Wanderlust (noun): the irresistibly strong desire to travel and see the world.
Earlier this summer, my family and I were hit with a strong bout of wanderlust that could only be cured by packing up our bags and embarking on a two-week-long venture through Europe. It was my first time stepping foot on the continent, and the experience was so memorable and eye-opening that it would be a tragedy not to document it and share my travels.
As promised, here is the first of four installments on my European summer of 2015.
At 11:05 AM on Monday, June 15, our plane touched down at the London Heathrow Airport, and the pilot promised a “beautiful London morning,” which was exactly what we got. Unfortunately, the experience was short-lived, as we soon headed underground to take the tube into central London. Although it took a good 90 minutes to travel from the airport, the subway system was relatively easy to understand, and we soon arrived in the city with all our luggage in tow. Finding the hotel was not as facile, but after
a little a lot of confusion, wayward directions from well-meaning native Londoners, and intense map reading on my part, we finally made it to the Park Plaza Riverbank London Hotel on the south side of the River Thames.
After unpacking our bags, it was time to go exploring!
Crossing the River Thames, we almost immediately found ourselves in the quintessential London featured on every postcard. On our right were the Houses of Parliament, just across the double decker bus-dominated streets was Westminster Abbey, and up ahead was the formidable Big Ben, ringing four times as if to welcome us to its city. One, two, three, four.
The wondrous mood was slightly dampened by a group of protesters outside Parliament who wielded bananas and eggs to make their anger known. While I scampered to safety, my sister was not so lucky and suffered an egg to her pant leg, another innocent made into collateral damage. We hurried into a pub just outside Big Ben to regroup and enjoy our first English meal.
The fish & chips was scrumptious, but I’ve discovered that overall, I’m not the largest fan of English cuisine. Fish & chips gets kind of old around the fifth time in three days.
After our meal, we wandered through London, and at times, I almost forgot that we were in another country! The universality of cities is one reason I love them so much. A melting pot of different cultures and bustling with people from every walk of life, London could very well be New York or Shanghai, albeit a cleaner version.
Through the pigeon-infested St. James Park we walked, and we soon found ourself on Queen Elizabeth II’s front doorstep. Buckingham Palace was beautiful with grand gates and neat gardens, and we rested near the Victoria Memorial as we admired the view.
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to witness the famous changing of the guard, but we did see some stray guards behind the gates, and their hats really are that fluffy!
After bidding adieu to the Queen, we walked all the way down The Mall to Trafalgar Square.
Trafalgar Square was the perfect blend of peace and commotion. Obviously, there were tourists crawling all over the place, but the large layout, lack of cars, and beautiful fountains created an atmosphere of summer warmth. We climbed (or at least on my part, attempted to climb) atop the Trafalgar Square Lions to get a nice view.
After an eventful day exploring London, we were beat and retired to the hotel so we could rise early and visit Tate Modern the next morning. Unfortunately, for me, Tate Modern was overanticipated and turned out to be quite a letdown. I suppose that should have been expected, as I’ve never been a fan of art and especially modern art, so we didn’t stay long.
Next on the itinerary was Cambridge! We left from King’s Cross Station, which was incredible just to be at, because it’s such a central part of the Harry Potter novels. Although, frankly, it didn’t look very similar to the movies. We saw Platform Nine and Three-Quarters next to the Harry Potter store, but unfortunately, the line was too long for us to get pictures. However, it was entertaining to watch people have their picture taken, as there was a professional “scarf flicker” who flicked a house scarf of your choosing while you jumped so it looked like you were flying. I didn’t really understand why, as there’s no reason to jump through the platform — you need only run — but I suppose it adds an element of tourist magic. After all, I jumped in my picture when we arrived back from Cambridge near midnight. By then, the station was quite empty and devoid of tourists, so we had the whole trolley-in-the-wall to ourselves. Unfortunately, there were no scarves, owl, or scarf flinger after hours, but it was magical nonetheless. Magic with a touch of nostalgia for a story so dear to my heart.
My trip to Cambridge will be featured in the next installment, but here’s a hint about what’s to come: it was amazing. When we arrived back to London, it was almost midnight, but the city was still alive. As we took a taxi back to the hotel, I looked out the window and observed pockets of London nightlife. Straggling tourists, lively pubs, pulsating nightclubs, a couple sharing a cigarette on the marble steps of a museum. And that’s reason #953 I adore the city: it never stops moving.
Day three was museum day! First up was The British Museum, which I could’ve gotten lost in forever. There’s always a downside about visiting museums during vacations; you wish you could stay and see everything, but you rarely have time to see nearly enough. We spent the majority of our time in the Egyptian exhibit, which boasted the Rosetta Stone, among other treasures. My sister and I thought it kind of funny and unfortunate that sometimes broken statues would be distributed amongst different museums. There were many partial works that had a sign saying “the head of the statue resides in Athens” or “the arms are at The Louvre in Paris.” Why can’t they just have all the pieces of a work of art in the same place?
I was also quite taken by the Clocks & Watches room, as there were some truly magnificent and creative machines in there. For example, there was one clock shaped like a ship that shot actual cannons on the hour when it was still in use! Nobility sure knew how to live to excess back in the day.
After The British Museum, we headed off to The National Gallery. What we didn’t realize, though, was that The National Portrait Gallery was right next to The National Gallery, so we explored the former for a while before we realized our mistake. TV shows such as Reign and personal research into the Wars of Roses still made the portrait gallery very interesting, though, and it was hard to pull me away from the Tudors and the Stuarts. There were also some incredible portraits of famous Brits of today, such as Anna Wintour; Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge; and, of course, Her Majesty the Queen.
The actual National Gallery was firstly incredible as a building. The gilded ceilings were works of art by themselves, and large domes overhead offered natural light.
We saw many famous paintings within The National Gallery’s walls, but one that stuck out was Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Even 126 years after its creation, it still retained a bright brilliance.
After a day inside rather stuffy museums, we decided to spend the rest of it outdoors, walking along the River Thames. On the south bank, there was a small outdoor concert, and with a breeze from the river and music playing in the background, it was a warm summer night to remember.
Our last day in London was bittersweet, but surely no less busy! In the morning, we crossed the Tower Bridge, which seemed Cinderella-esque with its towers and blue accents, to the Tower of London. There, we learned about the Tower’s gruesome history as a prison and viewed the Crown Jewels, but I thought it all rather underrated.
In the afternoon, we hung out in the grassy square in front of Big Ben until Evensong at Westminster Abbey. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take photographs, but no picture could fully capture the beauty and grandeur within. The details in the walls and ceilings were incredible, and history resounded all around. It was almost too much to believe that I sat in the same chairs that the guests to William & Kate’s wedding sat in. The worship was slow but beautiful, and I’m sure I would have enjoyed it more if I were Catholic. I always feel like an imposter in the midst of church worships, but I was surrounded by tourists, so I knew I couldn’t be the only one.
After Evensong, we took a taxi to Piccadilly Circus and the West End, where we saw The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre. And let me just say… it was phenomenal. When the stage went back in time and the chandelier rose to the ceiling while bright lights flashed and the pit orchestra played the theme, I had chills. It was really cool being able to see the pit, especially since we’ve played Phantom a couple times at school, so I could recognize the melodies. The actors and actresses were incredible at singing and acting; they really sold the story. One of the best scenes was when the Phantom took Christine to his underground lair in the boat, with the mist and green lights creating a perfectly creepy atmosphere. I think it was definitely the best show I’ve seen thus far, and I would see it again in a heartbeat. The soundtrack haunts me still.
We headed back to the hotel with goosebumps on our arms and music in our hearts. It was the perfect end to our last day in London.