Trace Back : London

London … a city of many possibilities..

I am a person of whims and wishes. And in 2012 I wished to celebrate Christmas  in London. There are many that will shiver at the thought of winter in Europe. I am not one of them. I rather enjoy Europe in winter, especially during the holiday season. The glitter and glamor of Christmas markets allured me to Europe in winter of 2009. Agam and I traveled through Germany, Italy and Austria, and experienced a magical winter vacation that left us wanting more of Europe. We visited Paris in 2011 and finally landed in London for Christmas in 2012.

I grew up in India where the British rule cast a rather permanent shadow on the country’s culture. Several of the glorious architectural splendors were built during the British Raj and were inevitably inspired by the British style of architecture. Also, the British royal family has always been of much interest to people around the world. My mother, for example, grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, which was also a British colony at the time, and distinctly remembers the day when she wore a yellow dress and welcomed the Queen to her primary school. And she actually got to shake hands with the Queen herself! The Cambridge and Oxford universities, home to several Nobel laureates, have also been a reason for my interest in Britain. Furthermore, ever since I moved to the United States, I have fancied the idea of living in London for a few years, just to taste the difference between the two countries. My fancies are far from being true at this point, but that’s besides the point. What I am really trying to say is that I have always been very curious about Great Britain and was very excited about my trip. To serve my above mentioned interests and satisfy my ever ignited curiosities, we booked a five day trip to London.

What I love about London is that it is a city for everyone. Whether you are a foodie or a history buff, a lover of art or architecture, London has lots to offer you. The compulsive planner that I am, I made a list of key attractions prior to our trip. But once we were in London, we let chance play its cards. If you still insist on planning, buy the Frommers guide for London. But this article should give you just enough information to mix and match serendipity with a little bit of planning.

We knew from the onset that five days were not going to be enough for this mecca of art, science, fashion, culture and architecture. One of the best decisions we made to make sure we get to enjoy London and the beyond, was to book a full day tour of Windsor Castle, Bath and Stonehenge with Evan Evans Tour upon our arrival. For the remaining four days we decided to visit the museums, the churches, do some shopping and some leisurely galavanting.

The all-day tour starts early in the morning from Victoria Coach terminal and heads to Windsor Castle, the official residence of Her Majesty. We had four hours to explore the main attractions at the castle including the magnificent State Apartments (all 21 of them), St George’s Chapel, the burial place of ten monarchs of England and Queen Mary’s dolls house, a miniature masterpiece. After Windsor, the tour travels to Stonehenge. It is a bit of a drive to Stonehenge, but a rather beautiful one. Stonehenge happens to have its own micro climate, so be prepared. You might wonder what is so puzzling about a few rocks standing in the middle of a large green field. But I suggest you take the trip and stand close to these structures and see if the question beckons you again. I could not stop my mind from racing in all directions as I stood in front of these rocks, trying to find a reason or a purpose for their existence. Of course I could not come up with a substantive answer, and neither has anyone else been able to.

After a rather mystical trip to Stonehenge the tour then proceeds to the beautiful city of Bath. Bath attracts millions of visitors every year who come from all over the world to witness the site of the original Roman Baths. The site is also home to the first temple of Sulis, the Roman goddess often identified with Minerva. You can tour the ruins and admire the plumbing infrastructure that existed ages ago. After Bath, the tour returns to London at around 8:00pm.  

There are 240 museums in London.  So if you are a museum buff, please set aside an entire day and may be even more to visit at least a few of these. Some of the most visited museums in London are the British Museum, Imperial War Museum, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Natural History Museum and Tate Modern. There is a lot of information about these museums on their websites, so I will spare you the details. But two things I highly recommend while you are out exploring the museums are: the Portrait Restaurant at the National Portrait Gallery, that offers beautiful views of the Trafalgar Square area and the British Library. This library has no parallels. The most intriguing highlight of this library is the “Treasures of the British Library,” exhibit, where some of the library’s most precious possessions are displayed, including a copy of Magna Carta (1215), a Gutenberg Bible, and manuscripts and journals of several authors including Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, Jane Austen, Robert Browning and Oscar Wilde, to name a few. As you exit this exhibition, turn left and you can explore the Philatelic exhibition. Continue left and look up. You will see yourself standing under a tall glass tower full of books. The glass tower holds over 65,000 books that formed the collection of George III. The cafe under this mammoth tower is a great place to grab a quick espresso before moving on to your next destination. If you have some time on hand and are fond of Shakespeare, I recommend that you also add the Shakespeare Globe Theater tour to your list. The Globe Theater is a replica of the original Globe Theater from the shakespearean era. There are open air plays staged here all through the year and tickets are available ahead of time.
The Tower of London is another historic landmark that must be seen when you are visiting London. This castle was built in 1078 and has been well preserved over the years of British rule. There is lots to see and enjoy here so plan your time wisely. You can take the audio tour guide that walks you through the attractions at the Tower. Some of the main attractions are the White Tower (an iconic symbol of London), an exhibition of the King’s armour over the years, the Crown Jewels — including the Kohinoor diamond, Yeoman Warder tours and Prisoner’s exhibition. The site of the Tower also offers views of Tower Bridge.

After you have spent a day indoors marvelling at the exhibits at the museums, you might want to spend a day outside enjoying the fresh air in London. You can begin by renting a bike by the hour. Renting bikes is really convenient and on a clear day can be a great way to explore London along the Thames. You can start your day at St Paul’s Cathedral. A beautiful and iconic church that attracts a lot of visitors and locals. You can climb up to the dome of the cathedral and capture some great views of London from its observatory. Bike along the Thames to enjoy the views of this beautiful city. On your way you can take a detour to visit Temple Church. As you reach the Embankment Tube station, take a right and walk towards Trafalgar Square. You can park your bikes by St Martin at the Fields and enjoy the square on foot. There are some nice restaurants in this area if you are up for lunch.

Come back to the Thames and bike along the Victoria Embankment Gardens, towards Parliament Square. It can be tricky to find bike parking in this area. Park a little further away to avoid the crowds. Parliament Square is home to some key landmarks in London. Westminster Abbey is located in this square, and so are the Houses of Parliament. Not to forget the over looming Big Ben. Take enough time to explore this area. Sit in the park in the middle of the square and marvel at the fine architectural splendors, that were each built at different points of time in history. As the sun begins to set, bike towards Lambeth Bridge and cross the Thames to go on to the other side. This side of the river offers beautiful views of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament that light up as the sun goes down. Bike along the Thames and soon you will see the London Eye glittering in blue, right after Westminster Bridge. The London Eye experience is much talked about but it takes up quite a lot of time due to the long queues of people. You can skip it if you are in a hurry. Bike along the river until you see the Millenium Bridge. This is a steel suspension bridge that offers a beautiful view of St Paul’s Cathedral on the other end. After crossing the bridge, you would have arrived to where you started from, St Paul’s Cathedral.

After a day of biking in London, perhaps it’s time for some shopping. There are several mega stores in London that offer the latest in fashion. Of course there is Harrods and Harvey Nichols in Kensington, House of Frasier, John Lewis and Selfridges on Oxford Street. Another interesting place to shop at is Covent Garden. The Apple Market, East Colonnade and Jubilee Markets in Covent Garden offer unique and distinct shopping experiences. There are also some entertainment shows in the evening when the markets close down. There are a lot of restaurants in the area if you are looking for a fancy place for date night. Another interesting place to shop in London is the Portobello Market in Notting Hill. I loved the movie and hence made it a point that I visit the house with the blue door and the book shop that features in the movie, Notting Hill. The market here is basically full of street vendors selling fresh produce, junk jewelry and old books. I enjoyed galavanting through these streets and will definitely go back there when I visit London. If you want a focussed shopping experience, go to Oxford Street and you will find everything under the sun there. Oxford Street actually ends in Hyde Park. A lovely destination to rest your legs and soak in some London charm.

London is home to some fancy boutique hotels and charming restaurants. The pub culture in London is one to be envied. The bar food has evolved with time and includes Indian items like chicken tikka masala on the menu. I could not have asked for more — good beer and spicy indian curry were readily available in every restaurant. I cannot point to one particular cuisine that is delectable but I do have a recommendation for some authentic Indian fare. Dishoom is a fusion restaurant located in Shoreditch that has a nostalgic menu. Nostalgic you might ask? Yes, this restaurant has recreated the old bombay cafe scene with Pav Bhaji’s, Chilli Cheese Toast and Frankies. You have to try this place to believe it. Delicious food and a charming ambience make this place my London favorite.

As I mentioned before, London has something for everyone. It is a charming melting pot of people with diverse ethnicities, interests and vocations. To be in London was like being in a Delhi that could have been, if we had kept up with the trends and needs of the times. The architecture, food, markets, and energy in London was much like that I experience in India, just a little bit better. In a city of many possibilities, London, I experienced some amazing moments that included biking in rain, getting lost in the city, drinking beer for breakfast, lunch and dinner and last but not the least, standing under Big Ben and saying, “Yay! I finally made it! Merry Christmas!”

More pictures posted here

1 thought on “Trace Back : London

  1. Did not know you can actually get close to the Stones of the Stonehenge…Dishoom is now on my bucket list … I would also recommend Eriki for Goan food made by a Puneite if in the Swiss Cottage neighborhood.


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