Thursday, January 12, 2012

Scenes from London

You've probably had more than enough London reading from my Visitor's Guide post, so I thought I would dedicate this one to some, hopefully, easy-on-the-eyes photos I took on my most recent trip. Enjoy!

Trafalgar Square ... by day:
Trafalgar Square ... by night
Covent Garden:
Houses of Parliament / Big Ben:
London Eye:
Views from the London Eye:
Buckingham Palace:
Tower Bridge:
Views of St. Paul's Cathedral:
Next up... more on the Italy trip :)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

London: A Visitor's Guide

With all of the dazzling holiday lights, last month's trip to London with my friend Kristen was a photographer's dream.  However, no matter the time of year, the EU's largest city is always worth the visit!

Timeframe: There really is no right or wrong timeframe for your visit to London. If you make the most of your days, a 3-day weekend can be enough to get a great feel for what the city has to offer. If you're lucky enough to spend more than a week there, I guarantee you'll happily fill each day with worthwhile visits to world landmarks, museums, theatreland, restaurants and pubs.

Flight options: Your best bet for international flights is London Heathrow Airport. It is one of the busiest (if not the busiest) airport in the world.  Of course, it is a major hub for British Airways (BA), but you can find non-stop flights to Heathrow on most of the large US airlines from many major cities.  For my readers in the Boston area, one can fly non-stop on BA, American, Delta and Virgin America.  However, American and BA (partners) definitely have the most flight options per day.  From my new home in Milwaukee, I can fly non-stop out of Chicago O'Hare on BA, American and United.

Once you've landed, getting to London is a cinch on the Heathrow Express.  The trains leave every 15 minutes, and you can buy your ticket(s) ahead online for a slight discount (a "single" trip costing GBP 18 for express class and GBP 26 for first class). You won't miss the signs that guide you to the trains, just be sure to board the Express rather than jumping a train to another terminal.  Oh, and, of course, "mind the gap".
Once onboard, you'll find yourself at Paddington Station within 15 minutes.  Depending on where you're staying, you might be able to walk from here.  Otherwise, hop a taxi from the stand or take the Underground, London's expansive subway system (the first in the world).
Paddington Station
Another flight option would be Gatwick Airport, the second busiest airport in the UK.  It is served directly from certain US cities, such as Charlotte (USAirways), Atlanta (Delta) and Orlando (Virgin Atlantic). For travel within Europe and Northern Africa, you might have the best luck with Gatwick as it is known to have the best point-to-point routes. From Gatwick, you can take the Gatwick Express (among a few others) to get yourself to Victoria Station and London Bridge Station in Central London. Similar to the Heathrow Express, the Gatwick Express leaves every 15 minutes, although this ride will take about 30 minutes to Central London.  Buying online will save you 20%; a "single" ticket is GBP 16.85.

If you're traveling a discount carrier (such as Ryanair) within Europe, you might be traveling to London Stansted Airport.  From here, you can take the 45 min - 1 hr ride on the Stansted Express, which leaves every 15 minutes, to Liverpool Street Station.  This station is located more in the northeast portion of the city.

Hotel options: The first thing you should do when trying to decide where you want to stay is this: lose the belief that you'll be able to find a "deal" other than in the middle of winter. London is notorious for being an expensive city, so you better learn to deal with it sooner than later.

Within recent years, I've stayed in 3 different hotels in various parts of Central London.  My favorite experience was at the Charing Cross Hotel this past December. Part of the Guoman Hotel family, this hotel holds the title as favorite mostly as a result of its ideal location, practically adjacent to Trafalgar Square.  Also within a quick 5-10 minute radius is the West End (Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, theatreland, shopping district), Covent Garden and The London Eye.
Charing Cross (photo courtesy of Kristen)
It was also refined and elegant, yet managing to avoid the extreme price tag usually associated with a swanky hotel in London.  I particularly liked the touches of flameless red candles that lined the hallways and grand staircase.
Photo courtesy of Kristen
Another good experience was had in 2008 at the London Marriott Hotel Marble Arch. It is situated northwest from Charing Cross Hotel, on the opposite end of the West End. It might be a nice option for those of you out there that like the idea of being so close to a park, in this case Hyde Park (with Buckingham Palace nearby as well). It is also close to the west end of Oxford Street, which, along with neighboring Regent Street, is the place to shop in the city. Any Marriott is reliable option in my opinion, always boasting extremely comfortable beds.
London Marriott Hotel Marble Arch
Marble Arch
In 2009, we opted to be on the south side of the River Thames, calling London Bridge Hotel our home during our business trip.  I enjoyed being on this side of the river, taking walks past Tower Bridge, the Tate Modern art museum and Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. The hotel was very nice, with a great fitness center as well; however, it might not be ideal spot to be situated if on a personal vacation. It's a little far from the fun in the West End.
London Bridge Hotel
Restaurants: While I'm not a complete foodie, nothing beats a great meal.  After hearing for years how amazing the Indian food is in London, I finally experienced it on this last trip! Kristen and I dined at Masala Zone in Covent Garden and we were not disappointed.  For a full review of the restaurant, see Kristen's post on the meal. If you're interested in Indian while you're there, I wouldn't hesitate to steer you to a Masala Zone. Alternatively, you could always do what we did and ask for an Indian food recommendation from your concierge.
Picture of me courtesy of Kristen
On this last trip, we also had a good meal at the St John Hotel in Leicester Square.  Kristen had read about the restaurant and its "nose to tail" concept before we arrived on UK soil and so it was that we ended up there on a Saturday evening. For our mains, we split a Brill dish and a Short Rib, both of which were quite well received.  The wine and cocktails, although expensive, were also top notch.  See Kristen's post for a full review.
My "French Pearl" cocktail
Both in 2009 and on this past trip, I ended up at the Oxo Tower Restaurant for dinner. A colleague of mine had suggested we dine here for modern British cuisine, and we were all stunned to arrive to the 8th floor dining room with its staggering views of the River Thames & the skyline along the northern bank.
Oxo Tower, 2009
The views are only a nice complement to the food and drink, seeing as though the meal could definitely stand on its own.  My monkfish in 2009 was to die for and my wild duck last month was to kill for. Kristen reviews the experience in full in her post, commenting further on the cool vibe of the restaurant with its blue and red hues, the service, the prices and, of course, her sea bass main.
Oxo Tower, 2011
One should also be sure not to miss out on a British classic: fish & chips! In December, we got our fix at White Hart, a small pub near Liverpool Street.  We coupled the dish with hot mulled wine, a first for the both of us as well! I wasn't sure what I would think of it, but I really enjoyed the pairing of sweet spices with the red wine.
Nightlife: While I've never partaken in the club scene in London (which they say is great if that's your thing), I've loved popping into its many bustling pubs. In the West End and Covent Garden areas, it seems like these pubs occupy every other establishment.  That doesn't mean you'll find ample stool space for you and your friends though!  It seemed like no matter what time of day we stopped into one, it was always packed solid, booming with the sound of laughter and clinking pint glasses.
We did swing into a couple All Bar One locations, one in Covent Garden and the other in Leicester Square. These were not your typical no-frills British pubs, but rather slightly more stylish wine & cocktail bars. It was here that we enjoyed our Pimm's Cup pitcher!
Henrietta Street, Covent Garden location
Pimm's Cup, Leicester Sq. location (photo courtesy of Kristen)
Must-sees: I've already mentioned a few must-see landmarks throughout this post, but, in case you missed it, here's the rundown (I'm not going to go too into depth here because many of these need no explanation):

Houses of Parliament/Westminster Palace: You probably all know what this gothic revival palace looks like, but overseas visitors are only allowed to tour on Saturdays. Book online for a ticket.
Westminster Abbey: I need to revisit this cornerstone of British history (seeing as though I haven't been since 1995).  You can tour Monday-Saturday; check online for times. 

Buckingham Palace: The home of her Majesty the Queen. You can take a tour of the State Rooms, but you need to book in advance.
Tower of London: Founded back in 1066, then used as a Royal Palace and fortress. It has often served as a prison since 1100 and is still home to the Crown Jewels (which are a sight to see)! Take the tour for GBP 20, where you can enjoy a complementary tour from one of its residents, a Beefeater!
Tower Bridge: Nearby to the Tower of London, tour the Exhibition (GBP 8) on the high-level walkway shown below.  I haven't gotten a chance to do this but I'm always jealous when I look up and see the people up there. Must be great views!
London Eye: Totally worth the GBP 20 admission for this 30 minute ride on the one of the largest observation wheels in the world.  I'm telling you, particularly if you like photography, this is worth the cost/wait. I snagged some incredible shots.
St. Paul's Cathedral: Dating back to the 17th century, this place of worship is one of the most recognizable sights of the city. Next time I'm in the city, I'm making it a priority to climb the dome to the Whispering and Golden Galleries, where I'll be able to see panoramic views of the skyline.
Trafalgar Square: A public square, marked in the center by Nelson's column with it's four lion guardians at its base.
Piccadilly Circus: Known for its neon video displays, this intersection connects the shopping district with the theatre district (mainly Shaftesbury Avenue).
Covent Garden: Best known for its entertainment and shopping, walk around its cozy streets lined with boutiques, sweet shops and a myriad of pubs & bars. I fell in love with this area.  If I go back any time soon, I will be staying nearby.
Shopping district: If you've got the shopping gene, please do yourself a favor and walk Regent Street, Oxford Street and Carnaby Street.
Museums: It's killing me that I haven't had time yet to visit a museum yet, so perhaps you will do better than me and beat me to one of these:

National Gallery: Residing within Trafalgar Square, an art museum that is home to 2,300 paintings from the 13th century - 1900.
British Museum: Enjoy your free admission to see what is known to be the one of the world's greatest museums of human history and culture.

Tate Modern: Located on the south side of the River Thames, this modern art museum is known to wow.
Theatreland: Centered mostly around Shaftesbury Avenue and The Strand within the West End, check out the numerous shows that are playing and see what you might want to take in.
Well this marks a pretty LONG post. It just reinforces my earlier statement that you won't be lacking for things to do if you have a chance to visit this great city. I'll check back at least one more time and share some more photography from this last visit with Kristen. It was just the best time!