Lost in London: Part I

Thursday, July 12, 2018

I recently discovered the unexpected joy of being lost. Last month, I traveled to London to meet my husband, who was in Europe on work, for a short but very sweet mini-vacation. With little time to plan or book anything, this trip was more about experience than activity. And I discovered that when in doubt about what to do or where to go when traveling, sometimes it's best to just wander.

My love affair with London is well established. In a former life, I lived in London for six months as a study abroad student in college and I have been lucky to return to this spectacular city several times. Every time I fall more in love. This time, I developed a serious crush on the streets of London. I love taking the underground (mind the gap!) to navigate London, but the city's history and character really come alive when you walk its historic avenues.

The Strand Palace Hotel on Strand in the West End.
We stayed at the Strand Palace Hotel in London's West End down the street from Covent Garden. It is a beautiful hotel at an ideal location to explore London via walking. It was also fun to pop across the street to the Savoy for evening cocktails and music in their lobby.

One of my favorite wandering walks was along the south bank to the Tower of London. We started at Embankment (there is a hidden gem of a park behind the tube station where you can enjoy breakfast at a quaint little cafe with views of the river - they also show movies in the park during the summer). We crossed the pedestrian bridge, one of the Golden Jubilee Bridges, and walked east along the Thames.

Views of London from the Golden Jubilee Bridge at Embankment.
Note: Another great place to start this walk is Westminster Abbey and then you can walk across the bridge and hop on The London Eye for some pretty spectacular views of London.

If you haven't explored the south bank, I highly recommend it. You can follow the Queen's Walk which is part of the larger Jubilee Walkway. The path takes you past used booksellers, street artists and vendors, playgrounds with fountains and giant sandboxes where several children were digging, and loads of little side restaurants, cafes and bars. At low tide you can even walk down to the banks of the river. I was hoping to find treasure, but it was mostly just rocks and broken beer bottles.

A street artist creates a sand castle on the south bank before the tide comes in and washes it away.
We followed the Queen's Walk down to one of my favorite museums in London, Tate Modern. It's free, which is fantastic, and I love that all of this gorgeous modern art is located in an old adaptively reused power station. We took in the wonders of Picasso, Matisse, Monet, Andy Warhol and more. And while we didn't understand all of the art, I found that part of the fun was attempting to figure out what the artist was trying to say. From a giant yellow triangle to a tower of radios all playing different stations, the hubby and I had differing opinions on what constituted "art".

The Tate Modern is located within an old power plant.
After visiting Tate Modern, we walked across the Millennium footbridge to St. Paul's Cathedral. If you're like me, the melody of "Feed the birds" from Mary Poppins will begin playing in your head as soon as you set foot on the stone steps of the historic cathedral.
St. Paul's Cathedral
For as many times as I have visited London, I had never climbed to the top of St. Paul's. This was a mistake that I was delighted to remedy on this trip. I had been inside the Christopher Wren designed cathedral before, I even attended a Christmas Eve service there (which was magical) but as spectacular as the views are inside this architectural icon, the views from the top of the dome are 1,000 times more magnificent. And friends, if you ever find yourself in London, please, please put this on the top of your list. It was brilliant.
Views from the top of St. Paul's Cathedral - London at our feet.
You make your way to the top via a set of spiraling, stone steps to the Whispering Gallery at the base of the dome, which begs you to stop, sit, and look up in wonder at the painted ceiling of the dome - as well as whisper sweet nothings to your travel partner along the curved walls. Then, you make your way around the circular gallery and duck through a tiny side door to climb up a series of winding iron steps which deposit you at the very top of the Cathedral with its breathtaking views of London laid out before you. Personally, it is my new absolute favorite view of London.

Panoramic views from atop St. Paul's - Tower Bridge to the Houses of Parliament along the Thames.
After St. Paul's, we continued following the Thames east, towards the Tower of London. It was lovely to stroll along the river and watch as the tide came in, bringing the water ever higher. We passed several pubs and maybe it was the uncharacteristically warm weather, but everyone seemed to be in bright spirits, laughing and sipping their pints along the water's edge. Along the walk we saw HMS Belfast, an former Navy warship that was part of the landing in Normandy during WWII.

Eventually we made it to the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. I enjoy just walking around the Tower of London and its impressive moat, but it is also worth the ticket price to explore inside the tower itself. One of my favorite places inside is a visit to the Jewel House where the Crown Jewels are kept under guard. While there previously, I may or may not have daydreamed about marrying Prince William and wearing one of the many royal sparkling tiaras. Spoiler alert: that daydream never materialized.
The Tower of London - where Kings and Queens lived and lost their heads.
At the Tower Hill tube station there is a section of brick wall that is a remnant of the original Roman wall built around the ancient city of Londinium. I always find it humbling to walk around a city that is nearly 2,000 years old. After grabbing a beer and cider for takeaway, we finally stopped walking and sat down on a bench atop Traitor's Gate with a clear view of Tower Bridge. 

For a day with no plans made, it turned out to be one of the best days of my life. And I have my real life prince to thank for it. Turns out you don't need a tiara to feel like a princess after all.  

One of many selfies from our trip. 
From the Tower, we hopped on a Thames Clipper river boat, which has stops all along the river, including back to where we started at Embankment. We enjoyed getting to see London from yet another viewpoint and, I'm not going to lie, I was very grateful to put my feet up and relax for the journey back.

Sightseeing by river boat for the journey home.
And my feet needed a break, because the next day we were headed to Notting Hill and the Portobello Road Market. Stay tuned for a look at that wandering walk next time. Cheers!

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