Saturday, November 15, 2014

B is for: British Holiday {My London Bucket List}

Umbrella Art near Borough Market
Here's the thing about traveling: the more you do it, the more you crave it.

It's called wanderlust and it's sort of addicting.

So when I returned home from Greece this summer, I almost immediately began planning my next adventure.

My Aussie friends Jenna and Ben (whose wedding I attended in Australia with my mom in 2012), moved to London from SF around the same time I moved to Connecticut. I've been dying to visit and November seemed like as good a time as any. (My theory: since it's always grey and rainy in London, I wouldn't be missing out on any good weather back home).

Additionally, I planned to meet up with my college friend Breege who lives just south of London and my friend Max who lives in Prague.

I planned my stay for one week, and in the end this didn't feel like enough time to do everything I wanted. London is a gigantic city with a ton of history and cool things to see (and eat, and drink). Because of this, it's best to really prioritize what sights and activities are most important to you. In order to narrow it down, I consulted several friends who either currently live there or have lived there in the past and read several "London Bucket Lists" like this one and this one. There was no chance I could even attempt to do it all even if I tried, so I came up with my own personal London Bucket List and have shared it with you below.

But first... a quick note on transportation. London's public transit is super easy and convenient and you can get pretty much anywhere in the city using it. (That said, there's always Uber if you're in a pinch or feeling lazy). The best way to save money and time during your stay is an Oyster card. You can buy them at any station ticket office, and it will require a deposit of 5 pounds, which you will receive back when you return the card at the end of your trip (along with any unused fares). It's a pay as you go system which allows you to ride the underground (tube), as well as the double decker buses and other transit methods. You receive a significant discount and it will save you time because you simply tap the card on the readers. Additionally, if you are doing a lot of travel in a single day, there's a daily price cap.

So long story short... get the oyster card! (And mind the gap) Now onto my bucket list...

Receive the Royal Treatment: To me, afternoon tea seems like the quintessential English tradition, and when I found out it also included champagne (my fave!), I was all in. If you're interested in taking afternoon tea, I would consult the Tea Guild's recommendations. At most of the high end hotels, it will run you at least 40 pounds (more if you want champagne). We settled on The Goring Hotel, which took top honors last year. (The Duchess also stayed here before her wedding to Prince William, so it's definitely fit for royalty).

Afternoon tea at The Goring is served in a cozy lounge, and in the summer, there is outdoor seating on the terrace. Aside from the wide selection of tea, the food was fab and very traditional. Our three-tiered platter started with an assortment of finger sandwiches of which included: ham/mustard, caesar chicken salad, egg salad with watercress, and cucumber/butter. (Everything was delicious except the cucumber/butter... gross). The second plate included two types of scones, served with fresh jam and clotted cream. The top tier was a gorgeous assortment of sweets and pastries. You can ask for replenishments on anything you would like, but I can honestly say we were happily full and didn't finish the sweets.

An added bonus to The Goring is that it's not far from Buckingham Palace. You can only tour the palace a couple months a year (when the queen is on holiday), but you can still pose for photos outside and witness the changing of the guard if you time out your visit correctly. I actually returned the next day to see the ceremony, as it only takes place every other day in the fall/winter months. (Check the website for a detailed schedule). We also toured Kensington Palace (home to William & Kate), which is open all year round to the public.

Get a Bird's Eye View of the City: For one-stop-shop sight seeing, it doesn't get much better than The London Eye. It sits on the south bank of the River Thames, and stands 443 tall, giving you sweeping views of the entire city, and a great look at Big Ben. My friend Max flew in from Prague and we did this on his first night in town. It's a great way to orient yourself to the geography of London, and as an added bonus, they also offer a "champagne experience" which allows you to skip the line and enjoy a glass (or two) of the bubbly while you enjoy your 30-minute ride. If you are traveling here from central London, I recommend walking across the Hungerford Bridge to get there. (Bonus points if it's at sunset).

Go on a Pub Crawl: We've all been on "pub crawls"... but London takes that concept to a whole new level. For starters, you're visiting actual pubs, and like Starbucks in Seattle, there's pretty much one on every street. Max and I did ours after our trip to the Eye, so we were already feeling pretty good after our two glasses of champagne. Of course, food is always important in these instances, and we were lucky to find some pretty excellent fare at the Coal Hole. We went with their "famous" fish and chips and lamb shank pie. Both were warm, comforting and delicious (and a much needed component to the night).

You can plan out a proper crawl with maps and themes (The London Pub Crawl company has a cool app), but in the end we just walked into the first one we saw (The Sherlock Holmes) and went from there. Unfortunately, our phones both died, so the photos aren't as plentiful as I would've hoped, but the most important thing is I somehow remembered how to get us home at the end of the night after a final stop at Dirty Dicks (yes, that's the actual name). One thing to keep in mind: most pubs close around 11 or midnight.

Attend a "Football" Game: A soccer match in England was very high on my UK bucket list, but it was #1 on Max's. Max is a huge Man U fan, so we made the trek north to Manchester and Old Trafford Stadium. After experiencing a game there, I now understand why it's known as the "Theater of Dreams." Despite the team getting off to a slow start this season and playing a poor team, the atmosphere was still crazy electric. I loved hearing all of the different songs and chants, which were nonstop throughout the match. Afterwards, we went to the Trafford Bar (United Supporters only!) to enjoy a pint with some of the fans (and hear them sing more songs).

It's a 2-hour train ride each way, so it made for somewhat of a long day, but it was well worth it. (If you're going, you'll need to catch a train from Euston station in London, and take a tram or cab to the stadium when you reach Manchester Picadilly station). Match tickets are hard to come by, but we lucked out and found some on the team website. The only catch: we had to become official members, which was an additional fee, but you will receive a lovely gift box with your membership card.

Browse the Markets: The markets are such a staple in the culture and shopping of London, and definitely worth a visit. After talking to several people who have either lived or visited London in the past, I knew that Borough Market was for me. It’s a foodie paradise, and on full market days they have stalls bursting with produce, much like you would see in San Francisco at the Ferry Building. We went on an off day for lunch and coffee and it was still hopping on a Monday. They had everything from curry to paella to burritos and more traditional English fare such as Scottish eggs and sausages. We made a full lap (or two) around the market and finally settled on The Guildable Manor, which boasted award winning sausages and other unique sandwiches. I ordered my Cumberland sausage with grilled Haloumi (duh) and grilled onions and topped it with a spicy English mustard. It’s served on a soft baguette and I’m currently salivating just thinking about it. We also picked up some salted caramel fudge at another stall (drooool) and enjoyed it with a delicious cappuccino from Monmouth (thanks Sachi for the recommendation!) 

We also visited Spitalfields Market, and though it was an off day, they still had some cool jewelry and fashion finds. If your market day falls on a Sunday, I’m told Sunday Up Market on Brick Lane (not far from Spitalfields) is also really awesome with shopping and street food so you could hit both in the same day. On my final day in London, Jenna and I took a stroll through Portobello Road Market in Notting Hill, which is full of antiques and other knick knacks. Each market is unique and specializes in different things, so do a little research and figure out which one suits you best.

Street Art Scavenger Hunt: London boasts some pretty spectacular street art, and the best works are on display in the artsy neighborhood of Shoreditch. Shoreditch sort of reminds me of The Mission district in SF or Brooklyn in New York. (Very hipster). There are highly-rated street art tours available if you are so inclined, but we decided to just sort of wander around and see what we bumped into.

The only one we really specifically sought out was the one by famous street artist and political activist Banksy (top right). He has several pieces on display in London, as he is originally from Bristol, England. This particular one is located near Cargo Club. It’s such a simple (and free) thing to do in the city, but when I think back on my trip, it was definitely one of the highlights. 

If you are hungry, there are a couple iconic food spots to check out in this area as well. I’m told Poppies on Hanbury Street is the best spot for Fish and Chips in London. Plus, they source all of the fish sustainably, so that’s always a bonus in my book. Also, Brick Lane is chock full of curry spots (more on that later in the post). We were full from our lunch at Borough Market (above), so we didn’t eat at either, but both will be on my list for a return trip.

Taste the London Cocktail Scene: If you think New York has it going on in the area of mixology, it apparently has nothing on London. My friend Matt was nice enough to send me a couple Thrillist lists detailing some of the best spots to check out some crazy cocktails. We decided to do this on Monday following our stroll through Shoreditch, so we settled on The Worship Street Whistling Shop, since it was nearby. This is the second bar from the folks at Fluid Movement, who first opened the very popular “Purl.” Whistling Shop is part speakeasy, part Victorian gin palace. It’s quirky and creative. 

From their website: “We use rotary evaporators, sous vide, vacuum technology and a large array of enzymes, acids, proteins and hydrocolloids to create drinks that are truly unique.” That they are. My Ferzi Fizz (middle) was served with dehydrated rhubarb and balsamic sherbet folded in a little piece of newspaper that I was encouraged to mix into my drink "at my leisure." Jenna ordered “The Changeling” (bottom left), which was wrapped in a towel scented with orange blossom and a large ice cube made of lemonade, so as it melted the drink became much different (and much better). I also had the “Zazel” (bottom right), which was redistilled peanut butter and jam bulliet bourbon and a raspberry syrup. It literally tasted like liquid PB&J (and bourbon). When Ben joined us, he liked his “Mac Askill Sour” so much, he ordered two! It had a honey and ricotta syrup, egg white, and pink grapefruit, among other things.

Catch a Show in the West End: I’m a drama Geek at heart, so theater was certainly on my London bucket list. London’s West End is right up there with Broadway in NYC for some of the best theater in the world. We settled on War Horse, which was fabulous. The puppetry alone was worth the price of admission, and being there during the centennial of the beginning of World War I made it extra special. Before the show, we also stopped for drinks at Berner’s Tavern (inside The Edition Hotel), after checking out the Christmas lights on Oxford street. It was about a 15 minute walk to the theater from there.

See the Poppies at the Tower of London: As I mentioned above, my trip happened to fall during Remembrance Sunday, which is marked by people wearing poppies on their lapels throughout the month to remember those who died during in the line of duty. This year, London decided to further commemorate this by placing thousands of ceramic poppies around the Tower of London. The first of the 888,246 hand-made poppies was planted in July, while the last was put in place by 13-year-old cadet Harry Hayes on Remembrance Day (November 11). Each poppy represents the death of a British and Commonwealth soldier during World War I. It was a powerful sight to see them blanketing the grounds. While the Tower of London may have made my list anyways, it was certainly a must-see being there during this important time in British history.

Chanel your inner Julia Roberts in Notting Hill: Since Jenna and Ben live in Notting Hill, it would've been silly not to walk around in their 'hood. We did this at different points throughout the week, and made a special trip to Portobello Road on my final day to check out the market and a few other sights. Here, you can see a few iconic spots from the movie "Notting Hill," such as Hugh Grant's store front, the actual bookstore for which inspired it (around the corner), and the now famous "blue door." Additionally, we were excited to find out there is another very cool Banksy in this area as well. 

Explore the English Countryside: If you have the time and the means to do so, it’s refreshing to get out of the city and see the rolling green hills dotted with sheep and cottages. I’m lucky to have a very good friend from my days at WSU who lives in Kent, just south of London. I was thrilled to spend time with Breege and her beautiful family and also sample more traditional English food and see a beautiful castle. 

We started at The Spotted Dog, a very highly acclaimed Inn and Pub in Penshurst. At Simon’s recommendation, I started with an ale from a little brewery just down the road. And being that it was a Sunday, I just had to order the Sunday Roast, which was served with vegetables and Yorkshire pudding (if you’ve never had it… it’s sort of a puff pastry made from eggs, flour and milk that’s perfect for dipping in the juices from the meat). After lunch, we visited Hever Castle, which was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, who was the second of King Henry the IV’s 6 (six!) wives. (Note the fact we totally dressed alike unintentionally!)

Speaking of food, England gets a bad rap for it, but I can attest there are plenty of great eats to be had. For starters, London is home to several restaurants listed on the World’s Top 100. And like any big city, there are several amazing restaurants that don’t necessarily revolve around traditional British Food. (That said, don't miss the traditional stuff I wrote about earlier in the post). So here are a couple more highlights from my trip that weren't mentioned in the sections above.

Curry: Definitely get some curry while in London. It’s a staple there due to a large Indian population. As mentioned above, Brick Lane in Shoreditch is considered THE place for curry houses, and Thrillist conveniently ranked ALL of them. However, there are other great curry spots throughout London, and my friend Breege introduced me to Dishoom on my first night in town. I HIGHLY recommend this place. There’s one in Shoreditch, but we went to the one in Covent Garden, which is convenient to a lot of the tourist attractions, including the theaters. It’s small plates style, so they recommend around 3 plates per person. Whatever you do, don’t miss the Haleem... lamb slow cooked for hours with barley and lentils and served with warm naan, fresh chiles, ginger and fried onions. It’s AH-MAZING.

St. John’s Bar & Restaurant: Anthony Bourdain calls this place “the restaurant of my dreams.” And if you’re familiar with Bourdain’s food tastes, this comes as no surprise. It’s an “offal” restaurant, which means they utilize parts of the animal that other restaurants might throw away. The bone marrow was so simple and so good and probably the best I've ever had. The slow-cooked pig’s tongue (yes, pig’s tongue) was also a standout for Ben and me. (Jenna was a big fan of the ham and pea soup, haha… she was a great sport even though this isn’t her type of place).

Pizza East: I would've never thought a pizza joint in London could be such a destination, but this was. It's located in an old tea warehouse in Shoreditch, so we went here after our street art and cocktails. It's an extension of the members-only Soho House, but anyone can frequent the public restaurants. They reserve half the restaurant for walk ins, so you can try going even if you don't have a reservation. We went on a Monday night and it was slammed, which was a testament to the good food and fun vibe. Everything from the cheese to the mac and cheese and of course the wood fired pizzas was fabulous.

Whichever items you decide to knock off your London Bucket list during your stay, don't forget to pack comfortable walking shoes/boots and an umbrella. Thanks to Jenna, Ben, Breege and Simon for your hospitality and to Max for meeting me for the weekend. I can't wait for my next adventure... Cheers!


  1. Another great vacation Jaymee! Enjoyed reading about your adventures! What's next? I'm sure you're already planning it out!

  2. I've never travelled to London, but you've made it sound accessible and enjoyable. These are great tips and reviews to remember. Always mind the gap!

  3. Great photos! I would definitely want to have tea and visit the pubs. Well, and have curry too, and yes, pretty much everything else you mentioned. Looks like a great trip.

  4. Wow you did a lot when you were there! I live in London and was gutted to miss out on the poppy display, as they've now taken them down :(

  5. Loved this post, Jaymee, much as I appreciate your work on ESPN. I take a group of college students over to London and Paris every summer, and your blog is a great model for how to write about one's experiences overseas. Thank you!

  6. Loved this post, Jaymee, much as I appreciate your work on ESPN. I lead a study abroad group of college students every summer to London and Paris and this provides an excellent model of how to blog about one's travel experiences overseas. Thank you!


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