For the second year in a row, after a short visit to Rome I spent a good amount of September in London. Also for the second year in a row it was brilliantly sunny if a bit crisp, something many told me was rare. I’ve yet to see the rainy London stereotype.
As this was my fourth trip, I didn’t feel the need to do a bunch of touristy things. I’ve seen the main sights and spent hours in the big museums. But like any massive city there’s so much to see and do, so I found myself in new museums and visiting ‘touristy’ sights some days, hanging out in random pubs or on friends’ couches the others. One of my closest friends lives in Brixton, so that’s where I spent much of my time.
There, I wandered around the wonderful market, ate too much Franco Manca (sooo good), drank too much wine, and got hopelessly addicted to The Great British Bake Off. Now I have to watch the rest of the seasons through some sketchy website because I can’t get BBC iPlayer in the US, and the episodes aired here on PBS are one year behind. First world problem if there ever was one. I can’t watch people bake luxurious cakes and pastries I’ve never heard of on live TV!
Anyway, aside from catching up with friends and working from coffee shops, I was excited to see some new things in the city.
The View From the Shard, London’s highest viewpoint. Looking out over every angle I gained an appreciation for the city’s layout, learned a ton about the history of each building (use the free audio guide), and got some amazing photos. I was lucky to go on a clear day. Make sure to check out the bathrooms before heading out. Sounds weird, but it’s the best view in the building (and the perfect spot for a selfie). Thanks to the security guard for the tip!
The Roof Gardens, which sit six floors up on Kensington High Street. Each of the three gardens is photogenic in its own way, from the arches of the Tudor Garden to the array of blooms, trees and birds in the English Woodland (there are even flamingos!), or the Moorish architecture, colorful tiles, and exotoic flowers in the Spanish Garden. Head up to Babylon, the restaurant one floor up, for a cocktail with a view over both the gardens and London’s skyline. Apparently the gardens turn into a nightclub on weekends, and that’s definitely on my list for my next trip.
The Museum of London tells the ever-changing story of London and its people, from 450,000 BC to present. So, as you can guess from that timeline, it’s huge. Block out a few hours to wander each exhibit, taking time to engage in the interactive displays, read the signs, and watch any available films. I was so impressed and how this museum was put together, and learned an immense amount in just a couple of hours. The museum is free, though there is a paid exhibit, Fire! Fire! Commemmorating the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, running through April 2017. It’s worth the admission.
Harry Potter Walking Tour (Tour for Muggles). Yes, it’s as nerdy and wonderful as it sounds. Our guide, Alex Scamander (only the true HP fans will get that), was amazing, and we found out later he’s an actor which made complete sense. He was overly excited in the cheesiest, best way, and told us crazy details about the filming of the Harry Potter movies while showing us location sites. Most of them had been redone so much for the movie they had barely any resemblance today, but his stories and insider facts made it a fascinating walk around the city.
Of course, I also ate a lot, as you would expect if you’re a regular reader. As mentioned before Franco Manca might be the world’s best pizza outside of Italy. Then there was the Clarence, which serves traditional English pub food but also a great burger and vegetable tart. One night, I dined at Galvin at the Athenaeum, which was one of the most enjoyable experiences of the trip. Michelin-starred chefs Chris and Jeff Galvin use simple, local ingredients to create a mouthwatering, modern British menu. Service is one of the most important parts of a restaurant to me, and our server was incredibly sweet and knowledgeable, plus gave a fantastic wine recommendation.
Where to Stay
After dinner at the Athenaeum, I also stayed at the hotel. With room views over Green Park it’s perfectly located for a day of exploring. Even if you don’t stay at the hotel, stop in at the bar. Famed Italian bartender Giancarlo Mancino created the cocktail list, which is full of fun plays on classics and signature creations for the hotel. Drink recipes are displayed on postcards, which I thought was a really fun touch, and made it easy to copy the recipes to (attempt to) make at home.
Another night I stayed at the Sofitel St. James and felt very French in London, especially as there was a La Parisienne art exhibit happening during my stay. The exhibit explored Parisian style and culture through the decades and celebrated the women whose elegance and innate sense of style have come to symbolize the City of Lights. Through November 17, each room is stocked with ‘La Parisienne Style Guide, full of French style tips. To help, you can also get in-room personal styling, hair styling, and beauty services. There are also Parisian themed experiences like a Cointreau cocktail inspired by Coco Chanel’s 1920s apartment (delicious!), and exclusive spa services. I love this personal touch, and the exhibit made me want to book a trip to Paris immediately. The hotel’s breakfast was also one of the best I had in London.
After a day of wandering around Kensington, which is in my opinion the most beautiful of London’s boroughs, I stayed at The Kensington Hotel. This hotel is pure luxury, with sumptuous furniture, tall ceilings, and a beautiful claw foot bathtub I wish I could transport to my Chicago apartment. The food, service, views, and overall experience was impeccable. This might be the most beautiful hotel I’ve ever stayed in, and I’m not sure I could have been happier during my visit (as you gathered if you follow my Instagram stories). I can’t wait to return, and on my next visit might not leave the hotel, as it has everything I could ever need or want.
I go to London and Rome to see friends more than I go to travel (hence no real need to leave a beautiful hotel), so I was especially thankful for the nights drinking wine and talking about life with my friend Micaela, catching up with friends from Rome and Jordan who happened to be in town, or watching an Obama documentary while eating risotto with my friend Emilio (it seems strange to watch a documentary about my own president while in London, but we also stayed up until 2am to watch the first US presidential debate. Some obsessions can’t be tamed).
London is so big, so diverse, and has so much to see and do. You could visit a hundred times and still not see it all, and then once you came close something would change. There will always be a new exhibit or new restaurants and bars, or “up and coming” areas to explore. That’s why I love big cities, and London is no exception, and on this visit was especially impressive. Maybe it was the weather, or the glee in our Harry Potter tour guide’s voice as he took us down Diagon Alley, or the breathtaking views from the Shard, or the luxurious retreats into hotels and cocktail bars. I’m not sure what it was, but I suddenly liked the city more than I ever had before, and I can’t wait to return and explore it even more.
Traveling this fall? Don’t forget to pack these essentials.