Written by Mary Kate Alfieri
Big Ben, Oxford Circus, my Oyster card- these are just a few of my favorite things in London that over the past four months I've come to love. I've seen so many sights and done so many awesome things, it's hard for me to pick my best experiences and squeeze them into just three days - but this is what I think is the best of the best of London:
Although I never went inside Buckingham Palace, (I did take tours of Windsor Castle and Dublin Castle - and to me, all castles basically look the same) one thing I definitely suggest is going to see the changing of the guards outside the Queen's “pad”. Although all the pomp is put on for show and it isn't really the only time the guards change, it's still a great thing to see - these red expressionless men with their furry black hats are quintessential icons of England. Plus, the exterior of Buckingham Palace is pretty impressive. The guards ceremony takes place on the even dates of the week at 11:30 - but crowds are heavy by 11:15 so I'd aim to get there before then.
After that, take a walk across the street to St. James's Park, which was my personal favorite. It's smaller than the more popular Regent's Park and Hyde Park but it's just as beautiful and very quaint. It's a great place to people watch - sitting on the benches near the pond or picnic on the green grass. The animals are friendly and very used to people - I've even seen people successfully palm feed a squirrel - however, the motivation for that is beyond me. Cross over the bridge and delicious gelato from a little stand awaits you.
With just a little walk you can meet up with the Thames. If you hang over the rail to look at the water it's actually not very clean- but from a distance, it has been known to sparkle radiantly in the sun. You can hop on one of Thames Boat Cruises and in less than a half hour, you'll be Greenwich. It's only a few pounds for a one way journey, and once you get there, everything is free! The architecture on the water is beautiful and you'll pass by some very well-known buildings like the National Theatre, the Tate Modern and Shakespeare's Globe. (I've heard plays at Shakespeare's Globe are fantastic- however they only are in season until the first weekend in October, which is why I didn't get to go.)
When you get off the boat in Greenwich, follow the crowds of people up the somewhat steep hill to the Prime Meridian and Royal Observatory. You may huff a little getting up there, but I promise the views from the top are worth it. Put a leg on each side of the Prime Meridian and you'll get the rare chance to be in two places at once- the eastern and western hemisphere (a great photo opportunity)! The Royal Observatory gives you even better views, and there are planetarium shows and other exhibitions depending on when you go. There's a cute little tea and pastry shop at the top of the hill if the walking has made you hungry - it was delicious!
Head back to central London on the boat, but this time instead of alighting at Westminster, get off at Tower Bridge. You'll know when you're there - this bridge is different than the rest with its magnificent castle-like columns and baby blue decorating and it's right in front of the Tower of London. You can grace the walkways between the towers for a fee, but just walking across it on the pedestrian ways next to the cars was always sufficient for me. Between Tower Bridge and Westminster, there are many restaurants, and up until about the middle of October, you can sit outside - the overhead heaters are really warm! One of the nicest meals I had in London was sitting outside at night. I could see the whole river lit up as well as the everything around it- Big Ben, the Parliament Buildings and the London Eye. It looks like a postcard - you really have to see the River Thames at night.
Now that you've seen many of London's most famous attractions by the water, I suggest spending some time shopping - there's no better place to shop than in London. Harrods is an attraction within itself, and it's one of those things that you just have to see. It's huge, enormous really, and even though I've been there five or six times, I haven't even been to half the departments. My personal favorite is the Pet Kingdom, where they actually sell animals. There have only even been a couple of puppies and kitties when I've been there, and they're always sleeping but there are also hamsters, bunnies and ferrets. What might even be cooler are all the accessories you can get for your animal - talk about spoiling your pet! On the bottom floor is the most expensive cafeteria I've ever seen, with whole rooms for hot foods that you can eat onsite, but also butchers and fishmongers selling groceries to take home. The bakery smells delicious every time I walk by. As you're leaving, you're allowed to admire all the expensive handbags and scarves on the ground floor. The entire building feels like you're in some sort of palace - this is definitely no J.C Pennys or Primark!
Take the tube to Oxford Street where some serious quid can be spent. Some favorites include Top Shop, Zara, and Selfridges. Just like Fifth Avenue in New York City, there are tons of shops with the potential to keep you busy for hours. Just a few stops down from the Oxford Street tube is my favorite London museum- the British Museum.
The one thing I'd say about this before you go is you must understand you can't get it done in one day- it's impossible. The museum itself is free, but there are lots of donation boxes scattered around if you feel compelled to contribute after going through. When you enter the museum, make sure you grab a map, it will make it easier to pick and choose what exhibitions you want to see. Most of the museum is segregated by country or region and are filled with incredible artifacts from all different time periods. You could literally spend all weekend here and not run out of things to look at. London might be great for shopping, but its well know for partying! Probably the most famous area, Piccadilly Circus is hopping once night falls. Bright lights and digitally animated display boards adorn the buildings in the center, and nightclubs are literally everywhere. The cover charge will be high and the dance floors crowded, but a night out in Piccadilly is a lot of fun.
Start your last morning here with a ride on the London Eye. You go around once and the ride lasts for about a half hour - it's pretty cool to see the entire city from above. By now you might even be able to recognize a few things you've been to?
Assuming it's a Friday or Saturday when you come down, make your way to Borough Market- but make sure you snap a picture of Big Ben in the daylight first. Borough Market is a food lover's dream - and there are tons of samples of cheeses and breads and jams to try while you're walking about. You can grab some food while you're walking, like grilled cheese and onion toasties or a sausage sandwich with all the fixings. You can also buy any type of poultry, mutton, venison, and beef imaginable that the locals take home for dinner. Fresh organic veggies and fruits are also on sale amongst the cakes, pastries and other treats... Yummmm - my mouth is watering just writing this!
And a visit to London wouldn't be complete without a trip to a theater in the West End, now would it. There are so many great shows that are currently playing. I saw Wicked and The Lion King, which are both classics and executed phenomenally. You can buy the tickets online in advance, which is what I would suggest if you're going with a few people and you all want to sit together. If you're alone or with just one other person, you might be able to get them at Leicester Square's Half Price Ticket Booth on the day for a lot less than face value. Before the show, have an early dinner in Covent Garden. It's a really great area to just walk around in. If it's a weekend, there will be street performers entertaining you and there are lots of vendors that are usually selling handmade jewelry and paintings, scarves and souvenirs. After the show, having a cup of tea, or a pint of bitter will immerse you deeper in British traditions.
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