The Original Tour kindly provided me with a ticket to see the sights and all that their company had to offer! Tickets for their tours are valid for a 24-hour period, so we started our tickets the afternoon before and were still able to use them the next day.
Although the tour can be done in a hop-on, hop-off fashion (allowing you to get off and explore at whichever stop you’d like), we decided to stay on and get the full experience, and going off to explore on our own later. There are 3 versions of the tour, but we took the “red line” tour, which gave us an overview of the city’s main points. The only downside was that it wasn’t narrated by a real person standing in front of us, but rather via a pre-recorded slate you listened to with your headphones plugged in (must bring your own). It worked out well for non-English speakers since the recording was offered in multiple languages, but since traffic would be too fast or too slow at times, we wouldn’t always be seeing the building that was being spoken about until before or after the recording played.
Next up was rushing to Euston Station (note: the subway Euston is different from the train Euston, although right next to each other) to catch a train to Watford Junction for the tour of where HARRY POTTER was filmed! You better believe there’s going to be a separate post coming dedicated entirely to our visit there!
By the time we made it back to London, we were once again starving. There was SO much to do in London that we kept forgetting to eat because, really, there was no time. We had a specific restaurant in mind but while en route to it decided we were too hungry to go on, and just stopped at a random Italian restaurant on the corner. You can never go wrong with Italian!
Post-dinner we just wandered around the famous Oxford/Regent St. shopping district, admiring the incredible display of Christmas lights around every corner and occasionally popping into a store. My favorite display by far though, was on Carnaby Street. A little tucked away from the main streets and massive crowds, the hipster Santa theme was brilliant!
One of the stores we stopped in (Selfridges) was on my list because it was supposed to be an awesome department store and a b-roll shot in the store was included in Love Actually (you know I’m obsessed). This was definitely a place we wandered in a while.. and found another Paddington Bear statue in the toy department!
And after another jam-packed day, we were back to the hotel, and off to sleep. Because on day #4 we were off to catch the Eurostar to Brussels, Belgium for a 24-hour adventure in the city of beer, waffles, and chocolate (more on that to come)!